A couple of weeks ago, we were confused at to how the final three days of this season could possibly be broken up into two 90-minute (plus) episodes, considering there would be just two challenges, one boot, and the Final Tribal Council and jury vote. Having seen the first half, though, this was a great way to do it. Leaving the start of Final Tribal (and a few glimpses ahead) as Episode 14's cliffhanger ending was a great idea. We now have the entire game played, and only the jury arguments and votes left to see. As such, this one-week pause is the perfect opportunity to evaluate the relative gameplay strengths of each member of the Final Three. Who has the best case for winning this thing?
All in all, Final Tribal should be an interesting battle, because Tess, Dave, and Lisa are strong in different aspects of the game against each other. In a perfect world, this might even turn out as a three-way split vote, which could even give us the first ever plurality winner, on a 3-2-2 vote.
In reality, though, it looks like the Dave/Matt furor will override sane, rational discussion of the finalists' relative strengths. This is disappointing, because it's clearly not Dave's fault that Matt was on this season, nor vice versa. They received some benefit from their prior connection, but that brief window of assistance has clearly closed, and now the friendship is an obvious anchor weighing down Dave's chances of winning. Or at least that's the impression the Jury Villa videos have created. Could this be another misdirect, like last week's preview of Tess dropping from the bar in the final IC?
Maybe. We'll see in a few short days. Until then, we'll try to set aside what has yet to come, and try to evaluate Tess, Dave, and Lisa on the games they've played over the 39 days we've been shown thus far. We'll list the pros and cons of each, and dip into the numbers where possible to compare each to the (now quite large) pool of US Survivor winners.
Tess: The strategy-free fighter
The case for Tess: Winning the final two immunity challenges should significantly add to Tess's perception as a fighting underdog. She would have been voted out at F4 had she not won the final IC, and she can legitimately claim to have reached the finals under her own power, through sheer fierce determination. As last season's winner Avi Duckor-Jones pointed out to Ryan Brink, jurors respect that. Avi said that Nicaragua juror Lee Den Haan told him he might not have voted for Avi to win, had Avi not won the final immunity. And that's generally true: jurors have a history of giving votes to people who win late immunity challenges (or save themselves with idols). Jenna Morasca followed the same path in The Amazon. Michele Fitzgerald in Kaoh Rong did so as well (she was also saved by an F5 medevac).
Tess's strongest asset is that she has a lot of close friends on the jury, starting with Adam, her closest alliance-mate. She also worked closely with Brad, and seemed to be connecting well with Renee just before Renee was voted out. Most importantly, Tess seems generally positive and pleasant. Jurors like that. Not to mention that she's "the only person here playing with morals," of course. She has at least one guaranteed jury vote in Adam, and could easily scrape together another two or three to claim the win. Despite never having seen the show before playing it.
The case against Tess: To the extent that Dave was aided by his alliance with Matt, Tess also benefited significantly from lucky tribe draws. She coasted through the pre-merge as a member of the five-person majority alliance on the all-powerful Khang Khaw tribe. She did endure a nasty bump on the head at the swap RC, but that was really the only hurdle she faced, since that swap also worked out perfectly, vaulting four original Khang Khaws into the majority over three original Chanis on post-swap Khang Khaw. After the merge, though, when the game really begins? Tess was a strategic non-entity. The only vote where Tess was in the numbers was the unanimous vote against Eve. Quite simply, she lasted 39 days, but in that time had very little impact on how the game played out.
Not only that, but her actual attempts at gameplay were... unimpressive, from her head-scratching "mattresses" lie after winning at the Outpost, to working in lockstep with Adam at shunning Dylan. Had she not won the two final immunities, she wouldn't even be here. And while fighting through the pain to win those two challenges was impressive, outside of those two wins, she wasn't even particularly adept at individual challenges. Her 54.5% Mean % finish mark is a replacement-level performance, and ranks just sixth out of the nine Thailand contestants who appeared in four or more individual challenges. Perhaps the fact that the only people worse in individual challenges were her late-game competitors—Adam, Tara, and Lisa—may have aided in those final two IC wins.
Overall, Tess was decent socially, but poor strategically, and just average physically. Winning the last two immunity necklaces will give the appearance of playing a strong physical game, though, and having a strong ally like Adam on the jury will boost her social capital. She's probably the odds-on favorite to win.
Tess, by the numbers: If Tess wins Survivor NZ: Thailand, she would be an extreme statistical outlier compared to US Survivor winners. Most of that is due to her lack of voting people out. Her total of three VFB (votes for the person booted) is lower than that of any US winner (bottom four: Michele Fitzgerald, 4; Bob Crowley, 5; Fabio Birza & Tom Westman, 6). She also voted for someone other than the person booted (non-VFB) six times in nine Tribals, which ties for 13th place all-time, with the mark set by the illustrious Ralph Kiser, and is 50% more than the highest US winner's total (Bob and Fabio again, with 4 times, joined by Jeremy Collins and John Cochran, whose totals were both padded by idol-dodging split votes). So if Tess wins this thing, her closest correlates would be Fabio and Bob. Although Fabio and Bob were both better in challenges.
Lisa: The strategic mastermind superfan
The case for Lisa: Lisa's social skills (which she self-deprecatingly says she struggles with) allowed her to mask her true threat level until after the merge. This was a really clever long-term strategy, allowing her to both build connections with people on a personal level, and defuse the "she's a superfan, oh no!" target by claiming she was just a fan who was merely here to tick off items on her Survivor bucket list. After decloaking at the merge, she shared or gained complete control for the remainder of the post-merge, particularly in the end game. Most impressively, she pulled off the 3-2-1 blindside to take out Matt. But let's not forget that at the merge vote, she was a target for the Chanis, because they knew she had won the Vote Steal advantage at the Outpost, and that it would only be active at the merge Tribal Council. Lisa not only worked around that target on her back, but she cast two (correct) votes for Arun, who became the first juror.
Overall, Lisa has played a measured, respectful game. She has been calm and thoughtful, and has worked hard to depict the voting-people-out part as difficult, but purely game-related, not personal (despite Adam's protestations to the contrary). She's played an excellent game. On a U.S. season, at least, she would be the clear favorite to win, unless the jury was irrational and bitter for some reason.
The case against Lisa: Unfortunately, Lisa will be facing a New Zealand jury, not an American one. Last season's jury viciously berated strategic mastermind Barb (a fellow superfan and mum) for no obvious reason. And if the Jury Villa videos have shown us anything, it's that this season's jury appears... even more angry and emotion-driven, if that's possible. Based on the trial run during the Tribal where Adam was booted, Lisa seems better prepared to parry jury attacks than Barb did, perhaps in part because she saw what happened to Barb.
Last season's jury didn't seem to value challenge performance much, which should come as a relief to Lisa, since she's been historically poor in individual challenges, mainly because they've been almost entirely physical/endurance, and only one had a puzzle element (and that challenge was for reward, so it's plausible she threw it). So that shouldn't be held against her too much.
Still, it's hard to overstate that there are many angry jurors, among whom Adam and Renee seem the most vocal (and neither were particularly fond of Lisa). In Lisa's favor, they're mostly angry at Matt and Dave. Dave will likely absorb most of the brunt of that hostility. But if that anger does spill over onto other finalists, it's more likely to hurt Lisa (who was closely aligned with both Matt and Dave), than it is to tarnish Tess, who had no alliance whatsoever (and made no attempt to make one). For a historical comparison, think back to the Heroes vs. Villains jury: The Heroes were all mad at Russell, and that scorn spread to Parvati, who was Russell's closest ally. In contrast, Sandra had openly opposed Russell repeatedly, and the Heroes rewarded her with their votes (yes, Sandra also played a strong strategic game, especially relative to Tess, so this is not the best analogy). The point is, guilt by association is a valid jury viewpoint.
Still, there's some hope that Lisa will be able to talk her way into enough votes to still pull this off. Knowing what you're doing and executing a plan have to count for something with juries, don't they?
Lisa, by the numbers: Lisa's challenge performance has been historically poor, yes. But her Tribal Council efforts have been pretty impressive. She has faced a couple of votes in which she was plausibly in danger, but still reached the end without needing to use an idol or an immunity necklace. She voted nine people out in 10 Tribal votes (counting Arun twice in each stat), she ended up with five votes against her, for a line of 9 VFB/ 5 VAP/ 10 TCA. These numbers are all square in the middle of US Survivor winner stats. Overall, her numbers stack up most closely with a couple of US winners in particular: Adam Klein (9 VFB/ 6 VAP/ 12 TCA) and Denise Stapley (11 VFB/ 6 VAP/ 14 TCA). Both were longtime fans of the show, and were solid social players who pulled off late-game coups against their own allies. Both received a handful of votes against them, both were non-challenge beasts (Lisa ended up with 2.11 ChW, Adam 1.76, Denise 1.65). In further similarity to Denise, Lisa also found an idol with her golden-boy ally, he kept it, and she later voted him out with the idol unplayed.
Dave: The Jin-ho, King of Second Place, the actual underdog
The case for Dave: Dave has several claims to fame he could use to win jury favor, and one giant problem (not of his own making) for which he'll have to answer. On the plus side: He's the last player standing from the original Chani tribe, which hit the swap and merge with inferior numbers, and really seemed to have no chance at all after the twin calamities of JT's per-merge medevac and Arun's merge boot. Despite losing two of his closest allies like that, Dave made it all the way to the end. He also won two individual challenges, finished second in five more, and made a Big Move in taking out his close friend, Matt. So... an underdog who also was strategically and socially strong, while doing well in challenges? Should be a strong winner candidate! Right? Right?! Oh yeah, except...
The case against Dave: ...except that everyone now knows that Matt was Dave's close friend, and the jurors are irate that Dave was safe for several votes where they were voted out instead. It's highly likely there will be a lot of yelling, very little of which Dave will actually deserve. He will have to either "deflect the shit out of" (as he did with plans to target Matt at Chani) such attacks, or argue against them as best as he can. It won't help that this cacophony will also seem like a betrayal by the one person he trusted, Matt. Final Tribal Council is likely to be just as brutal for Dave this season as it was for Barb last season. In neither case will the vitriol have been earned.
Dave does have a couple of valid arguments against the Matt/Dave furor, though: (1) Despite everyone's anger at Dave and Matt working together, they didn't start voting together until after the merge (except on the unanimous Dylan boot). Meanwhile, Tess and Adam, for example, voted together from Day 1. Not only that, but (2) Dave had an idol that he could have used to save himself, had he not had Matt around, and he never needed to use it. Pulling that out at Final Tribal could be a dramatic, vote-changing display of unused power.
Ha ha, who are we kidding? There's no way someone like Adam or Renee was ever going to vote for Dave. They didn't like Dave during the game, and they're not about to start now. They'll use the Matt/Dave story as an excuse to grandstand for screen time and justify their votes for Tess to win. There should be some more persuadable voters, though. People like Eve, maybe Brad (who might be impressed by Dave's challenge prowess), or Dave's closest Chani ally, Arun. Maybe even Tara, or... Matt! It's not completely out of the question that Dave could win. It just doesn't seem particularly likely.
One other potential knock against Dave is that, as Shannon Gaitz pointed out in last week's RHAP-up, one of Dave's themes this season has been his frequent second-place finishes in challenges (5 times in 12 challenges), making him the Jin-ho (of The Genius) of the season. Where Dave may face jury problems is that, his strategic game has been very similar. At just about every stage of the game, he's been seen as the second-biggest threat, not the biggest. On original Chani, JT and Arun were ahead of him in the power structure/ threat level. On post-swap Chani, Arun again stood out as the leader, as he did after the merge. After Arun's boot, Matt and Lisa were in control of the numbers.When Matt left, that mantle shifted to Lisa. Clearly, Dave was involved in all these decisions, but it will be hard for him to point out one move that was exclusively his idea.
Dave by the numbers: Despite being the lieutenant instead of the leader, Dave still racked up an inordinate number of votes against him (11). Should Dave win, he will have received more votes against him than any US Survivor winner (Aras Baskauskas is the leader, with 9, then there's a huge gap to the next-lowest total, where five other winners received 6 votes against them). Dave's 11 votes against are also the highest total this season. In contrast, he also voted out more people (also 11) than anyone else—Lisa was second, with 9. Where Dave really set himself apart from the other finalists was in the challenges, where his 69.7% Mean % finish in individual challenges trailed just Matt (79.2%) and Eve (71.7%) among people with multiple individual challenge appearances. In contrast, Tess was at 54.5%, and Lisa at just 34.8%. There aren't really a lot of close parallels among American winners to Dave's game: Aras is probably the closest, but he was also the visible leader of his alliance.
Off-topic take: Unfair final immunities?
Having the last two immunity challenges of the season be purely strength-to-weight-ratio-based endurance tests seems pretty unfair to everyone except Tess. There was no way Lisa or Tara was going to win either of those. Why didn't Survivor NZ just switch up this episode's final two challenges? Lisa probably could have won the puzzle-like maze RC (she was probably wisely throwing it, as an individual reward challenge). Or just go with the classics, and use "Hand on a Hard Idol" as the final IC. "Get a Grip" (the Ep13 IC) strongly favors small people with a high strength-to-weight ratio (Tess > Dave > Tara, Lisa> Adam, so the results were unsurprising). "Vampire Bats" (the final IC) strongly favors the exact same body type (again, Tess > Dave > Tara, Lisa). The last time this challenge was run in Redemption Island, the last three standing (well, hanging) were three short, skinny young women. Shocking that history repeated here.
For all its over-reliance on endurance/balance challenges in the early post-merge, US Survivor long ago realized this problem with using that format for late-game ICs, and has recently opted for more concentration- or balance-based final ICs, so that realistically, most of the contestants have an equivalent shot at winning. Next week, we'll get to a list of suggestions for Survivor NZ to further improve in Season 3, so consider this a headstart.
Jeff Pitman is a New Zealand expat, is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other NZ: Thailand Episode 14 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Tara Thorowgood