Last week, Shannon Guss rightly praised Survivor SA's late-game format in the context of the final six boot episode, which sent Santoni to the jury. She pointed out that in a US Survivor season, this would normally have just been a swift, fly-by boot, spanning just the first half- (or even quarter-) hour of the finale. Shannon noted just how much of the complexity of the episode's twists and turns, and the high drama of Santoni's almost-save by the fire idol, would have been lost in that format.
One week later, we're at Episode 14, an episode number US seasons rarely exceed, and it felt a lot more like killing time, waiting for the finale to arrive (still two weeks away). It did have some good moments: a novel, fun reward challenge, an epic failing effort in the immunity challenge by Nicole, and a poignant pre-Tribal hug between Kiran and Tyson. But it was obvious from the start of the episode that Kiran (or Tyson) would be gone in this episode's final five boot, unless Chappies somehow lost the immunity challenge. He didn't. So the post-IC segment was less about strategy, more about Kiran saying his final goodbyes.
On the one hand, it was great to have this farewell salute to Kiran, one of the best overall players this season. On the other, compared to the intensity of the last episode, this was a grim, somber affair, it dragged, and it hurt a bit to see such a great strategist as Kiran, bereft of tools to work with, having no hope of salvation. If only Chappies' Diner could have catered a wake.
Where did Kiran go wrong?
Kiran had to scratch and claw his way up from the bottom after an extremely unfavorable first swap, found his footing after a better (but still risk-laden) second swap, then designed and executed a complicated power play at the merge that gave the original Vunas the majority. He then was able to expand that to a comfortable majority thanks in part to the Tied Destinies twist, picked off his strategic mirror in Anesu, and seemingly was on top of the world. Two boots later he was a dead man walking, then was sent to the jury. What happened? How did one of the best players ever have it all come crashing down so quickly?
1. Putting his faith in Anela instead of Nicole. Anela seemed like a logical choice for an extra number. He'd been tribemates with Kiran, Tyson, and Wardah on Zamba after the second swap. But he was also their #1 target in that time (saved by Immunity Island twice), which probably didn't predispose him to any thoughts of loyalty. He'd never voted with them, and in fact had never *had* to vote with them. In contrast, Nicole was more isolated, but was also a much more predictable player, and reaching out to her before Anela might have been a better idea. But they didn't really have much in common, whereas Tyson and Anela bonded over football (soccer). So it was already too late to do much last week, when Anela told Kiran he'd planned to blindside him, but not to worry, he'd thought better of it. Kiran did also have some kind of side-deal going with Chappies and Santoni that was buried in the edit, but that did not appear to include Tyson. With that pair gunning for Tyson, there wasn't much shot of turning that into something workable, especially not after Santoni left. Being able to work with Renier and Amy instead of Anela and Nicole also would have been preferable ... thanks again, Tied Destinies twist.
2. Drawing too much attention at the merge. It's not clear Kiran could have done anything differently here, but still, it's never a good idea to go on an early post-merge immunity run. Kiran's back-to-back immunity wins kept him safe, and were a critical component of the Vunas being able to seize the majority at the merge. At the same time, though, they vastly inflated his perceived threat level, which, paired with Tyson's spectacular idol-playing, made the Vuna core seem like an unstoppable force. So naturally, people started trying to stop them.
What could Kiran have done differently? He could have let Anesu win one of those first two challenges (especially the second one). To be fair, he didn't trust Anesu enough in the "Get a Grip" merge challenge, so that win was probably necessary to ensure Tyson went to Immunity Island. Anesu did vote with the Zambas at that vote, too, so Kiran was still probably unsure how much of a double agent she really was, so it was not unreasonable to secure that second necklace. Had he let her win that, though, Anesu's threat level increases, Kiran's goes down, and she's easier to target later.
3. Being too close to Tyson. Kiran had a lot of side-deals going, but it was (eventually) clear to everyone that his true alliance was with Tyson. They were a great couple gameplay-wise, with Tyson finding and playing idols, and Kiran putting his superfandom and strategic expertise to good use devising unique plays to use them. Kiran did appear to have several people fooled that the "real" power couple was Tyson and Wardah, but once Wardah left the game, Kiran and Tyson defaulted to being an obvious power couple for people to unite against. And unite against them people did. But with all the idol and advantage variables going around up until this week, they really performed about as optimally as they could.
As with Anesu's exit, Kiran's departure at final five is far from a failure, it's a reflection of how far he came, despite an unfavorable start to the game. He really is one of the best all-around (social, strategic, physical) players at least in SurvivorSA, and in Survivor at large. A big loss here, but also a big game, well-played.
Supportive Nico vs. partisan Nico
This episode put the highs and lows of Nico Panagio's hosting on full display. He's been more than just a neutral arbiter at several points this season, and while some of his pontifications have been welcome and/or funny — such as his stern lecture to everyone who sat out the Ep11 IC to eat spaghetti, where just Nicole and Chappies competed, or extolling the progress of a terrified Santoni in the water in the Ep7 RC/IC — others have veered into what sounds a lot like cheerleading for a specific player (Chappies).
Nico is at his best, "cool dad" self when he's offering verbal support to players who have demonstrated real determination in challenges, only to come up short. (Something rarely seen from Jeff Probst, by comparison.) In this episode, he praised Nicole for her unrelenting efforts in trying to leap and grab the key in the immunity challenge, something she kept trying and barely missing accomplishing, all the way to the end. He offered similar words of support to Nicole after she finished far behind Chappies in that Ep11 immunity challenge/ sit-out fest.
We also saw a less-supportive Nico at Tribal Council, however, when he specifically called out Nicole's strategic gameplay for not being deceptive enough for his liking. He talked about the "three pillars" of play (outwit, outplay, outlast), acknowledged she'd done well in outplay (in the challenges), and that she might outlast, but what about that other pillar?
This is not the host's job. It echoes Jeff Probst's insipid "new Final Tribal" format where he forces the finalists to engage in a "group discussion" about these three areas. But just because Probst does something dumb, it doesn't mean Nico should. As always, "outwit" is just a word on the logo. It's ill-defined as a part of Survivor (as is "outplay"), and is open to interpretation. But more importantly, this entire line of questioning is simply wrong. The host is supposed to ask questions, draw factual information out of the contestants, not pontificate about The One Correct Way to Play Survivor. That should be entirely up to the jury, not the host.
If the jury wants to reward someone who plays a straight-up open game, doesn't back-stab, never pilots a blindside (as Nicole is doing), that's the jury's prerogative. If they want to give 1 million rand to someone who flips between alliances for every vote, and has *all* the blood on their hands, that's also perfectly okay. They're the jury. That's their job. They get to decide how the game should be played! If they want to, they can even vote for whoever they think is hottest, who is least annoying, really any criterion they feel like. Not only that, but while juries may have an overall leaning in terms of what they collectively value, each vote is still an individual, juror-by-juror decision. Each one of them gets to vote for whatever they think is most important.
So spare us the interrogations of whether or not Contestant X is measuring up to the arbitrary yardstick of the words in the motto, Nico. Those aren't the rules. There are no rules! If one contestant is making a case for reaching the end by winning challenge after challenge (while also doing things that annoy his tribemates), it's absolutely the right move for another contestant to draw as much contrast as possible between that gameplay and their own, especially in front of the jury. It's not the host's job to interject "But wait, you're not Outwitting!"
Leave that to the jury, please and thank you.
- Fun new challenge alert: Again, this episode wasn't without its high points, one of which was this new challenge. It's conceptually really straightforward: Arrange a series of buckets with holes in them on the twisty poles shown, so that the water flows from one bucket to the next below it, all the way to the bottom (filling a final bucket, which then triggers other stuff). It's simple, but it's colorful and fun. The downside is there's no real way for someone to stage a comeback, so once someone takes the lead, they're probably going to win. (This could be fixed with a puzzle, or something.) But as is, it's fine for a simple reward challenge. A worthy addition to the Survivor challenge canon.
- The reward lie: Chappies and Anela lying in hopes of getting more rice after their reward feast was remarkable mostly for Chappies trusting Anela enough to stick to the plan. Just last week Anela blabbed to Kiran about *his own plan* to blindside him! What on earth made Chappies think Anela won't eventually have second thoughts and admit they had a huge feast? Oh well, so far so good, at least.
Jeff Pitman 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, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes