A Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.
A Diplomatic View: The Tipping Point
Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X – The Tipping Point
One of the core concepts of the Diplomatic View is that, over the course of the game, you build up diplomatic capital with other players. Through trust, building relationships and other aspects of the social game, you tie the other players to you. Those ties have a certain weight to them, giving players a reason and motivation to take actions in the game that may be neutral or negative for them, but which have a significant impact on your game. Sometimes the impact on your game is positive–they use immunity to shield you, they take you on a reward challenge… and other times it’s negative with players destroying items at camp, flipping allegiances, or even throwing immunity challenges in order to get rid of you.
Looking back on Survivor history, there are a long list of moments where this has played out in one form or another: Lil taking Sandra to final tribal instead of Johnny Fairplay, Colby bringing Tina with him, and Ian surrendering in the final immunity challenge on his season. All of these are cases where the relationship between players was a clear determining factor in one player making a move that was bad for his/her game, but good for someone else’s. For the most part these were clear-cut cases of someone liking someone enough to look past gameplay and potential rewards (and in Lil’s case, she thought she would lose to anyone).
There are, however, situations that were a little less straightforward, where it wasn’t a case of simple like or dislike. In Heroes vs Villains, Russell Hantz, Danielle DeLorenzo and Parvati Shallow formed an alliance on day one. That alliance seized control of the Villains tribe by outplaying, outsmarting, and outwitting Boston Rob Mariano, one of the greatest to play the game. This unholy trinity seemed destined to march to an all Villain final three having seized complete control of the game. That destiny was denied when, on day 33, Danielle was abruptly sent to jury by Russell Hantz.
Russell made his motivation obvious to those who watched the episode. He spoke, at length, of the danger that the pair of girls presented, that they were a team that represented a threat to him. He was right that they certainly were a team, in that they were part of a three-person team which included Russell. The real issue for Russell is that he had begun to feel like he wasn’t the person in control of the game, and / or that he wasn’t the person who was the star of the story any longer. While Russell is certainly a strong player, some would argue he’s one of the best, he is exceptionally prone to feeling slighted and lashing out based on those slights. This includes slights that exist only in his brain.
For Russell, the fact that Parvati and Danielle had increasingly been at the heart of his alliance’s moves was unacceptable. There were clear signs a few tribal councils earlier with Parvati playing two immunity idols, one of which Russell was unaware of, to take control of the game and send JT home. Russell’s response to that move? That Parvati had some explaining to do.
That move, Danielle and Parvati’s friendship, and Russell’s increasing feeling that he wasn’t the center of attention all presented a weight of negative influence that Russell simply couldn’t look past. Every single time Parvati was at the core of a move, or didn’t defer to Russell in conversation, she accrued negative diplomatic capital with Russell. It built up, and built up, until Russell finally had to act out… and because he is who he is, that lashing out targeted Danielle not Parvati.
The reason this move was so notable for me is that this was the moment that Russell lost the game and possibly cost Parvati the game as well. By sending one of his alliance mates crying to the jury, Russell removed any chance of playing the loyalty card in final tribal. Everything about that tribal council, while theatrical, further exhibited to the assembled heroes and villains just how much Russell belonged with the villains. But that’s far less important than what this vote guaranteed. By sending Danielle home, Russell insured that someone who wasn’t at his core alliance would be sitting there at final tribal… which given the bitterness of the season, pretty much guaranteed that player a win.
As an aside, earlier I noted that some people consider Russell one of the best players to have played the game. I am not one of those people. It’s this move more than almost any other, which defines why I think Russell’s reputation in the game is overrated. He’s a dominant personality, but he has the ego to go with it. It’s not enough for him to be in charge; he has to be seen to be in charge as well. His survival in Heroes vs Villains was based on three factors: the fact that the majority of the players didn’t know who he was, the fact that Tyson was bad at math, and the fact that Parvati saw him as a weaponizable asset. He had every possible advantage going into that season, and he still managed to screw it up. Dominant gameplay is good, but the degree of negative he brings to the table is such that no one wants to put up with it for very long, hence, his early departure in his third attempt at the game.
A far more straightforward example of bad play built up by in-game (and out of game) ties was Lex keeping Amber Brkich in the game as a favor to Boston Rob. On Survivor: All-Stars, a last minute tribe rearrangement landed Rob’s showmance (and later wife, co-racer and partner in all things), Amber, on a tribe filled with enemies. It seemed quite clear that Amber was going to go home at the first opportunity, but a final plea by Rob to Lex to help Amber, if he could, would turn the game on its head.
For those of you who haven’t listened to Rob Cesternino’s “The Evolution of Strategy” podcast (which I can’t recommend enough), it’s important to note that the extended Survivor family spent a lot of time together prior to All-Stars. Even before the application process, these were people who knew each other, but once the season started to shape up, the players couldn’t help but reinforce those ties as they eyed up fellow potential returnees. So, unlike a normal season, these players weren’t starting off with no connections. Lex and Rob had met each other before the season, and Rob and Kathy had a pre-existing relationship from their first season together.
Both of these players knew Rob well, knew the force of his personality, and could see how tied he was to Amber. In ‘The Prince”, Machiavelli states that it’s better to be feared than loved; in practice, it’s great to be both. This was a rare case where both the positive and negative weight of someone’s reputation bent players to their will. Lex was, clearly, banking on Rob’s open-ended promise of helping him if he could… as well as their pre-game alliance. Kathy was friends with Rob and seemed to have a bit of trepidation of what Rob would do to their games if they didn’t save Amber.
It’s completely possible that Rob would have pulled the game down around the ears of Kathy and Lex if they’d voted out Amber. After all, All-Stars featured Rob at almost the top of his game strategically. It would have been much more difficult for him if they’d removed Amber from the game, and it would have given them a better chance to spin to everyone on the merged tribe that Rob was too dangerous to keep in the game at that point. We’ll never know what their games might have held if they made that choice, but it certainly would have ended better for Lex than it did.
The ultimate intersection of your personal fate in the game with the ties you have with other players is when an equally divided tribe goes to tribal council. In the first few seasons, the tie-breaking rules were fairly unsatisfactory. In Borneo, there were no rules for breaking a tie– you simply continued to vote until the tie was broken. In Outback and Africa, previous votes cast against the tied vote-getters would break the tie, and in cases where that was a tie, the two players would go to a trivia tie-breaker. The downside of this set of tie-breaker rules is that it wasn’t a test of the resolve of anyone on the tribe except for the targets. Anyone else involved was safe, so there was no reason to change your votes.
After season three the rules fell into what we now consider to be the ‘traditional’ tiebreaker rules: revote, deadlock, unanimous vote, rock pull. These rules have been tweaked slightly (setting up a fire challenge at final four for instance), but largely have settled in to be the norm.
With these rules in place, a tie vote isn’t just a question of who goes home, it’s a test of resolve for every player on the tribe. This gives a decided advantage to those players who, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, “know the squealers” when they see them. Every tie vote becomes a referendum on the question: “Do you really feel strong enough about your alliance to risk a percent chance that it’s you who goes home and not your ally?” Unsurprisingly, that answer is almost always a no.
The core of the two previous rock pulls is that the players involved could be certain that if they didn’t hold a line in the sand at that point in time, they were likely going to go home anyway. On Survivor: Marquesas, Kathy, Vecepia, Neleh and Pascal were at final four and Kathy managed to convince Vecepia to draw rocks based on Neleh and Pascal being an unbreakable pair. In this case, both Vecepia and Kathy had every reason to believe that if they were to go to final 3 with Neleh / Pascal that they’d go home. While they faced a risk of pulling the purple rock and going home, they knew that not pulling the rock would almost certainly doom them anyway. In this case, the risk vs reward was far in favor of pulling rocks rather than holding tight.
Survivor: Blood vs Water went to a rock pull at final six. In this scenario, the alliance of Gervaise, Tyson, Monica and Ciera, faced off against Hayden and Katie. Hayden and Katie fired off a Hail Mary shot, pointing out to Ciera that she was the 4th person in that 4-person alliance, and that she’d be better off pulling rocks instead of calmly waiting to be eliminated. Historically, this play almost never works, but Gervaise and Tyson unfortunately did a poor job of reassuring Ciera that Malcolm was wrong.
Ciera was faced with a near certainty that she’d be sent home 4th, and decided that facing a rock draw then was better than facing an uphill climb later. Unfortunately for Ciera, Katie chose the white rock and was sent home, leaving Ciera on the outside looking in.
In both of these cases, the decision that drove contestants to be willing to pull from a bag was the demonstrated strength of the relationships of those in the other alliance. The Marquesas situation was cut and dried, Pascal and Neleh were never going to vote against each other. In Blood vs Water, it could be argued, that Ciera may have been able to find some maneuvering room to flip the script after Hayden was sent home. If she and Katie had worked hard on Monica, they might have been able to flip her vote in a way that she and Hayden were unable to. It’s tough to argue with Ciera for making the decision she did there, though it could be argued that making the decision to flip earlier would have been better for her game.
In all of the cases we’ve discussed, significant game moments came about because of relationships between players. Sometimes this drove players to make desperate gambles for their own survival; in other cases, it drove them to make decisions that were clearly short-sighted to appease (or separate) other players.
In the interests of what will be a fairly long article, I’m going to skip the comment section this week. But I want to thank everyone who has participated and hope you will continue to this week. It means a lot to me.
Key Points in Episode 10.1: Million Dollar Gamble
In previous episodes, I’ve talked about the dangers that lurk in the transitional phases of the game, specifically when you shift from trying to get rid of outsiders to trying to get rid of people who can be seen as internal to your alliance. It’s much easier to keep a group of people cohesive and pulling in one direction when they’re facing an external threat. The second you declare that threat is no longer as important as eliminating someone you’ve been working with, you’re essentially throwing all of the cards in the air and hoping you’re going to catch the winning hand.
It’s certainly not impossible to do this well, and we’ve seen lots of players do so. The degree of difficulty on this particular season is higher than normal, however, because the dominant alliance is a matrix of sub-groups or ‘trust clusters’, not all of which are controlled by Chris. Once Chris declares that the majority group should target someone other than Jay, those other groups were obviously going to start thinking about whether the best target for elimination was actually the person Chris wanted out.
I’m a big fan of Jessica Lewis. She’s had interesting moments in the game, she’s friendly and engaged with the fandom on Twitter, and she seemed really committed to the experience. Despite how big of a fan I am, I’m not certain I understand why Sunday was so threatened by her and why Chris saw her as a prime target, long-delayed. I would have understood if Chris saw this as a prime time to go after Ken or David, both of whom were on the other side on the original Gen-X tribe and were integral parts of keeping Jessica in place. Jessica, if anything, was the person caught in the cross-fire there.
This also ties into an issue we’d discussed in previous weeks: aiming for the kingpin rather than one of their subjects. The three people with the most influence in the game at this point were Zeke, Chris and David. The people with the most outright power, due to idols, were David, Jay and Adam… though only Jay’s idol is a known quantity. Chris was specifically targeting one of David’s loyal allies. By doing so, he was indirectly taking a shot at David himself. Far better to take the direct shot at David.
It could be argued that Chris’ better play this week would have been to rally the votes against Jay, but to tell Sunday and Bret to vote against Jessica in case Jay played the idol.
Beyond that, if he wanted to target a big player gone, Zeke would have been a good choice. The issue for Chris is that targeting either David or Zeke would have meant breaking his normal patterns of communication. If Chris starts spending time with Jess or Ken, or he starts trying to spend time with Adam or Hannah, it’s a clear sign that something is going on. This is one of the ways that Zeke’s gameplay has given him a leg-up on the competition.
All of the work that Zeke has done up to this point of the game came to fruition last night in different ways. In this part of the episode, what bore fruit was Zeke’s positioning of himself as a conduit of information and the friendships he has with seemingly everyone on the beach. This meant that with the vote swinging away from Jay and towards a different target, Zeke gets to touch base with everyone and make sure they’re focused on the right targets without his behavior seeming out of the ordinary.
Once Chris confided in him that the vote was going to target Jess, Zeke saw the opportunity to target a bigger prize and seemed to land on Chris pretty quickly. This decision, and Zeke’s later conversations, suggest that he had a clear vision in mind of who the power players were this season, and that Chris was someone who had to be sent home.
Zeke was positioned in such a way that he could have tried to flip the votes against David instead, but he rightly recognized that doing that would be far more complicated. David might be a more tempting target, but Chris was also a power player and didn’t have an idol to protect him.
Zeke recognizing the importance of scooping up Chris’ allies by reinforcing his ties to Bret and Sunday immediately after tribal was also important and typical of his gameplay this season.
Million Dollar Gamble
I don’t often give Jay credit in this space, but he gets his fair share tonight. While Jay wasn’t in most of the conversations we saw and was on the wrong side of the vote, he did correctly read the tea leaves and see that the vote wasn’t going to target him, which led him to keep the idol in his pocket.
Jay is getting a front row seat to the explosion of the majority alliance / trust clusters / voting blocs, and with each tribal council, he slips further down the totem pole of targets. We mentioned last week that patience will be as important to Jay as his idol, and he’s showing it so far.
Key Points in Episode 10.2: Battle of Gettysburg
One of the most famous battles of the Civil War, perhaps the most famous depending on where you live, happened almost completely by accident. Robert E. Lee wasn’t looking to fight a decisive fight in a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania, and the Army of the Potomac’s commanding general had the job for something on the order of three days at the time the fight started. There’s a saying, however, ‘the best laid plans rarely survive contact with the enemy’.
In a way, that’s what happened in this episode, what will likely come down to one of the biggest fights of the season started two or three episodes before either commanding general wanted it to. Both Zeke and David recognize their opposites as key figures for control of the game, and each wants to target the other… in time. However, in David’s attempts to court Bret, he made it seem as if he was coming for Zeke immediately… and before you know it, the battle lines are drawn and the fire is hot and heavy.
Jay winning immunity only turned up the heat on the conflagration, as it removed the easy boot from the list of viable targets. Given the lack of an easy boot, the stirrings of trouble in the tribe, and the sooner than expected outbreak of hostilities… both generals began planning for surgical strikes against the other.
Hannah: The worst liar in Survivor history
I like Hannah’s game in general, and I’ve liked the decisions she’s made, but she really hurt herself in the execution of those decisions this episode.
Deciding to go with David’s alliance instead of Zeke’s was an interesting choice, but not necessarily a good one. I think it’s a risky decision since David clearly has closer allies (Ken and Jess) where Zeke was trying to make Hannah his closest ally. On the surface, she appears to be trading a top two spot, for a 4th spot in David’s alliance, which isn’t a trade I’d be willing to make.
Hannah may have seen it differently. She may be viewing Zeke as simply too good of a player to sit beside at the end, or she may have had a plan to flip the numbers back against David in future. The obvious danger, however, was that her switching sides only guaranteed a tie. Instead of trading a risky situation for a safe one, she was trading a safe situation for a risky one which also had a poorer outlook for the future of her game.
Hannah’s inability to tell a lie, or even to convincingly hold a conversation adjacent to a lie without freaking out, was what truly hurt her game this episode. When Zeke, in an attempt to step to a larger point, asked Hannah to confirm that David was the biggest threat in the game… Hannah apparently found it flatly impossible to agree with that statement. This was a conversation of no particular consequence… until Hannah made it extremely consequential. It’s quite possible that Bret had told Zeke he saw Hannah and David talking and that Zeke was trying to feel her out based on that. Hannah’s only goal for that conversation should be to allay David’s fears and let him know she’s on his side… even if she isn’t.
That’s not how that conversation went however.
Anyone who has stuck with me through the 40,000 words I’ve written on Survivor this year knows I’m a fan of targeting the head of the alliance. Part of that is, because as a gambler, I want the risk to be worth the reward. The other part of that is due to how often idols are played to shield secondary targets based on the assumption that the idol holder won’t be targeted.
I found it refreshing that initially Zeke was going to target David directly (as David was targeting Zeke directly), because in the end if you’re going to put a lot of effort into eliminating a player you want it to be someone who is a key to the opposing alliance. Switching the targeting to Hannah was extremely risky, and should have blown up in Zeke’s face. While I understand his logic, in thinking that David would protect himself, Hannah was too obvious a target.
The MVP of Zeke’s alliance: Sunday
I haven’t talked much about Sunday in these articles, but she is clearly the MVP of Zeke’s alliance this week. With all of the whispering underway at tribal council, her lite sub-cluster confirmed that they were continuing with their plan for the vote out, when Hannah threw out the whispered question as to who that meant they were voting for.
It’s an interesting question. Hannah already assumed that she was on the outs with the alliance, and she was getting a bit of a cold shoulder from Zeke already. Her opinion of Sunday as a player may have made her think she’d get an honest answer from her, or would at least be able to tell if it was a lie. Sunday’s response of ‘Ken’ was earnest, and above all else it was fast. She didn’t give the impression that she was searching for an answer, and it was that lie which quite likely saved Zeke’s life in the game.
She who lives in a glass house shouldn’t (pull) stones
So we come to tribal council with a tribe that’s evenly split, and has some bad feelings. The kumbaya moments of the episode 10.1 where everyone gave David such good energy and feelings is some distant memory, and the battle lines are now clearly drawn between David’s alliance and Zeke’s alliance. We’ve voted once– it’s 5 vs 5, and now the time has come to flip your vote or draw rocks.
What should you do, and more importantly, why?
First to preface: I think people should go to rocks more often than they do. There’s a trade-off of short-term risk for long-term reward that people reflexively shy away from because it could mean that they go home immediately. This isn’t an accident as the current tie breaker system is heavily tilted towards getting people to flip their votes in the face of an unbreachable façade of an opposing alliance. When a player knows with a dread certainty that no one on the other side will flip, they often flip just to avoid the 10-15% chance that the rock they draw will be the exile rock.
The problem I have with this is too often that flipped vote doesn’t get the player any farther in the game. Russell Hantz’s first season had a great example of this as his alliance flipped John over to their side, just to avoid a rock pull, and then immediately eliminated him the next week.
The very fact that the opposing alliance is unassailable is a reason to hold your vote and instead go to rocks. While there are opportunities to flip numbers, etc… it’s unlikely to happen in an alliance that’s so unified they’ll put their fate in the game on the line to keep their tribemate safe. In those circumstances, all flipping does is keep you in the game a very little while longer; it also alienates your former alliance mates so it leaves you no workable allies left.
That being said… I think Jessica should have flipped her vote. It’s a very close decision, but the situation here was atypical from the usual scenario in a number of ways–particularly, the multiple shake-ups of this season settled into two five-person alliances with strikingly different make-ups, in terms of ties and loyalty.
David’s alliance: David, Ken, Jessica, Hannah, Adam. This alliance is made up of three Gen-Xers and two Millennials. The internal lines of loyalty are split along similar lines. Adam and Hannah are a duo, where David, Ken, and Jessica are a firm trio.
Zeke’s alliance: Zeke, Jay, Will, Bret, Sunday. This alliance has three Millennials vs two Gen-Xers, but the lines of loyalty are a complete mess. All of the players in the alliance have a degree of loyalty to Zeke, to one degree or another, but some of those ties are quite thin. Jay and Will have worked together before. Sunday and Bret are the tightest unit in terms of loyalty to each other. This is not the picture of an unassailable coalition.
While there was animosity at tribal council it was directed towards David specifically, not to David’s alliance as a whole. Three tribal councils ago, Jay and Will were on the outside looking in; a tribal council ago Bret and Sunday where blindsided when their alliance mate Chris was voted out. Both of those groups were now voting with Zeke against Hannah. Survivor changes fast, and this season has been particularly fluid. Clearly, my rule of thumb about pulling rocks when facing an unassailable alliance doesn’t apply.
I can see, and I think we will see, Zeke’s alliance split in any number of ways as the game goes forward. It could even fall completely apart, giving David a chance to pick up enough numbers to flip the script against him. That is a volatile, almost chaotic environment in which to work, and as Paetyr Baelish might say, “Chaos is a ladder.”
There were, however, good arguments for Jessica to stay the course. There was only a 16.6% chance that she would draw a rock, and only a 33.4% chance that one of her allies would. The removal of any of her allies would have left her with the same workable situation that she’d have had if she flipped her vote. There was also a 50% chance that one of the enemies of her group would go, giving her a strong chance at making the final 3.
All the previous arguments for the lack of cohesion from Zeke’s group are also arguments for keeping her vote the same, because there’s an 83.4% chance that she wakes up at the Survivor beach tomorrow, and if she does, it’s still a workable situation no matter what happened the night before.
One of the other arguments that’s impossible to overlook is that Bret and Sunday had voted against her the previous tribal council. That makes the water look a little choppy on the other side, and is a reason to think that holding the course and wishing you get lucky is the better plan. Let’s also remember that no one had a lot of time to think on this decision. They had their discussion, they went to revote, Zeke threw a lifeline Jessica’s way, and then she had to make the walk to the urn to cast her vote.
It’s difficult to look at decisions like this without evaluating them based on their results; its human nature to look at what happened and say, “Well, that was dumb. She should have flipped.’ This was not such a clear cut decision in the moment.
My feeling is that in the moment flipping is the absolute safest play, and the landscape of the game is such that there isn’t an overriding reason not to take the absolute safest path. Certainly,flipping the vote means that there are hurt feelings to navigate and players to mollify, but you’re in the game and will have the chance to do it.
In the end, Jessica was loyal to David and Ken, and kept her vote in place. On Day 12 they kept her in the game despite her not trusting them, with David playing his immunity idol to save her. That kind of clear demonstrated loyalty buys a lot of trust in return, and maybe it makes a player more willing to face what was a very slim chance of elimination to try to preserve their alliance in the game. While I would have flipped, and while I think Jessica should have flipped, it could be argued that until the black rock was revealed she’d actually made the right choice.
Sometimes you make the right choice and it doesn’t work out. That’s, unfortunately, the name of the game.
The Survivor version of the Battle of Gettysburg may have sent its first casualty to Ponderosa, but the battle certainly isn’t over. Zeke’s alliance is currently ascendant, but whether you call them trust clusters, voting blocs, or just ‘a couple of folks who feel the same way about David’, there are far too many disparate groups in the current tribe for it to be smooth sailing for any of the remaining players.
David’s point that Zeke is playing the best game to this point stands, and every player on the beach knows it. The question at this point in Survivor is always whether that fact is enough to change the course of the game. Players don’t get into a dominant position simply by wishing it so. They do it by building a web of allies, who each think they’re going to benefit by that player making it to the final three. For those players, every time someone points at Zeke and yells ‘Zeke is winning,’ it’s not a bug– it’s a feature. Some of them will think that they might out-argue Zeke at a final tribal council; others may just be willing to settle for second place money.
However, there are nine people left in the game, and a fair number of them have no particular ties of loyalty to Zeke. That simple numerical fact, combined with Adam and Jay’s idols means that anything can happen at this point. The fact that 6 people, who all would have had to pull rocks if they didn’t switch their votes opted for that option, would normally suggest an unshakable majority that would proceed to pick off their opposition one-by-one. I just don’t see that coming.
Zeke is now fully astride the tiger and has to hope that the tiger doesn’t get hungry. I still make him the odds-on favorite to win, but I think he’s going to have to work on it.
For more blogs this season: RHAP Survivor Blog Schedule.