Sarah Channon writes special feature blogs for RHAP. This feature, “Advantages vs. Players: The Game Changers Post-Merge”, looks at the main factions and how they’ve come this far in the game.
Advantages vs. Players: The Game Changers Post-Merge
Since the merge on Mamanuca Islands, the power has shifted almost constantly. Nine Nuku reached the merge without ever turning on each other, and the original plan was to stay Nuku-strong and pagong the four Mana. That lasted for one vote before Nuku broke ranks in several directions. When the line was drawn, it was by the middle tier players (Brad, Sierra, Debbie, Tai, Troyzan, Sarah), the players whose casting we queried pre-season, the players with something to prove. On the losing side of that line were the big-name players, (Cirie, Ozzy, Andrea, Aubry) and the unknown quantities (Zeke and Michaela.)
By coincidence, it was the middle tier players who held all the advantages in the game: the three idols, the legacy advantage, the extra vote and later the vote steal. Regardless, they could not keep their power and have been unable to use those advantages effectively—in fact, Sierra’s got her voted off! Yet vote after vote, the power shifts and blindsides keep happening. Perhaps this is a testament to the caliber of the big-name players, but many factors have gone into how the game has played out, not least the changing relationships from multiple tribe swaps.
While everybody but Cirie went to a Tribal Council pre-merge, nobody on Nuku ever had to betray one of their own. They stuck to voting off the original Mana members, and the only Nuku to go home was J.T., isolated on a tribe with four Mana. So, it was that nine people—an entire tribe’s worth—entered the merge without showing their hand or breaking promises, yet they did have experience of voting successfully with each other to affirm trust.
That’s unprecedented in Survivor. Zeke had a confessional in the early days of the merge, where he explained how everybody on Nuku thought they were in a powerful position. They all believed that within the nine, they had an alliance of five, and so nobody needed to shake things up. Clearly not all of them were right, but it’s hard to look at the game and say anybody was completely wrong either. Ozzy would not have been the first one out had the original tribe lost, and the frequent power shifts suggest that there was never a linear hierarchy.
For any player who believed they had a secure five alliance within the Nuku Nine, it made absolute sense to pagong the four surviving Mana before revealing their five—otherwise, the Nuku minority would simply pick up the Mana members for a coup.
Of course, Survivor is never that simple. Everybody had to be aware that they could be mistaken, and besides, not all Mana members are created equal. Troyzan had a pre-game alliance with both Brad and Sierra (and possibly others as well). Aubry, who had tried but struggled to bond with her original tribe, fared better with Sierra, Brad, and Cirie after her second swap, in part due to the emotional breakdowns—if there’s one social condition that Aubry excels in, it’s pep talks through tears.
In the hesitation of the merge, Sierra was the one willing to throw out names, and she picked Hali and Michaela, the two players she had failed to connect with on the beach, with Michaela as the primary target. It’s not clear what Sierra’s antipathy to Michaela was, nor what her closest ally, Brad, meant by Michaela’s reputation preceding her (had Caleb or Hali said something about Michaela’s reaction to being a decoy vote?), but Michaela explained on YouTube that Brad and Sierra were both scowling when she came over to their mat at the second swap. Even if she misconstrued their reaction, they were never going to have her trust after that.
Fortunately for Michaela, she and Cirie bonded over their demographic—the first time either of them had been able to play with another black woman. Like all of Nuku, Cirie didn’t want to tip her hand, but of all Nuku, Cirie can’t afford to lose somebody who might take her to the end. Rather than campaign to save Michaela, she raised concerns about why Sierra wanted to keep Hali, and she raised them in private.
Accordingly, Zeke bothered Sierra to switch the vote, while Cirie kept trust with both Michaela and Sierra—something which paid dividends three days later: Zeke tried to get Sierra on board with his plan to vote off Andrea, and Sierra reported it straight back to Cirie, even though Zeke had told her (truthfully!) Cirie was targeting Sierra.
In his exit interviews, Zeke explained that since the Varner incident, it had become clear that nobody wanted to go to the end with him any more for fear of his story. According to Zeke, he gave up on winning at that point and decided to enjoy playing the game for as long as he could—for an Ozzy, that might mean fishing and climbing trees; for a Zeke, it means seeing how much he can swing the vote.
It’s a frustrating approach when set alongside Cirie who has at least as big a battle to reach the end. Cirie is most certainly not giving up and has swayed three out of five post-merge votes while keeping herself under the radar. We can’t blame Zeke for not having the emotional reserves after back to back seasons and being outed the way he was, but he serves as a reminder to future contestants: Don’t play to play; play to win.
Not that Cirie’s game has been without its bumps. Zeke’s move against Andrea broke a secret three-year friendship between the two (fortunately, only for the duration of their game) and splintered original Nuku permanently. Cirie and Andrea reacted by turning the vote against Zeke, but Debbie saw her moment to strike.
Debbie, Brad, Sierra, and Tai were the four Nuku who had been to the most Tribal Councils together—specifically, they had executed the Malcolm boot, arguably the game’s biggest upset thus far. That was a huge bond, and Debbie also trusted Sarah, whom she had considered her closest ally on original Nuku. That was Debbie’s five out of the nine, but Brad and Sierra had Troyzan which made six. That would be a majority if they could get through one more Tribal Council—add in Debbie’s extra vote, and seven out of twelve equals ‘in’.
Once Ozzy was blindsided, we had The Power Six and we had—let’s face it—the five people we were rooting for. It’s not even a knock against the majority as players, but when you stack Cirie, Andrea, Aubry, Zeke, and Michaela against Debbie, Sarah, Brad, Sierra, Tai, and Troyzan in a popularity contest, the polls are going to favor the five.
Across the fandom there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth that this was the minority. Not only that, production appears to have decided that, like idols, advantages should be replaced once played, so Sarah picked up a vote steal in lieu of Debbie’s extra vote. The five didn’t have the votes and they didn’t have any game mechanic to flip the numbers.
As it turned out, what they had was good old-fashioned gameplay. Zeke and Andrea put aside their differences to work together once more. Cirie and Aubry pulled out their powers of persuasion. Sarah was brought back in, and Debbie went home.
By contrast, the survivors of the Power Six, now a minority of four, did not stay together. I don’t know if that was a reason for voting out Debbie, but it certainly paid off for the alliance of Favorites—we saw Debbie play from the bottom briefly in Kaoh Rong and it’s not her style to give up or cede control. Had the minority rallied and compared notes, they could have discovered that they had three idols, which would have given them the opportunity to identify and eliminate the lynchpin of the Favorites. (Ideally Cirie, leaving Zeke and Andrea butting heads and Sarah eternally scouting out her options.)
Instead, they fractured, each grovelling to their preferred Favorite, selling their vote, throwing their former allies under the bus, and hoping to last long enough to splinter off a new alliance. Let’s be honest, that tactic worked too. The Favorites turned their attention to a more obvious threat within their own ranks, taking out Zeke before he could backstab them.
This is, by necessity, a simplification. Everything on Survivor is situational, which is why two very different tactics can be successful. Part of the reason Sarah was in with the Power Six in the first place was because they were voting off Ozzy. Sarah had been twitchy about voting Ozzy off even before the merge, as Debbie well knew.
The problem with Sarah’s inclusion beyond that vote was that she had spent most of the game apart from the others. She was absent from the double Tribal Council where Tai’s idol saved Sierra and sent Malcolm packing. Instead she had played the entire game with Andrea and Zeke, voting off Sandra and dealing with the emotional fallout of Zeke’s outing. Sarah had spent more days with Cirie than with anybody in her new alliance.
In the Power Six, Brad, Sierra, and Debbie made the decisions, as they had been accustomed to doing every Tribal Council, and passed instructions to the others. Andrea, Cirie, Zeke, and even alliance newcomer Aubry were open to discussing Sarah’s strategy. Moreover, they had discussed voting Ozzy out before, so Sarah’s deviation was unexpected but not a shock, and she could assure them that their endgame plans hadn’t changed.
Sarah didn’t so much flip as return to her numbers. Her allies immediately tested her by voting out Zeke, but this time, Sarah didn’t push too hard against it. She even campaigned for Sierra’s boot over Andrea’s—she pocketed Sierra’s advantage in doing so, but the various online confessionals show that Cirie was in on the plan to take down Andrea and was prepared to argue against it, while Michaela herself noted that they risked a tie at eight if they eliminated Andrea now. Sierra would likely have gone home even if she never had the Legacy Advantage.
Two power shifts, four blindsides (well, three plus a half for Sierra), and not a single advantage caused any of it. Even Debbie’s extra vote was unnecessary, as the Power Six had covered their tracks well enough that the Favorites split their votes anyway. They’d have won the majority with five votes.
But this is still a simplification. Each blindside, each betrayal was driven by somebody who was emboldened by an advantage of their own. Debbie had the extra vote, so she knew she could force the numbers. Sarah found a vote steal and felt comfortable taking a risk now she had more opportunity to recover from a mistake. Andrea won immunity and knew her scheme couldn’t backfire on her this round—that immunity had a secondary effect on her alliance: Cirie explained in confessional that if they got caught out by an idol in the minority, they had assumed Andrea would take the fall. Once the minority couldn’t vote for Andrea, Cirie and Co had to worry a lot more about an idol being played, and that was part of why she was happier voting out one of their own. (See also Aubry targeting Debbie in Kaoh Rong.)
Finally, Sierra’s legacy advantage ended up being a detriment, as Sarah voted Sierra out purely to get her own hands on it. Sierra admitted she never intended to tell Sarah; it came out during a vulnerable moment. Sierra wished she had simply told Sarah about the immunity rather than legacy aspect. That should have been the most effective way to parlay her advantage, since Sarah’s initial reaction was to use Sierra later in the game. Had she believed keeping Sierra would give her an extra immunity at final six, Sarah might have joined the push to vote Andrea off—Cirie might have vetoed the move anyway, but Sarah and Michaela/Tai could have gone rogue.
As it was, the advantage became a way for the edit to dramatize an otherwise straightforward vote. And that’s not a bad thing, but it seems that the recurring trend for advantages is that they’re not being used as we hope.
For example, Tai sitting on his two idols at the Zeke vote. Yes, it would have been wasted, thanks to the majority’s caution in voting for one of their own, but from Tai’s perspective, this could have been a chance to pull a Parvati. Somebody tipped him off to vote Sierra, so he could safely assume that the vote was either on her, or she was the decoy vote for his own boot… and he had the tools to save them both. Even as a wasted play, it would have been a big moment and might have helped change Tai’s image to that of an aggressive player rather than a wishy-washy one.
Keeping the idols was the more prudent course of action, but what will the jury reaction be when it comes out that Tai and Troyzan had them all along? Time was that a player was safer keeping the idol out of play unless they genuinely thought they needed them. (See Kim, in Troyzan’s original season.) Nowadays, they could face resentment for not using them to change the game. It might be wiser for them to keep the idols as souvenirs at this point.
Although the majority don’t know the whole story, leaving the minority out of the Zeke vote paid off. Once Tai was betrayed by his entire alliance, that all but nullified his idols. Tai has now been brought into the majority’s plans, has no incentive to play an idol on Brad or Troyzan, and (going by the online confessionals) should be in a good spot for several more votes.
Troyzan might save himself with his, but only for one week, and if the majority split the vote, it won’t shake anything up. At this point, unless Tai reveals his to someone in his new alliance, I don’t hold out hope for an effective idol play.
Sarah’s little hoard of advantages may prove more fruitful… but I’m not necessarily talking about the ones on parchment.
Despite Sarah’s exploitation of Sierra, the most controversial vote is still Zeke, when the majority risked taking out one of their own at ten. He wanted to target Andrea at nine, and he might have had the numbers to do it—though it’s hard to say if Sarah was really on board. In episode, we saw her suggesting a Sierra, Andrea, Tai boot order, but per an online confessional, these were Zeke’s targets. This week, Sarah’s confessional mentions how close she is to Tai whom Zeke didn’t trust at all.
Part of the reason Zeke turned on Andrea was because he expected, wanted her to reach out to him in the aftermath of Varner’s boot, and she didn’t. That decimated his trust in her, while Sarah, who did talk to him about it afterwards, was his closest ally at the time he was voted off. It’s often said you can’t trust anybody in Survivor but you have to trust somebody—you have to believe in your relationship with your allies.
Simple in concept; difficult in practice. Zeke, Andrea, Sierra, and—in her own way— Debbie are all a little too focused on putting aside their emotions to get the strategy right. They’re making friends, but they try to keep it professional. They’re all business.
Brad and Troyzan, who are significantly older than most of their tribe, are much more anxious about maintaining friendships. They’ve both played a pretty good social game in that they’re generally liked, but I’m not sure either can make use of their relationships. They don’t really understand the differing perspectives of their tribemates.
I have considerably more faith in Aubry’s social perception. Her online confessionals are always worth listening to and we saw her working Sarah for the Debbie vote. Yet she tends to make instinctive moral judgments about people—note her remarks about jokers, respect, and authenticity. Once she doesn’t like somebody, she struggles to convince them otherwise. We saw that after the first swap when Aubry dutifully played ball with Sandra and Michaela, congratulated them on a great move when they left her out of J.T.’s blindside, and got precisely nowhere.
Michaela has the same fault in her game, and the two have never been close nor really trusted each other, despite playing the entire game together. It doesn’t help that it’s only been a couple of months since Michaela was blindsided by the alliance she was devoted to in Millennials vs. Gen X. She entered Game Changers with her guard up and the other players weren’t willing to look past that. As she tweeted upon Zeke’s boot, after twenty-nine days, Cirie and Zeke were her only friends—and Zeke had no idea she was fond of him.
Fortunately, for Michaela, there’s one person even lonelier than she: Tai is so isolated demographically that it might be impossible for him to make a connection based on mutual understanding. The tall, strong-willed woman, and the short, shy man might be one of the oddest couples the game has seen. Despite going full Joel and Chet in the reward challenge, theirs is a marriage of true convenience. Both have faced rejection from their respective alliances (Tai in votes, Michaela in rewards) and both are smarter than they’re given credit for. Michaela’s managed to get under the radar since the merge; if she can avoid scaring Tai off, they might pull a late game upset.
Of course, reaching out to Tai was Cirie’s idea, and she and Sarah have been working him too. Sarah and Cirie were also the chief benefactors of the reward challenge. In fact, Sarah and Cirie have emerged as the clear successes in this season’s social game.
Cirie was Nuku’s biggest target pre-game, yet now she’s everybody’s confidante. It’s not just a case of keeping the target off her back; most of the merge players have strategized with her, wanting to keep her as either a solid number or a backup plan. Nobody’s threatened by Cirie’s relationships, and she only lost trust with Zeke and Debbie. According to one secret scene, even Sierra thought she had Cirie on her side going into Tribal Council this week—Cirie didn’t steer the vote, but she was in the position to do so, if necessary.
This is the woman who has never been left out of a loved ones reward. This is the woman who has only ever been voted off under odd circumstances (an idol, a tie-breaker, and a surprise F2). This is even the woman whose teenage son tells her everything. And that’s because everybody has a very similar reaction to her. To quote Aubry in a post-merge confessional: “I just love Cirie.”
Sarah, who came in with a significantly lower reputation, has been even more successful. Since the first tribe swap, we’ve heard players name Sarah as one of their tightest allies, including every Nuku boot thus far. We’ve also seen that she’s established a working relationship with all three of the surviving Manas. I am curious to see what Sarah will say in her exit interview, about who really had her loyalty… though I suspect a lot of it was situational, and the real answer would be: “My family.”
Sarah’s problem, as Zeke points out in some jury videos CBS released this week, is that she’s breaking these tight bonds. Ozzy reported that she swore on her son’s life she wouldn’t betray him. Debbie vowed that whoever flipped wouldn’t have her vote. (Aubry can vouch that Debbie is a woman of her word.) Sierra was fooled by Sarah’s acting job at the time of her blindside, but the next boot will tip her off how Sarah actually voted that night. Sarah made Zeke a promise too, and although Zeke released her from it, we can safely assume Sarah would have broken it otherwise.
I don’t think Sarah has a preferred path to the end. She’s re-evaluating the game at every step, and reacting in the moment. I wouldn’t disagree with any of the moves she’s made, but I do wonder if she’s preparing her allies adequately for their own departure. She sells each person on the idea that working together is the smartest move for both of them, perhaps fully believing it in the moment. From the boot’s perspective, Sarah then bails on that “smart move” for no good reason. Backstabbing rarely inspires the benefit of the doubt.
By comparison, Cirie takes a more measured approach, targeting specific individuals for her alliance and encouraging her allies to have certain conversations—she might not be in on these, but she’ll get reports on them. Of course, Cirie’s target means fewer people are making promises with her, whereas anybody on the tribe will be happy to make a pact with Sarah. It’s harder for Cirie to get to the end, but easier for her to do it without pissing off the jury.
For now, both games are working: the target is never on Cirie or Sarah, and they’re even sucking each other in. So far as we can tell, Cirie is the only person who knows about Sarah’s secret advantage, and she’s looping Sarah in on plans that exclude Andrea. Together, these two social players make a devastating team, since between them they have the trust of the entire tribe.
Now that the pair of Brad and Sierra has been split up, the target should shift to the new most dangerous couple in the game, and that’s not Brad and Troyzan. It’s also not Cirie and Sarah, because on Survivor, reality isn’t reality, perception is reality. So that puts the crosshairs on Andrea and Aubry. (How is it none of us predicted that Malcolm’s Annoying Kid Sister and Cochran’s Dream Girl would be BFFs?)
The big revelation in this week’s online confessionals is that Sarah and Cirie are forming a new secret majority of themselves, Michaela, and Tai, as they prepare to turn on Andrea. It’s not certain if they’ve reached a consensus on timing. They’re concerned about her winning immunity, but Cirie has been holding off on Andrea’s boot. Although she doesn’t explain why, all the talk about Andrea being impossible to beat at the end can only benefit Cirie.
Final eight would be a good time to pull off the same trick that they did with Zeke. Strike at the even number when they’re not expecting it. Let Brad and Troyzan vote for each other. Let Aubry and Andrea vote for Brad. Andrea goes home, 4-3-1, unless she wins immunity, in which case Aubry’s eliminated.
What if Andrea and Aubry anticipate it? Sierra made it obvious at Tribal Council that she had a deal with somebody, and Sarah feigned confusion at the vote so ostentatiously that Andrea appeared to notice. Can she turn things around? In online confessional Sarah criticised “people” for sticking with the same groups rather than pulling other people in for more options. “People” aren’t named, but she says Cirie and Michaela are working Tai, so the implication is that Andrea and Aubry do not have other resources to fall back on.
Sarah may be right that Andrea isn’t working with others. Redemption Island was about locking down your alliance and pagonging. In Caramoan, Andrea criticized herself for getting distracted by outsider Eddie. However, Aubry said last week that she wasn’t giving up on any of the minority as options—really, the only person in the Power Six that Aubry had a problem with was Debbie, and she took her out already. Certainly, we know Brad and Aubry bonded, and while Tai should still be wary of Aubry after Kaoh Rong, she and Brad together might pull him back from Cirie, Sarah, and Michaela.
Andrea’s also a scrappy fighter who won’t be afraid to take a risk. Whenever it happens, expect a full-on battle—even if one of Andrea and Aubry get blindsided, the other will go all out the following week.
In the long run, my money would be on Cirie and Sarah’s side to prevail, because they’re the ones who have already won everybody over. The real question is can either of Cirie and Sarah pull this off? Surely Sarah’s not stupid enough to go to the end with Cirie; surely Cirie is smart enough to realize Sarah won’t be any more faithful to her than she was to Ozzy, Debbie, Zeke, or Sierra. Does Cirie have the social sway to be taken to the end even in this cut-throat age of Survivor? (I’m also up for Cirie rounding off her legend by winning her first immunity at final immunity.)
Sarah should always have a path to the end. Her question mark is the jury. If she can draw on her relationships to win them back over, nobody can question her résumé, but the jury has not historically taken kindly to mothers who break their word. Ask Dawn in Caramoan. Hell, ask Sarah 1.0 her feelings on Kass. (It’s about time players realized mothers are playing for their family, not their allies.) If the jury forgives Sarah, nobody can beat her (even Cirie?); if they don’t, there’s nobody she can beat.
… And I suppose there’s also the question mark of what she’ll do with her two advantages, but I don’t expect them to be what swings the outcome of the game for her. Indeed, their entertainment value might well have peaked the moment she obtained them.
The trouble with these game advantages is that they are limited so they’re not too powerful. More often than not, this means we don’t get a situation where they can be played to their full potential, yet their presence requires exposition, and that means less screen-time to go around. For this season, that time might have been better spent on relationship-building moments. Perhaps then we could figure out how Sarah and Cirie do it.