03/05/13 – In the latest Baker’s Dozen, Andy Baker analyzes the choices the castaways are making.
Like many of you, I play a number of different roles in my life: I’m a writer, an English teacher, a husband and father… and a squash coach. (If you’re not familiar with squash, it’s a cousin of racquetball.) Interestingly enough, teaching squash to novices has taught me a thing or two about Survivor.
In squash, there are three facets to every choice a player makes: the decision, the execution, and the result. The first involves your brain; the second, your body; the third, the bounce of the ball. The outcome of every shot comes down to a combination of these three things – strategy, mechanics, and luck – and only two of them are completely within a player’s control.
I’ve dealt with a number of volatile players during my coaching career – unavoidable, really, when working with teenagers in a game that’s all about pressure – and most of them get mad for the wrong reasons. Quite often, young squash players will get frustrated with how they hit the ball or a bad bounce (or a fortunate one for their opponents). What I tell them, though, is that the decision is paramount: if they chose the right shot, they’re way ahead of the game. Sure, the other parts matter, but if they’re thinking, they have a much better shot of winning.
Which brings me to Survivor.
What struck me after this week’s episode is that there are a number of important decisions being made – by Fans and Favorites alike – but to truly understand the long-term impact of these decisions, and the endgame prospects of the castaways making them, we can’t focus exclusively on results. We need to know: Are these players thinking? Are they able to fully pull off what they set out to do? And how much are they relying on luck?
1) The Decision: Sherri keeps Shamar around as her Phillip.
The Execution: She talks Shamar out of quitting and convinces her alliance to keep the volatile vet despite his disruptive behavior.
The Result: Sherri’s alliance now has a 6-2 advantage… but Shamar is becoming a liability.
As annoying as I find Shamar – and as much as I hate Survivor quitters – I can’t fault Sherri’s underlying strategy here. She’s thinking both long and short-term, and, by tucking the Incredible Sulk under her wing, she’s securing herself a majority alliance, a meat shield, and a beatable Final Three goat. If Shamar were more like Phillip, Sherri’s decision to work with him would be above reproach.
But Shamar ISN’T Phillip, whose insanity – other than a few memorable outbursts – is largely of the docile delusion variety. Eventually – sooner rather than later – Sherri is going to need to sacrifice Shamar at the altar of tribe unity. To borrow Penner’s metaphor from last season’s finale, Sherri best not yoke her game to an unruly ox like Shamar; he’s mentally checked out of the game, is making irrational game moves (exposing the split-vote plan to Hope), and is upsetting everyone in Sherri’s alliance. Keeping Shamar around is costing Sherri precious social capital, and that puts her in serious jeopardy when the Fans have to turn on one another.
Let Shamar go now, Sherri, or you’ll find that no one trusts your judgment any more. And when they don’t trust your judgment, they don’t trust YOU. And when they don’t trust you, that’s when you go home.
2) The Decision: Andrea targets Corinne.
The Execution: In an effort to focus intra-alliance angst on someone other than herself, Andrea arranges for a Corinne blindside.
The Result: The Favorites didn’t go to Tribal Council, so the jury’s still out.
I’m not going to question Andrea’s desire to move the bulls-eye from her back – she did get four votes at Bikal’s first Tribal Council, after all, so she knows that the other Favorites view her as a threat – but her timing is terrible, and her awareness of how this move will impact her endgame is non-existent.
In her haste to restructure Stealth-R-Us Inc., Andrea is breaking what I feel is an important Survivor commandment:
Thou shalt not arrange a blindside before you’ve lost the Immunity Challenge.
It’s one thing to establish whom your majority alliance is targeting when there is a group of outsiders prepped for a Pagonging. But when you’re turning on one of your own, you don’t talk to ANYONE about it – other than your One True Ally – because once the fuse is lit, blindsides blow up. Whether the target goes home or the architect is exposed, there’s eventually going to be a victim.
All Andrea had to do was wait. But she’s impatient. And it’s going to cost her in the long run.
What if she needs to work with Corinne after a tribe swap? What if she needs to team up with her after the merge? What if Malcolm comes after her at some point because she undercut his position in the game?
And, most important of all, what if no one in Stealth-R-Us ever trusts her again because she was so quick to turn on their alliance?
Seems like a pretty steep price to pay for a plan that didn’t need to be made in the first place.
3) The Decision: Andrea attempts to swap out Corinne for Brandon.
The Execution: Clearly possessing an insatiable appetite for crazy, Andrea enlists Brandon as an accomplice in her plan to turn on her alliance.
The Result: Brandon publicly agrees to join forces with Andrea, but privately expresses his skepticism.
Really, Andrea? This is your master plan? Trade Corinne – who, while a legitimate threat, has every reason to remain loyal until the merge – for Brandon, who feels that urinating on consumables is a reasonable response to stress?
Setting aside the fact that Andrea would be better off aligning with a rabid tarsier, doesn’t she realize that she’s potentially providing a pawn to Cochran and Dawn, given the South Pacific connection?
I’ll admit that Andrea is being aggressive – and that’s far better than being complacent – but she’s also being asinine.
With one ill-advised move, not only has Andrea proven to be impatient and untrustworthy, she’s also revealed that she’s incredibly unwise.
She thinks she’s paving her path to the merge, but what she’s really doing is annihilating her endgame.
4) The Decision: Laura hatches a plan to split the votes so that even if Reynold plays his idol, a Cool Kid goes home.
The Execution: Thanks to Laura’s ability to simplify the plan (the boys vote for Eddie, the girls vote for Hope), the “Nerds” (Reynold’s choice of words, not mine) pull it off without a hitch.
The Result: Hope goes home… but Reynold keeps his idol.
I’m not going to second-guess Laura’s strategy – it’s a predictable plan, really (Rob anticipated it in his podcast with Holly), and a potentially effective one – but I do question her motivation: Splitting the votes was less about alliance-preserving gamesmanship than it was about Laura’s personal paranoia.
Paranoia alone isn’t a problem if it serves the greater good; other players empathize with, and at times will indulge, an alliance partner’s instinct for self-preservation. But the end result of Laura’s plan is that she’s now been outed as a strategic threat, which couldn’t have happened at a worse time. If Sherri and the others decide that they need to stay strong for challenges – and thus have to keep Reynold and Eddie around – they’ll need to cannibalize their own alliance. And when that happens, Laura will emerge as a tempting target.
If Laura was simply a challenge liability, Sherri might keep her over Julia, just based on personal preference; but now, with a swap looming, Sherri has to prioritize pawns over players. Given the increasing likelihood that the Fans will go into a swap down in numbers, Sherri can’t risk having a paranoid, self-interested strategist like Laura joining forces with the Favorites and creating an alliance that would oppose her at the merge.
Unless Laura has another plan up her sleeve – encouraging Shamar to explode or convincing Sherri that Julia is plotting with Reynold and Eddie to flip Michael and Matt – then splitting the votes not only failed to flush the idol, but it also sealed her fate as a pre-merge boot.
5) The Decision: Reynold thinks it wise to confront the dominant Fan alliance after Tribal Council.
The Execution: Feeling vulnerable after Allie’s elimination, the endlessly entitled Reynold tells the other members of Gota that he was planning on using his Hidden Immunity Idol to help the tribe, but not any more.
The Result: The divide between the Cool Kids and the Nerds grows wider.
This is what you get when you allow an alpha male recruit to play under pressure: He makes rookie mistakes.
How hard is it to hold your tongue, seek out Sherri and/or Michael, and make the following pitch: “Hey, I understand what you did – sure, I don’t like it, but I see why it makes sense from your perspective. Here’s the thing: there are only two of us left on the outside, and you need us to win challenges. If we lose the next immunity challenge, we’re going to go into a tribe swap, which we all know is coming, so far down in numbers that we’re ALL doomed. I mean, if Bikal is up 9-7 at that point, at least one of the two new tribes is going to have a Favorite majority, right? And there’s a good chance that they’ll control both tribes, since we’re so divided.
“So here’s the deal: Align with me, Eddie, and my idol, and take out Shamar at our next Tribal Council. If you don’t vote him out, then I promise you, when we have a tribe swap, Eddie and I will flip to the Favorites. Your game will effectively end right here, right now, if you don’t want to work with me.”
In Survivor, when your back is against the wall, you need to extend an olive branch or threaten revenge, perhaps both. What you don’t do is simply announce, “Game on!” Right now, the fate of the Fans hangs in the balance: Win the next immunity challenge, and they have a fighting chance. Lose it, and they’re all headed home.
But precisely when they need unity, Reynold – and Sherri – and Shamar – are tearing them apart.
(Is there really any doubt that the Favorites are going to dominate the endgame?)
6) The Decision: Stealth-R-Us chooses to ignore what “stealth” means.
The Execution: Members of Phillip’s alliance openly use their code names, reinforcing for Brenda, Erik, and Brandon that they’ve been ostracized.
The Result: Brenda and Erik have been a peculiar combination of unconcerned and invisible, while Brandon has been offered Corinne’s position in the corporation.
Did Cochran learn nothing from his South Pacific experience? He and the other members of Stealth-R-Us are doing their best to invite insurrection! Assuming that Fans vs. Favorites II mirrors Micronesia and there’s a tribe swap at 16, two and quite possibly three of the outsiders are going to be around when new tribes are formed. What reason have the members of Stealth-R-Us given Brenda, Erik, and Brandon to show even a shred of loyalty?
The more I think about the social dynamics of both tribes at this point in the game, the more intrigued I become by the backstabbing and betrayal that almost HAS to happen once the deck is reshuffled by a swap.
I don’t know about you, but I enjoy those moments in Survivor when castaways reap what they sow. Indulge in exclusionary behavior, particularly early in the game, and it WILL come back and bite you. Indeed, I bet at least one member of Stealth-R-Us will realize, at the moment his torch is snuffed, that it’s his own damn fault.
Please God, let it be Phillip.
7) The Decision: Corinne and Malcolm opt to search for the Hidden Immunity Idol.
The Execution: Success! (According to Corinne in a Secret Scene, it was pretty easy: there were only a handful of trees that fit the profile of idol-hiding spots.)
The Result: Malcolm has an idol; Corinne doesn’t.
Let’s look at this sequence of events: Andrea targets Corinne… Corinne and Malcolm go idol hunting… and Malcolm is the one who finds it.
Isn’t it obvious that we’ve been set up for an ironic twist?
Corinne is going to regret her reluctance to shove her hand into holes.
8) The Decision: Hope chooses to ignore Shamar’s warning.
The Execution: Instead of voting for Eddie and thereby guaranteeing herself three more days in the game – an eternity for strategy! – Hope places her neck on the chopping block and patiently waits for the axe to fall.
The Result: Hope goes home.
One of the questions that needs to be on the Survivor SAT (the test potential players need to pass to even qualify for casting):
Q: You’re outnumbered in your tribe 6-3, and you’re the obvious next target because the other two members of your alliance are needed for challenges. You’ve been warned that the majority alliance might split their votes 3-3 to protect against the use of a Hidden Immunity Idol. What do you do?
a) Go for a swim with the other Pretty People Cool Kids
b) Ignore advice from someone in the majority alliance
c) Laugh about how your name is strategically ironic
d) Decide to go home with your honor intact
e) Knowing your Survivor history, you vote against the member of your own alliance so that you can stick around for a few more days and fight for your life in the game.
Anyone who fails to answer “e” has no business playing Survivor.
Note: If you’d prefer to avoid my ongoing frustration with Probst, Burnett, and the Survivor casting process, skip ahead to BD #11: Fortunes Rising.
You’ve been warned…
9) The Decision: Probst and Burnett decide to cast Julia.
The Execution: They recruited someone who was utterly unfamiliar with Survivor, labeled her a “Fan,” and expected her to rise to the challenge.
The Result: Julia has been a triple-threat: strategically useless (she’s this season’s token under-the-radar floater), physically underwhelming (if not for Laura’s ineptitude, Julia would be the weakest woman on Gota), and dramatically pointless (she’s provided zero entertainment value).
Good job! Good effort! (Seriously, do casting people get fired when they make blunders like this?)
10) Probst Probe: Hey, Jeff, maybe if you spent less time “co-writing” a book for tweens you could make some better casting decisions?
Perhaps now that the talk show is dead, Probst will pay more attention…
Ah, who am I kidding? Prepare yourself for a whole slew of returning players, the casting of C-list celebrities, and the re-introduction of lame twists like Redemption Island. Survivor: Philippines was a great season for one now-obvious reason: Probst was too busy with his talk show to f*$% it up.
I will now lay off Probst and Burnett for the foreseeable future – I think it’s pretty clear at this point what I think of how Survivor casts are assembled – so we now return to our regularly scheduled Baker’s Dozen.
11) Fortunes rising: Cochran and Dawn. As we’ve learned over 25 seasons, the safest place in any alliance is in the middle: When you’re at the top, you’re the head of the serpent everyone considers cutting off; when you’re at the bottom, you’re expendable (for any number of reasons).
Andrea and Phillip are, for all intents and purposes, running Stealth-R-Us, Andrea as the manipulative Iago and Phillip as an oblivious Othello, while Malcolm and Corinne are isolated individuals thrust together by circumstance and necessity, a mercurial marriage which is overtly untrustworthy (the others have never seen Malcolm play, and Corinne is, according to a number of confessionals, having “intense” conversations with a lot of different people).
Meanwhile, Cochran and Dawn float along, never targeted, always trusted. For all of the well-deserved ridicule Phillip received for how he responded to Brandon’s appeal last week, middle management is precisely the position one wants to hold in Stealth-R-Us – you have access to all of the information with none of the responsibility – and that’s precisely where Cochran and Dawn find themselves at this point in the game.
The Corporation is going to go belly up as soon as Andrea’s plans become public knowledge (How long do you think Brandon can sit on a secret? 24 hours? 48? There’s NO WAY he keeps his mouth shut until the next time the Favorites go to Tribal Council), but until then, Cochran and Dawn can kick back and watch as the two other tandems turn on each other.
They may not have created this dysfunctional dynamic, but they’re going to exploit it all the way to the endgame.
12) Fortunes falling: Corinne. Andrea wants her gone. Phillip will do whatever Andrea says. Dawn and Cochran will go along with any plan that removes a strong opponent from the game. Erik, Brenda, and Brandon will all be thrilled to have a reprieve. Even Malcolm won’t put up too much of a fight, because with Corinne gone, there will be no one left in the game who knows about – or has some claim to – the idol in his possession.
Yeah, my winner’s pick isn’t winning; sadly, she won’t even make the merge.
13) Prediction time: If you’ve seen a promo this week, you know that the Survivor medical team makes an appearance Wednesday night.
My prediction: They’re working on Shamar.
Here’s why: Another thing I’ve learned as a squash coach is that when an opponent is mentally beaten, he’s physically beaten. Shamar promised “his girls” that he would stick around for a couple of days, but once he helped them get rid of Hope, the end was inevitable: eventually, his brain was going to tell his body that it was time to throw in the towel.
Turns out, the quitter’s music we heard playing for Shamar last week was just a little premature.
Ah, but a medevac is just the beginning! This is a 20-player season, and as I mentioned a few weeks ago, the schedule not only has room for a double-elimination episode, but it DEMANDS one. So, Shamar might not be the only one going home…
… in fact, I think the Fans will be losing not one but TWO players this week.
If you watched the “Next week on Survivor” preview after last Wednesday’s episode, you witnessed a stressed-out Sherri going off on Eddie. Her body language – admittedly hard to read since it’s a night-vision shot – is simultaneously aggressive and defensive. My immediate read on it was that she was reacting like a wounded, cornered animal desperately trying to fend off an attack.
Here’s what I think might be happening: Sherri has already lost Shamar, and now the Fans have lost the immunity challenge. Eddie, using Sherri’s own words against her – that the tribe has to remain strong – is explaining that Gota has to keep Reynold and him around. Sherri, knowing that the Favorites would be down 9-5 if they lost another IC (after Shamar is medevaced and they vote out another member of the tribe), is being torn apart by conflicting goals: She wants to protect her alliance, but what does loyalty matter if they’re all going to be Pagonged after a swap?
Assuming, then, that Sherri spares Eddie and Reynold, who does she let go? It’s going to be either Julia or Laura, based on strengths in challenges. I’d prefer she take out Julia, but given that everything else is falling apart, the last thing Sherri wants to deal with is a paranoid strategist like Laura.
So that’s my prediction: Shamar and Laura are going home.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!