Survivor

Baker’s Dozen: Did You Get Your Survivor Fix This Week?

I’m cranky about a lot of things this week: I’m frustrated with how the auction went down, I’m annoyed at how rigged the Immunity Challenge felt, I’m pissed that Penner’s gone…

… and yet I understand why all of these things pretty much HAD to happen this way.

As always, contradiction is at the heart of all things Survivor.

But before I get into conspiracy theories and accusations of producer malfeasance, it’s time to say farewell to one of the most entertaining castaways to ever play the game.

1) Dear Jon(athan),

It breaks my heart to say this – but it’s over.

It was a great run while it lasted though, wasn’t it? From your goofy gallivanting through the jungle after finding the Kalabaw Hidden Immunity Idol, to your fourth-wall shattering therapy session with Lisa, to your heart-wrenching final words (“It’s been fun – and extremely painful”), you absolutely OWNED this season.

Were you the best PLAYER? No, of course not. Even you admitted this in your “Day After” video. You’re too emotional. Too trusting. Too blunt.

But you were the best CHARACTER. You’re the best narrator the show has ever had. You play with your back against the wall as well as anyone. And no one – I mean no one – speaks the truth at Tribal the way you do.

I’ve long been of two minds about Survivor’s obsession with Returning Players: It makes sense to exploit the characters that the show helped create, and yet entire seasons can be ruined as returnees run roughshod over the competition. In the end, I judge each inclusion based on the answer to a single question: Why was the player asked back?

Bringing back a guy like Boston Rob is all about marketing: he’s the brand, the icon, the franchise.

Bringing you back, however, is all about entertainment: you’re honest, you’re articulate, and you’re funny as hell.

Redemption Island sucked. This season kicks ass. I think you can guess which player I’m happier got another bite of the apple.

I hate that it ended this way. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t have. Yes, there are things you could have done differently – taken out Pete instead of throwing that random vote at Abi, accepted Lisa and Mike’s final three offer, purchased the challenge advantage at the auction instead of Abi – but in the end, the producers wanted to protect their villain, and you’re the one who paid the price. (Am I certain of that? Of course not. But it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?)

The good news is that this isn’t the end of our relationship: We’ll always have Ponderosa. From what we’ve seen thus far, you’re already shaping the debate. You’re bringing everyone together with rum-fueled board games; heck, even Pete said that the jury is starting to gel. Something tells me that you’re almost single-handedly going to decide who wins this game. Cold comfort, to be sure, but at least it’s something.

I mentioned Boston Rob. As it stands now, he’s the only person to play the game four times. I’ve been rather vocal about how Burnett and Probst should never make that mistake again if they know what’s good for them (and the show).

But you know what? I’m taking it all back. I’d love to see you play again.

Because every season is better with Penner.

Nice job whistling the theme song on your way out,

Baker

2) A lot of people have given Penner grief for not accepting Lisa and Mike’s final three deal – me included – and pointed to that decision as being the primary reason for his elimination. After this week’s episode, though, I think Penner’s downfall was due less to his commitment issues and more to his inability to give Lisa and Mike what they wanted at this point in the game. In the end, the Tandang Tandem didn’t want to be needed – they wanted to be loved.

Let me explain.

As any loyal reader of this column knows by now, I believe that the capacity for empathy is what defines the greatest Survivor players. Castaways need to be able to recognize, and perhaps experience, the emotions of other players if they’re going to excel at the game; to effectively manipulate other people, one has to be able to think, and, more importantly, feel like them.

Making matters even more complicated is the fact that there are endless layers to empathy and social intelligence. To grossly oversimplify things, here are just a few stages of social awareness:

Level I: Complete oblivion. People like this see no reason to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Why bother? Everyone should want to walk in theirs. (Needless to say, this is where Abi resides.)

Level II: Empathy. Being able to imagine what it’s like to be someone else and to recognize the validity of their emotions, reactions, and perceptions.

Level III: Deep empathy. To not only understand the world from someone else’s perspective, but also to be able to see clearly how other people perceive YOU.

Level IV: Empathy akin to love. To so completely comprehend someone else that you are able to understand how they perceive themselves – and, further, that you’re able to see them as they wish to be seen.

*****

One need look no further than Penner’s conversations with Lisa to see that he’s an empathetic guy. When he talked to her about the steep psychological price she paid being a child star, the two of them connected because she felt that he understood her. And, truth be told, he DID.

It is alarmingly difficult to be deeply empathetic all of the time. If you want to read an amazing essay on this topic, I implore you to check out “On Life and Work” by David Foster Wallace – it’s the single most powerful and influential piece of writing I’ve encountered in my life. In it, Wallace explains that we’re all hard-wired to be selfish and self-centered, and that it takes an incredible amount of work to constantly and consistently see beyond ourselves.

For proof of this, one need look no further than Penner; after a month of solid social gameplay, he slipped up twice, and these two errors, I feel, cost him the game:

The Level III Mistake: In his post-game interviews, Penner explained that one of the reasons he turned down the final three offer from Mike and Lisa was that, up to that point, he had played an honest game. He didn’t want to start lying to players – at least, not yet. He thought they would trust him long enough for him to make up his mind about which path to follow.

What Penner needed to realize – and should have been able to figure out – is that the other players did not see him as honest and trustworthy. Given his reputation as “the guy who mutinied” and his undeniable skill as a hustler with an uncanny ability to pull his ass out of the fire, his fellow castaways (Malcolm in particular) figured it was only a matter of time before he turned on them, so they launched a preemptive strike. If Penner had been able to see himself as the other players did, he would have known to pounce on Lisa and Mike’s offer – because otherwise they would have no reason to trust him. And as any castaway worth his salt will tell you, when you reach the final seven, the players you vote out are the ones you don’t trust.

The Level IV Mistake: At Tribal Council, Penner showcased his enviable ability to talk a great game. Do not go to the end with Malcolm and Denise, he argued. You cannot win against them. Like any good Survivor negotiator, Penner articulated why a new alliance would benefit Mike and Lisa (as opposed to why it would be great for HIM): Penner could and would help them eliminate one, and hopefully two, endgame threats. Had he ended there, Penner might have been able to sway the vote.

But he DIDN’T end it there. According to interviews, Penner told Mike and Lisa that they had NO CHANCE TO WIN THE GAME. In essence, he told them, “The bad news is that you’ve already lost. The good news, however, is that you get to choose who wins! By sticking with Malcolm and Denise, you’re handing one of them a million dollars. But wouldn’t you rather help ME? Vote out Denise, we’ll go to the end together, and I’ll be sure to thank you when I’m getting an oversized check on The View.”

Here’s the thing: EVERYONE still in the game thinks he or she can win. Malcolm and Denise know that they’re front-runners, Carter is convinced he can Fabio his way to the title, and yes, even Abi has delusions of grandeur. Mike and Lisa are no different: they earnestly and honestly believe that they’re worthy of the title Sole Survivor.

Knowing this, what Penner needed to say was, “You can’t beat Malcolm or Denise – but you CAN beat me. It would be a battle, that’s for sure. And wouldn’t that be fun?” Instead of reinforcing Mike and Lisa’s internal narratives and affirming their chances to win the game, though, Penner essentially called them losers. He was unable or unwilling to understand how Mike and Lisa perceive themselves, and he couldn’t see them as they wished to be seen.

Just when Penner needed to be at his most empathetic, he showed no empathy at all.

And that, my friends, is why Penner went to Ponderosa.

3) Time for another Survivor Commandment:

Thou shalt not screw up the auction.

Here’s what kills me: Of our final seven, three – Skupin, Lisa, and Malcolm – are avowed Survivor SuperFans who have never missed an episode. Penner, too, should have known his auction history, and I’m guessing that Denise did her homework before leaving for the Philippines. So why is it that only Abi – ABI!!! – was prepared to bid for an Immunity Challenge advantage? It’s RIDICULOUS.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: A player has to approach every event – challenges, rewards, Tribal Councils – as a strategic opportunity. If I’m in the majority, I’m talking with the members of my alliance about how to approach the auction: We have to prepare for the possibility of a clue/challenge advantage. If that means someone has to go hungry to make sure Abi doesn’t buy it, so be it; heck, volunteer and be the hero!

Now, I realize that it’s really easy to sit back and be a Survivor armchair quarterback, and I admit that I don’t know what it’s like to starve for a month and then be tempted with food like bacon and donuts. But when you’re THIS close to the end of the game, and something as dangerous as an immunity advantage (or hidden immunity idol clue) might be up for bid, don’t you HAVE to do something about it? Why leave anything to chance?

If I’m at that auction, I’m not buying anything until I’m sure that Abi doesn’t get the advantage. No doubt I would be tempted – that’s what makes the auction so much fun. But every time I’m about to bid, I’d remind myself of one immutable truth: a million dollars can buy a lot of pancakes.

I don’t care how good it looks – I want to be Sole Survivor.

4) And yet, I wonder if any effort to stop Abi would have worked.

Yep, this is that point in the column when I don my tinfoil hat and share my conspiracy theories. If you believe Probst when he tweets that Survivor isn’t rigged, not even a little bit, then skip ahead to #5. But if you think there MIGHT be some reason to question the integrity of the game, read on.

Let’s start by listing all of the events that transpired this week (most of which I predicted) that make any rational viewer wonder what the @%$& is going on:

  • The Survivor auction arrives just when Abi needs it.
  •  Abi is suddenly game-aware enough to know that an immunity advantage might be sold at the auction.
  • Probst brings out the immunity advantage only after all of the other players have spent some of their money, meaning no one could outbid Abi.
  • The first two stages of the Immunity Challenge are extremely physical, including bags of extra weight.
  • Penner and Carter, while not exhausted, are definitely tired by the time they reach the third stage of the challenge. (Have you ever tried to untie something when you’re winded? I have, back when I was doing triathlons. It’s REALLY hard.)
  • Abi, who is limited by a supposedly balky knee and an overall lack of athleticism, competes in only the third stage of the competition.
  • The third stage of the challenge, coincidentally enough, isn’t physical at all.
  • In fact, all Abi needs to do is to untie some knots – a task which is tailor-made for someone with small fingers.

I honestly don’t know how anyone can look at this sequence of events and say with a straight face, as Jeff Probst tweeted, “Surprised that so many of you think we’d rig the show to save Abi! I was there. No rigging. Just how it goes.”

To be fair, I’m sure that Probst and the other producers don’t believe that what they’re doing is rigging, and to some degree, I can see their point: Any of the other castaways could have bid on and won the immunity advantage, and Abi still had to win the challenge to earn the necklace. But is it so hard to believe that they went out of their way to increase the odds that the villain of the season – the only player left whom they can depend on to create drama back in camp – stuck around for another three days? They’re shaping the game to make the outcomes they’d prefer more likely to occur. It’s manipulation, pure and simple.

But let’s take the producers word for a moment: Let’s say that all of this is happenstance and circumstance, and that, despite all of the smoke, there’s no fire to be found. These people aren’t dumb – as I wrote about in an earlier column, TV producers are, by and large, really smart people – so they’d HAVE to know that all of this would seem suspicious, right? So why even risk the appearance of impropriety?

Hubris. They do it because they can. Because Allison Grodner does it on Big Brother and gets away with it. Because for every viewer who hates it, there are ten who love it. Because it’s a TV show, and we keep on watching, no matter what they do.

I just wish they’d stop.

6) Did any of you notice the Mike Skupin “Hero Shot” at the 46-minute mark in this episode? As the members of Dangrayne are walking along the beach headed towards Tribal Council, the camera pans past Malcolm and rests on Mike – who is at the end of the line – for well over five seconds. He’s bathed in the golden glow of a Philippine sunset as he explains, in voiceover, that he’s trying to decide who should join him in the Final 3.

What intrigues me most about this shot is what the cameraman had to do to get it: he had to slowly walk backwards as Malcolm moved past him, zoom in on Mike, and then backpedal quickly to keep Mike in the center of the shot. To do all of that – while making the most of that warm yellow-orange light – takes a lot of care and coordination. Was it just a happy accident? Or did they really want that shot of Mike?

I find it particularly interesting that the shot included Malcolm, but showcased Mike; if Malcolm were this season’s winner, wouldn’t they have found a shot where the positions were reversed? Just to be clear, I’m sure they film “Hero Shots” for all of the contenders; they just don’t include all of them in the episodes. Remember, everything we see has been chosen by producers and editors who know who wins; players who have no chance to sway the jury simply don’t get moments like this.

My point? If there was any doubt remaining that Skupin is one of the final three, this “Hero Shot” should remove it.

7) Over the last few weeks, many of you have thoughtfully critiqued my support of Skupin, pointing out that there are facets of Skupin’s story that don’t fit in with the prototypical Winner’s Edit. At the risk of annoying you further, I’d like to defend Mike from the most recent criticism of his game, namely that over the past two weeks, he failed to make Another Big Move and take out Malcolm and Denise. While I agree that Mike needs to eliminate one or both of them if he’s going to get to the end with Lisa, I’m not sold that he had to do it already.

Here’s my rationale: Mike has been the swing vote at three Tribal Councils in a row, and here’s who’s joined the jury: Artis, Pete, and Penner. The latter two were threats to win the game (yes, Pete was a contender; had he made it to the end, it would have been as the leader of a majority alliance), and the former hated Mike and wanted him gone. Isn’t Mike better off now than he was immediately post-merge? Of course he is! So why rip into him for waiting on Malcolm? The truth is, Skupin had a long list of targets, and he could only take out one at a time.

If Malcolm or Denise makes it to the final three and beats Skupin, then in retrospect, yes, Mike made the wrong decision. But really, wouldn’t the same have been said if Skupin had kept Penner and/or Pete in the game, and one of them had won? Skupin picked his poison, and, if you ask me, the poison he picked is far less important than the fact that HE GOT TO PICK IT.

Like it or not, everything in this game is flowing through Mike right now: for the past few Tribals, he has had the final say in who stays and who goes. The players who possess that level of power usually have compelling arguments to make at the FTC, don’t they? Yes, there’s still a lot of doubt in Mike’s edit, but if I were you, I wouldn’t bet against this guy.

8) It’s not like Mike is the only potential member of the Final 3 to have his edit infused with doubt: Last week, Denise shouldered much of the blame for the Abi beatdown, and this week she did it again. Given that less than 10% of any given Tribal Council makes it to air, you can be sure that there’s a point and a purpose to everything we see; so why include this shot if not to make Denise look bad? And it didn’t end there: Artis shook his head after Denise took another shot at Abi, and Abi petulantly stuck her tongue out at Denise when the diminutive sex therapist headed for the voting confessional booth.

For the record, I agree with everything that Denise has said about Abi and feel that Denise delivered the brutal truth with a remarkable degree of diplomacy. It’s clear, though, that this entire escapade has been edited to make us wonder and worry about Denise’s chances with the jury. I still think she can win the game, but the producers and editors are definitely doing their best to keep us guessing. And to those who question my line of thinking, I ask you this: Where is Denise’s “Hero Shot”?

9) So, too, are we being invited to question Malcolm’s chances. To be sure, there’s quite a bit of gameplay on the positive side of the ledger:

  • He’s focusing on jury management: He was Abi’s shoulder to cry on when they went to check tree mail.
  • He was thrilled that Abi’s immunity victory gave him the opportunity to take out the bigger threat in Penner.
  • When Penner attempted to sway Lisa at Tribal Council with an emotional appeal, Malcolm countered by saying he knew that Penner wasn’t the only player in Lisa’s heart.
  • He hung onto his hidden immunity idol when it must have been tempting to use it to protect Denise (in case Lisa or Mike flipped).

But there were also several negatives highlighted this week:

  • He was highly dismissive of Mike and Lisa as endgame opponents: usually, that sort of arrogance is only showcased when it’s going to be punished.
  • We’re being shown that Malcolm is at the mercy of Mike’s decisions, not the other way around.
  • Penner labeled Malcolm and Denise as prohibitive favorites to win the game, making the target on Malcolm’s back even bigger than it already was.
  • And once again we are reminded that Malcolm’s biggest “move” is a passive one: He’s really good at not playing his idol. Yes, this means he’s socially aware enough to know where the votes are falling, but until Malcolm plays the idol, wins a challenge, and/or engineers a blindside, he risks being seen as a nice guy who never quite took control of the game.

So can Malcolm win? Sure, he can. But I don’t think he will.

10) One person whose edit I think we can all agree is comprised almost entirely of doubt: Abi. My best buddy Chip reminded me on Sunday of something I meant to write in last week’s column: one reason why Abi is so staggeringly unaware of how she affects other people is known as the “Pretty Person Problem.” Essentially, Abi is attractive enough that no one has yet called her on her B.S., despite being 32 years-old; what now passes for “feisty” would, for someone without her Brazilian beauty, earn her far less complimentary adjectives. Unfortunately for Abi, beauty fades – and attitude endures.

That said, I’ll give her credit for at least attempting to play the game this week. She went into the auction with an agenda – unlike any of the other six castaways – and pulled out an improbably immunity win. While her lie about a fourth hidden immunity idol is laughable, at least she’s trying, right?

If Abi knows what’s good for her, she’ll start selling herself to the two tandems as the perfect F5 swing vote. She could also convince them that she’s an exceptional F3 goat, but that would require a level of self-awareness and negative self-appraisal that she’s incapable of.

Ah, but why bother with such pointless speculation? There is NO WAY that Abi is winning the game. Which is as it should be.

11) Fortunes rising: I’m going to put a twist on this one and say: “Final 2.” It makes sense, right? We’d have a nine-member jury, and we’d start the finale with four players and cut it down to two for the FTC. Personally, I’d love to see this happen.

One thing about the potential for a Final 2 that’s been driving me nuts, though: The players MUST be talking about this, but the producers aren’t showing it to us. Why not? The strategy from this point on is fundamentally different if you’re working towards a Final 3 vs. a Final 2; surely, I’m not the only one who wants to see the players struggle with their decisions based on what they assume is going to happen.

So, which will it be, Final 2 or Final 3? Given how adamant Probst has been about never returning to a Final 2, I’m going to say Final 3. But I really hope I’m wrong.

12) Fortunes falling: Lisa. Let’s do a quick rundown, shall we?

  • Penner said she was a nice lady, but had “… no guts.”
  • She broke a cardinal Survivor Commandment by giving Penner time to scramble.
  • She’s got the game totally backwards: What she says in confessionals – insightful analysis of the game and the players in it – she should be sharing with the members of her alliance, and what she says to her fellow castaways – that she’s not cut out for this game and that it’s too big for her – she should be saving for confessionals.

A few weeks ago, I said that this was Lisa’s game to lose. Well, that’s precisely what she’s done: Lost it.

13) Prediction time: We’re at F6, which means no big moves (thanks to the fear of a tie). The obvious target for the Final Four Alliance (Malcolm, Denise, Mike, and Lisa), then, is Carter: with immunity challenges likely to grow ever more physical, Carter is a threat to run the table and screw up everyone’s Final 3 plans. If he doesn’t win this week, I think he goes home.

I do wonder, though, if Malcolm and Denise would be secretly ecstatic with a Carter victory on Wednesday night. I’m assuming that all bets are off at F5 for the Final Four Alliance; there’s no way that Malcolm and Skupin should remain loyal to one another all the way to F4, because, as the likely targets at that point, they’d end up squaring off in a do-or-die fire-making challenge. Why risk everything on a stack of kindling when you can secure a F5 swing vote instead?

So the question for each of the two tandems is this: Which swing vote will side with THEM? Carter has said in a secret scene confessional that he wants to go to the end with Malcolm and Denise, so they should want Carter to stick around for another week. Abi, on the other hand, despite her affection for Malcolm, would likely side with Mike and Lisa, believing (wrongly) that she could beat them at the FTC.

Having seen a press photo of this week’s immunity challenge, I’m going to predict a Carter victory, followed by an Abi elimination. At that point, Malcolm and Denise will have to believe that they’re in the driver’s seat: If Carter aligns with them, they can take out Mike and Lisa and then make their pitch to the jury. You have to wonder, though, if Carter will realize – thanks to Penner’s proclamation at Tribal Council last week – that no one can beat Malcolm and Denise. If he does, he’s going to help Mike and Lisa take out their opposition – paving the way for the Skupin victory I’ve been predicting for weeks now.

I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but it’s true: This season’s most pivotal player might end up being Carter “Fabio Spicoli” Williams.

Maybe the Mayans were right.

That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter (@GetOnSurvivor) to keep the conversation going!

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