One of the more intriguing psychological realities of the human brain is how we learn to navigate a labyrinth. If you throw a mouse into a maze, it will slowly memorize the path to the prize from start to finish; a mouse simply cannot process the latter two-thirds of the maze until the first part is fully figured out.
Humans are different: Once we have found our way out of the maze, we memorize the end first, then the beginning, and finally put together the murky middle. It makes sense: We lock down those last few moves in our mind, then reconstruct the early decisions, and finish by connecting the two bookends. That’s the power of imagination and the human brain; we don’t have to travel from Point A to Point Z to visualize the alphabetical itinerary in between.
So, what does this have to do with Survivor? Everything. Picture the path to the endgame as a labyrinth. Most, if not all, players will tell you that they can figure out how to avoid the chopping block at the first few tribal councils (work hard, be friendly, don’t snap), and they can all envision what they’d do when they could count all of the remaining players on one hand. It’s the middle of the game that’s a mess: tribe swaps, hidden immunity idols, pre-merge paranoia and post-merge instability.
The five players who remain in the game have managed to find their way through the perilous mid-game portion of the maze and now have only the endgame to navigate. Like a mouse nearing the exit of a maze, the castaways can sense the reward at the end; unlike a mouse, though, these five can envision all of the paths which can get them there. What will determine who finishes first is how well the players choose at these last few twists and turns. Given what we know about this curious quintet, who will emerge from the game and the gauntlet with the million dollar prize and the title of Sole Survivor… and who will be doomed to comparative obscurity?
That’s what I’m about to try to figure out.
First, though, let’s look at the part of the maze that we’ve just completed – aka, the latest episode – and see how the stage has been set.
1) I’m under orders from my wife to be nice to Carter, and I can see why she feels this way: If his confessionals from the last few episodes and his post-game interviews are any indication, Carter’s an affable guy. He was also slightly better at the game than the edit gave him credit for: he was a challenge beast who came up with the brilliant plan a few episodes back to extract all of the puzzle piece bags from the mud (a move the show credited to Penner); some of his secret scenes revealed that he had a solid, if flawed, understanding of Survivor strategy; and he made a persuasive pitch for the tribe to keep him over Abi (using their own rhetoric about respect and keeping the more deserving players in the game).
Lest we forget, though, Carter isn’t quite as “deserving” as he thinks he is: He undermined a potential blindside by asking Penner, “Who should we vote out, Katie or Penner?”; he didn’t think to warn Jeff – his alliance partner – that the tribe was targeting him until Jeff asked him about it; and he wanted to go to the end with Malcolm and Denise (a guaranteed loss) over Penner and Skupin (a possible win). And honestly, the word “deserve” has no place in the game of Survivor until the Final Tribal Council; “I deserve to win,” when said in an opening statement to the jury, is fine… “I deserve to stay,” when uttered at F6, means only one thing: “You really need to go.”
Survivor’s a complex and curious game – strengths are weaknesses and weaknesses, strengths – which is why I love it so. What catapulted Carter to the Final 6 were his physical skills and his genial likability, and these are precisely the reasons he was voted out. Had Carter been more game aware, he would have downplayed his challenge prowess when he didn’t need the necklace, and he would have worked overtime to transform himself in the eyes of his tribemates from a jury threat to an endgame asset.
In the end, Carter wasn’t a great Survivor player. But he is a nice guy.
And while nice guys, contrary to the cliché, don’t always finish last, they rarely finish first.
2) Okay, I’ll admit it: For me, the “Loved Ones Visit” is a highlight of every season. What I find so fascinating about Survivor is how “real” it is; the deeper we get into the game, the more the players are stripped down to who they really are. The loved ones’ visit is both an affirmation of this – the reactions of the castaways are profoundly moving because they resonate with truth and honesty – as well as a reminder that this entire enterprise is a construct: By depriving the players of genuine affection and love, the fundamental source of comfort to all social creatures, and replacing it with paranoia and pain, and then temporarily restoring the natural order of things, we understand just how much we crave connection.
My point? That for a few precious moments of every Survivor season, we get to witness the power of love. And that, for those of us who have become jaded and cynical over time, is priceless.
3) As much as I loved Skupin bear-hugging his son, Lisa collapsing into her brother’s arms, and Denise refusing to let go of her husband, however, I’m now going to undercut any goodwill I earned with #2 and talk about the potential strategy involved with the “Loved Ones Visit.”
Generally speaking, there is a hierarchy to relationships; some connections are simply stronger than others. There is, for lack of a better, more sensitive phrase, a spectrum of affection. A possibly persuasive example: The love parents have for their kids is different – in feel and, perhaps, in depth – than the love they have for one another. Everybody’s pecking order is personal, of course, but if I were to guess at where relationships fall on the spectrum for most people, it would go something like this: Kids trump spouses… spouses trump parents… parents trump siblings… and family almost always trumps friends.
It’s not hard to see how this connects to this week’s reward challenge: Within moments of Probst announcing that the players would be paired with a loved one, and certainly after seeing how each castaway responded when his or her partner appeared, any observant viewer – and strategically savvy castaway – knew who “should” get the reward: Lisa, Mike, and Denise (in that order). I put “should” in quotation marks because this is a complex issue clouded by personal desires: I’m sure Carter would argue that he needed some time with his mother every bit as much as Denise craved affection from her husband.
What to me is beyond doubt, however, is that Malcolm should have known in an instant that there was NO REASON for him to fight for the opportunity to spend time with his brother (whom Malcolm described as a “knucklehead”). It’s a simple and swift, social capital, cost-benefit analysis: By winning, he earns his brother an overnight stay back at camp (that’s it, Probst? Really? Not even going to throw in a picnic?) and the right to pick who else gets to spend time with loved ones (a double-edged sword). By losing – overtly – Malcolm conveys to the other castaways that their needs, in this emotionally charged moment, outweigh his own.
Back to that double-edged sword for a moment, for it is connected to yet another Survivor Commandment: Thou shalt not be the winner of late-game Reward Challenges. As Rob has mentioned on the podcast, you never want to be the one to pick who gets a reward; yes, the players you pick will be grateful, but that is heavily outweighed by the animosity you’ll engender in those who are left out (or behind). I’ll go one step further: Unless Probst goes utterly ballistic, just tell your loved one to throw the challenge and ask whomever wins NOT to pick you. When it comes to a reward challenge like this one – sans once-in-a-lifetime activity and the insulting absence of comfort food – winning is losing and losing is winning.
Just as I explained when I wrote about Survivor Auction strategies in my last column, I’m well aware that it’s easy for me to insist that players need to prioritize strategic gameplay over personal gratification when I’m not the one craving calories and companionship. That said, I’d like to think that, were I ever to play the game, I would be able to view these key moments through the prism of social psychology and make smart choices. Knowing that I’d be susceptible to a moment of weakness, however, when I last filled out my application to be on Survivor (back when they wanted more than 75 words and a video), I listed my buddy Chip as the person I’d want for my “Loved Ones Visit.” (This decision put me in the doghouse with my wife, an avid Survivor SuperFan who, inexplicably, loves me. But I digress.) I picked Chip for a number of reasons: He’s an Eagle Scout, so he could be useful… he understands the game, so he could help me think things through, much like Justice did with Lisa… and, most importantly, he wouldn’t hate me forever if I insisted that we throw the challenge so that I could earn some goodwill from the other players.
Football, so they say, is a game of inches. Survivor, too, is incremental: the outcome can be decided by the smallest of gestures. Names are written down at the end of the Final Tribal Council for any number of reasons, but I can’t think of a more powerful one than this: He allowed me to feel love when love is what I needed the most.
4) Having won the challenge despite the fact that doing so was overtly unwise, Malcolm did manage to redeem himself by choosing the other winners well. He knew he wouldn’t anger Denise with his decision (explained and confirmed in secret scenes), and it accomplished two longer-term goals: It strengthened the final four alliance he and Denise have with Mike and Lisa, while also solidifying his personal relationship with the tandem from Tandang.
I do wonder, though, if the latter result will worry Denise; at this point in the game, Denise has to be asking herself what’s going to happen at the Final 4, assuming the alliance remains intact until then. Would Mike and Lisa take Malcolm to the Final 3 because he gave them the opportunity to share their Survivor experience with their loved ones? One thing Denise can be sure of: Malcolm WILL remind Mike and Lisa of this if he doesn’t win the F4 immunity challenge.
So, as much as Denise appreciates what Malcolm did for their alliance, she must be wondering if he’s locking down his own Final 3 – leaving her on the outside looking in. Thoughts like that are what gnaw at the social fabric of relationships, alliances, agreements. And it is seemingly insignificant slights like this one which inform what I’ve been thinking for weeks now: Denise is going to turn on Malcolm at F4.
Confessionals notwithstanding, when Denise stabs Malcolm in the back – no matter how reluctantly – Malcolm not picking Denise for this reward will be one of the reasons why.
And with that, we have a natural segue from what HAS happened to what WILL. Enough looking back; let’s look forward. Prognostication is always more fun than dissection. We’re nearing the end of the maze, so let’s seek the exit together…
5) I have a question for young Malcolm Freberg: Are you South Pacific Ozzy or are you Redemption Island Boston Rob?
Here’s what I mean:
As Malcolm himself has told us, he’s already guaranteed a spot in the Final 4 thanks to his immunity idol. No matter what happens this week, though, Malcolm is going to be the number one target at F4. He’s too charismatic a player with a story that’s too compelling to let him plead his case to the jury.
Two members of the Survivor Hall of Fame have found themselves in a similar do-or-die situation:
In South Pacific, Ozzy had a huge lead in the final immunity challenge, but choked it away. At the reunion show, the jury members were unanimous: had Ozzy won, he would have been voted the Sole Survivor. (I would have considered his victory a travesty, but that’s immaterial at the moment.)
In Redemption Island, Boston Rob was trailing in the final immunity challenge, but then, cheating with impunity (Probst did nothing to stop him as he copied Ashley’s puzzle), Rob pulled out the victory; at that point, Boston Rob’s coronation was all but complete.
Malcolm heads into the final immunity challenge with one of these two fates awaiting him: he’s either a loser or a legend. Okay, that’s not fair; no matter what happens, Malcolm has played a great game and has earned the right to return. Still, the reality is this: Either Malcolm wins individual immunity, or he’s going to be the last player sent to Ponderosa. Earn the necklace, get the million; lose the challenge, lose the game.
6) Denise’s fate is far more foggy than Malcolm’s; where Malcolm will come in either first or fourth, I can see Denise finishing anywhere between first and fifth. Honestly, I’d give her the best odds of winning the game, even better than Skupin (as surprising as that may sound for those of you who regularly devour the Baker’s Dozen), if not for some nagging concerns I have about her edit:
- For the past three episodes, we’ve been shown Denise ripping into Abi – around camp, in confessionals, as well as at Tribal Council. As I asked last week, why is Denise shouldering all of the responsibility for the entire tribe’s frustration if not to make her look bad? She was at it again this week, when she proclaimed (in response to a leading question from Probst, who is doing Denise no favors) that Abi has no chance to win the game. Interestingly, in the past, we’ve seen the other players, including those on the jury, react to Denise’s comments about Abi. This time, however, we were denied that shot. Why? Was it because they were indifferent? Or because it would reveal too much information regarding how the jury feels about Denise?
- A few Tribal Councils back, Denise defined the parameters of the game as she felt it ought to be played: good players – those who are more “deserving” – should be kept over those who haven’t, for whatever reason, earned their spots. It doesn’t matter that the other players seemingly agreed with her; Denise is the one who articulated this guiding principle, so she’s the one who will be held accountable if she violates her own rules. Of course, that’s precisely what she’s done: By voting out Carter, Denise has turned herself into a hypocrite. If she backstabs Malcolm at the Final 4, the problem gets exponentially worse. Needless to say, Denise will have a lot of explaining to do at the Final Tribal Council, and there’s a pretty good chance she won’t be able to climb out of the hole she’s dug for herself.
- And that, to me, is the biggest question mark regarding Denise: How will she explain her game, her actions, her Survivor self to the members of the jury? By now, I think we all realize that Denise is REALLY good at removing emotion from the equation: her ability to explain Dangrayne’s collective distaste for Abi without indulging in hyperbole or invective is rather remarkable when you think about it. But here, again, a strength can be a weakness: I have a feeling that Denise’s Final Tribal Council performance, assuming she gets to give one, will come across the same way her comment to Lisa the morning after Penner was voted out (“Good job, Lisa”) did; her words will sound – and FEEL – calculated, insincere, and empty. I am sure Denise will be honest and articulate, but I wonder if the jury will believe she’s simply saying what they want to hear. And that, as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, is the kiss of death with just about any jury, bitter or not.
I’ll admit, though, that I don’t know if these are the reasons why Denise doesn’t win, or if they’re simply the seeds of doubt planted by producers so that the outcome of the Final Tribal Council remains in question.
Guess we’ll find out on Sunday.
7) One of the reasons that Denise leaves me cold is that, by contrast, Skupin feels so warm; there are times when Denise seems positively reptilian (I imagine she’ll be paired, visually, with a snake, if she hasn’t been already), while Mike bounces around like an accident-prone golden retriever. When he calls out to Carter’s mom, “Your son is a heck of a guy!” I believe he means it, and when he tells Denise’s husband, “We love your wife – we’ll take care of her!” I can hear the sincerity in his voice. What could easily be construed as blatantly transparent jury management comes across, at least to me, as the words of a genuinely kind person who was caught up in the moment.
This is borne out by the relationship Mike forged with Carter in their relatively short time together; in the same Tribal Council when Denise violated her own rule about keeping good players over bad, Mike referred to Carter as a son and a friend. Is there any doubt whom Carter will vote for if the Final 3 doesn’t include Malcolm? Lock up a second vote for Skupin (RC being the other); he needs only two more to guarantee at least a tie.
As I mentioned last week, I know that there’s plenty to worry about in Mike’s edit – for example, I have no idea what to do with his “Look at the big ant!” moment other than to write it off as a way to get Lisa to stop talking about God’s role in Survivor strategy – but if he gets to the FTC, he’s going to get votes, and that means he’s got a chance (which is more than you can say for Abi and Lisa).
8) If there’s one thing that the “Loved Ones Visit” confirmed for me, it’s that Lisa is doomed to third place. When Malcolm picked Lisa to share his reward, he said something rather revealing: he chose Lisa because the last few days had been really hard on her (and, by extension, on the rest of them). Now, we know that Lisa’s been a mess for much of the game; how bad must she have been in the days leading up to this reward challenge for her emotional fragility to be a condition Malcolm felt the need to remedy? Indeed, how low must Lisa have been, as Probst described in an interview with Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross, to “literally fall into her brother’s arms”?
I think it’s safe to assume that the castaways’ collective perception of Lisa is that she isn’t so much playing the game as she is enduring it. This may not jibe with our understanding of Lisa – her confessionals reveal her to be socially and strategically perceptive – but it doesn’t matter what we see, only what the other players do. And I think Malcolm’s comment is emblematic of Lisa’s status in the game: At this point, she’s a goat.
I will say that, for a few tantalizing moments, I thought I might be wrong about Lisa; after her brother reminded her that she was playing a game in which morals and ethics have only marginal relevance, the editors gave us a shot of sunlight pushing through a blanket of gray clouds. Was this image of divine illumination Lisa’s “Hero Shot,” I wondered? Ah, but I quickly realized that this was little more than an editorial tease; not only wasn’t Lisa in the shot, but the plan she embraced after her enlightenment – her second attempt to blindside Malcolm – failed miserably once again. So what are we to make of that blatantly symbolic image? Here’s my theory: Lisa’s story is about her struggle to reconcile Survivor with her personal belief system. Lisa herself told us that not everyone can win the game; her reward, her victory is what she has learned about herself. She won’t leave the finale of Survivor: Philippines with a million dollars, and I think it’s highly likely that she, like many third place finishers, won’t get a single vote, but she will leave the game much richer, emotionally speaking, than when she began it.
9) I suppose I should talk about Abi for a moment, since everyone else got some air time in this column. Sigh. Fine… I’ll do it in bullet-points:
- How annoying must Abi be for so many solid strategists to consider voting her out over an immunity challenge threat like Carter? As negative a portrayal as Abi is getting this season, I have a feeling that she’s even WORSE in person. She’s an ideal Final 3 goat, and yet no one seems to want to drag her there; the other four remaining players may rationalize voting her out by saying that she doesn’t deserve the honor of being a finalist, but the truth is, they’re just sick of dealing with her $#*@.
- If Abi was the least bit tolerable around camp, the two remaining tandems would be – and SHOULD be – fighting over her. The promo for this week’s episode suggests that Lisa at least considers the possibility of enlisting Abi’s help to take out Denise and then Malcolm, but her enthusiasm seems tepid, at best. There are strategic reasons for this hesitation (more on this in #13), but if I had to guess, she and the others are willing to create a 2-2 tie at the Final 4 in large part because they don’t want to share the final days of this transformative journey with a – to borrow Malcolm’s blunt yet accurate adjective – bitch.
- It infuriates me to no end that Abi – who, had she not been on one of the strongest tribes the show has ever seen, would have had a forgettable
Angie/Roxy/Katie edit – is inevitably going to be invited back to play as a “villain.” I’m sorry, but she’s NOT a villain. Yes, she’s vain, and yes, she makes me ill, but villainy requires strategy, which in turn requires empathy, so she simply doesn’t qualify. I hope that the producers see that Abi outlasting far more capable players like Penner and Jeff Kent is an accident and an aberration, but given the lovingly crafted evil edit she’s received, I’m resigned to seeing her on a future season of Survivor. (ARGH!)
10) Probst Probe: Watching Probst harangue Abi for her pathetic immunity challenge performance this week was both satisfying and unsettling; sure, Abi should be called out for giving up, but did she need to be called out like THAT? He was ripping into her like she had just told him that he looks awful in blue cargo shirts and that his dimples aren’t really all that cute.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how difficult it must be for Probst to keep players from punting a challenge once they’ve fallen way behind. Indeed, there are any number of ways the players can try to game the system – not answering honestly at Tribal Council, making preemptive reward challenge deals about who will take whom, even colluding on food auction prices – and Probst has to find ways to counteract all of them. No small task, that.
So, while I don’t condone Probst’s tone, I do understand where he’s coming from. The cast members agreed to be part of a TV show, so if one of them refuses to provide entertainment, Probst will manufacture some by tearing that player apart. I can’t say I enjoy it, but I’m guessing that a significant percentage of the Survivor audience does.
11) Fortunes falling: As I mentioned in #5, Malcolm is an all-or-nothing character at this point. He should have a distinct physical advantage at the F4 immunity challenge; the only player even close to him, athletically, is Mike. (Of course, Ozzy lost to Sophie, so anything is possible.) So will it be all, or will it be nothing? Given how much I’ve enjoyed Malcolm this season, I’d love for it to be all – but I think it will be nothing. He’ll finish in fourth place – his recent confessional over-confidence all but guarantees it – but he’ll have a nice consolation prize: he’ll be this season’s Sprint Fan Favorite (great call, Glenn Holford).
12) Fortunes rising: For all of my worries about Denise’s edit, I still put her FTC chances right up there with Skupin’s. Her post-merge narrative has been surprisingly quiet, especially when compared to her high-profile presence over the first half of the season (although one could argue that her early edit was out of necessity due to the annihilation of Matsing), but she’s a well-respected, well-rounded player who will have a compelling rags-to-riches tale to tell the jury. I’m not ready to hand her the million dollars quite yet, but with every passing episode, she has emerged as the only player (other than Malcolm) who can beat Mike.
13) Prediction time: As the obvious swing vote, there is zero chance that Abi is going home this week.
And yet, that’s exactly what will happen. Here’s why:
Before the immunity challenge, Mike and Lisa have to keep Malcolm and Denise focused exclusively on Abi as the enemy; should Denise win individual immunity, or should Malcolm win it and give it to her, both of the former Matsing members will be safe from the vote. At that point, the only available target will be Abi… or Mike and Lisa.
If Malcolm and Denise suspect that Mike and Lisa were willing to betray their Final 4 agreement, why wouldn’t they enlist Abi – who has to vote for Mike or Lisa anyway – to take out Skupin?
I’m guessing Mike knows all of this and thus won’t seriously entertain the possibility of teaming up with Abi until he knows for certain Denise doesn’t have individual immunity. But it is HIGHLY likely that she will have the necklace; if the challenge is at all physical, only she, Malcolm, and Skupin have a shot, and Malcolm could very well let her win (or otherwise grant her immunity by giving her the necklace or their “shared” immunity idol).
Anyway, if Mike and Lisa don’t turn on Malcolm and Denise, there’s really no reason Malcolm and Denise should turn on them. Why not? Because I’m sure they both think they can beat Mike and/or Lisa in the finals.
There are a lot of other factors in play here, as well:
- Instead of this Final 5 being about who can convince Abi to join them, it’s really about the players answering one important question: Which tandem thinks they can get the other to crack? Personally, I think Mike and Lisa believe they can get Malcolm and Denise to turn on one another. Who can beat Malcolm? Denise! Who can beat Denise? Malcolm! They are each other’s doubt, and as such – unless they privilege loyalty over victory – they should be each other’s biggest targets.
- Given the bond between Mike and Lisa, I have a feeling that the guiding principle for their endgame strategy is straightforward: How can we get to the Final Tribal Council TOGETHER? With that in mind, if Mike and Lisa were to team up with Abi to take out Denise, they’d have to worry about how Malcolm would react. If Malcolm won individual immunity at F4, wouldn’t he grab Abi and target Skupin out of spite? For Mike and Lisa to betray Malcolm and Denise is to lower their odds of getting to the end together, and I’m guessing that’s something they’re not willing to do.
- So, too, would Malcolm (and possibly Denise) have to worry about what would happen if he and Denise joined forces with Abi to blindside Mike at F5. Who would Mike and Lisa blame? Probably Malcolm – which means he’d be down two jury votes for a move he didn’t need to make. In other words, this isn’t going to happen.
- And finally, setting aside strategy for a moment, perhaps my wife is right: she insists that Mike and Lisa are simply keeping their word and trying to create a worthy Final 4. While I believe my wife may be on to something – I agree that Mike and Lisa don’t have a diabolical bone between them – this view, I feel, doesn’t give any member of the Final Four Alliance enough credit. Malcolm, Denise, Mike, and Lisa all have to believe that their chances to win are higher with the alliance intact than they would be with a F5 betrayal – otherwise, they simply wouldn’t do it.
And that’s why I think Abi is going home.
14) As many of you ever-so-gently pointed out, I failed to include a #5 in my last column – so I owe you one. Here it is. Obviously, this week is going to be crazy on the Survivor front: a regular episode on Wednesday, with the finale on Sunday. I’m going to write an abbreviated column after the penultimate episode (ETA: Friday afternoon), and then I’m heading to L.A. for finale weekend (I don’t yet have a ticket to the actual event at CBS, but I’m still trying). Not sure when my final Survivor: Philippines column will be posted – probably mid-week – but I’ll hopefully have some compelling anecdotes, and perhaps a few photos, to share from the City of Angels and the finale afterparty.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – leave me a comment below or hit me up on Twitter (@GetOnSurvivor) to keep the conversation going!