Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: Loose Is Fast, but on the Edge of Out of Control

Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.

Diplomatic View:  Loose Is Fast, but on the Edge of Out of Control

Survivor Game Changers: Loose Is Fast, but on the Edge of Out of Control

While I only write about Survivor on the Diplomatic View, I’m also a big fan of The Amazing Race. One of the basic tenets of that show is that ‘You Have To Read The Clue’, pretty much every season of the race sees one team making a massive, if not fatal, mistake by misreading a clue costing themselves vital time and often sending themselves tumbling out of the game. It’s not something that comes into play all that often on Survivor, since there are far fewer cases where a competitor has to spend a lot of time reading… but as we saw this week when it does happen it can be killer.

This has, legitimately, been one of the oddest seasons in memory but it’s also been oddly fulfilling. We’ve seen pretty much every possible scenario play out at final tribal council, many of them things we haven’t seen before. While some would dispute the bonafides of some of these players as ‘game changers’, we certainly can’t dispute that no players in Survivor history were as able to seize control of tribal council and leave Jeff Probst stunned, speechless, and an observer at tribal council. So why should the tribal council in the penultimate episode be any different?

When this season started, we talked about what player would make ‘the leap’ and distinguish themselves from what they did in their first season. My go-to example for this is always Parvati whose first game play was quite shallow, if you’ll pardon the pun, and who truly took the game in hand in later seasons. In our preview of the season when reviewing the list, I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out who would make that jump this season. I will be the first person to admit that I didn’t pick Sarah as the person who would make the leap. In my defense it’s a hard target to pick out, and it seemed like there were better candidates.

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Michaela in her original game, seemed to be in touch with events in her tribe and to have a good feel for strategy. It was that feel for strategy that convinced one of her allies to blindside her, and it seemed like she might be able to play a quieter game and get farther. Similarly, Zeke played an interesting game dependent on voting blocs and it seemed like he could, with a tighter core alliance, go farther in the game with a refinement of that strategy.  Andrea, before this season, had a front row seat for some very effective players and seemed prime to pull those strategies together into something great. But none of that happened. In her initial season I wasn’t that impressed with Sarah, and in the lead in for this season I didn’t find her interviews compelling. I honestly thought she’d learned the wrong lesson from Tony.

The other possibility was that a more seasoned veteran would take control of the game, either Tony putting on a tour de force, Brad  Culpepper improving his social game, or Sandra ‘Anyone but me’-ing her way to another title. While Brad still has a chance to win the game, it will be less on the strength of his gameplay, and more on the strength of his allies’ idols and how the play of his opponents has positioned him to move forward. As for Cirie, she had a better chance to win the game before this week’s latest tribal council oddity, but I have no idea why these players are letting her get so dangerously close to presenting a case at final tribal. She’s an extremely dangerous player and while I’d like her to win if I was one of these returning players I would not have left her in place.

I will concede that I didn’t see Sarah’s leap coming. There is no doubt that the most-improved title is hers, but there’s no guarantee that she’s going to win the game as other leaping players have… and her leap isn’t perfect, because the situation is extremely muddled currently. There are two major factors that put a win at risk for her: first her appearance in the finals is still far from guaranteed, and if she gets there a lot of people on the jury will be very unhappy with her.

Of the two, at first glance, the first would seem to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome. If you draw lines of loyalty between all of the various players you’ll get a cat’s cradle that’s almost impossible to untangle… yet a lot of those lines ran through Sarah to this point, and Sarah has a lot of advantages going her way. She’s a strong challenge competitor, she has social ties to almost every player left in the game, and she is guaranteed to make it pass the next tribal council and into the final five. Those waters will be much more difficult to navigate.

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Before this week, there was a relatively smooth path to the final five since Sarah, Aubry, Michaela, Andrea, and Cirie had the numbers… though they had to suspect there was an idol (or 3) floating out there as well.  They had a five to three advantage, and Sarah wasn’t without advantage ammunition of her own. Now the landscape has completely changed, and it’s difficult to say who will have the power coming out of final six. While the days of quietly eliminating everyone on the other side may have been bad for those at the bottom of their alliance, that was because they gave players a degree of certainty as they got to the end. The new style of Survivor play, focusing on the math at final tribal, and eliminating threats, has created a situation where the alliance Sarah initially flipped on has control of the game.

All of which honestly prompts the question of whether Sarah actually flipped on that alliance at all. I’ve been wrangling with the question since Wednesday as to whether Sarah was always vaguely working with Brad and his cohort, eliminating Sierra, Andrea, and Zeke along the way. The only reason I lean against that being the case, is that eliminating Cirie, not Michaela should have been the final play of that master plan. The only reason you target Michaela this week is that she’s a legitimate immunity threat, and you want to avoid the complication that represents.

On the one hand you have a Kaysersoze level master plan. On the second hand, if Sarah was working with Brad and their group, why steal Tai’s vote? On the third hand, if any of what happened at tribal was really a surprise… why didn’t Tai use one of his idols? On the fourth hand, it pretty clearly seemed that Sarah laid a trap for Cirie to get her to make a misplay as a test of loyalty, didn’t it?

That tribal council would make the most sense, if Tai, Brad, Troyzan, and Sarah came into it with a plan to eliminate Michaela and everything else was theatre. I’m just not certain I give any of the players involved that much credit for their acting ability. I’m leaning towards, ever so slightly, that what happened was Sarah making the decision in the spur of the moment to vote off Michaela as the safest possible option at a confusing tribal council, buoyed by the knowledge that she is 100% safe at the next one. I will not be at all surprised if a secret scene surfaces that shows just how wrong I am.

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I find myself thinking one of two things is the case, either Sarah is playing at such a high level that she has an end-game in mind that I simply don’t understand… or she’s spent too much time dancing on the wire and has made a potentially fatal misstep. It’s interesting that we as viewers have perfect information and are tempted to judge players based on what we know, forgetting that their information is imperfect. This is one of the few cases where, regardless of where on the range Sarah’s information lies, I’m not certain of the recent decisions she’s made.

It’s possible that Sarah is keeping Aubry and Cirie around as obvious boots that the other players have to insure don’t make it to final, which would explain why she removed Michaela this week. With them in the game, even without her idol, Sarah is likely to be safe for at least two votes. If she thinks she can beat Troyzan and Tai in a vote, all she has to do is engineer the ouster of Brad and she’s got perfect numbers.  The problem for her is that Brad has every chance to win immunity at final four, and if he does, then Sarah is gone.

It’s also possible that Sarah does see Cirie as an ally, and that’s why she kept her in the game thinking they’ll work together moving forward. If so, that’s a misstep, since at best they now have even numbers. That also discounts that Cirie is likely to be unhappy that Sarah didn’t trust her and that they wasted a chance to get a bigger threat out of the game. In looking back through the season, I think Sarah is playing a very loose game… which has the benefit of being flexible, fast and responsive… but means at any given time she’s on the verge of losing control of the game.

It may simply come down to Sarah having settled on a game mode that I’m simply not comfortable with, so I’m not capable of judging it’s virtues. I see her making a lot of moves but putting herself in a position where, like Zeke last season, she doesn’t have locked down control that gets her to the finals. Partly, that’s a version of Tony’s game, which worked for him thanks to Woo… while it’s fast, it’s definitely not safe. Speed can be its own form of stability, balance coming by virtue of inertia… but one wobble, one bump, and down you go. I’ve always been a fan of a slower game, where you make the moves at exactly the right times, and stay in control.

As for the second major factor: Can Sarah win? I’ll get more into that in the key points section where I break down everyone’s chances.

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Cirie this week, fumbled a bit, which drastically hurt her chances going forward… the ironic part of it was that she did it in an attempt to actually help Sarah. We’ve seen many players fumble in the game, some of whom Cirie helped make their mistakes, but it’s rare that we’ve seen someone fumble while trying to help another player. I’ve enjoyed watching Cirie this season, it’s good to have her back and her gameplay has been quite good… but the last tribal council was a disaster for her. She was exposed as scheming, she misplayed the advantage, and her vote was nowhere near the intended target. It’s in the realm of possibility she knew what was coming and used her vote for Aubry as a smokescreen to keep Michaela’s jury vote, but that’s not the feeling I got. I also find myself questioning the Andrea vote, in that I think Andrea was a dangerous player… but waiting one more vote would have given Cirie a bit more control, so that the advantage kerfluffle may not have needed to happen.

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Sorry there was no article last week, so no Disqus. But I will be back next week in my post-season wrap-up.., and I’ll include one then.

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Key Points in Episode Eleven: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

So we’re down to the final six… and I’m going to walk through each of them and look at their current spot in the game, their path to victory, and what I think their chances are.

Aubry

To be clear, Aubry should be a Survivor winner. I have nothing against Michele, or Michele’s game, but the primary reason Aubry isn’t a previous champion is that her jury was a little bitterer than the current average. Aubry played a great strategic game, she faced the challenge of having multiple key allies being removed from the game, and at a key moment she cracked Tai away from his alliance. Aubry hasn’t been in the game this time, though not for her lack of trying. Aubry has been part of various power blocks but, much like with Andrea, those people have viewed her with caution. It will be extremely hard for Aubry to argue a gameplay vote, which means her best bet is to get to a final with Tai and Troyzan (be prepared to hear that a lot). Even then, she would have had to engineer the ouster of Brad, Cirie, and Sarah… and I don’t think she has the tools for that this game.

Tai

Let’s be honest, I love Tai, he’s funny, heartfelt, and earnest… but he’s not a great player of the game of Survivor. He’s a great challenge competitor, he’s great at finding idols, and he’s been part of some really interesting moments… but he doesn’t seem to have a plan for the game that survives a conversation with the next person he talks to. He has every chance of making it to the final tribal council, but I can’t see him getting votes to win the game except from the most bitter jurors. His best case scenario would likely be to end up at final with both Brad and Sarah, giving him a chance to carry all the bitterest jury votes and having them split the gameplay votes. Even that’s a scenario that doesn’t get him to the win, though.

Troyzan

 I wasn’t super impressed with Troyzan previously. I remember him being extremely bitter about the women who ousted him from the game and, essentially, pouting his way off of the island. This season, other than finding his idol, Troyzan has just been there. He’s been a number, he’s been a vote, and he’s been loyal to Brad since they bonded. I don’t think Troyzan has an argument he can make that would persuade the jury to vote for him, and unlike Tai, he’s not as likeable, either.

Cirie

Now we’re getting to the people who have the chance to win, without some seriously odd machinations and jury mechanics. I sincerely want Cirie to get a chance to make her case in front of the jury… but these players should not let that happen, by any means. Up until this week, Cirie seemed to have a great deal of control and was in a strong position. Her position is weaker now, and her fumble at tribal may hurt her but it’s also a humanizing moment that might sway people towards her as well. Cirie has also been spending a lot of time operating under the radar. She doesn’t have blood on her hands to the extent Sarah does, but she can claim her share of big moves that sent jury members to Ponderosa.

I do think Sarah can beat Cirie, as this season’s jury doesn’t look to be extremely bitter, but Cirie’s resume might get her more credit. Also, the jury might take points away from Sarah for going to the end with Cirie. I think Cirie can simply beat Brad, in part because she’s perceived to have more control of the game, and in part because of the resume. Outside of the TnT (Tai and Troyzan) tribal council scenario, her best shot is likely Troyzan and Brad; however, none of the potential jury scenarios really rule a victory out for her, unless they put her on the jury like they should do.

The problem for Cirie is that she’s extremely unlikely to make it to the final. At final 6, there will be four immunity idols in play. Sarah will have hers to use, Tai has two, and Troyzan has one. Add to that an immunity challenge to win, which Cirie is unlikely to do. Given that Sarah has to use her immunity idol now, we’re likely to see a domino effect, her idol drawing out at least one other idol, if not two or three. If Aubry wins immunity, it’s entirely possible that we will see every single other player in the game safe, and Cirie going home. As capable as Cirie is at getting her way and talking people around, she can’t talk the producers into changing those rules.

Brad

Brad has played a better social game this time around. If it wasn’t for Sarah’s gameplay, I’d say that he had made the largest improvement from one game to the next. He’s also in a good position to make the final tribal, since he’s aligned with players holding three immunity idols. The biggest obstacle for Brad is the jury. If Brad goes to final tribal with Cirie, he loses. If he goes to final tribal with Sarah, he may very well lose as well. He almost has to go with TnT, with the potential of also beating Aubry depending on how they get there.

Brad has to start making his case to the jury now, which means he has to take over the game. If he and Sarah are working together, the credit will almost certainly go to Sarah as it currently stands. For Brad, the optimal solution is removing the distaff contingent of the merged tribe, barring that he needs to bolster his argument against Sarah or Cirie by demonstrably taking control of the game.

Sarah

Officer Sarah, this season’s Most Improved Player has a case against every single member of the current final six. Much like Cirie there is no scenario where she has zero chance of winning, except for her being on the jury. She’s immune at the final six tribal council, and is a reasonable challenge threat. While she’s been a key player in much of this season, she doesn’t have the resume of a Cirie, so while Cirie is in the game, she’s likely to not be the primary target of other players.

The problem for Sarah is that Cirie may not be in the game for long. Cirie has a very good chance of finding herself taking the walk of elimination. If that happens, Brad would have to be a complete fool not to target Sarah immediately. While Sarah is a challenge threat, Brad, Troyzan and Tai are equally capable and I feel she’ll have to win every immunity challenge after final six, in order to make her case in front of the jury. If she does get to make that case, she has a great shot at winning.

The key component of this is how kumbaya the jury members have been at Ponderosa. These are players that know they’ve been deceived and blindsided and they seem fairly impressed with the people who did that to them. Andrea specifically called out how well Sarah is playing the game (while also giving Cirie primary credit for sending her home). That jury, assuming their attitudes hold through the remaining six eliminations, is unlikely to vote against her just because they’re angry… and should be receptive to any arguments that she makes at final.

That might be key here, and is why I’d be fascinated by a Cirie / Sarah pairing in the final (which Sarah should not allow). Sarah has masterfully controlled the information she gives out at tribal, she’s controlled in answer to Jeff’s questions, and she doesn’t let unwanted information slip. More than that, she’s also quite well-spoken. I don’t think Sarah will be rattled in the face of hostile questioning, I think she’s played a good (if flawed) game, and if she wins, she’ll be a deserving victor.

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Closing Points and Looking Ahead

The concern I have for this season, is we may end up with a Brad, Tai and Troyzan final three. That would be extremely unsatisfying but is the most likely scenario at this point. Regardless of whether Sarah had a master plan with Brad, he shouldn’t look to take her to the end. Cirie is a dangerous player but is unlikely to have protection if she doesn’t have the numbers. Aubry is powerless even within her alliance. There is a very good chance that we end up with a Brad, Troyzan, and Tai final three… and that Culpepper wins the game.

If so, I’ll certainly give him kudos… but it will be the worst possible result, given how Sarah played and the other elite players who made it to the final eight.

This is always the toughest week as a Survivor fan. The most packed episode of the year is coming up and it will give us our winner… but it’s sad as well because it means the season is about to end. Unlike last year, I’ll be doing a season wrap-up article this year and unpacking my take on the jury, the winner, and probably the reunion as well.

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