Each week Christian Williams reflects on the major themes, the key points, and the anecdotes from the latest episode of Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers in Diplomatic View. He also responds to your comments and discusses your talking points. Diplomatic View should post on Sunday mornings or as early as Saturday evening.
Diplomatic View: Sometimes, You’re Not Pretending to Be Crazy
Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers
(For a primer on the kind of things you’ll be reading this season on the Diplomatic View, and how Survivor correlates to another great game, check out the introductory article from my first season writing at RHAP).
While ‘What Survivor Contestants Should Know’ is the realm of David Bloomberg, there is one particular lesson that falls squarely within the realm of the Diplomatic View, and it’s one that we got a recent reminder of on Survivor’s indoor cousin: Big Brother. The key factor Survivor has in common with Big Brother that many players still underestimate is that, in the end, your defeated opponents have all of the power in the game. This season of Big Brother featured a runner-up who dominated that game like nearly no one before him, was never in danger of going home and manipulated nearly every single event in the house, and he lost the game because he betrayed one person too many. There is a fairly long list of notables in Survivor who suffered this fate, including two players who would score wins in Parvati and Boston Rob, as well as the father of the scorched earth campaign, Russell Hantz.
Personally, I have to confess that I find bitter juries tiresome. As far back as Farmer Tom, the issue hasn’t been a case of the person being angry because they were betrayed; the person is at least in part angry because they didn’t pull the trigger on a betrayal first. It’s easy to forget that everyone is playing the game to win and to turn your hurt at your loss into a moral stand against evil and perfidy. It’s natural to try to ease the sting of hurt pride and to make sure that at the very least the person who beat you doesn’t win… but where is the fun in that? While I understand why Paul lost, and I understand why Alex felt burnt by his actions, there’s a bitter taste in my mouth when the puppet wins the game.
I do expect we’ll see the Big Brother rules change next season. Josh found an extremely effective way to turn the jury against Paul by revealing his deceit in the departure videos. Paul had no way of knowing it was happening, and no way to rebut until it was far too late. Much like the sequester change after Danielle Reyes’ loss, where her diary videos were held against her, I expect Big Brother will change the rules to keep those videos from being so effectively weaponized in future.
But, back to the show we’re all here for. What I always find interesting in Survivor is… Well, let’s be honest… Almost everything about the game fascinates me and there isn’t a week that I don’t find some point of minutiae to dwell upon, but we’re friends here so let’s pretend that it’s the first time I’ve written that particular phrase, shall we? What I always find interesting about Survivor’s branded seasons is how players who may or may not fit the role that they’ve been cast in approach the game. Sometimes you’ll have theoretically smart players do absolutely insane things on the ‘Genius’ tribe, lazy people on the ‘Blue Collar’ tribe, and all manner of odd decisions from self-described ‘Heroes’ or ‘Villains’.
There are some players who are bound and determined to fit their story to the narrative. While people are more willing to call themselves a healer, or a hustler, there just aren’t that many people willing to step up and say, ‘I’m a Hero.’ Six to nine days on the island, under that tribe’s banner, will be enough to have some of these players calling themselves that for the rest of the game. The danger to players is that being labelled a ‘Hero’ doesn’t give you any more of an advantage than being labelled a ‘Brain’ made members of that tribe good at puzzles. Players need to realize quickly that, if they want to be successful in this game, the important thing about the tribe is not the letters on the flag, it’s the two to three people on their current tribe they can work with long-term in the game.
I don’t hate theme seasons the way some others do, but I think there are downsides. When players attach too much significance to their ‘role’, they can get themselves into trouble, because the other players on the island really don’t care about their inner journey. We certainly get a fair amount of forced symbolism, and a bit more emphasis on maudlin backstories, which aren’t my favorite parts of the game. The weakness that irks me the most about these themed seasons is the three starting tribes, particularly in a game with all newbies.
Three starting tribes almost requires a tribe switch two to three weeks into the game unless the producers are willing to risk one tribe getting death-marched until the merge. Since no one wants to see that, they’ll have to shake things up, either by shuffling the three tribes or merging them into two. Whatever week that tribe switch happens, is essentially day one, part two and all the playing pieces get thrown into the air again.
Admittedly, this means a player on the outs with their initial tribe gets a second chance in the game, which is definitely a good thing. But it also makes the beginning of the game far more reliant on luck and chance, instead of successful gameplay. You can be the mastermind of your alliance but end up on a new tribe with the one person who was on the outs originally… and you’re going to likely go home. The scrambling and the action can make for great television, but I’m always a little sad when a player ends up in a bad position because they chose the wrong buff.
Looking forward to talking with you all as the season progresses.
Random logistics note: Did they Chopper Probst in, and is that the Pirate Master boat?
Initial Scramble: Listening to Probst isn’t that important.
While Probst will have some interesting things to say, and your fellow castaways may give out interesting tidbits about themselves as they respond, the most important thing a player can do at this phase of the game is figure out what supplies they want to grab. While several of the players did a yeoman’s job of throwing things overboard… overboard is where they remained by the time the bell rang. Teams needed to decide quickly if they were going to go for the fire or go for as many supplies as possible. If they wanted to go for the fire, then grabbing one item and moving out was the thing to do. If they wanted supplies, passing things off to people in the water made sense. Randomly throwing crates of bananas into the water was neither effective nor efficient.
Two Tales of One Idol: Chrissy Misses Her Chance
Clearly, the producers hear the general outcry at the number of immunity idols and advantages in the game, because they added a new wrinkle. This one is the direct opposite of the legacy advantage, which guaranteed that one player would be immune at critical junctures of the game. Instead, the super-immunity idol has an immediate expiration date, which means there is only so much that it can accomplish. It can buy safety for a week for someone who was immediately on the outs, or it can give a player a chance to disrupt early alliances. Whether the latter use case would ‘stick’ once the immunity threat was gone is anyone’s guess, but it’s a possibility.
Chrissy was handed this power after her tribe lost immunity and did, essentially, nothing with it. I fully acknowledge that she may have spoken with other members of the tribe and received assurances that she wasn’t going home because Katrina was, etc. In fact, I’m going to assume that all of that happened, without any secret scenes to reinforce it. Then you have to look at the tribal council, and her getting a chance to use the idol effectively.
Regardless of the health of the four-person hero tribe alliance, at the tribal council it was clear that a) there is one, and b) she isn’t part of it. That means Katrina represents a number that might be willing to side with her (and having saved her, that loyalty would have been cemented)… and she let that number walk off the beach. Is there a chance that using the idol to save Katrina and send Ashley home would have gotten her booted next? Definitely. That chance is roughly the same as the odds that now that Katrina is gone they’ll send Chrissy home next.
On a different side of that equation, saving Katrina and eliminating Ashley would have made her part of a ‘power’ duo on that tribe, needing to sway just one person in order to take control. Maybe JP wouldn’t have been willing to forgive her… but maybe if she made a point of how Alan kept saying that Ashley was dangerous and the pair were poised to take over, JP would have been more than willing to team up to make sure Alan goes next. Maybe they could have convinced the Cowboy that Alan wasn’t worth his loyalty… There were a world of possible outcomes where she has more control. Now her hope lies in being courted as the swing-vote vote, a position that historically has sent several players swinging home instead of to safety.
Two Tales of One Idol: Ryan Doesn’t Throw Away His Shot
It’s odd that the best use of an evaporating idol goes to the player who gave it away, but that’s clearly the case for Ryan this week. He did two things with the idol that were brilliant in my book, and generally makes me re-consider my pre-season take that he was a dead man walking. Sharing the presence of the idol with Devon, and promising that he’d use it to make sure Devon didn’t go home was the emptiest of gestures. All that separated it from an empty plastic bag was an emo high school film director obsessively taping it floating in the breeze. Devon is the kind of player who lent that empty gesture a fair amount of weight. Promising to save Devon, even though he never had to (or could) exercise that power, turned him into Devon’s bro. Whether that brodom will hold up under fire is anyone’s guess, but it’s a strong start for Ryan.
The other part of Ryan’s idol play, knowing he had to give the idol away, was whom he chose to give it to. The best chance of seeing that idol used was to give it to a person who would likely be targeted by their tribe. So Ryan gave the idol to Chrissy, who we all saw vomiting after the challenge. He was correct that her name would likely be on the list of targets, so giving her the idol had a reasonable chance of having an impact. If she had ended up using the idol, a strong player would likely have gone home, gaining an advantage for his tribe. As it turns out, that didn’t happen, but you have to give credit to Ryan for seeing the obvious best play and taking that shot.
It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: Alan’s and the Atlanta Falcons
It’s rare that someone in Survivor encapsulates the problem with their game so quickly in one of their first interviews, without them saying something like ‘I am the next (Insert Bad Player Here).’ Alan did that fairly effectively when he talked about sprinting out of the blocks in the game, a description that seems to accurately describe how he’s playing the game so far. It’s not sustainable, and it’s almost certain to result in him making my pre-merge elimination predictions come true.
To use a football analogy, what Alan is doing is similar to what the Atlanta Falcons did in the most recent Super Bowl. They played excellent, high-energy, overwhelming defense, that kept the Patriots offense on its heels. By the fourth quarter, the players were tired, they started making bad decisions, the defense collapsed, and the Falcons allowed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. Alan is doing that… except he transitioned to making extremely bad decisions, very quickly.
His initial play was great, making sure that he was part of the alliance that coalesced on the hero tribe, coming together with the other physically challenging players, while still being friendly with the people on the outskirts of his tribe. It’s a low bar to clear, but we’ve seen plenty of players treat Survivor like a 3-day vacation and not start looking for allies until they’re heading to tribal for the first time. Everything part of Alan’s game after that was bad: bad choices, bad execution, all piled on top of a bad foundation. He’s built a rickety house and will have to do a lot of work to fix it up.
Taking his confessionals at face value, Alan’s plan appears to have been to make sure that when their alliance of four finally broke down, the other players would see JP and Ashley as a bigger threat than himself and Cowboy. This would make it easier for him and his allies to then ally with other players and send Ashley and JP home. There are several problems with this approach, especially at this phase of the game.
First of all, what audience is Alan playing to? Cowboy is his ally, JP and Ashley are his targets, so he’s playing to an audience or Katrina and Chrissy, one of whom will be their first target if they lose immunity. He’s putting two members of his alliance on edge, to win points with one player… whom he can’t be sure will find his bout of craziness all that compelling.
Secondly, unless Alan is planning for the Heroes to lose the second immunity challenge and is planning to turn on JP and Ashley at that time, no amount of ‘putting a target’ on them within the tribe has any value whatsoever, since the tribes will shake up soon enough. What it does mean is that when the tribes shake up, he’ll have added an element of doubt in the minds of both JP and Ashley, which makes them open to finding new allies who don’t require them to rely on Alan’s mercurial nature.
Thirdly, and most importantly, all of Alan’s theatrics at camp can be boiled down to him yelling at JP and Ashley ‘I Don’t Trust You’ as loud and as long as he can. Trust, like respect, is a two-way street. If you continually accuse someone of being untrustworthy and hiding something from you, they will naturally decide you’re untrustworthy and consider their options to go forward with someone else. Hell, even Cowboy, looking at Alan’s behavior at tribal council, has to wonder if he’s saddled the wrong horse.
If Alan had actually decided that JP and Ashely were untrustworthy, he should have pulled the trigger pre-tribal, pulled in Katrina and Chrissy as allies, and voted out JP or Ashley. If Alan didn’t think it was the case (and as he told us, he was basically making things up out of nothing) then absolutely none of what happened in this episode served a purpose other than making JP strip and making his tribemates think that Alan has issues.
His game is far from irrecoverable, but he’s burning a lot of diplomatic capital right now, and it’s going to no good end.
- The Immunity Challenge was… weird. I’m not sure what the point of the cart part was, other than the producers saying ‘You still have the glow of several days spent in pre-production; we need to dirty you up’.
- The Amazing Race has what we call ‘Reckless vs Chicken’ detours, where players have the choice between something ‘dangerous’ but fast, and something completely safe but slow. The maze boards were a Survivor equivalent. The straight line ‘maze’ seemed to be the hardest, but a closer look showed that it was by far the easiest in terms of the # of moves it took to complete. Loved that part of the challenge.
- Of the various marooning methods, I think the boat is the hardest on the Survivor, particularly when they don’t get rafts that are attached right there. So many supplies just get littered into the sea, instead of going to the beach with contestants.
- Joe Mena is like Tony but without the subtlety.
- What are the odds that Jeff climbed the mountain for the opening, rather than being settled there gently by helicopter? These are the things I wonder about, just like I keep hoping we’ll get a travel montage from the island final tribal council to the studio… I miss those.
Closing Points and Looking Ahead
I firmly believe that in either week 3 or 4 we’ll have a tribal shake-up, which means next week may be the final week for the current tribemates to bond. The two ‘couples’ on the Hero tribe should begin courting Chrissy, if only to make sure the other group doesn’t… and we should get more time with the rest of this cast to get a feel for what they’ve got going in the game. I’m looking forward to sharing another season of Survivor with all of you, and I’ll see you in the comments!