Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: There Will Be Blood, Either Way

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: There Will Be Blood, Either Way

Survivor: Game Changers – There Will Be Blood, Either Way

I’ve said before that Survivor isn’t a meritocracy– you don’t get points for previous game play or good decisions. But every now and again, the producers buck that model by opening up the door to a full (or partial) slate of previous contestants, generally handpicked for their previous impact on the game, or their hidden potential to take on the game a second time… such is the case with Survivor: Game Changers. Anyone who read the Diplomatic View last year knows that I’m a fan of many past players of the game, so unlike some folks I’m actually happy to see these players for a second (or third, or fourth time… mostly.

(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 last season).

If there will be a problem for me this year, is that the theme of the season is almost certainly going to get the players thinking that they need to make ‘Big Moves’ since they’ve been recruited as ‘Game Changers’. This isn’t because I don’t like seeing players shake up the game; it’s not because I’ve seen great players get crossed up when lesser players have tried to seize control of their destiny. In the history of Survivor those are the moments that I love the most, especially since the editors have gotten so much better at foreshadowing that something might be afoot without completely giving away that people have committed to it.

The Survivor editors have gotten much better at showing us the scrambling, showing us a possible out for the person who is the intended target while they’re at camp, without making it clear what will happen. Some might say that they err on the side of showing too little, so as not to spoil the game, but I don’t have a problem with that. District Attorney Jeff Probst, in his exhaustive cross-examination at tribal council, has fully matured into his role as prosecutor and manages to get players to reveal things they shouldn’t and the editing makes sure that pot stays stirred until the last vote is revealed. Blindsides, the ultimate culmination of Survivor strategy, are the business of Survivor nowadays; and business is good.

Also, as I said last year, the aftermath of ‘Big Moves’ tends to produce the best scrambling and shifting of loyalties in the game. So, that’s not why the ‘Game Changers’ concept bugs me a little. The reason it does, is because it inspires bad players to blow up the game without any sort of plan, all so they can sit back and say ‘I made a big move!’

Big moves made in the context of a larger game plan are awesome. We’ve seen players play a mostly laid back game, biding their time and laying the groundwork until they’re ready to step into the forefront with a big blindside or a betrayal of a once-close ally. One of the reasons we remember Fans vs. Favorites so fondly was the endless parade of blindsides, Natalie (of Blood vs. Water) completely changed my opinion of her by making big moves that were also surgical strikes. That’s great stuff… but what we get a little too often for my tastes is a player who doesn’t do much in a given season, who becomes most notable for the fact that they blew up someone else’s game. You could call it the Kass effect.

I’ve described it previously as the ‘Yes, and….’ concept from improvisational comedy. In improv, if one of your fellow actors talks about the invisible elephant that walks in the room, you take it and run with it… ‘Yes, and it’s got giant purple polka dots!’ For me a big move in Survivor means nothing, unless you have something to say after it, call it ‘Yes, and?’ or maybe just call it ‘What’s next?’

Good Survivor players make a move when it must be made, and have some inkling of what they’ll need to do afterwards. Great Survivor players make moves exactly in accordance with their plan, have their next steps planned, and have already done the groundwork. It’s the difference between a betrayal of an ally with the rest of your alliance not knowing it was coming, and a betrayal of an ally with every other member of the alliance slipping their own knife into your ally’s back. That’s the measuring stick I use when looking back on a season of Survivor to find my favorite / key moments. Did a player make a big move as part of a plan to win the game (whether it worked or not), or did they just flail around running to and fro? It’s the difference between good, great, and goat.

My hope is that the ‘Game Changers’ cast will all get the difference between these things, but based on their track record and listening to their interviews there are at least a few players who we can’t expect that from. The challenge in casting a season like this, is that as much as we’d find it interesting, you can’t fill the season with the twenty greatest Survivor players and just see what happens. Not all of the twenty greatest Survivor players want to come back on the show again, some have been on the show long enough that they (and the audience) are over it, and others aren’t available due to personal scheduling conflicts. It could be argued that a theoretical season filled with the 20 best Survivor players of all time would have the potential to be a complete mess, with 20 chiefs and no Indians.

Regardless of how you look at the cast, and what you think of ‘Big Moves’ in general, what is apparent is that this season should have a much higher degree of difficulty than other seasons. The common conception of ‘Big Move’ is a move that slips the playing field and knocks out a player that’s in a strong position in the game, or an alliance, preferably via blindside. That means there will be more danger than usual in stepping up to form an alliance or try to lead your tribe… but you don’t win the game of Survivor by sitting back and watching.

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Key Points in Episode 1:

Scrambled Eggs, Scrambled Survivors

The first episode is always a mad scramble from the moment the rafts hit the water (or the Survivors hit the water as it was). As always there are two or three things that jump out while the cast scrambles around trying to find their way; last season there were some good moments in the first scramble but this time there were mostly questionable decisions.

Scramble Mistake #1: The correct response when Jeff points in a direction and says that there’s an advantage to be had, is you run in that direction before he finishes the word ‘buoy’.  If you’re not going to do that, then give up on getting it entirely. Mana had three competitors that might have been able to take on Ozzy for the toolkit: Malcolm, Caleb, or Michaela. Malcolm immediately discounted taking on Ozzy, only to have Caleb later give it a whirl. It’s hard to say if having an extra person would have let Mana get the best of the gear on the boat, but that they ended up losing the toolkit as well as the chickens, just made the whole equipment scramble a bit of a mess for that tribe, which was a bit of a portent for things to come.

Scramble Mistake #2: Jeff may be the person you can rely on to throw out platitudes and clichés, but if he reminds you that you should keep your eyes open and pay attention, then you should do that. It’s also Season 34, and the number of hidden clues, advantages, and idols that have surfaced in key moments of the game is fairly large. So, it was unfortunate for Andrea that she missed the new legacy advantage while scrambling to grab supplies. All credit to Sierra Dawn Thomas for spotting the advantage and picking it up. The challenge that will be presented to her is finding a way to leverage this advantage in a way that helps her game. I’m also a big fan of the tweak in the legacy advantage, they’ve removed the mystery regarding exactly what the power is, and made it slightly more powerful by adding a second breakpoint where the idol can be used.

Ciera talks herself out of the game

I’m a big fan of Ciera. As I mentioned in our preview of the Game Changers season, Ciera is a great ‘almost’ player. She almost sees the right move to make, and she almost makes it at the right time. I also said that Ciera’s a little too outspoken to win the game… and it turns out I was right. There were two issues that really cemented Ciera’s ouster with her tribe: early discussions of targeting Tony, Caleb, and Malcolm, and perceived challenge weakness. It’s always difficult for female Survivor contestants, because people assume they’re worse at physical challenges than men, until proven otherwise. This puts a significant burden on female survivors to excel at puzzle challenges. Ciera’s failing on the first puzzle challenge (along with Sandra) helped cement the target on her back.

However, she likely could have survived the puzzle performance if her tribe hadn’t perceived her as playing too hard, too fast. Nothing that Ciera said was incorrect: Tony was clearly a target, and if they were concerned that Tony had found an idol targeting Malcolm or Caleb was good game play. In fact, she should only have been voicing what other veterans were already thinking. Unfortunately for her, throwing out three names in a five-minute span, makes people worry that the next name that might come out of her mouth will be theirs. That also gets them thinking about her willingness to vote off her own mother, and makes it easy for Tony to talk them around to her being too dangerous a player to keep in the game.

Tony: better to burn out than fade away

 I mentioned this in the Blogger’s podcast, but I wasn’t the biggest Tony fan in his original season. I thought he was crazy, that there was no way he could win the game, and that he was far too over the top to get into a position to win the game. Some might argue that he shouldn’t have won, in that Woo should have brought Kass to the end, but I see Tony’s fingerprints on that decision. I can’t be sure exactly when Tony’s craziness won me over, but it was somewhere around when he told someone at tribal council: ‘I didn’t lie, I had reasons!’

I was intrigued to see what Tony would have in store for us this season, though I honestly didn’t think he’d be able to last long in the game. It turns out I was right, but not for the reasons that I thought. My assumption was that Tony, even if he played a low-key game, would be a threat that players couldn’t ignore. What I forgot was that the volume knob on Tony only ever turns up, never down.

Tony was able to dodge the first bullet, but instead of trying to fade back into the background he turned the volume up to twelve. Laying the groundwork for an alliance with Sandra was a brilliant move and one that Sarah and Dan hoped he would make when we discussed the Mana tribe on our podcast. However, that alliance survived less than 24 hours as Tony then decided to blow up Sandra’s game not because she was plotting against him, but because she didn’t out Troyzan’s plan while Troyzan was standing right there.

This has, to be honest, always been the problem with Tony’s game: there is no subtlety to it. Players who ran afoul of Tony often assumed there was more subtlety to his game than there was, but beneath the surface there are just different levels of brashness.  For a player like Tony, he’s not going to respect / appreciate Sandra listening to Troyzan, even if her goal will be to circle back with Tony immediately about their conversation. That brashness worked well on the first season, but with a season full of vets being the brash person who wipes away any window for subtle play? Not a winning proposition.

Cirie & Ozzy: tonight we settle all family business

Cirie is my favorite Survivor player of all time, and I am (one of many) who feel that she would have won Fans vs. Favorites if she’d been able to make it to final tribal council. One of the many players that found themselves paying the price for the game that the Black Widow’s played that season was Ozzy. This makes the starting makeup of the Nuku tribe particularly ripe for drama as both Ozzy and Cirie were placed on that tribe.

In defense of the other members of the Nuku tribe, Ozzy and Cirie aren’t the only big players on Nuku but they’re the players with the biggest reputations in the game. This doesn’t discount that there’s a former winner in the form of J.T. and others who have had varying degrees of control in their games: Andrea, Brad, and Zeke.  But once Ozzy and Cirie got put on the same tribe, the key question was going to be how those two players reacted and if they went to war how would the tribe break down.

It’s clear that Cirie doesn’t hold hard feelings for Ozzy… and its human nature for the person who won not to have hard feelings. She recognizes that Ozzy has game, it’s part of why she engineered his removal in the first place, so she knows he’d make a powerful ally going forward. Their history would also have an interesting side-effect, in that any other player in the game would think that Ozzy would at best be an ally of convenience, and they’d each be given many opportunities to betray the other… and gather information they could use.

Unfortunately for Cirie, Ozzy clearly wants Cirie out of the game, doesn’t feel he can trust her, and doesn’t see her as a potential ally. Unfortunately for Ozzy, he still plays the game with a noted lack of subtlety, so Cirie is now well aware of that fact. On the original Nuku, Cirie would have been in a bit of trouble, she’s a social game player and several of the original Nuku aren’t really the type to be swayed to that game. Clearly, Cirie would have taken her best shot against Ozzy, but I’m guessing she’d have found herself on the wrong side of the numbers.

While the original Nuku didn’t end up going to tribal council, the tribe swap next week won’t be a permanent tabling of the question. As long as Ozzy and Cirie remain in the game, it seems like Ozzy will be looking to get a bit of his own back, and Cirie is clearly not going to simply wait for that to happen. There will be blood either way, and it’s going to send a legendary Survivor player home, either way.

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Dispatches

This season I’ll be adding a new feature to this column, small things that caught my attention that might not be worth a full write-up, but will provide an additional context for me to be proven wrong over the course of the season:

  • I’m pretty sure Andrea was wearing boots with heels, which might win the award for least useful Survivor footwear, ever.
  • Tai maintains his reputation for his inability to lie, and his inability to keep information secret even when not answering a question at all.
  • As amusing as it was to hear Sandra give Tony the business as he walked out, I’m not sure that was a good look for her with the rest of the tribe.
  • Watching Zeke geek out at playing with Survivor legends was great, I imagine I’d react in exactly the same way.
  • You can’t draw a line in the sand about your name being used as the decoy. There are many risks, large and small, that you must face to win Survivor; being used as a decoy is the least of them.
  • Tai, Mark the chicken was cute on a season of new players… but don’t get too attached to the new birds. Veteran players want food, and aren’t going to put up with too much nonsense.

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Closing Points and Looking Ahead

With certain exceptions, this is a strong cast of returning players each of whom have had success in the game. The players with sketchier resumes shouldn’t be underestimated, however. Both Rob Mariano and Parvati Shallow were lightly considered (by some) when they were first invited back, yet they each firmly established themselves in the pantheon on their second chance. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that either Hali, Sierra Dawn Thomas, Debbie, or Tai will make the jump this season. Though if Debbie or Tai enter the pantheon of great Survivor players, I’m going to need a little while to adjust.

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