Survivor: Game Changers

Friendship vs. the Million – Tocantins’ Final Tribal Council

Sarah Channon, who formerly posted as Sarah Freeman writes special feature blogs for RHAP. This feature looks back at the gameplay of J.T. Thomas, a contestant on the upcoming season, Survivor: Game Changers.

Friendship vs. the Million – Tocantins’ Final Tribal Council

In Tocantins, we saw our first “perfect game” of Survivor: J.T. never received a vote against him until the end when he swept every jury vote (and then won the Fan Favorite Award just to cap it off.) Ever since the merge, J.T.’s superhuman charisma had been an obvious theme, to the extent that players and viewers alike knew J.T. had the game the moment he won the final immunity challenge. Sure enough, the Final Tribal Council consisted of the jurors hammering Stephen and praising J.T.

Perhaps because of this, J.T.’s own performance often goes overlooked, but even though J.T. was confident that he would beat Stephen, he didn’t coast to victory. The other holder of the “Perfect Game” record is Cochran who entered his own final planning to tear apart his strategic partner, Dawn. When the jury laid into her while lobbing softball questions at him, Cochran decided to leave it to them.

J.T. continued to play as hard as he’d ever done. As a juror in Heroes vs. Villains, he explained that as far as he was concerned, all the finalists had a good enough strategy to get them to the end, so he didn’t care about what came before. What mattered was what they did in Final Tribal Council to convince him they’d earned the win.

That was the philosophy that came into play in the Tocantins finale.

“With friend and foe we march to the battle plain.”

Of course, any good finalist argument starts with the jury, and in Tocantins the jury started with Timbira… Coach’s tribe. Coach is better known for emotional manipulation in South Pacific, but we shouldn’t overlook the effect he had on his first tribe. It’s easier to miss because he was portrayed as such a ludicrous figure, spouting unbelievable stories while the editors cut to his tribemates’ disbelieving reactions.

One of Coach’s favorite mantras throughout his Survivor career was playing with honor and integrity, and it all started with Tocantins when he talked of taking the strongest to the end, going so far as to develop a “Warrior Alliance,” and repeatedly stressing truthfulness and loyalty, to the point that it started rubbing off on the players around him. Those who weren’t aligned with Coach were irritated by his hypocrisy so it began to matter that their integrity was greater than his. (See also: the Savaii tribe in South Pacific). Those within his alliance got daily pep talks about the virtues he saw in them—even the most jaded players responded to that.

For the Jalapão Three, there was a notable shift in tone when they merged and came under Coach’s influence. J.T. and Stephen might not have given up their cynical strategy discussions, but they were charmed by Coach’s flattery and played up to his narrative of the honest warrior and the wizard who had started living adventures instead of reading about them.

While Coach paid less attention to Taj, the resolutely aggressive woman of the pre-merge gradually wore away, and by the end, what mattered to her was the promise the Jalapãos had made to each other. In her Reality News Online interview, she told David Bloomberg: “I was happy going to the final three and didn’t want to have the final vote to choose one of them. I promised Stephen I would vote for him in the end. But after he blindsided me, I was like, bets are off. I voted for J.T. because it was the right thing to do.”

Other jurors made similar comments in their interviews. Brendan said: “Playing the game all about me and going after everybody else wasn’t something I was too into. J.T.’s story is a pretty amazing one and out of everybody left, I was like, if he wins it, it will change his family’s life for generations.” Sierra was proud to have gone so far without being conniving. Debbie declared, “It’s a game, not a game of truth but a game of who can win a million dollars,” yet when asked about her promise to give up final immunity, she said: “I would not have given my word to J.T. and Stephen privately or on national TV and gone back on it. I would have been okay with third.”

Honor and integrity weighed heavily on J.T. and Stephen at final three after they blindsided Taj. It had been a strategic move: Taj winning the final immunity was not improbable; she was well-liked by everybody and could have given J.T. some serious competition. For Stephen, it was even more important, since he knew he couldn’t beat her or J.T. before the jury, so Erinn represented his best shot. (Not to mention Stephen was confident that both J.T. and Erinn would take him should they win immunity, but wasn’t certain Taj would.)

However, they had known Taj since day one. The Jalapão Three had bonded as the underdogs of the merge. The men were genuinely fond of Taj and she of them. Her distress at being voted out hurt. As Yul Kwon said, Survivor is a game, but it’s not just a game.

Viewed dispassionately, J.T. absolutely had to win immunity at this point, as neither Stephen nor Erinn could afford to take him to the end. Ideally, whoever did win immunity should choose Erinn as their finals opponent. Erinn was the only player who had been immune to Coach’s talk of honor and integrity. An avid fan of Survivor who had recently endured a massive break up, she had steered clear of the emotional side of the game and focused on strategy. As a result, Timbira despised her absolutely, and she would have struggled to pick up any votes but Taj’s.

In reality, it was going to be hard for either Stephen or J.T. to turn on each other after enduring the Taj vote. Even strategically, the narrative of the whole game had been on staying true to your word and taking the strongest to the end; the jury was bound to bring that up and hold them accountable for their choices. Of course, it would still have been game suicide for Stephen to take J.T. He said in interview: “My fantasy was Erinn winning the challenge.” It would have been the only way to get his desired outcome with a clear conscience.

As J.T. won, whom he took became a moot point, but J.T. wasn’t complacent. He feared that Tyson and Erinn would vote for Stephen, because they had both bonded with him over strategy, while Taj had always been closer to Stephen than J.T. That would leave Stephen needing to sway just one vote for victory.

According to his interview, J.T. believed he would still win against Stephen, but he insisted it wasn’t strategy, he just couldn’t vote him off. His voting confessional was: “This may cost me a million dollars, but it won’t cost me what I stand for.” While he was certainly in an easier position than Stephen to choose integrity—and no doubt it helped that he had never particularly gelled with Erinn— the deal of the final two breakfast stayed strong. As Coach had repeatedly told him, J.T. was a man of his word.

It might be J.T. who got the call back for Mamanuca Islands, but Coach did what he said he would do—for Tocantins at least: he changed the game.

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Emotional Predators

While Coach certainly exacerbated the emotions of the endgame, emotions and moral dilemmas have always been a part of Survivor, and many players have had success in exploiting the idea of in-game integrity. It’s not always intentional either. Coach appeared to lie in almost every scene, but those who know Coach repeatedly talk about his sincerity. Either Coach is the greatest con artist of all time or he fully believes his own narrative. The finale of South Pacific gives weight to the latter.

Rupert is another obvious example of somebody who buys into his own narrative with an apparent lack of self-awareness, but it occurs almost every season and few players are totally exempt. Most boots declare that it was a mistake for their tribe/alliance to vote them out when they did. We often hear assurances that “X had no need to betray me! I was going to take him/her to the end!” Rarely do we hear such assurances from players who would have lost to “X”.

Palau gives us the best known example of emotions coming to a head over honor and integrity in Survivor. Tom, Ian, and Katie were day one allies, who had a pact to get to the final three together. Tom (who admitted he played a “lousy” strategy game) kept to that plan. Katie and Ian realized that Tom was going to win if he got to the finals and made moves against him that were ultimately foiled either by Tom winning immunity or other players being reluctant to vote him out.

At the final four, Tom discovered that Ian had tried to betray him and in retribution, forced Ian into a tiebreaker against the planned target, Jenn. Ian won, but he had already been struggling with how to reconcile friendships with game mechanics, and he never got past his own guilt. Ultimately and infamously, he quit the final immunity challenge, telling Tom to vote him out.

Fan opinion is divided on whether or not Tom deliberately preyed on Ian’s emotions there, but I think he was sincere. His anger with Ian seemed genuine enough, as was his approval of Ian’s decision to restore his integrity by leaving the game. There was probably an element of rationalizing his morals with what would give him a million dollars, but I don’t think Tom was self-aware enough to do it consciously.

J.T. and Stephen were perceptive enough to see the line between the game and real-life ethics and also to understand how emotions can be exploited. Before casting his final vote, J.T. put on a show for the jury: He talked about how Erinn would be the smart option but if he took Stephen, he’d be taking the “best” of the others from the final four to the end… before sadly wondering if Stephen would have taken him, if their roles were reversed. If that was bait, Stephen took it, swiftly bringing up the relationship they had and the day 39 breakfast they had talked of sharing.

While this was precisely the angle that interested the jury, Jeff wasn’t happy with this Friends To The End attitude and fired strategic rebuttals at them. This flustered Stephen who struggled to justify friendship over strategy. His attempts to prey on J.T.’s emotions might have influenced the vote that night, but it also gave J.T. an insight into Stephen’s weak points—especially if he had noticed the jury’s reactions.

So the two men prepared themselves for the following night. Stephen was not only aware of J.T.’s popularity with the jury but was in awe of his friend’s game himself. As he later admitted, he was resigned to defeat, which showed and hurt his performance, yet he was determined to make some sort of case for himself.

There is definitely an argument that Stephen deserved more strategic credit, since he had been much more involved in forging alliances, picking up outsiders and guiding the votes (with a goal of getting out the lengthy list of people who wouldn’t betray J.T.). J.T. himself said that he had no idea how early and carefully the Exile Island Alliance was crafted until he watched the show. But Stephen abandoned any idea of arguing strategy on the basis that the jury wouldn’t be prepared to credit his goofy sidekick persona. Indeed, both Debbie and Erinn said they were surprised by how much Stephen did in the episodes.

Erinn felt Stephen should have showcased his strategy more, thinking it would have swayed her vote and maybe others, but taking a strategy angle may have lost more votes than it gained. (We’ll set aside the fact that Stephen found ever more creative ways to lose those votes.) As Stephen said, they wouldn’t have believed him, and it was the morality that most jurors were concerned about. J.T. himself said that Stephen had control over the vote that sent Coach home, but what the jury heard was that Stephen was the one to betray Coach while J.T. had kept his word.

Instead, Stephen decided to argue his growth, pointing out that though he and J.T. had taken the same path through the game, it had been a much bigger deal for him—unfortunately, Brendan skewered that argument with the first question. Knowing J.T. was the jury’s golden boy, Stephen elected not to argue against J.T., hoping to win favor for good sportsmanship. As a second nod to the jury’s moral ideals, he resolved to be honest and answer their questions openly, laying all his cards on the table.

J.T., the face of the Warrior Alliance and the man of his word, made a slightly different resolution: to put friendship aside and do whatever it took to win a million dollars.

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The Warrior

It’s clear from the jurors’ interviews that J.T. had talked at some point about his poor background and giving the money to his family. He immediately highlighted this in his opening arguments, remarking that he’s not a Yale graduate, that he’s actually the first of his family to graduate college—”But I’m not here for a pity vote!” He explained his dividing line between strategy and friendship before winding up with an assertion that he had outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted Stephen.

Debbie’s question set the tone for the night when she asked J.T. if he was as honest as he appeared or if he was a liar. J.T. was prepared with the answer that his mother had told him to lie while he was out there. This was a singularly perfect response for his Good Ol’ Southern Boy image, and it leaves me curious as to how self-aware J.T. was. Was the answer completely contrived for the jury’s benefit, or was it true and how J.T. rationalized his deceptions against his own identification as a Good Guy? There’s a reason J.T. held his cool when Stephen couldn’t, and confidence can often benefit from a little cognitive dissonance.

For Stephen, Debbie wanted to know who he would have taken if he’d won final immunity, and she wouldn’t take “I don’t know,” as an honest answer. Stephen struggled before finally admitting that he thought it would have been Erinn. It was the truth: he was owning his game to the jury, just as juries throughout Survivor insist they want finalists to do. It was also all the ammunition J.T. needed.

On the very next question, serendipitously from Coach, J.T. waxed lyrical about keeping his word and managed to turn an answer about Coach’s elimination to commentary on Stephen’s admission that he would have broken his promise to take J.T. to the end. With heavy self-deprecation, he speculated that he was a dumb fool to mix his morals and his millions, but averred that he stood by his decision to keep his word at risk of losing the game.

This was when J.T.’s attitude began to crack Stephen’s resolve. In his own answer to Coach, Stephen pointedly noted that he had yet to say anything negative about J.T. When J.T. told Tyson that he could have got to the end without Stephen, Stephen reacted even more strongly. A romantic at heart, Stephen believed they had a unique friendship and alliance, and—unlike J.T.—he was sincere about being hurt by J.T.’s words.

Things came to a head when Stephen tried to answer Taj’s question by explaining that he had frequently protected her when J.T. would have voted her off. J.T. argued a different slant on events, and Stephen finally went on the attack, insisting on J.T.’s treachery even after Taj told them she’d heard enough. J.T., fully aware he had the jury’s sympathy, went on the passive aggressive, again wondering how much he had misjudged Stephen. Stung, Stephen retorted that J.T. had been slandering him all night, to which J.T. simply replied that all he had said was true.

By this point, Stephen had completely fallen apart. He had walked into Tribal Council knowing he would lose the million, and now it seemed he had also lost every friend he had made in the game, including the one he most cared about. To all appearances, J.T. was grieved by a betrayal Stephen never actually made, and Stephen’s hopes of continuing their close friendship were dashed.

Confused and resentful, Stephen fell back on the morality Coach had encouraged, that friendship meant more than winning. J.T. promptly reminded him that he would have brought Erinn. Stephen had no coherent reply.

J.T. kept up the despondent act throughout the voting and Jeff’s final goodbye. As soon as the cameras went off, he burst out laughing and gave Stephen a hug. Stephen has recounted that moment before on RHAP, but watch the below video for both men’s commentary on those final moments:

Across thirty-three Final Tribal Councils, Tocantins remains the only occasion where one finalist has gaslighted another. When Tocantins aired, I was rooting for Stephen the whole way through, and I recall how outraged I was at J.T.’s brazen lying and cruel treatment of his friend. It took me a full three days to get over the finale, because that just wasn’t right. (Perhaps Coach had rubbed off on me as well.)

Ultimately, I had to ask myself what rule had J.T. broken? While jurors say they want the truth, there is no requirement to give it to them, and heaven knows, sometimes you’re better served by a deception at Final Tribal Council. Preying on Stephen’s emotional distress could certainly be considered amoral, but their entire relationship was based on competition. J.T. knew Stephen well enough to know Stephen would forgive such tactics for the win—after all, Stephen hadn’t been above using emotions against J.T. either.

It’s a line not everybody might be comfortable crossing, a line you might not want to cross with every ally, and a line you might not be able to cross so deftly. But it was the line that ensured J.T. all seven jury votes.

Despite the title of Game Changers, J.T. didn’t actually change the way players approach Tribal Council. For the most part the recommended strategy is still to be honest, lay out your strategy and own your game. Yet, so often in Survivor, it is better to throw out the rule book and play to the situation.

For my money, J.T. gave us both the greatest and least ethical FTC performance of all time. As a result, he did something not even Boston Rob could achieve: he walked away with both the million and the friend for life.

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Bonus Trivia

As the RNO interviews are no longer online, I’ve included some extra tidbits from them for those of you who aren’t done reading.

  • Even the strategy-focused Erinn admitted she voted for J.T. in part because the money would help his family.
  • David Bloomberg pressed Debbie on whether she really would have honored her deal to settle for third, when she had just said it was a game for a million dollars. Her reply: “If I was sitting there with [the immunity necklace] on in the final three, I don’t know, but I really believe I would have followed through with my word.”
  • Tyson had an unaired question where he asked Stephen what move he had made on his own. Stephen replied that he had orchestrated Tyson’s boot. J.T. believed Tyson was bitter about it and that was why he didn’t vote for Stephen. Stephen thought Tyson simply didn’t want to reward so bad a performance.

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