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Individual Games: Breaking the Ties that Bind

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This week’s Individual Games takes a step outside its usual parameters to offer some alternative views of Brandon’s meltdown: the sane ones. It’s also time to catch up on two weeks’ worth of shifting dynamics, ahead of the oncoming tribal swap.

There have been a lot of complaints about the way things went down on Survivor this week (and I’ve contributed to them), but if there was one silver lining it was that no immunity challenge, no post-challenge scrambling, and no Tribal Council made for a lot of extra airtime to fill. Accordingly, we got a pretty balanced look at both tribes, and with a swap right around the corner (confirmed by the latest promos), it’s time to overhaul my assessment of the tribal dynamics.

Obviously, it’s been two weeks since I last wrote, and in that time, three people have gone home, only one of whom had her torch snuffed in traditional fashion. As far as Brandon’s meltdown goes, Andy’s blog raises most of the points worth discussing (and you guys did a great job of discussing them in the comments). In commenting on that blog, I said that I was most interested in seeing how the other players reacted to Brandon’s meltdown, and I felt that you could make very compelling television through that without resorting to showcasing somebody’s freak-out for us to gawk at.

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I don’t think he was acting.

As expected, the episode did not go that route, but they did put up plenty of online confessionals where the other players gave their thoughts, along with a few secret scenes. I am hugely frustrated that they didn’t opt to use more of these in the episode, over some of Brandon’s confessionals—especially since the continuing impression I got from Brandon is that he was playing up to the cameras. I don’t think he was acting, but I am certain he would have been more reserved if he had not been on national television. He likes an audience. He kept asking his tribemates to gather round for his latest announcement, whereas to the camera he kept saying phrases like: “You’re going to see…”

When Colton Cumbie was in full bigoted flow in One World, I criticized CBS for encouraging players to say ever more outrageously poisonous things in order to grab screentime. The way they presented the last episode rewards aggressive behavior, because that is what will get you on the camera, in the promos and give you the perfect platform to plug your new website.

CBS can’t change the fact that it happened, but since it did, I wish they’d explored how the other players handled it. Since they didn’t, I will.

The View From Rationality

For my money, the most moving storyline to emerge from this is Erik’s: watch Brandon’s secret scene and Erik’s online confessional back to back. We haven’t seen much of Erik, but it’s clear that he’s been spending his two weeks of gameplay forming both an alliance and a friendship with Brandon.

There’s an extra secret scene where Erik says that he and Brandon, aside from sharing the same mistake in their original game, also play the game more emotionally than most people (1:10). In a conversation with Brandon that follows, we see that these two are the kind of friends where if one person says something, the other will automatically agree with it. Erik’s a lot more laid back than Brandon, and was probably a good influence on him that respect—but he was also too laid back to be influence enough.

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Erik is quick to say that he doesn’t want him to do anything

In the first secret scene, we see Brandon ask Erik what he would like him to do should Erik be voted off (1:00). Erik is quick to say that he doesn’t want him to do anything, just take what chance he can to stick around. However, when Brandon later asks if Erik would help him burn the camp down (1:30), Erik placidly agrees and they take a fist bump on it. In his online confessional after Brandon’s departure, Erik regrets not saying anything sooner to remind Brandon that it was just a game (1:00).

I’m not dumping on Erik here, because who’s to say I would have done any better? (I like to think I wouldn’t have agreed to burning down the camp, but I’d probably be trying to humor Brandon too.) Erik’s own analysis of the relationship and his role in events is candid and humble enough that I really wish part (most) of that storyline had been told from his POV rather than Brandon’s.

Dawn also makes a great narrator for this sequence of events. Her account of the actual rice-scattering, everybody’s reaction to it and her own assessment of Brandon is definitive in my opinion, and I don’t understand why not so much as a sound bite made it to television (maybe because she’s cheerful rather than crying).

The big question for me, going into the episode, was how do you stop somebody from doing something like that when you aren’t allowed to get physical? Putting myself in that scenario, I might try literally interposing myself between Brandon and the rice, trusting that his brand of morality meant that no matter how mad he was, he would not hit a woman (particularly not one half his size)—and hoping that if I was wrong, he’d not do any major damage before being forcibly removed from the game.

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Brenda explained that she would have flung herself at anybody going for the rice.

Easy to say with the benefit of forethought. Brenda explained that she would have flung herself at anybody going for the rice, but she just couldn’t believe that’s what he was doing. Dawn described the event as happening in slow motion, with Malcolm and Erik going: “Noooo!” but she adds that, within a second, everybody was moving. We got a glimpse of Erik in episode looking like he was trying to grab Brandon by the shoulders, and Dawn thought Malcolm was trying to detain him, though it’s likely that both men were too wary about crossing the line themselves and getting expelled from the game.

Phillip smartly removed himself from the equation, knowing that Brandon’s true focus was him. Brandon saw it as “running like a little girl,” but when Phillip left the camp, that drew Brandon out to go after him. Most of the tribe stayed in the shelter, recovering as much of the rice as they could, even though it was wet, and hiding the rest of their food (and quite possibly the machete too). Again, I doubt Malcolm and Erik wanted to engage Brandon in case he tried to make things physical. Brenda and Andrea both admitted to being scared of him.

One player did follow Brandon: Dawn. I want to stress this because I’m so tired of hearing Dawn get grief for crying (not least because I’m a crier too). Dawn’s no pushover… she’s got four or five teenagers at home, the oldest of which is just a few years younger than Brandon himself. She didn’t really do anything, except to put out her hand once to make sure Brandon wasn’t going to barrel after Phillip, but she explains in her webclip (1:25) that she wanted to assess him for herself and decide whether this was something he could be talked down from or if he needed to leave the game. (Spoiler alert: she came to the latter conclusion.)

So while the other players were still reeling (and probably wondering why production weren’t making a call on this), Dawn was putting aside her outrage and deciding for herself what needed to be done. True Grit, indeed!

Bikal: Who’s In and Who’s Out?

I appreciate that none of the above has much to do with the strategy side of the game that I’m supposed to write about—I hope you didn’t mind indulging me! Fortunately, despite the apolitical nature of Brandon’s exit, we got plenty of new information on Bikal to update ourselves on the individual games as well.

Erik made it brutally clear that Brandon was his closest ally, and the only person he could really trust in the game. As a voting bloc of two, that pair could have advertised themselves as a potential swing and bought themselves some post-merge power (though I’m not convinced they would have known how to wield it effectively). Now Erik feels he’s got “no choice but to trust the Favorites I’m with.” (2:10) At best, that’s a pessimistic outlook, and I’m worried he’s effectively given up. Unless Erik finds some motivation over the next few days, he’s at risk of being nothing more than an extra vote for somebody.

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Corinne is quite the socio-strategic butterfly.

The outlook is rosier for our other outsider, Brenda (even if she has acquired a mysterious limp). Although Brandon said in the podcast that he was leading the outsider alliance, including her within that, her webclip from two weeks ago established her gameplan as portraying herself as a lonely vote, while building up relationships in secret. Brandon’s exit is unlikely to have impacted that. We still don’t know who Brenda is forging connections with (aside from Erik and Brandon), but she was hugging Andrea in this episode, and the two girls should already have plenty in common just from their demographic, so I’m going to call Andrea as one of Brenda’s people.

This also fits in with Andrea’s style of talking to everybody directly. (For all her complaints about Corinne having conversations, she’s quite the socio-strategic butterfly herself!) Andrea also bonded with Brandon (1:40), and this was part of why he went off the handle, since she told him that Phillip wanted him out. Telling somebody as volatile as Brandon this news is such a huge mistake that I have to believe keeping it secret from him would be in direct conflict with her gameplan.

Andrea wants to play with people who she’s bonded with and who trust her. As Brandon is somebody who values honesty so highly, it would be to Andrea’s advantage to be able to say that she had always been completely honest with him. (Except for Francesca, and she felt so bad about that she never lied to him again, etc.) The trouble is, of course, that Brandon doesn’t sit on information. He acts, and in this instance he was acting against the person who should be Andrea’s closest ally: Phillip.

If that wasn’t bad enough, he told Phillip that he’d got his information from Andrea. Phillip might shrug it off as Andrea being a silly little girl, but he’s going to be less willing to confide in her in the future. Chances are good that Andrea might find herself replaced by somebody else. Cochran, perhaps?

Last we knew, Cochran was partnered up with Dawn, though there’s been no update on that (perhaps the two of them are deliberately keeping it discreet). Still, if Dawn had any remaining concerns about Brandon and Cochran being close, they should be dispelled now. These days, it seems Brandon likes Dawn better anyway, and we do see him turning to her for comfort in the game. Dawn says that she’s not comfortable playing with somebody so unpredictable (0:35), which suggests she’s taking an analytical approach to the game, rather than the intuitive one we might expect from her emotional portrayal. This makes me yearn for some full on strategy discussion between her and Cochran. Perhaps post-merge.

We’re seeing more intuition where Corinne’s concerned, though it’s in reaction to her rather than from her. We know Andrea and Phillip wanted to vote her off, and Cochran was going along with that. In his secret scene, Brandon tells Erik about the plan, so it’s likely Brenda, the third in Brandon’s outside alliance knows as well, and we shall assume somebody’s told Dawn. It’s possible that one of them will tip her off, but, damningly, Erik tells us that he’s leery of Corinne (0:20). He’s leery of Phillip as well, but as it stands, the only person on Corinne’s side is Malcolm.

That’s bad news for both of them, particularly if Corinne’s reaching the end of her tether with Phillip (roughly five episodes later than we all predicted). Corinne had an interesting role as spokesperson for the tribe when they forfeited immunity, and I wonder how that was decided. They probably wanted it to be somebody neutral who Brandon didn’t have a particular issue with, but Corinne was furious about Brandon’s actions, and she let that get the better of her at least one time on the mat.

In Corinne’s favor, both Erik and Dawn made reference to the whole tribe being a solid team going into the merge, so the intent is to leave her in the game until Gota has been Pagonged. Unfortunately, once that happens, it seems like nobody will help Corinne and Malcolm seize any power in the game, and their idol will only defer their fate by one Tribal Council. If Corinne and Phillip can’t keep their aggravation in check, one of them is likely to go home even earlier, and Phillip makes a better finals goat.

Of all Bikal, it’s Corinne who most needs to turn traitor and yoke a few fans to her cause.

Gota: Oxen to the Slaughter

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What’s going on in his self-proclaimed pretty little head?

The tide finally turned on Gota when they made the switch from loyalty-based voting to strength-based. I was not expecting that, with the possibility of a tribal swap or a merge looming large, but it happened, so let’s update.

New Gota is a relatively trim machine consisting of super-fans and recruits that took their research seriously—plus Eddie. I admit, I’ve no idea what’s going on in his self-proclaimed pretty little head. Everybody on Gota went looking for the newly hidden idol, and Eddie—who came very close to going home the previous night—took a nap in the shelter. Dawn describes her South Pacific game (3:15) as just being tough at the challenges and letting the game happen around her. I think that’s as apt a description for Eddie’s game as anything else. To be charitable, let us say that’s he trying to get under the radar, and is afraid that looking for the idol will put too big a target on his back to be compensated by finding it.

However, everybody else is hunting and everybody knows it. It might ramp up the paranoia, but there’s no single target for the tribe’s suspicions. Possession of the idol has become the priority. For Sherri, it’s vital because while they’re voting on strength, she’s the next one gone. She’s disadvantaged them in three challenges now, and while Julia’s not been the greatest asset in the swimming challenges, the previous episode made it clear that she’s considered to be the strongest of the women.

It’s a huge comedown for Sherri, who over the course of a single episode went from being in control of the tribe to being on the chopping block, and all because of a bit of sand in Shamar’s eye. Once Michael and Matt decided to switch to strength, she lacked the numbers to save her second closest ally, Laura. It’s difficult to say what she could have done to keep the two older men in line either, because it came down to a purely strength tactic.

I hope Sherri’s not banking on the idol though. It seems likely that she and Julia are aligned, though both seemed closer to Laura than each other. (Of course, considering how little we’ve seen on Julia, we can’t really make that judgment call.) However, if Sherri is serious about staying in the game, throwing Julia under the bus might be her best option. Julia might be stronger than Sherri, but she’s not so much stronger that Sherri can’t make a strategic case for Michael and Matt to save herself (promise of loyalty, final three deal, etc. etc.) In light of the tribal swap, this is probably a moot point, but I’m guessing there’s some scrambling going on that didn’t make the episode.

There’s one thing working in Sherri’s favor, and that’s the fact that she still doesn’t seem to be on anybody’s strategic radar. Ever since the season started, I’ve been expecting Michael (and thus Matt) to turn on Laura, but I thought it would be a deliberate move to weaken Sherri. Instead, they voted her out purely because she was weak in challenges. Of course, weakening Sherri might have been a perk of this in Michael’s eyes, and we just haven’t heard about it. But I’m guessing not, and that’s because Michael’s biggest narrative role in the past two episodes has been to gloomily bestow flattering nicknames on Reynold: Mr Awesome and The Clutch Guy.

It’s become pretty clear that Reynold is not the greatest Survivor player ever… that, indeed, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing out there. So this is a good time to remind ourselves that before the season started, he was the shining star of the Fans’ tribe, the one who stood out as being so charming, so thoughtful about the game and in such clearly good shape (and, of course, so very, very handsome) that he was surely destined for great things. Most of us bloggers loved him, and I was sufficiently swept off my feet to make him my pre-season pick to win.

Of course, everything that made us so excited to see Reynold play would have made any Fan wary of playing with him. In my opinion, the moment Allie was voted off, Reynold’s threat was nullified because he is so naïve about the game (at least for now), but I think Michael is still concerned, particularly with that idol in the mix. As open as Sherri’s control has seemed to us, Michael might just have been too dazzled by Reynold to notice her hold on the tribe. While Sherri wanted the idol for herself, Michael wanted it so that Reynold couldn’t have it. It’s still a good motive, but getting hung up on one particular target rarely works out well in Survivor.

The other thing concerning me about Michael is his alliance with Matt. We haven’t really seen anything of this since Allie got voted off, and I wonder if they’ve drifted a little apart. Michael admits that he’s not one to rally the troops, rather to let everybody take responsibility for themselves (2:15), but he still couldn’t help himself from encouraging people to join him as he worked in the rain. Players can resent it when others are working harder than they are, and Matt, not lazy by nature, needed a break in this instance. Most worrying of all, Matt told the camera that if he found the idol, he wasn’t telling anybody.

Second Idol; Second Chance

Not that the efforts of the other Gotas mattered anyway, because Reynold reclaimed the idol. He called it gut instinct, but he must have a different definition of gut instinct to mine, because he is able to explain (0:50) his process of elimination when it came to tracking the idol down this time. For all his failings in the game, Reynold is a smart guy. The big advantage he had on everybody else was that he knew he’d found the last one on the beach, so he assumed (rightly) that it would be rehidden somewhere else and went straight for a grove of suitable trees that he’d previously spotted in the jungle.

Future Survivor players, take note: if you learn that somebody has an idol, casually ask them where they found it. If you have an idol and somebody asks that question, lie. You never know when you might need a leg up on finding another one. Making note of likely hiding places for future reference doesn’t hurt either.

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Has Reynold finally got into his game groove?

When watching the episode, I was surprised to see Reynold go to the shelter and lie down as soon as he found the idol, because it seemed like such a giveaway. His webclip explains that he had not set off on his idol hunt first thing but rather done work around camp. When he’d finished this (by which point, I assume, most of the rest of the tribe was off looking for the idol), he went to his grove and hunted there, finding it just as he was about to give up and get back to camp. He was not away from camp all that long and felt confident that nobody except Eddie had noticed he was gone.

If he’s right, that’s the ideal. He’s got enough of a target on his back without having everybody thinking he found the idol again. Paranoia being what it is, they might get suspicious anyway, but Reynold’s been gifted a do-over after his previous wasted possession. Let’s see how much he’s benefited from the experience.

There was something different about Reynold this episode: he said things, and they weren’t proven wrong in the next scene. Has he finally got into his game groove? Is he going to become as big a threat as Michael fears? I’d say no. He did well for himself this episode, getting an idol in secret and reforging his alliance with Eddie into a to-the-end pact. Yet he still couldn’t help acting up for the camera during Brandon’s vote off, as was noted on Know-it-alls. The other Fans kept discreet, but Reynold’s reactions would have done Eliza Orlins proud. (I give him a pass for requesting Jeff’s immunity hail though… that’s more in the vein of a morale boost for his own team, as evidenced by Julia eagerly seconding it.)

Reynold also buttered up the Favorites, assuring them that even though they had all the rewards, he understood that the game was still very hard for them and they had his sympathies. This seemed like such a transparent attempt to curry favor that I can’t help but wonder if it actually hurt him. (Though this kind of blatant sucking up has surprised me with its success before.)

I might have picked Reynold to win before the game started, but I wouldn’t pick him now. He doesn’t seem to have a grasp of how he comes across to other people, nor can he understand how his tribemates are playing the game. That’s a huge disadvantage when it comes to winning jury votes. I won’t rule him out though, because natural charm and challenge dominance can overcome cluelessness, and while I expect him to make plenty of mistakes yet, I do think he’s the kind of player who can learn. However, he’s been in the minority all game and he’s about to enter the stage of the game where people are looking to take out challenge threats. He’s going to need all the luck he can get.

That applies to all of Gota. Malcolm has an online confessional about the fans tribe, empathizing with them through his own experience on Matsing. He tells us that they need a break, but at this point, it’s going to have to be something external, because it’s going to be too hard for them to muster something up inside. Julia’s confessional (and it sounds like she has a cold to match Eddie’s) confirms his assessment. If being down in numbers and losing challenges weren’t enough, they’re cold and wet from the ongoing rain and envisioning their opponents living in luxury after all the rewards they’ve won.

Bikal forfeiting the immunity challenge was certainly a break for them, and a tribal swap next episode will be as well (especially for those who get sent to Bikal’s camp), yet things are still looking grim for the Fans. On their new tribes, the Fans will almost certainly be a minority of three against four Favorites, and if they can’t break the Favorites then, they’ll go into the merge with an even bigger deficit.

Lost in the Shuffle

While the Favorites might be determined to be a united team, the Fans have one advantage over them and that’s the insight into their tribe via Jeff’s impromptu Tribal Council. There’s been some grumbling that the Fans should have been sent back to their beach first, but I disagree. Brandon had already aired out Bikal’s dirty laundry for Gota to see, and while I don’t consider this a thrown challenge in the general sense, I still think it’s a good precedent to set this kind of penalty for forfeiting immunity.

It does set up an interesting contrast to how little Bikal can know about Gota’s dynamic. Gota’s vote offs have been three young girls who contributed little to the challenges. At best, Bikal might speculate on why Laura survived two votes, but there’s nothing to suggest how fractured the tribe is and certainly no reason for them to suspect that Reynold and Eddie have been the ones on the outs! Malcolm’s comparisons with Matsing might lead him to think that they’ve been united by their adversity. If any of the Favorites are looking for cracks in the Fans’ alliance, they won’t know where to start—of course, that doesn’t matter if the plan is to Pagong them.

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Sherri is looking to replace Shamar with the Phillip.

The Fans are far better served with their clues to the Favorites’ dynamic. It’s not clear how much useful information they got from Brandon’s vote-off (after all, the obvious outsider is gone), but Brandon was very insistent that Phillip was in control. The Fans might well believe he’s a figurehead only, but they know that Phillip is in the majority, and they know that he’s ruffling feathers.

Sherri provides us with her plan of action (0:55), and unsurprisingly, having lost her “Phillip” to a med-evac, she’s looking to replace him with the Phillip. She’s confident she can get in with him and stroke his ego. Her other target is Dawn, since she feels they can bond through age and gender, and she can get Dawn to tell her things.

This is all very straightforward, but neither of these people are obvious flippers. If Phillip is in the majority, he has no need to switch out; Dawn’s appeal is in her loyal nature, so Sherri presumably is not expecting to get Dawn to betray her tribe. The implication is that Sherri is abandoning the Fans’ ship and looking to swim with the sharks of the Favorites.

Up until this point, I have felt very strongly that the Fans will know better than to turn on their own come the Tribal Swap. Aside from the actual fans, Reynold cited J.T.’s loyalty to Stephen as his favorite Survivor moment, which suggests he took in Tocantins’ lesson about tribal unity.

I’m officially changing my tune on this. Most of the Fans are paying lip service to the idea of banding together against the Favorites, but Julia is the only Gota whose loyalty I won’t question, though it’s difficult to see who she can be loyal to. Sherri’s lost the people she was closest to, Michael and Matt are playing with the two people they don’t want to let near the end and don’t even have complete faith in each other, and Eddie and Reynold… well, they wear their hearts on their sleeves.

In his online confessional, Eddie is surprised by Brandon’s instability but agreed with a lot of what he said, and proudly announced that he doesn’t “shy away from too many fights around here either, I tell it like it is.” (1:00) Judging by Reynold’s behavior, I think he also views this as a positive quality. Whether that’s true in real life is debatable, but it’s usually a bad thing in Survivor. Reynold and Eddie are effectively crusaders: embittered by their game experience thus far, they’re looking to stand up against the villains of the season. That’s an attitude that is just screaming for manipulation.

So, with the tribal swap finally here, all the Favorites need to do now is hang tight and put aside their differences until the final eight, which admittedly might be difficult to do. A slightly drunk Cochran observes that they’ve been waiting eight days to play the game (0:30) and are getting restless. We all saw what happened with Tandang last season.

If they can avoid betraying each other, it remains to be seen what their plan for the swap is. Will they vote off the female fans first with the intent of keeping their new tribe strong and winning challenges? Will they target the fans who are threats for individual immunity (which could run them straight into the trap of Reynold’s idol)?

Reynold should technically be their number one target, but if they realize that he was actually an outsider (and even more of a rookie than your average Fan), the Favorites might change their mind and go for Michael, Matt or Sherri instead. Same goes for Eddie. I’m not willing to predict who will find themselves the victim of this particular reshuffle.

One prediction I will make is that the Fans will not be breaking the Favorites in the next few episodes. The Favorites might break themselves, but the Fans are already in Every Man for Himself mode. The only route that I see for a Fan to get to the end involves a lot of ducking and covering. Of the Favorites, we still have to assume that Dawn and Cochran are in the best position, so long as they don’t forget to use it!

Let’s see how wrong Wednesday proves me. We’re down two thirds of the crazy for the season, so we can at least be optimistic about how things are going to go from here.

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