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Individual Games: Crossing the Line

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Immunity can be won through tears but not the game.

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It was an emotional departure of Brenda.

I knew that after such a run of great episodes, we were due for a crash. I just thought it would come with a boring vote out of Eddie, not with a series of depressing twists in the game. The producers managed to leech all the joy out of the family visit, one of the strongest players in the game went home in tears, and according to the previews next week, somebody might well be med-evaced at this late stage.

For all that I did not enjoy the episode, I never expected the level of controversy that’s emerged online, most of it centered on whether Dawn voting off Brenda was the right thing to do—’right’ in this instance being loaded with morals as well as strategy. I’m still not entirely sure what was so bad about this. For me, on the list of evil moves this game, voting off sweet Brenda comes, at best, a very distant third, behind voting off Francesca first again, and “Hold Up Bro.” If we ever get confirmation that Malcolm voted for Reynold and then took his idol thinking that Reynold would be going home, that wins hands-down.

For the record, I’m counting actual game moves only… otherwise Brandon dumping the rice and the dilemma facing Brenda at the loved ones challenge would also be right up there. And obviously, when I throw around words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’ I’m speaking comparatively, within the shallow confines of the game—and I believe this applies to the players as well. If anybody does need some perspective on what a really evil action is, take a look at any news site this week.

With the outcome of the game seeming so predictable, there’s precious little to analyze in the terms of how the jury might vote or what the remaining players should be doing. Instead I shall attempt to figure out just what it is about this most recent blindside that’s stirred up so much anger. I’d really like to think it’s not just because it made a pretty girl cry. As with all things Survivor, the strategy needs to be analyzed before you can break down the morals. Whether you believe it should or not, the game influences everything.

The Judgment Call

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Dawn could have beat Brenda but has no chance against Cochran.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that voting off Brenda was the wrong thing to do, since it went down like a lead balloon with the jurors. To me, it also seems clear that while Dawn had a chance of beating Brenda, she has none of beating Cochran so she should have gone with Brenda and Erik anyway. However, I can’t really be sure how it would have played out for Dawn if she stuck with Brenda, and Brenda was certainly a threat to win for all the reasons I’ve stated in this column before, but now with added loved one martyrdom.

As for Cochran, it’s fairly common in Survivor for players to decide to stick with the person who’s done the same things as them for the finals. (Kim with Chelsea; Danielle with Aras.) When you’re second-guessing yourself and struggling to step out of the game and see yourself as the jury does, then sticking with your partner can feel like a safer option. Dawn has been a more aggressive player than Cochran, and could actually make the argument that he rode her coat-tails, because she had the nerve to execute the strategy that he waffled on. After all, what was Cochran doing when Stealth R Us blindsided Corinne? Or when Dawn went double-agent to break-up Malcolm’s bro-alliance?

I’m not saying that Cochran had absolutely no influence in those events—clearly he did, but they do make the basis of a good case for Dawn to present to the jury. She has reason to think she can compete with Cochran on big moves; she has nothing to counter Brenda’s underdog story, should the jury decide to favor that.

The other issue was in voting off Brenda now, instead of giving her an extra day by taking out Eddie first. On the Know it Alls Stephen made some good points about how there’s always one player you feel you should have outlasted. There’s also the sentiment that you can’t vote her off right after she sacrificed the reward she rightfully won. Logically, it doesn’t really make it any better to delay it a day, but emotionally it does make a difference. Similarly the original Fans vs Favorites’ Black Widows were relieved when Erik won immunity on his birthday so that they wouldn’t have to vote him off until the following Tribal Council.

However, as Stephen also noted on Know It Alls, Dawn has done an excellent job of putting her emotions aside when it comes to actually making her choices in this game and going with logic. In this instance, a little too excellent. I suspect that Dawn had decided she would be going with Cochran and Sherri before the immunity challenge anyway. Perhaps she wanted to get it over with before she started second-guessing herself again. Perhaps she was afraid that Brenda might go on an immunity streak (a very real possibility, given the right challenges).

Simpler still, perhaps she didn’t want to give Cochran any reason to doubt her. If your ally comes to you and says: “OK, we talked about voting Brenda off tomorrow, why don’t we do it tonight?” it’s hard to prevaricate without raising their paranoia levels. That’s how swing votes get voted off.

Finally, from Dawn’s point of view, Brenda hadn’t done her any favors in the past couple of days. It was Sherri and Cochran who had the reward at Brenda’s expense, so they were the cads who showed their gratitude by voting her off. Brenda did say she let herself drop in the immunity challenge to keep Dawn happy, but Dawn didn’t know that at the time she made her decision (and as far as we can tell, she had no intention of voting Brenda off when she tried to cut a deal with her). In fact, you could say that Brenda threw Dawn under the bus at Tribal Council when she made sure to say in front of the jury that she let Dawn win.

I don’t think Brenda meant it as any kind of betrayal, though I do think it was a smart thing to say and that Brenda is aware of the chance to court jury votes at Tribal Council. Equally, while revenge for the reward might have played a part in Dawn’s decision, I personally don’t think so. Both women were clearly on good terms, exchanging kisses after the immunity challenge, and Dawn has an online confessional where she says that though she’d felt bad the day of the reward challenge, she managed to wipe that out after sleeping on it and start afresh.

So, ultimately, while I disagree with Dawn’s strategy here, I can at least follow a train of logic behind it. The problem here was that she needed to be more aware of the emotional charge of the action, but Dawn’s emotions have been all over the place this season. It should be no surprise that she was unable to assess the right emotional balance within the game!

Friendship under the “Trust Nobody” Manifesto

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Sherri and Cochran are not feeling the heat that Dawn is.

Of course, the reason Dawn is getting the heat that Cochran and Sherri aren’t is because she was so close to Brenda. They were firm friends out there. Brenda gave up immunity for Dawn when she wouldn’t for Andrea, she picked her for the loved ones reward (even if that did backfire), she found her teeth for her at Dawn’s lowest ebb, and she comforted her tears on what seems to have been a daily basis.

Brenda, as we learn from her interview, is not friends with Dawn any more. In my view, she’s entitled to that. She was the one who was blindsided when she was so close to winning, and we know how competitive she is. I don’t really agree with her implications that Dawn can’t be a good person if she did that, but it’s so difficult for me to put myself in her shoes here. When it comes down to it, Brenda had her own rules for friendship within the game, and Dawn broke them. Of course, she’s not going to feel the same way about her.

On the other hand, Dawn came into this season (0:40) saying she was bracing herself to cut emotional ties, because that had been the part she couldn’t do her first time around (when she was too loyal to her tribe to flip and too loyal to Cochran to betray his trust). She was determined to keep in mind that it was just a game going into this, and she has frequently remarked that the only reason she ran out on her family for six weeks was to win a million dollars, so that has to be her number one priority.

While Brenda falls into the “Some things are worth more than a million dollars” camp of players, Dawn is a subscriber to the “Winning this for my family is more important” school of thought. I am not going to weigh up the merits of either of these philosophies in this blog, but I do want to hammer home that they both exist, and both need to be taken into account when analyzing the game.

Brenda was hurt that Dawn seemed not to agonize over voting her off and concluded that she had never had a true friendship with her. I’ve already said that I think Dawn had already made the decision to go with Cochran at that point—if nothing else, not agonizing doesn’t sound like Dawn at all!—and I’m inclined to think that the friendship was sincere on Dawn’s part.

Is it naïve of me or Dawn to think that friendship can survive Survivor? For me, the gold standard of Survivor friendship is the JT / Stephen bromance from Tocantins. Stephen was well aware that his new best friend was beloved by the entire jury and would have eagerly reneged on their finals deal had JT ever lost immunity. JT was even more treacherous, feigning shock and betrayal at the Final Tribal Council when Stephen admitted that he would have voted him out. While Stephen grew distressed at losing the game and a friend, JT lied through his teeth about his own moral standards, and the jury all but burned Stephen at the stake. As soon as the cameras stopped rolling and the lights came up, JT hugged him, and they lived happily ever after. (An account from JT here.)

JT and Stephen are the exception rather than the rule. More often players are genuinely hurt by their friend’s exploitation, and some never forgive. (Lex and Boston Rob from All Stars being the classic example.) That said, particularly in recent seasons, there’s been a trend of forgiving even if it takes some time. Reynold bears no ill will to Malcolm for Hold Up Bro; Eddie and Andrea managed to maintain their showmance despite repeatedly voting for each other. Dawn herself has put her money where her mouth is by forgiving Cochran for his game-ending move in South Pacific though she admits it took time.

Players generally do acknowledge that it’s just a game, with the mandate being to outwit, outplay, outlast. Yet Brenda’s first Ponderosa video (the second is not up at time of writing) reveals that the other jurors were more bitter than the tearful Brenda. Reynold launched into a stirring monologue on Dawn’s hypocrisy, and when Brenda assured the jury that she wasn’t angry, that it was all part of the game, Phillip told her to give herself a couple of days. Phillip also had some choice words about Dawn for the camera, but considering this is the guy who declared Francesca his nemesis on three days’ acquaintance, I don’t take Phillip’s grudges too seriously.

Even so, this display of anger from a jury that’s been happy-go-lucky up to this point goes further than the blindside. These people have disliked Dawn for a while, and Brenda’s vote simply provided the vent to let it out. They actively encouraged an emotional Brenda to feel bitterness towards Dawn. What the what has Dawn done?

The Last Great Taboo in Survivor

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Is Dawn’s constant crying alienating jury members?

I have been theorizing that Dawn’s crying is giving a false impression of weakness to the jury, not to mention annoying them. However, Brenda said something in her podcast that made me rethink that. When discussing the retainer incident, she said that she felt the game had paused for a moment: That was outside the game, giving help to a person in genuine distress.

Is this, then, how the others have felt with Dawn? In comforting her, they are giving something of themselves that has nothing to do with the game, leaving her indebted to them. From all accounts, Dawn is struggling the most, emotionally, so it’s likely that every person out there has comforted Dawn more than she has comforted them. Instead of paying them back, she reaped the benefit of that comfort and resolutely voted them off. Dawn might not have been carried through the game from a strategy point of view, but she was carried emotionally.

The thing that struck me most about Brenda’s comment was that Dawn had said something similar at the time. In an online confessional (3:40) filmed right after the event, she explained that the silver lining of losing her retainer was learning that there’s still a lot of kindness in a game for a million dollars.

So both Dawn and Brenda felt that that moment transcended the game. For Brenda, it seemed to cement an agreement that they would stick by each other to the bitter end in the game as well. Not so for Dawn who said in that episode that she would never turn her back on Brenda yet was ready to backstab her a week or so later. That might be hypocrisy, it might be saying words in the moment that she doesn’t really mean… or it might just be that her reaction to something that went beyond the game applied to situations beyond the game. Does being blindsided in Survivor represent a genuine hour of need for somebody?

Logically, it would be ridiculous to say that Dawn has to stop playing the game just because she’s in friendship debt. She felt Brenda represented a genuine threat to win so she voted her off while she had the opportunity to do so. She can repay the comfort and kindness to everybody after the game when she’ll be in a more emotionally stable place anyway.

But, as always, you have to take the emotions into account in Survivor. Dawn came into this season known as a strong woman and The Nicest Person Alive, and for much of the game, it’s been understood that nobody should take her to the end. Andrea said in her interviews that she thought Cochran would turn on Dawn because he wouldn’t want to go up against her at the end; right before Andrea was voted off, Reynold said at Ponderosa that Dawn was considered a threat; Dawn herself says in a secret scene with Cochran (0:45) that she can’t get further than final four.

Caramoan Dawn cannot have lived up her fellow players’ expectations. She wasn’t showing up in challenges this time, she was an emotional wreck rather than tough, and she was backstabbing people right and left. If there’s one thing we have learned from the internet, it’s that when we disagree with popular opinion, we’re damn well going to shout the opposite in a bid for universal consensus. The end result is that Dawn’s new image is A Terrible Person.

Of course, to Dawn’s fans, who’ve been able to follow her game and confessionals closely, she has behaved exactly in accordance with how we’d expect, doing everything she set out to do except not crying.

She’s remembering that her family trump friendships in the game and behaving ruthlessly. (Dawn has a worrying tendency to describe Survivor as being exactly like The Hunger Games—we should be grateful she’s only cutting figurative throats.) She’s making her own decisions about what needs to happen. And on a show where snark wins screentime, she’s rarely anything but respectful of people in confessionals. The crying? When you’re not the one cheering her up, it’s a running gag.

So which is more accurate—good guy or bad guy? Well, if you really care about getting an accurate judgment, you’d best head down to Utah, and get to know her in her ordinary walk of life. Otherwise, we will continue to believe what we want to believe. She has an interesting and often ironic online confessional this week on her game, but it won’t change anybody’s mind.

For my part, I’ve enjoyed Dawn as a blogger almost more than as a Survivor contestant, and while I doubt very much that she’s perfect and I can’t really be sure if I’d like her in person, I will continue to appreciate her thoughtful take on Survivor, family life and open adoption.

One thing we can be sure of is that Dawn lost the game this episode, after repeating the same mistake too many times. You can make friends in Survivor, but you have to be careful with the boundaries of those friendships. If you’re going to take emotional support from somebody, then you need to find a way to pay them back before you vote them off.

The Secret of the Secret Alliance

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Everyone is standing alone.

The problem with Dawn’s determination to play the game logically in spite of being an emotional wreck was that she was attracting the wrong people. Brenda explained in online confessional (4:05) that she had been aligning herself with good-natured people, solid people. She refers to Erik in this instance, but it’s almost certain she viewed Dawn the same way. Brenda’s ideal final three was based around people she felt secure with, people who she wanted to see go far with her.

Around the same time, Dawn was describing the game as lonely. To ground herself in the game, she was analyzing her final three options based on who she could beat and who would take her. I don’t think Brenda would have predicted that. Or Corinne, or Andrea, or any of the other players who felt Dawn’s vulnerability was conducive to their gameplan.

Enter Cochran, who commented on the family visit by noting that it’s a relief to have some unconditional love because there are conditions on everything in game. Whether it’s because he’d known her for longer or because of his natural reserve, Cochran has not appealed to Dawn’s emotions with direct reassurance so much as he’s talked to her logically and candidly about how the game is playing out.

Take, for example, the afore-mentioned secret scene (1:00), where Cochran tells Dawn that if she went with Brenda and Erik, she’d still get to the end. Theoretically, that’s the last thing you should be telling your ally, and it tells us a lot about his confidence in her and in his respect for her as a player.

That is, perhaps, what nobody else was giving Dawn. Brenda said she was targeting Cochran because he was the only strategic one left. To her, Dawn might have been a friend, but she apparently wasn’t a player. It paid off for Cochran, for while Brenda had no idea of Dawn’s Cochran/Sherri option, Cochran certainly knew about the Brenda/Erik offer.

I don’t mean to suggest that Cochran wasn’t also trying to use Dawn to his own advantage. He explained (1:55) that a big part of his reason for taking Brenda out early is to make sure he’s the only person Dawn is close to. If you’re not trying to outplay somebody, then you’re not respecting them as a player.

This might explain why nobody realized how close Cochran and Dawn were, if their interactions around camp were as reserved as their strategy discussions, while other players were so much more demonstrative in their affection for Dawn. Everybody else thought the way to play Dawn was emotionally, and failed to perceive that Cochran’s more practical approach was much more in keeping with how she wanted to play the game.

We should also note, for the record, that Cochran’s practical approach hasn’t hurt anybody’s feelings. I don’t think he’s been as outgoing as he could have been, and I’m not sure if he could win against somebody with a really strong social game, but the point is he doesn’t have to. I won’t rule out the possibility of Dawn voting him off as the final big threat to win. (For all we know, the only reason she’s never turned on him is because he’s less likely to win immunity at the wrong time.) Regardless, they still need to get out Eddie, and Erik’s also a danger to win votes…

Looking forward—or not

Last week, I was confident that this jury would not be bitter. This week it’s become evident that that’s not going to be the case. All along, I’ve wanted Dawn and Cochran to get to the end, because the pair of them have been responsible for so much of what’s gone on in the game, and I was excited to see how each of them would argue their case against the other.

Their jury performance is now irrelevant, because the jurors are going to be blaming Dawn for the same moves that they credit to Cochran. I appreciate some jury fireworks as much as the next person, but it gets under my skin when jurors are completely ignoring facts in favor of emotions. (I’m still not over Alex vilifying Cassandra for voting out Stacy in Fiji.)

Fortunately, almost a year has passed since the game, and there is hope that the bitterness won’t extend to the reunion. As I was writing this blog, Reynold tweeted that he and Dawn have made amends. (Perhaps best not to hold out for a similar reconciliation between Francesca and Phillip.) Besides, I understand that Brandon won’t be there, which will return about ten minutes of interview time to players I actually want to hear from.

It doesn’t help that the outcome seems so predictable. I can’t think of a single juror who wouldn’t cast a vote for Cochran over anybody but Eddie. If Cochran doesn’t win unanimously, I’ll be very surprised. On the plus side, this means that the potential med-evac won’t change the game the way Jeff declares it will in the promos, unless it’s Cochran himself who gets voted out (but it happens at night-time, so it’s unlikely to be a sunburn). If Sherri, everybody’s favorite goat goes out, that might make a difference… or Erik going before the next immunity challenge might cause some panic as they realize that they’ve lost their best contender to keep Eddie off immunity.

But even if Eddie does squeak through to the end, I think Cochran will win. (Eddie getting Reynold’s bro-vote and potentially Michael’s or Malcolm’s.) And even if he won’t have the competition that I think he should have, he’ll still be a richly deserving winner. (Not to mention a great example of how to edit an under the radar player; production, please take note!)

Meanwhile, I always enjoy a season where we get an insight into where people draw the ethical boundaries in Survivor. I’ve often said that South Pacific is my favorite season because of the controversial use of religion in the game and how the different players reacted to that. This season’s taboo has come up a lot later in the run, but it provides just as much insight into the social game. Cochran’s played a great game to get his win, but Dawn’s is the game to learn from.

Sarah Freeman

By day, Sarah Freeman is a stay at home mum; by night (or at least early evening), she’s an internet writer. I would love to take the discussion further: comment or tweet! More From Sarah Freeman »


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