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Individual Games – Numbers vs. Trust

With Luzon being no more (The Brains may still be together, but it’s just not the same!) I was a little apprehensive about this week’s episode of Survivor. After all, the last time Tasha, Kass and Spencer avoided Tribal Council, we were treated to the gloomy prospect of Brice being voted off leaving the less interesting Beauties to form what appeared to be a solid yet unoriginal foursome.

How wrong I was to doubt this cast. We have Trish as our scenery-chewing villain, complete with diabolical laughter. There’s LJ, the stoic underdog with balls of cold steel. Lindsey is a dreadlocked Cassandra, desperately trying to convince others of her prophecies of doom. Gentle giant, Cliff, does what’s right by his friends, while his protégé, Woo, rests in his shadow, the potential for great things waiting in his future. Finally, of course, there’s Tony: both treacherous counselor and comedy sidekick wrapped up in one New Jersey package. Really, the only flaw in this whole epic is the random insertion of an anachronistic cowgirl in the wide shots.

For a climax, we had Tribal Council. Maybe we didn’t get the zingers that we do when the Brains are there, but Solana matched them for unpredictability. I went into that Tribal convinced that it was a done deal, since LJ was bound to play his idol, so Cliff was gone. When LJ didn’t, there was that fleeting certainty that he had outplayed himself, that Tony had stuck with his own preferred plan and gone with Cliff’s side. For once in a rare while, I was still on the edge of my seat as Jeff revealed that final vote for Cliff.

Taking Away the Lynchpin

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Did Sarah get the short end of it?

Going into this episode, if you’d watched the previews and knew how the tribes were going to shake out, you would never have expected one of the Solana Brawns to go home. Whether it was a conspiracy on production’s part, or it just didn’t occur to the intern wrapping the buffs that they should be mixed up rather than stacked with a purple layer and an orange layer, that was perhaps the most unbalanced tribal swap since All Stars, and it was Beauty (and Sarah) that got the short end of it.

Many of the players have been anticipating a swap (as they should!) and it must have come as a huge relief to each Brawn that they had not only a majority but all but one of their alliance intact. Even Trish had a secret scene expressing her pleasure over that.

Not only that, but they had a physically strong team, with the weakest Beauties (Alexis and Morgan) transferring to Aparri along with the Brains who have had ample opportunity to prove their challenge deficiencies. Even LJ, devastated to find himself in such a hopeless minority, opined that they really shouldn’t lose a challenge unless they’re blindfolded.

Finally, while we didn’t see anybody talk about the hidden immunity idol and the original decision, the obvious assumption (and the one LJ would have fostered) is that any idol had most likely gone with Morgan to Aparri, so they didn’t even have to worry about that. For the five Brawns, they must all have had a private: “I’m going to make the merge!” moment.

The most obvious downside was that they were on a new beach, and they’d lost all their extra comfort items and the bag of rice Trish had given them. Aparri Beach seems to be the superior one with a lot more fruit available, and while Brawn had recently enjoyed a dozen eggs, Solana’s chickens aren’t laying.

However the biggest change to the Brawn alliance dynamic was Sarah’s disappearance. Just last week, I wrote about how she was the lynchpin of her tribe, a key figure in both alliances. This week we got to see what happens when the lynchpin is taken away. The tribe themselves didn’t seem unduly concerned. Woo and Trish both took a moment to feel sorry for Sarah, but were mostly too happy for their own game to fret unduly that one of their allies was potentially sunk.

I did wonder if it would have been better for them to throw challenges for the sake of protecting Sarah. The difference between that and losing this first challenge would have been a strategy for Brawn to rally behind. It would have given Trish some reassurance that Cliff was committed to a Brawn final six, so she could safely stick with him through to the merge—not that I think it would have been enough.

As it was, Cliff revealed that their hope was that Sarah would be a swing vote on her new tribe and get back to them at the merge. That seems a little optimistic to me, but had they stuck together as Cliff planned, her vote-off would not have hurt their game significantly.

Had Sarah been there, it’s entirely possible that that wouldn’t have made a difference either. After all, Sarah wanted to throw a challenge to get Cliff out last week. Had she been there, even in place of Trish, she might have gone forward with the plan anyway—though I personally think Sarah would be warier of aligning with LJ and Jefra, if only because she doesn’t need to.

However, the real difference made by Sarah’s absence was the lack of communication—most notably with Woo. Woo was ostensibly in the alliance with Trish and Tony. He wasn’t a secret vote in Sarah’s pocket, he was a number they knew about. Yet neither of them tipped him off about the vote. That’s understandable, he’s got a better relationship with Cliff than with them, and his dealings with their alliance had always come through Sarah.

Yet Woo was so adamant all episode that nothing was going to happen, that they had the majority. He looked more shocked than anybody when the vote was announced. Was that because he thought Tony would clue him in? I’m a little surprised that Tony didn’t at least discuss it with him… blindsiding your ally is a good way to create a rift, and this would have been the perfect time for Tony to develop a bond with Woo outside of Sarah.

Certainly, if Sarah had been there, I think she’d have talked to Woo, and that would have given Woo the perfect opportunity to talk her out of it, to assure her that Cliff wasn’t looking to vote her out early, and that they could stay six-strong to the merge. That logic, set against the threat of Beauty, might well have saved Cliff.

Right Side of Numbers; Wrong Side of Trust

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The Wrong Side of Trust.

One of the really great things about the Brawn split was that everybody was right about what they needed to do or worry about. Cliff, Woo, and Tony were absolutely right to follow the logic of keeping their numbers. Lindsey was right that Trish was a threat to flip. And Trish was right for flipping. As she said at Tribal Council, it’s no good going with the numbers if they’re not your numbers.

Unlike Sarah (or even Tony who seems to have had a functional relationship with Cliff after all), Trish was always on the outs with her tribe. While getting singled out at the start could not have helped, Cliff and Lindsey, at least, seemed irritated with her for more personal reasons, to the point that they couldn’t pretend to like her and include her in their game discussions. In my first blog of the season, I talked about how there’s a trend of Survivor players underestimating an older woman’s ability to turn on them. Looks like we have another example.

According to Cliff’s interview, Trish had had her eyes on LJ as a good looking guy for a while. While I agree with everybody else that the age difference there is, shall we say, ‘squicky’, I’ve said before that LJ has one of those ageless faces, and I wonder if Trish thought he was closer to her age. (For the record, there’s a fourteen year age gap between LJ and Trish, and a thirteen year one between Jeremiah and Morgan; despite all the speculation, this is not a season suited to showmances.) Certainly, the thirty-six year old side of me is tickled that the flirtation is going on between the older set for a change.

I’m sure Trish’s emotions played a factor in her willingness to align with LJ—likewise, she took to Jefra because her daughter’s a similar age—but her defection was on the cards last episode when she aided and abetted Sarah’s plan to throw the challenge.

Trish was going into the swap looking for alternative alliances: while everybody else was sitting back and regarding LJ and Jefra as cannon fodder, Trish befriended them—which in any event isn’t a bad idea if you believe you’re going to win every challenge until the merge.

One potential to bear in mind here is that if Sarah was the swing vote at Aparri, as Cliff hoped, the most logical thing for her to do is join the Brains and whittle down the Beauties, so LJ and Jefra would still be in the minority come the merge and would still need Trish. I’d have to jump to conclude that was Trish’s expectation, but I certainly didn’t get the feeling that Trish was flipping to the Beauties and the bottom of another totem pole—she seemed more focused on making her own alliance.

I noticed last week that Sarah and Trish had started strategizing together, leaving Tony out of the loop. I commented on how their connection put Sarah in the lynchpin position of this second alliance, but now the same is true for Trish. She’s forged a relationship with Jefra as well as LJ, and she has a better bond with Tony than either of them. If this was a final four scenario, Trish would make it to the finals every time. (Though softspoken LJ probably wins.)

It makes no sense at all for Trish to break up her new alliance for the sake of keeping Brawn’s numbers. Yes, it could be argued that she should go with the virtual lock for final five or six and hope to worm her way up the alliance, make herself a final’s goat, but what would be her case for winning?

If she can make this new alliance work, she can pick back up with either Sarah or even one of the Brains’ older women and trek to the finals in a power position. It’s ambitious, but that’s the type of game a fan wants to play. (NB If the Brawn tribe are representative of how likeable Trish is, she’s still going to have an uphill battle at Final Tribal Council.)

It’s another reason that I’m surprised Tony went with her, because he’s ceding so much power to Trish. We don’t know what relationship he had with LJ and Jefra, but considering how ready he was to vote LJ off (and that the jury hasn’t started) we can assume he’s put less effort into them than Trish has.

The limited view we saw of Trish’s arguments seemed to center on Cliff’s challenge-ability. Somebody with Cliff’s build is unlikely to go on an immunity streak; however, the challenges that favor Tony will probably also favor Cliff, so taking out Cliff increases Tony’s chances of winning the necklace at some point dramatically.

There are a few Sarah-centric reasons to go with the Cliff-vote. Trish might have told him how Sarah tried to throw the challenge last time and suggested that voting Cliff off would send a message to Sarah that they were sticking with the plan and their alliance. Perhaps, as suggested on the podcast, Tony wanted to reduce the likelihood of Sarah finding out his lies. Or maybe he wanted Aparri to see that the Brawns were already cannibalizing themselves, so Brains and Beauty didn’t need to gang up on Sarah.

Honestly, we could go on endlessly with speculation. For all we know, Jefra was the one to convince Tony with a conniving side deal of her own. In the end, knowing how Tony has played so far, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he just liked the idea of pulling off a major blindside and didn’t want to have to wait until the merge. Having the confidence booster of a secret immunity idol doesn’t hurt either.

The greatest mystery of all, this Tribal Council, was that LJ didn’t play his idol. Did he have a reason to trust Tony that we don’t know about? Has he got some secret horse-whispering powers that give him an uncanny read on people? Or was it just wishful thinking that got proved right for a change? If it’s the latter, he could be leaving himself open to a blindside later. (Unless the god idol is merely an upgrade for the idols currently in play, rather than a separate idol.) Still, for now, we have to congratulate him on getting away with a bold play—one that should negate all suspicion that he has the Solana idol.

Trish, LJ and Jefra are sitting pretty for now, but where does Tony go from here? He could just follow along with Trish’s plans, doing his random idol-hunting and spy-shack building in the background without ever impacting the actual game. Tony’s guaranteed to talk up a big game at final Tribal Council, and though Trish would be bringing him as her final’s goat, I could see Tony beating her (and Jefra, but probably not LJ) to take the million.

I’d rather see Tony take a more active role of course, and that means forging his own social connections. I can’t see him building a tighter bond with LJ or Jefra behind Trish’s back, so his best option—at least until the merge when he might be able to reunite with Sarah—is to pull Woo under his wing. (I think it’s safe to say that Lindsey is a lost cause.)

Woo’s fate is in the balance right now. With his age, build and athleticism, he’s the leading contender to go an immunity streak post-merge, so the logical move for the new alliance is to vote him off. On the other hand, he could go to Tony after tonight’s Tribal Council and say: “Why didn’t you tell me? I said I’d be good to vote off Cliff. I’m with you.”

Sarah was always Woo’s connection to the rival alliance, but based on very tenuous evidence, I’d say he’s closer to Tony than Trish. For now, he represents Tony’s best hope of shifting the balance of power back towards himself.

Fortunately, Woo might be saved by Trish’s dislike of Lindsey, who has already been pegged as the person next to go. Lindsey might be able to save herself if she plays Woo up as the bigger threat, but I don’t see Lindsey throwing an ally under the bus. Besides, this is the first time that the game has really gone wrong for this pair, and even without the preview, we can’t expect Lindsey to handle it well. She’s lost two of her closest friends (counting Sarah). She said in her online confessional that the thing that best helps her emotional state is food, and the rations on Solana are significantly slimmer than on Aparri.

I was a lone voice sticking up for Lindsey’s potential pre-season, but I think there’s a dish of humble pie waiting for me in the near future.

Aparri – Laying Low

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Sarah, laying low.

Back at the plush camp that Brawn built, Sarah at least has the comfort that whatever happens on Solana, she can slip right back into an alliance with somebody. This is set against the atrocious twist of fate that separated her from her entire tribe.

The best way to prepare for a tribal swap is to have as many numbers as possible, increasing your odds of having a majority alliance (or significant voting bloc) on the new tribe. The Survivor gods were playing a cruel joke on Sarah, when she still ended up out on her own. (Perhaps this is her penalty for trying to throw a challenge?)

So despite all our comparisons of Luzon to Matsing, it’s Sarah who’s ended up in the Denise role. We didn’t see a lot of her after the swap, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. Like Denise, she’s got to sit back and keep a low profile for a while. Considering Sarah’s micro-managing approach to the game so far, I can only imagine that this is killing her. Still, so far, she seems to be pulling it off.

The one possible advantage Sarah has is that she’s at her home camp, which means she retains all the comforts, and she gets to play the role of hostess, inviting everybody in, giving them the tour and making their first meal. On the podcast, Denise commented that it’s only Sarah for whom things have got worse. For the Brains, the game is 100% better now, and even the Beauties are appreciating the extra comfort and food.

Sarah has a confessional where she talks about just how much more she’s had compared to the other tribes, how she’s only now realizing what a difference that makes to the game experience. What she doesn’t say but I suspect is important, is that in her role as hostess, everybody’s introduction to her is as a benefactor. That’s a nice association for your first impression.

That might not have stopped things going badly for Sarah when Beauty proved so ready to turn on themselves, negating her options for being a swing vote. With that level of chaos coming from Old Solana, the Brains of the operation might have decided they should first knock off the one Brawn they could. Now that Brawn have indisputably fractured, Sarah is much less threatening; it’s still a risk, but with Aparri unlikely to have more than one Tribal Council before the merge (if that), Sarah should be safe until then.

The only move we saw Sarah make was to out Morgan when she brought up the two bags of rice. We can assume the excess rice would have been noticeable anyway, so she’d have had to come up with a public story, but I found it interesting that she made no attempt (that we saw) to pull Morgan aside and try and forge a working relationship with her. Instead, she burnt that bridge as fast as she could.

It worked well as a way of putting a target on Morgan, but what if Morgan had taken the rice as well? She likely would still have resented Sarah’s passive-aggressive sabotage of her game.

But for Sarah’s game, it made more sense to attack the Beauties. She knows she’s going to have an alliance on the other side if she can get to the merge. Her best move is to play saboteur and prevent a rival coalition from emerging.

That coalition will not be Beauty, although sticking together was not necessarily going to be the wisest choice for them either. We always knew Morgan had nothing to lose by jumping ship, and for Alexis, this was the worst possible permutation of the tribal shake-up: throwing her in with the two people who had previously plotted against her, while the players she genuinely trusted are in what looks like a hopeless minority.

As for Jeremiah, he’s now saying that he doesn’t think LJ likes him—maybe that’s a lie, but most of Jeremiah’s dishonesty has been by omission up til now. He’s never been ready with a glib story before. For that matter, we’ve no reason to think LJ does like him. LJ’s never gushed about him in confessional. (Compare to Cliff and Woo.)

More and more, I’m getting the feeling that Jeremiah is totally out of his depth when it comes to the social game. Add in the fact that he’s shown little initiative in strategy, and I’m thinking that the long term prospects aren’t great for our rural model.

Clearly, what Beauty could have done is to declare that bygones were bygones, accept that LJ and Jefra weren’t likely to make the merge, forge a new alliance, and commit to a final three. It’s not clear who first negated that possibility, but I think the window of opportunity for such an agreement closed very quickly. And honestly, trying to pick up Sarah as a swing vote was a huge gamble. Even if she went with them, they could not have depended on her after the merge.

So I don’t necessarily think that fracturing was a bad thing, but pairing up before approaching the Brains might not have been a bad idea. Offer the third Beauty as a sacrificial lamb, and present yourself as a voting bloc that brings the majority alliance to five. Aparri then has a great opportunity to take power post-merge, and the two Beauties have time to pick up a third and work their way into a stronger position.

Instead, the Brains were presented with three separate bids and one of the biggest reversals of fortunes we’ve ever seen for a tribe. Luzon are still together, but now they’ve got four extra people who can help their tribe win challenges. (Solana is chock full of players who are better rounded, athletically, but Aparri now has some leeway because they can sit one person out of a challenge.) Even the three Luzon members are now working together well as a team, taking the clutch spot in the immunity challenge and killing it.

Back at camp, they’re living a life of luxury, the sun is shining, and they’re literally taking interviews for new allies.

Rise to Power

I am having a crisis of faith over this. My pre-season acceptance that the Brains were all doomed has now been dashed with actual hope. Not only do the surviving Luzon members seem a lock to get to the merge, but they have a visible route to the finals. Is this a good thing, or am I setting myself up for bitter disappointment when a team of LJ, Trish and Jefra triumphs?

Perhaps Luzon’s very success will take the shine off for me. I’m certainly a little jaded on them going into this week’s episode since Kass confirmed that keeping Spencer really was a last minute decision. I still feel it was the right one anyway, just because J’Tia’s unpredictability could have caused problems down the road, could have deterred allies, and almost certainly would have hampered them in what was a close immunity challenge anyway.

However, I was calling J’Tia to go out third, because it seemed logical to me that Kass would take the divide and conquer route: vote off Tass and Spencer’s allies to make herself their closest relationship in the game. It may well be that Kass and Tasha became such close friends that she didn’t feel she needed to boot Tasha’s ally, but if voting off J’Tia was never the long-term plan, that means Kass lacked motivation to build up an alliance with Spencer. The same goes for Tasha.

Looking back on it, it was equally concerning that Spencer had no better argument for them than “I can help you win challenges!” Even if the women hadn’t approached him for an alliance, did he not try to make an offer to one of them before that point?

To be fair, everybody seemed to be very pleasant to each other in camp, and while they were frustrated with each other’s gameplay in confessional, we didn’t hear personal attacks. But being nice to each other is a completely different relationship than strategizing with each other.

Even if there was a deal made that we didn’t see, it appears that the reason for keeping Spencer really was for challenges. I suppose what we should bear in mind here is that while it’s easy for us to be confident in a swap (especially once we’d seen last week’s previews), it’s not something they should risk their games on. They only had two precedents to go on in the three tribe format, and one of those involved dissolving the losing tribe in one last challenge. In that scenario, Spencer’s presence might have made the difference between Luzon staying together or splitting up.

Regardless, things have panned out very well for Luzon, and particularly for Kass and Tasha whose strategic partnership is now in the driver’s seat of half the game. It’s notable that when Jeremiah came to make his case, he made it to the women, not to Spencer. (Granted, Jeremiah’s closer in age to Kass and Tasha than he is to Spencer.)

My biggest concern is that this new position of comfort and power might lull the women into a false sense of security at a time when they need to work on strengthening their alliance with Spencer and reinforcing their final three deal. Spencer’s the same age as Morgan and Alexis, and Sarah might consider him a more flexible ally than the older women. He remains a danger to flip.

Does it make sense for Spencer to do so? On the podcast, both Rob and Denise thought Spencer would beat Kass and Tasha in a final three situation, but I’m not entirely sure why, even if you do take my theory of juror bias against older women into account. Spencer hasn’t made a single move so far, and while he could plead an underdog story, so could the women, and (Garrett aside) they don’t seem to annoy other players—granted, none of them have been exposed to a wider social circle yet, but just based on what we’ve seen, I wouldn’t say that Spencer is more charismatic than either.

There’s a lot of game left to play, ample time for Spencer to build a case for himself. (By this point in Philippines, Malcolm hadn’t done anything either, though he had more obvious charisma.) I still feel like we may as well be pre-season when judging Spencer as a player. Most of our assessment is based on his confessionals—he’s avoided some potential screw-ups, but as he hasn’t had a chance to play yet we still don’t know if he can.

If Spencer really wants to win this game, he has to be in charge of who the Brains’ extra numbers are—yet again, it’s all about being the lynchpin. The same thing applies to Kass and Tasha, with the added reminder that they can’t fall into the trap of being a team. At some point, they need to outshine their partner in the eyes of the jury.

Plotting the Course to the Merge

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Kass loves Jeremiah.

With all this in mind, who should the Brains be bringing on board? We have one insight in the secret scenes, when Kass talks about how much she likes Jeremiah, because he’s a hard worker, not playing the social game, decent in challenges and not bad to look at. We knew last week that Kass was yearning for a tribemate who wasn’t lazy, but a lack of social game is an interesting value. I assume she means he’s not ‘working it’, which in turn implies that Morgan and Alexis have both been slapped with the ‘Next Parvati’ red flag.

Based on everything we know about Jeremiah so far, he’d be an admirable pawn, and he’s a nice bridge between the Luzon members: same gender as Spencer, close in age to Tasha. He’s potentially an individual immunity threat, but that’s only really a danger if they think they can’t beat him in the final three. I don’t see Jeremiah out-talking any of Luzon, and I don’t think any of Luzon would be heartbroken if they had to cut a fellow Brain at final four. So I’m calling Jeremiah safe to make the merge at this point.

Who isn’t, now that they’ve seen the outcome of the Solana power-struggle?

I’m not sure how Sarah will react to Cliff’s boot, or indeed what she’s said about the Brawns so far, but the ideal move is for her to profess shock and declare that she loved Uncle Cliffy and can’t understand what happened. Essentially, she has to do everything she can to suggest she’s got no security on the other side now.

The Brains might well worry about what power LJ and Jefra wield to effect such a vote. They might believe Cliff was the victim of an idol, but the number one suspect for the Solana idol remains Morgan. Morgan was blindsided at her first tribal council so even if she had an idol, she wouldn’t necessarily have played it. Is the possibility that she could play an idol at her next visit to Tribal Council fueling Alexis and Jeremiah’s paranoia?

If the Brains think there must have been an idol involved at Solana’s Tribal, then that’s one less reason to target Morgan on Aparri. If they think LJ and Jefra swung the vote without an idol, that’s one more reason to target Alexis.

Jeremiah told the Brains that Alexis was close to LJ; Alexis told them she was friends with Jefra, perhaps because her campaign to be their new ally was based on bringing in numbers after the merge. However, the flipside of that is that the Brains don’t want to take a number who might be drawn to the other side post-merge. And they certainly don’t want to give a rival alliance any extra strength.

Alexis could potentially make a social play for Spencer, since they have a Chicago connection, but that should give Kass and Tasha another reason to target her. The most logical move is to vote Alexis off. Granted, we all know how logically this game has proceeded so far…

That’s not to say there are no grounds to target Morgan. She was the primary target for both Alexis and Jeremiah, so the Brains could vote her off to keep their options open between the other two Beauties. If the idol is a worry, they don’t really have solid enough numbers to split the votes on her—that requires a little too much faith in the others. They might be better off targeting Alexis or Sarah and hoping Morgan will play her (non-existent) idol for safety’s sake.

There’s also the possibility that they would prefer to align with an idol-holder, just in case they need one in the immediate post-merge scramble. They could then default to the most basic idol procedure which is to wait until it becomes invalid and then vote out the holder.

Morgan isn’t a likely immunity threat, so it could be considered preferable to leave the (still non-existent) idol with her rather than risk it falling into the hands of, say, LJ. I consider this a longshot as theories go, but maybe Morgan’s day one decision to take the clue will pay off after all…

If Aparri are headed to Tribal Council next, Wednesday’s episode should give us a very good indication of who is where for the merge. We’ve got a dominant faction emerging on each tribe, ready to go head to head, but it’s not entirely clear who will attach themselves to the bottom. We’ve also got enough floaters to potentially create a third alliance after the initial clash.

I was worried at the start that we might run out of game halfway through the season leading us to a boring post-merge. One month in, and I’m feeling pretty confident that the rollercoaster is going to continue.

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