This week was one of the most uncomfortable episodes of Survivor that I have ever seen. Not since Brandon Hantz had his meltdown in Survivor: Caramoan have I enjoyed watching an episode less. While I am glad that Survivor aired the fight between Will and Shirin, and in doing so confronted a very real issue, I admit that I hated watching it. It was disturbing to see Will stoop to such personal attacks, and it was certainly not an episode that I would classify as good television. We saw so many ill-thought outbursts this week, and so for our lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to season seven, Survivor: Pearl Islands, to look at the game of eventual winner Sandra Diaz-Twine.
The reason that I want to look at Sandra’s game is because she also had several famous outbursts. She wasn’t afraid of conflict and instigated several arguments. But the arguments that she had helped her to get to the end of the game, and to eventually win it. She also knew when it would benefit her game to keep her mouth shut, and despite being someone who plays with her emotions, she was able to keep her emotions in check when it mattered.
There are two moments of Sandra’s Pearl Islands game in particular that I want to highlight. The first is during the post-merge game. Sandra’s closest ally, Rupert Boneham, had been blindsided. Sandra found himself on the bottom of the totem pole. She had one ally left- Christa Hastie- and was up against a five-person alliance. In control of the alliance were Burton Roberts and Jon Dalton, whom Sandra had already had several arguments with throughout the game. The two of them had a tight friendship and were able to manipulate Lil Morris into voting with them. Burton and Jon had joined with two members of the Morgan tribe, Darrah Johnson and Tijuana Bradley. Both Darrah and Tijuana intended to continue to vote with the men and eliminate Sandra and Christa next.
Sandra had been spying on her tribe mates the entire game, telling the camera that this was the only way that she knew what was going on. When she saw Burton and Jon go off for a walk, she quickly grabbed Tijuana, telling her to come and listen. As Sandra and Tijuana listened, Burton and Jon laughed and gloated about their sure path to the final three with Lil. After hearing the men talk, Tijuana agreed to vote out Burton. Sandra told the camera: “It was better for her to hear with her own ears coming out of their mouths than for me to put things in her head and for her to have doubts. There’s no doubts now.” When Jon realised that Tijuana and Darrah were no longer on board with his alliance, he convinced Sandra and Christa to vote with Burton and him, and Tijuana was the next person out.
Although Sandra was certainly not averse to conflict, she handled this situation perfectly. Immediately on returning to camp after Rupert’s blindside, she had tried arguing with Jon. She had screamed at Jon, told Tijuana and Darrah that he was not to be trusted, and it didn’t make a difference. It was much better strategy to lead Tijuana to discover the truth herself.
This week, Mike was in the same situation- he was spying on his allies and overheard an enlightening conversation. He said: “I overheard Rodney, Will, Tyler and Mama C, and there’s definitely been a power shift in this game…I know that they are coming for my head.” Mike’s response to finding out that his allies were against him was similar to Sandra’s initial response- anger. But instead of going to Dan and Sierra with irrefutable proof, Mike made the quick decision to confront Rodney, and that decision blew up in his face.
He chose the worst possible moment to have the confrontation. The group had just returned from the auction, where Mike had made a move that seemed to be untrustworthy. With Mike, Dan and Carolyn refusing to spend any money and holding out for a possible game advantage, Jeff Probst offered the castaways a letter each from home. With the price set at $20, Dan and Carolyn, both desperate to hear from family at home, made a deal that everybody would spend the money, leaving them each with $480. Mike waited for them to spend the money, then walked back to his seat. Although he changed his mind, even the fact that he was willing to make the move had alienated him from the group. Dan, in particular, felt betrayed by someone that he had considered a friend. Returning to camp, everyone had their letters to read. And before they could be opened, Mike confronted Rodney.
In Mike’s situation, he needed to get Sierra and Dan on his side. He already had Shirin and Jenn, and with Sierra and Dan, they would have the majority over Rodney’s alliance. Ultimately, both Sierra and Dan were horrified at Mike’s words. Dan later told Rodney: “He showed his true colours”. Sierra’s response was “This is a symptom of being exhausted. And paranoia. And he has the worst timing ever.”
Mike wasn’t confronting Rodney with any proof. He was confronting him only with accusations. For Dan and Sierra, the one with the untrustworthy actions is Mike. Mike was the one who tried to screw everyone over at the auction. All Mike accomplished with his outburst was to drive Dan and Sierra closer to Rodney. Rodney said to the camera “I got to beat him with my mind, I got to beat him with my wit, and because of what he done, he made my job easy.” Rodney was then able to turn against Mike without alienating Dan and Sierra- the perfect position for him. Rodney is now able to go with whichever group he chooses, with every player in the game wanting to eliminate Mike, who has always been a physical threat, but is now showing himself to be untrustworthy and paranoid as well. It seemed that with one outburst, Mike went from having complete control of the game to being isolated and without allies.
Mike wasn’t the only one with an ill-advised outburst this week. Will also had a moment that he would likely regret, although Will’s words didn’t have the same in-game consequences as Mike’s.
Sandra’s game was full of moments where she would argue with her fellow castaways. In episode three, Sandra’s tribe (Drake) is talking about who should sit out a reward challenge. At this point, Drake already has a two-person advantage over the opposing tribe, Morgan. When Jon suggested that Sandra should be one of the people that sat out the challenge, especially if it were a swimming challenge, Sandra immediately became angry. She loudly reminded Jon of the first day on the beach, where she had swum to shore faster than he had and accused him of being the worst swimmer. The two exchanged various obscenities with Sandra eventually yelling in Jon’s face, famously telling him: “I can get loud, too!”
This moment had several strategic benefits for Sandra. Firstly, because it didn’t happen until she had time to settle into the tribe and establish alliances, she knew that her closest alliances, Rupert and Christa, had the same distrust for Jon that she did. After the argument, she is able to lie back down in the shelter with the rest of the tribe. Apart from Jon, nobody was angry at Sandra. She knew that her emotional outburst wasn’t going to isolate her from the tribe. This was still early enough in the game that Sandra’s weakness in challenges could have gotten her voted out, and that is part of the reason that it was a wise decision to argue with Jon. She didn’t want to be openly seen as the weakest member of the tribe- that would give them a reason to vote her out. Her argument helps her to shift the target away from her and onto Jon. Of course, Sandra’s outburst wasn’t personal. It was limited to their positions in the game- neither wanted to be seen as the weaker link.
Will’s attack on Shirin was obviously far worse. Will hardly referred to Shirin’s position in the game, and attacked her as a person. As awful as it was, Will’s argument with Shirin may also have had strategic benefits. Although he didn’t improve the viewer’s perception of him, what he accomplished was to further isolate Shirin and Mike. The accusation that Mike, Jenn and Shirin were making could have been dangerous to Will’s game. And from his position, safe in the majority alliance, in a great spot with everything to lose, I absolutely think it was the correct game move to confront them, and prove to the tribe that he was in fact telling the truth. They were casting aspersions on his trustworthiness, and his trustworthiness is his greatest asset. He absolutely needed to drag out the box, show everyone that nothing more could possibly have fitted inside. The last thing he needed was for anyone to believe Mike, and start to wonder what other lies Will could be telling.
So I have no problem with Will’s decision to confront Shirin. She was the only one around at the time, and it was a situation that needed to be addressed. I only wish that he could have been less emotional and certainly less personal about it. He definitely could have achieved his purpose in a far less brutal way. All he needed to do was demonstrate that he was telling the truth, that he had shared all the food that fit into the box, and show his alliance that Mike had been working with Jenn and Shirin to turn the tribe against him. Being angry at Shirin was understandable, but the personal attacks were reprehensible and unnecessary. It became even worse when he had the opportunity to apologise during Tribal Council. When Shirin was in tears, explaining why his words had hurt her so much, and Will’s only response was:“It’s true, though.”
I don’t think Will’s words did any damage to his game, other than to ensure that Shirin won’t give him her vote at the Final Tribal Council (Although, as a fan of the game, I doubt that Shirin would ever have voted for Will regardless). None of his alliance was bothered by it. Shirin commented that they even seemed to see it as entertainment. Anything that pushes Mike closer to Shirin (and by default, further away from Dan and Sierra) is great for Rodney, Will, Tyler and Carolyn. While Mike stood up for Shirin, and took her away from the argument, Dan and Sierra remained still and silent, hinting that their allegiance is no longer to Mike, but is now to Rodney and Will.
I think that after rewatching this week’s episode, the thing that made me the most upset was that not only did the argument not damage Will’s game, but it seemed to be a positive thing. Attacking someone who is on the outs, further isolating them from the group, while at the same time being so obnoxious that Will has made himself an even more attractive person to be sitting next to at the Final Tribal Council- he has put himself into a better position than ever. Yelling at Shirin gives Will some common ground with Dan and Rodney, both of whom have expressed their opinion of her- Rodney thinks she’s pointless, and Dan thinks she’s annoying and terrible at the game. Telling someone that nobody loved them and they had no soul actually seemed to be good gameplay. Yes, Shirin denied Will the chance to get his letter from home, ostensibly because of the argument (Although in secret scenes, she says that she would have been opposed to him getting the letters either way, even though the argument they had did play some part in her decision). But in the long run, he has not only done his game no harm, but also the argument actually had a positive impact.
There is a darker side to Survivor. Often, the game does reward behaviour which we would never condone in real life. In season one, being part of an alliance was seen as immoral. But the game has come a long way since then. Lying is a normal part of Survivor now, and there is no limit to the lies that can be told. Everybody signs up to the same game- outwit, outplay, outlast- and seems to understand that the moral boundaries of the game are different to the moral boundaries of life.
What does it take to win Survivor? What is it that is rewarded? The jury doesn’t vote for the nicest player. Or the player that worked the hardest. Or the player that won the most challenges. And if they did, as fans we would be furious. We want to see players ‘play the game’, make big moves- in other words, we want to see players betray each other. We want to see backstabbing. We want to see the player that is the best manipulator make it to the end. We want to see strategy rewarded, and I don’t think that is a bad thing.
Will isn’t the first to do something that is morally questionable, and he won’t be the last. In Survivor: Pearl Islands, Sandra swore on the life of her kids that she would be with Jon until the final three, and she did this without blinking. Survivor has a long history of players making questionable moral decisions to advance themselves in the game. Outwit, outplay and outlast have been used as justification by many a player at the Final Tribal Council. Twila swears on the life of her son. Jon swears on his ‘dead’ grandmother. Dreamz takes Yau Man’s car and still votes him out. All of these moves were seen as morally wrong by the audience, and yet they benefitted the games of the players. So where is the line? Did Will cross it?
I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and I’m not even sure I can answer it. My first thought was that the line was crossed when Will made reference to Shirin’s family at home. But if that were true, does Sandra cross the line when she swears on her children’s lives? Should everything outside of the game be left outside of the game? Was Will’s outburst so awful because of Shirin’s history with abuse? If he had made the same comments to Jenn, would they have been received the same way? Perhaps if Will had made his outburst with any strategic intent at all, it would have been excusable. Perhaps what makes it so uncomfortable to watch is that Will’s sole intent seems to be to break Shirin down. It advanced his game, but that was an unintended side effect. All Will was trying to achieve was to hurt Shirin, just as her accusations had hurt him.
I think one of the best things about Survivor is that it can be thought-provoking. It is disturbing to watch Will bullying Shirin, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be shown. It is always good to show the impact that words can have. We saw how Will’s onslaught broke Shirin down, how his insults hit a nerve with her and his verbal assault left her in tears. Will’s words were horrible to watch, but I hope that by screening it, Survivor showed just how badly words can hurt. They showed how ugly bullying is. They showed that there is simply no justification for attacking somebody that way.
I think that if we look at the game in isolation, if we accept the premise that Survivor is purely a game and has a completely separate moral code, then Will made a good move in attacking Shirin. Dan, Sierra, Rodney and Tyler did the right thing by playing it safe and staying silent, allowing Will to continue to attack. Mike’s move, stepping in and protecting Shirin, had the power to destroy his game, and certainly damaged his alliance with Dan and Sierra, and was therefore a bad move.
The episode between Will and Shirin was bigger than the game. And even if his outburst did bring him closer to the Final Tribal Council, I hope that Will regrets his behaviour. And I hope that future players can see the backlash that Will is getting at the moment and recognise that the game does not exist on a completely separate moral code. Your actions within the game are going to be judged by those at home. Perhaps this isn’t fair, and perhaps those of us at home are judging an edited version of what is going on. But the fact that Survivor is televised is part of the attraction of the game in the first place. Contestants should expect that their behaviour will be scrutinised. It is part of being on the show. It is a game, but it isn’t just a game. And no matter what the in-game benefits are, there are some lines that should not be crossed.