Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, Catherine Lucas revisits another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.
Lessons in Survivor History: It Isn’t a Fair Game
That wasn’t supposed to happen. I cannot remember ever feeling so completely gutted after watching the votes get read out. And even now, many rewatches later, it still hits hard. We weren’t supposed to lose both Tony and Malcolm within the first three weeks of the season. This week was supposed to be the straightforward Hali boot. And if Survivor was a fair game (which of course, it is not), then Hali would have gone home.
I’m trying not to be results oriented. I love Malcolm, and so I’m mad that the twist sent him home. At the same time, I can appreciate that it was a big moment that got people talking. I think that ultimately, Survivor is a game- but it is also a TV show. And in the end, unless the TV show is successful, the game doesn’t exist. The producers have an obligation to do what they can to keep the TV show rating well- whether that means bringing Ozzy back for the fourth time, or the crazy twists that we saw this week. Survivor the TV show has no obligation to be fair. And Survivor the game has always been a game with a high dependence on luck. And this week, Sierra got lucky. Malcolm did not.
Usually, when I set out to write this blog, I jot down all the different historical references that come to mind. I don’t want to write about the same player multiple times, so I make sure that I have something different. I try to vary the seasons that I write about- perhaps a new-school season one week, an old-school the week after. And I try really, really hard not to just pick the most obvious comparison. But sometimes, the most obvious comparison is the best comparison. And so for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to season 14- Survivor: Fiji, and the 10th place finisher, Michelle Yi.
Survivor: Fiji is an unusual season for many reasons. Firstly, after the last minute withdrawal of one of the contestants, the game began with 19 people, who were all left together on one beach. Supplied with flint, building materials, shelter building instructions, and with 19 people to do the job, they created the most luxurious shelter that Survivor had ever seen. It had a roof, floors, and even an outhouse. The group were given access to plenty of food, and it seemed that their Survivor experience would be a comfortable one.
However, on day three, the 19 players were divided into two tribes- Moto and Ravu- and competed in a challenge. The winning tribe would win immunity- and the right to live at the luxurious camp. They would also be given even more supplies- a couch and a shower- that would make their lives even easier. The losing tribe would be sent to a new beach to start afresh. Unfortunately for Michelle, she found herself on Ravu, who would go on to lose the challenge. On the Ravu beach, there was no fire, no access to food, and no shelter. Their physical states quickly deteriorated. They were exhausted, starving and dehydrated- and every three days they competed against the Moto tribe, who were living in luxury. Unsurprisingly, Ravu lost every immunity challenge that they competed in.
Throughout this time, although she attended four of the first five tribal councils, and lost every single challenge, Michelle was never in any danger of being sent home. She had built solid relationships, and seemed to be liked by everyone. Eventual winner Earl Cole saw her as an integral part of his alliance. James ‘Rocky’ Reid spoke affectionately towards Michelle, referring to her as ‘my girl Michelle’. It was Michelle who eventually managed to create fire at Ravu, earning her hero status among her tribe. She never received a vote against her while she was at Ravu- and she was the only Ravu member not to receive a vote. Despite being a victim of the have/have nots twist, which is certainly in the conversation for most unfair twist in Survivor history, Michelle managed to use the tribe’s hardships to her advantage, and create strong social bonds.
Eventually, Michelle, along with her allies Earl and Yau Man Chan, were swapped over to the Moto tribe. At Moto, Earl was able to reconnect with Cassandra Franklin, who he had aligned with on day one, when all players were on the same beach. Michelle was able to befriend Stacy Kimball, and the two of them had some strategic conversations. The other member of the Moto tribe, Boo Bernis, was also willing to be loyal to Earl and Michelle. It seemed that they had successfully navigated their way out of the Ravu tribe, and despite the suffering of the early days, they were in a position where they could finally take some power.
But for Michelle, the power was short lived. When the two tribes merged, she was in a great position. However, when they turned up to what they thought would be the first individual immunity challenge, production had decided on another twist. The ten players were asked to draw rocks out of a bag– green or orange. They were then split into two teams, and those teams played for immunity. The losing team would all attend Tribal Council together. Michelle was separated from nearly all of her allies, and was sent to Tribal with Dreamz Herd and Alex Angarita, both of whom had been on separate tribes from Michelle throughout the entire game. She was also with Mookie Lee, who had been with Michelle on the original Ravu, but had remained on Ravu after the tribe swap, and Stacy, who had been on Moto throughout the game.
To make matters worse for Michelle, immediately after the challenge, Jeff Probst said, “You will not be heading back to camp. There will be no time to strategise. We are headed to Tribal Council right now.” Michelle never even had time to scramble. And this was season 14- there was none of the getting up at Tribal or whispering amongst allies that we see now. Michelle was powerless to stop what was happening. Alex, Mookie and Dreamz had formed an alliance. They weren’t going to vote for each other. Michelle’s only chance was to get them to vote against Stacy- but Alex and Dreamz had a good relationship with Stacy from their days at the original Moto. Eventually, Mookie joined Michelle and voted against Stacy, but it wasn’t enough. Michelle was sent home and became the third member of the jury.
The parallels between Michelle and Malcolm are clear- both were voted out by people that hadn’t had the chance to play the game with them. Neither of them had a chance to defend themselves. Both were a victim of a Tribal Council twist that seems to be utterly random. What happened to Michelle in season 14 has not happened since. Survivor recognised that Michelle’s exit was unfair, and in every season since, when the tribes merge together, they stay merged. Will this twist suffer the same fate? Will we ever see two tribes voting out one person again? It did provide us with a wonderful television moment. But it also got rid of a fan favourite, and someone that I’m sure production would have loved to keep around as well.
One of the reasons that Michelle’s exit is so upsetting is because she was legitimately in a position where she was likely to win the game. She was on good terms with everyone that she had played with. She had a strong alliance– Earl referred to her as his number one alliance, when he said that “The tribe within a tribe is myself, Michelle, Cassandra and Yau.” When Michelle left, Earl had to reconfigure his game, and he brought Dreamz in as a close ally. Michelle’s original alliance made it all the way to the end of the game, with Earl eventually voting Yau-Man out of the game in fourth place, after recognising that Yau had a good chance to win the game. Earl played a loyal game, sticking with Cassandra and Yau right up until the last minute. If Michelle had been in the game, I don’t think Earl would have betrayed her either. Would she have gone out at the final four? Perhaps. But there is a good chance that she would have been sitting at the end of the game, having played a strong social game and been loyal to her alliances.
Malcolm, on the other hand? I think his chances of making the Final Tribal Council were zero percent at this point. Even if he made it through this twist, did he honestly have a chance of winning? The first three boots had all been from the Mana tribe, and old Nuku members have the numerical advantage on two of the three tribes. Nuku seem to be set on being together. Although Debbie told Hali that she would entertain the idea of voting out Tai, in confessional she told us that she was just telling Hali what Hali wanted to hear. “The philosophy for this Mana tribe is to keep old Nuku tribe.” The merge is shaping up to be dominated by original tribal lines, and that isn’t good news for someone like Malcolm. Even if he had made the merge, even someone with Malcolm’s social skills would have struggled to navigate his way past ten ex-Nuku members, all seemingly determined to remain loyal to each other. Michelle can perhaps claim that she was unfairly robbed of a win. I don’t think Malcolm could say the same.
In Michelle’s case, at least the twist was post-merge. Although it was still hugely unfair, it was still the individual portion of the game, and so the players at that Tribal Council could have chosen to vote out the biggest threats. After the merge is, after all, when you usually want to get rid of the players who could win individual immunity. Michelle isn’t the type of player who was meant to go home. Usually, when you give the players this opportunity, they will vote out the biggest threat. It was just unlucky for Michelle that she was there with three strong men, all of whom were aligned to each other.
This week’s twist was also designed to get rid of a strong player. There are going to be more tribal immunity challenges, and the new-Nuku tribe are incredibly strong. For those on Mana to survive until the merge, they have to weaken them. It might have been tempting to target Sandra, but she isn’t the reason that Nuku have been dominant in the challenges. There were two players there that have the reputation of being physical threats– JT (who is protected, because he was part of the original Nuku tribe), and Malcolm. Now, with Malcolm out, Nuku are significantly weakened. JT, Aubry and Michaela are strong, but Sandra and Varner are both liabilities. You want the chance to sit those two out of the challenges– but now they have to play. And Nuku, who once looked invincible, now look like they will be visiting Jeff at Tribal Council again soon. And, given the chance to vote JT out, they might relish their visit!
The thing that really sunk Michelle’s game was that she was arbitrarily put on a tribe with people that she had no chance to form a relationship with. Sure, they’d all played the first two days together, but there were 19 players then– 19 people to get to know, and to form bonds with. It makes sense that Michelle hadn’t really interacted with Dreamz or Alex. And then, just when she was expecting that the game was individual, and just when she thought she had control of the game, she needed to convince Alex and Dreamz to side with her, and vote out someone (Stacy) that they had played two weeks of the game with. She was never going to have the social capital to pull that move off. Alex made that clear at the Tribal. When Jeff asked him for a reason to vote out Stacy, he replied, “I don’t have a reason to vote out Stacy, Jeff.” He repeated this answer for each of the players sitting with him at Tribal Council– except Michelle. Asked for a reason to vote out Michelle, Alex responded, “I don’t know Michelle as well as I know everyone else on this tribe, Jeff.”
This is a returning player season, and perhaps Malcolm does have some relationship with the people that voted him out. But relationships inside the game have always counted for more than friendships outside the game (just ask Boston Rob and Lex!). Of the five people that voted him out, Malcolm hadn’t had the opportunity to play with any of them except Hali. And Hali did seem to try and save Malcolm– or at least do as much as she could without making her new tribe hate her.
I think that Malcolm was hoping that his relationship with JT would keep him safe. And JT did seem to be in a good position within the Nuku tribe before the swap. But if Brad wants to work with JT, that doesn’t mean that he wants to keep all of JT’s new friends around. Brad’s game plan so far has been to isolate his allies, making sure that they depend on him, and only him. Caleb is sitting around Ponderosa as proof of that strategy. It isn’t in Brad’s best interests for JT to have Malcolm around as another option. Although Malcolm can justifiably be frustrated that he had no relationships with the new Mana tribe, it was his closest relationship, the bromance with JT that increased the target on his back.
Watching Michelle’s game can be quite heartbreaking. While on the new Moto tribe, she begins to target Stacy, even though the two of them are ostensibly friends. In confessional, she said “I am afraid that the longer Stacy sticks around, the more in danger it puts me. Because me and Stacy are both kind of carbon copies of each other when it comes to function, I don’t think there’s enough room for both of us.” At the time, it was odd– Stacy didn’t seem to be a threat to Michelle at all. But in the end, Michelle’s paranoia was proven correct. There wasn’t enough room for them both.
Malcolm briefly considered the idea that Mana might put their votes on him, but reasoned that he would be safe by virtue of his relationship with JT. Going into Tribal, he was absolutely certain that he would be safe. He believed that Mana would be putting their votes on Sandra– but more than that, he believed that the numbers were on his side. Nuku had six members there, and Mana had five. They would vote for Sierra, and Malcolm felt assured that she would never find an idol. As Varner said when voting, if Sierra had the idol, he would have soiled himself! He just never considered that JT would tell Brad who to play the idol on– and that the result would be that Malcolm would be sent home.
On Mana, Sierra was far more paranoid. She knew that anything was possible. In confessional, she said “this is going to be crazy, because it can be anybody tonight.” Sierra wasn’t the typical person that should have been expecting to go home. If anything, Brad, their strongest male, who has been singlehandedly keeping Mana in the challenges, should have been the one worried. But Sierra was wise enough to know that you can never relax in Survivor. And it is a really bad idea to relax when you know you are about to march into an unprecedented situation like Tribal Council was this week.
Of course, it wasn’t Sierra’s outstanding ability to read a room that kept her safe this week. It was the work that Brad had previously put in with JT that made JT feel confident enough to give Brad the right information. But Sierra’s attitude going into that Tribal Council was much better than Malcolm’s, because she was at least aware that it could have been her. And a healthy amount of paranoia isn’t a bad thing. Going into such a strange situation, they all should have been paranoid.
Ultimately, although Malcolm is certainly the victim of an unfair twist, he doesn’t go home unless Tai finds that idol- which was quite suspicious. Troyzan had to go to the trouble of finding it at the challenge, in plain view of his entire tribe, but Tai gets the opportunity to find one at camp, away from everyone else? However, there is precedent for this. In Survivor: Cambodia, the first two idols were found at challenges, but the next two were both hidden at camp. I also think that this twist, already unfair, becomes even more unfair without the idol. Because without the idol, nobody from Mana stands a chance. Nuku can just pick off whoever they like without any repercussions. At least with the idol, Sierra got the chance to keep herself safe.
I’m still sad to see Malcolm go. I love his enthusiasm for the game, I love his effortless humour in confessionals, and yes, I love his wonderful hair. I didn’t like the twist. I didn’t like the twist because it sent Malcolm home, but I wouldn’t have liked the twist even if Sierra had gone home. It just seems to be against the spirit of the game to have people that never played with you be responsible for your fate.
Survivor: Fiji is not what you would call a universally loved season. It is a season where the producers tried lots and lots of twists. Some of them worked– Fiji was the first time we saw the immunity idol in its current form, where it can be played before the votes are read– but most of the twists failed miserably, and made the game far more about luck than skill. Michelle is a perfect example of this, but she’s not the only one. I’m okay with the producers giving this particular twist a try, but I’m sure I’m not the only one that never wants to see it return.