And with Joe’s rather understated medevac this week, we have reached the final four, and the last week of Survivor: Kaoh Rong. Firstly, I have to say that I have loved this season. I’ve loved the characters, I’ve loved the understated strategy, I’ve loved Mark the chicken, and most of all, I’ve loved that we still have so many strong players. We are in the final four, and each of these players would make a satisfying winner. I’m still rooting for Aubry to pull it off, but I would be happy to see any of them win. With Joe gone, Tai is the only clear goat left, so in the event of a final three, we would be guaranteed a close vote.
Tai is one of the most fascinating characters that I have seen on Survivor. He loves all living things, apologises to trees, is the kindest soul ever to play the game- and yet he has been something of a human wrecking ball in the post-merge game, destroying everything in his path. Like Jason said, he flips more than a flapjack. But he doesn’t seem to be flipping with any strategic intent- for Tai, it is truly an emotional game. He’s doing what feels right to him in each moment. At first, loyalty was what felt right, and he tried to be a loyal soldier for Scot and Jason. After talking with Aubry, his conscience was pricked, and now doing the moral thing and playing the game with good people is what feels right. To that end, he turned on Scot and Jason and stuck to Aubry and Joe. Through both of these moves, he wasn’t thinking about how best to win the game. He was thinking about how best to live with himself. He made the move that helped him sleep at night.
Despite Tai seemingly having no overall strategic plan, he has been driving the strategy throughout the post-merge. Debbie went home because of the superidol threat. Scot, Julia and Jason went home because Tai decided that Aubry was his new best friend. If not for Joe’s medevac, Tai (and his idol) would likely have sent Michele or Cydney home. Tai has held all of the cards- the extra vote advantage, the only remaining idol in the game- and yet he is not seen as the power player. I don’t think anyone on the jury is respecting Tai’s game right now. They are all still furious that he managed to destroy their games, simply on a whim.
Tai’s emotional gameplay, and the effect that it is having on the jury, brings us to this week’s lesson in Survivor history. This week, we are going back to season 26, Survivor: Caramoan, and equal second place finisher Dawn Meehan. Like Tai, Dawn was seen as an emotional player. And like Tai, Dawn earnt herself no respect with the jury. At the Final Tribal Council, Dawn put in an outstanding performance. She said all the right things, but it didn’t matter because the mistakes had already been made. The jury had made up their minds not to vote for her, no matter what she said. And I am expecting that Tai is in a similar spot.
Survivor: Caramoan was a fans vs favourites season, and as a returning player, Dawn started the game on the favourites tribe, Bikal. On her previous season, South Pacific, Dawn had played on the same tribe with John Cochran, and in Caramoan, the two were reunited, and immediately aligned. Although Bikal lost the first immunity challenge, they were the physically dominant tribe and won nearly every immunity challenge. During this time, Dawn’s castmate from South Pacific, Brandon Hantz, was voted out unanimously when he had a breakdown and began threatening physical violence. Going into the tribe swap, the favourites had the numerical advantage over the fans, and so when Bikal lost immunity, Dawn voted out several of the fans. The favourites entered the merge with nearly all of their numbers intact.
During this time, Dawn had developed a motherly relationship with nearly everyone on the favourites tribe. During her time in Caramoan, Dawn was very aware of the mistakes that she had made in South Pacific and was desperate to avoid repeating history. This made her extremely paranoid, and she would spend lots of time crying, and being comforted by her tribemates. Two of the favourites, in particular, felt a close bond with Dawn. Corinne Kaplan felt that Dawn was reliant on her. The two of them were close friends and Corinne often spent time consoling and reassuring Dawn. Brenda Lowe also felt that Dawn would be loyal to her as she and Dawn had shared a pivotal moment after the merge. While diving, Dawn’s false teeth had fallen into the water. Weeping, Dawn called for help. She threatened to quit the game if her teeth were not found. Brenda was able to retrieve the teeth, and she felt like that moment had bought her Dawn’s loyalty. Unbeknownst to them both, Dawn thought that her biggest mistake in South Pacific had been that she was so loyal that she didn’t have the ability to take control of her own game. She wasn’t going to let loyalty stop her from winning this time.
At the merge, Corinne had joined with Malcolm Freberg and some of the fans, and they intended to vote against Phillip Sheppard. Corinne didn’t need Dawn’s vote to help her with this plan. But she felt bonded to Dawn. She thought that all the time she had spent listening to Dawn had bought her Dawn’s loyalty. She told Dawn about her plans. Dawn told Cochran, who told Phillip. Corinne was voted out at the next Tribal Council.
At the final six, the family visit happened. Brenda won the challenge, and chose Dawn, her closest friend, to share the reward with her. Then, Brenda was asked to make a cruel decision. She could choose to let the other four contestants see their family, leaving her and Dawn with nothing; or she could choose to enjoy the reward with Dawn. Brenda chose to give up the reward, allowing the other four players to have a barbecue with their families and leaving Dawn devastated. At the next immunity challenge, Brenda and Dawn were the last two left in the challenge. Brenda stepped down so that Dawn could win. And at Tribal Council that night, Dawn joined Cochran in voting Brenda out.
When Dawn made the Final Tribal Council, she was pleased with her game. She eloquently defended herself, explaining that it was just a game, and that in the context of the game, she had manipulated friendships. She explained how she had played the game hard, that she had played the game strategically, and that she deserved to win the million. The jury disagreed. Eddie called her “the weakest, most fragile player out here. All the time, in a constant state of paranoia.” He told her that it was hard to reconcile the emotional weakness that he had seen, the daily breakdowns, with the strong game that she was now claiming to have played. And then Brenda famously asked Dawn to take her teeth out, saying that she needed Dawn to feel the humiliation and betrayal that Brenda had felt when Dawn had voted her out of the game. In the end, Dawn got no votes from the jury. Cochran, who had made virtually the same moves as Dawn, but had been far less emotional around camp, won the game unanimously.
This blog was a hard one for me to write because I like to think of myself as an optimist when it comes to Survivor. I like to think that the reason I love the game so much is that truly anyone can win. I mean, Fabio won the game. And so did Yul Kwon. You could not think of two more different people, and yet they are both Survivor winners. Everyone goes into the game with a fighting chance. Usually, when I write this blog, I like to write about ways that each player can succeed- if they follow (or learn from) the game plans of previous survivors, then they can go on to win the game. But we’re in the final five now. It’s too late for someone to make any real adjustments to their game. The jury has their minds made up. I think this jury has already decided that they will not vote for Tai. He’s the one in the Dawn spot right now. And unfortunately, I think the mistakes have already been made. The best Tai can do is to learn from this season, and not make the same mistakes again when he gets his inevitable second chance.
Tai’s biggest problem to overcome is going to be that his moves aren’t seen as his own. Like Cochran got all the credit for Dawn’s moves, I think that Aubry is going to get the credit for what Tai has done. In Caramoan, the jury acknowledged that Dawn had been the driving force behind most of the strategy in the game. Michael Snow pointed out that it had been clear from the start that Dawn and Cochran had been playing the same game, strategizing and voting together. But in the Final Tribal Council, Dawn was seen as the villain. Nobody was angry with Cochran because everyone had felt like they really shared something with Dawn. Her vulnerability and paranoia had led them all to believe that they shared a real life friendship with Dawn, and so her betrayal hurt more. It felt more personal to them that Cochran’s betrayal, which felt like a game move.
Tai hasn’t helped his own case. He’s made it quite clear to everyone that although he might be the one making the moves, Aubry is the one calling the shots. He’s whispered in her ear during Tribal Council, asking her if he should play his idol. He’s done everything he can to let people know that it is Aubry who is in charge. And Aubry won’t receive the same backlash as Tai. For one thing, Aubry has had no choice. She has been on the bottom, slated to be voted out at the merge, and only saved because Neal was evacuated from the game. Then the superidol posed a huge threat, and if Tai had stuck with Scot and Jason even one vote longer, Aubry would have been sent home. Nobody can see Aubry’s play as a betrayal. She’s done what she had to do to get herself to the end. But Tai is different. Tai had a clear path to the end. All he had to do was stay loyal to his alliance. If he had stuck with Scot and Jason, voted with them and played the superidol, then Julia and Michele would have joined them. They would have had the numbers. One of the reasons that Scot and Jason are so frustrated with Tai is that his moves are difficult to understand.
Tai’s betrayals have been entirely personal. Unlike Dawn, who could at least argue that she had decided from the very beginning that she would play a cutthroat game, creating friendships with the intent of using them to further herself, Tai has literally voted against people because he felt that they were morally wrong. Of course, Scot and Jason are going to feel hurt by the betrayal- there is no way for Tai to explain it in a way that will make them feel good about what happened. He was singlehandedly responsible for them losing the game. They thought he was their friend, and he was so quick to switch sides. They have never thought that Aubry was their friend, so they don’t feel betrayed. And while they once felt betrayed by Cydney, I think that they can acknowledge that Cydney was not part of their endgame plans. She had been replaced in the alliance, and so when she flipped, it made strategic sense. She didn’t flip on them because they are bad people, she flipped to further her position in the game. Tai seems to have flipped on Jason and Scot because he likes Aubry more, and that is a bitter pill to swallow. Most people can accept being beaten if they can feel like it was a game move. But it is hard to accept that you lost the game because Tai didn’t like your real life personality.
The biggest obstacle that Dawn faced in winning the game is the same one that Tai faces. Yes, people felt personally betrayed by both players. But the biggest problem is that for both Dawn and Tai, it is difficult to be taken seriously as a player when you are playing a really emotional game. Dawn was having breakdowns daily. The other players were frustrated by it. One of the reasons that Cochran won is because he was able to help Dawn control her emotions- and the other players gave him credit for it.
Tai is extremely emotional. He’s made all of his game moves so far with his heart, without really thinking of the in-game consequences. And the game is taking a toll on him. He was weeping in his scene with Aubry, where he was talking about how crazy the game was making him. Aubry knew that he would react emotionally when she didn’t vote with him last week. But she also knew just how to get him back on her side- stroke his ego, reassure him that they are really friends, give him a hug, and then listen to him cry. Her whole relationship with Tai has been very similar to Cochran’s relationship with Dawn. At the moment, Aubry is acting as Tai’s therapist. She truly is Cochran’s dream girl!
The most frustrating thing about the way that Tai is playing the game is how much it has limited him. He’s playing with his heart, not his head, and not only is that not going to gain him the respect of the jury, but it has also limited the number of people that he can work with. Michele said “he bases all of his relationships in this life on the chemistry that he feels with people. Hey, I get that. You have stronger connections with some people than with others. But when you’re in a game like this, you have to play all your avenues.” Michele understands the way that Tai is playing. He’s playing the game as if it were real life. He wants to be around his friends. He likes Aubry, so he doesn’t want to vote her off. Michele understands it, but like everyone sitting on the jury, she doesn’t respect it. It seemed clear that Tai and Michele were on the bottom, and if Tai had been thinking with his head, he would have been desperate to work with Michele. Together, the two of them could have gotten Cydney on their side and made it to the final three, but because he likes Aubry so much, it was easy for Aubry to talk herself back into Tai’s good graces. Aubry is the biggest threat in the game. Going to the end with her is probably not the smartest thing to do, but Tai is committed to her, and I think he’ll stay loyal.
Dawn made it to the Final Tribal Council with Cochran, who had been her ally since the start. They’d voted together the entire way, and should have had the same blood on their hands. If anything, Dawn should have gotten more credit. It was her ability to make social bonds that allowed her and Cochran to make most of their moves. But Dawn was eviscerated by the jury. Going to the end with her closest ally had seemed like a good idea, but when you have two very similar people sitting together, the jury will vote for the person they like more. And because Dawn had spent so much time paranoid and emotional, the jury liked Cochran more. Aubry and Tai have made some big moves together. Both of them will point to voting out Scot as their pivotal move. Like Dawn, Tai could perhaps make a case that he deserves more credit than Aubry. He was the one with the idol. He was the one with the advantage. And he was the one who made the risky move to flip away from his established alliance. But as it was in Caramoan, the jury will vote for the person that they like best. Aubry has been the underdog all the way through. Tai has flipped this way and that, causing destruction with no real thought for the consequences. It is a no brainer.
And so, I think that Tai is the only player left with no chance to win. His biggest mistake has been playing the game with his heart. Making moves that can only be interpreted as personal–being super-emotional and paranoid in camp, not having any thought as to what the jury is thinking. Next time Tai plays, he needs to think much more about the jury. At the merge, he was probably the biggest jury threat. He was a hard worker, and such a likable person. But the more he let his emotions control him, the further he got from winning the game. The best players can do what Cochran did so well in Caramoan– make the right moves, blindside the right people, and in the end, get them to see it as a game. Nothing personal. It’s a skill that Aubry and Michele both have, and that is why the two of them are in the best position to win. I’m looking forward to watching the finale play out. I still have my fingers crossed that we will see Aubry’s game rewarded. Joe’s medevac puts her in a tough spot, but I’ll still be hoping that she can pull off the win.