Survivor: Game Changers

Lessons in Survivor History: Sheriffs and Soldiers

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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: Sheriffs and Soldiers

After the events of last week, in one way, it was kind of a relief to have to quite straightforward episodes of Survivor. This wasn’t Survivor at its best, but it was, at least, an episode that was focused on the game and how the players are playing it. The merge always revitalises the game in some way, and this week the merge was definitely a welcome distraction- both for the players, and for the viewers back home.

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The spectre of Varner’s words is still there. Watching Zeke this week, there is no doubt that Varner’s actions have affected his game. His quiet and dignified manner in responding to Varner last week made him a target at the merge. Before now, we haven’t heard anyone talking about getting Zeke out of the game. Everyone has seemingly wanted to work with him. All of a sudden, people are putting Zeke out there as the decoy vote. People are talking about Zeke’s story, and are scared to let Zeke get to the end. More worryingly, people are starting to see Zeke as manipulative. Debbie called him deceptive.

We haven’t seen anyone say a word against Zeke up until this point– and suddenly, he has enemies. They may have stood up for Zeke as a matter of moral principle, but the truth is that everyone out there is playing the game, and they want to win. Zeke has become somewhat of a hero, and that makes him a huge threat to win. After making such a beautifully composed speech, Zeke could no longer play the game from an under-the-radar position. The other players knew how iconic that Tribal Council would become, and so they cannot ignore Zeke anymore.

Of course, Zeke didn’t do himself any favours either. When Zeke played in season 33, his fatal flaw wasn’t being too much of a jury threat. His fatal flaw was that he is way too trigger happy on the ‘big moves’. Pre-merge, Zeke is great at surrounding himself with people who are bigger threats than he is. But post-merge, he just can’t help himself. We saw this when he voted out one of his allies on season 33, Chris Hammons– only to find that with Chris gone, it was Zeke who was the next biggest threat. Here, he’s doing the same thing– aligned with some really, really threatening players who shielded him to the merge. And once the merge hits, he turns on his friends immediately.

Zeke’s motto is that you got to make the move. I think if he had seen his original season air, he would have realised how flawed that philosophy is. Because you don’t have to establish yourself as a power player while there are still 12 players left in the game. Look at Zeke’s original season– there is no way that you could describe eventual winner Adam Klein as a power player at the merge. In fact, the merge was where he was most vulnerable. If you look at the people who have won the game, about half of them were not in a powerful position at the merge. But this season, everyone wants power. Everyone is out there looking for soldiers that they can use to form an army. But there aren’t many soldiers to be had. Sierra isn’t the only sheriff in town- more than half the cast is jockeying for that position. And that’s going to lead to a bitter battle.

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To look at why the sheriff isn’t necessarily the best position in the game, we are going back to season three, Survivor: Africa for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, and taking a look at the game of third place finisher, Lex Van den Berghe. Actually, we could be looking at the games of a number of third place finishers here. There are plenty of people throughout Survivor history who have played an excellent game and controlled the votes, only to fall heartbreakingly short at the end. If you set yourself up as a strategic threat, and eliminate all of the other threats in the game, there is going to be a time when the vote is coming for you. The sheriff doesn’t always make it to the Final Tribal Council.

Lex began the game on the Boran tribe, where he formed a close alliance with Tom Buchanan and eventual winner Ethan Zohn. Boran lost the first two immunity challenges, where together they voted out two of the physically weaker members of the tribe. From here, Lex was never in any danger pre-merge. The Boran tribe were immune for the next two votes. After that, a tribe swap sent Lex, along with his ally Tom, to the rival Samburu tribe. The original Samburu tribe had been incredibly fractured, and they happily turned on each other. The next two people voted out of the game were both original Samburu members, giving Lex and his Boran tribe a 6-4 advantage at the merge. With the Samburu tribe at each other’s throats, Lex’s power in the game was growing- and so was his ego.

Coming into the merge, Lex was clearly the most powerful player in the game. It was Lex who was dictating votes. Lex was the figurehead of the Boran alliance, and everyone in the game wanted to be on his good side. But that didn’t last long. At the merge, Lex targeted original Boran member Clarence Black, claiming that he would be too strong in the immunity challenges. He made this decision without consulting with the rest of his alliance, and the Boran women, Kelly Goldsmith and Kim Johnson, were unimpressed. They understandably wanted to keep the Boran advantage intact and vote out one of the Samburu members– namely Frank, who they found it difficult to socialise with. Ultimately, they fell into line, and voted for Clarence. But at that Tribal Council, Clarence knew that Lex was responsible for sending him home. He voted for Lex. Teresa, not wanting to cast a vote for Clarence, who she really did like, also voted for Lex.

Receiving an unexpected vote made Lex furious– and paranoid. Convinced that Kelly had voted against him, he began a campaign to get her out of the game. And while he got his way, his controlling game style made him extremely unpopular. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Lex was controlling the game and that made him a target. It also made his closest allies, Ethan and Tom, wary of him. In the next vote, when Lex tried to work with Brandon Quinton, Ethan and Tom refused to allow the vote to go Lex’s way. The only reason that Lex remained safe until the end of the game was that he won three immunity challenges and tried to use reward challenges as a way to repair his relationship with Ethan and Tom.

In the end, his eventual downfall was that Kim won the final two immunities and took Ethan to the end instead of Lex. Ethan had spent more time developing a relationship with Kim, and Kim viewed him as being more deserving of the money. But even if things had gone to plan for Lex, he would have been sitting at the end with Ethan or Tom. And while we’ll never know whether he would have won in either scenario, we do know that there were some very strong anti-Lex feelings on that jury. Kelly, in particular, was desperate to watch Lex lose the game. Lex let his desperation for power in the game put a huge dent in his chances to win.

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This season, we have so many of the players desperate for power in the same way that Lex was. For some of them, the outcome will be the same– their arrogance will rub people the wrong way, and they face an uphill battle to win. Others aren’t being so obvious in their quest for power. To the other players, they look like good soldiers, but make no mistake, they are here to play the game. Everyone is out there looking for soldiers, and hoping to form an army, but this season every player wants to be the sheriff. Nobody is happy to take orders. They all want control of their own destiny.

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Some players are clearly being too overt about this. We saw how Zeke was put off by the way that Andrea and Cirie were attempting to control the game. Instead of asking his opinion, they were dictating the way that they wanted things to go. Andrea telling Zeke not to talk to Debbie about the plan was a huge red flag– Zeke is the kind of player who wants to have relationships with everyone. His strength last season was that he was able to build real bonds with people from all walks of life. No matter what else was going on in the game, Zeke made it a priority to spend one on one time with everyone in the game. Zeke didn’t want his game stifled. He isn’t in this to be Andrea’s loyal soldier. Once Andrea and Cirie started to exert obvious control, Zeke had to do something about it. If he went to the end with Andrea and Cirie, then he would lose.

Zeke’s instincts were good. Andrea and Cirie were too powerful. But while I can praise his instincts, there is no defending his actions. What he needed to do was put in some groundwork–make sure that you have a good relationship with Sierra before attempting to work with her. Sierra felt that Zeke was talking down to her and immediately blew up Zeke’s plans. Getting Andrea out was not urgent. She wasn’t coming for Zeke. It was Zeke’s need for power that made the move urgent.

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As bad as Zeke’s move was, Andrea and Cirie countered with a pretty terrible move of their own. They identified that there were clearly two groups in the game, and they won the first battle– they protected Michaela, knowing that they could use her vote while getting rid of Hali whom they had no relationship with. That first vote wasn’t a declaration of war. But both sides knew that the war was coming, and in a move that Lex would have been extremely proud of, Andrea and Cirie targeted Zeke. Yes, Zeke had tried (unsuccessfully) to take out Andrea, but Zeke wasn’t the power player here. Just like Lex got rid of Kelly out of spite, Andrea and Cirie forfeited control of the game because they felt betrayed by Zeke. Cirie called Sierra ‘the godfather’– and they thought they had the numbers to make a move against her.

Cirie and Andrea must have a better relationship with Sierra than we have seen. Sierra came straight to them after Zeke offered to vote against Andrea. There must be some level of trust there, but I don’t see the benefit of voting Zeke out, particularly when Zeke has proven that he is untrustworthy, and at this point in the game, is not in anybody’s strategic plans, especially when you could have taken a shot at a much more important player. Ultimately, I think that Zeke’s betrayal felt personal, particularly to Andrea, who knew Zeke outside of the game. It was an emotional decision rather than something that was strategically thought out– and that is never good.

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Then we have Sierra, sitting in her hammock and apparently dictating all of the votes. She just seemed to be the accepted leader. When Zeke wanted to switch the vote from Michaela to Hali, he had to first go and check with Sierra to see if it would be okay. Sierra called her alliance mates idiots, and seemed to really marinate in her new found power. Of course, sitting next to her in the hammock the whole time (and actually controlling the vote) was Debbie. But Debbie wasn’t the one laughing about being the sheriff. Debbie had all of the power that Sierra did, but without everyone having the perception of her being in control. When Cirie is trying to gather her forces for an attack, it isn’t Debbie she’s going after– it’s Sierra. This is a lesson to learn from Lex– if you are going to be loudly and proudly power hungry in this game, be prepared for some resentment from your tribemates.

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Then there are those who have, so far, been doing an excellent job at being in control of their own games. They are the people who have power without being seen to have too much power. Brad, for example, is definitely one of the sheriffs. He is nobody’s soldier. But he’s doing a great job of hiding behind Sierra. She’s the one who is taking all of the heat, but is she actually in control? From what we have been shown in the show, and also from what people have said in exit press, it isn’t Sierra that has been building the alliance. From before the game even started, it was Brad who had been building bonds with the other players. Sierra might be seen as the power player, but Brad is liked by everyone (with the possible exception of Debbie). Nobody is seeing Brad as too controlling. His move to sit out of the merge feast was just typical of the way that he has been playing. He wants everyone to see him as the nice, selfless guy, and I think he’s succeeding. He’s in a very similar position to the position that Lex found himself in in season three. But unlike Lex, Brad is liked by everyone. He’s been able to protect his alliance, and send some big threats home, and he’s come through the votes so far unscathed.

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Debbie has a similar game plan– she’s hiding behind Sierra too. But Debbie, because she is Debbie, and because she has a kooky personality, can hide behind Sierra while at the same time taking credit for controlling the game. Playing her extra vote was a masterstroke– if the rest of the cast didn’t already know that taking Ozzy out at this vote was her move, they certainly do now. Whereas if any other player had done the same thing, it would have been dangerous and fostered distrust. I think that everyone else is likely to overlook the fact that Debbie had an advantage that she never told anyone about. They’ll keep underestimating her, and she’ll continue to direct the course of the game. Things right now are going exactly the way that Debbie wants them to. However well Debbie is playing right now, I think that she has already blown her chances to win. Her outburst against Brad a few weeks ago, coupled with her faux drunkenness at the merge feast will make it impossible for a jury to take her seriously.

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I also really like the way Sarah is playing. Zeke and Cirie were 100% certain that she was with them. Zeke named his group as “Cirie, Sarah, Andrea and myself”. Andrea and Cirie were quick to tell Sarah the new direction of the vote– they didn’t discuss it with her, or ask her opinion, they just told her to vote for Zeke. Sarah was being treated as though she was one of Cirie’s soldiers, and we all know that President Lacina likes to be in control of her own destiny. Debbie trusted Sarah enough to bring her in on the Ozzy plan. She’s got everyone convinced that she is on their side, and willing to go along with their plans. By voting against Ozzy this week, she chose a side. Does this paint a target on her back? Will Cirie and Andrea feel as betrayed by Sarah as they did by Zeke? In his exit interview, Ozzy was hurt by Sarah’s vote. But she needed to choose a side. She had to take control of her own destiny in the game. She couldn’t just float along and allow herself to be used as an extra vote.

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And then there are those who, right now, seem to be no more than soldiers, happy to go along with the more powerful members of their alliance. Troyzan and Tai are both happy for Debbie (or Sierra, or Brad) to tell them how to vote and don’t seem to have a say right now in how the vote goes, but both Troyzan and Tai have idols. There will come a moment when they take control of their games. For the other alliance, both Aubry and Michaela have expressed their delight at being ‘Team Cirie’ and are happy to follow where Cirie leads. Michaela was comfortable putting her game in Cirie’s hands, and it worked out for her. So now, Cirie should have at least one loyal soldier to the end. But what happens when it becomes apparent that Cirie’s alliance is a sinking ship? We’ve seen Aubry bonding with Brad, and she might be willing to work with Brad and Sierra’s alliance. Can Cirie regroup her soldiers and get into a position where she might win the war?

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As far back as season three, it was clear that although you do want to have control over your own destiny when playing Survivor, there is a right and wrong way to hold power. If it becomes too obvious that you are controlling others, then they will make moves to get you out. And so, I don’t think the future is bright for those who are the obvious generals right now, directing their soldiers. I don’t think Andrea, Cirie, or Sierra are in a good spot. Ultimately, Lex was beaten by someone who had been by his side all along, but hadn’t been as arrogant or abrasive as Lex had been. I think those who have been playing a little more quietly are in a much better position to win the game. If the jury doesn’t like you, they won’t award you the million dollars. The jury has to like you– but they also need to respect the game you’ve played. It really is as simple, and as complicated, as that.

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