Each week, Catherine Lucas examines the gameplay of a contestant or a tribe and compares them to players from past seasons. It’s a mix of history, strategy, and culture in “Lessons in Survivor History”. You can expect the blogs on Monday mornings.
Lessons in Survivor History: Sticking Together
I’m of two minds this week– kind of devastated to see Joe go home, particularly in such a brutal way– but on the other hand, so excited to see the way that the Roundtable Alliance ended up breaking. Like Ryan and Chrissy, I was feeling pretty confident that they would stay together. It seemed as though there were enough relationships within the seven to indicate that everyone should feel safe. Nobody was truly on the bottom. And I’m still not sure that Lauren and friends needed to break up the seven– it seemed that Ryan and Chrissy were absolutely on board to vote Joe and Mike out of the game, and were confident in their numbers. They weren’t going to try and use Joe or Mike against Lauren, and if they did, she has her extra vote in her pocket. If they follow Ryan and Chrissy’s plan, then they get down to the seven, and Lauren has a four-person advantage. They need to outsmart Ryan with his idol, but they could easily have voted JP out then.
Still, it made good TV, which is good, and in the short term it worked out well for Lauren and Ashley, which is great. But they are in an interesting position– they have aligned themselves for now with Ben and Devon, and they have to be worried about facing either of them in a Final Tribal Council. By voting out Joe, you have to think that they have lost Mike, although it is possible that he will continue to vote with them out of self-preservation. With the numbers as they are, they need to vote out either Ryan or Chrissy next, and then perhaps they will be able to take another shot at Ben. However, they don’t realise Ben has an idol, and he is going to be more and more likely to play that idol the smaller the numbers become. I liked Ashley’s plan to blindside Ben this week, mostly because I think that if Ben is gone then Mike and Joe are both committed to the alliance, and there’s the added bonus of getting the idol out of the game– and I know, they couldn’t factor that into the decision–but I think that the basic decision was that they could stick with Ben, one ally that they do not want to take to the end, or they could go with Mike and Joe, two allies, both of whom are doing what they can to be seen as goats. To vote Ben out would have been risky, and probably poor jury management because he would have been furious, but if they are planning on doing it anyway, why not do it when they had a clear shot?
After so much bad play last week, I thought we got to see some really interesting play as the alliance of seven broke up. I can’t blame Ryan and Chrissy too much for having blinkers on and not seeing it coming. I think that everyone has underestimated Lauren, both in the game and out, and I think they are still doing it. If Ben had made the same play that Lauren did, then alarm bells would have been ringing for everyone. Nobody wants to be told what to do or steamrolled into anything, but somehow, when Lauren does it, it works. Nobody feels that she is a dictator, and everyone buys into the plan.
For Ryan, trusting Devon was an easy mistake to make. Devon is a skilful player. I think that if you take most players, and tell them that their day one alliance has betrayed them, they will initiate a confrontation. It’s hard to hold on to secrets out there, but Devon kept things quiet, giving Ryan no sign at all that anything was wrong. Chrissy never guessed that there was a rift between her and Ben– because Ben has been playing the game so well that Chrissy still feels like she is his number one ally. And both of them felt that Ashley’s number one ally in the game was JP. I can see why they felt comfortable. They had put in so much groundwork, and yet still their alliance crumbled. To look at why, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to someone who was able to keep a large alliance together. We are going back to season 23, Survivor: South Pacific, and having a closer look at the game of the runner-up, Coach Wade.
South Pacific had sixteen new players and two returning players. Coach was sent to one tribe, Upolu, whereas his fellow returnee, Ozzy Lusth was sent to the opposing tribe, Savaii. The season included no tribe swaps or early twists, and the two tribes each formed unbreakable bonds, which would prove important when the merge eventually happened. On Upolu, Coach wasted no time. By the end of day one, he had created a five-person alliance– himself, eventual winner Sophie Clarke, Albert Destrade, Rick Nelson and Brandon Hantz. As Upolu only had nine members, all those five people had to do was to stick together, and they were guaranteed to make it to the merge. As the game progressed, Coach made bonds with Edna Ma, and she was added to the alliance, although she was never part of the core five.
Coach’s main strategy was to keep his alliance together. To ensure that this happened, the tribe first voted out the outsiders, Christine Shields-Markosi and Stacey Powell, who had both been vocal in their dislike of Coach. He spent time with the more volatile members of his own alliance (Brandon), making sure that the trust they had established wasn’t ruined. Coach’s entire game was spent making sure that the five members of the alliance trusted each other, and felt bonded to each other. The group would pray together, with Coach using religion to solidify their bond. On one occasion, the group came together and prayed that they would find the hidden immunity idol. Coach had already found the idol, and Albert and Sophie both knew this. But Coach staged an idol hunt, and publically re-found the idol. By the time the merge came, the five members of the alliance were 100% loyal to each other. And then there was Edna, who had been told by Brandon that she was not in the alliance, but still felt that she could trust Coach, and wasn’t going to flip.
Upolu and Savaii were evenly matched, and they went into the merge with six members each. Both tribes had an immunity idol, and both sides seemed completely committed to remaining with their alliance. The vote before the merge, Savaii had come up with an extremely convoluted plan. It involved Ozzy getting voted out, and then going to Redemption Island, winning the duel and re-entering the game. That part of the plan went as planned. But the second part of the plan was that Ozzy would blame John Cochran for his elimination, and claim that Cochran played an idol to get him out. This would allow Cochran to infiltrate the Upolu tribe, figure out where the votes were going to go, and ensure that Savaii played their idol correctly. This second part of the plan didn’t exactly go as Ozzy had hoped. Firstly, Upolu never believed that Cochran had masterminded Ozzy’s vote-off. And secondly, although Cochran did attempt to infiltrate Upolu, he ended up becoming charmed by Coach, who noticed that Cochran had been feeling bullied by his tribe, and offered him a chance to flip and vote with them. At Tribal, Ozzy misplayed his idol. The vote ended in a tie. And unwilling to go to rocks for Savaii, Cochran flipped on the revote, handing the numerical advantage to Upolu. Coach now had a seven-person alliance, and that seven would be the final seven people in the game (if you don’t count Redemption Island, which allowed Ozzy to remain in the game long after he was voted out).
What did Coach do right? What allowed his alliance to stick together? And how did Ryan and Chrissy fall short?
Lauren’s alliance was perfectly timed- not only did they get to enjoy a relaxing reward and some food together, but they each received letters from home. And as Devon said, he felt committed to their alliance before, but this was a different level. Now they were emotionally as well as strategically bound to each other. They’d seen each other’s weaknesses and gotten a glimpse into each other’s real lives. And for each of them, it made them more invested in the alliance. Of course, emotional connections alone aren’t enough to sustain alliances, particularly with a million dollars on the line, and it wasn’t long before Ashley, Devon and Lauren were considering breaking their bonds with Ben, but I think that the emotional connection between the four ‘disloyal knights’ was something that had been missing in their original alliance.
Coach used religion to bond the Upolu alliance, creating prayer circles and constantly talking about his honour as a man of God. For the Upolu members, religion reminded them of home. For an alliance to stick together, there needs to be emotional reasons to do so, because strategically, it is obviously going to be better for those who feel they are on the bottom to flip while they have numbers available. But if all members feel emotionally connected, then an alliance can stay strong. Ryan and Chrissy thought that they had created genuine relationships, but it turned out that there was no emotional depth there.
One of Coach’s biggest strengths in South Pacific was his ability to manage relationships. He had a final three deal with Albert and Sophie. He made promises to Rick. He acted as a father figure to Brandon. Edna felt that she and Coach had a real friendship, and he would take her further in the game. Coach spent time building Cochran up, letting him wear Coach’s jacket, and anointing Cochran as the new ‘Dragonslayer’. Each player in the alliance felt that Coach was going to take them to the end- and they all felt that they could beat him. This meant that none of them ever had any incentive to flip– they had a final three deal that they felt comfortable with–and flipping would have meant working with the Savaii members and risking being at the end of the game with one of them and losing.
We know that Ryan tried to follow this rule. He had a ‘ride or die’ relationship with Devon. He had Chrissy and JP who were absolutely with him. He assumed that Lauren, as a fellow Hustler, would have his back. And he tried to forge a final three deal with Ben. We know that he tried to create Coach-like relationships within his tribe, and yet he failed. Perhaps it was that in season 35, the players are just more savvy and self-interested than they were in season 23. But I think that really, it comes down to social skills. Chrissy and Ryan were both interested in building strategic partnerships with those that they deemed useful. Both of them were berated this week for not building relationships with everyone. Mike laughed at the idea of working with Ryan, who was uninterested in him when it was Mike on the bottom of the tribe. Lauren didn’t want to engage in strategic conversations with Chrissy, who had practically ignored her since the beginning of the game. Chrissy has been accused of this in the past, and it is a major flaw in her game. She can’t be ignoring members of her alliance and just trusting that Ryan’s relationship with Lauren is strong enough to entice Lauren to remain loyal. If Ryan and Chrissy wanted this seven to stay together, then they had to do a better job of creating genuine relationships between the group.
The four who defected: Devon, and Ben, who had shared the information about Ryan’s idol and realised that he wasn’t being entirely truthful with either of them, Lauren, who had been ignored by Chrissy and JP and wasn’t particularly close to Ryan, and Ashley, who has been publically named as a goat and definitely has incentive to start playing aggressively, all feel tightly bonded to each other. Ashley and Lauren realise that they are beneficial to each other, and we see them strategizing together. Ashley and Devon have been tight since the tribe swap. Ryan’s betrayal forged a bond between Devon and Ben. Devon and Lauren have been close since Hustler’s beach. Lauren and Ben were allied on their swapped tribes. The four of them are so closely intertwined that nobody feels left out or ignored, and they all have clear paths to the final three. This new alliance is very Coach-like indeed.
One of the reasons that Ryan, Chrissy and JP felt so confident in their alliance was that they felt that nobody would possibly want to work with Joe or Mike. They had eliminated Jessica and Desi, the more social players, and the only people left in the game, and both Joe and Mike seemed to be going out of their way to irritate those around them. I can understand why Chrissy was confident that one of them would be going home– what I saw of ‘coco-nuts’ was enough to annoy me, and I didn’t have to live with them 24 hours a day! The Roundtable Alliance tried to stick together by keeping the most annoying elements of the opposing alliance around. And sometimes, that strategy works– having something to unite against has been seen to be successful in Worlds Apart, where Rodney LaVoie, Jr was able to keep his alliance together against Mike Holloway–but Coach went a different route. The Upolu tribe eliminated the members of Savaii that they considered the biggest physical and strategic threats, leaving the women for last. For Upolu, who were bonded by their religious beliefs and their mantra that the ‘good people’ should win, someone like Joe or Mike would have been voted out early. Those who were seen as bullying Cochran were quickly eliminated and sent to Redemption Island. Each member of the alliance felt good about the elimination order. They felt like they were doing the ‘right’ thing.
The strategy in the Roundtable wasn’t as straightforward. We saw that Ben seemed to come across as dictating his way. And Ashley certainly didn’t feel as though she had a voice. Both Ashley and Chrissy have long been advocating for Joe’s elimination, and a key part of keeping the alliance together is that everyone feels good about the strategic decisions being made.
We didn’t really see the way that the new alliance of four is making their decisions. We saw Lauren discussing in confessional why it would be good to get rid of each of Ryan, Chrissy and JP. Interestingly, the reason she gave for getting rid of JP was that he was good in challenges. She was strategically worried about Chrissy and Ryan, but physically concerned about JP. We saw Lauren’s concerns, but we didn’t see how the alliance settled on JP. The decision to vote Joe was an easy conclusion and seemed to be reached by mutual consent. We saw Ashley considering voting Ben, but we never really got a sense of how serious she was. Does Ashley have a voice in the decision making process? Is Devon the one making all the decisions? I don’t know. What is obvious is that all four members of the alliance were really happy with the decision to vote JP. At the moment, they are all feeling equally invested in the strategic direction of the alliance.
Keeping an alliance together doesn’t guarantee you the game though. Coach played a dominant game in South Pacific, but when he got to the Final Tribal Council, everything fell apart. The members of his alliance that didn’t make it to the end felt personally victimised and were incensed when Coach failed to own up to his moves. It was no good being the power player throughout the game because he couldn’t appease the jury. Instead, the jury awarded Sophie the money, respecting her honest answers, and not feeling as though she betrayed them. If your whole game has been about keeping people together, then it can really hurt when you have to start blindsiding your own.
If this new alliance of four sticks together, then any one of them could win. The editing has been so open this season that I could honestly see any of the remaining players taking the victory. But to win the game, you have to be able to make a jury feel good about voting for you. I think that Ben’s acting job, where he made fools of Ryan, Chrissy, Joe and Mike will make it difficult for those four members of the jury to give him a million dollars. To win the game, you need a strong social game. Ben’s stint as a double agent might have been genius strategically. It achieved what he wanted: kept Mike and Joe voting the way that the alliance needed them to and made sure that Ryan wasted his idol, but in the meantime, Ben is burning bridges, and he’s running out of time to mend them.
Meanwhile, Devon, Lauren and Ashley are gaining all the benefits of Ben’s double agent play, receiving all the important strategic information, but without taking any of the risks. Ryan, Chrissy, Mike and Joe are absolutely going to be angrier with Ben than with the other three. Nobody likes to be made a fool of. At this point, it would take an absolute masterclass of a Final Tribal Council for Ben to win this thing. But his three allies, Devon, Lauren and Ashley, are in the box seat. Ashley thinks this is her game to lose. At the moment, I think she’s in a three-way race. We might feasibly still see a surprise, and there is time for the game to be turned on its head once more. But for the masterful way that they played these two votes, I think that Devon, Lauren and Ashley each deserve the win, and I’m hoping that one of them can pull it off.