This week, the story is obvious. The editing is hitting us over the head with it. Evolution. Apparently, this season is a complete evolution in Survivor gameplay. According to Stephen, there is no hierarchy within the main alliance. This season is new. This season is different. And while I’m not completely convinced (This episode, we saw Stephen telling Jeremy and Spencer that they were on the bottom of an apparently non-hierarchical alliance), I do think that Survivor has been constantly evolving. What is considered to be winning gameplay has changed. Whereas in the early seasons of Survivor we saw much more emphasis on the social relationships of the winner, now the emphasis is on strategy.
The producers like good television and they understand that big moves make for entertainment; therefore, the narrative of the show in recent years has become that in order to win, you need to play an aggressive game. Players like Tony Vlachos are held as the new standard. Players are talking about building their resumes. They must have a big move to point to. There’s a belief that you can’t get all the way to the end without ‘doing anything’ and still win. Playing an under-the-radar game is no longer seen as respectable.
I’d argue that this narrative is false- that in the end, the jury will vote for the player that they respected the most. And that respect doesn’t have to come from making big moves. It can come from making genuine relationships. Yes, we’ve seen a series of aggressive winners recently. But all of those winners made social bonds out there too. And as recently as season 26, we saw the most aggressive player in the game, Dawn Meehan, lose to Cochran, who wasn’t able to point to as many ‘big moves’ as Dawn, but who had been more skilful in making connections with those on the jury. If Spencer had won enough immunities to get to the end in Survivor: Cagayan, or if Tony had taken his close ally Trish to the end with him, then Tony would have lost- not because Spencer or Trish had played a more strategic or aggressive game than he did, but because both Spencer and Trish had built better bonds with those on the jury. Probst might think that ‘big moves’ should be the criteria for awarding the million dollars, but I don’t think the jury often agrees with him.
Whether the narrative of ‘big moves win the game’ is true or false, the fact is that it is out there. It is affecting the game. It is making these players much more willing to take risks. And it is making them work harder than ever before. Those who aren’t constantly working are being left behind, and that was abundantly clear this week when Kelly Wiglesworth was sent home. In this season, if you are content to sit back and try to play under the radar, you make yourself an easy target.
The aggression that is so present in this game– the fact that there are some players out there who are taking this seriously and working hard to get themselves to the end as well as the fact that players who don’t approach the game this way are getting left behind– means that for this week’s lesson in Survivor history we are going back to season 19, Survivor: Samoa, and the unfortunately forgettable 11th place finisher, Kelly Sharbaugh.
Survivor: Samoa is most famous for being the first season to feature Russell Hantz, and love him or hate him, there is no denying the fact that Russell changed the game. As soon has Russell hit the beach, he was making alliances. He was aggressively targeting people that he didn’t think he could trust. He was making up sob stories to the tribe, telling them about his dog who died in Hurricane Katrina. And most unusually, Russell was finding hidden immunity idols without clues. From day one, Russell was working hard to get himself to the end.
Kelly had nothing to do with Russell in the early game. She was on the opposing tribe, Galu, and in the entire pre-merge, Kelly only attended one Tribal Council. She got herself into a comfortable alliance and was extremely tight with Laura Morett and Monica Padilla. Kelly was in a great position in the game. Her tribe had the numerical advantage and entered the merge with eight members against Foa Foa’s four. Within her tribe, Kelly was trusted by the women, and well-liked by the men. She wasn’t going to be targeted by anybody- it was clear that Laura was the leader of the women.
Over at the Foa Foa tribe, Russell was playing a game unlike anyone before him. He was creating a new definition for playing the game hard. And Kelly was eventually to become one of the victims of his aggressive game style. When the two tribes merged, it seemed that it would be simple for the Galu tribe. After all, there were eight of them and only four Foa Foas. And so, the Galu tribe relaxed. They felt safe in the numbers. So safe, that at the merge, they were persuaded to vote out Erik Cardona, who was one of their own. At that vote, Russell played an immunity idol. That should have been a clue to the remaining members of Galu- Russell had come to play.
With Erik gone, Galu still had seven votes. And they turned their attention towards eliminating Russell. Unbeknownst to them, Russell had once again found an immunity idol, and would be able to protect himself. The Galu tribe discussed the vote and dismissed any thought of vote splitting. All seven of them voted for Russell. At Tribal, Russell played his immunity idol. The four Foa Foas voted for Kelly, and she was sent home.
Looking at Kelly’s game, it is difficult to see exactly what she did wrong. She had a strong social game. She didn’t make any obvious mistakes. And to be fair to Kelly, nobody like Russell had come along before. But her fatal mistake in the game was to underestimate Russell, to assume that everyone in the game would be playing pretty much the same game as her. She didn’t realise how hard Russell was working. In her final words, Kelly summed up her game. “I came into this game saying I would do anything to win, and to be honest, I don’t really think I had to. I was aligned with good people. I feel like Galu is playing the game fair.”
Like Kelly Wiglesworth this week, Kelly Sharbaugh got caught unaware. The other players were playing an aggressive game, and she couldn’t recognise it. I’m not advocating for everyone to play at a frenetic, Russell-like pace. I don’t think the aggressive game is necessarily for everyone. In fact, the winner of Survivor: Samoa, Natalie White, proves this. She played a very quiet game, hiding in Russell’s shadows. But unlike Kelly, Natalie knew the pace that the game was being played at. She knew the ferocity that Russell was bringing to the game, and she adjusted her own moves accordingly. I don’t think that everyone needs to play like Russell. But in today’s post-Russell era, you have to assume that there are players out there playing a hyper-aggressive game. You have to know they are out there, and you have to identify them. Kelly (both Sharbaugh and Wiglesworth) failed to do this, and paid the price.
This season, there are some really aggressive players. Kelley Wentworth made an obviously aggressive move in playing her immunity idol. She made a statement with the idol, hoping that her big move would free others to play the game at the same pace. She spoke of her frustration in confessional. “I am hoping that people are finally ready to get this game started because I’m bored.” Kelley is firmly in the minority at the moment, and that means that an under-the-radar game is not an option for her. She’s been acknowledged as the biggest physical threat of herself, Abi and Ciera (although Abi’s performance in the immunity challenge has to be acknowledged as incredible), and she is going to have to fight to survive. Two weeks in a row, she has been a target, and there’s no reason for that to change. She has to play aggressively in order to stay in the game.
Her move was obviously respected by her competitors. They already saw her as a threat, but now they can see that she is building her resume. Stephen called her the ’trouble’ of the three witches. Stephen was impressed by her game, saying in confessional that: “Wentworth, Abi and Ciera, they are working harder than the dominant alliance”. Stephen has been frustrated by his alliance being unwilling to take risks. Savage was a driving force in that alliance, and his mentality is old school. Kelly Wiglesworth is clearly an old-school player, and like Savage, she simply wanted to stay the course and vote out everyone in the minority alliance. Kelley’s aggressive game style made her an attractive ally for Stephen, who was determined that the majority alliance had to be shaken up. He knew that Kelley, Abi and Ciera were willing to take any risk with him. They had no other options.
Stephen has clearly been working hard in this game. His work ethic so far has reminded me somewhat of Tony Vlachos. Like Tony, Stephen’s mind is permanently thinking about how he can win. We’ve seen him get emotional about the game when things aren’t going his way. We’ve seen him plotting and scheming even when he doesn’t need to do so. Stephen is taking his second chance seriously.
In Survivor: Tocantins, Stephen made it to the end. But when pleading his case to the jury, he had nothing to say. His best argument was to present a growth narrative- he was a city kid who didn’t think he could survive 39 days, and yet he did it. His opponent, JT, who received all of the votes, argued that “I would think the guy who puts his neck out on the line should earn a little more respect than someone who kind of floats under the radar.” Stephen’s been reliving those moments for years. We’ve seen how terrified he is of repeating his performance in Tocantins. He’s been obsessed with taking Joe out of the game because he can’t stand the thought of losing to the golden boy again. But Stephen feels that he didn’t just lose the game because of who he was sitting next to. He didn’t have a case to make in the end, and he isn’t going to make that mistake again. This time, if he gets to the end, it won’t be a repeat of his dismal Final Tribal performance from Tocantins. He’ll have big moves to point to. He’ll have the jury’s respect. I’d argue that he lost to JT for social reasons, not because of lack of strategy on Stephen’s part. But perception is everything, and Stephen believes that big moves are going to win the game. He’s adjusted his strategy accordingly.
Which brings me to the Wiglesworth vote. It was definitely a big move, there’s no questioning that, but I’m not sure what the point of the move was, especially when Kelley Wentworth is the far more threatening player. Wiglesworth was apparently a huge social threat, and according to Ciera, she would win the game if she made it to the end. Of course, this goes against the whole philosophy that everyone seems to be playing with. If Wiglesworth was going to win the game without making any moves, then perhaps big moves aren’t as important as Stephen thinks they are.
Wiglesworth was close to Joe, and I’m sure that Stephen wanted to make sure that he would have the numbers to get rid of Joe when the time comes. He has been fixated on getting rid of Joe for weeks, and I can see how he would think that this is a step in the right direction. I just think that Joe has made himself into such a target now that he cannot possibly stay in the game if he loses immunity. If Joe’s own mother was out there, she’d probably vote against him too. Nobody wants Joe to win his way to the end, and if he lost immunity I don’t think Wiglesworth could have saved him from being sent home.
So to me, Stephen made a big move, but it was an unnecessary move. At least he was able to get Jeremy and Spencer to move with him, and didn’t isolate himself, but from what I can see, he hasn’t improved his position in the game at all. He’s given all the power to the three witches who have no loyalty to him, and he has possibly alienated people that he has built trust with- Kimmi and Tasha. It wouldn’t be hard to Tasha, Keith and Joe to use the three witches and turn the game around. Tasha isn’t the sort of player to quietly accept disloyalty from her alliance.
In the end, it may not matter. Stephen’s alliance is well-protected, partly because of Stephen’s risky move to go for the advantage in the game, and also because Jeremy has two idols. I loved how hard he went after that idol, even though he had the Bayon idol in his pocket already. When he realised that the idol was back in play, Jeremy said: “I got to look. I got to bust my behind again.” Like Russell in Samoa, most players in the game seem to be unaware of how aggressively Jeremy is playing. There doesn’t seem to be any suspicion on him at all. He was easily able to get away from camp to collect the idol. He’s acknowledged as the leader of the alliance, well-liked by his tribemates, and everyone sees him as a power player, but nobody sees how hard Jeremy is really working in this game. Jeremy and Stephen are both playing extremely hard. It would be fascinating to see if they can both make it to the end. Although at the moment, Stephen has the better resume, I think that it would be Jeremy with his relational skills that would win the votes.
While Kelley, Stephen and Jeremy are playing with Russell/Tony-like ferocity, other players are happy to play the Kelly Sharbaugh game. They’ll sit back, assuming that they are safe in their alliances. Meanwhile, they are clueless about how hard the other players are working. Keith, for example, came into the game knowing that strategy wasn’t his strength. He’s certainly not playing an aggressive game, happy to be a pawn at the moment. He seems to think that he can trust Jeremy. Just like Kelly Sharbaugh was blindsided by the pace that the game was moving, I think that Keith is going to end up similarly shocked. He wasn’t included in the plan to vote out Wiglesworth. I’d like to think that this would be the moment for Keith to wake up and start engaging in the game, but I’m not sure he has it in him. I think he’ll probably just become the new Wiglesworth and just wait for his inevitable blindside.
Again this week, Joe is frustrating me. I’m a fan of Joe, I’m rooting for Joe to win, but I can’t understand his gameplay at all. He knows, with absolute certainty, that there are other players out to get him. He knows that Stephen is leading the charge. And yet, Joe does nothing. Before the merge, Joe had a clear and articulated strategy- to get as many people on his side as possible. Now, his strategy has completely changed. Instead of getting people on his side, he is voting against all of the people who were willing to work with him–first Kass, then Wentworth who would have been willing to go with him and vote out Stephen until Joe voted against her. Joe is getting rid of potential allies, and he has been left with the same problem that he had in Survivor: Worlds Apart: If he loses immunity, he will be voted out.
And the most frustrating thing about Joe is that he knows all of this. He knows the position that he has put himself in. He knows that he is in desperate need of immunity. And yet, when he knew the idol was out there, he looked for it for 30 minutes. From what we saw, he was walking around poking the ground with a stick. For someone with Joe’s athleticism, this just wasn’t good enough. Compared to the effort that Jeremy put into his search, Joe seemed almost half-hearted. I can understand and support Joe’s decision not to take the advantage in the game. It wasn’t going to be as valuable to him as the immunity necklace. But he should have given everything he had in pursuit of the immunity idol. Even Mike Holloway couldn’t win every challenge- he needed an idol to protect him. Eventually, there will be a challenge that Joe isn’t good at. Abi came close to beating him this week. And he will wish he had that idol.
I think he will also regret not making a move against Stephen last week, when he still had Savage working with him, and the three witches were willing to vote against Stephen with him. At Tribal Council, Joe said: “If you think someone’s coming after you, it’s kind of like you got to go get them first.” Joe knows someone is coming after him, but he refuses to make an offensive move. Like Kelly Sharbaugh and the Galu tribe in Samoa underestimated Russell and the aggression with which he played Survivor, Joe is underestimating Stephen and Jeremy. And in doing so, he is sealing his fate in the game. Joe’s fast running out of options- every member of the jury was an ally of his. There are aggressive players in this game, and because he is completely unaware of this, Joe won’t win. The good news for him is that he is assured of a third chance- and perhaps he won’t make the same mistakes then.