Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, I will revisit another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.
Lessons in Survivor History: The Basic Rules of the Game
Let me begin this week with an apology to Jay. Like most people, I gave him way too little credit last week. I assumed that all three members of the triforce had the same low level of game understanding. I thought that Jay was nothing more than a pretty face. And then this week happens, and Jay (along with Michelle) managed to outmanoeuvre an alliance made up of the three Millennials who seemed to be the most competent Survivor players.
Preseason, Mari was a popular winner pick. Reading through her bio, and watching her video, she seemed to be virtually perfect. She’s physically fit. She’s socially engaging. She’s a video gamer, so her strategic game should be strong. It was no surprise that Nicolestradamus, along with many, many others chose Mari as the winner of the season. Although she wasn’t my winner pick, she was my first pick in the RHAP bloggers’ fantasy draft. After she was blindsided, a whole lot of people were feeling extremely #salty.
With Mari gone, her allies Zeke and Adam are now in the minority on the Millennial tribe. Like Mari, Zeke and Adam seem to have many winner-like attributes. In our blogger’s roundtable this season, Scott Gallagher had Mari as a winner pick. Sarah Freeman considered doing the same thing before going with Adam instead. All of us except Michel Trudeau had either Mari, Adam or Zeke as part of our final three. Angie Caunce’s casting archetypes forecasted Zeke as a likely winner. Basically, these three players certainly seemed to be solid winner picks. Preseason, they all seemed to have a strong understanding of the game, as well as the social and physical skills necessary to make a deep run. And perhaps Zeke and Adam still can- but their road to victory certainly became a little more difficult.
Hannah’s indecisiveness at Tribal Council, where she took an eternity to decide to vote the way that Michelle told her to, may have put her in a bad position also. But we know that Michelle and Hannah have a friendship. Michelle is the real power player at the moment, and I think that she will want to keep Hannah around. Barring either the Millennials winning the next few challenges or a tribe swap saving them, both Zeke and Adam are in trouble. And it is difficult to see exactly where they went wrong. They’re both fans of the show, who have been playing the game in a way that would traditionally be seen as correct, and yet they are at the bottom of their tribe. For a look at what is going wrong for Zeke and Adam, we are going to season 28, Survivor: Cagayan for this week’s look back in Survivor history. This week, I’ll be looking at the game of 9th place finisher, LJ McKanas.
LJ began the game in a solid position. On the first day, he was voted as the leader of the Solana, or “Beauty” tribe, and formed a tight alliance with three of the other tribe members- Jeremiah Wood, Alexis Maxwell and Jefra Bland. The Beauty tribe were physically strong, and thanks in part to LJ’s dominant performance in the challenges, particularly the puzzles, they avoided Tribal Council until day 8, where LJ’s alliance voted out Brice Johnston. During that first week of the game, LJ was able to find the hidden immunity idol, after searching in the middle of a ferocious storm.
On day 12, the three tribes were merged into two, and LJ remained on Solana, along with his ally Jefra. The two original Beauty members were severely outnumbered on their new tribe. They were joined by five people from the original Brawn tribe- Tony Vlachos, Woo Hwang, Trish Hegarty, Lindsey Ogle and Cliff Robinson. Once Solana lost immunity, LJ was immediately targeted. But LJ had put some effort into creating bonds with his new tribemates, Trish in particular. Luck was also on LJ’s side, as the Brawn tribe had not yet been to Tribal Council, and Tony had been nursing a grudge against Cliff since the beginning of the game. At Tribal Council, Tony and Trish joined with LJ and Jefra, and together they blindsided Cliff. Feeling furious and left out, Lindsey promptly quit the game, leaving the new Solana tribe with only five members.
The remaining members of Solana grew increasingly close, and when they won the next immunity challenge, Tony infamously shouted “Final five baby! Final five!” LJ was a key part of Tony’s alliance, and clearly part of Tony’s end game plans. The five Solana members went into the merge as a tight unit but were numerically disadvantaged against the six Aparri members. LJ knew that he would have to use his idol to ensure his security in the game. Tony also had an idol, which he played on LJ. LJ returned the favour and played his idol on Tony. In the end, neither idol was effective, but when Kass McQuillen betrayed her alliance and voted with LJ and Tony, LJ and his alliance regained the numbers.
From here, it seemed relatively simple for LJ. He was in the majority alliance. He had great relationships with everyone within that alliance. He was someone who could easily have gotten to the end and win. However, he didn’t count on Tony wanting him out as early as final nine and was completely blindsided when Tony and Woo flipped against him, and he was sent to the jury.
Like Adam, Zeke, and Mari, LJ was seemingly the perfect player. He looked as though he had every attribute needed to win Survivor. He played a solid game, but it still wasn’t enough. Adam and Zeke might be superfans who know all of the conventional rules of the game, but like LJ, they are headed for a fall unless they can adapt to a new-school way of looking at things.
The Old-School Way
Traditionally, the first Tribal Council for each tribe is easy. Everyone is so desperate not to be the target that often the first name that is thrown out is the person who goes home. And often there is an obvious first boot. The Millennial’s reaction to seeing Rachel gone was that is seemed “about right”. It wasn’t a surprise that the Gen X tribe decided to vote Rachel off- it was obvious even to the other tribe that she wasn’t fitting in.
Traditionally, it isn’t a good idea to start making big moves in the first Tribal Council. You want to lay low, and avoid putting the target on yourself. Usually, it is easy to find someone who is struggling to fit in, and convince the rest of your tribe to vote against them: Think about Debb Eaton or Kel Gleason in season two. Or someone gets sick, and that’s an easy vote like Diane Ogden in season three or Jim Lynch in season 11. Old-school Survivor rules tell us that the first vote is an obvious one.
This season, it was Figgy who was the obvious boot. As Adam explained in confessional, “Basic laws of Survivor will tell you that you don’t come blazing out of the gate, don’t get into a catfight, and sure as hell don’t get yourself into a showmance!” In old-school Survivor, Adam would be correct in assuming that Figgy would be voted out. Because voting out the person who is annoying, the person who is playing the game aggressively and obviously badly would be the traditional strategy. But this is season 33. Things are a little different.
Don’t underestimate your tribe.
LJ’s biggest mistake in the game was complacency. He felt secure within his alliance, and he thought that he had absolute safety. Tony was seen as erratic, perhaps a little goofy. Trish and Woo barely seemed to be playing the game, at least as far as LJ knew. And Jefra was completely loyal to him. In his exit interview with RHAP, LJ mentioned that he had intended on eventually seizing the power and making a move against Tony. He just thought that it was too early in the game for such a big move to happen. To Tony’s credit, he wasn’t underestimating LJ. Tony knew that LJ was the biggest threat to win the game, and the moment that LJ was no longer useful to Tony, Tony was ready to make a move against him. If LJ had realised how hard Tony was playing the game, then perhaps he would have been more alert. Certainly, if he had seen the move coming, then LJ would have been able to mount a defence. He had strong relationships within the tribe, and he had a strong grasp of the strategy of the game. Ultimately, though, he was unable to see Tony as a real threat.
Adam and Zeke have made the same mistake. And I can understand why- I too underestimated Jay in last week’s blog! And Michelle is the same person who referred to herself as a “hungry hungry hippo” in her bio and believes in dragons. I completely understand why neither Adam nor Zeke expected Jay or Michelle to be attempting any power moves, especially this early in the game. I do understand it- but their complacency may turn out to be as lethal to their games as LJ’s complacency was to his. This week, Zeke, Adam, and Mari treated the other players like pawns. They planned on using Michaela’s animosity towards Figgy to gain themselves an extra vote but saw Michaela as a completely dispensable part of the alliance. It seems clear that the core alliance was Mari, Adam, Zeke and Hannah, and not enough work went into securing the loyalty of Michaela, Will or Jay. Adam and Zeke assumed that they had the tribe on their side- and it didn’t seem to occur to them that someone could be working against them.
Adam, in particular, is certainly guilty of underestimating those around him. At Tribal Council, he said: “I get Michaela, right. She’s a straight shooter. That’s a great quality to have as a person, but that’s a tough trait to have on day one in the game of Survivor.” Again, I completely identify with Adam here, and I probably would have made the same mistake. Michaela and Figgy are obviously not getting along, and Michaela is seemingly making no effort to hide her feelings of distaste for Figgy and Taylor. Adam looks at Michaela as someone who is an open book. And for him, it was unbelievable that Michaela could be deceiving him- so unbelievable that I don’t think he ever even considered the possibility.
What was strangest was their behaviour during the events of Tribal Council. Like I said, I understand why Mari, Adam, and Zeke felt safe leading up to the vote. But when Michelle and Jay began to whisper with Hannah, it should have been clear to them that something was slightly askew. It should have shown them that Jay and Michelle were not on board with the plan. And I have listened to Mari’s RHAP exit interview, in which she speaks confidently about her relationship with Hannah. She was so sure that Hannah wouldn’t betray her that she wasn’t worried about what Jay or Michelle might have been saying. Had she not noticed that Hannah and Michelle had gotten to be quite good friends out there? We saw them bonding last week, and they had a secret scene together which demonstrated that the two of them had at the very least, a solid friendship. I think that Mari, Adam, and Zeke massively overestimated their bond with Hannah, and underestimated the strategic abilities of Jay and Michelle.
Don’t underestimate the social game.
On Cagayan, Tasha Fox, who was part of the minority alliance, asked LJ if he would come and speak to her. He stayed at camp, leaving Tasha #stoodup. Later, Tasha would gleefully become part of the group that voted against LJ. LJ was great at building bonds within his alliance but didn’t show the same social strengths when dealing with people on the opposing alliance. LJ didn’t realise it, but the poor bonds that he had with people like Tasha would contribute to Tony being able to so easily get him out when the time came. Survivor players often make this mistake, where they value the strategic or the physical games above the social, but Survivor is above all, a social game.
I’m not accusing Adam or Zeke of having poor social games. In fact, here’s a disclaimer- with how little we have seen of them, we don’t have enough information to make a sure judgment. I do realise that many, many more conversations take place than what we see. Often the most important conversations aren’t shown. They are the ones about nothing in particular, the ones where the friendships are born. But I can’t write about what we didn’t see on the show. From what we did see, neither Adam or Zeke have gone out of their way to bond with anyone on the tribe.
For Zeke, we have some evidence that his social game might need a little work. In an early confessional, he spoke of his dismay at being stuck on a tribe with children. Although he seems to be generally well-liked, especially after it was he who was able to start the fire, we don’t see Zeke in one-on-one conversations. In fact, we don’t see Zeke having very many social interactions at all. What we did see was Zeke strategizing. It was he who brought up the idea of voting for Figgy to Mari, Adam, and Hannah when he called Figgy the “source of a lot of the consternation”. It was Zeke who brought Jay into the plan.
As an aside, I don’t have a problem with Zeke doing this. I don’t think it was the fatal mistake that led to Mari going home because I cannot believe that Hannah never told Michelle what was going on. Basically, I think that Michelle had strong enough bonds with Hannah and Will- as well as a good amount of common sense- that she was always going to find out that Figgy was on the chopping block, and she was always going to make the same moves to protect her ally. I don’t think Zeke is at fault here. But where I can fault him is that we saw him doing an awful lot of strategizing, and not nearly enough socialising.
For Adam, the evidence of his social game is even more scant. We just haven’t seen them bond with anyone. And it seems to me that the way that Michelle was able to sway Hannah to vote against her friend, without even giving her a reason tells me that Michelle’s bond with Hannah ran far deeper than the bond that Mari, Zeke, or Adam had. How easily Jay was able to convince Michaela that Zeke was gunning for her, and get Michaela to vote to save Figgy tells me that Michaela sees Jay as far more trustworthy than either Zeke or Adam. The way that Michelle was able to convince Will to vote against Mari tells me that Michelle and Will have a social bond far deeper than any bond that Adam or Zeke have created with him (although, to be fair, Michelle’s looks might possibly have given her the advantage here). Michelle and Jay have spent the first six days of the game creating relationships, and were able to capitalise on them.
Don’t underestimate the power of luck
Put simply, Survivor is a cruel game. It doesn’t always reward the best players, and luck always plays a part. In Cagayan, LJ was outplayed by Tony, without a doubt. Tony took the initiative. He was the one willing to take the risks to succeed, and he deserved to win the game. But unbeknownst to LJ, Tony was also in possession of an immunity idol that gave him an enormous amount of power. Tony’s idol could be played after the votes were read out, giving Tony the absolute surety that he was protected. Blindsiding LJ at the final nine, against the wishes of his alliance was a hugely risky move. And it is a move that Tony may not have been willing to make without an overpowered immunity idol. If Tony doesn’t have the security of his idol, then perhaps LJ’s more conventional style of play would lead him to the win.
Luck certainly played a part here too. From what we saw, Jay, Figgy, and Taylor aligned themselves with Michelle, purely because after themselves, Michelle was physically the most attractive option. We literally heard Jay say that the reason he wanted to align with Michelle was because she was hot. From what we saw, once Figgy realised that she was the tribe’s intended target, she did nothing to try and save herself. According to Mari’s exit interviews, Figgy’s attempt at self-preservation was to throw Jay’s name out there. Figgy didn’t target Adam, Zeke, or Mari. Jay seemed resigned to voting for Figgy. It wasn’t his idea to make a move against Mari. This was the work of Michelle, the person that Figgy had only aligned with because of their mutual hotness.
And now, Zeke and Adam need to rely on luck being on their side. It is likely that the Millennials will win more challenges. They certainly seemed to have the edge physically and in puzzles. Perhaps Zeke and Adam will get lucky and be the recipients of a well-timed tribe swap. Or maybe they are clever enough to successfully throw Hannah under the bus. Their games certainly aren’t over yet, but hopefully Mari’s blindside has woken them up to the realities of the game, because complacency was dangerous for LJ on Cagayan and if Zeke and Adam continue to make the same mistakes, they will realise every Survivor player’s worst nightmare, and become undateable when they are sent home before the merge.
For the complete schedule of Survivor blogs: RHAP Survivor Blog Schedule.