Second Chances is finally here! The hype for this season has been unprecedented. Before the season even began filming, the cast was known. Survivor fans have been interacting with the cast as they attempted to gather the votes necessary to send them out to Cambodia. The fan community is invested in this season, and the premiere episode didn’t disappoint. It was at times hilarious, at times suspenseful, and at times character driven. I really enjoyed it.
I’m looking forward to my third season of Survivor blogging, where I will be looking back throughout Survivor history and discussing what the present Survivors can learn from seasons past. For this season, I have set myself a challenge- I am going to attempt to stick to the rules of second chance- that is, every week I will be writing about one-time players who have never won the game. Who knows, perhaps we will see some of these people on the next Second Chances ballot. We live in a world where Kimmi Kappenberg is on Survivor again. Anything could happen.
One of my favourite things about the premiere episode was that it set a very clear narrative. This is a season about 20 losers. Twenty people who failed in their first attempt at the game. And for one of them, the ultimate redemption is only 39 days away.
At Tribal Council, Peih-Gee told the Ta’keo tribe, “That’s what second chances is all about- did you learn from your mistakes the first time? Are you able to correct them?” This is ultimately going to be the narrative of the winner. The winner of this season will be someone who is self-aware enough to know what truly cost them the game the first time they played. They will also be astute enough not to allow it to happen again.
Encouragingly, most of the cast was given a confessional where they demonstrated that they at least understood that their original game had flaws. The question will be whether or not they can fix the ‘little mistakes’, as Abi put it, and play a winning game. I believe that the players who actively seek redemption are the ones who will be true threats to win the game. And with that in mind, this week’s lesson in Survivor history comes to us from season 21, Survivor: Nicaragua, and fourth place finisher Holly Hoffman.
To say that Holly Hoffman began the game badly was an understatement. She began on the Espada tribe, made up only of players over the age of 40. She struggled to make connections in her tribe early on. At the first Tribal Council, Holly’s only ally, Wendy, was sent home, leaving Holly alone and panicked.
With Wendy gone, Holly’s mental state began to spiral, and her increasingly strange behaviour only served to further alienate her from the tribe. First she threw away the snails that other tribemates were eating. Then she famously stole Dan Lembo’s $1600 alligator shoes, filled them with sand, and dumped them in the river. And then, to finish off the craziest day of Holly’s life, she immediately confessed what she had done. Her tribe hadn’t trusted her from the beginning, but now she was in an even worse position.
During a walk on the beach with her tribemate, former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson, Holly was able to turn her game around. She admitted to Jimmy that she felt like a failure. She felt like she was letting down everyone she had left at home. Holly was ready to quit the game. After a pep talk from Jimmy, she turned her game around. She realised that her biggest problem was that she had given up. Once she determined that she was going to stick it out, she was able to control her emotional state. Not only did Holly not quit the game, but she was able to fix her mistakes, take her place in an alliance, and make power moves in the game. She finished in fourth place, one immunity win shy of a place in the Final Tribal Council and a likely win.
It was only once Holly had recognised her mistakes that she was able to begin to change her game. She adopted a quieter style of gameplay and began to form a bond with Jane Bright, an alliance that would take both women to the final six. And of course, as often happens in Survivor, luck played a role in her resurgence. Espada visited two more tribal councils before the tribes were switched, and both times, Holly’s new strategy of laying low was able to save her, as Jimmy Johnson volunteered to be voted out, and Jimmy T’s bossiness saw him become a target.
At the tribe swap, Holly was quickly able to form bonds with those from the younger tribe. She began to take on more of a motherly role towards them. Strategically, Holly was now playing a more cutthroat game, happily voting against her former Espada tribe. When the two tribes merged, it was Holly who instigated a move against Brenda Lowe, the most powerful player in the game. When the tribe lost their rice supply, Holly gave up her place on a reward in order to get rice for the tribe. Simply put, Holly had completely turned her game around. She had taken herself from being the crazy outsider to being in a powerful social and strategic position.
Who from season 31 will be able to replicate Holly’s success? Well, step one will be recognising where their game went wrong the first time. And for many of them, the answer to that is up to interpretation. I was worried for Ciera when she said that she played scared last season and needs to be the player she was at the end of Blood Vs Water right out of the gates. Ciera is a liability in the challenges, and rightly or wrongly has a reputation for being willing to make big moves, and committing the ultimate act of disloyalty in voting out her mother. The last thing she should be doing is trying to make big moves straight away.
There were others who didn’t seem to have a clear picture of their last game. Tasha began the episode talking about how she needed to play a more villainous game. She believes she lost in Cagayan because she was just too nice. This time, she’ll lie more, back-stab more, and pray for forgiveness later. It was a nice quote. But is it the truth? Did she really lose because she wasn’t willing to play a dirty game? Or was it more her inability to read people and see that Kass wasn’t feeling valued? Looking at Tasha’s game in Cagayan, I can’t see where playing like a villain would have helped her get further.
While Jeremy had an impressive premiere episode and has established firm control of the tribe, I feel that Jeremy also fits into this category. He correctly stated that he was too much of a threat in his first season. In Survivor: San Juan Del Sur, Jeremy immediately made an alliance with the women of the tribe. This season, in an effort to change his fate in the game, he made different alliances. This season, he’s not going to be playing with the Missy Paynes and the Julie McGees. This season, he’s going to be playing with the physical threats. He aligned himself with Andrew Savage, Tasha, and his most important alliance. As Jeremy said, “There’s no bigger shield out here than Joe.”
Surrounding himself with physical players is smart. But I would argue that Jeremy also had a problem with overconfidence. He was blindsided, and never saw the betrayal coming. He failed to recognise the close relationship that had developed between Missy and Jon Misch. It is all well and good for Jeremy to surround himself with other alpha players, but if he gets too comfortable, he’ll be headed for a repeat of his San Juan Del Sur performance. The foreshadowing is definitely there. As Jeremy talked in confessional about his brilliant alliance, he finished by saying that it would be so dumb for someone to mess this up.
I also found Varner’s narrative problematic. It is difficult to pinpoint where Varner’s game went wrong in Australia. Perhaps it was in the moment (not caught on camera), where the Ogakor tribe found out that Varner had previously received votes. Jeff was infamously eliminated because, in season two, a tied vote was broken by previous votes cast. More likely, Jeff Varner lost his chance at winning Australia when Mike Skupin fell into the fire. If Skupin hadn’t been forced to leave the game, it is likely that Jeff’s tribe would have entered the merge with a 6-4 advantage, and he would not have been voted out at the merge. According to Jeff’s confessional this season, he gave away a million dollars when he jumped off a pole and gave up immunity. And while this is in part true (Eventually immunity went to Keith, who was obviously on the outs at Ogakor, had more previous votes than Jeff, and would likely have been eliminated without immunity.), Jeff could also have saved himself by being more observant, because Jerri had previous votes against her too. It was unlikely that Colby, clearly the most physical player on Ogakor, had previous votes against him. So I’m unsure how Varner achieves his redemption. Is his a story of simply being more tenacious, and refusing to give up? After all this time, if he really thinks that peanut butter and not his own lack of observation skills is what cost him a million dollars, I’m not sure that Jeff Varner has the self-awareness needed to win this season.
To win this season, the players will need to have a keen sense of what went wrong last time. But more critically, they will need to be able to fix their mistakes. The premiere episode showed us that most players know where they went wrong, but some of them are simply incapable of changing their ways. In a game like Survivor, where you are removed from everyone who cares about you and placed in a situation where you will be cold, wet, sleep-deprived and starving, it is difficult to fix previous mistakes, especially if those previous mistakes are just a natural part of your personality. I think that what makes Survivor special is that we are seeing people at their most raw. We are seeing their most true selves. And if your true personality isn’t suited to winning the game, it is almost impossible to pretend to be something that you just aren’t.
For example, Terry is clearly not comfortable playing the social game. In season 12, he was the master of the physical game. A combination of his athletic ability and his possession of an immunity idol kept Terry safe from the vote until final three. Ultimately though, he had no social bonds. What was interesting about watching Terry this week was that he clearly knew that his social skills had to improve. He knew that he had to be having conversations with people, that he couldn’t just rely on his physical strength to win the game. Unfortunately for Terry, he made the same mistakes again. He focussed his energy on making the shelter, allowing the ‘beach people’ to strategise without him, and consequently found himself on the wrong side of the vote. At Tribal Council, Jeff Probst seemed incredulous that Terry still hadn’t grasped the importance of the social game. As Terry explained that he had sorted out the shelter first, then had time to talk to others, Jeff Probst admonished him, “It’s a huge part of the game!” Unless Terry quickly fixes his social game, he has no chance to win. Second Chances is going to be won by someone who can do what Holly Hoffman did in Survivor: Nicaragua– identify their mistakes, and stop making them.
And then, there is Abi. Abi is probably the player who is closest to being in Holly’s position. Abi knows that her temper is her downfall. She played Survivor: Philippines emotionally. She caused trouble. She called people morons and idiots. She was so impossible to live with that she was voted out in fifth place, despite the final four being made up of two clear pairs that needed a swing vote. She could have been taken to the end as the ultimate goat, but nobody wanted to live with Abi any longer.
Holly is also a player who can let her emotions get the better of her. You can’t get much more emotional than what Holly did to Dan’s shoes! But once Holly realised that she was letting her emotions get the better of her, she was able to pull back. She went from being dismissed as the crazy person to being revered and respected as a power player. Can Abi do the same? While it might be difficult, Holly proves that it is possible.
As pointed out by Rob in this week’s Know-It-Alls podcast, Abi actually did a great job of containing her emotions this week- at least when compared to the way that she managed her temper in the Philippines. Admittedly, she does seem to be annoying the Ta’keo tribe, at least enough to earn her four votes at Tribal Council. And yes, it wasn’t the smartest move to make a big fuss over her bag being missing, and even less clever to make sure that she told every person in the tribe that she suspected Peih-Gee of purposely taking her bracelet. But the Abi that we saw in her first game would have immediately and angrily confronted Peih-Gee. She would have put all her energies into getting Peih-Gee voted out at the next opportunity. She certainly wouldn’t have voted with someone that she didn’t fully trust.
Abi’s vote was the best indication that she is trying to change. She isn’t playing this game with her heart. She voted with the majority, and from what we saw, she didn’t try to have an influence on the vote at all. While next week’s preview may not look promising for Abi, I thought she did well and is in a good position right now. She’s in the majority alliance, and they’ll need her vote a little while longer. As long as the ‘Brazilian Dragon’ can stay under control, she should be able to go deep in this game. To have a chance to actually win, she’ll need to do what Holly did and be able to become a completely different, mellower person. Holly has proven that it is possible. But Holly is definitely the exception to the rule.
There were players this season who have already demonstrated the ability to acknowledge and correct the faults that destroyed their game last time. Shirin and Peih-Gee, both shown to have poor social skills on their first seasons, seemed to be fitting into the tribe perfectly. It is still early days for both of them, but so far, so good. Spencer acknowledged that he needed better relationships with people and set about making them. We saw him having one-on-one conversations with people. More importantly, we saw lots of Spencer listening to others and not so much of him talking. He is aware of the mistakes he made last time. He’s not taking anyone’s loyalty for granted. He’s making sure that those in his alliance feel good about their place.
For me, the star of the episode was Kelley Wentworth. I will admit to not being a huge fan of Kelley, and I didn’t vote for her. And when she started to say that last time, she played the game with her Dad, and that was her downfall, I rolled my eyes. And then she started talking about the faults in her own game. She should have written her Dad’s name down (although to be fair, that only buys her one extra week). She didn’t take as many risks as she should have.
We all laughed at Drew Christy in season 29 when he saw Kelley as such a threat that he was willing to throw a challenge to get rid of her. Maybe we all laughed too soon. Perhaps Drew Christy saw something in Kelley that was actually there. And this season, we’ll get to see it too- Kelley Wentworth, strategic mastermind.
Kelley played a very low key game in San Juan Del Sur. She joined Jeremy’s alliance, and then sat back, trusting that her alliance would get her far in the game. When a tribe swap saw her separated from her original alliance, it was clear that Kelley hadn’t made the social connections that she needed to. She hadn’t taken any risks- she had a good relationship with Jeremy and Natalie and hadn’t really connected with the rest of the tribe.
We saw a different Kelley this week. Not only was she changing her social game, talking and laughing with the majority of the tribe, but she isn’t averse to taking risks. She left the tribe on the pretences of looking for coconuts, and instead went on an idol hunt. We saw over on the Bayon tribe how this move hurt Stephen. But unlike Stephen, Kelley was actually able to find the clue to the idol. Her risky move paid off.
And then there was the brilliant moment when she actually found the idol. I love the idea of hiding the idol at the challenges. It created such suspense, watching Kelley looking back at the idol, wondering if she was actually going to take a chance and take it, and then cheering when she finally did. At this point, Kelley is definitely in the best spot. She’s not only got possession of the immunity idol, but she’s a trusted member of the majority alliance on her tribe. Her poor performance on San Juan Del Sur is only going to be an advantage for her, as there is no target on her back. It would take some extremely bad luck to see Kelley going out any time before the merge.
For a season that is called Second Chances, the storyline is clear. Who of the cast is going to seize the opportunity? Who is going to play differently this time? In season 21, through a mixture of a lucky tribe swap, an improved social game, and just the determination to take the game on, and make power moves, Holly was able to find the redemption that she needed. I think we’ll see a few redemption stories this season. And for Kelley, we might see the ultimate redemption.