I really enjoyed this week’s episode of Survivor. Kelley’s idol play was flashy and exciting, and it is always satisfying when an underdog pulls off a small victory. When I started thinking about how to write this blog, I realised that I had already written a very similar article last season during Survivor:Worlds Apart when Jenn Brown took Kelly Remington out of the game with a similar idol play. When you use an idol, you have to use it to get people on your side. Take out the correct target, and do it in a way that makes people want to work with you. I think Kelley definitely did the former and attempted to do the latter. It was a great moment, but rather than simply rehashing old material, I wanted to focus on something different this week.
Something that stood out to me was the intense focus that was put on the reward challenge this week. The narrative of the show seemed to be that the reward challenge would be crucial. It would be at the reward challenge that unbreakable bonds would be made, and new alliances would be formed. And then in the end, not much really came of it. It is something that has happened again and again throughout Survivor history. People might flirt with each other on reward challenges, but the great majority of reward challenges make little difference to the direction of the game. I was reminded of Survivor: Cagayan when Spencer and Jeremiah Wood, who were in the minority alliance, were able to spend time on reward with Jefra Bland who was in the majority. They were able to convince Jefra to flip to their side and vote with them. She agreed to the plan. But after returning to camp, it only took a very short chat with her alliance partners for her to return to the majority.
The thing is, it really is no good expecting that a reward challenge is going to create bonds if you haven’t invested any time in these people previously. Even if the most logical move for someone is to flip, most players are not going to flip to work with untrustworthy people. This was the reason that Ciera couldn’t get anything to happen on reward. It is the reason that Stephen shouldn’t have been so panicked about Joe being with the women. Despite the reward challenge looking like a prime opportunity to change the game, it very rarely lives up to its potential. And for that reason, this week’s lesson in Survivor history comes to us from the third place finisher from Survivor: Palau, Ian Rosenberger.
On the first day, Ian won an immunity necklace, which made him the first person chosen to be on Koror. He chose Katie Gallagher to join him, and the two of them made a tight alliance. Katie chose Tom Westman, and the three of them worked together throughout the game. Koror was the strongest tribe in Survivor history, never losing an immunity challenge. Because of this, Ian only had to visit Tribal Council once in the pre-merge portion of the game. He secured himself a place in the majority alliance and was comfortable in his final three deal with Katie and Tom. Ian seemed to be in the perfect position.
The one threat to Ian’s game was the fact that in the post-merge, it was often female players who had a numerical advantage. He and Tom were always wary of the fact that a female alliance could form. Luckily for them, the women could never seem to build up enough trust to be able to unite. Tom and Ian remained safe because the women could never work together.
At the final six, Ian was left back at camp while Gregg Carey, Jenn Lyon and Katie went on reward. While on the reward, Gregg, Jenn and Katie made a final three deal. Katie was acutely aware of the difficulty that she would face if she chose to go to the end of the game with Tom and Ian. She knew that she would struggle to get votes against either of them. It made logical sense for her to go with Gregg and Jenn. But to go with Gregg and Jenn would have meant forcing a tied vote, and Katie wasn’t willing to do that. She chose to stick with Ian and Tom, and voted against Gregg.
At final five, there were three women left. Tom and Ian knew that they were in a precarious spot. Ian said in confessional that “the only thing I’m worrying about right now is the three girls turning on Tom and I. If we can avoid that in the next 24 hours, we’re money.” Ian and Tom discussed the possibility of either of them winning the next reward challenge. Tom was clear on his strategy- they had to make sure that the women weren’t left alone. He told Ian: “We can’t choose each other on this one. We got to take one of the girls out of the mix so that they’re not going to be able to talk to each other.” They couldn’t agree on whether to take Katie, or to take Caryn Groedel, who was loyal to Tom, and Tom saw as a more trustworthy ally. They did agree that the smartest thing to do was not to take each other.
Ian (who’s not exactly known for doing the smartest possible thing in the game) knew what the plan was. The best thing he could do for his game was to stick to the plan. But when he won reward, which was a car and a night away from the camp, he couldn’t help himself. He chose Tom to go with him, leaving the women alone for a night. In doing so, he also alerted Katie to the fact that she might not be his closest ally. She took Ian choosing Tom over her for the reward as a sign that he might choose Tom over her when they got the final three. And when Katie returned to camp with Caryn and Jenn, she was both devastated and furious. It didn’t take long for her to begin talking to the women, and the three of them quickly formed a plan. They agreed to vote out whichever male did not win immunity.
I’m sure that this week, Stephen was envisioning a scenario similar to this one. He knew that he needed to use Ciera and Kelley’s votes if he wanted to get Joe out of the game. And he was terrified that Joe was winning them over. He thought that they were going to fall in love with him and refuse to vote him out. I’m sure he was also worried that Ciera was going to blow up his plan. He and Ciera had already talked about getting Joe out, and he knew that Ciera was desperate. What was really driving him crazy was simply not being there. For someone who is as naturally paranoid as Stephen, the loss of control would have been infuriating.
He admitted that part of his frustration was due to exhaustion and hunger. He said in confessional: “I always tell myself the rewards don’t matter. But for some reason, this loss today, this loss of food, this loss of a chance to bond, this loss of energy for later in the game, this loss really set me off.” He was upset at missing the chance for food, but what was most important to him was apparently that chance to bond. What was frustrating to me was that he assumed that bonding can only be done on the reward. He still had important people that were left at camp. He still had someone like Abi, whose vote he could definitely use. But instead of bonding with Abi, Stephen moped about losing the chance to bond with Ciera and Kelley.
Stephen has been so single-minded this season. He must vote out Joe. He must use the votes of Ciera and Kelley to achieve that. His plans don’t seem to be flexible. And he doesn’t seem to see that because Joe is a huge physical threat and a likable guy, he will get voted out. No matter how much bonding at a reward challenge he does, nobody is going to want to be sitting next to Joe in the end. Stephen has bigger problems than Joe. By aligning himself so closely with Jeremy, who seems to have the respect of everyone left in the game, Stephen could be setting himself up to play the exact same game as he did in Tocantins. He’s made a nice friendship, but if he goes all the way to the end with his buddy, he won’t get any votes in the end.
Stephen knows the game well. He claimed that rewards had played a big part in the result of his original season. It is true that JT Thomas, the eventual winner, was able to bond with people over rewards. But JT was so charismatic out there that he was able to bond with people at any time. Stephen asserted that “some of the bonds that were made in that reward I just never recovered from.” I wasn’t sure whether he meant that, or whether he brought it up for a reason. The response from Jeremy was to ask: “Do you think that’s what they’re doing now?” Stephen was quick to back away from making any accusations, saying that he wasn’t sure how things happened in modern Survivor, but that is what happened in his season. He might not have made any outright accusations, but he did sow seeds of doubt. I thought that might have been his intention- to get people to start to view Joe with suspicion.
From my perspective, Stephen’s panic was over the top, but I like the passion that he is displaying. He really is putting everything that he has into playing a different game. He doesn’t want to be at the end with someone unbeatable again. He wants to have a big move on his resume. I just think he’s looking at the wrong big move.
I don’t think Stephen’s panic was completely unfounded. We have seen that when people are left alone, they do strategise. When Tom and Ian left Caryn, Katie and Jenn alone, the women had worked out a new final three deal within an hour of getting to the beach. Another example is from Survivor: Pearl Islands, when Jon ‘Fairplay’ Dalton and Burton Roberts went on a reward together, leaving three women alone on the beach. Burton was voted out at the next Tribal Council, so reward challenges can affect the result of the game. But for this challenge, this early in the game, Stephen was slightly overreacting. He also had Kimmi, whom he seems to trust, out on the reward. Surely he could trust that Kimmi would be on his side and could be counted on to make sure Joe didn’t get time alone with Kelley or Ciera. He was petrified that his entire game was coming undone. He called the whole situation a “nightmare”. But what he really needed to do was to trust the relationships that he had built.
Ian’s pivotal reward challenge moment came at a much later stage in the game. At final five, there aren’t very many moves to be made. If the women had managed to come together, then leaving them alone together would have been Ian’s fatal mistake. Tom won the final five immunity challenge, and so in the event of a successful female alliance, Ian would have been voted out at final five. Luckily for him, the women didn’t trust each other, and he was able to remain safe. Caryn was voted out at final five, and Ian made it to the final three immunity challenge, which was an endurance challenge. After a record breaking 12 hours, Ian stepped down. He asked Tom to vote him out, and take Katie to the Final Two. Tom obliged, and Ian left the game in third place.
Ciera was in a desperate spot this week. Last week, the majority alliance split the votes between her and Kass. With Kass gone, Ciera knew that she was on the chopping block, and she didn’t do herself any favours at Tribal Council by urging the other players to start playing the game. She said: “At this point, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole, so I’m going to be throwing everything I can throw and trying to get somebody to you know, catch on to it.” I enjoyed watching Ciera fight for her life in the game. She was trying to work with everyone out there, but nobody was having any of it. I was reminded of Shii-Ann Huang in Survivor: All Stars. Shii-Ann was the last remaining member of her tribe and was begging the other players to work with her, or even to use her as a vote. But the majority alliance saw her desperation. They didn’t want to work with her, and as soon as she lost immunity, she was voted out of the game.
Ciera will likely find that like the Shii-devil, she has alienated everyone to the point that they don’t want to work with her, no matter what moves she is proposing. At the reward, Ciera threw everything she had into making those people work with her. It was interesting that we saw Ciera scrambling, and not Kelley. Perhaps Wentworth was able to be a bit more comfortable because she had the idol, but it was interesting that she didn’t have the same view of the reward that Ciera did. Kelley didn’t see the time as crucial. She enjoyed the company and didn’t come across as desperate. Ciera clearly laid out what she saw- that Jeremy, Tasha, Stephen and Savage had control of the game, and would be the final four. And she had a point. Joe admitted in confessional that “Ciera is right. I know they’re tight. I know they don’t want me with them at some point.” But Joe didn’t want to make a move too early. Even when he found out that Stephen wanted him out, Joe didn’t want to make a move unless it was supported by his entire alliance.
Joe’s play this week was intriguing. The people on the reward challenge were Joe, Ciera, Kelley, Keith, Kimmi and Kelly Wiglesworth. Not so long ago, Joe was part of a final five deal with Ciera, Kelley and Keith. They did have a working relationship, and it wasn’t completely unfeasible that they would be able to work together. They seemed to have a great time together on the reward (and what a wonderful scene it was when Keith was driving around the beach on the tuk tuk) and when they returned to camp, it looked like Joe wasn’t completely against working with them. When Joe decided to target Stephen, he turned to Kelley and Ciera for help. But ultimately, all of the bonding that happened on the reward counted for nothing. Joe still wrote Kelley’s name down.
Joe decided against pushing his alliance into doing something that they didn’t want to do, and he agreed to vote out Kelley instead of Stephen. In doing so, he was voting out someone who would always be an option for him, and saving someone who has single-mindedly wanted him out of the game for weeks. It was an awful move. I think that generally, when you know that someone is targeting you, you need to do whatever you can to get them before they can get you. Joe gave Stephen another three days in the game, and I think he will come to regret that decision. Joe has to recognise that he is a target. Stephen won’t be the only one after him. His best bet is to win immunity, and he is more likely to continue his winning streak working with people like Ciera and Abi than he is working with Jeremy and Spencer.
Not only did Joe make a bad move by agreeing to vote out Kelley, but he made a worse move by telling her of his intentions. Interestingly, we didn’t see it on the show, but the contestants have confirmed on Twitter that Joe told Kelley she was going home. He didn’t know that she had an idol. I think he was trying to secure her jury vote. Of course, once Kelley knew that the votes were coming her way, it was an easy decision for her. She played her idol, negating the nine votes against her. With only three votes, Andrew Savage was sent to the jury. This was a terrible outcome for Joe. It was Savage that told Joe of Stephen’s plotting against him. Savage promised Joe that he would never write his name down. And he has confirmed in exit interviews that although it would have been a Woo-like terrible decision, he was planning to go all the way to the end with Joe. Savage was the only player in the game who was willing to align with Joe to the end, and now he’s gone. It was a bad episode for Joe.
Despite Stephen’s fears and Ciera’s best intentions, this week’s reward challenge ultimately came to nothing. At least we got some great shots of Keith driving, because the reward did not affect the strategy of the game at all. In Palau, Ian got lucky. Despite taking the wrong person on the reward challenge, he ended up keeping Katie with him, and the women’s alliance failed. Katie and Caryn had such a contentious relationship that they were unlikely to be able to work together. Importantly, Ian’s blunder happened at the final five. Tom correctly pointed out to Katie that if she voted out one of the men, the other would likely win the remaining immunities. Katie stood a greater chance of making final two if she stayed with the men. Her options were limited.
Right now, there are 11 players left- lots of options. Just because the reward didn’t affect strategy for this week doesn’t mean it was a complete waste. Ciera might think that she and Kelley are on the bottom, but that doesn’t have to be the case. They do have a working relationship with Joe. And perhaps with Savage gone, he realises that his best option is to stick with the three women. I hope he does. I love a good underdog story.