Two episodes into the season, and I already want to take back some of the things I wrote in our preseason roundtable.
Isn’t it great that we have an NBA star sharing a beach with a kid “from the projects”? That’s a relationship I want to see!
I think the Brawn tribe is going to be a wreck, but Jennifer’s going to be its voice of sanity.
Granted, I was entirely correct that Brawn would be the trainwreck tribe, but seeing as I had Darnell and Jennifer pegged as the two to emerge from its ashes and for Jennifer to win the whole shebang… Nicole’s pick of Debbie was smarter!
But like Jennifer, I refuse to have regrets! Why should I, when after all the expectations of doom and gloom, this season is actually so much fun? Yes, it’s a slower start compared to the frenzied shenanigans that opened last season (and the several before it) but it’s a breath of fresh air to get to know these people without it all being about who’s blindsiding who. Besides, when was the last time we made it two episodes into a season without anybody finding an immunity idol?
Brawn – Individual Games
You know who else isn’t having regrets? Alecia. She might not be entirely sure what’s going on around her at any given point, but she’s not giving up and looking forward to the pre-jury vacation either. The girl that Catherine and I called ‘a replacement level Survivor player’ is fighting. Five hours to make fire is both a wonderful call back to Becky and Sundra in Cook Islands and a testament to Alecia’s grit. The state of her hands by the time she actually got a flame made me wince, but her triumphant smile was huge and entirely deserved.
In the grand scheme of Survivor, starting fire is a small thing and perhaps inconsequential to her in-game image, but I like Alecia now. I still think she’ll be going on that pre-jury trip, but she’s earning her place in the game. Who cares if she mixes up embers and embryos? It’s not like she’s going into Reproductive Endocrinology.It could work… so long as you don’t talk about it.[/caption]
Ultimately, the best thing to happen to Alecia’s game was Jennifer’s dalliance with a women’s alliance. Jennifer claims this was Alecia’s idea, not hers, but this far after events, I don’t suppose either of them have an accurate memory. However, as we learn just about every season, nothing strikes fear into a male player’s heart like the suggestion of a women’s alliance. Please note that said male players usually learn of a women’s alliance because one or two of the prospective members tell them. According to Jennifer, both Alecia and Cydney sold her out to Jason long before she spilled the beans herself at Tribal Council.
As much as I roll my eyes every time a women’s alliance is brought up on the show, this one could have converted me. I loved Alecia’s explanation that after the merge/swap, other players will overlook a group of three women, while Jason and Scot will probably be prime targets with or without a majority. She’s absolutely right, and this is something I’d like to see a losing tribe do someday—abandon all hope of ever winning and go for Survival of the Weakest with the intention of flying under the radar at the merge.
Of course, the flaw in logic here is who of the weakest is on top. If they booted first Jason and then Scot (and to be fair, it didn’t sound like Scot would have automatically been the next in line), they still have one more potential challenge loss. Did either Cydney or Alecia feel comfortable that they are not the third of the women’s alliance? (Hell, did Jenny?) On the other hand, they can take a short term victory of improving their game-trust while still keeping the hope of winning one pre-swap challenge.
The other thing to consider here is that Jennifer might have been doomed with or without that alliance. Jason is currently the one driving the big moves, and it’s clear he believes in Jennifer’s own assertion that the best thing you can do on Survivor is get out the strongest players while you can. Jennifer was likeable and could relate to everybody on the tribe. Jason might easily have recognized that threat and been looking for the first excuse to get her off.
You know who Jason doesn’t consider a threat? Alecia. So by that logic, who is next in line for the chopping block?
Scot is an obvious contender: the alpha male of the tribe who has a tendency to wear his heart on his sleeve. I predicted that he and Jason would butt heads, but they’re actually getting along like a house on fire. Scot continues to come across as down to earth, laid back and charming in his videos, which sends up a red flag as the exact kind of person Jason would want to vote off. On the other hand, with Jenny gone, it seems like Jason is the only player Scot is close to. It’s also entirely possible that Jason sees somebody with a wealthy NBA background as the ideal person to go to the end with—or at least use as a meatshield come the merge.
Then there’s Cydney who has pulled the reverse J’Tia. We all thought she’d go crazy out there, and instead, she’s been good-humored and strategic, ruthlessly abandoning her friends to lie low in the majority’s favor. She’s playing an excellent social game—and again, Jason should be savvy enough to notice that.
But at what point do the others notice Jason? Jennifer figured it out a little too soon, pitching a strike against him before the others could come to terms with his threat-level. Alecia and Cydney are both a little young to go against his authority figure, but neither of them are going to roll over and die before him either. If Scot starts looking at him in a different light, Jason’s got a fight on his hands. One prediction that I’m not changing from the roundtable is that Jason will crash and burn… it’s only a question of how long.
Despite all that, Alecia is still the most logical person to vote off. If we learned one thing this week it’s that she has no loyalty to anybody on her tribe. Scot, Jason, and even Jennifer made their opinion of her clear and reportedly, Cydney can’t stand her. With no illusions as to friendship, Alecia’s playing an outright individual game. Come the swap, she’d flip on her tribe in a heartbeat—and would quite possibly then flip on her new alliance at the merge. She’s no Kass, but perhaps that comparison in her bio wasn’t far off the mark when it comes to the game she’ll be playing.
Brains – Heart over Head
Over on the Brains’ beach, the initial set-up was clear-cut: the four younger players bonded and set up Joe and Debbie as the bottom-feeders to their majority. Never mind that at 38, Neal is technically in the older person bracket of Survivor; being the oldest of a young group is almost always a great position to play from. Especially when they had a nice, handy target in the Coach-esque Debbie who talks and talks and talks the talk, but hasn’t taken a walk yet.
Of course, they’ve been on the beach a few days now and a challenge win has cleared the cloud of Luzon from this Brains tribe. The players are a little more secure, a little readier to look ahead. Accordingly, Debbie has been promoted to goat status, with both Peter and Liz observing that she’d be a good person to move forward with.
One of my recurring themes as a blogger is that you should never underestimate the older woman—a mistake players make almost every season. Yet even I find it hard to take Debbie seriously. I don’t think she can win, just because I can’t see her earning that level of respect from the other players. However, the flipside of that is that they aren’t earning her respect either. Still, she’s certainly loyal to her tribe right now, and I’m beginning to have confidence that she’ll stick around long enough for us to see what happens once she’s ready to start playing Survivor instead of Happy Campers.
If Debbie’s not on the bottom, who is? Joe’s an obvious bet. He’s outside that young alliance, we saw him clashing with Liz, and Aubry tells us that he’s not getting on with Neal either. What Joe does bring to the table, however, is muscle. Both challenges so far have required brute strength and it looks like this week’s won’t be any different. Just as Debbie is seen as a goat, it’s possible Joe could acquire that reputation also. After all, this is a Brains tribe… Are we really expecting them to go with the obvious vote?
So who of the youngsters might be poised for a blindside? I had pre-season concerns about Peter, but he’s allayed those. He was their MVP in the most recent challenge, and there’s no sign that he’s getting into conflicts with anybody. He’s even tolerating Debbie with something akin to affection. Neal might be having strife with Joe, but he looks like he’s holding his own at camp, judging by this secret scene, and between his age and gender, he’s in a good position to garner some esteem from each member of his tribe.
But then there’s Liz, who is clashing with Joe and has her own strong opinions on camplife. Entirely logical and correct opinions (it’s hard to argue with boiling water before drinking it), but ones that conflict with her elders’. Liz is in the really unfortunate position of being a successful, capable, self-confident woman, who happens to be the youngest on her tribe and is not being taken as seriously as she might have expected. I don’t think she’s adapting well to that.
When talking about Anna in the preseason roundtable, I used an old poker player quote of Nick’s, about overlooking the human relationship element of the game. It would better have been applied to Liz. She rolled her eyes at Aubry’s day two meltdown, speculating that the other woman wasn’t strong enough for the game. This week, she was the one to break down over the lack of water. Like Aubry, Liz was upset with herself over not being able to stay calm and logical. Unlike Aubry, Liz dealt it with it by going off on her own until she could calm herself down.
Now, it’s not like there’s a hard and fast rule over this. After all, Survivor is difficult enough that nobody wants a needy tribemate, so being able to calm yourself down is probably a good thing in the long run. But the flipside of that is that people like to feel needed. Debbie comforted Aubry and was appreciated for the gesture. Liz’ refusal to show her vulnerability kept her aloof. Independence is a great reputation to have, but acknowledging that she needed other people would have conveyed a level of respect for them.
It’s a big conclusion to jump to based on the minimal footage we’ve seen. After all, Liz did comfort Aubry in the shelter, even if she didn’t feel particularly sympathetic. Meanwhile, a short sequence of press photos appears to show Debbie giving Liz a flower, so even those two are making some connection.
Still, as sharp as Liz is about numbers and strategy, she doesn’t seem to be making close bonds with her tribemates. Without those, nobody has a reason to stick their necks out for her if somebody decides that her contribution to challenges and camplife is not greater than her potential to be a game threat. Joe, or even Debbie, is still a more obvious boot, but I can’t shake my conviction that a Brains tribe will overthink the vote, and in that event, Liz is the one sending up the most red flags.
Conversely, Aubry had a rough start, had her meltdown, and made up for it in the challenge. She retrieved all four paddles for the Brains Tribe (getting the last one, at least, without a mask after Neal lost it trying to spell her). She was then part of the puzzle team that secured the win and reward. It’s a huge gamble taking on any key role in the challenge, because if you screw up, it’s your head on the chopping block. But the payoff is equally great: Aubry had faith in herself, and she earned her redemption.
Aubry reminds me a little of Bonnie in ABC’s The Quest. Bonnie didn’t look the part of a Paladin, but more than anybody else, she genuinely cared about the whole experience and that made her the heart of the show and somebody both the viewers and her fellow players rooted for. Aubry might not have a bikini figure or shampoo commercial hair, but she loves the show and is embracing the experience, building relationships with everybody on her tribe. That is how you play this game. I don’t know whether Aubry can take it all the way to the end, but whenever Brains go to Tribal Council, she’s going to be the lynchpin of that vote.
(For those of you keeping track, this probably means that Aubry is getting voted out next while Liz goes on to win the game. What I’m saying is I wouldn’t put money on my own conclusions.)
Beauty – Shiny, Happy People
If there is one way in which Kaoh Rong has surpassed Cagayan, it is its Beauty tribe. Solana was LJ, Brice, and four pieces of eye candy; on Gondol, every player has something to offer individually, and together they’re a well-oiled machine. Before the game started, at least four of the Beauties mentioned morale-boosting as part of their strategy. While they haven’t had a lot of adversity to face so far, they’re living up to their intentions. Beauty is the happiest camp in Cambodia, and despite being the weakest team on paper, they’re working the best as a team, and that is what’s giving them the edge in challenges.
As it stands, I’m not expecting Beauty to go to Tribal Council before the swap, but, well… we’ve seen my track record. Let’s pin down those tribal dynamics while we can.
Obviously, the break out character of Beauty (and perhaps the entire season) is Tai. He was always going to be an outsider, being twice the age of most of his tribemates and of a radically different background. He made up for that with his natural appeal and practical knowledge, only to lose all the ground he had gained with a truly terrible job of looking for the idol.
In that little scene where he’s caught by Nick and Anna, there was a fascinating lack of dissembling. Nick set the tone when he casually asked if Tai had had any luck; Tai politely requested few more minutes of privacy—which they granted him. No dramatic confrontation, just an easy establishment of the facts: “I know you know, and you know I know.” That’s how the Beauty tribe rolls. (See also Caleb’s Big Brother revelation.)
Once away from Tai, his younger tribemates were a good deal more paranoid in their conversation. It’s not clear how much of that was genuine fear of the idol, how much was putting the target on Tai in true ‘Anyone but me’ fashion, or even how much was covering up their own ambitions for idol-hunting. Each and every person out there has almost certainly looked for the idol themselves, but the evolution of strategy has yet to reach a consensus on how an individual player should feel about other people looking for it.
Still, it’s a huge contrast to the tactics of Jason on Brawn. Beauty have never deliberately isolated Tai—if anything, he’s isolated himself. From the clips and press photos we’ve seen, Beauty seems to spend a lot of time together as one big group, and Tai’s determination to find the idol has probably cost him heavily in bonding. Luckily for him, their challenge success has given him the time to come to that conclusion himself. His second big storyline has been the wooing of Caleb.
A confession: One of my other regrets from the roundtable was this prediction: We’re not getting as much Tai as we want. Damn.
Honestly, after two episodes, I’m a little over Tai. Or over-Tai’d. I never like it when I feel production is ramming the intended fan favorite down our throats, and while he’s definitely an engaging screen presence, he’s no Keith Nale. Yet all that said, I love the Tai / Caleb bromance. Their interactions (and Tai’s Twitter) suggest Tai has a filthier sense of humor than CBS would like to admit. A shame, because Tai the Dirty Old Man (But Not In A Creepy Way) looks far more fun than Tai the Adorable Cultural Stereotype.
Caleb, on the other hand, has perhaps undergone the single best reality image rehabilitation of all time. His premiere was a little dicey, but he won everybody over this episode by playing up to Tai’s shameless flirtations. (Sidenote: when fully half the tribe compared themselves to Parvati, how awesome is it that the only flirting is happening between the two players who are already in relationships—and who aren’t even sexually compatible?)
Meanwhile, Caleb’s Big Brother history has been accepted as a positive attribute.(Unsolved mystery: if Caleb was trying to keep that on the down low, why did he enter the game wearing a cowboy hat and a BMC belt buckle?) Fortunately for Caleb, he has a proven history of being loyal, and it’s entirely possible his reality experience is helping him in the challenges. He was definitely the MVP this week: racing through the water, setting the pace for the rest of the players, yet still having enough energy at the end of the course to flip himself onto the slingshot platform.
If I were doing power-rankings, I’d have Caleb at number one. A: I don’t think Beauty is going to tribal; B: if they did, Caleb has to be the last person they’d want to lose. It doesn’t feel like he has the savvy to win this game, but he’s in a great place right now.
So what does it mean when the person on the bottom of the totem pole is besties with the person at the top? Could Caleb’s friendship be the saving of Tai?
Unfortunately, we just don’t have that information. Even Beauty’s online confessionals mostly revolve around the Tai and Caleb bromance or the challenge they won, so it’s really hard to figure out tribal dynamics. We know the Beauty girls also forged a women’s alliance, but that was on day one. There’s no indication that it’s still the plan now that they’ve got to know Tai and his treacherous idol hunting, Caleb and his demonstrated loyalty, Nick and his… campaign against chickens. (Nick’s doing something other than pushing the hair out of his eyes, right?)
Julia and Anna clicked early on, and after the challenge on day six, it was Anna who waded to meet Julia for the celebratory hug, so I’d still consider those two a pair. Julia’s our teenager, and Anna probably fills a natural mentor role for her. Anna’s gaming background could well be driving her to foster that relationship, to keep Julia’s vote in her pocket. Originally, they talked about bringing Michele in for the girls’ alliance, but though Michele was amenable, she’s a superfan too and might prefer an alliance of her own choosing. Michele thinks Nick is good looking and Nick thinks he’s good looking, so those two have that in common. They’re also both from New Jersey. No word on Nick’s views on Harry Potter, but alliances have had worse foundations.
Really though, this is all random speculation. We might as well say that Julia, Nick, and Caleb could have formed a power alliance based on their familiarity with Big Brother. In fact, it’s entirely possible that there is no formal majority, but rather an assortment of private understandings. If I had to pick a person for a boot, I’d still be leaning towards Tai, but you could make a case for anybody to be the target. We just haven’t seen the happy tribe put to the test.
Ultimately, that’s what I’m really curious about with Beauty. Even if it’s not until the swap, they’re going to face adversity eventually. I want to see how its individual members fare when the going gets tough.
The Idol – You want them to do what??
While we all heard about the new combination idol this season, one thing the previews didn’t tell us was how the idols were hidden. We got to find out that little tidbit with Tai this week. I have no particular objections to the wild goose chase style of clues, but that last tree-climbing stage seemed ludicrous, especially on a season hyped for medical issues. The bloody streaks on the tree were the most disturbing thing I’ve seen on Survivor since, well, the bug in Jennifer’s ear last week.
We have to assume that production weren’t actually expecting anybody to get the idol by climbing the tree (though I’m sure they’d have been delighted if an Ozzy had emerged from the cast). Antonio Mazzaro does a great breakdown of their likely intentions in the voicemails this week, and I agree with his overall conclusion. In view of the combination idol, production may be forcing players to collaborate in order to get the idol; the more people who know about one idol, the more likely it is that a group would team up to use two.
Even so, it’s hardly obvious how having two people will help find it. That box was a long way up the tree. Even if Tai had access to Scot Pollard, this is more than a matter of standing on somebody’s shoulders. We know Tai was given a tool to help him retrieve the key, but it wasn’t clear how that tool was used—instructions came with it; did Tai read them? All we can be sure of is that they’re making the contestants work for it this season.
Is this a good thing? In Tai’s shoes I might just decide that as long as I had the clue, I could at least be confident that nobody else had the idol. Keeping an idol out of the game might be more advantageous than ‘sharing’ it. I could easily see this backfiring to the point that fewer idols are found, making it harder for the combination idol to be used.
From an entertainment standpoint, I’m OK with it taking a long time before anybody finds an idol, but I don’t know if I need five minutes of every episode dedicated to the ongoing search. As a number of people have noted, Second Chances never took more than a single episode to go from clue to idol-possession, and it’s reasonable to assume that was production’s reaction to how this season turned out.
But I don’t want to write it off this early either. I’ll give it this: there’s something compelling in trying to solve the clue along with the player, and if it does mean players start collaborating in the hunt, that is almost always going to create more intrigue than players making the more ‘correct’ call of keeping the information entirely to themselves.
Enjoy the Moment
Aside from promising players being medevaced, one of my concerns for this season was that it might be phoned in. After all, as Kaoh Rong wrapped filming last spring, the big story was Second Chances and that wildly successful vote. Instead of getting the press out for Kaoh Rong, CBS saved them for Cambodia. As a consequence, the hype for that season stretched from May to December, while Kaoh Rong gathered dust on the shelf.
Kaoh Rong still feels like the red-headed step child of the 2015 filming, but production put investment into more than the convoluted idol clues. Following up with the returnee season meant that they could cast this one with the cream of the newbie crop. None of them capture lightning in a bottle the way Kass and Tony did, but it’s a strong field: there are no obvious duds and some players have a lot of potential.
Both challenges have been fantastic so far, with the third looking to follow suit. I want to give a particular shout out to this episode’s, which was a brand new challenge and really used the geography effectively. The route down the river to the sea made for some truly epic helicopter shots. The Tribal Council set is equally gorgeous, with the torchlights flickering on the water behind the castaways. Rest assured, a lot of love has been put into this season.
Yet the medevac cloud still looms over Kaoh Rong, making many fans twitchy every time somebody so much as picks up a machete. We’ve been told time and again how brutal the conditions were, how intense the heat was, and one bit of information that came out in the secret scenes this week is that the tribes have no rice or beans, depriving them of valuable carbohydrates. As the season wears on, will the players be too starved and dehydrated to do more than lie around? There’s so much verve in the cast right now, it’s crushing to think they might limp their way through a lackluster endgame.
So let’s not think about it. Low expectations don’t equate to a disappointing Survivor season. Jeff Probst praised Worlds Apart to the skies and that proved to be a tough season to watch. San Juan Del Sur was downplayed and started slow, but ended up as something of a sleeper hit with its own loyal following. And, most promisingly of all, Cagayan was unleashed on us with virtually no hype, to the point that we all spent most of the season awaiting ultimate disappointment.
There’s a wide spectrum for Kaoh Rong’s eventual reputation, but it’s given us two entertaining episodes. Instead of fretting about when the axe will fall, I am going to take delight in these episodes and any others that come my way. Even with my track record, I’m comfortable predicting that’s a course of action I won’t be regretting.