Survivor: Ghost Island

Power Positioning

Sarah Channon returns to the RHAP blogs to analyze the gameplay of the remaining contestants from Survivor: Ghost Island and break down everything from the merge.

It’s been a minute since I blogged, mostly because I’m hectically busy and can’t justify spending the time on a Survivor blog… but missing out on writing about The Noble One is the kind of thing you regret on your death bed. Chris was the casting find of Ghost Island. My unwritten pre-season assessment was “Like Nick Maiorano, but real.” Actually a narcissist, actually a male model—and now actually the mayor of Ponderosa with no Neal-related asterisks.

Ironically, Chris came into this with a strong focus on the social game. In his pregame assessments of the other players, he frequently doubted their social abilities, and speculated on several that they could be one of the first people voted out—including both Domenick and Wendell. He was firmly convinced of his own social abilities, and with no Tribal Councils to go to, he spent the entire pre-merge forging relationships, marshalling his numbers to move against Dom as soon he had the chance, which ultimately led to the merge’s showdown.

Except it was not as balanced a fight as the show had implied. Despite his posturing with Dom, Chris ended up being the easy vote so typical of a thirteen person merge: in this case, the player who is annoying everybody and causing conflict around camp.

You need seven people for a majority, but these players have come from tribes of four or five. Everybody is still feeling each other out, trying to decide if former allies are still loyal, trying to decide which players they want to go with. When Chris went to the well, he wasn’t trying to take ten people with him. He was trying to take Des and Angela; everybody else followed out of paranoia.

Had Chris picked a single target instead of splitting the vote, his plan would have had a better chance of working. The ten players didn’t need to worry about everybody sticking to the plan: they just had to hope six of them did. Instead, the vote split meant all ten players had to trust each other not to mess up the plan nor exploit it for their own gains, as Kellyn’s group considered doing.

However, odds are good it would still have failed, even if Chris targeted only one of Dom and Wendell (and not just because they both held idols.) The fact that Dom and Wendell didn’t follow the group to the well shows that they trusted their allies to report back to them—rightly so, as it turned out. Then they used the relationships they had built within other factions to sway eight of those players into voting Chris.

By my count, there were four overlapping voting blocs going into that Tribal Council: Chris’ Faction, Dom’s Faction, the Original Malolos and the Naviti Loyalists. Two and a half of them voted against Chris; He didn’t know it, but Chris’ Faction was disbanded before he could light his torch.

Tribal Council inexperience undoubtedly hurt Chris, who should have followed up with the various voting blocs rather than simply checking in with individual allies that the plan still held. But his conviction that his own social game was superior to Dom’s blinded him to the possibility that Dom could have solid relationships too, that Wendell (and Chris must have been aware of how much other people liked Wendell) might have enough sway to change things up on him.

The social game on Survivor is difficult. Insanely difficult. But be wary of underestimating any one player’s abilities in it.

The Perfect Pre-merge Game

In Bradley’s exit interviews, he repeatedly stated that Chelsea wasn’t playing the game. I beg to differ with Bradley, because as far as I can tell, Chelsea played a model pre-merge game. At the start, when the Naviti tribe reportedly split in two, Chelsea sided with Chris’ Faction, but Gordon Holmes reported from location that she and Des viewed Chris as a figurehead while they had their own suballiance. We know from online confessionals at the second swap that she also formed a good relationship with Dom in those early days, which may explain why she reportedly suggested Bradley for a first vote instead (though going by Chelsea’s online confessionals, it’s not clear whether she put Bradley’s name out first or he, hers.)

If anything, that was her mistake, since it put a completely avoidable target on her back, however at the first swap, she stuck with the Naviti Loyalists, despite Michael’s play against Bradley. It didn’t cancel out the damage done between them pre-merge, but along with the tribewide bonding of surviving so many Tribal Councils, it reassured Bradley enough that he was no threat to Chelsea at the second swap… which set him up for his blindside.

Was it a mistake for Chelsea to go along with this blindside? (Assuming she had a choice; she might not have been able to talk Dom out of it.) She had befriended Donathan and Libby—and took the opportunity to assure Libby of her safety, assuming responsibility for it—and those relationships had a potential her one with Bradley lacked. One consideration right before the merge is the jury: Bradley clearly had no respect for Chelsea, would never have voted for her and quite likely would have campaigned against her. Taking a last chance to eliminate one negative juror is almost always going to be worth it.

In confessional, Chelsea stated that her motivation was to secure Kellyn as her ally rather than Bradley’s.
We have no idea what Kellyn’s reaction to Bradley’s boot was, but she included Chelsea in her plan to take out Libby, so clearly she bought whatever Chelsea sold her. (The most plausible would be to blame it all on Dom.)

In other words, Chelsea entered the pre-merge with ties to the Naviti Loyalists (through Des and Kellyn), to Dom’s Faction (through Dom), to Chris’ Faction (through Des and Sebastian), and to the Original Malolos (through Libby at the least). Every side saw her as an option, so she wasn’t going to be targeted, and she was in a position to hear about every plan. Not bad for a purple player!

Of course, there’s a difference between being good at making friends and actually using those relationships. Chelsea wouldn’t be the first young woman to be quiet for the first half of the game then suddenly come out all guns blazing post-merge. (Think Parvati in Micronesia, Natalie in San Juan Del Sur and Cydney in Kaoh Rong.) On the other hand, she wouldn’t be the first one to be quiet throughout the entire game, never actually using her connections to make a power play. Granted, she may not need to… Michele never made a big move, but she always had a friend in the majority and few enemies on the jury.

Edit considerations aside, I haven’t seen anything from Chelsea to suggest she can ramp up the aggression in her gameplay. We should certainly note that the merge vote did not go against her friends, Dom and Libby, but against Chris whom she’d been separated from for two weeks. Chelsea might well have had a hand in that. She has allies, such as Des, who are readier to be aggressive, and they may use Chelsea’s connections for mutual gain. But Chelsea herself comes across as too cautious for me to believe she’s going to emerge as a power player.

The question is… who will? Who else is in such a beneficial position with multiple factions and has the drive to do something with it?

The Targets

This is one way in which being a target weakens your game. Quite aside from the risk of being voted off, players are less likely to invest in an alliance if the other person might be leaving soon. Such is the problem Libby has faced. She started off well, in the majority, no target on her back, and a close alliance with Brendan and Michael. Then she swapped away from them, and found herself in the minority with Donathan, Laurel, and James, who were closer with each other than with her, while the original Navitis viewed her as a weak challenge link. When the Navitis turned on each other, allowing the Malolos to seize control, James supported Laurel’s request to save Wendell over Libby’s new friend Morgan… and then Morgan threw Libby under the bus in her parting words.

While Dom and Wendell put in the work to build relationships with their new Malolo overlords, Dom decided that Libby was a threat in the Parvati mold and had her earmarked as a likely target come the next swap. Her name came up again at the merge vote, this time from Kellyn. (Perhaps based on what Dom had told her, perhaps due to Libby’s strong challenge performance.)

Libby’s social game has been enough to shift this target onto more antagonistic players so far—even if Chris had played his idol at the merge, there was an outside chance that Michael might have played his idol on her, although doing so would almost certainly have put a target on his own back come the revote. Even though she’s spent most of the game apart from Michael, Donathan still views them as a pair. However, the other players have filed her away as an easy name to bring up for the vote rather than as somebody to vote with.

So Libby’s alliance is the Original Malolos, and that’s it. She may have an in with Chelsea, but Chelsea’s alliances, Dom’s Faction and the Naviti Loyalists, would prefer to target her. Even some of the Malolos may be willing to sacrifice Libby to appease Naviti players that they’re tighter with. Donathan who has spent the entire game with her was wary that she might be closer to Michael and cautioned Dom not to talk to Libby about his plans. (Wendell seemed less concerned.)

For all Dom’s fears about her flirtatious ways, Libby’s removal would not cause a collapse of a rival power in the game; it would just weaken the Original Malolos by one. Allowed to stick around, Libby might be able to regain influence, but as things stand, she’s a disposable vote if her allies need to make a sacrifice.

Going Naviti-strong for awhile might be the best move for Dom who hasn’t voted against a Malolo yet. What Dom’s Faction have going for them is that they are the middle ground between the Naviti Loyalists and Original Malolo and can work with either. Now that Chris is gone, Dom needs to lie low in the hopes that the target slides off his own back. He has a strong social game—even though Sebastian hadn’t seen Dom since the first swap, he was pumped to be reunited with him. But Dom’s an incorrigible Alpha, and I don’t know if he can tone his game down. Wendell should have a better chance, since wingman is his gamestyle anyway, and he was only the collateral damage rather than the actual target.

Both men should try and strengthen bonds through the next vote or two, abetting the Naviti Loyalists in their plans, while promising protection to their friends in the Original Malolos, Donathan, Laurel, and Jenna. You know what neither man should do? Tell anybody else about his idol…

Malolo-low Connections

Beyond targets, some people are limited in their connections just by how the swap fell out. The merge was Kellyn and Desiree’s first time meeting Donathan, Libby, and Laurel, and the first time they had seen Chris, Dom, and Wendell since the start of the game—and had never voted with them. Vice versa for Michael who had at least voted with his original tribemates, but who was further constrained by being a target since day seven. The people he has been with haven’t necessarily viewed him as a long-term number.

Still, after the Brendan vote, Michael learned the hard way to swallow his pride and fraternize with the enemy. Desiree would do well to follow suit. It’s not totally clear why Desiree and Angela voted for Libby instead of Chris… were they left out of the vote and thought the plan was still to go with Libby? Was it to guard against an idol? Or did they just not want to write Chris’ name down?

Judging by Libby’s online confessional, Des was aware of the Chris vote, had been asked to vote Chris and had stated her intention to vote Libby anyway, so I’m guessing this was a mark of her loyalty to her early alliance. Libby was troubled by it, not on her own account, but because she knew Jenna would be mad at Des for doing it. While Michael seemed to develop a bond with Kellyn and Bradley, there’s been no sign of Desiree reaching out to the Malolos. Did she have a friendship with Jenna we never saw, and that’s why Jenna will be angry?

Either way, Des has burned a bridge to the Original Malolos, while failing to cooperate with Dom’s Faction. With Chris’ Faction disbanded, she’s cornered herself with the Naviti Loyalists.

That said, Des still has an alliance with Chelsea and claims to have good bonds with Sebastian as well, so she could piggy back off their relationships. She is also demonstrably close to Kellyn who has gone through the entire game with her. Despite being firmly Naviti-strong, Kellyn has bonded with people even as she’s targeted them (vouched for by Stephanie), and is probably befriending all the Original Malolos, Libby included.

Losing Bradley was a rough blow for Kellyn who could have used him as a shield, but she’s not dwelling on it. The silver lining for her is that she’s less of a target now she’s not part of a power couple. Although she is still perceived as the leader of the Naviti Loyalists, that makes her the person others go to with their plans, seeking to make use of her numbers—of course, if the Original Malolos organize a strike against the Naviti Loyalists, Kellyn is still the obvious person to take out. Can she build strong enough relationships with the right Malolos for them to pick an alternative target?

The Numbers

The remaining players have previously worked with most of their Lavita tribemates, have connections across multiple factions and have no target. But they don’t all have the drive or the savvy to take control of the game.

Angela has been banging the Naviti-strong drum as loudly as Kellyn, and has yet to vote for a Naviti. Despite this, she has bonded with Malolo players: James built a good relationship with her and Laurel stated this week that they had a good thing going in the last few days on Naviti. Yet Angela has shown no flexibility in her gameplay. She was burned by Dom’s Faction, so her vote for Libby may have been a refusal to go along with their plan as much as a refusal to write Chris’ name. (I also wouldn’t be surprised if she genuinely was left out of the vote, though this seems a risky move on Kellyn and Des’ part; they can’t afford to alienate part of their own voting bloc.) Eventually, the Malolos are going to realize they can’t rely on her, which will leave Angela’s game tied to the Naviti Loyalists, and she’s going to be well below Kellyn, Des and Chelsea in the pecking order.

Jenna and Sebastian are an emergent power couple who joined Dom’s Faction this episode. Previously, they had been adopted into Chris’ Faction (reluctantly in Jenna’s case), they have a history with the Naviti Loyalists and Jenna, of course, is an Original Malolo. These two can vote anywhere they please… but will most likely follow the request of their current closest ally. Jenna has a little more drive than Sebastian, but lacks knowledge of the game, so she will likely follow the lead of more experienced players. Sebastian is a little friendlier, a little more likable, but so far as we can tell, he made no attempt to shift the vote off his first ally, Chris.

As a pair, they should be around for a while, but odds are that immunity threat paranoia will get Sebastian voted out mid-jury. There are fewer reasons to vote out Jenna, unless a disposable boot is needed, but equally, it’s hard to see a final three where she wins.

The Lynchpins

That leaves us with Donathan and Laurel, who have shown a willingness to work with multiple camps and to push the vote. Donathan in particular was taking the wheel this episode, advising Dom on who to approach for the numbers, ready to backstab Chris while throwing another ally (Libby) under the bus. In online confessionals, there’s a lot of positivity towards Donathan: it seems everybody is excited either to see him again or to meet him finally. His wide-eyed Kentucky charm has lulled everybody into a false sense of security: they see how excited he is to be here and to be meeting people; they don’t see he’s also excited to be playing the game.

Dom is a longterm fan of the show, and a long term redditor, so he’s accumulated some of the internet knowledge base as well. He is absolutely ready to cut his allies’ throats. But can he cut it as a tactician? Donathan has abetted votes but he hasn’t masterminded them. That’s not necessary, of course. Gathering the numbers is just as important and tends to be more beneficial from a jury point of view, yet it is possible that Donathan will make the mistake of supporting somebody else’s game while weakening his own.

Still, Donathan is in Dom’s Faction and the Original Malolos, he had the option to be in Chris’ Faction and has possible links to the Naviti Loyalists through Chelsea and Angela—certainly Libby regretfully noted that Naviti seemed to like Donathan enough that he wouldn’t be the target if they voted for an Original Malolo. Donathan has the time and the ability to play the game he’s dreamed of.

The same applies to Laurel: though she doesn’t have Donathan’s immediate appeal, Laurel forged bonds on every tribe and is capitalizing on them now, excited to be reunited with parties as diverse as Michael, Dom, and Angela. She also did her homework on the people she hadn’t met, citing Kellyn as somebody she wanted to work with. She guided the third vote away from Wendell with whom she had a connection, and then cultivated that relationship even after blindsiding him at Tribal Council, to the point that she considered him her number one at the second swap. (James still viewed her as his number one.) She sided with Dom’s Faction while on Naviti, but she also bonded with Angela and Chris, and on Yanuya, had Chris’ complete trust.

Better yet, Laurel and Donathan are allied with each other. They locked into Dom’s Faction rather than the Original Malolos this week, but Laurel identified that the Navitis were fractured and the five Original Malolos should be able to direct the vote. If this pair wants to, they are perfectly capable of reaching out to the Naviti Loyalists themselves and pitching them on a plan to turn against Dom’s Faction.

As is usually the case on Survivor (and certainly after the merge), the trick is to choose not a side but which players you want to pull together into an alliance of your own creation. Donathan and Laurel are positioned to emerge as the new power couple of the game, yet because they’re minorities the other players may unwittingly dismiss the threat they pose. If they choose the right targets, they have the resources to form an all new majority alliance with themselves at the core.

Of course, I have been known to be wrong, like last season when I declared at mid-jury that Ben and Chrissy were the ones with the hardest paths to reach the end. Des and Angela may yet take this game down.

It’s debatable if I’ll have time to blog again, so for the record, my pre-season winner pick was Wendell, and I will stick with that. I like his low-key style, and I think if he can get through this patch, other threats will rise up to eclipse him, like Michael and Kellyn. Wendell considers himself a superfan, but he’s not a superfan in the way Donathan, Laurel and Michael are. He’s physically strong, but Michael and Sebastian look more intimidating, and Kellyn’s renowned for her puzzles. He’s a player, but he can get in the backseat and let somebody else drive… Should he get to the end, not only will he have a lot of ties on the jury, but he looks like a winner.

Go for it, dude.

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