Survivor: Game Changers

Same Changes

Sarah Channon, who formerly posted as Sarah Freeman writes special feature blogs for RHAP. This feature, “Same Changes”, looks at the social dynamics of Survivor: Game Changers.

Same Changes

NB For this season, it appears that CBS is keeping all secret scenes exclusive to their All Access app. Therefore, although I will refer to them as usual, I am unable to provide links.

Andrea had a very good secret scene in the premiere where she talked about the low-key game everybody is playing. She explained a swap was inevitable and could come very early, so you don’t want to piss people off because you might need them on your next tribe: the first vote needs to be unanimous.

As it happened, Andrea’s tribe didn’t need to go to Tribal Council, but Mana’s results were in line with her philosophy. Ciera confirmed in her interviews that she had expected everybody to hit the ground running as had happened in Second Chances but instead her tribemates were making small talk about their lives outside the game. The emphasis was on social bonds rather than strategy.

I love this. One of the things that hurts returnee seasons in my opinion is the players tend to come in too hard and too fast: it makes for great television, but rare is the player who succeeds in finessing their game. If the cast of Game Changers are taking the time to deliberate, this might be one of the more interesting returnee seasons.

Of course, any returnee season still requires its players to adapt to their new circumstances and tribal dynamics. Ciera was caught off guard by the slow pace, and Andrea said she was struggling with it. By the theme’s definition, these are players who supposedly changed Survivor, but their ongoing challenge will be to change their own way of playing to keep up with the very evolution they’ve wrought.

bar-3Original Mana – As Long as it Ain’t Me

One of the important parts of Andrea’s confessional for me was the moment where she said she wasn’t sure of her alliance or the pecking order. For the pre-swap tribes, selective editing may have made things seem more cohesive than they were. Many other potential targets and voting blocs were likely relegated to the cutting room floor.

The imperative for a unanimous vote (either in anticipation of an early swap or to avoid a tie) meant that an easy consensus target was needed: somebody who nobody minded losing. Mana had at least three possibilities for that first Tribal Council, but it was Ciera who went home. She probably wasn’t playing as hard as people perceived—Gordon Holmes was on location for the discussion at the water well, and he confirmed that Tony’s name was already being thrown around as Ciera came up. Certainly, nobody could accuse Ciera of playing harder than Tony!

But Ciera had that “Big moves!” reputation coming into the game. She was one of the game-threats on that tribe, and as she observed and Kass corroborated, she needs a week to find her social groove in the game. For all Tony’s shenanigans, he has an easy charm about him that gathers allies—he’s strong, too. Ciera didn’t start with the best challenge reputation, failed to perform despite experience with the puzzle, and then—crucially—had nobody willing to stick their neck out for her. That was enough.

The third person who could have gone home on day three was Michaela. It’s not clear if she was really in danger, but she was a plausible option to throw out in discussion. Both Caleb and Ciera saw her as being at the bottom.

Although Michaela intended to work on schmoozing people and making bonds, she’s apparently no better at it than Ciera, who explained that the tribe thought Michaela had a bit of an attitude. We certainly saw that when she was told she was the decoy vote. Michaela knows she needs to tamp down on her feelings and go with what the tribe’s doing—but knowing doesn’t make her able to do it. Her feelings were all too clear, and it put her at greater risk.

Oddly, part of Michaela’s problem was a perception that she’s weak at challenges. I don’t know where this belief came from—she wasn’t holding them up in the first challenge; did she have any difficulties during the marooning? Still, that explains why she was virtually sat out of the second challenge alongside Sandra. Considering how much pride Michaela takes in her physical ability and her faith in herself to take the clutch position, it’s understandable why she was so frustrated. But nobody else has that faith in her yet. While Michaela was brought back to be a challenge beast, she could easily have been voted off for being weak. Yet again, it’s the perception not the reality.

Fortunately for Michaela, the heart on her sleeve stops people thinking she’s a game-threat, and this season, those are the ones at the front of mind. The biggest threats of all were Tony and Sandra. When Dalton Ross asked people who they would ideally vote off first, Tony’s name came up seven times and Sandra’s five. Once you take tribal divisions into account, Tony and Sandra each started the game with three of their tribemates gunning for them.

Zeke had a confessional regarding Tai where he referred to a principle of comedy writing called ‘the character game,’ explaining that because Tai had looked after the chickens in Kaoh Rong, he was now always going to look after the chickens, that was his thing. We can apply the same theory to Tony. Because he looked for idols, built hideouts and talked llama in Cagayan, that was what he was going to do here. And sure enough, within the first fifteen minutes of the episode (and possibly also the game), Tony announced that he was looking for an idol and went whooping off through the jungle.

It was half a joke, but only half. The press all had their own anecdotes of Tony at Ponderosa and in interviews, already eager to start playing from a new bag of tricks. Arguably, Tony would have done a lot better to sit around camp, avoiding any possibility of looking for an idol and reassuring people that he’s not as crazy day-to-day as Cagayan’s edit suggested. And arguably, Tony isn’t capable of changing his game like that—but the key here is that he never intended to try. Perhaps he simply knows himself, but this lack of adaptability killed him in Game Changers.

As tempted as I am to forgive Tony for not being able to play it low-key, Varner is proof that anything’s possible. Remember Second Chances? Varner said he was going to keep his calm this time, and he’s done it. Certainly, he’s doing something very right to perform so badly in the second challenge but never have his name brought up for the vote. Third time’s the charm, indeed!

Tony at least managed to survive one round, partly because he does have his charisma, partly because his strength was needed, partly because the other players were wary of idols and vote splits… But perhaps mostly because nobody was willing to strike yet.

sunKing vs. Queen

Aubry had an intriguing confessional where she described Tony and Sandra as the two forces of the tribe and claimed that the other players were coalescing around them. With meatshields being the hot new strategy in Survivor, it’s not totally surprising that the two biggest targets of the game were also considered the biggest shields of the game. The other players just needed to decide which one was the best fit.

Tony was on the money when he decided to forge an alliance with Sandra, the secondary game-threats of Malcolm and Aubry, and the physical threat of Caleb. The problem with that alliance was Tony himself: He eavesdropped on Sandra and Troyzan, then harassed them over something he’d misheard. Sandra wasn’t standing for that.

However, events might have tilted in that direction anyway. That five alliance might have been the only one officially formed (assuming Tony notified everybody in it), but it might also have existed more for Tony than for any of its other members. There were certainly other connections going on… Troyzan wasn’t waking Sandra up at 4 am to make small talk. Similarly, Sandra and Hali were comfortable enough working with each other that I have to think they’d touched base before Tony lost Sandra’s trust.

One advantage Sandra had over Tony was that she’s used to being an early target. She might never have gone to tribal council so early before, but as a weak link in the challenges, she’s always had to focus on getting in good with a majority as soon as possible. Tony may have hit on her secret in his own confessional: she talks with confidence as if she knows she’s not going home and makes other people feel comfortable. He then added that she was running around doing her own sneaky stuff and complained that he couldn’t so much as pick his nose without people watching.

Compare that to what Varner says about Tony: that he’ll pretend he’s sleeping only to pop up and look around; that if Varner whispers to somebody, Tony’s right there; that Tony makes him feel like he’s doing something wrong even if he’s not.

To be fair to Tony, in the first week of the game, it didn’t look like Mana swayed too far from their pre-game sentiments with Dalton Ross. Malcolm and Ciera had targeted players who ended up on Nuku, but Troyzan, Varner, and Hali all said they wanted Tony out. Tony, Aubry, and Caleb plumped for Sandra. Sandra picked Aubry, and Michaela had her sights on Ciera. In other words, every player at least campaigned against their original target going in, and half the tribe cast the votes they said they would.

This has to be how Sandra so easily rallied a vote against Tony. When Troyzan told her that Tony wasn’t a threat, was he trying to fight the prevailing sentiment of a bigger group? Whether Sandra had been on Mana or not, the majority might have fallen against Tony on day six anyway. (Though we should still give Sandra kudos for keeping her own name out of both the “weakest threat” vote and the “biggest target” vote.)

Regardless, Sandra led the charge, and that in itself is a marked difference from her previous game where she has been the team player, fearlessly stating her opinion but always falling in with somebody else’s schemes. This is a Sandra we have never seen before… but maybe we’re just looking at her from a different angle.

All the way back on day one of Pearl Islands, we saw Sandra take on a leadership position in the Panama village. That went well beyond speaking the language, as Sandra gaily crashed a private barbecue and talked the host out of the food, condiments, cooking equipment and quite possibly the kitchen sink as well. As a twenty-nine-year-old haggler, Sandra displayed all the poise we saw from her in the Game Changers premiere.

For me, the key difference between this time and Sandra’s two previous outings is her in-game stature. She’s always been the diminutive woman of color who perhaps doesn’t speak the best English and who definitely struggles in the challenges. She’s also always been on tribes with players who have preferred to take on an Alpha male role: Burton and Rupert; Boston Rob and Russell.

This time, she’s with men who have historically preferred to lay low in the early goings. It was Sarah not Tony who volunteered to lead the Brawn tribe in Cagayan; in One World, Troyzan pandered to Colton’s ego. Meanwhile Sandra is older than most of her tribe and the only player in Survivor history with two wins under her belt. For the first time, she’s got a default position of authority. I don’t think she’s any better at convincing people; the difference is that they’re listening.

One of the common accusations leveled against Sandra is that she’s usually trying to do the thing that’s worst for her game, e.g. voting off Russell. It’s results-oriented thinking and debatable at best, but there was certainly something to be said for Sandra keeping Tony around as the only person who could possibly eclipse her own threat level.

There’s also something to be said against it. Sandra’s experience is heavy on loose cannons blowing up her alliance. Tony’s own game history is filled with examples of him going off-plan and backstabbing his allies. Sandra appears to have a good working relationship with at least Hali and Troyzan… why throw that aside to work with somebody as erratic as Tony? If they’re anticipating a quick tribe swap, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for her to potentially sever ties with three players for the sake of saving one.

On the other hand, it really does make her bullseye stand out over anybody else. If there had been a gentle way of steering the vote elsewhere, it might well have been worth it.

It’s hard to say just how much resistance there was either to saving or booting Tony:

  • As edited, Tony’s mooted alliance, Caleb, Malcolm, and Aubry, were on his side: Caleb was actively campaigning for Sandra’s boot, while Sandra’s group felt Aubry was Tony’s closest ally.
  • As the vote went down, all of Tony’s alliance voted for him while he voted for Aubry.
  • In Aubry’s confessional, she described Malcolm and Caleb as floaters between Sandra and Tony while her own preference was for Tony—apparently because Aubry can’t quite figure out how Sandra does what she does. (You and the rest of the internet, Aubry.)
  • In Ciera’s interviews, she stated that Caleb was closest to Tony.
  • According to Tony’s interviews, Michaela was the only person interested in helping him with his Sandra plan—Caleb, Malcolm, and Aubry all backed out before the vote.

My regretful conclusion is Tony’s alliance never truly existed.

Troyzan and Hali seemed to be the most clearly pro-Sandra. Both wanted Tony out anyway, both are strategizing with Sandra—hell, Troyzan even said he’d take her to the end because nobody will give her a third million. (I don’t see that particular final happening, but rest assured, the jury would reward Sandra, and we would never hear the end of it from Troyzan.)

Whether on Tony’s behalf or not, Caleb did campaign against Sandra, trying to convince Michaela and Varner with the tactless pitch that Sandra was “the weakest woman.” To be fair to Caleb, as he was addressing Varner who really had been the worst performer in the challenge, “woman” might have been a deliberate reassurance. However, if Varner has any sense, he does not want a majority alliance that votes based on strength.

As for Michaela, not only is she sensitive to gender bias, but she knew the tribe was underestimating her. If they were giving men a pass while voting off the weakest woman, she’s in line to go right after Sandra—and Michaela’s experience of swaps is from the previous season when it took four episodes.

While Tony found Michaela more sympathetic to his (unaired) approach, I’m not sure she was ready to vote off Sandra that early. Pre-game, she admitted how bothered she’d been that most of the women and all the people of color got voted off before the jury in her first season, vowing to try to keep them around longer this time. While I wouldn’t expect her to tank her game for Sandra, booting a woman of color on the second vote might have been too much for her, no matter how she felt about the challenges.

bar3Original Nuku and Tavua – Scrubbing lines from the sand

Because the original Nuku never went to Tribal Council, we have to retroactively fill in the blanks… yet going by Andrea’s first week confessional, there might not have been a clear cut first boot.

Obviously Cirie was a target, but with all the caution surrounding a prospective swap, it’s unlikely Ozzy had locked down the numbers against her. There were reasons to keep her: even Ozzy noted that she and Zeke made a great puzzle team. Cirie herself was hoping that Ozzy or Tai would go home. (There are no obvious grounds for an Ozzy boot, but Tai’s attitude to the chickens wasn’t going down well at camp.) It’s also possible that Cirie was telling the truth when she told Debbie that all her talking was putting a target on her back—that fits Debbie’s history, and it would explain why Tai comfortably threw out her name as a potential boot ahead of Caleb.

Until an ex-Nuku is available for post-game interviews, we’re not going to have any concrete information. I suspect that each original Nuku will have a different view of who had the numbers and who was in trouble, and we’ll never know for certain how a vote would have gone. (But it will be hotly debated every off-season.)

That said, Cirie wasn’t doing the best job of playing down her target. She wasn’t as bad as Tony, but nor was she as good as Sandra. Cirie was surprised to be seen as a threat in Heroes vs. Villains. This time, she was paranoid about it, and it showed.

Checking in with Ozzy should have been a private conversation. Could Cirie not get him alone, or did she think it was safer not to be seen going off with him? She managed a little more discretion when she talked to J.T. in a secret scene, but putting down the firewood first might have been more tactful—as it was, J.T. was sitting down while Cirie literally stood over him, brandishing a stick and asking: “We good?”

She would have fared better reverting to her Panama strategy of keeping her head down, working hard and acting as a personal assistant to the alpha males. Her passive-aggressive conversations this time around certainly didn’t help win over Ozzy or J.T. Ozzy had been targeting her already, but J.T. had at least talked about the possibility of working with her pre-game. Once he hit the beach, he aligned with Ozzy and grew wary of Cirie.

Debbie also wasn’t buying what Cirie was selling, but it wasn’t all strikeouts for everybody’s favorite ex-couch potato. Zeke and Sarah might have been wary of Cirie’s game, but they were interested in working with her in the short term at least.

While Cirie might have felt she was on the wrong side of the numbers on original Nuku, Zeke said that Andrea, Cirie, and Sarah were “everybody” he wanted to be with on his swapped tribe. That four was probably at least part of the burgeoning alliance Andrea referred to, and now they’ve got the comfort of a majority.

Full credit to Zeke for pulling that off. Yes, it helps that Andrea probably remembers him from their unofficial encounter in the fan-run Survivor: Brooklyn, but we all worried about Zeke being mistrusted as the unknown quantity. It seems that playing back to back is still cause for underestimation, and while Zeke continues to figure out his strengths, he doesn’t seem to be missing any obvious lessons from his first game.

This leaves Ozzy on the outs: still in the majority but excluded from the core alliance. Zeke doesn’t trust Ozzy, but he also believes that Ozzy trusts him more than the others on Tavua. Not that Ozzy seems worried about his position. He’s confident in their challenge-strength, he’s working on his relationship with Cirie—whose own nerves have settled—and he’s absolutely delighted he gets to build the shelter his way this time. (He does not tell us who insisted on the design for Nuku shelter… Tai was given a lot of credit for Nuku’s camp, but obstinacy is more of a Debbie trait, so my money would be on her.)

Accordingly, Tavua has their relationships locked down. They can boot Troyzan if they have to make the trip to Tribal Council, and if they make two trips, they have the perfect opportunity to blindside Ozzy before the merge. Their only problem is that they left Troyzan alone for long enough to secure himself an idol.

We saw them discussing that possibility, but we did not see what preparations they’ve made to guard against it. Andrea was being nice to him, but he’s wary of her. At least she, Zeke, and Sarah can expect an idol blowback to go on the big-name targets: Cirie or Ozzy.

Knowing Ozzy’s history, he might be willing to take that risk… I doubt Cirie will. Her (Zeke’s) foursome should really be trying to prop up Ozzy as the pivotal player of ex-Nuku while bonding with Troyzan on an individual level. They want him to think that if he takes out Ozzy, he splinters the others to give himself the most options. However, Troyzan’s an older player than the Fans of Cirie’s glory days, and he’s no fool. Perhaps cutting a private deal would be the best insurance, and it’s worth watching to see if anybody does it.

I’m also more interested in seeing how Troyzan handles the social game now that we’ve got the idol-grabbing out of the way. (Plaudits to him for pulling that off!) We saw him play nice from a minority in One World (though it was a different story once he was cornered), and Andrea’s already describing him as a cool guy. Yet he must know from his first game that an idol alone can’t turn things around.

Of all of Tavua, it’s Sarah who should have the smallest target on her back. Moreover, Debbie, now on Mana, named Sarah as the person she was closest to. If, like Debbie, Sarah also had an alliance with Sierra and Brad pre-swap, she should not only have numbers come a merge but stands to be the lynchpin between the Tavua and Mana majorities. It’s a position worthy of her social game brag… However it’s one very reminiscent of her merge position in Cagayan. We’re not seeing much from Sarah right now, but sooner or later, she’ll get to prove if she can take a different, improved approach.

What we do know from the swap confessionals is that most people felt they were in a good place on original Nuku. Apparently, Tai had something good going, J.T. had everybody doing what he wanted, and Zeke had everybody telling him everything! While it’s unlikely they can all be correct, Nuku achieved its tribal goal of making everybody comfortable… and the proof is in the new Mana tribe keeping its ex-Nuku majority and booting one of the original Manas—the first time one of the three tribes in a swap from two has voted along original tribal lines.

With all three tribes now at a 4:1 or 5:1 ratio, it’s very possible original tribal lines might prevail until the merge… yet that doesn’t mean cracks aren’t already showing….

bar-3New Mana—the Fall of the Kaoh Rong Four

The dynamics within the Mana majority were probably the most complicated of the lot. Brad, Sierra, and Debbie were all confident in their positions on Nuku, and Brad and Debbie corroborate each other’s confessionals about how the three of them had a working, trusting relationship on Mana. But Sierra’s got her own plans.

From pregame interviews through both online confessionals so far, Sierra has remained determined to be one of the power players, and she seems confident that she’s succeeding. Yet her long-term plans include betrayal. Mike Holloway’s legacy has deterred Sierra from keeping the stronger men around for the individual immunities—even though she’s aligning with them now. She wants to win individual immunity herself, and she’s wary of the challenge beasts joining up and protecting each other. That was why she wanted to get Caleb out and why she’s planning to get others out down the road.

Nor is Sierra only drawing on her original Nuku relationships. At one point, she refers to Malcolm as if they’re allies (perhaps a Dirty Thirty connection?), and she specifically states that she has an alliance with Troyzan (from pregame). She’s relieved Tavua didn’t lose as he’s at the most risk there. As much as she and Hali might disavow each other, I’d be surprised if Sierra didn’t prepare that connection for the game as well. If nothing else, Sierra’s endgame is going to be girl-heavy: she believes she can beat any of the women in an immunity challenge; it’s the men she’s worried about.

I remain concerned that Sierra is subscribing a little too much to the theme (she says “Big Moves” a lot) and is a little too focused on proving herself rather than winning. She’s doing well in this early going, but her emphasis on challenge threats may distract her from the other dynamics down the road. Sooner or later, she’s going to take out a target who would have made a better ally. In short, the new “Big Moves” Sierra might well get a similar second game placement to the old “Big Moves” Ciera.

Meanwhile, Brad stated in episode that he’s worried about the Kaoh Rong group and wants to keep Debbie and Tai closer to him than to each other. His concerns are unwarranted. While pre-game Debbie hinted at a potential alliance with Tai, that seems to have fractured in less than a week of living with each other. Debbie’s premiere confessional was grumbling about Tai and the chickens, while Tai had no qualms about suggesting her name for the vote.

But Brad’s far from the only one to worry about the Kaoh Rongers, and while Aubry genuinely doesn’t seem to have any deals with the other three, Caleb believed that he, Tai, and Debbie were a viable voting bloc. Both Brad and Sierra can be forgiven for not wanting a Kaoh Rong majority to be an option.

In other words, Caleb got incredibly unlucky with this swap. To make matters worse, in his first game he never made it to either the swap or a tribal council, so—despite his Big Brother run—he lacked the experience to scramble effectively. Had Aubry and he switched buffs, Aubry might not have escaped the Kaoh Rong target either, but Caleb was a lamb to the slaughter.

According to Caleb’s confessional, he was trusting in his strength to keep him safe—optimistic that he wouldn’t have to go to Tribal Council at all. Ironically, their loss was probably on Caleb’s shoulders, assuming it was his decision to take the low route through the bramble. Caleb is certainly a huge asset—he was a big part of why his Beauty tribe never lost in Kaoh Rong—but that’s two times in a row his tribe lost due to the physical portion of the challenge. His stock was already devalued.

Strategically, Caleb did recognize that having Tai on his tribe could make him a target and talked about keeping their distance from each other, but it’s not clear what his alternative was. According to his own interviews, he didn’t talk to Debbie, trusting Tai to approach her with a plan to turn things around. Caleb’s point that Debbie wasn’t interested in talking to him is valid, but if Caleb had felt Debbie out himself, he might have realized how close she was with Brad and Sierra, known that turning her against them was a no-go, yet made a bond with her that could have saved him.

He also didn’t talk strategy with Sierra, leading to a confrontation ahead of Tribal Council and then again during it. If his description of events is accurate, this kind of aggression is a bad sign for Sierra’s social game, but Caleb doesn’t come off looking good either. Sierra is keen to be a ringleader; Caleb told her she was “just another girl,” and he didn’t have to plead his case to her. When you’re on the bottom, you need to butter up the majority.

Hali, at least, he did keep touching base with, confirmed in her own confessional, but they both said they hadn’t worked together before the swap and only interacted loosely afterwards. Neither seemed to have much respect for the other’s game.

If Caleb wasn’t talking to Debbie or Sierra, and he was trying to keep his distance from Hali and Tai…. that leaves Brad. We never saw any interactions between them, but Caleb’s post-game belief is that Brad was threatened by him as a rival alpha male.

In other words, this was an almost total social failure, and I’m not entirely sure how. Caleb’s Big Brother history was very bro-centric, but he got on all right with the girls at Beauty and would likely have been their fourth vote had they gone to Tribal Council in Kaoh Rong. Perhaps Caleb’s style is to wait for the game to come to him, which is often the better strategy, but you should always be taking an active role in making friends.

It’s hard to directly compare Caleb’s strategy to Hali’s, because we didn’t see a lot of hers in action. But there’s a definite contrast between the way Hali handled being in the minority to the way the more prominent underdogs handled it. While Tavua and Nuku worried that their minority was sneaking off to find an idol, Hali talked of babysitting her majority, saying she would never leave the four of them together unless Caleb was around, because she was trying to minimize their gameplay as much as she could.

One key difference between Hali and the others who swapped into a minority—Caleb, Troyzan, and J.T.—is that she has experience of going to Tribal Council after a swap. She fought for and won the majority in that instance, and it was the day after the vote that she coined what are now known as the Hali Ford rules (actually intended as advice for the Nagarote underdog, Shirin): “Don’t be a weirdo, don’t be inconsiderate, you’ll do OK.”

It’s entirely possible Hali also looked for idols, but going by her history, she most likely put her efforts into her social game. She might have kept her distance from Sierra since they were both playing down that connection, but she and Brad are both lawyers, they made for a decent puzzle team, and Brad seemed generally avuncular toward her at Tribal Council.

Debbie was won over too, per Caleb’s interviews. Perhaps she knew sending a Kaoh Ronger home would be better for her own game, but Debbie historically does well with rallying the younger women. After Kaoh Rong’s tribe swap, Debbie said Michele could be one of her daughters with her brown hair and light eyes. That was the starting point for a relationship that ended in a million-dollar vote… can Hali use her blue eyes to similar effect?

What we did see of Hali’s game was a blistering Tribal Council performance that was probably overdoing it. The vote was already decided at that point, so while Hali probably feared she was being lied to, no amount of rhetoric would have saved her had they decided to keep Caleb. They already know she’s a lawyer, but reminding them won’t mitigate that target and there’s no jury around to impress. Sandbagging Jeff’s questions is probably the better strategy here.

Yet for us viewers, she proved she knows what’s she doing. Despite the flashiness of J.T. and Troyzan’s scrambling, it’s Hali who survived a vote and she did it by steering away from the “Big Moves” curve.bar2Three Tribes; Two Tribal Councils

It’s hard to like Hali’s chances when Mana’s odds of going to Tribal Council next episode have doubled, but I wonder… We know Sierra isn’t attached to her original tribe, and Debbie made a comment that if Tavua were smart, they would keep Troyzan for challenges—the clear implication being that there’s nothing wrong with voting off one of the original Nuku.

If Hali is to be saved, the obvious replacement boot would be Tai who was forced this episode to vote off what should have been his most loyal ally. Keeping Caleb was a luxury Tai couldn’t afford, but it’s a sign of how ineffectual his game has been so far. His swap confessional is about how important it is for him to have a good, close relationship with everybody, yet he was an afterthought for both Debbie and Brad as they talked about their new tribe dynamics.

On the plus side, he’s been separated from his chickens (who were screwed more royally by the Survivor Gods than any player.) I don’t know if Tai really was caring for the chickens as a way of playing to his on-screen persona, but I do think it would always be impossible for Tai to stay quiet on the issue of animal care. On a beach with no livestock, he can focus on the humans, and now that Brad’s removed Caleb, he should be looking at Tai as his loyal ally. Brad handled Tai very deftly; he’s earned that game advantage.

If Brad is thinking along those lines, his speculation on voting out Debbie might not have been lip service. Debbie likes things done her way, it’s not easy to change her mind, and her inflexibility can become a liability to her alliance. She and Brad are working well together now, but sooner or later they’re going to butt heads. The question is, which of them will have the numbers if it comes to a showdown?

Over on new Nuku, things are even more turbulent. Although their majority has been tested by Tribal Council, those votes exposed the fractures in this particular group. There’s Michaela who’s struggled with being the outcast, Aubry who was the alternative target had Tony played an idol, and Sandra who cast the vote against her.

Of all Dalton Ross’s pregame votes, Sandra and Aubry were the only two players to vote for each other, and it’s fascinating to see them keep this prejudice. It’s not clear how Aubry felt about her name coming up twice, though it’s something she’s had more experience in than Michaela, who only had hers written down when she got blindsided, while Aubry received votes at four different Tribal Councils before reaching the finals. It’s probably safe to assume she didn’t make a fuss.

But that doesn’t mean she was any happier about it than Michaela. When she talks about the swapped tribe, she says she only feels part of the majority by proxy. It’s four, plus her. Her tone isn’t one of anxiety; it’s annoyance. Aubry doesn’t particularly want to play with any of these people. She’s trying, we see her laughing and joking with them on the raft, but she’s not invested in original Mana, and I wonder how many of her tribemates have picked up on it.

Sandra might assume it, even if Aubry’s putting up a good front. Sandra knows how emotions run in the game and usually expects people to react in line with her experience. Sandra wrote Aubry’s name down, and while both women know to play nice, I expect Sandra considers that bridge to be burned. At least Caleb’s vote off might ease her fears of the Kaoh Rong Four, but Caleb was also probably the least of anybody’s concerns when it came to those players.

Then again, it’s not like Sandra’s resting comfortably in her own place in the game. The goat scene was fascinating to watch, not just for the moral dilemma, but for the group dynamics in the tribe discussion.

J.T. was hunting goats in the first place to suck up to Sandra, but she hadn’t been the only one in favor of the plan. Both Malcolm and J.T. (and possibly the rest of the tribe) had liked the idea of eating a goat before mothers and babies got involved.

Sandra was surprised by their pangs of conscience, but as soon as she encountered resistance to the slaughter, she called for a vote and made every attempt to avoid weighing in on the debate. All she said was that she knew how to deal with the carcass once it had been killed, so nobody else would have to do that part. Aubry didn’t speak at all. She cooperated with the capture, being the one to get a rope, but she didn’t offer an opinion in the kill or release vote.

Michaela also tried to keep out of the discussion at first, but when the others started talking in circles around their morals, she finally chipped in with the obvious practical solution: kill one of the chickens instead.

It’s just one scene out of a hundred little camp incidents, but it was a moment where we saw J.T., Malcolm, Varner, and Michaela all in sympathy with each other. While Sandra fell right in with their wishes, talking gently to the goats as they were released, her willingness to kill them shocked the others. (I’m not familiar with Sandra’s background but I do wonder if this was a matter of culture. Most Americans, cattle ranchers included, aren’t accustomed to considering goats as food, but they are a staple of petting zoos.)

Could this change their strategy? J.T.’s still a threat, and I don’t like his idol-hunting shenanigans. Yes, fear of an idol might deter votes from him, but Nuku’s majority already handled that once with Tony. With new Mana voting along original tribal lines, Sandra’s group might be determined to take out one of those numbers.

However, old Mana is down to seven and with the current tribe distribution, it’s unlikely they can get through another four Tribal Councils (assuming a merge at thirteen) without losing another member and their chances of a post-merge majority. For new Nuku, the most practical plan is to feel out their social bonds, form a tight-knit voting bloc, and try to position themselves as the swing post-merge. From what we’re seeing, the three men are the most likely to befriend each other and move forward.

What does this mean for the women? I feel like Aubry would have a lot in common with Malcolm and Varner and should be able to forge a friendship with them. Ciera did consider her a vote in Malcolm’s pocket, but that was before the Tony/Sandra showdown. Hopefully, Aubry can get over her feelings of separation and rebuild those bonds. She, Malcolm, and J.T. are probably at a similar threat level and could use each other.

Meanwhile, Sandra’s got to regain some social ground. Her social game really is phenomenal, but a lot of it is based on her ability to be subservient. We saw that time and again with Russell, who relished her inferior status. In Fiji, nobody’s considering Sandra inferior. She’s set up as the figurehead, the leader of the tribe. Sandra can play as submissive as she likes, but it’s not going to take the target away this time, and she’s not known for keeping a majority together.

Based on historical precedent, Sandra is likely to see a vote turn against her soon… the unprecedented part is that she, rather than her ally, will be the target. With her game so hard to quantify, it’s possible there’s something else in her arsenal that she can pull out, and as I’d love to see Sandra on the jury, I hope she does. Forget the initial vote, we’re now in the real danger zone for Sandra.

Out of the three women, it’s Michaela who’s probably in the least danger. By this point in Millennials vs. Gen X she was making friends and becoming popular. Her third episode confessional is happier than the premiere one: she was able to participate in a challenge and win. That should continue as Sandra or Varner are more likely to sit out—though she may run into problems if she wants to fight Malcolm and J.T. for a clutch position. Regardless, in a tribe with this many proven players, the others probably want to see Michaela as a pawn, a pocket ally for their own schemes, and if she can do as she said she would and keep her strategic side quiet until the merge, she should have absolutely no problem surviving her current tribe.

Next time on Survivor ™, two of our three tribes will be going to Tribal Council. Troyzan’s idol means Tavua could be thrown wide open if they go to a vote, but for Mana and Nuku, their next visit to the lighthouse will almost certainly be a pivotal one, the one where the lines will finally be drawn.

For the remaining seventeen players, there is little excuse at this point. Whatever the pregame concerns were, and however the swap panned out, they have all had time to get a feel for this new game and lay their plans accordingly. Somebody must go, but there’s more to going down fighting than “Big Moves!” and I want to see it.

That said, “Big Moves!” is about to happen. Jeff told us the season took a few episodes to get going: it’s time for us to strap in and enjoy the ride.

b4r

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