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Individual Games – Stop Thinking About Women’s Alliances

Spencer and Tasha might just have made the greatest comeback in the history of my blog. Last week, I had given up on them. They had apparently done the world’s worst job of convincing Jefra that flipping was a smart move, yet they were horrified that she had gone back on her promise to do so.

Let me be clear here: not a lot has happened since then to change my view on that—rather Jefra’s account of how she and Tasha were looking for an idol together and Spencer followed them without admitting possession induced further face-palming. However, they made up for it this week by playing directly on one of my pet peeves: that of the women’s alliance, which is one of the most overstated threats in the history of Survivor.

It’s happened a few times that the women have consciously chosen to stick together, (mostly on series that started with men vs. women.) Far more often, it’s something that is feared rather than is actually likely to happen—and that leads to bad decisions.

Only last season, Aras blindsided Laura Morett for fear that she was rallying the women together. On that tribe, she had reportedly pitched the idea of an all-female alliance, but only Laura Boneham was really into it. Tina and Monica went right back to their co-ed alliance and tattled. Laura Morett was genuinely fond of Aras, and he has since admitted that it was a mistake to backstab her at that point.

More dramatically, in Heroes vs. Villains, the heroes became convinced that the voting pattern on the villains’ tribe was due to a women’s alliance. While it wasn’t an illogical conclusion from the evidence they had, they took a huge leap of faith on it and were catastrophically wrong.

It had long since reached the point where I started rolling my eyes every time somebody suggested that if the girls were smart, they’d get together and take out the guys (that includes you, Ponderosa LJ). It’s the urban legend of Survivor strategies, and doesn’t hold water on close examination. You might as well make an alliance based on hair color. What are the odds that everybody with the same chromosomes as you will also be compatible with your best gameplan? (See also the bro-alliance that the Three Amigos pitched to Cochran in Caramoan.)

While some single-sex alliances have been successful, co-ed alliances/partnerships tend to work far better, because you can cover a wider demographic when controlling the social game. You’re also more likely to have a broader skillset, both socially and strategically.

So when Spencer and Tasha worked together to wield the paranoia of women’s alliances as a weapon against the loosest cannon of the game, it immediately became my favorite Survivor move of all time. (Disclaimer: “of all time” does not necessarily constitute a period of time greater than one week.)

Fearmongering is a Mixed Gender Sport

As Rob pointed out on Know It Alls, it’s not clear how much of Spencer and Tasha’s gambit was premeditated and how much was impromptu reactions to the other.

Jefra explained that Tasha did genuinely pitch a woman’s alliance to them, but they shot it down—not surprising. None of them could beat her at the end, and even using her for a couple of votes would be risky when she is so good in challenges. (The other women aren’t even in the mix, challenge-wise.) I consider this a fairly weak move on Tasha’s part, but she’s on the bottom; she has to try everything no matter how unlikely.

But then Tasha took it to the next level. She couldn’t get the women to agree to work with her, but she could continue hanging out with them and get Tony worried—never mind the fact that Tony’s the one who voted out his male ally LJ before he had to. It’s clear at this point that everybody knows that Tony is all over the map in this game, and his paranoia is getting to everybody except maybe Woo. Trish, Kass and Jefra seem to have a natural friendship anyway, and we’ve seen them hanging out together before. How easy it is for Tasha to just slide in there and chitchat. As an added bonus, she’s making jury friendships too.

Tasha and Spencer recognized the great opportunity to move ahead once again.

Fear the mixed gender alliance.

What Tasha doesn’t have that we’ve seen is any particular bond with Tony—but Spencer does. Again, I’m not sure if they collaborated, or if when Spencer saw the women hanging out, he hit upon the same idea, that Tony would panic over the prospect of a women’s alliance. Either way, he handled that very deftly, reminding us that what Spencer does best (when his temper’s under control) is saying the right thing.

The whole set up reminded me of Dawn and Cochran in Caramoan and how they managed Corinne and especially Phillip after the tribal swap. Phillip didn’t like Corinne or Dawn, but he adored Cochran, so Dawn and Cochran would strategize together then Dawn would talk to Corinne while Cochran would talk to Phillip, and it was the South Pacific alumni who inevitably got their way.

This level of tag teaming is exactly why it pays to have a mix of gender (and ages) in your allies. Tasha and Spencer aren’t a natural fit—they’re a marriage of convenience more than anything—but each can forge relationships that the other can’t. The difference in demographic might contribute to a perception that they won’t be tight. Dawn and Cochran never did work out why the other players didn’t consider them a pair and a threat. Malcolm and Denise were also further off radars than they should have been.

Tony might well assume that he can get closer to Spencer than Tasha can. It’s not that I think Spencer and Tasha are unbreakable, by any means. Like Malcolm and Denise, I’m quite sure each will sacrifice the other for their own game, but I think given the opportunity, they will stick by each other to the final vote. It’s doubtful that Tony can ever have that level of security with Spencer.

When Tony enlisted Spencer to vote out LJ, I suggested that he considered Spencer a protégé and made a comparison to Marty Piombo and Fabio, in the context of Fabio winning Marty’s vote. However, Cochran and Phillip is a more generally relevant comparison. In fact, the mentor / protégé dynamic between an older man and a younger one (usually a younger man, but you could make a case for Sophie and Coach) has happened several times and is something players should exploit or guard against, as applicable.

The specific precedent here is Coach and JT (and Stephen) in Tocantins. JT wasn’t anywhere near as wet behind the ears as Cochran or Spencer, but Coach was so taken by this upstanding youth that he felt he deserved to stay longer in the game. While Tony is less ruled by integrity than Coach was, we’ve already seen him take who deserves to be there into consideration when voting out Morgan. How much of this is coming into play for Spencer?

Spencer has been the number one target ever since Tasha started her immunity streak. Tony saved him once with the LJ blindside, then fear of the idol steered the votes towards Jeremiah. This episode, once Tasha won immunity, there was nowhere else to go. We saw Tony dismissing the women for being lazy this episode, sitting around the shelter… in the secret scenes, he’s made a few references to how he doesn’t have time to sit around and hear stories—he’s not a big fan of their social game. I’m sure he thinks Spencer deserves to go further than most of them.

It’s not so much that I think Tony won’t vote Spencer out—though of all the players, I suspect Tony will be convinced the jury must reward his game even over one of the underdogs—but he would hate to do it. With his hyperactive brain, it’s easy for him to rationalize keeping Spencer for ‘just one more round.’

It’s also entirely possible that Tony has always seen Spencer as a useful extra vote to make sure he holds the numbers advantage within his own alliance. His plan might well have been to save Spencer until last and then get rid of Jefra at six—Tasha’s immunity streak simply forced his hand.

In other words, the chief influences on the game at the moment are a Brain’s brawn and a Brawn’s brain… and another Brain’s social game. (I didn’t want to do this this week, but: Damn you, Spencer. Stop screwing up the pithiness of my observations.)

What Can’t You Do for a Million Dollars?

Of course, Tony’s move wasn’t just about saving Spencer. It was also about taking out a player who was targeting him.

Between Jefra’s blindside and LJ’s, it’s clear that justifying betrayals is important to Tony. He didn’t like Spencer’s claim that he had broken promises, and he made sure to bring up at Tribal Council (for the jury’s benefit) that Jefra had attempted to blindside him—I don’t know whether his little charade of wearing the idol was to deter the women from flipping on him then and there, or to show the jury how perilous he considered his position.

The message is clear: Tony only backstabs traitors. The problem with that is a little thing called cognitive dissonance. The blindsidee doesn’t necessarily feel their own intentions justify their boot. (Evidence A: Sarah vs. Kass.) Still, while Jefra might not appreciate Tony’s rationale, forcing the exposition down the jury’s throats can’t hurt Tony’s case.

However, there’s an added dimension to this betrayal. Jefra’s interview revealed that their alliance had all promised each other the family visit. This normally happens at final seven or final six, so it’s the perfect deal for an alliance of five or six (depending on whether this promise was made before or after LJ’s boot.) No final three promises to break, but sharing the experience with a loved one is a huge incentive for the alliance to stick together and wait until after that point for any betrayals. There’s a moment in Jefra’s secret scene where Tony refers to the possibility of Kass flipping, and Jefra refutes it, saying she had been talking about seeing her husband.

If Tony was relying on this promise to keep his allies loyal so that he could have the first shot at betrayals, it’s been a roaring success… except for the teensy, tiny drawback of it rubbing salt in the wound. As Jefra made the walk of shame, she was crying about her mother, a huge fan of the show, missing out on her family visit. Obviously, Jefra had fully intended to stop Tony meeting his loved one last week, but, again, cognitive dissonance?

Season after season, we’ve seen the emotions stirred up by family letters and visits. It’s the one time in the game when the players get some unconditional love, when they don’t have to second-guess the other person’s motives. We’ve also seen how players struggle with being denied the chance to go on reward with their family member—a popular strategic tip is to throw the loved one reward challenge.

Survivor 28.10 Tony

Releasing his inner villain.

What this boils down to: Don’t screw with the family visit if you can help it. Breaking a promise to let a player see their loved one is a Survivor taboo. Luckily for Tony, it looks like we’re not having a family visit at all this season, which might mitigate this betrayal. As it is, I doubt he’ll be getting Jefra’s vote.

It is just one vote, but how many other players might have had sympathy for Jefra if the family visit took place the next day? Even in absence of a visit, if Tony makes it to the finals, this is perfect fodder for some patronizing question about how he callously exploited the trust of this vulnerable young girl. Survivor juries love that kind of thing.

It’s arguable this move was a necessary risk. After all, Tony probably intended to keep the promise at the time he made it, but better to break it and lose jury votes than to end up on the jury himself. It does him no good to meekly vote off Tasha and Spencer, only for the remaining women to take him or Woo out at five. As I’ve previously stated, this smaller women’s alliance isn’t out of the question. Kass, Trish, and Jefra are all friendly, and each has some case to argue against the other two. Aligning with Tasha would be insane, but with each other is an entirely viable deal. That’s something Tony should be worried about.

But Tony had alternatives. The man has two immunity idols. He could vote off Spencer and keep his promise to Jefra. At final six, should Tasha win immunity again (I’m rooting for her to steal Terry and Colby’s five-in-a-row crown—thank you, Pocket Pitman), or even if she doesn’t, he can wait until after the votes are read then save himself if he needs to with the super idol. At final five, the last Tribal Council where immunity idols are in play anyway, he can safely play the normal idol before the vote.

If he doesn’t need to play his super idol at final six, even better! For final five he can give Woo his normal idol, thus living up to his promise of helping out anybody who felt in jeopardy, and then play the super idol after the vote. (Or keep it for a souvenir, as applicable.)

Either way, Tony gets to final four. If Tasha wins her way there as well, all his wheeling and dealing becomes moot regardless. Otherwise, he’s there with the weakest challenge competitors of the game (and hopefully Woo) which all but ensures Tony’s place in the finals.

It is, of course, a more boring way to get there. And I must commend Tony for not wanting his game to rely on the insane advantage of the super idol. However, taking the flashier route might have cost him the million…

Fool Me Once, Shame on You; Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

There is one more advantage that Tony reaps from saving Spencer and blindsiding Jefra. By keeping the big threats of Spencer and Tasha around, he’s giving himself a shield. Nobody can turn on him at final five or six now, because they’ll still need to get rid of one of the underdogs. It’s even conceivable that Tony could pass along his idol to one of them at final five, so that Spencer or Tasha can blindside another of his allies, forcing the remaining two to take Tony to the finals—though, considering Spencer and Tasha’s track record, letting them at the final immunity challenge seems risky even for Tony.

In her interview with Gordon Holmes, Jefra stated that Trish had made multiple F3 deals—and that she didn’t know which one Trish intended to honor. LJ believed on this podcast that Trish was more loyal to her original brawn alliance. Now that Jefra’s gone, Trish really has little choice but to prove LJ a prophet. She and Kass can only turn the tables on Tony if Woo goes along with them.

I should note I think Woo might be willing to do so. If we remember all the way back to the original tribes, back when Sarah was convinced Lindsey and Cliff were conspiring against her… Woo was Robin to Cliff’s Batman, yet when Sarah asked him if he’d vote him out, his answer was a prompt ‘yes’. Woo might never have actually been put to the test on this, but he seemed sincere in his confessional on the subject. I don’t think he’s as loyal as Tony probably thinks he is—but if Trish thinks he’s loyal to Tony, it’s easier for her to be loyal too.

The problem here is the transparency of Tony’s move, which makes the brawn final three seem so obvious to Trish, to Kass… and to the jury. I have to believe that Trish was planning to argue a case of how she controlled Tony, but twice now he’s proven beyond her control, first with LJ and then with Jefra. This was the situation Parvati faced in Heroes vs. Villains. Parvati’s claim that she had made Russell her pet did not ring true to the jury after he had gone against her in booting off players like Danielle and Jerri. Instead, they scorned her for staying loyal to him through his path of destruction.

The same applies to Trish who can take so much credit for her alliance but was blindsided every time Tony betrayed it. At least Woo was in on the moves and could be said to have benefited from them as much as Tony did. In a Trish, Tony, Woo final three, it’s not inconceivable that Woo might gain votes as an acceptable compromise between the chaotic Tony and oblivious Trish. I still feel like Trish would have the best shot at the win, followed by Tony and then Woo, but I’m nowhere near as certain as I used to be.

Kass is in an even worse position, since it looks very likely she’s destined for fourth, but even if she has a final three deal with Tony, she will still have a hard time convincing the jury that she got herself there instead of being at the mercy of Tony’s whims. Last week, I felt either of these women would have had the best case to present to the jury (regardless of whether they would listen to it.) This week, their stock has fallen very low.

And we do have to give Tony credit for the effort he’s put in while Kass and Trish have rested on their oars. Spencer said it was ‘killing him’ to watch everybody else eat at the auction while he saved his money, and Spencer has won every reward so far. It’s easy to understand how for Trish, Woo and Kass, who have yet to go on a single reward, the temptation to bid was too great. Trish openly admitted that she was never going to hold for an advantage. Both Woo and Kass claimed they were planning to save their money for an advantage, but when they saw that others were too, they caved and went for the food rather than fighting it out.

Here's to the advantage!

Here’s to the advantage!

Understandable, and god knows it happens every time, but all the more kudos to Tony who has an immunity idol for protection and still fought to keep the advantage out of the hands of the ‘enemy’. Kass even criticized Tasha’s decision to stay out of the rock-draw, noting that Tasha’s participation would have decreased her enemy’s chances of winning. She adds that she would have thrown in her money if she still had five hundred dollars, but, Kass, the problem here is that you didn’t. You already made the decision to increase your enemy’s chances of winning, and it’s lucky for you that Tony held firm.

I did like Tasha’s decision. The previous auction, in Caramoan, had had two advantage items: one a clue, one a challenge advantage. It seemed that everybody misinterpreted the advantage to refer to a challenge, which of course could only help one of the underdogs. Tasha couldn’t be sure that Jeff would bring out an immunity idol clue, but if he did, she’d win it uncontested.

Had she known it was the idol clue they were starting on, that might have made a difference—although an idol can only protect one person, it has more flexibility than a necklace. However, the ideal scenario would be for herself and Spencer to get both a challenge advantage and a clue to the idol, and that could only happen if she bowed out of the rock-drawing. Unfortunately, they ended up with the worst case scenario: of both leaving empty-handed.

It might have behooved Tasha to explain her reasoning, however. Besides Kass, Spencer also laid into Tasha in confessional for not drawing a rock. Spencer is Tasha’s only ally, and she needs him to have a little more faith in her decisions. (Equally, he should be more willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.) It’s even more important that her prospective jurors don’t have reason to think she’s playing a half-hearted game.

Tasha’s third straight immunity win (despite her empty stomach) probably compensates for that. For the other players who stayed out of the rock draw, the auction illustrates the new game narrative. It’s too late for Jefra, but it’s time for Trish, Kass, and Woo to start asserting themselves, and that means taking a public stand against Tony.

Choosing a Road to Defeat

While ironically reassuring herself that this was going to be a straightforward Tribal Council, Kass made an odd reference to the threat of the brains reuniting, citing that as her reason for wanting Spencer or Tasha gone. As impulsive as Kass has been on occasion, I think she can stop herself from accidentally re-aligning with her original tribe.

However, this suddenly explains Tony’s comment from Jefra’s secret scene, where he holds up his ‘community’ idol as a safeguard even if Kass flips. Despite Tony’s assertion last week that he does trust Kass, would any of us really be surprised if the brains’ getting back together is one of the one hundred and one scenarios going through his fevered brain?

Kass has had a few confessionals now about laying low until everybody’s got over her big move. Has she been waiting for one of Luzon to go home before raising her profile again? Even if she has, Tony might just have forced her hand. Jefra defended Kass when Tony worried she’d flip, and Kass returned the favor at Tribal Council when Tony threw his accusations on Jefra. We can’t be sure of Kass’ endgame plans, but Tony just took out one of her key allies.

One of the points I considered last week was that Kass might prefer to go to the end with Tony rather than Trish, since she made a reference to women rather than men being the threats. This week, of course, Tony’s made it much harder to argue a case against him, but if Kass, Woo, and Trish make a pact to vote off Tony at final four, can Kass reasonably expect to get the credit for that over Trish?

This is all about Kass’ perception of the game right now. If she didn’t think she could beat Trish anyway, and now she doesn’t think she can beat Tony… where else can she turn to but the underdogs? The obvious problem here is that nobody can beat Tasha or Spencer, so Kass is screwed either way. But so far, Kass has never been the sort to roll over and die. She’s going to figure out which path offers the biggest shred of hope.

Before the Morgan vote, Spencer pointed out to Kass that if she was sitting next to two of the people she’d flipped on, then she would only have lost three votes. She could also theorize that if either Tasha or Spencer got to the end, nobody could beat them, but if both of them did, they could split votes as they have the same argument. Meanwhile, if Kass was the visible player in turning the tables on Tony, super idol and all, she would be the dynamic move-maker vs. the underdogs who have simply endured. On paper, it’s not a bad argument.

First problem: how to turn the tables on Tony when there are only six players left and flushing the idol is likely to result in one of Tasha, Spencer, or even Kass herself going home?

Not going to go down without a fight.

Not going to go down without a fight.

Let’s run with the preview and say Kass talks to Woo. Perhaps she tells him they have to flush Tony’s idol to strip his power if they want a chance to win. Woo, ever enthusiastic, agrees to vote for Tony with Kass. Tasha and Spencer then place their votes on Woo. (Or Trish, but Woo’s the only contender to take immunity away from Tasha or Spencer—and the player most likely to be excited to be taken out in such a dastardly fashion.) Woo goes home in a 2-2-1 vote with Tony playing his special idol. Trish is voted off at final five, Tony at four, and we have our impossible Luzon final three.

There are all kinds of ways that plan could fail, but it’s not nearly as insurmountable as the second problem: Kass can’t win over the jury.

Whatever plan the Brains could conceive, they’re going to have to hash it out together, and I will guarantee that each one of them would come away thinking of it as his or her plan. (And probably hoping that the others can manage not to screw it up—oh, Luzon, how I have missed you!) Kass can advertise it as hers all she likes to the jury, but if they would rather believe it was Spencer’s or Tasha’s, she’s still not going to get the votes.

There’s also the small problem of her flipping again to go right back to the alliance she started with. To over-simplify, the sum of her actions would have been to betray everybody on the jury save Jefra and LJ.

To execute the move though, it’s Kass’ perception that matters, not the jury’s. We know from her confessionals that, since Morgan’s boot, she has fully intended to be loyal to her new alliance. And she has kept her promise to hold true for the family visit. In her eyes, it’s Tony who’s made the first betrayal, so she is well within her rights to jump ship now. (I want this move just for the all around karma: Kass screws up her alliance’s game, Tony screws up Kass’ game; Tony insists on only betraying those who have made the first betrayal, Kass uses the same logic right back at him.) In theory, Tony should respect her as the person to take him out of the game, and Trish and Woo should be angry with Tony, not with her, while Tasha and Spencer owe her their game lives.

In theory. The reality is that everybody would tell Kass she’s an indecisive flip-flopper and credit either Tasha or Spencer for manipulating her. I think Kass could get Jefra’s vote, maybe LJ’s or Woo’s… but it’s far more likely the jury will view it as a two horse race between Tasha and Spencer and pick their favorite out of that pair. (My money would be on Tasha, sitting serenely aloof while Kass and Spencer make sexist cracks at each other—if nothing else, this scenario makes for a lively final tribal council regardless of the jurors.)

It would be a bad end to Kass’ game, but perhaps more palatable than the alternative Tony has left her with: fourth or Trish’s final three goat. Such is my final call on Tony’s move. Like the scenario I outlined for Kass above, there is a perspective where it makes sense, but in the dynamics of Survivor it’s going to cost him the goodwill he needs to win the game—not with the jury, but amongst his allies.

Still, as a viewer, I can only be grateful to Tony (and hopefully to Kass as well) for being willing to play recklessly—if not quite as grateful as I am to Spencer and Tasha this week for putting women’s alliance paranoia to good use for a change.

It has to be a highlight of this season that we’ve ended up with a final six of such big characters. Every one of them is willing to make moves, and every one of them can give a good confessional—even Woo, who has thus far given us the least in the strategy department, is an absolute joy to watch. For all the twists and gimmicks the producers can throw at a season of Survivor, Cagayan is proof that all you really need is a strong and diverse cast.

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