Survivor

Individual Games – Play Your Own Game

Well, Cagayan did it… it kept up the craziness and unpredictability all the way through the season. It even managed to continue its post-merge pattern of alternating majority and minority boots: Spencer at final four and Kass—of all people—at final three. While the season itself was marred with some uncomfortable twitter spats between the cast (which unfortunately kept it from being entirely spoiler-free), you cannot fault the episodes for being anything but solidly fascinating. It’s probably a little early to make the call, but Cagayan may well be my new favorite season—it’s certainly well up there.

What elevates Cagayan is certainly its cast, particularly the double bulls-in-a-china-shop of Tony and Kass. Overall it was a diverse group, not so much in race as in age and philosophy—and as Jeff said, they came to win… even Woo. But we also have to credit the editors. It seems a little ridiculous to praise them for a more balanced edit when Tony probably got even more screentime than Tyson and Cochran in their so clearly telegraphed wins, yet Tony was presented as a flawed character with a flawed game—and thank goodness! I’d much rather have the comical side of Tony than see him shoehorned into a puppetmaster role.

And some of it was just plain luck… like the way the challenges played out. So often they seemed to be symbolic of what was going on in the game that I began to suspect the whole season was scripted! Or the tribal swap distribution that divided the beauties so absolutely. By far the beauty tribe was the most cautious, and their division prevented LJ from marshalling them to a more standard victory. (Of course, depending on the size of your tinfoil buff, that might or might not be down to luck.)

Either way, we ended up with what was possibly the strongest final six in Survivor history, and certainly for my money, the most entertaining final four. (OK, for my money the most entertaining final three, but I can’t argue with Spencer’s popularity.) All were fans, and all illustrated the open field that is Survivor’s playbook with their very different approaches.

The (Not the Only) Fan of the Game

I was convinced that Spencer’s ratio of screentime vs. entertainment brought meant that he was going to win, but it turns out that CBS knows that its fanbase adores the ‘superfan’ archetype that production has created. No doubt, their casting dream for season 29 would be a pair of pre-graduate, white and nerdy brothers who get shivers down their spines at the sight of Jeff Probst. If they succeed in this dream, expect me to gripe about said brothers the whole way through the season.

Sorry, is my cynicism showing through? Well, yes. It’s a lovely storyline, but one we’ve seen before, and one which pretends that these ‘superfans’ are somehow more entitled to their spot and/or the win than other contestants. In the Survivor hierarchy, recruits < applicants < the superfan. There was a moment when Spencer was explaining the final two to Tony and he actually said that he noticed the clues pointing towards the final two because he was a fan of the show. Tony had to remind him that he was also a fan of the show. And while Tony might lack the encyclopedic knowledge of Spencer, I don’t think anybody can claim Spencer cares about the show more than Tony.

This is the problem that I have. As much of a fan as Spencer is, that would not have made it a satisfying win. Yes, he follows the internet fandom which immediately means he’s got the benefit of that huge knowledge-base. Of course he knows his theory… yet that theory hasn’t really been tested much more than if he had remained a fan. His potential has gone unrealized—as he said to Rob, good luck as well as bad got him through the game.

While he at least managed not to be voted off more than once, Spencer winning Cagayan would have been like Ozzy winning South Pacific. He would have got himself to the end and deserved it in that all winners played the game they needed to get the jury’s votes… but he wouldn’t have had to ask a group of people he voted off to forgive him. He wouldn’t have won Survivor in its traditional, Probst-recommended format.

Spencer never stopped fighting. Spencer never stopped fighting.[/caption]

This isn’t to say that he doesn’t deserve kudos for his game. He never stopped fighting. His physical game was impressive, and he was very very good at saying the right thing. (Barring some slips of temper and condescension.) He would probably have put in a good performance at Tribal Council—he did anyway, never mind David Murphy in Redemption Island… he was channeling Erik Cardona in Samoa, on the verge of tears as he pleaded for the ‘right’ outcome to the game.

But Spencer himself said that he thought Tony would beat him (which is one of the few times he’s warranted the question: “Have you seen this show before?”) A million dollars is always going to be great compensation, but ‘as a fan of the show’, how does Spencer want to win?

As with all the final four, it’s likely this won’t be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Spencer, and he might have salvaged this game in the best way possible: he’s widely beloved and come the next All-Stars, everybody’s going to see him as benevolent but not necessarily a threat. He’ll have the experience (and a couple of years of maturity) to help keep his temper in check, and, after this go around, he’s likely to be less circumspect about making moves.

Essentially, Spencer never got to play his game in Cagayan. However, out of a cast where we’re predicting that so many people could return, I give him the best chances of being able to play next time.

The Independent Troll

Both last week and in the finale, Kass has said that she’s played this game like a man, and because she’s a woman, she’s been considered a bitch for it. I talked about this potential double standard last week, which produced some interesting discussion in the comments both agreeing and disagreeing.

I’m going to clarify a few things this week. Firstly, I never intended to suggest that if you hate Kass, you’re intrinsically sexist, and I apologize for that implication. There is plenty to hate about Kass (mostly the things I love her for), and she would be a polarizing figure whatever gender she was. Moreover, neither I nor anybody else can say “If Kass were male and played the exact same game…” because that couldn’t happen. If she were male, the other players would have had different reactions to her actions—both positively and negatively. (There has been a wealth of studies on this topic proving that gender does make a subconscious difference to us in a number of scenarios.)

So it’s more complicated than that. The short answer is that of course Kass’ Survivor experience would have been radically different if she’d had a sex change first, but it’s not clear if she would have had a better reception among players and fans, or if it would have been easier for her. After all, she still has that terrible social game that made her so hated.

Of course, so did Russell Hantz, and as polarizing a figure as he was, he was also far and away the most popular player that season among the fans and gained full credit for playing strategically despite his vindictiveness. This was greatly aided by the lack of characters around him and his own charisma which led to his monopoly of an edit. But would he have achieved the same effect had he been a woman?

Ultimately, it’s impossible to answer, becoming more of a philosophical question than anything else. Take your favorite (or least favorite) Survivor player, swap their gender and try to figure out what difference that could make in their game. Similarly, the best response to Kass’ lament (and mine) might be: “Survivor isn’t fair. If you’re disadvantaged by being a woman, you need to figure your way around that.”

However, as in my first blog of the season, I urge future Survivor players to stop underestimating the older woman’s intent to play or else vote her off immediately. Over the past four seasons, too many people have screwed themselves over because they failed to take an older woman seriously.

At Ponderosa, Kass reviewed her game and commented that she had played like a man because that’s how you need to do it, ending with the exhortation: “Come on in, ladies, and play like men!” I disagree with that statement as did a great many other people. Philippines’ Denise wrote out a beautiful reaction to this on Facebook. As she so neatly put it: “For me that statement sent the subtle…or not so subtle message that being a woman or “playing like a woman” has less value.”

Despite that, there was another level on which Kass’ statement rang completely true to me. I said this in the comments for last week’s blog, that for years I’ve wished they would cast a female loose cannon, because the overactive schemer who loves to throw everybody else’s game into chaos is almost always male. (Your Russell Hantz, your Pete Yurkowski, your half-the-men-of-One-World…) In Kass I got that (along with a dry reserve and a habit of making geeky little fantasy analogies; she’s a dream come true), and I will be forever grateful to her for playing that way.

It doesn’t mean it’s a good game… I always advocate against making moves for the sake of it and I recommend voting off the loose cannon as early as possible, but it’s a fun game to watch, and it’s clearly Kass’ preferred style as a fan. So even if I don’t advise it, I can sympathize with her plea for more women to take that hyperaggressive path.

Kass has been compared to many Survivor players by this point, but while there’s no exact fit, I think Tyson is probably the closest parallel for me, as I like them both for much the same reasons. They’re both intelligent people with a dry sense of humor and a penchant for saying the most outrageous things with little concern for whether or not they cause offence. Oh, and they both have a habit of stirring things up when they get bored.

(I know I’m going to get half a dozen comments saying the difference between Tyson and Kass is X, Y, Z… To try and anticipate your objections: of course his social game was better; I don’t believe he’s any better-intentioned than Kass; they are two very different people and their few shared attributes just happen to be what appeals to me most about them on screen.)

I compared Kass to Tyson at one point back on Luzon when I noted how she was trolling Tasha’s desperation to practice for each challenge. It was the loved ones visit that reminded me again, when her husband helped her stay focused during the reward challenge. (The family visit was an interesting experiment, I thought, but somewhat let down by the distant relationship of Woo’s and Tony’s visitors. Not sure I like it coming this late, but it was an improvement over the exercise in denial that was Caramoan’s.)

Kass is a longtime fan of the show, (she’s white and nerdy, even if she isn’t male and in college; we can grant half-superfan status, right?) so it was lovely to see her suffer through her fear of heights to score her one immunity win with her husband right there to share the moment. This also marked a turning point in Kass’ game—she was the one who finally got out Spencer, the biggest immunity threat left in the game and also the one person that nobody could beat.

Such was the focus Kass had in the finale. At one point she said: “I’m hated, but I’m not a goat.” Technically, as the person everybody knew they could beat at the end, yes, she was a goat. But her protest was about how she was not going to let anybody carry her to the end; she was determined to get there through her own gameplay. She didn’t need immunity that day, but they needed to stop Spencer from getting it. Had she won the final immunity challenge, she could have pointed out to the jury that nobody brought her to the finals as their goat. She got herself there and hand-picked her opponent.

Choosing her own final three.

Choosing her own final three.

In this vein, perhaps the best move she made the whole game was in the previous episode where she would not take Tony’s final three offer at face value, instead swinging Woo to a different side, forcing Tony to deviate from his own plans. Ironically, if we look at actual results, this was the wrong move. Had Woo gone home that night according to Tony’s plans, Kass would likely have won both remaining challenges. (We can’t fully count Trish out, seeing as Kass’ overall performance up to this point was only marginally better than Trish’s, but it’s been established that puzzles aren’t Trish’s strong point.)

So had Kass said nothing, she would likely have been in the finals. However even if we assume she was accounting for a potential final two, she could not pin her game on winning challenges—it would certainly have been foolish at that point. From what we saw, (and despite the outcome), Woo was more likely than Trish to take Kass to the end. By proving to him that Tony had been disloyal and had been ready to betray him, Kass could at least leave the game knowing she had not left that stone unturned.

Furthermore, had this been a final three, it would have been the final three of Kass’ choosing, not Tony’s. I doubt it would have made a difference. Suppose in Redemption Island Natalie Tenerelli had revealed Boston Rob’s plans to Ashley Underwood and the two of them had conspired to vote off Phillip, getting Ashley to the finals in his stead and against Rob’s wishes. Rob would still absolutely have won the game. But perhaps Natalie would have felt better for scoring at least that one point against him.

In the end, although Kass couldn’t figure out a winning path, she at least played as she wanted to, which for a fan of the show is the next best thing to the title of sole survivor. And perhaps this is the advice we should be giving to the ladies out there. You’re probably better off playing like a Denise, a Kim, or a Cirie than ‘like a man’… but more importantly, play your own damn game the way you want to do it, and have fun with it.

Should Kass play again, as seems so likely, could she ever adjust for her social deficiencies? She’s good about looking for options beyond the ones she’s presented with and all evidence suggests that she has an accurate read on people… Yet going ally-free and brute-forcing her way through the social game is clearly not the answer to her inability to manipulate her fellow players.

In her day after interview, Kass referred back to the word puzzle when she had guessed ‘Worth Fighting For’ instead of ‘Worth Playing For.’ She observed that she was always fighting and wondered if perhaps she should take a more playful approach instead. I’d say that’s right on the money. If Kass plays again, she needs to stop being defensive, stop trying to prove anything to anybody but herself. She also really needs to find some common ground with her fellow players, even if it’s as basic as loving the game.

That said, I would not complain if she threw caution to the winds and played exactly the same game. I don’t think she’d make it anywhere near as far as she did this time, but in the spirit of Luzon, it would be insane fun while it lasted.

The Dragonrider

One of the more unusual elements of the Survivor finale is that Woo became the first player in the show’s history who would have won the game had he tripped over in the final immunity challenge.

(OK, maybe not, as Kass considered taking Tony just because it was going to be an uphill battle either way and as a fan of the show, she and Tony would be the battle she wanted to see. Let’s just roll with the sweeping irony anyway.)

I’m going to go ahead and say it… I have no objection to Woo’s decision. Oh, true, as far as Survivor gameplay goes, it was the wrong move. But in the context of Cagayan, I’m perfectly happy with it for a great many reasons. One of which is that we saw Tony winning the season instead of Woo. (Assuming Kass couldn’t win.) I wouldn’t have had it in me to object to a Woo win, and I’d rather see a million dollars spent on an engagement than a pink chandelier, but ultimately, Tony’s win is always going to be a far more satisfying cap to the season.

Secondly, Woo’s decision is part of what makes Woo Woo. I agree with Kass that you should check your integrity at the door when you play Survivor, but this is a reality show as well as a game. Just as I was delighted with Kass despite her game issues, so too was I delighted with Woo taking his own approach to the game. As Woo responded to Spencer, “I’m a different kind of student.”

A Woo Hug is Better than a Million Dollars

A Woo Hug is better than a million dollars.

Woo’s take on honor is very different to the typical Survivor players who will first choose their move (whether emotionally or strategically) and then rationalize the honor behind it. (Case in point: Tony wanted to vote off LJ, so he found a reason to invalidate his own promise. See also Coach’s entire Survivor career.) Woo decided he was going to make the honorable move and came to the conclusion that that had to be taking Tony.

There’s something very touching about that, a call-back to early Survivor seasons when the question of “What would you do for a million dollars?” was more prevalent, when people felt less comfortable saying: “It’s just a game and who I am in it does not reflect who I am outside of it.”

Let’s not get disingenuous here. Woo did think he had a shot against Tony—if he’d truly believed he would lose, I think Woo could have pushed honor aside for the sake of giving his girlfriend a million dollars. Remember back when he said he would vote off his best buddy, Cliff?

There may have been an element here that Kim Spradlin took into account. She figured that if the jury was too bitter to award her the win, then she would lose to anybody, so she might as well take the people she would prefer to lose to. Woo would have taken the opposite angle—if the jury wasn’t bitter enough to award him the win—but I’m sure out of Kass or Tony he would have preferred to see Tony win the money.

I also love the fact that Woo refuses to say that he regrets his decision. As life-changing as a million dollars would have been, losing a million dollars will not ruin his life. I hate it when contestants of reality shows waste time lamenting the might-have-beens. There’s nothing wrong with looking back and saying: “I should have done that differently.” But there’s no need for regret, especially not when you were able to get on the show that thousands apply for.

That’s not to say Woo couldn’t have handled things better, and I do credit Tony with bringing up the subject of loyalty and honor—and perhaps this is what he should be thanking Spencer for. While I don’t think Spencer’s speech at Final Tribal Council did much to secure Tony’s win, his previous Tribal Council speech might have made the vital impression on Woo. It’s all conjecture, but when Spencer was promising he would take Tony to the end and that if he broke his promise the jury shouldn’t vote for him, I can only assume the jury was loving it—not because they believed him, but because they wanted Spencer to stick around. Did Woo make note of their reactions? Did he conclude that not taking the goat would resonate with this jury?

At any rate, this belated decision to go the route of honor probably sunk Woo, not just in his decision to take Tony, but in his arguments at Tribal Council. While his claims to honor weren’t as outright hypocritical in the same vein as Coach’s in South Pacific, they were seen as a cover up for his inability to play the game.

Considering how bitter this jury was (never mind the fact that they gave the win to Tony; see their Ponderosa videos and post-game interviews), we can’t even blame Woo for thinking that the integrity route would be the way to go when it came to swaying them. However, he could have made a much different pitch. Woo actually performed very competently at Tribal Council—I loved that he had the guts to tell Kass to her face that she was less deserving than Tony. It wasn’t going to win her vote, but it probably warmed the hearts of everybody else on the jury.

As I’ve repeatedly noted in blog, he was involved in more of the plots and schemes throughout the game than any other player—only at the Cliff vote was he blindsided, and even then, he had no trouble slotting himself into the new majority alliance. Kass stated in interview that it was Woo who pulled out of the vote-split the night Tasha went home. Tasha was an even bigger threat to win the game than Spencer, and it was Woo who made the call to get her out when they had the chance.

None of this would have given Woo credit for any strategic dominance, but he could have held it up as a strength of his social game, claiming he always knew what was going on and how to keep himself out of danger. That combined with his poise and Tony’s discomfort might have created a different outcome.

He could also have taken the lesson from Samoa’s Natalie, and declared that he stuck by Tony because he could have beaten him. In the final maze challenge, Woo shadowing Tony made a lot of sense, because he could be sure of beating Tony in the final puzzle. (Tony rather than Kass was the player Woo had to beat if he wanted to get to final two.) He couldn’t be sure of beating Tony in the Final Tribal Council, but Tony’s lackluster performance would have lent credence to claims that he could.

However, where Woo really lost the game was his inability to let his social strengths show. It appears from The Jury Speaks videos that a number of players (Jeremiah, Morgan, Sarah, and Jefra) would have liked an excuse to vote for Woo instead of Tony, but because they didn’t care for Tony rather than because they liked Woo.

Had Woo put his natural charisma on display around camp instead of keeping quiet, he could have had actual friends on that jury. That should have made the difference between this jury and one which wanted to vote for him and was ready to rationalize it. I’m less confident that Woo will play again compared to the other three, but if he does get the chance (and goodness knows, I would love to have another weekly dose of Woo on my screen), that’s what he needs to change. Open up and make friends. He will run the risk of being voted off for being too likeable, but the precedent of his first season is going to be a tempting carrot for his allies to keep him around.

The Restless Shark

Cochran, as quoted on Know-It-Alls, probably said it best. Tony is the best combination character and strategic player the show has ever had. I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody win with such an ostentatious game before—nothing about Tony, not even his spy-shack, was ‘behind the scenes.’ He fooled people by virtue of having too many plots and schemes for anybody else to keep track of.

By the same token, I don’t think any winner could possibly have played harder—Tony might just have had the least efficient victory of all time. Yet, as a fan, he also had one of the fullest Survivor experiences of all time: being on the bottom, being on the top, challenge victories, alliances with names, coups, blindsides, finding idols, playing idols, and, of course, the title of Sole Survivor—plus half a dozen more experiences that he’s added to every fan’s checklist. The only regret he can have is that he failed to win individual immunity. (And knowing Tony, he regrets that fully.)

In retrospect, it’s surprising that Tony never did manage to achieve the immunity necklace. It wasn’t for lack of trying… There were two challenges where he had a lead, only to falter in the final stages. Fine motor skills or anything that required pause for thought were generally his downfall, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Tony often chokes right at the end. And that seemed to carry over to Tribal Council performances.

Nobody can deny that Tony knows how to put on a good performance, and I had expected great things from him come Final Tribal Council. What we got was a quieter, clearly nervous Tony, who visibly struggled to figure out the ‘right’ answer to the jurors’ questions, and provided a rather confused justification of his betrayals. Several people have blamed Tasha for voting for Woo, but like myself, she had expected Tony to bring his ‘A-game’ and be prepared to answer the tough questions. I would not be at all surprised if Tony lost her vote through disappointment.

Tony found a way to dodge the last few obstacles and win.

Nobody wants to see Subdued Tony.

He wasn’t terrible by any means, and certainly there were a few questions with no good answer (such as Trish’s) while his honesty with LJ was probably the best thing he did. But what was really missing from that Tribal Council was the verve that made Tony Tony. Remember the Tribal Council where Trish went home? Where Kass tried to explain her move for the jury’s benefit and Tony completely upstaged her? That was the Tony I wanted to see at Final Tribal Council. That was a winning performance.

Still, in the end, just as Tony never needed immunity, he also didn’t need a strong argument to win. After all, actions speak louder than words, and Tony is nothing if not a man of action.

It’s still incredible that somebody with such an impulsive, paranoid, and reckless game could win. He had the advantage of Kass to draw the jury’s ire, of Trish to clean up his messes and of Woo and Spencer who fully believed in him in their different ways. Even so, Tony has openly admitted to playing emotionally, of making promises when he didn’t need to… lesser games have been sunk by such behavior.

One of the things that has fascinated me as an insomniac is Tony’s account of how he slept very little at night and instead lay there figuring out how to dig himself out of the holes he’d got into during the day. Even if we assume some hyperbole on Tony’s part over the sleep deprivation, I’m frankly impressed that he was able to pull anything together at all after thirty-nine days of minimal sleep.

At the end of the day, he did it. It didn’t matter what kind of trouble he got himself into, because he always did find a way out of it—and if his allies were pulling him out of the hole, then we have to credit him for choosing and bonding with the right allies. But he got himself out of the final two hole. By rights, Tony should have won that final three, and he stood to be Cirie’d by the surprise final two. He managed to talk Woo round and get himself to the end after all.

(Good news for fans of the final two. Jeff confirmed that it was due to Lindsey’s quit messing up their numbers. In Philippines and Caramoan they fixed this issue by making the penultimate immunity challenge a reward challenge, the reward being an advantage in the final immunity challenge. This received a lukewarm reception at best from the media, so my guess is that switching to a final two will be the new back-up plan going forward. Take note, future players!)

There is no way I would ever recommend for a sane player to mimic Tony’s game, but in Cagayan, Tony made it work. And this is perhaps the best news for Survivor as a show. While the best game is still likely to be the one that makes for boring television, Tony’s brand of gameplay is sure to attract its fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if players in the upcoming season start comparing themselves to Tony instead of Boston Rob and Russell Hantz—I fully hope they do.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is what elevates Cagayan above Heroes vs. Villains for me. While both were filled with bad gameplay and bitter judgment, the Heroes and Villains were players who knew how to play better yet let themselves get caught up in petty point-scoring exercises. With very few exceptions, I never wanted to see a repeat of their games. I would love to see just about the entire cast of Cagayan play again, and certainly a similar balance of players and approaches to the game would be most welcome.

It’s a good time to be a Survivor fan… recent seasons have rewarded the more aggressive finalist (with the arguable exception of Cochran vs. Dawn) and there is a trend towards staking your game on big moves not subtle ones. Casting itself has strengthened and the editing of Cagayan received such praise that even Jeff Probst seemed to take notice. There’s still this feeling that after such a strong four season run, we have to have a dud sooner or later, but as it stands, we have every reason to be optimistic for San Juan Del Sur and beyond.

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