Survivor: Worlds Apart

Individual Games – Putting Down the Game

This week is going to be a difficult blog to write owing to the raw emotion on screen and the personal, ugly, attacks made. Even for a show like Survivor it feels overly cynical and disingenuous to discuss the whether emotional reactions were ‘correct’ game moves or not. So this week, our first order of business is to get into the background to this emotion, what drove players to this point.

It was the letters from home that acted as a catalyst for tensions and dislikes that there were already there. This is something we never can grasp at home, how the effects of deprivation and paranoia can make a simple letter of unconditional love become everything to the players. But season after season it happens, and the set up for this season was particularly cruel when a new twist meant Will was the only person not to get his own letter.

From this snowball to an avalanche From this snowball to an avalanche[/caption]

Will’s compensation for this misfortune was the extra rations, which he chose to share with everybody—and seemed to derive genuine joy from doing so, but he was devastated to learn that he had missed his opportunity to get his letter from home. When he then discovered that people who had got their letters were spreading rumors that he had not shared everything, that even his act of charity was being taken away from him, that was rubbing salt in the wounds.

As luck would have it, by the time word got back to him, only Shirin was around to unleash his anger on, and unleash he did. There has been some bad blood between these two even before this, though we’ve not seen it. It probably wouldn’t have helped Shirin to apologize and placate him, but she wasn’t about to. Instead, much like when Dan talked to her, she weathered the storm in silence—and with a small smile on her face. Cagayan’s Kass used to do much the same thing and that little smirk got her in a lot of trouble. Shirin’s calm complacency pushed Will to further lengths and he weighed in with more personal attacks.

Shirin’s position as the pariah of the tribe needs to be taken into account here. She’s the Kass, the Christina Cha, the Cochran, that one person that the majority alliance (if not the whole tribe) can agree that they don’t like and doesn’t deserve to be there. We’ve seen time and again on Survivor that when somebody is acknowledged as lesser by the group, individuals feel that they have tacit permission to harangue and abuse them personally. In this initial confrontation, the line that Will crossed is one that has been crossed multiple times in Survivor. Going beyond attacks on character and bringing family into it has been done before. It’s never excusable, but it does provoke reactions.

In Shirin’s case, with those words and her history, the reaction was particularly poignant. Denying somebody a letter from home when you yourself had one, would, in almost any circumstance, be an unbelievably petty gesture. It’s a mark of how strong the emotions were running that Shirin’s reaction is completely understandable, perhaps even laudable.

But it meant a rehash of the argument at Tribal Council and here was where things truly hit rock bottom. Shirin was now at the point where she had to explain why this was affecting her so much (I am assuming from how she said it that she has not shared this information before), but Will was so worked up that he was refusing to even register what she said. It was so incompatible with his own perception of himself as the maligned good guy and Shirin as the petty bitch; therefore, she must be lying, exaggerating, playing a sympathy card. He talked over her; she finished what she had to say anyway, but the only acknowledgment Will gave to it was: “She has to play the victim.”

That, in my opinion, was the true low point of the episode. It belittled Shirin’s reaction and thus invalidated what was a very real issue: domestic violence. This is one of the great problems facing women’s issues. It’s also one of the great problems facing race issues, or indeed, any minority. It’s so easy for us to hear somebody talking about a problem we don’t face, that’s out of the realms of our experience—particularly if we don’t hold that person in high regard—and dismiss it because it’s more comfortable for us to do so.

None of this was easy to watch. But the emotions drove so much of what happened this episode that we can’t discuss the game without giving due acknowledgment to them. Besides, the sensitive nature of events is exactly why it needs to be discussed. For more of my thoughts on this, please check out the roundtable Rob hosted on Sunday. For more on domestic violence, Shirin has endorsed this organization.

Social Wipeout

Outside of the controversy, Mike takes a lot of the blame for how things went down this week as he singlehandedly took himself from leader of the alliance to a minority of two against six. Considering he had been anticipating they would target him after Joe went, it’s hard to say how he could have handled things worse.

The Mighty Have Fallen and They Can't Get Up.

The Mighty Have Fallen and They Can’t Get Up.

The start of the episode was very compressed, so we don’t know why Rodney wanted to bring the timing of Mike’s vote forward. I thought this might happen last episode, but I assumed that Mike would suggest voting off Tyler, Carolyn, or Will first, and that doesn’t seem to have happened. If Rodney’s impatience was the only factor, who did he believe would help them vote off Mike? Had he got information from Dan or Sierra that they would want to vote Mike off? Did he assume that Jenn and Shirin would go along with them if it meant lasting a few extra days?

It’s not clear what the circumstances were that Mike overheard their discussion, but it seems that he had no opportunity to address it before the auction so he sat at Trader Jeff’s stewing over it.

Everybody else, of course, was excited. We didn’t see the reaction to Treemail, but all long time viewers know what money means, and it was clear that there had been some discussion of the advantage, enough for Shirin to decide that she wouldn’t go for it, along with most others. Carolyn, Dan, and Mike—all big fans in their own right—wanted to try for it.

Of course, much more than the food, the letters from home were the big temptation. Shirin, who’s been sorely in need of a good PR move, promptly gamed the whole system by telling everybody that Jeff would sell off the letters to everybody who matched the highest bid, so every player was able to get their family letter at the lowest price point. (And the fact that Jeff lets Shirin get away with that proves to me that Jeff likes Shirin. Probably with the same bemused, avuncular fascination with which he likes Cochran, but he likes her.)

Carolyn took things a step further when she suggested a deal to Dan and Mike that they all get their letters, all keeping the same amount of money for the advantage. It was, in its own way, a truce: an agreement to put the game aside for a moment so that they could all get that bit of comfort, with nobody seeking to gain an edge over their competitors.

It’s open for debate whether or not you should ever put the game down, but as we’ve already stated, the letters from home are a big deal in Survivor. I liked this acknowledgment that they all wanted the same thing, but they could collaborate on this. Strategically, it’s a non-event, but socially, it’s a huge move forward.

It’s similarly open for debate whether or not it was a good move for Mike to back out of the deal at the last minute in order to make sure he got the advantage. My own thought is that it was a terrible move, especially since one of the other advantage-hold-outs was Dan, heretofore his closest ally. Your social game is always, always more important than ownership of one of the game twists. When everybody else has agreed to a time-out, it comes across as poor sportsmanship to exploit that.

Mike has flirted with the idea of being a Survivor villain since before the game started, but this is the first time he actually went for the dirty move, and he couldn’t in the end go through with it. He credits his change of heart to having too much honor, but what the other players saw was that he only caved when they started berating him and Carolyn had actually returned her own letter, possibly negating his advantage altogether. (Regardless of whether or not refunds should be allowed, full points to Carolyn for trying.)

Mike must have been aware that the other players were unhappy with him, and this was possibly why he felt the need to bring up Rodney’s scheming as soon as he got back to camp—by way of explaining himself, and to point out that other people were being much more treacherous. Unfortunately for him, everybody else was more interested in their letters, in sustaining this brief, illusory break, from a 24/7 game—even Rodney seemed more bothered that letter day was being ruined than that his alliance had been exposed.

We didn’t see it on the show, but Mike has a confessional on what I suspect was one last faux pas. Once he actually read his letters, he was as moved by them as everybody else, and he said out loud that they were worth more to him than a million dollars and title of Sole Survivor. I am sure that Mike fully meant that in the moment, but he’s saying it after he was willing to forego his letters for an advantage in the game. After he was more interested in attacking Rodney’s position than reading his letters. There is no way he could have said that without sounding disingenuous, and that’s going to further weaken his allies’ trust in him. How can they believe any of Mike’s loudly extolled sentiments when he clearly didn’t follow through on this one?

And so it was that Mike went from being the heart of the tribe to public enemy number one over the course of a few hours. But he wasn’t done yet…

While he came in for some controversy later, we need to remember that on auction day, Will was a pretty damn awesome guy. Despite his bad luck, he had remained good-natured, sharing in his tribemates’ joy over their letters as best he could and sharing all of the extra food he had been given—Carolyn reports that by the following day, all of it had been eaten. From his alliance at least, Will earned a colossal amount of respect for handling things so gracefully, and he certainly had their full sympathy.

Basically, Will was a terrible, terrible choice of target for Mike and his current image as the guy who doesn’t care about loved one letters. Maybe it was strategy to sow paranoia among the majority; maybe it was wishful thinking because he was hungry. Jenn claimed that (for her at least) it was out of simple boredom… but Mike speculated that Will had held food back and Shirin and Jenn decided to run with it.

Now had they suspected Will might have a clue to the hidden immunity idol, I could have understood their actions, but this never came up. Even if it was edited out, they still used the accusation that he had food as their opening gambit and that went down like a lead balloon. A secret scene proves that Mike, Shirin, and Jenn found the cooler and concluded that there must have been more food in there, so they genuinely believed the accusations they were making, but it made no difference. As Sierra put it, she hoped he had had steaks and eaten them all.

Shirin vs. The World

Bring it on.

Out on her own.

Tyler, who is in the habit of relaying information, perhaps as a way to gain trust, perhaps as a way to deflect the focus from himself, passed the information on to Will. Jenn and Mike were (most likely) pulled aside for confessional at this inopportune time, and so the stage was set for Shirin and Will’s confrontation. We don’t have many confessional insights into how everybody felt about it, but Sierra’s take was that both Will and Shirin crossed the line. Sierra is probably the person on that alliance most sympathetic towards Shirin, and while we viewers got to see Shirin weeping and being comforted by Mike and Jenn afterwards, I would not be surprised if the majority were inclined to be more sympathetic to Will.

This isn’t to say they either agreed with or condoned what he said. Perhaps they did; we can’t know, but it’s just as likely they felt he took it too far but were willing to give him a pass in the circumstances. My assumption here is that Shirin has never previously mentioned her past family history, and without that context, Will’s comments do not stand out, particularly, in nasty things that have been said on Survivor or even on this season. This show has a long history of players getting personal and of bringing family and backgrounds into it.

We’ve talked about the emotional effect of this already. Shirin was left with the strategy vs. ethics dilemma, particularly when Will put in his request to have his letter. Shirin rationalized that as Will had no shot at winning immunity, there was no way he should be granted this request… It was like getting his letter, one of the most valuable things in the game, for free. This is not really consistent with Shirin’s auction-breaking move to get everybody else their letters for $20, although she says she would probably still object to whoever was making that deal.

She does acknowledge that there’s a ‘human element’ to this, and she might have let somebody have the letter anyway—if they hadn’t treated her as Will has done. She also acknowledges that she’s making herself a villain by doing so, and it’s clear that Shirin has embraced this new strategy of making herself a goat. She’s right, Sierra comments that Shirin is taking things personally to the point that she’s forgetting about the jury.

Shirin did not forget about the jury though. By this point in the argument, game or not, she was going to have to reveal her past history in order to explain her reaction anyway… and whether the Tribal Council timing was her own choice or Will’s (Will made the decision at the challenge to have this second argument at Tribal Council, not at camp), the jury got to hear that explanation—and unlike her tribemates, the present jury is more sympathetic to Shirin. Hali felt sorry for how Shirin was treated before they were even allies, and while Joe might be a little more neutral, as he’s going to be discussing the events with Jenn and Hali, he’s more likely to end up in Shirin’s corner if he isn’t there already.

The tribe’s reaction might be different. While I can’t imagine many of them enjoyed the argument, they still like Will better than Shirin—and Will is their ally. I think Shirin’s breakdown at Tribal Council (I believe this is the first time she’s cried in front of her tribemates?) might get some sympathy, but regrettably, I don’t see her overall situation changing. Sierra might reach out to her, but Sierra is, as per Jenn’s interview, committed to a path of getting to the end with the people she doesn’t like but can beat. Tyler could, potentially, try and work with her, just as another option, but Tyler had such strong issues with Shirin at the start of the game, it’s hard to believe that these two can fully reconcile.

Regardless, full respect to Shirin for wanting to fight on. She had her breakdown, her moment of emotion, and then she picked the game back up and started figuring out how all this controversy feeds into her strategy. Perhaps the greatest gesture of support she received was from Jenn, who urged Mike and Shirin to vote for her so that Shirin could keep on fighting, keep on standing up for herself. It’s not as exciting as giving her immunity necklace to Joe, but it was Jenn’s last shot at screwing around with the players she didn’t like and doing something for a friend. While the other players were keen on getting rid of Jenn as a challenge threat, Shirin’s motivation for the game could mean she’s actually the more dangerous of the two.

Dan and the New Advantage

Dun, dun, DUN!

Dun, dun, DUN!

All this has somehow drowned out what would otherwise be a major topic: the new advantage, or an extra vote at Tribal Council that can be used up until final five. I’m not yet sure what to make of this twist. It could be utterly pointless, it could be very powerful, and—much like the hidden immunity idol—we’ll need to see it in action a few times to fully grasp its influence on the game. I do like the fact that it means players don’t have to wait until the odd numbers (e.g. final nine and final seven) to have a close majority. Dan could have flipped to Mike’s side this episode, taking advantage of the vote splitting, and used his extra vote next Tribal Council to break the four-a-side tie.

I was more excited about whom it went to than the advantage itself: partly because Dan’s a superfan and was so plainly overjoyed at thus securing his place in Survivor history as the first person to wield this power; partly because it seems so unlikely that Dan can win this jury over anyway, and if somebody won with this, there would be an inevitable asterisk on their victory; but mostly because the events of this episode have put Dan into a swing vote position, so it’s going to somebody who will take that advantage into consideration for every vote. (I may change my mind on this point after the umpteenth pre-TC confessional of ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’ from Dan.)

So far, it’s not increased the target on his back. Jenn comments that he’s the person who can do the least with it, and despite what I just said, that’s probably the general perception among the tribe when they believe it’s either an immunity advantage or a clue to an immunity idol. As Dan did not break it out at the challenge, it’s a safe bet that 90% of the tribe will now assume that he has a clue to an idol and so they’ll be wary of him, but it doesn’t change a lot. The majority can keep on vote splitting, all the way through final six, and Dan isn’t somebody to be afraid of at Final Tribal Council anyway.

The real question here is which way will Dan lean. There’s been some debate about how much he knows about Rodney’s plans to vote off Mike… My guess is that the first he heard of it would have been after the auction, painted as a response to Mike’s antics. (Mike has a confessional after his immunity win where he suggests that everybody thinks he’s crazy.) In that light, Dan might see the vote as something Mike himself brought about, and he might feel that he’s come to the point where he has to let Mike go for the good of his own game.

Dan said earlier this season that he would not want to go to the end with Mike, so voting Mike off early doesn’t ruin his endgame plans, although he’s probably worried about eliminating what he sees as a Blue Collar majority within an alliance of seven. (His extra vote will only help if the other four split theirs.) I think the Know-It-Alls made an excellent point about how he’s not actually gone against Mike yet. Mike winning the immunity necklace made that vote significantly easier for Dan.

The other problem with Dan flipping this week is the one he raises in his confessional: that Shirin and Jenn already targeted him for the vote once. Going into an alliance with those two would be a major risk in the circumstances—it’s not like we saw either of them promising him that they were willing to put aside their differences and work together.

The important thing about all the arguments for Dan to stay with Rodney is that they aren’t permanent. Jenn’s gone, so the allying with enemies problem has halved. It’s unlikely that Mike will continue his immunity run, so Dan still has to face the prospect of backstabbing the guy who’s been his closest ally in the game, with the biggest change being that Mike’s now something of a goat himself. Dan has said all along that flippers never win, but with Rodney and Mike at loggerheads, he’s going to have to flip on somebody and earn their enmity.

Can they rekindle the bromance?

Can they rekindle the bromance?

The lingering problem is that Dan can no longer trust Mike fully, but as we saw from his pre-tribal confessionals, he considers it possible that he could be wrong and Mike could be right. It’s very unlikely that anybody will be able to prove to Dan that Rodney plans to betray all the Blue Collars, but now that Dan’s on his guard, he might pay more attention to what sway Tyler, Carolyn, and Will hold over Rodney. Tyler, in particular, should stand out as a threat.

Of course, Tyler should always stand out as a threat, yet somehow he never does. You never hear a word against him as a player, he’s always in the list of people whose game is respected, yet the guy persists in flying under the radar. It’s not just the edit, the guy has never had a vote cast against him—the only other player who can say that is Mike who obviously was a target this week. However Tyler’s doing it, it’s clearly not making for great television, but my hat is off to him as a player.

It’s equally remarkable that nobody has yet considered that Tyler and Carolyn might be closer than they appear. I feel like every week I say that the tide will shift against them next episode, but it still holds true. At this point, they deserve the win, but ‘deserving’ and ‘victory’ are not logical bedfellows in Survivor.

At any rate, Dan has an extra vote and a decision to make. Mike has a target and an immunity idol. Everybody has had an emotional break from the game to fuel them for the next stretch. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part that it won’t be a straight pagonging of the minority, but as so often happens on Survivor, all the resources are there for the players to change things up. The question is: will they use them?

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