Survivor: Game Changers

Survivor Game Changers: Advantage-geddon

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Sarah Channon writes special feature blogs for RHAP. In this article, she explores whether the game is naturally evolving or the producers are introducing catalysts to speed it along.

Survivor Game Changers: Advantage-geddon

Last night, Game Changers ricocheted its way to the finish line with a well-deserved win for Sarah and an unsatisfying but historic moment, when the scenario we’ve been wondering about all season actually happened: five people were immune at final six leaving somebody eliminated by… process of elimination.

While it was certainly a moment for the virtual water-cooler, it can’t be said many of us were looking forward to this scenario. As Sophie said on Know-It-Alls, it doesn’t seem right that you should get to a point where you literally have to have immunity to advance in the game. There’s been a plethora of these extra game advantages this season: four idols, immunity via legacy advantage, an extra vote and a vote steal. Yet we’ve ended up debating one question: Are advantages breaking the game?

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Six Players; No Votes

When it comes to Advantage-geddon, let’s get a few things straight. Cirie had screwed up her game the previous vote. Fortunately for her, it did come out that Tai had been targeting Sarah, but she and Sarah clearly did not regain trust. At final six, Cirie’s alliance was Aubry and Tai, the two people who had experience of being losing finalists to the popular girl. In Panama, Aras and probably Danielle would have taken Cirie to the end. In Micronesia, Amanda and Parvati technically did. This season, Cirie did not have that person in her final six.

(Maybe she could have pulled something off. Let’s say the vote goes as planned, Sarah goes home, everybody turns on Aubry at five as the combined jury/immunity threat and Tai still wants to make a pact to force a tie—either he or Cirie stands a good chance of beating Troyzan. But that’s a lot of ifs, and I suspect the players were letting Cirie get to the final four because she’d be an easy consensus boot: “You can’t turn on me now! Letting Cirie into the finals is suicide!” She’s the anti-goat.)

As beloved as Cirie is, Advantage-geddon is not the real reason she lost the game. It’s more like there’s a cosmic rule that Cirie cannot simply be voted out by a majority. Something screwy has to happen.

The other thing to bear in mind is that all those advantages were earned. Winning immunity has always been a part of Survivor, and challenge-strength is an attribute many fans and jurors value. Idols have been around a long time because they do provide an effective wrinkle in the game and the way players use them is constantly evolving. People who have the hustle to find idols deserve the advantage it brings them. Likewise, Sarah and Aubry were given their immunities by other players because of their social games—that’s traditionally Cirie’s strength, so she had every opportunity to get those for herself had she worked Tai and Sierra a little better.

Even so, is this the game we want to watch? If Cirie had found Tavua’s idol, and the least popular player went home instead of the fan favorite, would we be cheering for Advantage-geddon? Or would we be saying: “At least it was only Troyzan.”

On the other hand, it’s kind of cool that this freak circumstance happened once and we saw the “What if…?” play out. That’s if it is a freak circumstance. Only one person being eligible for elimination has actually happened twice before.

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Ducking the Vote

In Marquesas, we saw the switch to drawing rocks as a tie-breaker. This rule did not come to fruition until final four, but after the fact, production realized that they had messed up. According to their own rules, the people drawing rocks were those who had not been voted for (and did not otherwise have immunity). Although Kathy and Neleh had participated in the rock draw, they should have been excluded. Paschal drew the purple rock anyway, but he should have gone home by default.

Accordingly, the final four tie-breaker was changed to fire-making, and for almost thirty seasons, we had no issue… until Second Chances when Kelley and Jeremy played two idols and canceled out all votes against them. The vote started over, this time with three people immune, resulting in a 3-3 tie between Kimmi and Tasha. Both sides were ready to draw rocks, knowing that their game was over if they lost this round. Then Jeff pointed out that if it went to rock drawing, Keith would be the only person eligible to go home. Keith and Kelley had no choice but to vote out their ally, fully aware that Kimmi’s boot would cost them the game.

Two seasons later, it’s happened again. In fact, this season’s advantage distribution meant this scenario could have played out in multiple ways.

Final Five: the legacy advantage was no longer in play, but in theory, there could still have been three idols played at that Tribal Council, leaving just one person vulnerable.

Final Seven: three idols could have been played, creating a zero-vote result. The vote is started over with four players immune, only to come up with a 3-3-1 tie. With no chance to revote, they have to come to a unanimous consensus, or two more players become immune and the person who received one vote goes home by default.

Final Six: The Legacy advantage is played along with two idols (or all three idols but the Legacy was played at thirteen and does not apply), creating a zero-vote result. Again, the vote is started over with four players immune, and only two people eligible for the vote. It’s a 3-3 tie. Nobody has an incentive to reach a consensus. Nobody is eligible to draw a rock. Nobody can go home.

In practice, I assume production would stop everything and bring in fire-making materials at that point, but technically speaking, that’s only for final four. There may be some legal issues there.

Again it’s a big water cooler moment. A crazy tribal council! Survivor history! Yet that’s twice in four seasons that this kind of craziness has happened, and if we continue to have four extra immunities in play, we can expect this to be a regular occurrence. Compare to how Brad tied the record for the most immunity wins in a season—with five other people. Nobody is going to remember Brad as one of the all-time challenge greats.

If the freak tribal council where almost everybody is immune loses it’s novelty value, what contribution does it bring to the show? Should it even be accepted as a normal part of the game? In the Heroes vs. Villains reunion, Probst stated the premise of Survivor: “It’s clearly defined as being a situation where you vote people out and then those people have to vote to make you the winner.”

Redemption Island was a far more egregious example of this premise being tampered with, especially in South Pacific: Ozzy came within a whisker of winning a game in which he had spent almost the entire post-merge pandering to a jury after they had been voted off by the other players. Still, at its core, Survivor is about the vote. Sending players home by any other method is diminishing that premise.

This is why I am not happy with rock-drawing becoming an increasingly acceptable strategy… but at least that is a risk the players are taking with forethought.  Deciding Tribal Councils by seeing who’s immune once the dust has settled isn’t part of anybody’s plan. Ultimately, it’s the equivalent to a medevac: that’s just how the chips fell.

In this new era of Survivor, it’s become a trend to have a juror who wasn’t voted out: Joe in Kaoh Rong, Jessica in Millennials vs. Gen X, Cirie in Game Changers. While it seems unlikely that we’d ever have a majority of them, I’m concerned that this trend is only increasing. It’s entirely possible that this season could have had a medevac or two, while rock draws were an ever-looming threat. Would Sarah’s game have been as impressive if she could gather four or five votes from people she had never betrayed? (Would the jurors have accepted her argument that she had known every vote if the urn had been opened at final six?)

For now, this remains a worst case scenario, and it’s not how anybody intends to use their advantages and idols. Indeed, if anybody had known just how many immunities were in play, it’s more likely they would have used them sooner, done something a little more elaborate with them.

Or at least tried.

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Blocking the Best Case Scenario

Despite Jeff’s assertions, the only advantage that was really played to its full effect was the Legacy Advantage, where all the circumstances lined up perfectly. Sierra told Sarah about it so Sarah took full advantage of Sierra in the resultant vote. Sarah needed the immunity on the very night it was valid. Finally, Sarah then reached the finals and had to argue her case before the juror she had thus exploited. (She didn’t get Sierra’s vote, but she took Zeke’s tip that this should be the centerpiece of her case; it probably won her a few other votes at the expense of Sierra’s.)

Of course, even then, its impact was shadowed by Cirie’s automatic exit. Without that advantage, Sarah would have gone home that night. We saw the votes as Cirie left, but we never got to see Sarah’s reaction as she realized she had been saved. She admitted in her interviews that she had had no idea they were targeting her.

It’s still more than the other advantages got. The idols were sat on in the very old-school post-Heroes vs. Villains way. Troyzan and Tai would likely have got much more credit had they used them to save their minority alliance after Debbie was voted off.

Neither the extra vote nor the vote steal actually carried a majority. The vote steal was most effective as a showcase of Sarah’s ballsiness in obtaining it. Despite Jeff’s assertions that it was finally played correctly, Michaela had three votes anyway. As Tai could not have voted for himself, there was nobody else who could have gone home that night.

With their extra votes, Debbie and Sarah merely gave themselves a buffer, a confidence boost. The show got a vote that wasn’t as close as it might have been.

Cirie, it should be noted, did come up with a genuinely creative use for the vote steal. There’s some debate about whether or not it would have been a good move (I tend to think she’d have been better off without it, finding a way to instigate a 3-2-2 vote), but it would certainly have been a more entertaining one than what ended up happening: a debate over semantics followed by an out-of-nowhere voting decision that could not be explained in the episode’s edit. (We got a follow up at the next episode, but it was still an anti-climactic send off for Michaela.)

I said in my previous blog that these game advantages require a lot of exposition when they’re introduced, but the odds are against the right situation arising for their intended pay off. I wasn’t too concerned about it a few weeks ago, although I felt that exposition screentime might be better served elsewhere. Now that the season has played out, I’m inclined to think advantages are obscuring actual game-changing strategy.

For example, there’s been a recurring tactic this post-merge that nobody is talking about: splitting the opposition’s vote rather than that of your own alliance. Several times, we saw an alliance swing the numbers by pitting two different factions against each other as a diversion. Taking out all advantages, here’s how some of the biggest votes went down:

Final Twelve — Ozzy — 6-5-1

Final Ten — Zeke — 5-3-2

Final Eight — Andrea — (4+2)-2 — Brad and Troyzan happened to vote for Andrea, but their votes were irrelevant to the main alliance.

Final Seven — Michaela — 3-2-2 or 3-2-1-1 — Depending how Tai would have voted. (NB, this vote revolved around the vote-steal. It’s impossible to predict what would have happened without it.)

Final Six — (Sarah) — 3-2-1

Fully half of the post-merge was carried by a plurality rather than a majority.  While we can’t give Cirie all the credit, that would have been a more appropriate celebration of the original 3-2-1 instigator than her fourth straight freak exit. It’s certainly a far better testament to the caliber of this cast and to the theme.

Instead, what we’re talking about is production’s impact on the game: the advantages they put in and the rules revolving around those advantages. The focus is on the innovations of the people behind the scenes.

We don’t get to see how Cirie’s crazy move plays out, because we need to understand the precise wording of an anonymous writer. We don’t get to see the deal made at the final six reward, where Sarah literally took Brad’s wedding ring as collateral, because five immunities need to be established for the upcoming Tribal Council. We don’t get to understand why Brad voted for Aubry, or see Sarah’s reaction to her blindside, because Jeff has to explain game mechanics instead of reading votes.

While the producers may have nudged along the evolution of strategy here and there, Survivor has always been defined by its players. When the ongoing game gets overtaken by production’s rules, the cast becomes irrelevant. For a returning player season, this can most kindly be described as ‘ironic’.

I don’t know whether production has any plans for preventing future occurrences of Advantage-geddon. I do know that after this season, I am out on advantages. To answer the age old RHAP question: The juice is not worth the squeeze.

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