When the news leaked that Nick had been cast on season 32 of Survivor, my first thought (after double and spit-taking) was: “I hope he had fun.”
An early mantra in Nick’s Cagayan blogs was “When contestants have fun playing the game, we have fun watching them play it.” Having fun was also Nick’s MO as a blogger, and for the Cagayan players, making a bad move was a lesser crime than failing to have a sense of humor.
But it wasn’t long after the cast leaks that the rumors of medevacs started, and when the promo for Kaoh Rong was finally revealed, the hype was on “The Most Brutal Season Ever.” Devastation and misery is about as un-Nick as you can get, and I grew concerned that this was the wrong season for him. Even if he could avoid injury and keep up his own spirits, how much fun could he have had if everybody else was depressed?
Fortunately, I was wrong. (Saoh Rong, even.) Nobody gave the cast the Doom and Gloom memo, and Nick was far from the only player who was determined to have fun no matter what. As Jason so succinctly told Jeff at the first individual immunity challenge, they “embraced the suck.” Perhaps we got lucky with the boot order, in that so many of the optimists made it this far while some of the more serious personality conflicts were broken up early, but on the whole, Survivor put up the right cast for this season.
Every episode, each player has a smile on their face and instead of wondering why they signed up for this, they are relishing every moment out there. Nobody’s talked about quitting. Nobody’s rolled over and let themselves be picked off. Even the low moments are defined by a determination to keep going and reach the next high. Witness this week’s secret scene, where the minority joins the majority in a bowling match. Or Scot defusing the tension of Neal’s evacuation with his own: “Previously, on Survivor!” There’s laughter, there’s joking, there’s sheer joy in each beat of the game and show that they love.
It manifests differently, of course. We always expected to love Debbie and Tai, but who knew that young Julia would stay perky and excited through the paranoia and deprivation? Then there’s Jason who is much more light-hearted than I expected from those early days in Brawn’s pressure cooker. Listening to his story about his autistic daughter, it’s clear that this positive outlook is an important part of who Jason is, far beyond what it means to us as viewers.
Cheeriness and a shared sense of humor is also essential to many players’ social games. While Scot can be quick to express his frustrations when somebody doesn’t play the way he does, he’s just as quick to form strong bonds with tribemates. Jason, Tai, Julia, and Nick all took to Scot within a matter of days if not hours, and that’s why he’s been in the majority up until this week. Meanwhile, Debbie’s charm might be wearing thin on many, but the friendship she formed with Cydney was enough to save Debbie’s torch when it counted.Aubry finds her happy knife… Happy place. I mean happy place. Stop staring.[/caption]
Not all the players are bearing up so well. Aubry broke down in tears this week over something as theoretically trivial as a reward challenge. Pre-season, Aubry was the manic pixie dream girl, prancing over rocks and giggling at the camera. In the game, she’s a stone-cold strategist who’s frustrated with everybody. Somehow that’s even better, as she treats us to deadpan confessionals with the greatest nerdy references since Kass talked about zombies, coconut fairies, and skeletal banshees. Aubry is that rare player who can be fun even when she’s miserable.
Perhaps this is the secret to her social game over other players’ occasionally inappropriate good humor. In the six days that they spent on a tribe together, Nick and Aubry formed a pairing that theoretically should never have happened. Nick had decided against working with the Brains before they even merged, and he and Aubry never allied, yet they had these very candid strategic talks. In their last one, Nick noted mid-sentence, “I know I’m acting arrogant,” breaking his own fourth wall. He forgot to be the person she wanted him to be, unlike his conversations with Debbie, or Jason, or even Michele. Aubry got his guard down.
As I said last time, Aubry has yet to prove herself as a player. She’s too stressed about making the right move to actually make it effectively, but her natural social skills are superb. I would love to see an alternate universe where it was Nick and Aubry or Neal and Aubry in that swing vote position. Her ingenuous charm and perception teamed up with a more confident player could have been a devastating combination. With the inevitable fractures moving forward, the Brains might well find themselves in the role of swing, but it’s hard to see who can complement Aubry so well now. Perhaps Debbie, though she has become something of a loose cannon lately.
The answer, of course, is that Aubry needs to find her own confidence. She has all the skills she needs to take this game down. Can she bring them to the table when she needs to? I hope so… Now that Nick’s gone, I can say with a clear conscience that there is nobody I’d rather see as our winner.
Lies and Allies
What Aubry has already proven is that sometimes an extra day or two is all you need for things to turn around. She was mere hours from potentially being voted off when Neal was pulled from the game. Before the next Tribal Council, the game did not so much shift as twitch, but it was enough to send the rolling boulder of doom elsewhere—in this case, right over Nick’s newly lit torch.
It was a weird couple of episodes for Nick who, in theory, was doing so much right. His observations in confessional were spot on—up until the point that a women’s alliance did spring into existence. And as overconfident as he was, he was hardly resting on his laurels, continuing to develop his alliance with Jason and Scot, reinforce his old Beauty ties with Julia, Michele, and Tai, and, of course, forge a new relationship with Aubry. Nick was preparing his numbers for when he needed to change up the game.
Had Neal not been evacuated, Nick should have gone deeper. Even if Aubry had been the first juror, Neal would have almost certainly remained the target. The snake in ice cream pants had the reputation of a game threat, he was good at challenges and frankly terrifying at puzzles. Neal would have been a much more cohesive threat to keep Cydney, Michele, and Julia in line, at least until they could get him out.
As it was, Neal’s departure threw the game open just enough to get Cydney looking around, especially with her friend Debbie on the chopping block. Nick ended up being targeted almost at random, as Cydney sought to teach Jason a lesson.
Which isn’t to say that Nick bears no responsibility for his boot. Like his fellow Beauty, Anna, luck of the draw was the catalyst in his departure, but it seems likely his game was doomed anyway, for one simple reason: Nobody was willing to save him. The reasons for taking Nick out were so nebulous; why not take out the head of the snake, Scot or Jason, rather than the guy brown-nosing them? Yes, Nick was probably the biggest challenge threat, but Michele, Julia, and Aubry all had a potential game advantage in keeping him and breaking up that tight Brawn group—especially Michele who Nick had done his best to protect while on Chan Loh.
In his interview with Josh Wigler, Nick explains that Michele and Julia did suggest Jason instead and Aubry considered it (this was the source of Tai’s stray vote). Yet, ultimately, when Debbie insisted it should be Nick, the others gave way. They needn’t have done; Debbie needed their vote, not the other way around, but they didn’t make that push to save him.
Nick had those relationships, but they weren’t strong enough. Perhaps he was too guarded, too much of a gamebot—Scot and Jason had those humanizing conversations about their families. What has Nick shared? All the way back in his pre-season video, he talked about not wanting to share any emotional depth with his castmates. Post-game, at Ponderosa, he reflects that this unwillingness to make himself vulnerable could have hurt him in the game.
Or maybe (as he also theorizes in Ponderosa) this has its roots in his early mistakes on Beauty, when Julia and Michele were simply waiting to vote him out. They had written him out of their gameplan once, it’s unlikely that they had put him back in for their final three, just because Anna was gone. Nick did say at the merge that he had learned to sit back more and slow down, but the damage was already done with the Beauty girls, while it made far more sense for Aubry to sacrifice Nick in order to keep Debbie and Joe.
As Debbie might put it, Nick was putting together a team for offense, but he didn’t have a reliable defense. Cydney and Debbie ruthlessly exploited that weakness.
Making a Move
So Cydney, who said in her pre-season video, that she wanted to work with guys, was the first person this season to actually use a women’s alliance (plus Joe and Tai—wait, is this mostly an editing trick?) in order to make her move.
PSA: I am not going to be discussing women’s alliances in this blog. It’s a topic that I’ve covered frequently before and all the points I made for Cagayan and San Juan Del Sur are still relevant. I can guarantee that I will be looking back at how women’s alliances were used in this season, but I want to let Kaoh Rong play out rather than speculate.
Similarly, I won’t be getting too much into the dynamics of the tribe, because it’s not clear if Cydney (or anybody else) sees this as a permanent alliance or a one-off voting bloc. (Yes, I know voting blocs weren’t invented yet, but she could be taking after Tony!)
While we had seen no bad blood between Cydney and Nick until this episode, Nick was more obviously a threat to Cydney’s game than a help. Scot and Jason were sharing information with him that they hadn’t with her, and their all-male threesome was a perceived threat to her own F3 plans. (Not to mention Nick’s intention to blindside her at F9, as stated to Rob.) Tai was conceivably just as problematic as Nick, but Tai had immunity. By rallying the women to take Nick out, Cydney gave herself two paths to the end: one with the women and one with Brawn.
The Brawn group has two idols to help protect her to the final four, and while they may not be happy about her move, the numbers disadvantage means they have little choice but to take her and the Beauties back. If she goes with the women, they have to navigate the idols, but they should have the numbers to split votes. Either way, I suspect her optimum plan is to go to the end with Julia and Michele, claiming the leadership credit for herself—she risks it being an F2 instead of an F3, but she can gamble on winning that final immunity.
Of course, Julia and Michele also saw this as their chance to make a move, which seems much less logical. Nick is still one of their numbers. Julia, at least, has a bond with Scot, but it’s a big leap for those two to take out Nick, who wanted to prioritize Beauty, instead of Jason and Scot, who are arguably the tightest bromance in the game.
Of course, it wouldn’t make sense for Julia and Michele to stay loyal to Nick long term either. Nick would have faithfully gone to F3 with them, but he would have done so with the full intention of winning. If the two girls had meekly followed his gameplan, what would their argument have been for the jury? It’s possible that Nick’s social game might have failed the jury as well, but in this era of Survivor no player should be relying on that.
Of course, as it stands, if Cydney takes them to the end, they’re going to have a hard time explaining why it was their move and not hers—the advantages to her are much more demonstrable. Again, Jason and Scot might be too bitter to vote for Cydney and campaign against her with the rest of the jury, but again, no player should count on that.
Regardless, what Julia and Michele have going for them right now is that they have yet to become jury threats. They are an attractive voting bloc as a pair, and they brought Tai in as an extra number—successfully weaning him away from Scot! The Beauty girls could do Cydney’s move here, then support a strike to take her out, before doubling back against another player’s target, until they’re the only players left who have always been in the majority. It’s a dicey strategy (and not one that worked for Lisa and Skupin), but with the right social game, one of them could pull it off.
Ultimately, the move itself is the temptation. Let’s pull off a blindside, let’s do the unexpected, let’s get people talking. It doesn’t have to be completely logical; it doesn’t need to set up a perfect path to the end. It just needs to be done. This is modern Survivor and if you’re not pulling some stunt, you’re doing it wrong.
For the record, I am well aware that the above paragraph makes no sense. Welcome to the post-Vlachos era. Perhaps these days, it is more important to realize that the unexpected and ill-considered is practically inevitable. If you’re not going to make the crazy move, somebody else will. That leaves you with two choices: strike before anybody else can (Tony), or put up some solid defenses and ride it out until you can make sure of your own path to the end (Natalie).
That’s a daunting task for any player going into Survivor these days, but it’s fantastic for us viewers, and that’s where these good casting choices come into it. Even if we disagree with their decisions, even if they cost the players we were rooting for, we enjoy watching people enjoy themselves. There’s fun to be found in every player in Kaoh Rong, and while that brought Nick’s game to an untimely end, he smiled his way through all twenty-two days of it.
At Ponderosa, Nick stated that his only goal out there was to win. However, if you asked him what we should expect of him, he would probably say to have fun watching. He might not have succeeded in his goal, but he kept to his own personal standards: he had fun, and so did we. Keep it up, Kaoh Rong.