Survivor

Baker’s Dozen: Handicapping All the Survivor Conflicts

If you were to gather a number of intelligent, informed, and opinionated Survivor fans into one room and you wanted to get them arguing with one another, there are a number of game-related phrases you could say to trigger mouth-foaming mayhem: “Tribe swaps!”… “Hidden Immunity Idols!”… “Redemption Island!” If you wanted to spur a more thoughtful debate, however, you might simply say, “Final 7.”

Anyone reading this column most likely already knows why: F7 is arguably the most critical (and often, in the Final 3 era, the last) Flip Zone, the point in the 39-day journey that possesses the most potential for game-changing upheaval. Why is it so critical? Fewer moving parts than F9, and more parts willing to move than F5: putting together an alliance of four at F7, however temporary that alliance may be, is easier, strategically speaking, than assembling the five-person majority needed at F9, and much less endgame-defining than the three-player agreements made at F5. Historically speaking, if anything crazy is going to happen post-merge, it’s going to take place at F7.

As a result of this Survivor foundational truth, when I think about the F7 of any given season, I usually take a long, hard look at the alliances and sub-alliances to see if I can figure out who will remain loyal and who is sharpening the backstabbing machete. But in Survivor: Philippines – a season defined by its unpredictability – I find myself focusing less on the tenuous alliances currently in play and more on the conflicts, both exploding (hello, Abi!) and simmering (hey there, Penner!), which will, when all is said and done, give us our endgame.

So what are those conflicts? Who is involved? And how will they shape the game?

Read on, fellow SuperFan, read on.

1) Conflict #1: Skupin vs. Penner

Any chance these two had of going to the Final Tribal Council together ended when Penner inexplicably (although I’ll do my best to explain it) turned down Mike and Lisa’s Final 3 offer. I have to wonder, though, if the proposal was truly sincere, at least so far as Skupin was concerned: given that both Penner and Skupin would be telling the same story to the jury – “returning player who defied the odds” – and that the jury members, both those already on it and those who would end up there, have a far more favorable impression of Penner than Skupin, there’s no way Mike should want to be sitting next to Jonathan at the FTC. If anything, Mike should have been looking at a F3 deal as a way to focus Penner’s aggressive strategizing on the Malcolm/Denise problem; knowing that Penner is going to scheme and plot as long as he’s in the game, it is wise to have him as an ally rather than as an enemy, and if you can get him to take down threats like Malcolm and Denise before you slit his throat, all the better. If I had to wager, I’d bet that this is precisely what Mike was trying to do – and the fact that Penner didn’t accept the offer means that Skupin has to believe that Penner has a plan in place that doesn’t include the Mike/Lisa tandem. Bottom line: Skupin has to take out Penner before Penner takes out him.

So, if Mike was trying to neutralize the Penner threat (with stage two of the plan being a Penner blindside at F5), what the heck was Penner doing turning him down? Why would he violate one of the most sacred Survivor commandments of all (Thou shalt accept all Final 3 deals)? Surely a strategic player like Penner has a plan in place that justifies his decision?

Of course he does. Here’s what I think was going through Penner’s mind: For weak players, F7 is a goldmine; dig in the right spot and you could be rich. For strong players, however, F7 is a landmine; make one misstep and your whole game is blown to smithereens. Penner knows that he’s building a strong case to make to the jury (I think he’s locked up three of the four current votes, should he get to the end, with only RC as a question mark); more importantly, he knows that the other players view him as a threat.

So what does Penner need to do, particularly in the F7 Flip Zone? Make sure they take out someone, anyone, other than him (the “Suddenly Sandra” strategy). That’s why Penner’s working so hard to keep everyone focused on Abi: once she’s gone, Penner is confident he can use the threat of a tie at F6 to make sure he gets to the Final 5… at which point, he can convince one of the tandems that he makes the perfect swing vote.

Of course, Penner is committing a cardinal sin by thinking this way: He’s looking too far ahead (Thou shalt plan for tomorrow but live for today). Now that Pete is gone, what Penner needs to do is lock in a majority alliance (bringing in Carter as the fourth), take out Malcolm or Denise (hopefully flushing out the Matsing HII in the process), and then shape a F5 that includes both Carter and Abi. Instead, he will soon discover that he’s on the outside of a four-person alliance; worse yet, he’s twisting in the wind with two players who are ideal goats. By refusing to join forces with Mike and Lisa, Penner has virtually guaranteed that his head will be on the chopping block at every Tribal Council until he joins the other jury members at Ponderosa.

Skupin, meanwhile, has taken matters into his own hands, forming a Final Four alliance with Lisa, Denise, and Malcolm, while knowing that he needs to be worried about Malcolm and his idol and admitting that Final 4 deals made at this point rarely have a happy ending. Mike clearly realized that flipping on his alliance at this point – despite how tempting it would have been to blindside Malcolm – would have killed his chances to win the game: His closest ally, Lisa, would have felt betrayed (since it took a lot for her to “break up” with Abi and Pete); he would have been aligning himself with Abi and Pete, two players who would turn on him in a heartbeat; and, with one ill-advised move, he would have lost any hope of swaying the jury at the FTC.

So what am I trying to say in that epic ramble? That in one episode, Skupin and Penner have transformed from allies into adversaries. And that Mike has positioned himself well for the endgame, while Penner will have to scramble until he succumbs.

Winner: Skupin

2) Conflict #2: Mike vs. Lisa

At the heart of every Alliance of Two can be found a contradictory truth: On the one hand, being a part of a tandem brings with it comfort and security, social and psychological necessities in short supply on Survivor. Ideally, the two players trust one another and want to get to the end together; if I can’t win the game, thinks a castaway in an Alliance of Two, at least this person I care about, this person who helped me get to the end, will emerge from this experience a million dollars richer. On the other hand, being part of a tandem brings with it fear and insecurity; why am I shackling myself to this person, says this very same castaway, when only one person can win the game?

And so begins the social and strategic tug o’ war: the rope which both players in an Alliance of Two willingly used to bind themselves together is pulled taut as they try to distance themselves from one another. To be seen as indistinguishable is to risk losing the game for social, rather than strategic, reasons; to pull too hard, however, is to risk the relationship holding up all the way to the FTC. As a result, there’s a give and take as the two players try to shape their stories (as I wrote about at length in last week’s column).

So, given that there’s conflict at the heart of every tandem, who is winning the battle between Mike and Lisa?

For me, it all comes down to two key confessionals early in the episode: Mike and Lisa each talk about controlling their destinies. Whereas Mike has actually done so – choosing to flip and take out Jeff and opting not to betray his newly-minted F4 alliance – Lisa’s position in the game is now entirely dependent on the moves Mike is making. In this tug o’ war, Lisa had the early lead, but over the last few episodes, Mike has dug in his heels, and now the momentum is clearly on his side. He has to be careful not to topple Lisa before they get to the endgame, however; the best, and only, time to drag her into the mud-pit is during the FTC.

Winner: Skupin

3) Conflict #3: Mike & Lisa vs. Malcolm & Denise

In a confessional, Malcolm explained that, with this Final 4 deal in place, he can coast.

Mike, on the other hand, told us that he wasn’t comfortable aligning with Malcolm.

Is there any doubt which alliance will turn on the other?

Winner: Mike & Lisa

4) Conflict #4: Denise vs. Abi

In one of the most ill-advised Tribal Council moments of the season, Denise accomplished what I thought was impossible: against all odds, she single-handedly generated some sympathy for the devil (aka Abi).

Yes, all Denise did was to say what everyone – the other players, the jury, the viewers – was thinking. Yes, Abi brought this upon herself. And yes, it must have been frustrating that Abi wouldn’t let Denise finish what she wanted to say.

But at some point, Denise should have known – should have FELT – that there was nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, by pressing her point. Heck, both Penner and Artis were shown wiping away tears as Abi was under assault. Tears! For Abi! Inconceivable!

By the time Tribal Council was over, it was abundantly clear that the players both in and outside the game felt that Abi was being abused and that Denise was responsible for much of that abuse; more importantly, when endgames are informed by and infused with emotion, these are the moments that juries remember.

Winner: Abi, in a shocking upset

5) Conflict #5: Abi vs. Everyone Else

Denise is right about one thing, though: Abi’s behavior has nothing whatsoever to do with cultural differences.

There are plenty of ways to describe Abi – and the folks on Twitter got pretty creative about it while Abi was trending – but rather than pile on, I’ll just say this: Her social intelligence is staggeringly low.

Of course, the psychologists who screen potential cast members knew this about Abi going into the season… in fact, I’d go so far as to say they were counting on her lack of social awareness, delusional self-perception, and entrenched sense of entitlement to generate discord and drama.

Anyway, where does Abi go from here? Is she doomed to a seventh place finish? Or will someone use her as a float vote to further their own ends?

The reasons to keep her: Abi no longer has an idol, she isn’t a challenge threat, and there’s no way that she can win the game.

The reasons to cut her: She’s unpredictable, she’s vindictive, and there’s no way that she can win the game.

Wait, what? Baker, you screwed up: you listed Abi’s inability to win as a reason to keep her AND to cut her. You can’t have it both ways.

Ah, but yes I can: there is truth in contradiction and contradiction in truth. Here’s what I mean: It’s worth keeping Abi around because you never have to worry that she’s going to sneak into the FTC and pull off an improbable win (as opposed to Carter, who, some would argue, could Fabio his way to the title; I’m not one of those people, but I’ve heard they exist). But the longer Abi sticks around, the more she’ll emerge as a point of contention: the various tandems will swiftly suspect one another of keeping Abi around as an F3 goat, which shatters the fiction that they’re helping each other to get to the end (even if they know they’re going to turn on each other eventually; one can’t get four players to the final three, after all).

So here’s what I think is going to happen: The elimination of Abi will be put off for a tribal or two while other threats are neutralized (Malcolm and his idol chief among them), but she’ll fall short of the F3 when everyone else agrees that she simply has to go.

Winner: Abi, because Everyone Else will have to live with her a lot longer than they want to, and some of them will have to come to terms with the fact that Abi outlasted them.

6) Conflict #6: Pete vs. Malcolm

On the reward challenge spa day, Malcolm said to Pete, “No strategy discussions, right?”

Pete’s reply? “Hell, no! I’m going to spend this entire afternoon convincing you and Carter that you’re better off with me and Abi than with two returnees and an untrustworthy flipper. You bring in Denise, we take out Penner, Skupin, and Lisa, then you and I take either Abi or Carter to the end with us as a goat. You and I battle it out at the Final Tribal Council, dude!”

Hahahahahahahaha! Just kidding! He just said, “Yup, you’re right, Malcolm. No strategy at all.”

Winner: Malcolm

7) Conflict #7: Pete vs. Himself

If you enjoy watching a player steadfastly refuse to accept any blame for his own demise, you simply HAVE to check out Pete’s Ponderosa videos. The most telling revelation: Pete thinks the other players are idiots for voting him out instead of blindsiding Malcolm. Has he forgotten that he could have eliminated Malcolm at F10? And that if he had opted to unite, rather than to fracture, Tandang both pre- and post-merge, he could have Pagonged his way to the Final 6? For a guy who seems to really understand Survivor, Pete REALLY doesn’t understand Survivor.

Winner: We the People

8) Conflict #8: Fairness vs. The Producers

When last week’s podcast guest Troy “Troyzan” Robertson had his back against the wall in Survivor: One World, a reward challenge was replaced with the long-absent Survivor auction. The next thing you know, Troyzan’s buying an advantage for the upcoming immunity challenge, and, for another episode at least, the Troyzan vs. Kim conflict could continue. When Troyzan – and, more pressingly, the season – needed a lifeline, one magically appeared; given the convenient timing, it was impossible not to suspect producer manipulation.

Here’s the thing: The producers do NOT want Abi to be voted out this week. Obviously, the post-merge game of Survivor: Philippines isn’t as strategically anemic as One World’s (quite the opposite), but villains, even ones as inept as Abi, are good for ratings. So what’s a Survivor producer to do?

• Have an auction.
• Put an immunity challenge advantage up for bid.
• See if the other players are willing to sacrifice creature comforts to keep Abi from buying it.

If there isn’t an auction this week – one during which Probst offers temptations like videos from home to get castaways to part with their cash before the IC advantage – I’ll be stunned. Will Abi be smart enough to buy it? And will it be enough of an edge to compensate for her challenge ineptitude? No way to know (at least until Wednesday), but I’m pretty sure the producers are going to do whatever they can to keep Abi in the game as long as possible.

Winner: The producers (and, by the transitive property of game manipulation, Abi)

9) Conflict #9: Carter vs. the Immunity Necklace

I’m pretty sure that the Immunity Necklace could beat Carter in a trivia challenge or any competition involving a puzzle, but that’s not what I’m getting at here.

My point is this: If Carter would just STOP WINNING CHALLENGES, everyone would ignore him. He could be INVISIBLE until the endgame. He could even find himself at the FTC attempting to articulate his arguments to the jury if he could just leave well enough alone.

So, what does Carter do? He beats out Skupin in a physically demanding challenge, earning the Immunity Necklace for a second time! Carter is now a genuine source of concern for the other castaways. Could he be another Fabio? Could he go on an individual immunity run and disrupt some carefully crafted plans in the process? Could he – heaven forefend! – actually WIN?

Carter could have been on NO ONE’S radar; instead he’s on EVERYONE’S.

Which means he’s gotta go.

Winner: The Immunity Necklace.

10) Conflict #10: The Jury vs. The Jury

So far, Ponderosa has been a little light on conflict: RC walked away from Artis when he arrived at the compound, and there was some tension between RC and Pete when she confronted him about his decision to blindside her. But, for the most part, the players are simply avoiding one another. As more players get added to the mix, however, that will no longer be possible…

For those who love strategy, what happens if/when Penner arrives and starts shaping the debate over who should win?

For those who love sexual tension, what happens if/when Malcolm shows up and his bartender persona rises to the fore?

And all of that pales in comparison to…

For those who love soap opera histrionics, what happens if/when Abi the Brazilian Battering Ram joins the party?

(It HAS to be good, doesn’t it?)

Anyway, like it or not, what goes down at Ponderosa is going to play an important role in deciding who wins the game… so ignore it at your own peril.

Winner: Hopefully, all of us who watch the Ponderosa videos.

11) Fortunes Falling: Penner, for doing the unthinkable and unforgivable and turning down a Final 3 deal when only eight players remain in the game (a deal that was offered by the two players getting the best post-merge edits, no less, not that Penner could have known this). We all have decisions in our lives which haunt us, ghosts which knock at our windows when we are alone in the darkness, moments we reluctantly relive but want so desperately to rewrite. Something tells me that the specter that scratches at Penner’s window – from now until the end of days – is made of this memory, this decision, this choice.

12) Fortunes Rising: Skupin. He’s in a four-member majority alliance at F7, and yet he knows that he needs to betray that alliance (specifically, Malcolm) if he’s going to win the game. He’s made one big move, and, despite resisting the temptation to pull off another one this week, we’ve been led to believe that he’s not done dancing. And over the last two episodes, he’s emerged as our endgame narrator. If last week’s episode restored my faith in Skupin, this week’s has elevated me from believer to zealot. Given who remains in the game, Mike is going to face some stiff competition at the FTC (I’m fully convinced that he’s going to get there), and I’m not sure at this point how he’s going to convince the jury that he deserves to win. But he has to be considered a contender, doesn’t he?

13) Prediction Time: Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Abi wins the Immunity Necklace (after buying an advantage at the auction). In that scenario, who is punted to Ponderosa? Assuming the Mike/Lisa/Malcolm/Denise alliance holds up, there are two obvious targets: Carter and Penner. There’s an “uncontrollable variable” argument to be made to boot each of them: Carter is the challenge beast who could throw a wrench into endgame plans, and Penner is the rogue strategist who could flip the game, particularly at F5. I’m guessing that Carter will be the target – the odds of Penner winning individual immunity at F6 are far longer than Carter’s – but, given the teaser after last week’s episode which showed Penner confronting Lisa, things will not go smoothly. Perhaps Penner teams up with Carter and Abi, and tries to sway a fourth vote? If he can pull that off, would he go after Malcolm (and his idol)? That would certainly make things interesting…

So here’s what I predict: Penner creates enough paranoia that Malcolm plays his idol… and Carter is the one who pays the price.

That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter (@GetOnSurvivor) to keep the conversation going!

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