Moments like the merge make me marvel at the complexity of Survivor; the individual immunity half of the game is related to, but in many ways far removed from, the early-season tribal battle. This is especially true when we’ve got multiple factions, none of which are as strong as they think (hello, Pete, Abi, and Artis) or as weak as they might appear (Jeff and Carter, or the now-solo Skupin). Those who will succeed from this point on are those who understand the game has changed and are able to adapt… but even that is oversimplifying things. Forget about the game going through one massive tectonic shift at the merge; while that upheaval is undeniable, the aftershocks are what will shape, and reshape, the tribal dynamics (and voting blocks) as we make our way to the final three. With so many moving parts – has Survivor ever seen four alliances with only ten players left? – the game will change from vote to vote, day to day, conversation to conversation. This season, at this specific moment in time, is the very opposite of a Pagonging; if you think for a moment that the rest of Survivor: Philippines is going to be anything other than unpredictable mayhem, you’re either delusional or a hell of a lot smarter than I am, or both. This is the sort of season that reminds us just how awesome this show can be; there are so many layers to this particular onion that it makes me want to weep with joy.
Ah, but you didn’t click on the link to this article to hear me wax poetic; you want me to peel the damn onion. And so I shall. Before diving in, however, we would do well to remember that one man’s idiocy is another man’s strategy; what I mean by that is that all of the players left in the game (with the exception of one or two) believe they are making smart, self-interested decisions. Rather than mock what viewers might see as a catastrophic lack of strategic acumen, then, I’m going to give all of the castaways the benefit of the doubt and attempt to see the game as they do – as people who are immersed in it, without the benefit of an omniscient televised viewpoint (as heavily edited as it might be). To do so is an exercise in empathy, a fundamentally human ability which, as I will argue with any who deny, refute or dismiss the idea, is the beating heart of Survivor.
1) I shall begin, as I so often do, by donning the cape of Captain Obvious: When you have a merge this chaotic, there is simply no way to capture the complexity of the social politics in 42 minutes of air time. The editors will, by necessity, leave huge gaps in the story; much of what we need to truly understand what transpired is left on the cutting room floor. This forces viewers to make inferences, assumptions, and educated guesses as to what happened during the other 71 hours and 18 minutes of game time – and what it all means.
So, because of the extensive narrative compression, we have a deceptively simple yet elaborately complicated question to answer: What REALLY happened at Tribal Council?
Just thinking about it makes my brain cramp, but I’m going to try to answer that question as comprehensively as I can.
Here’s a quick breakdown of who targeted whom (which will hopefully prove useful in the onion peeling):
Voted for Jonathan: Abi, Lisa, Malcolm, Denise, Skupin
Voted for RC: Pete, Artis, Carter, Jeff
Voted for Pete: RC, Penner
With that mess in mind, let the exercise in empathy begin:
** A plan was proposed for the Kalabaw Four (Jeff, Carter, Penner, Denise) to pull in Malcolm (Denise’s job), as well as the ostracized Tandang tandem of Skupin and RC (I’m guessing that was Penner’s responsibility). Their target: Pete.
** Skupin no doubt loved this plan: He would take out a player he did not respect, he could team up with a fellow returnee, and he could keep his endgame options open.
** RC should have loved this plan – and ultimately attempted to execute it – but she was ambivalent, probably because the history of merge flippers is a checkered one at best (hello, Cochran).
** Jeff HAD to feel conflicted about the plan: Yes, he would be in a power position as the Kalabaw alpha male, but he would be forced to consider the two returnees – the players he has told anyone who will listen that MUST NOT win the game – as allies rather than enemies.
** Carter would have stared blankly out at the ocean until someone told him what to do.
** And finally, this would have been a tempting plan for Penner and Denise, because it would have targeted the alliance with the most members (4). If you let a tight alliance that big last much longer, opportunities to flip the game become ever more scarce and difficult; allow the Tandang Four to get to the Final Seven (or even eight, given everyone’s abject fear of purple rocks) and a Pagonging is inevitable.
So why did the plan fall apart? If Penner and his Facebook feed are to be believed, Denise is to blame. I’m sure everyone expected that Denise and Malcolm would reunite (no one endures what happened at Matsing without developing a lasting, perhaps unbreakable, bond); what did come as a surprise is that she wasn’t able to convince Malcolm to abandon his new Tandang teammates.
And therein lies a new layer of the onion.
2) Let’s take a look at why Malcolm zigged when it seemed like he might zag:
** Malcolm’s a smart guy; he would see the value in gutting the Tandang Four. He’s got a lot of reasons to stick with them, however…
** Lisa knows about his hidden immunity idol. If Malcolm flips over to Kalabaw, Lisa will tell everyone he has it, and suddenly he’s an individual immunity threat in possession of an idol who just proved he cannot be trusted. With one move, he’d go from insulated to targeted.
** He knows that Pete and Abi control the Tandang idol, while they have no idea he has Matsing’s. Getting ahead of myself for a moment, the plan to blindside Penner would flush the third idol, leaving Malcolm as the only one who knows the whereabouts of all three idols. And information, as we all know, is power.
** With the Tandang Four, Malcolm gets to play the role of Iago (the evil adviser in Shakespeare’s “Othello”; not the animated parrot from Disney’s “Aladdin”): He can manipulate Pete, who will do all of the dirty work and get all of the blame, while Malcolm can reap the rewards and still seem like a sympathetic guy.
** No doubt Malcolm believes he can go on an individual immunity run if he’s up against players like Artis, Abi, and Lisa. He’d certainly stand a much better chance against that group – even with Pete as a physical threat – than against an alliance which contains Carter, Jeff, Skupin and RC.
** And finally, sticking with Tandang gives Malcolm more beatable Final Three opponents; doesn’t everyone at this point want to be sitting next to Abi and/or Artis at the Final Tribal Council?
So when Denise approached Malcolm about flipping to Kalabaw, Malcolm – being the bright and calculating strategist that he’s proven himself to be since the start of the game – looked at the possibilities and, as gently as he could, told Denise, “Hell no.”
Given that Denise’s chances would be pretty much the same with either alliance – she’s pretty far down the hit list of both tribes, even though she’s a massive F3 threat – she was going to go with Malcolm, because of the bond, because of the idol, and because there was no compelling reason not to.
3) And this, my friends, is why Kalabaw needed to vote out Denise, not Katie, at their last Tribal Council. Keeping Denise was the high risk/high reward choice: if she could flip Malcolm, the alliance would be the stronger for it; if she couldn’t, however – which, as we now know, is precisely what happened – Kalabaw was doomed. Katie, on the other hand, would have played the role of loyal soldier; an alliance of Jeff, Carter, Penner, Katie, Skupin and RC could have Pagonged Tandang. Admittedly, this would have required Kalabaw to believe they could recruit two members of Tandang, but wasn’t it readily apparent at the recent reward and immunity challenges that Skupin and RC were prime candidates for a flip?
4) Sorry for that tangent: Time to get back to the Tribal Council vote, specifically the post-Denise fallout.
Once it was clear that Denise was reuniting with Malcolm and teaming up with Tandang, everyone rightfully abandoned the sinking ship and looked for safe harbors elsewhere:
** Jeff was an easy Tandang recruit: The plan to blindside Penner, or at the very least isolate him and flush his idol, was the ideal bait. While I understand all of the heat that Jeff has taken for making this decision, it feels like he made it because he HAD to.
** Let me explain: Sure, Jeff wanted Penner gone (and that singular focus will likely lead to his demise), but give him some credit: the man does understand the game. He knew that having the strongest sub-alliance (Jeff, Carter, Penner) with two tandems (Malcolm and Denise; Skupin and RC) offered more endgame opportunities for him than being in a tandem (Jeff and Carter) beholden to a majority alliance (Pete, Abi, Artis, and Lisa). But once Denise failed to recruit Malcolm (and, making matters worse, flipping to the other side), Jeff had to make the best of a bad situation.
** Meanwhile, Carter stared blankly at the trees in the jungle until Kent told him what to do.
** With Jeff and Carter on board, Pete – with more than a little help from Malcolm – created a temporary 8 person alliance-of-convenience. No matter how they split their vote, they were going to control who was going home (more on that math in a moment).
On the outside looking in was Jeff’s object of obsession and derision, Penner, along with the perpetual outcasts, Skupin and RC. Let’s now take a look at each of them individually to see if we can get a better understanding of what they did at Tribal Council, why they did it, and what it all means.
5) Here’s a list of things that Penner HAD to know going into Tribal Council: That Denise had joined Malcolm and Tandang, which meant he was at best outnumbered 6-5… that Jeff and Carter had not been entirely loyal to him at the last TC (not warning him about Katie’s vote)… and that Jeff and Carter are having conversations without him, won’t make eye contact with him, and are giving him half-hearted assurances. Bottom line: Penner can’t trust them.
So who does Penner have left that he can talk to? Skupin. (Lisa, the only other real alternative, can easily be ruled out, since she’s not going to betray her alliance.) And as it so happens, Skupin was the perfect person for Penner to turn to…
6) … because Skupin knew about the plan to split the votes and blindside Penner (or take out RC and flush the idol). I would bet that Penner was already seriously considering playing the idol – he had to figure he was a prime target now that all of his allies had joined up with Tandang – but one conversation with Skupin would have set it in stone: Once Penner knew that Pete, Jeff, and Malcolm were attempting to engineer his blindside, he was going to buy himself three more days with the Kalabaw hidden immunity idol.
(Am I certain that this conversation took place? No. But it would help explain how everything played out.)
I have to believe that during this hypothetical conversation, Skupin and Penner – who shared a fist pump at the wicker ball reward challenge, and who hugged when they first arrived on the merge beach – confirmed that they needed to work with one another, or soon they’d both be gone.
But that bleak truth put Skupin in a pretty rough spot: if Penner was going to play the idol, that meant that RC was going home. Could Skupin rally more votes against Pete? Extremely doubtful: a complex operation was in place, and getting anyone to deviate from the plan would have been almost impossible, especially given Skupin’s limited social capital.
So Skupin was left with one question: What to do with his vote. Mike’s taken a lot of heat for voting for Penner instead of Pete – why not create a tie between Pete and RC and see what happened with a revote? That question is disingenuous, though, because the Tandang votes were predictable: Everyone who voted for Penner – Abi, Lisa, Malcolm, and Denise – would have switched their votes to RC, and the end result would have been the same.
Let me amend that: The end result would have been the same FOR RC. For Skupin, however, it’s a bit different. First, if Pete decided to gun for the players who had had the audacity to vote for him, his target, first and foremost, would have been Penner; if Skupin’s vote had forced a tie, however, he would have been on Pete’s hit list as well, and quite possibly at the top. Voting for Penner instead of Pete, then, could buy Skupin some time… time he desperately needs to forge alliances with players like Lisa.
Second, voting for Penner would have been the best of both worlds for Skupin: He would look like he’s staying true to the majority alliance while knowing full well that his vote wouldn’t hurt Penner. With that one vote, he earned some goodwill, and perhaps some trust, with both Jeff and Penner, two guys on opposite sides of the aisle. Pretty deft under the circumstances.
The bottom line is this: Skupin could NOT have saved RC… but he could take steps to save himself. In life, there is often a vast divide between what we want and what we need; no doubt Skupin wanted to keep RC in the game, but what he needed to do was to protect himself. If you ask me, he made the right choice, as painful as it must have been to send RC to the jury.
Remember, there is no path to victory without sacrifice. Especially in Survivor.
7) Last, but certainly not least, is RC. It would seem that she was left partially in the dark and was clinging to the hope that Jeff and Carter would turn on Tandang and vote for Pete. Her composure as Probst snuffed out her torch (although you could see disappointment and sadness simmering just beneath the surface) suggests that she knew that her ouster was at least a strong possibility, however. I wonder if Skupin could bring himself to tell RC that she was going home before they left for Tribal Council; I have to believe that he did, because it would hurt far more to blindside and apologize to the only person who had stuck with him for 19 days.
Two last observations about RC’s departure, and I’ll bring this exhaustive analysis to an end: One, RC becoming the first member of the jury gives Mike the early lead, should he get to the final three; and two, RC’s departure removes the last link Mike has with his pre-merge game. He is now free to play however he sees fit, and the target on him is much smaller than it was with the aggressive and uncompromising RC at his side.
(And now has the onion been well and truly peeled? I hope so.)
8) Time for a quick Survivor commandment check-in! Yep, you guessed it, there were cardinal sins being committed all over the place…
During challenges, thou must watch who watches you, and thou must pay special attention to anyone quitting the challenge right after you.
It baffles me that after 25 seasons, players in power will still openly watch the planned targets throughout an immunity challenge. In Survivor, every encounter (from a competition to a conversation) is an opportunity to gather information; you want to learn as much as you can without giving anything away. Pete and Abi were the main transgressors; they repeatedly stole glances at Penner and RC throughout the challenge. Might Penner have noticed this, and added it to the calculus of his decision of whether or not to play his idol? No way to be certain, but the fact that it was even a possibility means that Pete and Abi screwed up.
On the flip side, vulnerable players need to pay heed to every physical and emotional cue throughout the challenge; so much nonverbal communication is being shared throughout challenges if one is only listening to the silent conversations. Obviously, this sort of multitasking must be remarkably difficult, but when not paying attention might be a million dollar mistake, you simply cannot afford to ignore what your competition is telling you.
Two quick examples of this: After Penner dropped out of the challenge, it seemed to me that there was a palpable shift in the tension levels of the other players; this may have been a trick of editing, of course, but I have to believe that everyone who was a part of the Split-Vote Alliance collectively exhaled, physically, mentally, and emotionally, when Penner released his bucket. Any Survivor player who would like to stake a claim to greatness HAS to possess the ability to tap into the electrical currents of social connections, particularly at moments when those currents are flowing against them. I could be way off here, but I think Penner is a skilled, intuitive reader of group social dynamics, and I bet he DID notice, or at least feel, the release of tension when he was eliminated, and that factored into his willingness to play his idol.
The second example is a much more blatant one: Moments after RC fell out of the challenge, Abi quit and made no effort to hide the causal connection between the two events. She may not have been as ostentatious as John Carroll and the coconut chop in Survivor: Marquesas, but the message was just as obvious: Abi didn’t want to win, she simply needed RC to lose. Why RC didn’t notice this – or didn’t see it for what it was – is part of the reason why she’s on the jury rather than still in the game. As strong a player as she was, she simply shouldn’t have felt comfortable after the challenge (which is something she told us in a post-IC confessional). Not being able to read Abi’s body language (Pete’s, too, although he was further away) reveals that RC had a blind spot, one which comes from a positive place: She simply wants to see the good in people. Sadly, Survivor strategy based on hopeful, optimistic analysis of human behavior and motivations rarely works.
Survivor Commandment #3 (one of the most vitally important rules for players to heed): Thou shalt tell them what they want to hear.
When Jeff and Skupin were talking about the upcoming vote, and Skupin was lobbying for Kalabaw to help take out the Pete/Abi/Artis triumvirate, Jeff needed to tell Skupin, “You know what, that’s a great idea – let’s do it. You tell RC and Penner, and I’ll let everyone else know.” Did he say this? NOPE. Instead, Jeff hemmed and hawed and finally muttered that he didn’t know what he was going to do. Translation: “I’m teaming up with Tandang, and after we take out Penner, we’re coming after you. Ain’t no returning players winning on my watch.”
I’m not saying that this conversation is what empowered Skupin to go talk with Penner, but if it did – and they’re able to turn the tables on Jeff – then the former MVP has only himself to blame when he’s kicking back at Ponderosa and Penner’s still playing the game.
I’ve said this one earlier this season, but it bears repeating: If they stop talking when you approach, they’re talking about YOU.
When Penner found Jeff and Carter sitting on a log in the woods, there were ALL KINDS of warning signs: they were alone… they stopped talking when Penner arrived… they wouldn’t look Penner in the eye… and when Penner tried to get them to verbally commit to their alliance, they offered nothing. I was expecting an angry confessional from Penner right after this scene, but he was conspicuously silent; I really hope that this encounter helped Penner realize he needed to play the idol, but I worry that he, by his own admission, can’t see it when other people are lying to him. That certainly wouldn’t bode well for his endgame; there are a lot of liars left.
9) Once again, I have run out of space and time… so here’s a list of some other stuff I should have talked about at length but didn’t:
** I’m not quite sure what to make of Jeff and Carter’s agreement at the end of the immunity challenge. Carter was somewhat noncommittal, but Jeff DID let go of his bucket – so does Carter owe him a favor? If so, are we going to see Carter let Jeff win an immunity challenge – and pay dearly for that decision when his torch is snuffed? It would make sense with Carter’s edit…
** Three great Skupin visuals this episode: There was a moment early on when Skupin rose up out of the water with his arms at his sides that was eerily reminiscent of the infamous shot from Australia – only this time his hands were whole. When combined with the discussion about this being the same day Skupin was medevaced from Australia, the whole sequence felt important: Skupin is a player arriving newborn on the shores of the Philippines, ready to play the game he was denied over a decade ago.
** Skupin visual #2: After he talks with RC, we see Skupin – courtesy of a helicopter shot – standing by himself in the middle of the water. Quite the symbolic image, don’t you think? Given that, with RC now out of the game, Skupin is a man alone, isolated, searching for a way to shore.
** Skupin visual #3: What’s the first thing we see when the two tribes arrive by boat at the merge beach? Skupin and Penner hugging. Erasing all doubt that these two will work together in the coming weeks, I would say.
** I can’t be the only one who thought, when Abi told RC to spy on Denise, that RC’s response should have been, “What? Bitch, please.”
** It’s going to be fun seeing Malcolm attempt to extricate himself from his alliance with Lisa and Denise. He’s analyzed the situation well: teaming up with Lisa and Denise could get him pretty far, but he knows he would have a hard time beating them at the end. What he really needs to do is to turn Pete – or another alpha male – against the older women. Otherwise, Malcolm will swiftly find himself in a spot where he cannot win the game: he’ll either have to face off against them in the Final Three, or he’ll have to backstab and betray them, himself. If he does the latter, though, the jury will be filled with those with whom he made, and then broke, promises.
** Remind me to write about this in a later column: Elimination order plays an important role in Ponderosa politics. RC is going to be conversing with, and influencing, every juror from this point on; if Pete or Penner had been voted out, however, those debates would have had a totally different substance and vibe. I wonder if any thought was given to this reality when the Tandang alliance was choosing whom to target; they might have assumed that the jury wasn’t going to start until there were 10 players left (three finalists and seven jurors). Whether or not their thinking went that deep strategically (it should have, but somehow, I doubt it), Pete and Abi are now playing from behind: not only is RC a lock to vote for anyone BUT them, but she’s going to have ample time to convince each and every jury member that they’re bad people who don’t deserve the money or the title.
** It’s the little things: A great Survivor player… scratch that, even just a good Survivor player… knows not to reveal too much, particularly at Tribal Council. Pete and Abi openly (if silently) celebrating RC’s elimination was textbook, “Do this if you want to lose all hope of winning the game” behavior. In Survivor, as in life, you simply don’t dance on somebody’s grave. People can forgive a lot of things, but that’s not one of them.
** Without going into rhetorical histrionics about the jury, I’m genuinely stumped: Are we going to see a Final Three with an 8 person jury, or a Final Two with a 9 person jury? I just don’t know. And here’s part of the reason I’m feeling especially clueless at the moment: I can’t shake the feeling that the producers were ready for BOTH possibilities. If, when they got down to the Final Four, there was the possibility of a one-sided Final Two (say, Malcolm vs. Abi), they could go with a Final Three… but if there were four players, any two of whom would be a worthy F2 match-up, they could go old school and let them battle it out until only two were left. No matter how this ends up playing out, I’m intrigued by the possibilities (especially if the players, themselves, are left in the dark until the end), and I love that the producers are still, 25 seasons in, able to keep me guessing.
10) The Probst Probe: Something tells me that after Probst retires from reality television, he’s going to spend his time instigating fights between people, exposing their illicit relationships, and generally being an antagonistic jerk who likes to stir things up just for the fun of it. I mean, he’s just so darn good at it – and he makes it look fun, doesn’t he? In an episode already packed with conflict and drama, Probst managed to:
** Call attention to the animosity percolating within Tandang.
** Openly question if returning players are going to be targeted.
** Remind everyone about the Malcolm/Denise alliance.
** And highlight the Skupin/RC alliance, moments before the vote ripped them apart.
And this is the guy who didn’t get nominated for an Emmy this year?
11) Fortunes Falling: Pete. Let’s see if we can quickly sum up Mr. Yurkowski’s crimes from this episode: The aforementioned public display of celebration at RC’s departure (repeatedly mouthing, “Thank God!”)… announcing to everyone at Tribal that he thinks the Matsing idol is out of the game (empowering viewers to think he’s a moron – and to wonder if the idol will be used to blindside him)… believing that he’s consolidated a long-term power block rather than seeing that this is very much a game of effectively managing smaller sub-alliances… and the ever-so-common mistake of taking control too early: eventually, the minions must and will turn on you, because if they don’t, you’re going to win. Only the best players are able to overcome that classic blunder – Boston Rob and Kim Spradlin come to mind – but Pete isn’t cut of that same cloth. He’s better than I care to admit, but he’s worse than he’d like to believe.
12) Fortunes Rising: Lisa. Do me a favor and take another look at the picture at the top of this column. The seating arrangement is pre-determined by the producers, which is why you have Tandang on the left and Kalabaw on the right; interesting that Lisa is positioned right in the middle, don’t you think? She’s the pivotal character in this Survivor Last Supper (yes, I know they’re two people short). Like the biblical moment from Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, this is the last time these castaways are going to be this unified; betrayal is right on the horizon, and Lisa will be at the heart of it all. She will be the bridge between the factions, the peacekeeper and the ameliorator, the negotiator and the diplomat, the one who brings people together while others try to tear each other apart.
Or maybe it’s just a photo.
13) Prediction Time: The most recent promo for Wednesday’s episode shows Lisa attempting to engineer a “shocker” of a blindside with Skupin. Whom might she be targeting? Given that Lisa announced at Tribal Council that loyalty is paramount, we can be pretty sure she wouldn’t go after anyone from Tandang. She also said that flippers can’t be trusted, so she must be gunning for one of the Kalabaw members who betrayed their alliance: Jeff or Carter. The final piece of the puzzle: This week’s “Cheat Tweet” refers to ‘surprising revelations at Tribal Council.’ Does either Jeff or Carter have something about him that might surprise the remaining castaways, a secret which, if revealed, would give the other players a reason to vote him out?
Oh! Right! Jeff Kent is a multi-millionaire!
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – see you next week!