I want to do something a little bit different this week, loyal readers. Nobody wants to hear me gush week after week about how well-crafted Survivor is as a game, or about how elegantly it has been designed. You know why you love the show; you don’t need me to keep reminding you. I’m going to put my doctoral thesis on why Survivor reflects our culture and our lives on hold this week, in order to do something that I think is a little bit more helpful to the viewers.
Every season, when the show gets down to around 10 players, I like to take a step back and look at where we are. With eliminations coming every week, and the number of castaways dwindling all the time, it can become easy to forget that Survivor is a changing game. Alliances that made sense with 14 people left may not still make sense now. Players who once seemed doomed for an early boot may find themselves sailing deep into the game.
And when we have an episode as confusing as this one, it’s become apparent that no one really understands where this game is headed, least of all the players themselves. Let’s do this. Let’s make a Survivor: Philippines Episode Eight snapshot power ranking.
So! In descending order, I’ve chosen to rank the remaining castaways by the strength of their positions in the game at this moment. Starting at the bottom:
#9: Carter Williams
Oh, Carter. It’s a shame to see someone of such obvious intellectual vigor wind up at the bottom of the power rankings. Carter is clearly a genius of the highest order; I think we can all agree on that. But with the departure of Jeff Kent, it’s hard to see where he has much room left to make a move. Carter was attached to Kent, like the symbiote suit to Venom, and without Kent it’s hard to see how he will survive.
Carter has two strikes against him now in Survivor: Philippines. Strike one: he’s lost his closest (and in this case, his only) ally. Going forward, any player in his position could only hope to be able to position himself as a swing vote, while flying under the radar and avoiding scrutiny. It would take a keen strategic eye and an elegant mastery of Survivor’s subtle social game to advance alone in a sea of allied competitors. Unfortunately, for Carter, this isn’t going to be an option. Carter’s already behind in the count, because he has a second strike against him. And this one may be insurmountable:
Carter is an idiot.
With his vapid, vacant expression, dull deadened eyes, and caveman vocabulary, Carter has proven over and over again that he’s dim-witted, silly, and slow. Some of my favorite moments this season have been when other castaways have asked Carter to express an opinion about the game. These interactions invariably unfold like this:
Kent/Penner: Carter, what do you think we should do next?
Carter: Uhhhhhhhhhhh. What?
Like a big, dumb, shaggy dog, Carter has endeared himself to me. I really do love to see a good old fashioned oaf at work. But it’s true that playing dumb can also work to your advantage in Survivor. Fabio won without having a clue how to play the game. Kat Edorsson played dumb brilliantly last season, and went far deeper into the game than she had any right to. Nobody’s going to be viewing Carter as a strategic or a social threat. Isn’t it possible that he squeaks past a few votes?
Well, yes, that certainly is possible. There are much bigger strategic threats left in the game, and some truly massive social threats as well. On first glance, it seems silly that anyone would target Carter now. But there’s a high-inside fastball screaming toward Carter as we speak, and I think it will strike him out looking:
Carter can’t fly under the radar. He’s not Sandra. He’s arguably the second or third best physical player in the game. He’s a huge Immunity threat. And when it comes down to picking someone to vote off, when you’ve got an isolated sheep away from the herd, like Carter, it’s an easy vote. No one will be upset to see Carter go. Nobody needs to rock the boat with their alliances. He’s an easy burn. Strike one.
And he won’t see it coming. He won’t be prepared for it. He won’t be scrambling. And even if he does, he still won’t be able to orchestrate a defense against it. He lacks the strategic acumen. Strike two.
Worst of all, he’s not just a weak little lamb in the wolf’s den. He’s a legitimately threatening player based on his youth, his size, and his athletic physique. It’s not even a bad move to pick him off. It makes sense for almost everyone else’s game to do so. Sorry, Carter. That’s strike three. You’re out.
#8: Jonathan Penner
Penner has proven that he has nine lives in this game. He’s been on the chopping block since the day he hit the beach, and he’s been enduring some heavy-duty heat since Merge Day. But, two Tribal Councils into the merge, Penner is still here. Seems like stock on Penner is rising. Is it wise to bet against him?
I’ll admit, putting Penner so far down in my power rankings gives me pause. Penner is a wild card in a way that no other player is, because he is capable of so many different kinds of moves. It seems that Penner may have forged an alliance with Skupin, and it seems likely that he will tuck Carter under his wing. With three votes possibly under his control, shouldn’t that be enough to at least propel him easily into the Final 7 this season?
Maybe. I certainly hope so. I love Penner. But there are some troubling factors working against Penner at the moment, and it’s unclear yet whether or not he will be able to overcome them.
The major strike against Penner is that Jeff Kent was allowed to spend 6 days plotting against him in the new merged tribe. True, Kent was the ringleader of the Boot-The-Veterans cause, and he’s now been vanquished, but we can see clearly from last week that people were listening. It seems possible that the damage has already been done.
If Jeff Kent was able to convince the rest of the Dangrayne tribe to target Penner for being a returning player, there’s really nothing he can do to overcome that stigma. A player catching heat for being too physical can make a big show of screwing up in a challenge. A player catching heat for being too likeable can spout off at the mouth, piss someone unimportant off, and diffuse the tension. But Penner isn’t being targeted for anything that he’s done, or even for anything that he might do. He’s being targeted for what he is. He can’t stop being a returning player.
So now we’re speculating on how effective Jeff Kent was at planting seeds in the minds of the rest of the tribe. That’s a hard question. If I were on Survivor with two returning players, I’d gladly take them with me to the end every single time. I’d love to sit next to Penner and Skupin. But I know that I could beat them, and it seems apparent that most castaways don’t feel the same way.
So, Penner’s working against a prejudice. Prejudices are difficult to unseat, because they’re inherently irrational. People fear Penner. They have been taught by the last few seasons of Survivor that the returning players are the hardest players to beat, because they have watched people fail to beat them. Beating a returning player is actually entirely possible, it just takes a certain strategy. But, unfortunately for Penner, no player other than Sophie has beaten a returning player, and she wasn’t using that strategy. She was just facing Coach.
I’m betting that Penner will fail to overcome this stigma, now that Jeff Kent has had time to plant it. But, I will say this: if there’s any player in this game that could, it would be Penner.
#7: Pete Yurkowski
Pete is a douchebag. And he can’t help it. It’s not really his fault. I don’t think Pete set foot on the island seeking to be a douchebag. He just is one. And he probably always has been.
But that’s not to say that a douchebag can’t play the game well, and win. Brian Heidk did it. Boston Rob did it. Russell Hantz… oh wait.
But Pete’s already catching heat. People have realized that he’s the brains behind Abi’s idol’s brawn, and they want to take him out. In theory, Abi could give Pete her idol at any time, and diffuse this threat, but she won’t. If she was going to do that, she would have done it tonight.
So, Pete is vulnerable. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever have a Hidden Immunity Idol played to protect him. He’s also a legitimate strategic player. Unfortunately for him, everybody else has figured that out. And he’s aligned with the hugely unpopular Abi-Maria. When you tack on the fact that Pete is probably #1 or #2 on the list of physical threats, and his apparent lack of an effective social game, the guy has a ton of targets on his back.
And Pete has no hope of being dragged to the end as a goat. Artis and Abi are goats. Pete is a strong physical player with a demonstrable strategic acumen. Nobody is thinking he’s worth dragging to the end. People just want him gone. These players have already proven they aren’t afraid to vote for Pete. He almost went home this week. I’m betting he won’t be so lucky next time.
#6: Michael Skupin
Ooooh, Skupin. You really are just a hapless human being.
I don’t know how you guys feel, but I love Mike. He’s like a bumbling old fart from a bygone era. He just doesn’t understand how the game has changed. And he’s deeply motivated by his faith; he’s a powerfully ethical player. He was ideally suited for the innocent old days of Survivor yore. Survivor: Australia was a particularly benevolent season. But he’s not equipped to survive in the cutthroat new generation of this game.
If Skupin can last the rest of the game without killing himself, I would be surprised. But there’s next to no chance he makes it to the end. Unlike Pete, who will be voted out because of his vices, Skupin will be eliminated because he really is just a decent guy. Nobody wants to sit next to the grizzled old Survivor veteran with a heart of gold. Nobody wants to try to beat Skupin the charitable, Skupin the kind-hearted, Skupin the faithful. I would. But none of these players will.
I’ve already discussed how Jeff Kent may have had time to poison the rest of these castaways against the veteran players. But, in the case of Mike, Tandang may still be looking at him as “our” veteran. I think Skupin stands a good chance of outlasting Penner, especially if he stays loyal to Lisa. But, at the end of the day, I think his days on this island are numbered.
#5 Abi-Maria Gomes
Abi is a little bit of an enigma. She seems ideal goat fodder to drag to the end, but at the same time, she’s so volatile that no serious alliance would take her on. She’s a liability. She has a Hidden Immunity Idol, but likely lacks the ability to use it effectively. She’s paranoid and mistrustful, but seems entirely likely to fall for a blindside.
Abi is my least favorite player of this season. She has no respect for the game, or for the players. She’s rude, she’s crazy, and she’s worthless in challenges. She is that rare player that lacks strategic, social, and physical game.
That said, I would probably take her to the Final Five with me, and make my decision about whether or not to bring her to the end from there. She’s obviously hugely unpopular. Even Pete, her closest ally, was yelling at her this week about how annoying she is. At the end of the day, though, I don’t see her being brought to the end as a goat. She can’t be trusted to act even in her own best interests. When you tack on her apparent total inability to keep any kind of secret, there’s no way I would bring her aboard my alliance. Can’t trust her with information, can’t trust her not to piss off the wrong people, and can’t trust her to ever win immunity when you might need it. She’s got to go.
#4: Malcolm Freberg
Diametrically opposed to Abi, Malcolm is my favorite player this season. He’s a true three-tooled player: he has a strong intuitive grasp of strategy, an almost criminally likeable social game, and is probably the strongest physical player in the game. Not only that, but he holds the Hidden Immunity Idol and has an airtight alliance with Denise. It’d be hard to bet against Malcolm. He has so many weapons.
If Lisa never revealed that Malcolm holds the idol, I think he wins this game. But she did. And no one is ever going to fully trust him again. His harmless, loveable, shaggy-dog persona has been blown out of the water. And once people start regarding Malcolm with suspicion, they’re going to begin to notice how terrifyingly threatening he is as a player.
That said, Malcolm demonstrated tonight that he knows how to use the Hidden Immunity Idol as a deterrent. By threatening to play it, but not playing it, he was able to throw the vote off of himself and walk away with a net positive result. Unfortunately for him, he was forced to make this move much earlier than he had planned. There’s still a lot of game left, and Malcolm has run out of secrets. He has to rely on his social and his physical game from here on out.
Fortunately for Malcolm, he has both in spades. People love Malcolm. He’s incredibly charming. Unfortunately for Malcolm, he’s also hands down the biggest threat in every category still left in this game. If he makes it to the end, he wins. But everybody else knows that, now. So he won’t.
#3: Artis Silvester
Artis is our goat. Despite how much he claimed to hate Phillip Sheppard before this season began, he is the Phillip Sheppard of Survivor: Philippines. I would absolutely bring Artis to the end. He’s surly, he’s sour, and he’s temperamental. He makes no effort to reach out to anyone not in his core alliance. He’s associated himself with the Douchebag Alliance indelibly in the minds of every other castaway out there. And he lacks strategic foresight. And he’s a mediocre-to-poor physical player. I don’t think there’s a castaway out there that doesn’t see dollar signs when they look at him.
No one will vote Artis out. Everyone wants him in their Final Three. He’s like a Hoover vacuum. He sucks so good.
#2: Lisa Whelchel
Lisa really should be the breakout star of this season. She’s so thoughtful about the game. She understands people. She’s disarmingly kind. She’s matronly and loveable. And, above all of that, she’s been doing something that almost no one besides Sandra has ever been able to do: win while being honest.
We saw it tonight at Tribal Council. Malcolm accused Lisa of throwing him under the bus, and Lisa shrugged. It was true. She admitted it. And, in so doing, she also completely removed the target from her back. What?
There’s almost no chance that anyone sent to the jury will have hard feelings toward Lisa. Everybody loves her. She’s like Cirie, Sandra, and Natalie White all wrapped into one, except she also has an adorable sob story about having gotten recently divorced and going broke. Whoa. Lisa is a serious, SERIOUS threat to win this game.
Unfortunately, Malcolm and Denise know she’s a serious threat to win this game. If they have anything to do with it, they won’t let her anywhere near Final Tribal Council. That’s going to be the real story of this season: can anyone stop Lisa from making it to the end? I think so. I think the clear favorite to win this season is going to be:
#1: Denise Stapley
Oh, Denise. You little minx. You really are a fantastic Survivor player. I think you’re better than Kim Spradlin, and I don’t care how much hate mail I get for saying so.
Here’s why Denise is better than Kim, in my book: Kim is threatening post-merge. Denise is not. Denise is that rare player that will dominate socially, strategically, and in challenges—and yet still fly under the radar. Kim had to work extra hard to maintain her relationships, while trust seems to flow naturally in Denise’s direction.
We saw it today, after the reward challenge. Denise was obviously thrilled to be able to go on the riverboat cruise, and couldn’t contain her joy. But the first words out of her mouth? “I feel so badly for everybody stuck back at camp, but…”
Denise is humble. She’s fantastically likeable. And she’s built like an Olympian. Did anybody else notice her muscles rippling in this week’s Immunity challenge? Whoa, Denise. You’re a tank. She’s probably the biggest individual immunity threat in the game, now that we’ve reached the merge. Pre-merge challenges tend to favor the large and powerful alpha-males. Post-merge challenges emphasize balance, endurance, memory, intellect, and coordination.
And nobody besides Malcolm seems to realize yet how powerful Denise is in this game. Nobody’s targeting her. Nobody realizes how strong her social game is, or her strategic game, or her physical game. Everybody is underestimating her. Denise is just busying herself being likeable and humble. She’s primed to explode onto the scene around Final Five, and when she does, I think she’ll be unstoppable.
So, can Malcolm get her out of this game? He’ll have to. He stands no chance otherwise. But how can he? To the casual observer, he’s a much bigger threat than she is. It’d be hard for him to argue with any credibility to vote her out because of how threatening she is. She’s not a super-fit young guy. She’s not visibly charming. She doesn’t have an idol. She’s just little old loveable Denise. And Malcolm, she’s gonna beat your ass.
So, there you have it, loyal readers. I know this post is clocking in at about three times my usual goal of 1,000 words, so I appreciate you bearing with me. If you agree with my rankings, disagree, or have other thoughts entirely, I’d love to hear them. Leave me a comment, and we’ll keep the conversation going!