Last week’s episode was, without a doubt, sublimely entertaining. It was also undeniable compelling: there was more intrigue in the last 20 minutes than the entire post-merge game in One World. More than anything, though, “Dead Man Walking” was bum-puzzling: so many curious moves that simply beg for under-informed speculation.
Of course, when you’re looking for under-informed speculation, I’m your man! So onward with some semi-educated and quasi-insightful Q & A…
1) Q: So why the heck did Penner vote for Abi?
A: I’ve heard a lot of different theories about this one, ranging from “Penner’s a drooling idiot” to “It was genius beyond the comprehension of mortal man.” The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.
Here’s my theory: Penner was sowing the seeds of discord.
First, there’s the obvious: The moment Abi saw her name on parchment, she lost the few marbles she had left. This upcoming Wednesday, is there any doubt that Abi will confront, accuse, and threaten all of the other castaways in her quest to find out who wrote her name down? This is precisely the sort of witch hunt that Penner needs to stay alive; last week, he was Public Enemy #1, but now he can claim he voted with the majority and let Abi speculate about the identity of her unknown assailant.
Which begs the question: Whom will Abi blame? The only players she can rule out are Pete and Artis; everyone else is fair game. More distressingly for Abi, there’s a compelling reason for her to suspect each and every one of them:
** Lisa, whom Abi has publicly identified as fourth in her four-person Tandang alliance, admitted that she was playing both sides.
** Abi made it abundantly clear during tribal council that Skupin wasn’t a part of her core alliance.
** Adding insult to injury, she left Malcolm off of her “members of my alliance” list during TC (and got called out on it by Probst).
** And Denise and Carter are former Kalabaw who could just as easily have voted for her as for Pete.
The best part about Abi – the part that Penner is counting on – is that she won’t blame just one of them; she’ll blame ALL of them. After 22 days, Abi was already insecure and suspicious; now, with a vote thrown at her, she will be excessively paranoid and increasingly volatile. From this point on, she will be searching for an antagonist she will never be able to find.
It’s perhaps the most artful piece of strategic origami we’ve ever seen: With one rectangular piece of paper, Penner created five new targets, where before he was the only one.
2) Q: So is that all Penner was trying to do, antagonize Abi and deflect attention from himself?
A: Nope! What makes this move even more brilliant is that Penner was, I believe, thinking even more long term than just the next vote. A few other factors which one might assume affected his decision-making:
** Penner was more than willing to sacrifice Jeff Kent, who had been gunning for the returning players from day one; admittedly, the “take out the vets” rhetoric has been picked up by a number of the other players, but it’s possible that it will fade in persistence and vehemence with Jeff banished to the purgatory of Ponderosa.
** Cutting off the biggest head of the hydra – Pete – might create more chaos than Penner wants at this point in the game: right now, Pete, Abi, and Artis are a predictable voting block, but there’s no way to know who might pick up Abi and Artis as vulnerable votes and endgame goats. There are still two key flip-zones coming up – Final 9 and Final 7 – when Penner can break up the Axis of A$$h*les (henceforth the AoA).
** Keeping Pete around might be wise for another reason as well: When players like Malcolm, Denise, and Carter unite against Pete once, they’ll be willing to do it again. The more big targets who remain in the game – particularly ones who will have a reasonable argument to make at the Final Tribal Council – the more likely it is that Penner can remain out of the crosshairs.
** In a move motivated by panic, Abi might be quick to play her idol in the upcoming TC’s, which accomplishes a few things: it takes a powerful variable out of the game, it makes the AoA more vulnerable, and – although this is a long shot, one I don’t think will happen – it’s possible that the producers might re-hide the idol.
** Finally, Penner knows that if he’s going to have any chance of winning the game, he’s going to need to carefully craft his final three: he needs players like Abi and Artis to stick around, because there’s no way he can beat charismatic castaways with compelling narratives (Malcolm, Denise, Lisa). But the road is even rougher for Penner The Returning Player: he needs to get to the end with sympathetic jurors who don’t blame him for his hand in their demise. Part of accomplishing that monumental task is to get the members of Tandang to turn on themselves, so that he won’t get quite as much blood on his hands. Which is why the vote for Abi is so mind-blowingly inspired: in her aggressive and undiplomatic efforts to find out who to blame, Abi may very well shatter the only alliance which offers her a clear path to the end with any hope of winning.
As I’ve said before, I’m not convinced that Penner is going to be the one to reap the rewards from the seeds he’s sown, but when the AoA falls apart in the weeks ahead – and doesn’t that feel inevitable at this point? – whoever gets to the final three better thank Penner for making it all possible.
3) Q: What the &%#@ was Abi doing revealing her idol at Tribal Council?
A: It’s all too easy to vilify the explosive Brazilian for being strategically naïve, and I’m not going to try to make the argument that this was a SMART move – but what I will do is try to rationalize her behavior beyond, “She dumb.”
A clue can be found in one of the secret scenes over on the CBS web site (if you’re still not watching them, I implore you to do so; some of them are boring, particularly ones which encourage the players to talk about the food they won during reward challenges, but there are always a few gems): Abi was considering playing her idol because she thought that she might be a target at Tribal Council. As viewers, it’s easy for us to say, “No one wants to vote you out, Abi – you’re the perfect final three goat.” But when you’re immersed in the game, I imagine it’s hard to avoid catastrophic thinking of this sort: “I’m part of the most powerful alliance in the game, some of them know I have an idol, and many of them don’t like me – of course they’ll be gunning for me. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when’ – and how stupid would I look if I went home, post-merge, with an idol in my pocket?”
As we’ve discussed before, the hidden immunity idol is a loaded gun, and whoever has one is forever itching to pull the trigger – in large part because who wants to become a Survivor casualty with an unfired weapon in her bag? Better to go down guns blazing, right? Which means that before every Tribal Council, a player like Abi – someone delusional enough to think she’s a legitimate threat to win the game – will inevitably consider playing her idol, believing it would protect her, would allow her to get immediate revenge on whomever was trying to take her out, and would be a “big move” that justified the self-cosmology of “I am the besieged hero who deserves the million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor.” I’m not saying that this line of thinking is justified by Abi’s gameplay; I’m simply arguing that someone like Abi would, in all likelihood, think this way.
But all of that rambling is about why Abi would USE the idol – but all she did was REVEAL it. So why would she pull out the Tandang HII with only a speculative inquiry by Probst as a catalyst? What the heck did she think she would accomplish by exposing her at least partially concealed weapon?
Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons. First, I have a feeling that Lisa and Malcolm had a major impact on her decision-making: They got the “irrational honesty” ball rolling, and in so doing, defined the terms not only of this one Tribal Council, but also, perhaps, of the entire game; sharing a previously hidden truth had suddenly become social currency, and so Abi, probably not fully understanding why, felt compelled to reveal her idol. To keep it hidden at that point probably felt like it would make her look worse than if she pulled it out of her bag for all to see.
Second, I think she was being a strategic copycat. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Abi is some sort of Survivor savant; her analytical thinking is as shallow as the tidal pool she sits in during all of her confessionals. I do, however, think she’s savvy enough to understand the value of Malcolm’s move, and perhaps even recognize how showing her idol helps her MORE than Malcolm waving his around helps him. Let me explain: For all of the talk of his alliance with Denise, Malcolm is a singular target; everyone sees him as a physical, social, and strategic threat. Abi, meanwhile, is one of three. If players are targeting Malcolm, they have nowhere else to place their votes if they fear the idol; if they’re going after Abi, however, they can easily shift their attention to Pete or Artis. At some point, most likely soon, Malcolm is going to have to play the idol to save himself; Abi, on the other hand, has earned herself a spot in the Final 6 simply by pulling out an idol that many people already knew she had.
(If you’re wondering, here’s why I say Final 6: There are nine players left in the game; even if her alliance is attacked at every TC from here on out, Artis and Pete will go before her, then the other players will have to flush her idol at F7 before getting her out at F6. True, she could be coerced into playing her idol earlier, but with the numbers dwindling, it becomes increasingly difficult to split the vote. All of this is academic anyway: Thanks to her idol and her ‘high school yearbook superlative’ status as “Least Likely to Get Jury Votes,” Abi won’t be on the chopping block until the absolute endgame, and the only way she doesn’t make the final three is if she makes camp life so intolerable after Pete and Artis are gone that everyone else agrees she has to go.)
Bottom line: Abi thought that revealing her idol would make her safer. And she’s not entirely wrong about that.
(For the record, I hope this is the last time I am called on to say anything nice about Abi, whose “character” has been effectively edited as a vile villainess. For all I know, she could be a perfectly nice person in real life, but the Survivor version of her is thoroughly distasteful. I’m sure I’m not the only one who looks forward to her torch being snuffed, or, should she be dragged to the Final Tribal Council as a goat, to see her simultaneously shredded and dismissed by the jury. That said, don’t we all want to see Abi and RC forced to co-exist at Ponderosa?)
4) Q: With Pete foolishly undermining Lisa’s plan to blindside Malcolm, how will the remaining players get rid of the guy who has already locked up “Fan Favorite” (assuming that they can)?
A: It seems kind of peculiar to say this when we’re only halfway through the game, numbers-wise (9 players left when we started with 18), but time is running out to flush Malcolm’s boldly un-played idol; coordinating the votes, especially with so many warring factions still in play, will soon be next to impossible. If there’s anything that can unite a dysfunctional tribe, however, it’s collective fear, and if there’s one player the remaining castaways know they can’t let sniff the Final 5, never mind the Final 3, it’s Malcolm. But with time running so low, is it even possible to get him out now?
One of the first hurdles to overcome: Malcolm isn’t the foremost threat at the moment. The first order of business at the first key flip-zone – Final 9 (F9) – HAS to be breaking up the AoA. If you don’t do something about them now, and history holds true and no one wants to rock the boat at the F8 (because of the threat of ties and rocks and the color purple), then the next opportunity to alter the endgame will be at F7; problem is, it would be all too easy at that point for the AoA to pick up a fourth player and control the vote.
Which is a long-winded preamble to what I feel the Dangrayne players need to do if they want to get rid of Malcolm: Flush It and Flip It. To explain: At either F9 or F8, votes need to be split in a way that forces Malcolm to play his idol, and then at F7, a four-person alliance of convenience needs to take out Malcolm, the strongest single player remaining, and simultaneously seize control of the endgame.
Do I think this will happen? Let me put it this way: It wouldn’t surprise me. Penner, Lisa, Skupin, and Denise are all certainly aware that something like this MUST happen if they’re going to keep Malcolm out of the Final Three, and they would have to know that to let Malcolm get to the Final Tribal Council is to hand him the oversized million dollar check he so covets. This shared mutual self-interest should unite them against Malcolm; yes, even Denise would, bond or no bond, understand that only one player can be allowed to recite and represent the Matsing underdog narrative at the FTC.
5) Q: Was Malcolm’s idol bluff a brilliant ploy or horribly unwise?
A: Like such risky moves in poker, the easy response is to say that if the bluff worked, it was brilliant. In the abstract, though, without considering the end result, I still like the move. Yes, everyone now knows he’s a huge threat who can’t be trusted, but really, didn’t people already know that, and wasn’t Malcolm going to be targeted sooner rather than later anyway? Bottom line: Malcolm is still in the game, he’s still got an idol, and there are only nine players left. Not a bad position, all things considered.
A few other thoughts about Malcolm, his idol, and his bluff:
** If someone announces during tribal council that he’s going to play his idol, wouldn’t you immediately assume that he ISN’T going to? Doesn’t it just feel like a bluff? Why would Malcolm announce his intentions at the beginning of Tribal Council rather than wait to see what Probst was able to stir up?
** Whenever a player is known to have an idol, or is suspected of possessing one, and players are trying to flush it, there’s a lot of revealing body language after Probst asks if anyone has an HII and wants to play it. While a couple of castaways looked over at Malcolm to see if he would follow through on his proclamation, I have a feeling they could have sold the “Hey, you better play your idol” non-verbal cues a lot better than they did if they really wanted him to feel vulnerable. Personally, I would have exploited one of the classic poker tells – if you act strong, your hand is weak; if you act weak, your hand is strong – and turned away from Malcolm rather than looked over at him. You gotta make him worried, and casually glancing over at him isn’t going to get the job done.
** That said, I doubt that anything could have made Malcolm play the idol at that point. Keeping the HII was a ballsy all-or-nothing move for him: without it, he’s a target the rest of the way; with it, he still has some leverage. In Survivor as in poker, one can play to get deep, or play to win; this was Malcolm’s all-in moment, and he pulled off the bluff. It’s now going to take a monumental effort to get him out of the game.
6) Q: Why, after swearing that he would never work with the AoA unless God himself told him to do so, did Skupin vote with Tandang?
A: Let me preface this by saying that I don’t think Skupin voted “with” Tandang; it was more of a “parallel purposes” move. One of the key facets of strategic adaptability is understanding that you have to exploit those times when your game dovetails with the games of others; that, to me, is what Skoop was doing. He understood that there was a shared short-term goal and, rather than fight it simply because of who the instrumental architects were (the AoA), he shifted gears and placed his vote where circumstances dictated. As he promised us at the very start of the season, Mike is playing the game that is being made available to him.
To some degree, Skupin is playing a simple numbers game: teaming up with Lisa as a voting appendage to the AoA makes complete sense when it guarantees at least a tie at F10 and, once Jeff goes home, puts him in the majority. Meanwhile, he and Lisa are cultivating a relationship with Penner, which will insulate them from the 3-2 numbers disadvantage they have with the AoA. Add in one more – Denise, maybe, once the tribe gangs up on Malcolm – and suddenly they have the votes to flip the game at F7.
But I get ahead of myself. The point I’m trying to make is this: In a game that is often reduced to simple math, Skupin is doing what he can to make sure that he’s on the right side of the numbers. That said, I think he’s also aware that to say that Survivor is just a numbers game is myopic and reductionist; it’s how you get those numbers, who those people are, and why you’ve opted to work with them that matters most, particularly post-merge. To force the collective social will to bend to your wishes is to alienate people; to align long-term with bullies is to be damned by the company you keep; to simply exploit people rather than to establish relationships is to fill the jury with people who will jubilantly deny you your dream of victory.
So, what’s the point of the above diatribe? Simply this: That Skupin may have voted with Tandang last week, but don’t expect it to continue. Taking out Jeff was smart for Skupin: Jeff had openly threatened his place in the game while Pete had decided that Skupin was a useful pawn; in the short term, aligning with Tandang kept the bulls-eye off his back. Don’t mistake the act of aligning with the forging an alliance, however, because Skupin isn’t going to (although Pete might – which could be a key component in the self-proclaimed King of the Jungle’s demise).
At this point, I think both Skupin and Lisa – whose relationship, I suspect, runs far deeper than the editors are showing us – will turn on the AoA the moment that they realize that to stick with Pete, Abi, and Artis is to be permanently associated with them in the minds of the jury.
And that just might happen as soon as this upcoming Wednesday.
7) Q: Now that his game has come to an abrupt end, give us a verdict: Is Jeff Kent a worthy Survivor player?
A: Let’s look at the ledger, shall we?
** He understood how to play the game, even if he didn’t always make the best decisions. For example: He knew that there were times he had to subdue his alpha inclination to dominate tribal politics, and he could see when players like Pete made the mistake of seizing control too early. Gotta love it when players understand the ebb and flow of a social game like Survivor.
** He can admit when he’s wrong: The first thing he did when he got to Ponderosa was to apologize to RC and confess that taking her out was what ultimately did him in. Many players never fully accept their own complicity in their eliminations, yet Jeff got to that point of acceptance and awareness almost immediately. Impressive.
** He understands that what players have to do to win the game is REALLY hard (during his “Day After” video, Jeff said winners deserve more than a million bucks given what they have to navigate and endure), which makes me believe he’s going to make a wise decision when he votes at the Final Tribal Council.
** He sacrificed a powerful post-merge position in an effort to eliminate Penner and Skupin. Given the success that returning players have had over the years, this sentiment is understandable – but in a game like Survivor, such a restrictive strategy is suicide. Eventually, the very approach that Jeff used to rally support is what was used against him (with Skupin and Penner both writing down his name).
** He created his own mess: If Jeff hadn’t decided at the 11th hour that he’d rather use Skupin than take him out, then Mike would be hanging out with RC at Ponderosa rather than Jeff. In professional sports, one often hears, “The best trades are often the ones you don’t make,” and so it is in Survivor: Sometimes the most effective move is to not make a move when no moves need to be made.
** He violated Survivor Commandment #1: Thou shalt not tell someone that you’re voting him out. The moment Jeff told Skupin that he was going home that night, he handed the resourceful vet the dagger that would soon be planted between his own shoulder blades. Warn people they’re going home, and more often than not, things will not go according to plan at tribal.
** And finally, he aligned with Carter, someone so dim, so detached, so unengaged that he didn’t think to warn Jeff that his name was being mentioned as a possible target. Loyal and malleable players make for excellent goats… but when they’re this strategically crippled, they’re a liability. Jeff would have been better off creating an alliance with a coconut.
So, with all that in mind, what’s the verdict? Yes, he was guilty of some egregious errors, including but not limited to being the author of his own assassination, but I have to admit, he impressed me. From his surprisingly articulate confessionals to his aggressive gameplay to his strategic awareness, Jeff put in a solid performance that was all the more impressive since it came from a guy who many of us were expecting to implode. Tip o’ the cap to ya, Jeff – if you’re invited back for an All-Star season, I hope you accept.
8) Q: With Jeff gone from the game, does Penner now stand a chance to get to the Final Three?
A: There are a lot of reasons to say yes:
** He’s saying all of the right things to all of the right people: He’s assuring everyone that he can’t get jury votes and thus can’t win the game, which would make him the perfect goat.
** He’s actively moderating his behavior; rather than throwing a tantrum, he’s working hard to be nice, to be someone who is pleasant to have around. Given how many abrasive personalities remain in the game (predominately Pete, Abi, and Artis), that’s a wise approach.
** And I just really, really want to see him do well: How can you not like a guy who reacts so honestly and emotionally after winning his first-ever individual immunity at a time when he so desperately needed it? Kissing the snake was a great moment; even better was how speechless he was in his next confessional. Jonathan Penner at a loss for words? Simply awesome.
But the reasons to say no are even stronger:
** Thanks to his facility with strategy (and ability with puzzles), Penner is the only player left whom other players actively fear. At some point, that shared unease is going to unite everyone for a second time, which means game over for Penner unless he can defy the odds and win immunity once again.
** Everyone knows how aggressive Penner can be; I’m willing to bet that when the other players saw last week’s intro, when Penner said that the other castaways were all equal in his mind and “all ready to die,” instead of being shocked, they nodded knowingly. Penner is a free agent who will do whatever it takes to stay alive – and at some point, everyone will realize that leaving an unpredictable variable like Penner in the game would make each and every move exceedingly difficult.
Honestly, I just can’t see Penner making it to the Final Three – but I would love to be wrong.
9) Q: C’mon, admit it, Pete’s pretty good at this game, right?
A: I know it’s rude to answer a question with a question, but has any player ever had as wide a gulf between his strong moves and his asinine ones as Pete?
On the one hand, he clearly understands Survivor strategy; he’s willing to use whatever players he needs to achieve his ends (for example, using Skupin rather than targeting him), and he’s working hard to create a winnable endgame for himself (he knows that Abi is the perfect goat).
On the other end of the spectrum, Pete, the overconfident soul-reader, utterly botched the “does Malcolm have an idol” situation. When Lisa revealed to Pete what she knew and outlined her plan to blindside Malcolm, Pete should have known that scenarios like this leave castaways with two choices: Either go with the plan or take out the planner. Continuing this season’s theme of stupid third options, however, Pete decided that he would confront Malcolm, throw Lisa under the bus by identifying her as the source of the intel, and then opt to leave BOTH of them in the game.
With that one move, Pete has alienated two powerful players and four votes (add Denise and Skupin to Malcolm and Lisa).
10) Q: Despite failing in her attempt to blindside Malcolm, is this now Lisa’s game to lose?
Okay, that probably requires a bit of explanation. Here it is, rapid-fire:
** Lisa’s plan to blindside Malcolm was well-reasoned, timely, and, above all, necessary. It’s easy to criticize her for entrusting that plan to Pete, but she needed people to go along with her if she was going to pull it off, right? And how could she have known that Pete would be such an idiot and ruin everything? She gave Pete precisely what he needed – a reason not to trust Malcolm – but Pete simply couldn’t look past his own hurt feelings (How could Malcolm lie to me? And how could Lisa come up with such a great plan? I’m the Mastermind!) to see that Lisa was right.
** She understands that playing both sides is a double-edged sword: while it makes her vulnerable to the sort of backlash she experienced at Tribal Council (when Probst accused her of destroying Tandang’s game), it also empowers her to think and play in ways that those beholden to a single alliance cannot.
** She not only knows the phrase “situational ethics,” but she’s also willing to apply them in her approach to the endgame.
** She understands that following the noble path – bringing along worthy opponents to the Final 5 – appeals to her better nature, but she knows that sticking with players who will struggle to get jury votes is more likely to end with her winning the game.
** When she’s got her back against the wall, she’s discovered that even in Survivor, the truth can set you free. When Penner approached Lisa and Skupin, she admitted they were talking about voting Penner out; when Malcolm said that Lisa had thrown him under the bus, she confessed; when she was called out for playing both sides, she calmly explained that while this was true, she was loyal only to Tandang. This approach certainly wouldn’t work for everyone, but it absolutely works for her.
Shockingly enough, it turns out that Blair REALLY knows how to play this game. Some of her double-dealings may end up costing her at the end – assuming she makes the moves necessary to get there – but I certainly wouldn’t bet against her. Skupin remains my top pick to win it all, but Lisa’s gaining fast; if Mike doesn’t emerge in the next episode or two, she’ll leave him in the dust.
11) Fortunes rising: Denise. Penner was the initial target; everyone on the riverboat reward challenge BBQ talked about breaking up the AoA; Malcolm had to wave around his idol to avoid being voted out; Skupin was openly discussed as an outsider in his alliance; Lisa was called out repeatedly during Tribal Council; and even Carter’s name was kicked around as a possible elimination during the crazy pre-TC strategy scramble. Notice who’s name was completely absent from all that drama? Yep. Denise. When the dust settles, Denise is, without a doubt, going to be one of the last ones standing.
12) Fortunes falling: Artis. Here’s a list of players who were targeted during the episode: Penner, then Skupin, then Malcolm, then Jeff, then Carter, then Pete. As my highly observant wife pointed out: “That’s all of the remaining men – except Artis.” As if we needed more evidence that Artis is entirely irrelevant this season, right? Seriously, when every male player is being seen as a threat and yet your name never gets mentioned, you’re either doing something really right (getting everyone to target each other and leaving you out of it) or something really wrong (being utterly useless and extraneous). I’m going with door number two.
13) Prediction time: With Penner leading the charge and the Lisa/Skupin tandem hopefully willing to flip, at long last, the AoA will be targeted. Sadly, I suspect that the Tandang idol will protect both Abi and Pete; as unlikely as it is that Abi would give her idol to Pete, the other players just can’t risk having the AoA emerge from the F9 Tribal Council unscathed. The only real goal is to reduce the AoA from three members to two, and so Artis – who has done nothing but bitch and moan in all of his confessionals – will have something new to complain about: His game is over.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – thanks for giving it a read. OH, HEY! I just had an idea – we’re probably going to get a recap episode during Thanksgiving week, right? How about a Bill Simmons-esque mailbag? If you have any questions you’d like to ask, shoot ‘em to me at andrew [dot] brooks [dot] baker [at] gmail [dot] com
and I’ll pull together a column for everyone to read during the fortnight of downtime between episodes.