Survivor San Juan Del Sur

The Survivor Strategic Game: Paranoia is Your Friend

We’ve seen this situation play out so many times on Survivor. A player has the hidden immunity idol and strides confidently into Tribal Council with no intention of playing it. That person usually gives a confessional beforehand talking about not needing the idol this time. Meanwhile, the minority alliance is scheming to eliminate that player with the idol in their pocket. The Tribal Council includes obvious giveaways from the usurpers, and the editors cleverly pull reaction shots to hint that it will reveal the truth. As viewers, we scream, “Play your idol!” at the TV during the eternal moment after Jeff asks if anyone wants to play the idol. There have been a few exceptions like Penner and Yau Man who realized they were heading out and made the right choice at the last moment. However, that doesn’t usually happen. John Rocker’s fate was the perfect example where the victim had no idea he was in danger.

The unsuspecting target this week was Jon, who just executed a surprise blindside of Jeremy last week. Fear drove that decision, but he looked comfortable this time heading towards the vote. After lasting only seven minutes in the immunity challenge and stepping off for candy (really?), the editors were setting him up for a fall. When Reed initially approached him about splitting the vote against Wes and Keith, Jon’s first reaction was not to trust Reed. Those concerns quickly disappeared and revealed a lack of awareness about his game status. Jon participated in removing two big threats, so there were no shields for him. Did Reed and Alec really care that much about removing Keith or Wes? These questions barely surfaced for Jon and his alliance, and it made him the perfect target for a quick exit. Jon’s paranoia about Jeremy’s chances in front of a jury drove his decision last time. He should have used that same fear to recognize the danger from Reed and his allies. Instead, Jon needed a lifeline to stick around.

Jon’s unlikely savior was Natalie, who played the role of the viewer and had to push him to play the idol. Despite a major gaffe from Keith at Tribal Council (more on that later), Jon still believed he had Reed and Alec on his side. Only Natalie was suspicious of Reed’s attempts to confirm his loyalty. Her delivery to Jon was priceless and showed disbelief that he could be that dense. It’s fascinating that a guy with so much paranoia about Jeremy wouldn’t have the same feeling about Reed. The aerialist just dominated the immunity challenge and spent last week searching Keith’s bag. Would he really be content to be number six in their alliance? At Tribal Council, Jaclyn even said that her group was “five strong”. If Reed and Alec weren’t really part of their alliance, they might not be such loyal subjects. Alec did a terrible job lying to them right before Tribal Council, so his nervousness should have revealed the alternate plan.

Setting the Trap

Reed saw an opportunity and nearly succeeded. Reed saw an opportunity and nearly succeeded.[/caption]

Reed voted with the two pairs last week to take out Jeremy, but he’s an opportunist who saw a chance to take out a threat. Reed is the strongest physical competitor remaining in the game, and he might have the best strategic knowledge. That said, he needed to break up the top four or risk a numbers disadvantage. The key was realizing that Keith and Wes wouldn’t hold a grudge. Neither guy has shown a strong emotional connection to the other players. Keith only talked to the women when he walked past them, and he spent a lot of time spitting near the water. Their laid-back approach benefited Reed because they were willing to sign on for his plan to blindside Jon. Alec had few qualms about joining them and seemed excited to just be included. All it took was a split vote, a move that frequently opens the door for trouble. Players get too cute and try to account for every possibility, but it increases their risk.

Val’s departure provides a fitting example of why splitting votes is problematic. If Josh hadn’t gotten the hint of trouble, Val and Jaclyn would have taken out Baylor. When you have the numbers, giving the minority a chance to take you out is foolish. If Jon and Missy were so concerned about Keith’s idol, they could have voted out Alec. The prospect of flushing the idol and removing an opponent was too enticing to ignore. They also needed to consider the source of the idea. Reed gained little by taking out Keith or Wes. It gave him fewer options for toppling the leading pairs. His best play was finding a way to inspire chaos and pull in enough allies to turn the tables. The one flaw in his plan was targeting Jon because he might play the idol. Reed probably didn’t know that Jon had it, though he could have surmised as much after Jon’s time on Exile. A safer target was Jaclyn, who would remove a number and negate Jon’s influence. Missy and Baylor were also good choices for the same reason. It’s easy to second guess the ultimate decision, but it still would have worked if Keith and Natalie hadn’t been involved. To figure out what Keith was thinking, let’s look back at how he’s played the game.

A Very Peculiar Game

One of the season’s most entertaining characters has been Keith, who’s provided great TV despite understanding little about the game. He called out Jeremy unnecessarily about the idol, which then basically jumped out at him. His luck has been fairly good, and the tribe swap worked out despite putting him with three pairs on Coyopa. Keith spends much of his screen time spitting and mumbling words, but he’s a competitor who competes well in challenges. Unlike his son, Keith’s trying to win the game. The challenge comes with his inability to keep his mouth shut. He criticized Baylor to her mom, which is never a wise move. He also retained the idol clue in his bag for Reed to find last week. This mistake was the main reason he became the prominent target this time. Even so, nothing compared to what he accomplished for Jon’s game with his error at this week’s Tribal Council.

It’s easy for the editors to overstate the importance of a statement at Council by inserting reaction shots that match their story. That didn’t appear to be the case this time. When Reed called out that Wes or Keith probably had an idol, he was selling the bluff that he was voting with the main alliance. Unfortunately, Keith’s defensive reaction started a chain reaction that ended with Natalie saying “Dude, play your idol” to Jon. By adamantly proclaiming “Stick to the plan!”, Keith revealed that there was a plan that he believed would work. The majority felt that Keith or Wes would play the idol and watch the other exit.

For the viewers, Keith’s gaffe led to brilliant TV and many side conversations while Jeff kept asking questions. Reed handled the damage control pretty well, but it wasn’t enough to convince everyone. After so many Tribal Councils, how did Keith make such a rookie mistake? It shouldn’t surprise us given the way he talks about everything. Keith doesn’t seem willing to commit to a lie and keeps his strategy simple. Thankfully, this isn’t a situation where terms like “loyalty” and “honor” are affecting his thinking. Instead, Keith’s learning the game on the fly and hasn’t mastered the verbal side. He hasn’t made huge enemies, and the idol was actually a barrier to his progress. Without the target that comes with the idol, Keith might recover while threats like Reed go home. The benefit of losing Wes is not having a partner that could make Keith seem more dangerous. Only two pairs remain, and that could keep the attention on that group. Natalie’s idol also could flip the game once again very soon.

A Blessing and a Curse

John Rocker’s idol left the game after the third episode, and no one located it until this week. This is stunning when you consider the fact that clues appeared on Exile Island each time. I’d forgotten there was even a third idol until Natalie started furiously searching for it at camp. Baylor joined her for the quest, and it’s interesting to note how either could have grabbed it from under the log. Natalie ended up winning it and sold the discovery like it helped both of them. Idols for the group rarely benefit anyone besides the holder, and I don’t see Natalie using it for anyone else. She pushed Jon to play his idol but wasn’t going to stick out her neck for him. It recalls Malcolm’s “Hold up, bro” move to get Reynold’s idol in the Caramoan while having one in his pocket. Natalie was helping Jon, and her action wasn’t as self-serving as Malcolm’s. Even so, it benefited her strategy to take out another guy and then focus on Jon. Without the idol, he’ll be more vulnerable now. A question is why Natalie didn’t just allow the vote to happen given her interest in removing Jon. The answer falls with the numbers and Reed getting too much power. Natalie wanted Wes or Keith to go first to ensure the minority alliance didn’t gain control.

At Tribal Council, Natalie described the idol as “a blessing and a curse”, and that’s an accurate description. Its powers are limited, and the danger with holding it sometimes outweighs the benefits. Natalie should keep her idol a secret to as many players as she can. Baylor will probably tell Missy, but informing Jon and Jaclyn would be dangerous. Despite losing her best ally in Jeremy, Natalie’s position has improved because she isn’t considered a huge threat. The idol search revealed her good relationship with Baylor, and I don’t sense that anyone dislikes her. She’s competing well in challenges and has avoided the sexist views of doing nothing that may hurt Baylor and Jaclyn. Having the idol gives her a trump card to move forward, and the trick is finding the right time to use it successfully.

Rewards and a Winning Story

It wouldn't be a reward challenge this season without some type of trade.

It wouldn’t be a reward challenge this season without some type of trade.

The legacy of Survivor San Juan Del Sur may be the constant trading. Reed continued that trend by giving his reward to Missy, who hadn’t enjoyed one so far. Unlike Jeremy and Natalie’s move last week, Reed’s choice didn’t seem designed solely to curry favor. Instead, his focus was connecting with Keith on the plan to take out Jon. Reed did all the right legwork to marshal the forces against Jon, and it nearly worked. His challenge will be finding another plan now that this one has failed. Reed was the prime target before he won immunity, and he’ll need to keep winning to ensure his fate. It’s possible that production will hide another idol, so getting to Exile Island should be his top priority next week. The odds are against him, but continuing to push against Jon could give Reed another opportunity before it’s too late.

Helping out the local community by donating goods is probably a real treat to Survivor players. Unfortunately, it rarely provides much excitement for viewers. The baseball reward was all about Jon and Jaclyn, and the editors couldn’t help but connect a cute kid to their inability to have children. You could easily read this as building the story of the eventual winner. Given the revelations about Jon’s father, he has quite a case for the heart-warming champion. On the other hand, we aren’t seeing the same edit for his strategic game. Natalie saved Jon by telling him to play the idol, and that moment could hurt him in the end. A smart player could point out that Jon wasn’t aware and bumbled his way to the finals. This doesn’t mean that Jon has no chance to win. He’s still a likable guy who could triumph against the right opponents. If he does grab the million, the editors will have plenty of footage to use in the reunion.

A Food Weakness

Wes didn't receive much interest from the editors.

Wes didn’t receive much interest from the editors.

It’s telling that I’ve come this far and barely mentioned the person voted out this week. Wes was an entertaining and likable guy, but he didn’t bring much to the game. He was sent to Exile after the reward challenge, and we never even saw him there. Conventional wisdom might suggest the lack of screen time would hint that he was going nowhere. Instead, he just wasn’t that important as an individual player. Losing Wes hurts Reed’s group because he was a reliable number and part of their hopes to flip the game. The majority alliance didn’t care if Keith or Wes left; they were focused on removing the idol. If Wes had accepted Keith’s offer to use the idol, his dad would have been the victim. His choice to let Keith remain showed the reasons that Wes didn’t bring much in terms of strategy. He had a great time but seemed okay with the end result. Unlike Jeremy, Wes wasn’t a huge fan who might have sleepless nights about losing.

Wes did provide one of the season’s most entertaining moments after his exit at the immunity challenge. He stuck it out for a while but couldn’t resist chicken wings and beer. Wes then recalled his victory in a chicken nugget eating contest and complimented Jeff Probst on his cameo in Two and a Half Men. He’s a regular guy and exemplifies both the charm and challenges of this season. The strategy was mostly limited until the merge, but fun characters have provided entertaining moments during every episode. I’m okay with Wes’ exit because others with more game remain, but his laid-back personality was refreshing.

Who’s in the best position?

Natalie and Baylor are surprisingly secure inside their alliance.

Natalie and Baylor are surprisingly secure inside their alliance.

Natalie: The best thing for Natalie’s game was losing Jeremy. She’s still part of the majority alliance and earned more trust by saving Jon at Tribal Council. Finding the idol and strengthening her bond with Baylor won’t hurt either. Natalie’s a strong competitor who could win challenges; she barely lost to Reed in a brutal endurance battle that lasted more than three hours. If she can keep her idol from becoming common knowledge and find a way to remove Jon, Natalie has a great chance to make the end. Reaching the jury with Missy and Baylor (or a random guy like Alec) would set Natalie up to win the million.

Baylor: Despite receiving votes at nearly every Tribal Council, Baylor is facing little danger. Even if the tables turn against her alliance, Jon and Missy would be the first targets. Baylor’s also has the potential to be the perfect goat to bring to the end. Her reputation for not doing work and just following her mom won’t help in the end. If Baylor’s willing to take risks and remove Jon, she’ll be part of the only two-person voting bloc remaining. That should make it hard to remove Baylor when the numbers dwindle, and Missy’s solid play makes her a more dangerous opponent at the final Tribal Council.

Who’s in trouble?

Reed: Despite lurking in the shadows for much of the game, Reed had a great chance to seize control. Instead, his deception was revealed without any gains. He’s the best athlete and playing hard, so letting Reed stick around would be unwise. His best move is getting to Exile, finding a new idol (assuming it’s hidden again), and winning immunities. There’s always a chance that something could turn in Reed’s favor. Beyond the two pairs, there is not much loyalty among this group. If he can sow more dissension, Reed could survive. Even so, he’s the obvious target at the next Tribal Council.

It will be interesting to see how Jon reacts to barely surviving.

It will be interesting to see how Jon reacts to barely surviving this week.

Jon: Despite sitting in the front of an alliance of five, Jon is also the obvious target for the underdogs. He doesn’t have the idol anymore, so Jon needs to be on guard for any revolt. He was oblivious to the threat even after Keith gave it away at Tribal Council. Will the last-minute save open Jon’s eyes? I have my doubts that he can maneuver his way to the end. Natalie’s idol might also lead to his demise. If he does make it, Jon can’t be sitting next to someone who’s played their way through adversity. Natalie and Reed would be dangerous opponents that could attack his understanding of the game. Jon needs to avoid the vote, keep his alliance together, and reach the end with the right people. That’s a tall order for anyone.

This episode continued a great stretch that began after Julie’s unfortunate quit. There’s been improvement and surprises with each vote since the merge. If this momentum continues to the end, we could be in store for an exciting finish. Each time a player seems ready to take control, they’re quickly dispatched or pushed to the bottom. Next week’s double episode should clarify if we’re heading for a satisfying finish. The components are in place for a good ending, and I wouldn’t have made that claim three weeks ago. Can Natalie continue her resurgence, or will Jon finally take charge and realize he’s the prime target? These questions and more should keep Survivor fun as we enter the final stretch of this odd season.

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