Survivor: Cambodia

The Survivor Strategic Game: The Missing Link

Before I dig into this week’s strategy, I must take a few moments to celebrate such a brilliant episode. We not only saw a surprise exit for a confident Andrew Savage, but we also witnessed a coming-out party for Kelley Wentworth. The viewers have known that Kelley was playing a smart under-the-radar game, but few players realized it until she played the idol. The editing didn’t give away Savage’s departure and spent much of the episode preparing us for a “Stephen vs. Joe” battle. It was a thrilling use of misdirection to surprise us right along with the players.

The success of modern Survivor has come from its unpredictability, and this cast has brought it since the start. The second-chance theme has paid major dividends because everyone wants to win. Ciera may chide the majority for not playing to win, but they’re all competing in some fashion. Each individual in the nine-person alliance believed that the safe move worked for their game. It’s a great time to be a Survivor fan, and this season certainly has more surprises on the horizon. I suspect that other one-time players will be lining up for their second chance when this theme returns very soon.

What I loved about this episode was how its success wasn’t dependent on the final result. If Kelley had decided not to play her idol and left, it still would have worked. The immunity challenge had so much tension (plus Jeff talking about balls!) and involved huge stakes. Throwaway moments like Keith driving the “to tos” around were amazing. The mix of strategy, fun, and drama has lifted this season up among the greats so far. Even if we’re headed for more predictable exits (which I doubt), there’s still too much happening to expect boring television.

The Rise and Fall of Andrew Savage

Prior to this season, I was excited to see how Savage would adjust to the new game. He started well and built a solid alliance on the original Bayon. He also played nice with Abi-Maria (with a huge assist from Tasha) on Angkor. Savage wasn’t considered the game’s biggest threat and was in a good position to last for a while. He succeeded by playing a very direct game; he found his allies and stuck with them. That isn’t a terrible strategy because it made him predictable to other players. On the other hand, it also revealed an inflexible nature that hurt his game.

Savage had allies but made too many enemies. Savage had allies but made too many enemies.[/caption]

Like Butch from The Amazon, Savage truly believed in himself. He approached each twist from a singular perspective of how it impacted his game. You got the sense that he bought into the ideas of redemption spouted by Probst. The danger for Savage was the way he treated people who opposed his quest. Stephen wasn’t just a rival; he was dishonorable. Kass and Ciera were evil because they spoke out against him. Savage rarely seemed to consider the perspective of his opponents. This made him irritating and a larger target because of his attitude. The choice by Kelley, Ciera, and Abi to vote for Savage wasn’t just a strategic move. Because of his poor social game, they clearly reveled in the idea of knocking the arrogant guy off his perch.

We’ve seen many examples of players not recognizing the importance of being nice to everyone, including people they’re targeting. Russell Hantz berated his victims, and that attitude came back to haunt him twice. Even before the finals, it’s never wise to disregard anyone on Survivor. When you add that approach to Savage’s platitudes about mutual respect, it sounded hollow. Abi’s vote last week with the exclamation point was a clear indicator that removing him was personal. The smiles and high fives were about more than Kelley’s survival.

Savage wasn’t having any fun near the end, and that overly severe demeanor continued at the start of Ponderosa with Kass. I think he’s a decent guy, and he definitely brought a lot to this season. He also seemed to soften with Kass in the charming final Ponderosa scene. What he missed was the recognition of how others perceived him. Savage was burned by the Outcasts twist in Pearl Islands, but he also mismanaged the situation with Lil. The idol caused his exit this time, yet it wasn’t the primary reason he failed. That missing link with people he didn’t respect was his undoing. A perfect counterpoint is a guy like Jeremy, who learned from his mistakes in San Juan Del Sur. I haven’t seen him fighting or denigrating anyone, and his opponents seem to respect him. That approach will serve him well if he makes the end.

Targeting the Golden Boy (Again)

Joe is an intriguing character because of the difference in his physical and strategic games. He’s front and center in challenges and dares anyone to beat him. Away from the field, he’s unwilling to stick out his neck. His choice to stick with the group made sense, but it can be frustrating to his allies. Monica learned in Blood vs. Water that flirting with a change is often worse than rejecting it. Joe’s a nice guy and an incredible challenge player, but there are flaws in his game. It makes me wonder if Stephen’s quest is misguided. Why stick out his neck when Joe’s skills are obvious? No one is going to forget his presence.

Stephen is trying to take control of his fate, but it could be dangerous.

Stephen is trying to control his fate, but it could be dangerous.

Stephen’s efforts to take out Joe increased the danger for him this week. He’s following Ciera’s words and trying to own his fate, but it’s still very early. Stephen calls Joe his “white whale”, and I love his willingness to make the effort. He isn’t hiding behind shields or hoping that luck goes his way. The problem is making this pitch to allies who don’t share his interests. Jeremy is a close ally and proved that fact again this week. Even so, losing Joe doesn’t help his game. We saw with Savage how it always helps to have a bigger target on the board. Jeremy’s at the middle of a core group and needs to keep them together. Losing Joe might set the stage for total chaos.

A big question about this week’s vote was the lack of a split to guard against the idol. The majority could have easily set up a 5-4 split between Kelley and Ciera. In his People blog, Stephen explained why he was gun shy about that idea. Joe was ready to “go get Stephen” after learning about his plans from Savage. It wouldn’t take much for Joe to join the minority (and possibly Keith) to flip the script on Stephen. It’s another reason of the risk with Stephen’s efforts to take out Joe. There’s respect on both sides, but it is a game. It’s in Joe’s best interest to target Stephen if he can acquire the numbers. Given that fact, Stephen must keep pushing to vote out Joe or risk the consequences. No half measures, Stephen.

A positive sign for Stephen was the way his close allies convinced Savage to abandon his plan. Jeremy and Spencer both made strong arguments to retain Stephen for at least a short time. Tasha also wasn’t on board with the plan to remove him. It’s great that Stephen is such an important part of others’ plans. On the other hand, it should raise warning signs that he’s on the path to being a runner-up again. If players think they can beat him, it will protect Stephen from the vote. The issue is that it may also lead to history repeating itself in the end.

Making the Play

I’ve spent much of this blog talking about errors (and potential errors) from Savage and Stephen. I shouldn’t disregard the architect of this week’s big move. Kelley reminded us again why it’s so important to not tell anyone about the hidden immunity idol. Even if you only tell a single ally, the news usually finds its way to others. If there was any suspicion she’d found the idol, we would have seen a split vote. Kelley also recognized the perfect time to play the idol and went for it. Convincing Abi and Ciera to vote for Savage without telling them about the idol was the key. Kelley probably knew she was the target but still needed others to ensure the plan worked.

Can Kelley build on this week's big move?

Can Kelley build on this week’s big move?

Will Kelley suffer the fate of Malcolm in the Caramoan and exit quickly? Jenn’s idol play in Worlds Apart also felt important but just delayed her exit after Joe and Hali. In the near future, players may be gun shy about targeting Kelley. Next week’s previews suggest the immunity idol may not be so hidden. If people know who has the new idol (or some other advantage), it may leave Kelley open for another attack. I have my doubts she’ll be the next boot, however. Losing Savage may weaken the cohesion in the original Bayon alliance. If Joe doesn’t win immunity, he would also be a potential target. There are enough variables to give Kelley a decent shot.

Kelley needs to capitalize on this momentum and work to build a new alliance. Stephen seems open to working with Ciera, especially if Joe is on the table. On the flip side, Kelley could work with Joe and try to remove Stephen. In either scenario, she’s an important vote and could push the target off her back. Cracks in the top eight are there, but they still might close. Under-the-radar players like Kimmi and Keith seem good with the status quo. Spencer has found a solid spot in that group and probably won’t rock the boat. It may take a serious effort to flip the script. Even so, I’m not ready to count out Kelley at this point.

Who’s in the best position?

Keith is competing well at challenges and staying out of any drama.

Keith is competing well at challenges and staying out of any drama.

Keith: I’ve tried to vary this list based on what’s happening each week. However, I could basically put Keith in this spot every time. I’m not sure he has much chance to win, but Keith may find himself at the final Tribal Council. He’s a challenge competitor and came very close to beating Joe this time. He doesn’t strike fear in the others, though. Keith also is great fun, and his silly reward challenge interlude reminded us of that fact. You can’t underestimate how far you can go being likable and unthreatening in this game. There may come a time where others don’t want to face him in the end, but we won’t be there for a while.

Spencer: How did this happen? Spencer has been on the outs multiple times and identified by many as a threat. He’s now found solid allies in Jeremy and Stephen and is right in the middle of the big alliance. Kelley didn’t mention him as a leader, and that’s a good thing. Spencer has also been close to Joe both times, so that may come into play if Joe wins a few more challenges. He still has little power to control the game, but that may not be a bad thing. If the game shifts against Jeremy’s group, Spencer should be able to switch sides without much blowback.

Who’s in trouble?

Ciera was all smiles after the vote, but she still has some work to do.

Ciera was all smiles after the vote, but she has work to do.

Ciera: Kelley was the target, but Ciera was the likely second choice. If the majority sticks together next week, they may decide that Ciera is a safer vote. She’s been very outspoken at Tribal Council about making big moves. This approach could play in her favor if Stephen, Spencer, and others want to flip the script. Stephen has shown an interest in working with Ciera. On the other hand, it also makes her a real target. Ciera wants to play and won’t drift into third place. Will her bold statements come back to haunt her? There’s a good chance Ciera may do well, but she’s still in danger at this moment.

Stephen: There’s nowhere to hide for Stephen now that his plans for Joe are out in the open. If Joe keeps winning immunity and goes all out against Stephen, he may find some willing allies. I’m still reassured by the way he survived this week’s vote. Stephen has friends willing to speak up for him, so he could be in a pretty good spot. Even so, they may not decide it’s worth the risk the next time the danger appears. Stephen’s a smart guy and playing hard, and I’m pulling for him to do well. I just wish he’d held back with his plans for Joe until the time was right.

I love this season and believe we may see another fan vote as early as season 33. Third time’s the charm? There are no dull players remaining, and even quieter figures like Kimmi and Keith have still had their moments. The multiple swaps in the pre-merge game ensured there was no chance for obvious votes. Two original Bayon players have left since the merge, and the alliances have a wide range of different relationships within them. Volatile characters like Abi have taken charge and then slipped into the background, and it shows the depth of this cast.

Kelley did more than just blindside Savage by playing the idol; she surprised the whole group. Her first game was short, so she wasn’t considered a top player before this point. I don’t see this type of moment happening again. We’ll probably see more split votes, new alliances, and lots of complex strategic thinking as the end gets closer. Where will it all lead? Eleven players remain, and I still have little idea of who’s truly running the show. I can’t wait to see what happens.

Become a patron of RHAP