Survivor Kaoh Rong

The Young Lasses Strike Back

In her Ponderosa video, Julia talked about wanting to shatter one particular Survivor stereotype: “The young girl either gets voted out first, second, third, at the very beginning or kinda gets dragged along to the end.” That very same stereotype prompted me to write a pre-season blog out of frustration that there were so many young women on this cast. I feared we were in for a season where the women were little more than pawns or window dressing. Happily, neither my fears nor Julia’s came to pass.

I intend to revisit those thoughts in a post-season blog, but here and now, we are going to celebrate post-merge Kaoh Rong in all its blindsiding glory. Three players in particular—one from each tribe—have stood out in the battle to gain control of the endgame, and guess what? They’re all women under thirty.

Cydney – Kicking It New School

Survivor Brains, Beauty, Brawn, and Blazing Blindsides[/caption]

The insanity really began with Cydney. It all seemed so straightforward at the merge: the Brawns and Brains locked in a power struggle with Nick and Michele as swing votes. Neal’s medevac had surely only delayed the inevitable.

But Cydney’s seen Cagayan—I’m not sure how much more of Survivor she has seen, but more so than any other player, Cydney has resolutely followed the Tony Vlachos style of gameplay: i.e. let your competitors meticulously line up their pieces… then kick the chessboard over.

The great thing about this is how loyal and quiet Cydney was pre-merge. We’ve come to expect somebody to start pulling a Vlachos once the merge hits, but I don’t think any of us had Cydney on our radars. We should have. Remember how first boot Darnell believed he had left her at the bottom of the pecking order? Jenny and Alecia regarded her as an ally, too. Cydney’s been backstabbing her way through the game since day one.

Yet to outward appearances, she dutifully stuck close to Jason, telling him about women’s alliances and idol clues. He trusted her completely; she never fully trusted him. In an Entertainment Weekly deleted scene she explains her insecurities over the bond that the men shared, i.e. Jason and Scot and later Nick. She spent her sojourn on Chan Loh beach befriending Debbie and Michele. Come the merge, she had a women’s alliance ready to take out a rival for Jason’s loyalty in Nick.

As Jason could not forgive her for this betrayal, Cydney proceeded to adopt Aubry (who she’d known less than a week!) as her new boo and turn the women’s alliance on its leader, Debbie. In doing this, she took charge of Michele and Julia’s votes while isolating Aubry from the Brains as Joe would not go along with the plan. The very next vote, she and Aubry worked with Joe and Tai, leaving Michele and Julia out in the cold so that they could finally break up the power couple of the Brawn men.

With Scot gone, she finally succeeded in patching things up with Jason (as well as Michele), which left her considering the option of using their numbers to blindside Tai. This time, she chose to take a week off and stay the course. Weeks before Stephen Fishbach would put a name to voting blocs, Cydney had mastered them.

Cydney’s gameplay feels restless rather than measured—this confessional suggests hers is a one-step-at-a-time game rather than trying to analyze a path to the end and follow that. Nevertheless, she’s sharp, and she’s doing a great job of keeping the other players scrambling (with the key exception of Aubry). As often as she has flipped, she’s never flipped to the bottom, and honestly, if she can make it to the end, she’d have a compelling résumé.

What is less clear is if she’d have the jury’s respect. The downside of chaotic gameplay is that a jury is as likely to blame you for bumbling into the finals than credit you for navigating your way through the game. Cydney’s got a way with words, but I don’t know if she has the rhetoric to convert a jury that’s looking to pull apart her arguments.

To be fair, Tony got away with a weak final tribal council performance, but Tony had two advantages that Cydney lacks. Firstly, as good as her own social game is, she does not have a Trish. A common theme in Cagayan post-boot interviews was that Trish put out a lot of the fires that Tony started; every time Tony betrayed one of his allies, Trish was the one pulling the alliance back together.

If Cydney and Jason tried to talk to each other after Nick’s blindside, we never saw it. It’s entirely possible that they never spoke, which would be a failure on both sides, but it would explain why Scot described her as brooding and petty while Debbie perceived animosity in her.

Regardless, Jason and Scot were upset by her betrayal and held her accountable on a personal level rather than a game one—on the basis that it wasn’t a smart game move. I’ll disagree with that latter point. As Shirin pointed out in the podcast, staying loyal to Jason and Scot through to the final three was unlikely to have won Cydney the game. They only became obvious jury goats after her move. Did she turn on them too early? Perhaps, but these days, it’s often better to err on the side of sooner.

Trying to keep to a Brawn final three did not pay off for Trish, but I don’t think that’s why Scot and Jason couldn’t bring themselves to take Cydney back into the fold. It’s possible the Trish-outlook is more suited for a female game: pandering to an alpha male with the intent of being the power behind the throne. It’s not a dynamic we generally see from an alpha male towards a woman of color.

It’s even more likely that it’s simply an age difference. As with Trish and Tony, there is almost a decade between Jason and Cydney, making it hard for the senior partner to fully respect their junior. It doesn’t help that the latter pair are considerably younger than the former, and both are stubborn—while Scot had never trusted Cydney in the first place.

3

I demand to be carried, bro!

However, more than anything else, Jason and Scot have always shown a lot of frustration when the game isn’t going their way or when other players take a different approach to them. Scot, in particular, has been quick to burn bridges with players whose gameplay he doesn’t respect: He wrote off Darnell, Alecia, and Peter before Cydney. The same thing was true of Jeremy Collins in San Juan Del Sur so this shouldn’t be taken as the sum of Scot’s gameplay, but he and Jason were far too quick to react after Nick’s blindside. They had been in the majority the entire game, and they were not going to forgive the ally that had thrown that away.

It’s frustrating from an outside strategy viewpoint, because at that time, they could probably have reassured Cydney, drawn her back in along with Tai and Julia—maybe even Michele—and still had a majority against the Brains. Instead, their camp sabotage confirmed Cydney’s fears that Nick had been a more important part of their gameplan than she was. They called it psychological warfare, but that wasn’t how most of the tribe took it—nor us viewers. ‘Psy-ops’ was simply a convenient excuse for venting their tempers.

This, by the way, happens more often in Survivor than anybody admits. The entire game is designed to bring emotions to the surface; that’s what makes the big television moments happen. Not a single decision gets made in Survivor that doesn’t have some emotional influence.

Strategy in Survivor serves one of two purposes: the first is to help a player see past their emotions and analyze their best path through the game objectively; the second is to rationalize the game move they emotionally want to make. Thanks to a little thing called cognitive dissonance, it’s practically impossible to be sure which is the case for any given move, but the latter is something more players need to anticipate in their tribemates.

NB: Remember the previous two paragraphs. We’ll be coming back to that point.

It wasn’t until Scot walked out of the game with his idol that Jason calmed down. The bounty hunter had gone from the brink of seizing control to losing every resource he had with a single shake of Tai’s head. It was a much subdued Jason that awoke on the morning of day twenty-eight. No sabotage this time; at last, he decided to hide his anger and play nice. He and Cydney reconnected with a plan to blindside Tai, but ultimately, it was too little too late. Cydney was comfortable with Aubry.

Did Cydney discuss Jason’s pitch with Aubry? Clearly it was common knowledge since she brought it up at the well in front of the entire alliance—including Tai. Taking out Tai had also come up on the reward before Jason even suggested it to Cydney (that we saw.) It would be entirely logical for Cydney to ask Aubry her opinion on whether or not they should go with Jason and Julia’s plan. Perhaps for Cydney, Aubry is the boo who can check her.

Regardless of how Aubry felt, should Cydney have pushed for Tai’s blindside to happen? She’s not been shy about giving her opinion on who should go before now—and I think it’s safe to assume that it was her call, not Michele’s. Tai holds a lot of power through the final five, and it’s not necessarily wise to let his boot wait until final four (not with his challenge record). Switching to an alliance with Jason, Julia, and Michele might also be prudent for Cydney, with regards to finals opponents—though it seems most likely she would need to win the final four challenge in that case.

On the other hand, Jason is only a jury goat as long as he is neutered. Give him power over a vote, and he’s got a case again. Julia was a jury threat and entirely too close to Jason; if Cydney does plan on reaching the end with Jason (and she should certainly consider it!), it was more important for her to eliminate Julia than Tai.

The downside is that she’s disappointed Jason again. Will he forgive her a second time or will he resume his plans of vengeance?

The other element of Tony’s game missing from Cydney’s is an idol. Kass brought up an interesting statistic when she observed that from Cagayan onwards, every winner had found an immunity idol at some point in the game. Considering how crazy the gameplay has become on Survivor, it’s not entirely surprising that the winners have had that extra advantage, whether they use it to save themselves, to deter votes, or simply to take ownership of a flashy move in front of the jury. Is the corroborating rule now that if you don’t have an idol, you can’t risk rocking the boat?

Cydney had tried to secure an idol for herself but had been forced to abandon that idea and let her ally take it instead. That wasn’t necessarily a bad game move, until she burned her bridges with said ally. If we believe that Cydney never intended to sever ties with Jason, it made perfect game sense to take out Nick. Yet had she anticipated that Jason would react so bitterly, it would have been a far better move to take out the one player she knew had an idol. The first post-merge Tribal Council was her best opportunity to blindside Jason, eliminating the threat of both his idol and the super idol from the game.

Cydney failed, and that meant a minority that contained two idols and two very angry men… not to mention a hippie and his chicken.

Julia – Why Wait for Your Second Chance?

Survivor

This is not the face of a wallflower.

Before the game began, almost all of us had doubts about Julia, the second youngest person ever to play Survivor. Certainly, for the first half of the season, she seemed to be living up to those fears, as she was almost completely absent from our screens, getting a quieter edit than even Joe, and she came within a whisker of being eliminated at her first tribal council. But then came the merge and suddenly Julia was boldly putting herself out there as the swing vote between the Brains and the Brawns.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to guest on the Dom and Colin podcast, and one of the things I said then was that Julia was playing like a returnee. To explain this, let’s take a quick look at Michele’s game, which is the prototypical younger woman’s first-time appearance on Survivor. Michele can talk some sound Survivor theory in confessionals, but she has played cautiously, feeling out her tribes and choosing which alliance she feels more comfortable in. She’s made herself accessible to people, hidden her frustrations and been willing to cut allies.

All this has kept her in the majority barring one vote. She probably has the connections to make a move if she wants to, but are any of us expecting her to do so? The common regret of younger women in their first game is that they didn’t start playing sooner: see Parvati Shallow, Andrea Boehlke, Ciera Eastin, Kelley Wentworth. None of those women played an obviously bad game their first time around, but they kicked it up a few gears for their second. (Though it should be noted that that didn’t necessarily pan out any better for them…)

Still, Julia went straight into that higher gear. We didn’t see much of her at Beauty, and then she was isolated on To Tang before becoming a bottom feeder on Gondol, but there was always a confidence to her. She was aware of how her age disadvantaged her and was determined to compensate.

Going with Cydney’s plan to unite the women and boot Nick was overzealous. While the Beauty women’s alliance had been solid, Julia had more ties with Nick and Scot than she did with Cydney, Debbie, or Aubry. On the other hand, Nick’s removal from the game proved Julia did not need to be carried to be a swing vote (bro). Once Scot and Jason made themselves into brutally obvious goats by sabotaging the camp, Julia did with them what Nick had tried to do with Aubry: take advantage of the bottom feeders.

One vital piece of information we are missing is Julia’s relationship with Tai through the merge. From Nick’s interviews, it sounded as if Julia and Michele had brought Tai into the vote against the other men, though he had mistakenly voted for Jason instead of Nick. That would have been a smart move on the Beauty girls’ part, to keep that trust there. Yet Tai went straight back to Scot and Jason afterward, and all indications were that the women considered Tai to be part of the minority.

Survivor

Tai liked chickens; Julia liked duck(face)s. The pair were just incompatible from the start.

If Julia did have some sort of working relationship with Tai, that would have been another point in favor of flipping to the men. Yet we never see them talking to each other, which seems like a colossal oversight. Did Julia deliberately steer clear of Tai to avoid the perception of Beauty ties? Or was there a more tangible rift between the two?

Joining the men’s team at the reward was hardly the subtlest way of playing both sides, and while Debbie was willing to give Julia the benefit of the doubt, Cydney and Aubry were immediately suspicious. Had Michele, Julia’s closest ally, been willing to flip, that would have given her the numbers to pull off a move, but Michele had been put off by the sabotage and refused to work with the Brawn men.

Despite this, Jason and Scot welcomed the teenager with open arms, and Julia (who also kept a cool head in the challenges) was able to win immunity and dodge the retribution for her transparent play. It’s possible Michele warned her that she was a target; certainly Julia ducked under the radar for a few days. She stayed loyal to the women for that vote; then again, they were voting off Debbie instead of one of her guys.

Jason and Scot referred to Julia as their double agent, yet while she fed them information, it doesn’t seem that they returned the favor. It has remained unclear just how much any of the women knew about the idols and the potential for a super idol. Cydney knew Jason had an idol, and Scot thought she may have overheard some of the information about the super idol, but he did not think she had shared that with the others. None of the women knew about Tai’s idol, though they might have deduced he was the most likely holder of Beauty’s idol. Similarly, they had to believe that one of Jason or Scot had the Brawn idol.

Who knew about the super idol? The minority’s only move was to play an idol on the right person, and when the women concocted their plan to boot Debbie, it was in the expectation that the men would play any idols before the vote not after.

Neal later told David Bloomberg on Twitter that he had told Aubry about the super idol, which seems to contradict that plan. It’s possible Neal is misremembering, but it’s also worth noting that after Scot went home, in a tribal council post mortem at Ponderosa. Neal and Debbie both said that they had not thought Tai would give up his idol to Scot—in fact, they were surprised he had returned Jason’s idol after the previous tribal council.

My theory is that when Neal discussed the idol with Aubry in the game, they came to the conclusion that nobody would give up their idol to create the super idol. She then discounted that possibility in her strategy for the Debbie vote, perhaps assuming that talk of a super idol was more likely to cause paranoia in her new alliance than to solve a problem. This was where things went disastrously wrong for the women’s alliance: the minority trio were able to retain their two idols going into final eight—and everybody now knew they had them.

While Julia might not have understood the references to a super idol, she could see that all Jason, Scot, and Tai needed to do was to play the idol correctly to get through the next vote. Then she could join them at final seven for a majority of four. She continued to lay low, going for the neutral reward of love letters and strategizing with the other women about their next move, but now she steered the conversation towards Tai and flushing his idol(s).

(Like the jury, the women might well have believed that Tai had not returned Jason’s idol; but either way, they could be confident he had at least one, along with the new advantage—and without the benefit of seeing Worlds Apart, the common belief seems to have been that the advantage was yet another idol.)

Having set up a plan to target Tai, Julia then brought that information to Jason and Scot who reciprocated with a final three deal. Scot’s a little hazy on whether they would have kept that, but Julia was happy. She had set the stage for Tai to play an idol and send Aubry home (without Julia actually having to flip on her). Then she could make her final decision on which side to go with at seven.

Scot Pollard, Survivor Kaoh Rong

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

There were two things wrong with Julia’s plan, and we can’t blame her for the first because she had no reason to anticipate it: the super idol. Ironically, if the idols did not have this extra power, Scot would have been safe. Jason had immunity, Scot would have played his idol to ensure his own safety, and Tai, knowing this, would not have risked the flip. If it weren’t for that twist, Jason, Scot, Tai, and Julia could be running Kaoh Rong now.

The other thing wrong with Julia’s plan was that too few people were trusting her. Aubry and Cydney anticipated her betrayal and were already working around it. Again, if both Tai and Scot had played their idols before the vote, there was nothing Aubry could have done. But that wasn’t the case.

To make matters worse, Jason and Scot failed to tell Julia about the super idol, catching her unawares when Tai did not actually play his idol. Ever bold, she prompted him to do it. We didn’t see any fallout from that, but it’s entirely possible that Aubry and Cydney took note. According to the plan Julia was supposed to be following, the goal was for Tai to go home with the idol in his pocket. As they, not Julia, stood in the path of the blowback, this would have devastated any remaining trust they had in her.

Julia survived that vote, but her position in the tribe was now clear, and she struggled to hide her resentment in the post-tribal council fallout. Still, she plowed ahead, plotting with Michele and Jason to find a way back into power. They came up with a perfectly plausible plan… They just couldn’t get Cydney to go for it. Even so, Michele only voted for Julia reluctantly and Julia came close to winning immunity again. (Perhaps, while everybody else was out in the water, she should have cut a deal with Michele to let her get the necklace.)

For every tribal council she attended, Julia was ready for a big move. At the final eight, Julia had her pieces laid for a major power play that should—from all the information she was working with—have paid off. I don’t know if she could have made her way to the end with Jason and Scot, but she had a good shot at doing so, and Survivor would have had a good shot at its first teenage winner.

Julia has poise to spare, and Aubry respected her game (and stated that she didn’t want to be sitting next to it.) Had she got to the final tribal council, she would have given some kick-ass answers to the jurors. If they weren’t her opponents, Jason and Scot would vote for her, and she’d probably clean up the Beauty votes too—especially if she put Michele on the jury. Perhaps Cydney wouldn’t vote for her “traitor-ass”, but I think Julia could and would stake her claim on every other juror’s parchment.

The question I want to know now is, if Julia played like a returnee in her first outing, what would her second be like? If she’s this bold and savvy at nineteen, what might she be able to do when she’s of an age with her tribemates? Give her ten years to finesse her social game, and think of the possibilities!

Perhaps I’m setting myself up for disappointment. After all, this season has also raised the bar for twenty-nine-year-olds…

Aubry – Bringing Old School Back

Let me show you how we did it back in '07.

Let me show you how we did it back in ’07.

The merge hadn’t gone well for the Brains, with their leader driving their Beauty allies into Brawn’s arms. Aubry, their most socially perceptive player, was stressed about being at the bottom and couldn’t see a way out of it—to make matters worse, she lost her closest ally, Neal, who had always been the voice of confidence in that partnership. Aubry needed another confident player to replace him: enter Cydney.

While it was Debbie who had built the initial bridge between Cydney and the Brains, Aubry forged a more enduring relationship. Both young women were Ivy Leaguers and they soon became the strategic core of the women’s alliance. So comfortable did Aubry grow with Cydney that she happily went against the remaining original Brains to sacrifice Debbie at the next vote.

Voting Debbie off was a huge risk to Aubry, since it’s almost certain that Debbie would never have turned against her. But equally, how much was Debbie hindering Aubry’s game? Aubry needed the safety net of Cydney to get Debbie out, but once Aubry was the senior partner in the dwindling Brains’ alliance, she engineered what just might be the most important move of the game: flipping Tai.

Firstly, in my opinion, Tai’s flip alone validates Aubry’s decision to cast Debbie off instead of, say, Michele. She would never have brought him on board under Debbie’s management. (Had she gone with Debbie’s plan and let the super idol take out Cydney, they should not have needed Tai, but it’s still arguable that flushing the idols without the blowback was a gamble worth taking and Aubry fixed her own mistake there.) Without Debbie, Aubry has moved forward as the recognized leader of the alliance. It is a dangerous position to be in, but one with a very high payoff if she can get to the end.

Secondly, there was something so Cirie-like about the move. After Debbie went home with the idols unplayed, the fandom was collectively crushed at the realization that it was going to be all but impossible to get the guys out. The women didn’t have the numbers to split the vote, so with the super idol, the minority trio was immune for at least one more round. What we forgot was that immunity never stopped Cirie in Micronesia (just ask Ozzy, Jason, or Erik); Aubry didn’t let it stop her. And like Cirie, she did it the old-fashioned way… with the social game.

A recurring theme in Kaoh Rong has been one player trying to work with another on the assumption that the latter needs them. They seek to take the needy player under their wing and offer reassurance—which comes off as condescension: Liz to Debbie, Nick to Michele, Debbie to Tai, Nick to Aubry, Scot and Jason to everybody… Aubry did not try to take Tai under her wing. Instead, her chat-up line was a story about how the game had made her cry.

Everybody knows Tai has struggled emotionally and morally with the game. From the first episode, we have seen him be determined to put aside his ethics, to bear in mind that it’s ‘just a game’, and to play it. He declared he loved trees but uprooted them in hope of finding an idol. He was a vegetarian, but he held a chicken while Caleb killed it in order to keep his tribe strong. Tai’s biggest problem is that he gets so anxious to do the correct strategic move over the correct moral one that he doesn’t think the strategy through.

Tai prefers starting literal fires to figurative ones.

Tai prefers starting literal fires to figurative ones.

The sabotage is a perfect example of this. Tai didn’t like it, but Jason and Scot had a good rationale ready for him. Tai battled his own feelings until, in a moment of personal triumph, he extinguished the campfire overnight. He was relieved he had been able to do it, but there was no in-game advantage to Tai in that action. And so it has been all game long: Tai weighs his head against his heart rather than the pros against the cons.

Despite putting out the fire, Tai still didn’t feel comfortable with Scot and Jason’s game. By dropping her bravado, Aubry met him on his level, and in so doing, validated his feelings. Instead of saying, “It’s just a game,” she made it permissible, normal to cry. (Rightly so. It’s an incredibly stressful game, and almost every player does shed tears over it at some point.)

The key information she let slip in this initial grooming was that ‘certain girls’ were targeting Tai. She didn’t name names, and we didn’t see Tai learn any, but it’s highly likely that Scot and Jason passed the same info onto Tai after hearing it from Julia. I won’t assume it was Aubry’s intention, but that would have corroborated her story. It also might have made Tai wary of Julia’s true motive if he concluded that she initiated the plan to flush his idol. (Again, I really wish we had seen more of Tai and Julia’s relationship.)

At any rate, Tai left that conversation saying, “I like that girl Aubry a lot.” We’ve heard that sentiment before—from Peter, Nick, Debbie, Scot… Clearly, she’s not just Cochran’s dream girl, so what’s Aubry’s secret? In the merge episode, Aubry said that somebody had to start talking to people “like a normal human being.” (In one of my favorite ironies of the season, this was right before her approach to Nick.) A recent confessional gives us more insight into her methods where she talks about her allies being “authentic human beings” in a way that Julia, Jason, and Scot aren’t.

She’s looking at it backward. I daresay Julia, Jason, and Scot are every bit as authentically human as the others in the cast, but those three tend to keep their game faces on—and in Julia’s case, she literally was acting the whole time, hiding her true age. It’s probably more accurate to say that Aubry’s game-style is to present herself as an authentic human being, and she has surrounded herself with those who have responded best to that.

That’s not to say she’s unconscious of what she’s doing. She stated preseason that she knows she comes across as awkward, and that gets people’s guards down so that she can get to know them better. This is a far cry from the approach of her spiritual mother, Sophie Clarke, who was horrified by her own breakdown one tribal council in South Pacific. Sophie viewed it as exposing her weaknesses, although she later conceded that the display of vulnerability might have helped her win the jury’s sympathies.

That’s in line with what we’ve seen from Aubry. A starting position on the Brains tribe is normally an immediate “potential hardcore strategist!” red flag. Cydney’s been able to hide her Ivy League education, but everybody started with the information that Aubry is intelligent. However, Aubry’s crises of confidence and vulnerability mitigated that, and while a day two meltdown wasn’t her plan, she was able to exploit her own weakness and make herself a sympathetic figure. (Being able to beast the first challenge for her tribe didn’t hurt her game-stock either.)

Indeed, what we’ve consistently seen from the other players is a sense almost of protectiveness when they talk about Aubry. In merge confessionals, Debbie insisted that Aubry had no need to feel guilty about how things had gone on Gondol beach, while Nick was just as firm that he would happily hang out with Aubry in real life. Jason and Scot, believing they were about to vote Aubry out, gave her their finest eulogy at tribal council by praising her challenge prowess. If nothing else, nobody wants Aubry to get a bad edit.

However, up until episode ten, Aubry’s gameplay largely consisted of nodding along with other people’s plans. When last I blogged, I said of Aubry: “She has all the skills she needs to take this game down. Can she bring them to the table when she needs to?” That question, somewhat against my expectations, has now been answered: “When I finally got my feet under me… Hell, no! Nobody’s going to tell me what to do!” Aubry pulled Tai over to her side, to take out her choice of target—even though that target was his closest ally.

A lot of people broke down Aubry’s pitch to Tai last week, Stephen Fishbach being one of the first and best. I won’t do that, but it’s still worth quoting in its entirety:

“I’m relying on you. You’re putting yourself out there so I want you to be comfortable. This is your game. You’re making a big move and I’m telling you that you have three people behind you. I’m positive.”

Remember when I said that one purpose of strategy was to rationalize the move a player wants to make? That is exactly what Aubry did with Tai. She had already groomed him to see her as one of the ‘good guys’. Ahead of the vital tribal council, she fed him a strategy behind flipping to her side. Finally, Tai could follow his heart because he believed he had chosen with his head.

And so it was that Aubry not only saved herself but took out the super idol with little more than her own charm. Perhaps Kass’ theory isn’t foolproof after all. Having an idol in this modern era of Survivor is a great aid, but the old methods still bear out. Some things never change…

Survivor

Nobody say “Top Five, baby!” or you’ll jinx it.

While Tai’s idol and advantage remain in the game, Aubry’s going to have to work to keep them on her side. Tai’s paranoid and smart enough to know the significance of Aubry being picked for the reward. Indeed, while it made all the sense in the world for Michele to pick Aubry and put out the information that she is supporting her alliance and its leaders, Cydney should perhaps have considered picking Joe or Tai while leaving Aubry behind to manage camp.

The flipside of that is that Aubry came with the ready excuse that she hadn’t had a meal since the merge, ten days earlier, and as Stephen Fishbach reminded us in Cambodia, even your closest allies need reassuring. Besides, neither Jason nor Julia had anything they could say to Tai and Joe. Still, Cydney made a statement when she picked Aubry, and I’m not sure she’s fully realized that.

The women also chose to make Tai aware that his was the name Jason and Julia would be writing down. While it was another demonstration of trust on their part, nobody ever likes seeing their name on parchment. (Another lesson Cambodia taught us. Repeatedly.) Perhaps Cydney and Co. were hoping Tai would play his idol unnecessarily, but instead, Tai asked Aubry for her opinion on the matter.

This gave Aubry the perfect chance to flush the idol and weaken one of the biggest threats in the game. Instead, she told him that she didn’t think he needed it, but he should go with his own gut—he chose to keep it in his pocket. It’s arguably a wasted opportunity, but coming from Aubry, I am fine with it. She left it open-ended enough to prey on his nerves, but ultimately, she doesn’t need him to play his idol. Tai isn’t targeting Aubry nor is he guaranteed to beat her at the end.

What Aubry reaped from being honest with Tai was trust. Thanks to her advice, he kept his idol for another round. He has to feel comfortable that she’s not targeting him now, which could potentially leave him ripe for a blindside at final six. Added onto this, Jason was calling out Michele and Cydney as being at the bottom of the alliance. He was only encouraging them to flip, but it had to improve Tai’s sense of security within his new alliance. Does Tai now believe he might be final three with Aubry and Joe?

Regardless, Aubry must now be Tai’s closest ally in the game. She fulfills the same role for Cydney and Joe. A full half of the players left in the game trust Aubry above anybody else. Turns out the social media marketer is good at this stuff even when away from her computer.

Aubry’s nerdiness means that a large proportion of the online fanbase, myself included, can relate to her in a way we rarely do with your average Survivor contestant. Right from the start, she was a sentimental favorite, but it’s very rare for our sentimental favorites to actually be the player we want them to be. Watching Aubry come into her own, both physically and socio-strategically, makes hers one of the most satisfying character arcs of all time. She’s currently my winner pick, and I would love nothing more than for her to pull it out, but I am taking one more lesson from Cirie here: I can love both the player and the season even if she is destined to fall short at the final hurdle.

Who lives, who dies, who tells whose story?

As the game stands, Aubry remains the frontrunner to win. She was given credit for brains from the outset, Jason vouched for her brawn, and no Beauty has been more beloved than she. Not only that, but she’s continually articulate at tribal councils, giving the jury ever more reasons to appreciate her as a player—and we have to assume that this would also apply in a final tribal council.

Julia has admitted in her interviews that she was bitter towards Aubry over her crossed out name, so she won’t vote for her (though it would be solid gold if she returned the strike-through.) Debbie stated at Ponderosa that Aubry lost her vote when she backstabbed her, but Debbie says a lot of things. I think the rest of the jury would happily vote for Aubry, with very few exceptions depending on who she’s sitting next to.

Running the numbers and the potential combinations, I don’t think there’s a single person Aubry can’t beat at the end. From her perspective, the best game move would be to vote out the more obvious goats and keep around the heedlessly loyal. (Here’s looking at you, Joe.)

Her problem is that she was outed at the final eight. Will the authentic human bonds she’s built with her alliance really be enough to stop them turning on her? Particularly with Jason and potentially Michele pointing out the threat she poses? Those two, at least, can see where things are going. Jason calls her “Queen Bee” in one confessional, while the secret scene features Michele and Julia discussing the threat Aubry poses in the finals, with Michele saying “If Cydney’s smart, she knows that.”

Survivor

Eyes on the Prize

Cydney kept her eyes on the game throughout her alliance with Jason; I can’t believe she won’t do the same with Aubry. Even on the reward, Cydney was discussing with Aubry that they were better off taking Joe or Michele to the end. The next station for Cydney’s train of thought is that she should be taking Joe and Michele to the end. Although Cydney and Aubry have become the power couple of this game, either woman will need to turn on the other if she wants to win.

This is where keeping Tai around might be so important for Aubry. As long as he remains in the game with his idol and his advantage he is a distraction target. If she honors her final four deal with him, she can count on Cydney joining with her to vote him out before final three. (And if he wins that final immunity, she should still beat him at the end.) Persuading Cydney not to go against him before then might be more difficult, but she’s got Tai and Joe’s votes locked in. Cydney can’t pull the numbers to take out Tai unless Aubry cooperates.

At the other end of the spectrum, it would be difficult for Jason to beat anybody. Oh, he’d pick up a vote from Scot, and nobody can say he hasn’t played, but ultimately, all his efforts have been foiled. He hasn’t controlled a single vote since leaving Brawn beach, and he frittered away his idol. Even if the jury wanted to respect his strategy, the camp-sabotage would be a big pill to swallow on both a social and strategic level.

As the obvious goat, Jason stands a good chance of reaching the end, and I expect he’d give a killer performance once there, but every juror will know he got there as a goat rather than through his own agency. Unless he can make a major turnaround and seize control, he’s not winning.

And that’s where the easy predictions end. (Well, we can make a few more easy predictions based on the edit, but we’ll leave that for Michel.) It might seem obvious that if Cydney can get to the end without Aubry, she gains sole credit for the post-merge game. She deserves credit for Nick and Debbie’s blindsides at least. Yet I am still hesitant over the jury’s feelings about Cydney—especially with the trend of boots going to Ponderosa and dismissing Cydney’s role in the ongoing gameplay.

Unlike many other players, Cydney hasn’t had a big tribal council moment. Indeed, this week Jeff asked her if she was the type of player to make a big move. The correct answer was that she had already made several, but instead she merely stated she was open to a big move… and then towed the party line in her vote.

Forget targeting Tai, it’s time for Cydney to kick over Aubry’s chessboard. If she can convince Tai to betray the brain, Aubry would be Cydney’s best advocate on the jury. Cydney needs somebody to present her side of the story before it’s too late.

Tai is another person who looks like he’d be a jury sweep on paper but it’s less clear when you examine the actual dynamics of the game. Had he gone to the end with Jason and Scot, he’d have probably won. Probably…. Tai is popular on the island, but he hasn’t achieved the universal adoration he has with the fanbase. The other players are annoyed by his chicken and he may have hurt himself by his association with Jason and Scot. It might have been that the jury would have decided one of the Brawn men had the more respectable gameplay, or at least been truer to himself than Tai had been.

Tai might actually have improved his winner equity by flipping since he at least made a move—and one that was entirely visible at tribal council. If he and Cydney take out Aubry, or if he’s able to play his idol and his advantage with any level of effectiveness, he’ll continue to build his case for the jury. The problem for Tai will not only be getting to final tribal council, but getting the jury to want him to win going into it. He gets flustered easily, and I don’t see him standing up to the hard questions. He’s going to need the jurors to lob softballs.

Just as the apparent jury threats might not fare as well as we’d think, so too might the supposed goats defy expectations. Joe hasn’t really been seen since interrogating Peter, but the other players seem to like him, and he’s known how every vote would go down even if he wouldn’t take part in it. He’s also far enough under the radar that he won’t be a target unless somebody wants to weaken Aubry without voting her off directly.

Perhaps more than any other player, Joe is the most likely to get to the finals. I don’t know how much Joe would fight for the million—particularly if he was sat next to his game-long friend, Aubry, but when half the remaining players have the potential to implode at the final tribal council, Joe’s odds aren’t that bad.

What applies to Joe applies even more so to Michele, who is just as go with the flow but has the added benefit of being able to talk game strategy on the level of the other players. As I said earlier, Michele is playing the quiet game we more typically see from the younger women. After this week’s reward, Michele observed that the game can change incredibly quickly and that’s why you should never give up until your torch gets snuffed. She describes it as keeping on “fighting”, but the real implication is that she’s letting the game change around her instead of trying to change it herself.

Survivor

She’s not standing still; she’s lying in wait.

While this means she’s not an obvious jury threat, she’s not the most obvious goat either, and that makes her entirely disposable at any point. Yet she’s included in Aubry’s list of authentic people, and unlike so many others this season, she’s been able to forgive when excluded from a vote. While Julia was ready to “go out swinging“, Michele can probably navigate herself to the end by not making a big move.

That should be problematic when she gets that inevitable jury question: “What was your big move?” Although she’ll probably point to turning on Nick (and maybe Julia), she was not the player to actually orchestrate that nor have we yet seen any demonstration that it helped her game.

Yet the only player I am confident Michele would lose to is Aubry—and hell, I could be wrong even about that if the Beauties vote along tribal lines and Debbie meant what she said about not voting for Aubry. Michele might have been out of the loop at times in the early game, but she never went to tribal council to prove it, and the jury rarely cares about pre-merge anyway. Since the merge, she was only left out of one vote and she’s shown nothing but grace under pressure.

This most recent episode was a showcase for the quiet game-style. Michele took full advantage of her reward win by bonding with the leaders of the majority and pledging her allegiance to them. After that, she was back in the loop, even though the plan was to vote off her best friend in the game. Michele didn’t want to do it, to the point that she shed tears when the votes were read.

As with Aubry, might those tears actually support Michele’s game? Perhaps the jury will be unsympathetic: this is the second time that Michele has allowed a close ally to be voted off. Again, it’s all very well for her to talk about a big move, but she should be backing words up with actions, not supporting somebody else’s gameplan at the cost of her own numbers.

However, if the jury is feeling more benevolent (and they have no reason to dislike Michele), then the tears are a sign that her relationship with Julia was genuine and not just a pretense for the game, while her vote shows her strength as a player, that she will make these hard cuts in order to move herself forward. She’s a nice person and a hardcore gamer—she’s even won immunity which is more than most Brawns can say.

Michele’s argument to the jury has to be an abstract on her social game, but she won’t be saying she floated to the end, she’ll say she never stopped fighting. If the jurors like her better than her competitors, they’ll come up with their own reasons to vote for her; against a different finalist, she’ll become a coat-tailer. Hers might be an unmemorable game, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a winning one.

What has been too easily forgotten since Tony Vlachos exploded onto our screens is that it’s not the much lauded big moves that win Survivor, it’s the little ones. I’ve given my opinions on the best strategy for each castaway going forward, which will have no bearing on what actually happens in the game—yet somebody’s going to win. Whether it’s Aubry, Michele, or somebody else, the Sole Survivor will carry off the million thanks to their social game.

That said, this is still the modern era of Survivor and as viewers, it’s fantastic to see aggressive games as well as smart, subtle ones. Kaoh Rong has given us a wealth of blindsides, some great Tribal Council moments, and the best chicken ever to play. Kudos to the young women—and indeed, the cast overall—for providing such a wide variety of play for our entertainment.

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