Survivor: David vs. Goliath


Sarah Channon writes special feature blogs for RHAP focusing on the social dynamics at play in Survivor. Here, she breaks down the finale of David vs. Goliath which continues a trend: Was Nick’s win a foregone conclusion? Did Mike have a chance? Would Angelina’s chances be better if she were a man?

At the merge, I noted that the tribe dynamics were actually closer to Jabeni vs. Tiva than David vs. Goliath but declared that the swapped tribe loyalties wouldn’t last for more than a few votes. That went about as well as me picking Natalia as the winner. The Jabeni threesome won the battle of Kalokalo, leaving Tiva and Vuku to decide which one of them was the winner.

On paper, this is fairly straightforward. For the eleventh straight season, the player in the final three who played the most idols / advantages won the jury vote. Out of this trio, Nick’s win is entirely predictable. The bigger mystery is why Angelina and Mike were so willing to take him to the end. It’s only once we look for those answers that other factors start coming up… Nick’s win was not so nearly a foregone conclusion as we thought.

Nick didn’t so much play an idol as he had one flushed. His vote steal was overshadowed by Carl’s nullifier. (Bing!) While the edit highlighted his involvement in those tumultuous mid-game tribal councils, the jury credited other Davids for those moves. Had Davie won those last three immunities, he’d probably have won in a landslide, but in Nick’s case, the jury was by no means certain he had played the best game and were quite ready to give credit not only to Mike but even to Angelina.

On the other hand, Nick became the first person since the rule change to beat the player who made fire at final four. So what does hold the most weight with the jury in the modern era of Survivor?

(If you’re here for my take on how gender bias may have affected Angelina’s game and just want to cut straight to that, click here. But then go back and read the advantage stuff as well. Why not?)

Transforming (and rolling out) the Game

One thing to remember in our fandom echo chamber is that most people who play Survivor are “casuals”. Even in this era when players are told to listen to RHAP, when they recognize Josh Wigler, they don’t necessarily take onboard the strategic knowledge base many of us take for granted. So while we know that every winner since Tyson has played some form of idol or advantage, jurors don’t actually have that as a default criteria.

Nor does every finalist with an idol win. In some ways Nick was in a similar position to Tai in Kaoh Rong who was blamed for not playing his idol and wasting his vote steal. John noted that Nick had dropped the ball several times in the game—even if he had recovered, the better player doesn’t drop the ball in the first place. Christian compared Nick’s advantages to checking off a list… but “to what end?” Kara did give Nick credit for just finding an idol, but the overall sentiment of the jury was that any advantages should be put to good use.

Angelina had an even bigger problem than Nick: she found an idol but had absolutely no reason to use it. That was all very well back in the days of Kim Spradlin, but not now. With just two available Tribal Councils, she had to find a way to play her idol to good effect before the jury—pulling a Natalie Anderson, if you will.

Her plan to draw votes onto herself by making Alison think she was immune wasn’t a terrible one in theory, but the execution failed completely. I can’t remember who tweeted this, but I saw an alternative plan that she should have played it at final six to save Davie and take Alison out. As risky as it would have been to leave Davie in the game at that point, that would probably have worked out better for Angelina… giving Davie and Nick a reason to be grateful to her, causing friction between Nick and Mike, and letting her own the move that got Alison out of the game.

Would that have given Angelina the win? Probably not… but it might have scored her some votes.

The jury wanted the rationale for the big moves, and this was where Mike dominated. When the David uprising happened and John and Dan went home, Mike immediately made inroads with the Davids. He knew how everybody was voting from Alec onwards. From Gabby onwards, he had the ultimate say in who went home, and those votes benefited Mike’s game more than anybody else’s. He never had an advantage, but he never needed one. He played a much more traditional Survivor game: earn trust and control the flow of information. Most importantly, as under the radar as Mike played, the jury did give him credit for being in charge and controlling the end-game. Even John went into Tribal Council thinking Mike had played the best strategic game.

One of the best things Nick did at Final Tribal Council was call back to the John vote, taking credit for splitting the minority vote and calling it out as a Survivor first. It showed he had a brain for strategy that not all jurors had given him credit for, and it gave him some ownership of that idol play. Luckily for Nick, Davie credited him for helping with it. Note to future players: if you don’t have an idol of your own, get yourself in a position to take credit for somebody else’s play—but bear in mind that not all allies are as generous as Davie.

The other thing in Nick’s favor was his late emergence as a challenge beast. Immunity’s jury-stock has dropped pretty dramatically in the modern era of Survivor. Brad and Chrissy discovered their immunity streaks didn’t measure up to their opponents’ Big Advantage-driven Moves. However, when your opponent’s big moves come without advantages, immunity wins hold up better: compare Michele vs. Aubry.

Thus it was for Nick. His immunities got mentioned repeatedly in the jurors’ videos, but surprisingly, nobody seemed to consider Mike’s firemaking to be notable. (Somewhere, Chrissy and Domenick are weeping bitter tears.)

There’s a certain amount of rationalizing here on the jurors’ part, of giving credit where they want to. So Dan, who was surprisingly high on Angelina, noted that Nick only won challenges after the biggest physical threats were gone and gave Angelina more credit than Mike for her overall performance, even though she never came first. Meanwhile Alec counted the challenge wins as a plus for Nick’s strategic game, because they meant he had his say in the final three.

Davie went one further, when he decided that Nick’s immunity run was what qualified as the big move Davie himself had demanded as he left the game, because it threw a wrench in Mike’s plans. I’m not sure Davie is correct. All of the Jabeni three admitted that they had been reluctant to ever vote each other out and were happy to go to the end together. Had Alison won immunity at five, Mike might have been tempted to vote with her and keep Kara instead of Nick, but I think that’s the only scenario where he might vote against him.

Of course, if Davie perceives him as needing those immunities, then that’s what matters. Again, not everybody is as generous as Davie. (Sidenote: Davie is awesome.) Another juror may have decided that the immunity run was a knock against Nick’s social game… and again, this was where Mike benefited in the jurors’ eyes. Christian had clearly played up Mike hard at Ponderosa, as Alec quoted him in referring to Mike’s “revolving door strategy” and Elizabeth believed that Mike had played “the ultimate social game.”

Regardless, both Alec and Elizabeth voted for Nick. Perhaps because he acquitted himself well at Final Tribal Council… or maybe it can be boiled down to a simple formula:

3 Immunities + 2 Advantages > 1 Immunity + 1 Firemaking > 1 Advantage.

But—thankfully—I don’t think it is that simple. The fact that Christian badly wanted the game to be determined by something much less tangible than advantages is heartening in itself, and most of the jury speaks videos did reflect his logic. Surprisingly, Gabby was the biggest dissenter to Christian’s campaign, and that was because she thought Nick had had the most options to get to the end while she struggled to credit Mike’s game because she had found it transparent.

All the same, the trend of winners checking off the advantage and immunity boxes continues, and my advice to future players would be to get yourself in a final three where you’ve checked off the most boxes.

If, like Mike, that doesn’t work out for you, at least talk up the boxes you did check off. Mike had an opportunity to point out that as (relatively speaking) old, white and nerdy as he was, he had won a challenge, and he had made that fire when it counted. He could also have reminded the jury that Nick and Angelina sat out a challenge for nachos, but he participated, even though he wasn’t likely to win.

Mike didn’t, perhaps because these weren’t things that would be in his voting criteria. Yet they are easy points to bring up: they won’t cost you any votes, but they might swing one your way.

Early Jurors vs. Late Jurors

Another recently emerging trend is that the first jurors will vote one way and the last jurors will vote another. The first half of the Ghost Island jury voted for Domenick; the second half (including Laurel) voted for Wendell. Likewise, Ben’s five votes came from the first five members of his jury, while the last three voted for Chrissy and Ryan. This season, Nick picked up the first six votes, while three of the last four voted for Mike. (Davie’s was the vote to break the pattern.)

The common theory for this, based on the anger directed towards Domenick and Ben from the jurors, is that the later jurors need a longer time to get over the sting of being voted out. This is less applicable to Nick’s win, as Mike scored those later votes in spite of being “blamed” for them. An alternative theory, explained by Jeff Pitman at True Dork Times, is that jurors may be more likely to base their vote on who was running the game at the time they left it.

Both these theories have merit, but they also both fail to take into account the finalists’ behavior. We have Ben (vs. Chrissy and Ryan), Domenick (vs. Wendell and Laurel) and Nick (vs. Angelina and Mike) who are losing the late votes. What they have in common is that they are alpha males who came under pressure in the endgame. We can go back to Game Changers and this pattern still holds: although Brad Culpepper lost a couple of the early jurors to Sarah, he failed to get any votes from the last five when he was fighting desperately to stay in the game.

Nick is the least alpha of this group; Ben, Domenick, and Brad were all leading a majority alliance at the merge. While they had the power, they were very laid back and genial; when they fell out of power, (or in Domenick’s case, when he became a target) they became much more volatile and aggressive. In all three cases, the later jurors took them to task for bullying behavior and docked their social game accordingly. (It should be noted that both Domenick and Ben had experience of being at the bottom pre-merge and took it well. It was only in the pressure cooker of the endgame that they cracked.)

Nick wasn’t really targeted and never fully lost power, but whenever he lost control of the game, he lost his temper back at camp. This pattern most definitely got commented on at Ponderosa, and it came up in most of the Jury Speaks videos as a negative—except with Gabby who cheerfully acknowledged that she had no problems with people showing emotion.

As Gabby observed, Survivor does bring out the emotions in people… it’s designed to. Adversity can be considered the true test of a social game, and competitive people (both men and women) often have a kneejerk reaction to a defeat.

Ideally, a player should avoid making these slip ups in the first place, but as long as Survivor continues to cast more humans than robots, that’s expecting too much. So instead, they should be self-aware enough to recognize when their reactions aren’t ideal.

Nick owned up to his outburst over Davie’s blindside at the very next Tribal Council. He didn’t convert that weakness to a strength as Christian wanted to see, but the self-awareness and honesty scored points with John, at least. Besides, as Nick held himself accountable for that social lapse, the jury didn’t have to do it.

The Story

If you’ll permit me to squeeze yet more out of the season-long metaphor…

Nick came to the Final Tribal Council as a Goliath of Advantages, while Mike was the David who made his way through his own resourcefulness. The slingshots available to Mike were the highlights of his own game and his ability with words. The chinks in Nick’s armor were his temper and his strategic misses,  However, there was one last string to Goliath’s bow: in life, as in their starting tribes, Nick was the David and Mike was the Goliath.

There’s been a lot of commentary all season long about whether or not the jury would give Mike the money when he was already wealthy. Based on how the jury voted, I say that’s still up for debate, but it’s really hard to ignore the money when the other guy is a poor social worker—Nick never told them he was a lawyer, although as he’s a public defender, “poor social worker” isn’t precisely a lie either.

Christian said he wanted to judge the game as it was played here, not on what was back home. Nick himself told the jury that he wasn’t telling his story for votes—he went into the game not planning to share it at all. Yet Mike admitted that he found himself holding back at Final Tribal Council, because he didn’t want to take the money from a guy whose life would be so transformed by it. And while none of the jurors outright said that they were voting based on who needed the money before, a lot of them talked about wanting to vote for the person who best represented the season… Nick was simply a better underdog.

It’s not the real reason Nick won. But like the advantages, like the immunities, like his strategic game, like his social game… it was a factor. For Christian and the rest of us who would like to see an old-school game beat new-school advantages, we can take heart in the votes Mike did win. If a few of the other factors had been on Mike’s end of the scale, the balance could have been tipped in his game’s favor. Survivor isn’t done evolving yet.

If Angelina were a man…

Yeah, you didn’t think I’d write a blog and not weigh in on this, did you? Almost as predictable as the advantage-laden finalist getting the win, is the female finalist getting zero votes.

Actually, that’s a fallacy. Our zero vote getters since S30 are equally balanced at four men and four women. However, only five women have picked up any votes in that same time period, and between them, they scored 17 votes out of the 63 available. 11 men account for the other 46.

Roughly speaking, a man is twice as likely to reach the end as a woman and three times as likely to get any given vote once he’s there. (Though voting is so situational that it probably requires a more complex formula to calculate that statistic… somebody get Christian on it.)

So when Angelina says her game would have been received differently if she were a man, she’s almost certainly correct. However, the point I made when Kass made a similar claim is that the statement is a paradox: Angelina could not have played the same game if she were man; she’d have been playing under different circumstances and been subject to a different set of biases.

She would also have been a different person… We are conditioned both by the biases we typically encounter and by society’s expectations of us. The player I found myself thinking of most when watching Angelina was Monica Culpepper, who carefully cultivated her “neat lady” image only for the jury to demand to see the real Monica.

Accusations of fakeness aren’t limited to women—Albert Destrade and Sash Lenahan both joined the zero votes club for similar reasons—but “fake” men tend to be young schemers, and they’re called out for being smooth-talkers… sleazy… used car salesmen… Monica’s brand of inauthenticity is one that I associate with middle-class wives: socially successful women who are taught to curate their own image in a homogeneous way. It isn’t supposed to hide their true personality, but it can, quite literally, gloss over it.

Monica is an extreme example, but Dawn, Chrissy, and even Denise were taken to task by their juries for being fake. Avoiding this trap isn’t straightforward: Kass most certainly did not worry about presenting a socially acceptable image, but that wasn’t working with the jury either.

Angelina is a decade younger than these women, but she is married with an established career, unlike most players in their twenties. She’s had great academic success, but she also identifies as a military wife: her career commitments must sometimes cede to the orders given to her husband, and she has to reconcile that with the social pressures to represent her gender and ethnicity.

This season, the question of who “the real Angelina” was came up in almost every jury speaks video. I don’t know if that would have happened for Alison or Kara. Alison is also career driven; Kara is also conscientious about the image she presents… but there’s a difference there. It’s difficult to determine how much of that difference is down to individual personalities, down to our perception or down to societal conditioning. Yet it is clear that Angelina places a high priority on self-presentation.

This isn’t all bad either. Remember how the jury took note of Nick’s outbursts when the game went against him? They also took note of Angelina’s reaction in similar circumstances. Both Alec and Kara wrote Angelina’s name down the night Dan went home, and they admitted it to her when they got back to camp. She respected their decision and noted that she would have to play harder—she told at least Kara that she still wanted to work with her. Alec and Kara both cited her attitude that night as a point in her favor. Many other jurors noted how well she recovered from the first Tribal Council when she took a lot of heat; she kept her temper on that occasion too.

Of course, the jury came down on her for the more passive aggressive move of Alison’s fake idol instead, which was almost certainly made worse by Angelina’s refusal to acknowledge that emotions may have played a role. Angelina’s fellow Latina military wife, Sandra, was never afraid to own her feelings against other players. And while Sandra’s proven herself to be a good liar, she also never got accused of being fake. There’s something to be said for wearing your heart on your sleeve.

I don’t want to play the rice card, but…

There is one way in which Angelina deviates almost completely from Monica’s template, and that’s in her self-assertion… or, more accurately, her self-aggrandizement. Whatever happens in the game, Angelina can and will spin it as a showcase for her tactical brilliance. While there’s a touch of defensiveness in this, a conscious rebuttal against biases she’s experienced as a woman (in much the same way I tend to get snappy with anybody who suggests I won’t like a food because it’s spicy), this is really more of a masculine trait.

Surprisingly, we discover from the Jury Speaks videos that a lot of the jury were OK with Angelina. Despite the zero votes and despite the accusations of being fake, she wasn’t nearly as unpopular as some of the other women I’ve cited. She was, however, more popular with Davids than Goliaths and, intriguingly, she was more popular with men than with women.

Alison acknowledges Angelina’s success in flipping the script when she was on the bottom and building connections with the Davids, but she also calls her disingenuous in talking about it. (She actually says that Tribal Council is a time for fooling players still in the game, not playing up “piddly accomplishments” to the jury. This is debatable: jurors like being played to.) Kara feels she’s fake. Gabby is noticeably uncomfortable, because she knows it’s harder for women to be assertive and received well… regardless, her reaction to Angelina is negative. (Elizabeth is the exception: she thinks Angelina is unaware rather than disingenuous and feels she was the best schemer out there.)

The men also found Angelina’s self-promotion transparent: Christian calls it insulting and John wants to see some self-awareness and humility from her. But while Davie reminded Angelina that a “selfless” act doesn’t constantly demand credit, outside of Tribal Council, he gave her full respect for the rice deal. Almost everybody was impressed with her comeback from the merge vote. Carl likes that she didn’t change who she was under pressure. Alec thinks she’s a great social player, Davie thinks her social game is better than Mike or Nick’s, and Dan thinks she’s the most well-rounded player.

It’s too small a sample size to prove a theory, but as I said, self-assertion is more of a masculine trait. Women are more aware of others’ contributions and extenuating circumstances; they may see arrogance where men see confidence. (Likewise, a man is more likely to see self-doubt where a woman sees self-awareness.)

After watching the finale, I felt that Angelina’s self-aggrandizing was her downfall. Now I’m not sure if it was an overall negative or positive for her game. It’s fair to say she overdid it, but assertiveness works. Even Alison praised Angelina for making a space where she could be assertive in the game. So often in Survivor we see women fall into a role of “sidekick” to their male allies: recall Gabby’s account of how Alec pitched a move to her by explaining how it would be good for Christian. While Angelina was allied with men more often than women, she was never seen as somebody’s sidekick.

Yet she couldn’t get a vote. Would it have made a difference if she were a man? Looking purely at how they sold themselves, Tony and Russell both come to mind as comparisons—they had wildly different outcomes, and both, in my opinion, are wildly over-rated by the fanbase in a way Angelina won’t be. I’m not going to attempt to break down their respective games to decide if that’s fair or not, but I will say that Heroes vs. Villains would have been ten times better had Russell been edited like Angelina.

I noted the Davids seemed to like Angelina better than the Goliaths—Carl even called her a sweetheart! Most of the Davids knew her post-merge, after her fall from grace.

Angelina told Mike Bloom at Parade that, going in, “I decided to play this aggressive game, more of a traditionally masculine game, and have fun with it.” After the backlash at the merge, she dialed it back: “Ultimately, I took on a lot more of a traditional feminine role. I started not to pick up as much and go more with the flow. I started to take care of people in more maternal ways. I absolutely had to lean into that to keep myself in the game and a viable person to work with and digestible to the personalities out there.”

Angelina isn’t the most self-aware of players and her gameplay is often better in theory in execution, so this should be taken with an according pinch of salt. However, John described her as bossy “when she’s in power,” the implication being that she improved when she was out of it. It seems Angelina was more likeable as an underdog.

Or maybe it’s just that she was able to click with some people and not with others. She and Davie bonded over being minorities, and Elizabeth only experienced her from a power position and still felt she had a “great heart.” This hearkens back to something Alison told Mike Bloom about her own game: “On Survivor you have to be a diplomat too and play nice with everyone. But I didn’t just want to play nice. I wanted to form real connections and relationships.”

The difference between “playing nice” and “forming real relationships” is the trick. It’s one that many more Survivors than Angelina have trouble with, but when your castmates think you’re being fake while you think you’re being genuine, it’s almost impossible. Invariably, we’ll each draw our own conclusions as to how much of that is gender bias.

Speaking of gender bias, I’ll be back this off-season to delve into the question of why women find fewer idols than men. (If you’re a Survivor and have opinions on this, I’d love to hear from you: please reach out!) Less controversially, this was a fantastic season, and yes, the female casting and editing does continue to improve. Congratulations to production, and please keep at it!

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