Survivor: Cambodia

Alphas vs. Betas


Cambodia went into its super-sized merge with a bizarre mix of alliances, none of which had enough members to make a majority. There was the Alpha Alliance from the original Bayon tribe. There was the Ta Keo Five from the second Ta Keo. There was a Bayon Trio that stayed at Bayon camp through every shuffle, and there was a new voting bloc thrown together on the third Ta Keo to take out Woo. When you take enmities into account, things get even more convoluted. By this point, almost every player has a pair of allies who won’t work with each other.

While the original Bayon had a nine-four majority, the four surviving Ta Keo starters were each too useful as somebody’s pawn to be targeted. Bayon had to turn on their own, and that meant drawing lines in the sand—literally, as it turned out, but mostly figuratively. Of course, with thirteen people left in the game, most players didn’t want to show their hand too early, so they needed an easy vote… and that was when Chaos Kass came to play.

A Tale of Two Luzons

All season, we’ve been speculating on whether Kass could keep up the Kumbaya gameplay once she had to go to Tribal Council. In fact, what really brought out Chaos Kass was contact with Cagayan. Once she found herself on a tribe with Spencer, Kass began talking up the chaos, gleefully harking back to confessionals of old while deliberating whether to vote out her old nemesis. However, this was for the cameras; her actual gameplay was following along with Ciera’s and Abi’s wishes.

Let's pour one out for Chaos. Let’s pour one out for Chaos.[/caption]

That last pre-merge episode was probably Kass’ strongest as a Survivor player. She was working strategically with allies whom she trusted and who respected her, while weakening the position of Savage who stood to be a threat after the merge. She took ownership of Ciera’s play for the benefit of the cameras and the jury, while reminding everybody of her own image as a jury goat. And she was entertaining to boot!

It seemed she had finally found her niche between the reserved game of your average successful female player and her own preference for aggression (and trolling). I would have loved to have seen that Kass play out the game.

But then came Tasha. While Kass and Spencer were able to forge a working relationship, Tasha was a different story. Clearly the two had managed to get along during the first week of the game at Bayon, but their conversations this episode were painful to watch, as the women got under each others’ skin and commenced sniping.

It wasn’t all emotion, of course. Circumstance made the situation almost inevitable even if they had forgiven each other. Kass and Ciera got caught out by the early merge, which denied them a chance to either rebuild bridges with Savage or vote him off in turn. Their strike against him was a strike against Tasha, who lost not only Woo but also Abi. (I know Abi got far too much screentime at the start of the season, but I really wish we were given her thoughts and Tasha’s on her flip to finally get rid of Woo.) While Tasha seems to be the one to set the target on Kass (as credited in Stephen’s blog), it was most likely Savage who set the tribe against the three women who had betrayed him on Ta Keo. Tasha probably hoped to get Kass out before the jury started, which was due to their strained relationship but was an objectively smart decision.

However, it’s easy to rationalize game moves and impossible to separate emotions from Survivor. It would have made just as much strategic sense to lie low after the merge and nudge the game to a different target, to highlight another player’s conflict. Yet having Kass as the merge boot was too poetic a justice for Tasha to pass up. Kass, who has endured too many rivals being cast as the hero to her villain, took her chance to call out Tasha as the bad guy. And at the end of the day, their personal conflict was too much for the rest of the tribe.

The writing was probably on the wall for Kass’ alliance before that, but while there might have been a chance for Ciera or Abi to go home at one point, it quickly became clear that the camp wasn’t big enough for both Kass and Tasha.

From Kass’ interviews, it’s clear she did as much scrambling as she could—if anything, she scrambled too aggressively, by in turn selling out Savage and Abi as well as Tasha, and probably scaring allies off in the process. She could be forgiven if she had thought, as the older woman, she could coast for a while once she got to the merge, but she worked hard to put herself into a good position going into it: to the Ta Keo Five she added Abi and Spencer, which should have been a majority, and she took out a key ally for Alpha Alliance charter members, Savage and Tasha. Going into this episode, I was convinced she was safe because too many people needed her as a number.

The Meat Collectors

So why was it that the majority went against Kass? Keith got turned off by Kass’ outbursts, but originally Keith was determined the Ta Keo Five needed to win it for Terry. Shortly after the merge, Kelley was confident that Keith was still with them, and she herself wanted to stick with Ta Keo. Even Spencer, in episode, seemed to be leaning towards staying with Kass’ group—after all, Kass was the first person to bring him into a majority voting bloc since Vytas’ boot. It was Joe who was the question mark… yet Joe had been the most eager to cement that Ta Keo Five alliance.

Similarly, how did Savage regain the numbers? He was a founder of the Alpha Alliance, but aside from Tasha, he hadn’t seen any of them since day six. This is perhaps a mark of his leadership abilities and natural charisma, that Jeremy, Joe, and Keith (and Kimmi and Stephen) were ready to work with him again despite the many dynamic shifts since they’d last talked. The alternative interpretation is that his gameplay is so transparent that he’s an easy quantity for the others to fold back in: they got him right back in his hammock and set about smoothing his Kass-ruffled feathers. Finally, perhaps it’s another example of Tasha’s social game. In that pair’s three nights apart, Savage lost both Woo and Abi, but Tasha made sure Jeremy, Keith, and Joe were still on board with their original alliance.

The one game Joe is bad at is Hide and Seek.

The one game Joe is bad at is Hide and Seek.

Whoever gets the credit, Joe chose the Alpha Alliance over the Ta Keo five. It was an unconventional choice. Joe is somebody who could run the tables in the immunity challenges, but he’s much less likely to do it against Jeremy, Tasha, and Savage as well as Keith. Then again, even against the weaker crew, there are no guarantees… Kass might pip him to the puzzle; Keith could get lucky with balls… it would only take one loss from final seven onwards, and the other four could, perhaps should decide that they really don’t want to go up against Joe at the end.

With the other alphas, it’s a little different. Jeremy and Savage aren’t nearly the targets that Joe is, but they both want to surround themselves with ‘meat shields’ so that their own challenge ability doesn’t stand out as a threat. Joe’s likelihood of losing any given challenge is greater, but his risk of being voted out is smaller, and that’s almost certainly the better route. If nothing else, he tried aligning with the physically weak last season, so he might as well use his second chance to try the other strategy.

If they pull it off, this might be a first. Boys’ clubs and/or alliances based on challenge strength often form at the start of the game, but they rarely survive the merge—usually, they don’t even make it that far. Players who are good at challenges place more value on winning challenges. Generally, they work to increase those victories, especially at the individual stage, while at the end, they make their case more compelling by going up against the physically weaker. Everybody thinks they have a case for strategy and social game, but challenge dominance is the only argument that the jurors have an objective measure for.

There’s the rub… Joe has a better chance of getting to the end with the Alpha Alliance, but can he beat them? If the final four is Jeremy, Joe, Savage and Tasha, who is the final juror and who is the Sole Survivor? What case does any one of them make against the others?

Of course, the obvious answer is that nobody is planning around that final four. All of the Alphas have other options, and this merge vote was also about protecting those. Although Joe had the power of the swing vote this week, it was only to choose which of his allies to vote off. I don’t know if there was anyway to push the vote onto somebody else (say Abi, or even Stephen who is trying to get Joe out,) but losing Kass and Ciera weakened rather than improved Joe’s position.

What he did do right was to flip with a group. He took Keith and Kelley with him (reluctantly on the latter’s part) and made a connection with Spencer as well. All three of these people should be closer to Joe than they are to Joe’s other Alpha Allies, and that makes Joe the lynchpin of his own seven-strong majority. That’s the ideal place to be… if he can count on his seven being the core seven. After all, Kass had a seven too.

Irons in the Fire

Of the Alphas, we know the least about who else Tasha is working with. She built something with Woo and Abi on Angkor, but Woo’s gone and Abi voted against her despite knowing Kass was going home. (Seriously, what happened there?) Obviously, she has a pre-existing relationship with Spencer, and Kass reported that Ciera voted for Savage because she didn’t want to burn a bridge with Tasha. Stephen’s blog has made it clear that he and Tasha had a good relationship—it’s possible they might also have an alliance. What Tasha lacks is anything cohesive. None of those players has a particular connection to each other, and it’s probably a little late to pull them into an alliance with herself as the center.

Tasha might be best off sticking with Savage, since she certainly has a case that she was his driving force, both socially and strategically. While Savage is probably the most earnest about the Alpha Alliance, even he has other options, although in his case these will be extra members of the Alphas rather than a separate alliance. In his unfortunate sojourn on Ta Keo, he did succeed in picking up Kelly Wiglesworth as an extra number—the only person, it seems, to make that effort with her since the first tribe swap. Kelly’s easily the most reticent player out there, giving precious little insight into who she is to either the cameras or the players. It boggles the mind that despite going through the whole game with Spencer, these two have zero relationship. They don’t even mention each other in confessional.

An island unto herself.

An island unto herself.

Spencer probably had the same attitude as Kass, that Kelly’s avoidance of strategy made her impossible to work with, but this was something they both could have improved upon in their game. You might not be able to form an alliance with Kelly, but that doesn’t mean you can’t cultivate a friendship. Even if she doesn’t talk about her personal life, she’s got a good work ethic. Become water-run buddies with her or something. At the very least, she’s an extra jury vote; at best she’s an informant.

As it stands, Kelly likely feels that going without an alliance has worked out just fine for her to this point, so I don’t expect her to be changing things anytime soon. Savage’s open approach to the game suits hers, and she should be a good number for him, all the moreso because she’s beatable. It’s possible she could get a vote out of respect for being the original runner up, but she’s so closed off that nobody is going to want to vote for her.

While Kelly and Spencer were a non-starter, the other pairs who stayed together through the swaps formed tight bonds… but none more so than the Bayon trio of Jeremy, Kimmi and Stephen, who formed a very efficient voting bloc at their first Tribal Council and were quietly working the different groups for information after the merge. It’s difficult to say how much this alliance was Jeremy’s intent and how much it was thrust upon him by circumstance. Stephen’s blog has suggested that he and Jeremy got on well from the start, but both Stephen and Kimmi were considered on the outs at Bayon before the tribe swap.

Jeremy doesn’t need Stephen and Kimmi, but the three of them could wield a huge amount of power if they stay tight and the Alpha Alliance doesn’t catch on. They have both the old-school and new-school viewpoint (plus middle-school for good measure) and all deserve kudos for getting into this position. Even Kimmi has proven to be of the Jeff Varner cutthroat class of Old School.

Kimmi’s in that dangerous demographic of the older woman which is so often underestimated. I don’t know if Kimmi’s got what it takes to go head-to-head with her allies, but I’ll bet she’s got more than most players are giving her credit for. Monica is unlikely to be the last person to assume Kimmi is a pawn for their taking. It’s going to be hard for Jeremy or Stephen to be blindsided, when Kimmi is approached for every plot against them.

And then there’s Stephen who has quite possibly got my favorite edit of all time, because it’s exactly how I think my experience playing Survivor would go. (Well, mine would probably be cut a good deal shorter.) Stephen himself is almost certainly a much better player than that, but every moment that has made the episode has been an illustration of how talking a good game and playing a good game are two very different skillsets. I’d love it if this was a winner’s edit, but I don’t think Survivor is there yet.

Despite being on the winning team for most challenges, Stephen’s physical game has been much more of a problem for him on Bayon than it ever was on Jalapão. Perhaps because of his Tocantins experience, Stephen has not worried about that part of the game and doesn’t want the (likely futile) help his allies try to give him. I sympathize, because there is nothing more frustrating than people not letting you be OK with being terrible at something… but this is a case of letting your tribemates set the tone.

If your tribemates want to slack off around camp, you don’t push a work ethic. If your tribemates want to pray before every challenge, you join in. And if your tribemates want to think positive and believe in your ability to score at ring toss despite all evidence to the contrary, you get pumped up for an imminent victory—and after you lose, you vow that you’ll get it next time.

Stephen could have used challenges as a way to become a protégé to Jeremy and thus strengthen the bond between them—it worked for Spencer. Perhaps he doesn’t want that… after all, being the lesser of a pair didn’t work out for him last time. But he’s got to play to this game, and the Alpha Alliance means that if Stephen makes it to the finals, he’s going to have a lot of jurors who do value ring toss and chopping wood. He can’t magically become good at the physical portion of the game, but he can pretend to care about it.

Stephen explained that his poetry recital was about building relationships with potential jurors, and he’s spot on in his theory. For this jury, though, he needs to welcome their condescension over challenges. Play up how he’s learning from the athletes—people like to feel needed, that they’re making a difference to you. He can be more self-assured with strategy (and poetry), but he needs to turn his weaknesses into assets rather than passing them off as irrelevant to the game. No juror wants to hear: “This part of the game you’re good at doesn’t count.”

Old Stephen; New JT and Taj.

Old Stephen; New JT and Taj.

The brutal truth is that the Bayon trio parallels Stephen’s Jalapão three. Kimmi is probably less popular than Taj, and to Stephen’s benefit, she won’t want to sacrifice herself to let Jeremy get to the finals—of course, with the jury starting this early, we have to assume a final three, and that means Stephen and Kimmi stand to be up against the new JT, Jeremy, anyway.

Despite all Stephen’s fears about Joe being the golden boy, Jeremy has always been the Bachelor of this season. It seems that every male Bayon has been vying for his bromance, and so far as I can tell, he’s handed out roses to all of them. That’s a massive improvement from the grumpy guy who burned bridges in San Juan Del Sur. While there’s a lot of game left to play and many dynamics will be shifted, right now, I’d put money on Jeremy against any other player in a finals situation. If he gets to the end with Stephen and Kimmi, he will be seen as the leader of that alliance: the one who carried it through the tribal stage and acted as their shield through the individual portion. After all, he’s the guy  the jury wants to bro-down with.

So Stephen and Kimmi need to take him out… which means Jeremy needs to stick with the Alphas. As was the case for Joe, they’re harder to beat but he can trust them more than his other alliance. I think he has a leg up on Joe in jury respect anyway, if only by virtue of his age. If Jeremy plays his social cards right, he can be the unbeatable finalist who nobody ever noticed.

Can he do it though? Managing a tribal dynamic was precisely what he failed at in San Juan Del Sur and while he’s done tremendously in Cambodia, the post-merge is really uncharted territory for him.

The main dilemma for the Bayon Trio is when they turn on each other. Stephen and Kimmi have to take out Jeremy before he can go on an endgame immunity streak, but they don’t have enough numbers to get to the endgame without him (unless they pull Tasha in, but then Tasha becomes the new JT). Jeremy has a majority with the Alphas that will allow him to drop Stephen and/or Kimmi as early as next episode, but if he loses them, he loses his sway. Their extra numbers, their extra eyes and ears, give Jeremy more power to shape Orkun and the jury to his choosing—or at least to play his idol effectively.

Ideally, Jeremy needs to keep his Bayon Trio intact while taking down every other non-alpha. Kimmi and Stephen might need to stop targeting Joe and start isolating him. They have a better chance of convincing the jury that Golden Boy is their pawn than they do with Jeremy.

Which means, against all conventional Survivor theory, the right outcome for most players is to support the Alpha Alliance for as long as possible—although its individual members need to be weakened. When the best strategy goes against the typical course of the game, we’ve got the potential for a very good post-merge on our hands. Let’s hope Cambodia lives up to it.

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