SurvivorSurvivor: Kaoh Rong

Aubry vs. Michele: The Great Kaoh Rong Debate

Over the second half of the season, a debate escalated in the online community over whether Aubry or dark horse Michele had the coveted “winner’s edit.” Aubry certainly had the showier story and a more obvious case to present to the jury, so perhaps the only thing either side agreed on was that for Michele to emerge triumphant, Aubry would have to be on the jury side of final tribal council.

Until the unthinkable happened in the finale, and five jurors voted for Michele’s cheerful inoffensiveness over Aubry’s big moves and social gaming. It was six episodes later than the trailer promised, but finally Tribal Council blindsided us.

The following morning, I discussed it with the lovely and wise Jay Fischer, because we watch and enjoy Survivor in two different ways. Jay watches for the story that’s being told, the TV show as finished product. He had seen the Michele win coming from weeks ago, and while he was surprised to see Aubry in the finals, he never doubted the outcome of Michele’s forced plotline.

I, on the other hand, was looking for the game, the social dynamics and what was actually happening beyond what we saw on screen. I’m interested in the edit, but I’m aware that edit-reading isn’t my strong suit. My read on what is happening in the game is what informs my predictions, and everything I had seen up to day thirty-nine told me that the jury respected Aubry more than Michele. I didn’t even pick up on the warning signs at final tribal council because of my own confirmation bias. There was just no way that Jason and Scot would want the winner of their season to be Michele when Aubry was right there.

And this is the truth behind the Michele-truthing. The entire post-merge was about the problems facing Aubry’s game and how she overcame each and every one. Despite Michele’s inexplicable prominence, the final story felt not so much “Why Aubry lost,” but why she won. There have been comparisons to Russell Hantz in Samoa, but as Rob and Josh discussed, we knew Russell was a hated villain. We never saw that with underdog hero, Aubry. We weren’t shown why the jurors wouldn’t vote for her nor even why they would be bitter towards a woman who had never been aligned with them. It literally took until the last Michele vote was read before I believed that she could beat Aubry.

Regardless of what Survivor showed us, Aubry did lose. And while I neither can nor want to replace David Bloomberg, my purpose for this blog is to find the perspective where that truth makes sense.

Nerd Bias

Every season, CBS posts Jury Speaks videos, but never have they been more essential to fill in the gaps. As far as Aubry goes, there is an immediate common theme: Scot, Julia, and Jason all describe her as playing a “fear-based” game. Suffice it to say that this was not the perception that most of us had of Aubry.

But Survivor is all about perception. In the premiere episode, Aubry’s story was confined to her day two meltdown and the first immunity challenge, and this was taken very differently by different people. Did you see somebody overcoming her weaknesses and early fears to carry her tribe to victory in the first immunity challenge? Or did you immediately dismiss the millennial who folded on day two and demanded her tribemates wait on her as she lay down in the shelter?

The show probably leaned towards the former considering it was the erroneous Liz whom we saw dismissing Aubry during her meltdown, while a “You’re the best!” remark was carefully subtitled as the Brains celebrated their victory. But I’ve seen fans take it either way.

SURVIVOR Go nerd, go![/caption]

One of the things that struck me about the votes was that one (half) of Aubry’s came from Nick, the contestant who’s almost certainly the most familiar with the online community and the most in line with our collective knowledge-base and attitudes to the game. I don’t mean to say everybody online likes Aubry, but Aubry has been our fan favorite, perhaps even over Tai. To generalize among her fans, Aubry can speak to us on our level, we relate to her, and she’s who we want to be if we ever play Survivor. There’s a nerd bias at work here.

But the vast majority of players (and viewers) aren’t from our demographic. Think back to the merge episode where Jason talked about shoving geeks in lockers, and Nick (not entirely accurately, regarding Cydney) observed that Brains and Brawn could never work together because they had totally different approaches to the game.

Aubry, the brain, often discussed her feelings of paranoia and stress at Tribal Council, usually with surprising metaphors. To me, a nerd, she came across as poised and articulate with dry self-deprecation and a vital awareness of herself and the game. The less sympathetic interpretation is that she was, by her own admission, wishy-washy and struggling to cope with the pressures of the game.

Every time I have blogged this season, I have praised Aubry for her social game and with good reason. But now it’s time to look at her social flaws. Jason claimed that she hardly talked to him. Julia said that Aubry had always been very shady towards her and she didn’t know why, but they never really connected. Even Joe said that she was difficult to talk to because she was preoccupied with the game and would give automatic answers.

In her Gordon Holmes interview, Michele explained that Aubry “played socially with the people that she wanted to play with.” Aubry countered: “Scot was not willing to work with me. And if I spoke to Jason, people in my alliance would get funky that I was even socializing with him.” However, the end result was the same. We saw a little of this with Tai, where Aubry shared a beach with him for a couple of weeks yet described their relationship as “Missed Connections on Craigslist” before finally bonding with him when she needed him in her alliance.

A similar criticism was made of Tasha’s game in Cambodia which also resulted in losing at final tribal council. Tasha, of course, took an actively moral stance on this, viewing the players outside of her alliance as being less ‘worthy’. Aubry doesn’t go to those lengths, but she’s not totally objective either. In a deleted confessional, she listed the players she was working with as “authentic human beings.” Julia, Jason, and Scot were excluded from this most basic of qualifications.

It’s a chicken and egg situation. Did Aubry not like Jason, Julia, and Scot because they didn’t like her or vice versa? In the end, neither side was able to overcome that social rift, and it cost all of them the game.

The Fatal Mistake

The Fatal Mistake?

The clearest mistake that Aubry made was writing down Julia’s name and then crossing it off. Her nerves got the better of her in the voting booth and afterward at camp when she was trying to explain herself to Scot and Julia. The ‘original plan’ Scot brought up at Tribal Council was referring to an earlier deal where he, Aubry, and Joe had agreed to take out Anna then Peter. Scot took the strike-through as a message: “I’m not going to do what you ask to me do. I only did it because I don’t like Peter.”

Aubry was unable to convince him otherwise, and Julia saw her explanations as “sucking up”. We know from what we saw in episode that the merge was Aubry’s lowest ebb in the game where she saw herself losing control and didn’t know how to regain it. I said myself, at the time of Nick’s boot, that Aubry needed a more confident partner to bolster her social perception. Cydney filled that role, and she and Aubry did indeed take control of the game, with Aubry ultimately taking Cydney out at the necessary moment… but without Cydney, it’s unlikely that Aubry turns things around for herself.

The same criticism could be leveled at Michele, of course, and the Julia, Jason, and Scot trio were no readier to credit Cydney for the moves than Aubry, so she didn’t lose for riding Cydney’s coattails (which would be a debatable accusation anyway). Aubry herself might have the best explanation when she was talking to Josh Wigler on the red carpet:

I do think there’s something to be said about being an underdog in this game. I think you’re not always an underdog in the game; it’s always evolving. When Scot went out of the game, Jason became the underdog. When Jason went out, Michele was the underdog. It was always shifting. You can’t make people believe you’re an underdog.

Scot and Julia scorned Aubry when she was deciding their fate on Gondol. After Debbie’s vote off, the pair of them plus Jason were beginning to see a way to get control of the game via the super-idol. At that time, Aubry became their target because in Scot’s own words: “She is very smart. She is very savvy plus she’s tough and that’s another reason for her to go because she is such a threat in the challenges.” Jason called her “One hell of an opponent” in the immunity challenge.

That episode was what influenced most of my voting predictions. At that tribal council, Jason and Scot both praised Aubry’s effort in the game and particularly the challenges. They thought she was going home, and they were eulogizing her. Instead, Scot went home, and Aubry took control of Tai, his idol, and the game.

That didn’t immediately change their tune. Jason still described Aubry as the queen bee two episodes later, and it’s possible that had Aubry found a way to bond with him despite her alliance, he could have been an advocate for her on the jury. Still, by day thirty-nine, Scot’s assessment of Aubry’s game had degenerated to fear-based—Scot was gathering information from those same tribal councils where Aubry was wryly highlighting her own neuroticism.

The Juror's View.

You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

Although Aubry had got rid of threats and made it to the end, Scot believed she hadn’t thought things through, so her strategy became luck. Even Joe, who was so often called Aubry’s second vote, was seen as a crutch rather than an asset that Aubry had managed.

For us Aubry fans, there is a moment of breathtaking irony in Julia’s video where she explains to us that she will not be voting for Aubry as she doesn’t respect her game, then proceeds to say her vote will go to the person who has the combination of big moves, loyalty and betrayal, and ability to participate and do well in challenges. That describes Aubry to a tee… far more so than Michele who never did make her big move. Yet it’s all about perception, and Julia’s truth in the game matters more than the one on our TV.

Jury Truthing

One thing we have to remember here is that Aubry didn’t lose three votes. She lost five, and it’s notable that her two locked votes on the jury, Neal and Joe, were both medevacs. Debbie and Cydney liked Aubry and spoke warmly of her to the end, but they still voted for Michele. Ironically, although Michele said to Julia that she had had more to prove by virtue of starting on Beauty, it was Aubry who had the most to prove at final tribal council. Debbie and Cydney were both basing their votes on loyalty. Michele had never written Cydney’s name down; Aubry had. Michele had never promised she wouldn’t write Debbie’s name down; Aubry had.

Debbie had strong views about keeping promises in the game. The vast majority of us online fans would not agree with those views, but it’s Debbie, not us, who earned her right to cast a jury vote. Jurors get the privilege of choosing their own voting criteria, and Debbie needed a really good reason to forgive Aubry’s betrayal. From my point of view, Aubry gave a strong answer, differentiating between the game and their friendship, but it wasn’t enough for Debbie.

Cydney’s vote is a little more complicated. She also valued loyalty, which might seem hypocritical in view of her gameplay, where she betrayed Jason and turned on Aubry at the same time as Aubry turned on her. Remember, all the way back in her pre-game bio, Cydney compared herself to Tony “because his loyalty to those who really mattered was unwavering.” I didn’t understand it then, I don’t understand it now, and I would love to hear Cydney explain her brand of loyalty some day, but the fact remains, Aubry had to satisfy it.

Cydney at least told us exactly what she wanted to hear from Aubry. From Cydney’s point of view, she and Aubry couldn’t be in the finals together. They did too many of the same things. Therefore, if Aubry had always planned to turn on her at final four, she could respect that. Instead, Aubry truthfully admitted that she had only voted for Cydney because she couldn’t take out Michele.

This is a tricky situation, because Michele was demonstrably the bigger threat. It’s tough to know who would have got the votes between Aubry and Cydney (Debbie, Michele, and Nick are all very possible Cydney votes), but Julia, Jason, and Scot would not have favored Cydney the way they did Michele. Regardless, Cydney perceived it as a mistake and that’s what counts. The implication became that the vote wasn’t about strategy, but loyalty, and while Aubry was more loyal to Cydney than to Michele, she was less loyal to Cydney than to Tai.

Similarly, I don’t think Aubry could ever have won Debbie’s vote back after voting her out, but I still think it was the right move for her to make. Getting rid of Debbie let Aubry take control of Tai and Joe while her tight alliance with Cydney gave her access to Michele’s vote as well. At that point, Aubry was never out of the majority until Joe’s medevac, and even then she was able to tie up the votes and earn her way to the next round. Keeping Debbie in the game would have given her one loyal number at the expense of another (Tai) and she could never have controlled Debbie the way she did Tai.

Loyalty vs. Strategy

Loyalty vs. Strategy

Debbie’s vote was a necessary sacrifice. Cydney’s vote was an involuntary one. Ironically, Aubry probably gained Nick’s vote for the same reason she lost those two. Nick didn’t value loyalty; he valued manipulation and honesty. Perhaps Aubry’s biggest social mistake was that the ‘authentic human beings’ she aligned with placed a higher value on loyalty than the strategic game she herself favored.

Joe best sums up the attitude of any Survivor juror: “The one who has the most true answer as to my thoughts is the one who will get my vote.” While it’s hardly exceptional, Kaoh Rong’s jury was certainly a complex one, its individual members wanting different things from different people. The problem with playing an aggressive game is that it’s very easy for any move to be a dealbreaker for one juror or another. As usually ends up being the case, Aubry would have earned her win, but she also earned her loss.

In these scenarios, all the jury needs is a more palatable alternative: enter Michele.

The Blank Slate

In our preseason roundtable, I wrote this for Michele:

I agree with everything my fellow bloggers have said, including the parts where they disagree. In a sea of young women, Michele is the most generic, though in all the right ways. She seems lovely, big fan, excited to be there, smart enough… perhaps a little too young, but she’s a perfectly acceptable player who just happens to be on a season where a lot of other people have better reasons to stand out. And that makes it hard to say how she’ll do. She could be the next Kelley Wentworth! Or she could be the next Kelley Wentworth (San Juan Del Sur edition).

Never have I been more accurate in a prediction. Michele looks like the Venn diagram overlap between Parvati and Amanda. She talks in stock phrases: “I’m a strong, independent woman” who will “keep on fighting” and, of course, “I don’t need to be carried, bro.” Jeff described her as having a magnetic charm pre-season and while that charisma didn’t really come across on screen, she was almost always happy with a smile for everybody.

We were guilty of imposing ourselves or the person we wanted her to be on Aubry. Michele is a photo fit of the young, female Survivor player, and that generic stereotype has such a wide range of outcomes that it’s easy to see almost anything in her. Jeff Probst had hopes she would be a smart flirt. Nick expected the “Badass Bitch” from her leaked application video. Anna and Julia believed she was a loyal number for their girls’ alliance. Cydney described her as “standard party girl fun.”

Choose Your Own Caption

Choose Your Own Caption

Part of this was that Michele was so young that she herself didn’t know who she was or how she would react in adversity. Neither the badass bitch nor the smart flirt ever really materialized, but Michele did bear up well in that she was able to stay positive, keep faith in herself, and build genuine friendships with many people while remaining at least a pleasant presence for others.

Where Michele’s social game struggled was her read on other people, to the extent that she was often oblivious to her own position. When she first went to Chan Loh beach, she wanted to align with Debbie who was kind to her, unaware that Debbie fully planned to vote her off if they lost. She relied on others to tell her where the vote was going after the merge. At one point, she forged a secret alliance with Tai but only realized that it was one-sided when Tai tied up the final four vote, sending Cydney out of the game after Michele had told her not to practice making fire.

Michele inadvertently highlighted her own lack of self-awareness at final tribal council. Her closing argument was that she was the only person who had faith in herself when everybody was telling her she was at the bottom. She also talked about how she had to fight her way to the end against a lot of roadblocks, which went against Julia’s biting assessment of her game earlier that evening. Julia described Michele as the weakest link on Beauty, called her lucky for being able to get through the first half of the game without strategizing, then declared she was dragged through the early part of the merge as a number.

There’s no need to assume that Julia’s view is more accurate than Michele’s. One thing that became clear at the end of the game was that Cydney and Michele’s relationship had run deeper than we were shown, ever since Chan Loh beach. In her interviews, Michele has suggested that the two of them had a strategic partnership dating from then. We were only ever shown Aubry as Cydney’s strategic partner, while Michele was a loyal vote, and unfortunately, Cydney’s lack of press interviews means we don’t have any corroboration for Michele’s story. Still, Cydney certainly played hard and changed up the whole game. If Michele facilitated that, that’s a big feather in her cap—but that wouldn’t do her any good for the three jurors who weren’t crediting Cydney’s moves.

Million Dollar Friendship

Million Dollar Friendship

Julia was taking an odd tack in questioning considering she was Michele’s closest friend. Julia’s also a demonstrably smart player and I think she knew exactly what she was doing. She knew the jurors’ view of Michele’s game—which was that Michele had done nothing worth acknowledging for the first twenty-seven days. So she forestalled any attempts on Michele’s part to talk about that, instead railroading Michele into arguing that the last ten days of her game were worth a million dollars.

Michele didn’t take the bait: she conceded that she had needed time to find her footing and made no claims about sharing Cydney’s strategy, but she implied that she and Julia were on equal terms in the decisions post-merge. Julia has maintained that she was the one driving the decisions until she was voted out, so Michele’s answer conflicted with the view of the three jurors who most wanted to vote for her.

Jason gave her a second shot when he asked her how she got back into the majority after the Scot vote. He explicitly asked if it was luck, reinforcing what Julia had already stated: The Julia vote had been designated as Michele’s big move, and she needed to defend that. At that point, Michele finally did so.

Michele’s reluctance to reduce her game to its last ten days is understandable, and no doubt her assertions that she was proud of herself and her game helped with Debbie and Cydney’s votes, but it’s an interesting concept. Considering Michele went to fewer tribal councils than any other winner (just six, not counting the one where she voted Neal off the jury) you could also argue that she found her footing not so much on day twenty-eight but after her third tribal council—much like Aubry.

However, for the relevant jurors, this argument meant voting for somebody to win based on what happened after their own game ended. Scot was the person who stumped for Michele (one of the best moments of her jury performance was her pantomimed response to his words), and his spin on it was that Michele had got stronger while Aubry and Tai had got weaker.

Overall, it’s an unfair portrayal of the final three’s challenge ability. Michele never shone in the team challenges like Aubry did. She actively disadvantaged Chan Loh twice and the post-merge reward that helped her get back into the majority was largely won by Cydney while Michele tagged along. Even in the individual challenges, performance was pretty even when you looked at placements rather than wins. Jeff Pitman provided me with the mean stats: Tai 65%, Michele 65%, and Aubry 63%.

Let’s not forget that one of Michele’s individual reward wins was a challenge split into three different contests. While we don’t know how long Michele could have lasted, she stepped down once she’d won her burger while Aubry and Tai battled it out for the advantage. Furthermore, had Joe not gone home, Aubry’s reward win would have been the final five immunity, giving her a chance to parade her strength at a tribal council. (It’s very likely that she, Tai, and Joe would have voted Michele out then, so Tai was the only finalist who wasn’t saved by a well-timed medevac.)

But again, it’s perception that matters, and from the jurors’ point of view, Michele showed up to the final seven tribal council wearing the immunity necklace. At final six, she was calling out Tai for targeting her, going on to survive his vote advantage. The tribal at final five was cancelled, but at final four, Michele was wearing the necklace again and still talking up her game—like Aubry, Michele recognized the importance of playing to the jury. Then there was a bonus tribal council where she became the first player ever to vote out a juror.

Tribal Council Star

Tribal Council Star

In tribal council terms, Michele was the star of those last ten days. Scot observed that sometimes that was what you needed to get respect: “What have you done for me lately? What have you done for yourself lately?”

There’s an element of rationalization here, of course. Scot and Jason never liked it when people wanted to steer in a different direction from them, so it’s very convenient that their voting criteria is suddenly based on who came on strong at the end and rewarded a player who never factored into their own games. However, you could say exactly the same thing for Nick’s vote. He was never allied with Aubry and she only came into her own after he had been voted off. Did he vote for her so that he could avoid acknowledging that Michele had outplayed him?

As I said before, Nick most likely shares our nerd bias for Aubry, so it’s not surprising that he would vote for her. Unlike Julia, Scot, and Jason, he believed Aubry was running things with Cydney—out of the finalists, Aubry was the only one who always voted ‘correctly’—and her answers fit his voting criteria perfectly (while Michele’s lack of self-awareness should have triggered his “delusional” dealbreaker). But then, Scot, Jason, and Julia probably don’t believe they voted out of bitterness either. You can never be sure if you’re being truly objective or simply rationalizing your subjective desires.

Michele didn’t pull off any big moves, but she kept her head in the game and won the necessary challenges to get herself to the end. Once there, she was the true neutral against two controversial players. She had no particular bond with Scot and Jason (though her friendship with Julia helped earn their votes), but nor had she caused resentment. Her discussion of her own game at final tribal council was more about assertion than explanation, but by the same token, it did nothing to contradict the view the jurors wanted to have of her.

Michele is probably not the first Survivor winner to win through cognitive dissonance, but she’s one of the more dramatic examples. Ironically, if I were pointing to anybody from this season as a case study for how to play Survivor it would still be Aubry, right down to jury management. (Aubry did a first class job of destroying other players résumés: she hung Tai out to dry with his advantage, she tried to take ownership of Michele’s advantage by explaining the best rationale for booting a juror, and, of course, she called Michele out for not knowing how the final four vote was going down.)

Michele is a great illustration of how being nice can pay off, but there aren’t many subtleties in how she did it. The game Aubry played reflected more of the complexities of Survivor, and that’s what commanded our attention as viewers. However, that’s exactly why Michele’s simpler game won. Hers was the blank slate for the jurors to interpret however they wished.

The Final Word is Always Written by the Editors

For the cast of Kaoh Rong. the vote happened a year ago. and they have moved on, reaffirming their friendships while processing their own perceptions of what happened out there. We viewers now have to do the same thing. Almost all of us were blindsided by that result, no matter who we expected to win, and it’s left us with some bitterness to deal with. Above, I have outlined several different angles on what happened, and much like the players, we will pick and choose the truths that fit our own logic—or those that rationalize what we want to believe.

Not a winner's edit...

Just not the winner.

Production had to do this too, and it seems they made their own choice in the edit. There’s a strong suspicion out there that Michele was not their choice of winner. Did they finally pull the trigger on the juror vote off because they wanted to make sure that Aubry was not voted out ahead of a final two? Did Jeff bring back closing statements as a last ditch effort, hoping Aubry’s eloquence might somehow win back the votes?

Regardless, their edit made their closing statement loud and clear: the wrong player won. Michele received plenty of confessionals, but Aubry had more. Michele’s relationship with Cydney was hidden; Aubry’s was emphasized. Michele talked Tai round to her side, and Aubry talked him right back twice. At final tribal council, while Julia’s blunt speech to Michele made it onto our screens, Debbie’s more positive speech and question were edited out entirely. Her glorious speech about Aubry, of course, made it in, with the weird implication that Debbie was the other Aubry vote. (After all, doesn’t Aubry deserve a better class of vote than Nick’s?)

All season long, we could see reasons for Michele to lose the jury vote—we never could see why Aubry would, and perhaps the best indictment of her chances came when the ever-inaccurate Michele told Tai that the jury would vote for Aubry.

Such an edit is unfair to Michele, but I wonder if it was a bigger slap in the faces of the jurors. We saw that footage of Scot and Jason praising Aubry’s game, making it clear that she had their respect right before she outplayed them. The editors then hammered one final nail in the coffin of Jason—the man who came into the season saying that Russell Hantz was the only person to play Survivor the way it should be played—when they subtitled his remark in his final episode: “Sometimes you can do everything right and still lose.”

Or perhaps that’s just my bitter perception. After all, it’s already been proven I’m not an edit reader. However unhappy production might be with Kaoh Rong, this was a really fun season with a great cast and many talking points beyond the end result. Despite the last-minute derailment, I’m more inclined to remember the good times.

This blog is long enough without going into the rest of the final four, and I felt the story of Tai’s journey on screen accounted for his loss—though let’s give kudos to Mark, who showed his own loyalty by attempting to savage Michele at final tribal council. Cydney might perhaps have been the best player of the season after all, but I covered her game in my last blog.

At some point in the off-season, I will do one final blog on Kaoh Rong, answering my own gender bias speculation from pre-season, but I need to take a break before I get onto that, so don’t expect to see it for some weeks or even months. Enjoy your summer, and if nothing else, I’ll see you for season thirty-three!

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