A Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.
A Diplomatic View: Insider Trading
Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X –Insider Trading
Because Survivor at its core is a game of numbers and relationships, there’s a moment in almost any season when clearly drawn lines of power and loyalty leaves one or more people on the outside looking in. This doesn’t mean that the player has played badly. You can play a nearly perfect game and still find yourself in a losing position. In fact, one of the reasons we find returning players so compelling is wanting to see them apply almost winning strategies to a new situation. This week on the Diplomatic View we’ll take a look at players who found themselves facing an uphill climb post-merge, in a variety of circumstances, and how they managed to change their situation… in some cases finding a way to get to final Tribal Council.
There are an extraordinary number of ways to find yourself on the outside of the numbers. Long simmering feuds can lead your numbers to fracture in the face of an alliance with a stronger core alliance; you may simply be out-numbered due to poor performance in challenges moving forward; and the attritional nature of tribal switches can have more of an effect on one tribe than the other. However a player finds themselves in trouble, their primary mission becomes focused on staying in the game long enough to find fractures in the larger alliance and seeking out opportunities to take control of the game. The exact form that takes can be quite different depending on the season and the opponents.
One of the best examples of simply trying to survive another day is Sandra Diaz-Twine. The only two-time winner of Survivor has in both of her seasons found herself either on the outskirts of a post-merge alliance, or in an extremely tenuous position. In her first season Sandra gave voice to the theory of ‘Anyone, as long as it ain’t me’. Some Survivor fans have dismissed this theory as being the equivalent of floating through the game since essentially this means abandoning her allies in favor of her own survival. However, as much as I’m a believer in alliances, sometimes the game simply comes down to individual survival.
Sandra Diaz-Twine is a demonstrated master in buying herself enough time to get in front of the final tribal council and make an argument for a million dollars. What people don’t give Sandra enough credit for is that in neither season was she simply a passive observer. While her priorities were always that she simply wanted to survive for one more vote, she was actively trying to maneuver and change the result of tribal council votes, she simply was the ultimate pragmatist. Heroes vs Villains was simply fascinating, as Sandra spent the entirety of the merge trying to get the Heroes to remove Russell Hantz from the game and failed at every turn… yet soundly defeated him in the final vote.
A second example of the power of timing is Survivor: Marquesas, where Rob Mariano attempted to flip the numbers against John Carroll’s majority alliance and failed resulting in his elimination. However his ally Kathy was able to reap the benefits of the ground work he laid down thanks to the majority alliances clear declaration of a pecking order, resulting in Pascal and Neelah switching their loyalties to Kathy, Vecepia and Sean. In this case, the majority alliance was reckless, and made clear to those lower in their alliance that what Rob had told them was true. Kathy was able to ride this change in fortunes to a 3rd place finish, which was incredibly unlikely before Neelah and Pascal switched their loyalties, Where Sandra maneuvered desperately without necessarily taking control of the game, Kathy was the beneficiary of a game-changing flip in results… that was mostly the result of another player’s work.
Russell Hantz can be called many things, but in his first two seasons he was extremely effective at finding a way to take control of a situation when strictly based on numbers he should have been a dead man walking. At the merge in Survivor: Samoa, Russell’s tribe brought four members to the tribe with eight members of the opposing Galu tribe joining them. By any reasonable measure Russell was headed towards becoming a sock-burning footnote in Survivor history. However, a number of things broke the way of Hantz and his Foa Foa allies. Russell was able to play an immunity idol to save himself in the second post-merge vote, he was able to convince John Fincher and Shambo to vote with him in their own self-interest (and then immediately removed John Fincher from the game), and Foa Foa was able to take control of the game for good. The key vote on this season may have been the first post-merge vote, where Natalie White, the eventual season winner, was able to rally votes from Galu to eliminate Erik Cardona.
Natalie White is an underrated winner, in part, because it’s easy for someone to pale in the shadow of Russell’s outsized personality. However, the ouster of Erik was clearly a move that was done in absence of Hantz’ involvement since he needlessly burned an immunity idol during that vote especially ironic given that Cardona took an immunity idol home with him. Foa Foa’s advantage post-merge was that there were clear stress lines in the larger Galu tribe, which the Erik vote cast a sharp light on, from there it was simply a matter of putting as much pressure on those fracture lines to make sure that Galu was never able to draw themselves together and vote out the Foa Foa holdouts.
Possibly the player who did the best job post-merge of simply finding a way to survive until he was able to take advantage of an opportunity was Chris Daugherty on Survivor: Vanuatu. Post-merge Chris and his fellow former Lopevi tribemates found themselves out-numbered 6 – 5, and the subsequent votes were strictly along former tribal lines… until a loved one challenge on Day 28. Seeing Chris and his fiancé working together in the challenge, the leaders of the Yasur alliance decided to vote off Eliza instead of Chris. Removing Eliza from the game would have removed an annoyance (though one of the greatest jury members ever), but it also declared to the other members of the Yasur alliance that the game had entered a new phase. In response Scout and Twila, who found themselves at the bottom of that pecking order, decided to switch things up… and Chris became a solid piece of their new alliance.
There is a point in every game of Survivor where the larger numbers start breaking down, when the layers of the Russian nesting doll start being peeled back. It’s a dangerous time for those in control of an alliance because there is a risk that players outside of the power circle will realize it and try to do something about it. The first time you tell the members of your alliance to target one of your own, the game changes in ways that can be hard to predict. One of the reasons players often try to avoid doing so until all players not in their alliance are eliminated is that it reduces the chances of plans being upset by a player they have little to no influence with.
There are many ways in which the game can change post-merge. Long simmering feuds within larger tribes can cause alliances to fall apart, a player can gain a mystery advantage or go on an individual immunity run, and players can simply score a diplomatic victory that carries them farther forward in the game. There’s one key trend in all of these cases, however, players have to survive long enough to see these opportunities arise. While players in the minority can sometimes make waves, sound bites, or interesting Survivor memories while being confrontational, they are far more likely to get ahead following the Sandra or Chris model than taking the Russell Hantz or Chaos Kass model to heart.
The more argumentative things are at tribal council, the more a player is a source of irritation, and the more they’re seen as a threat… the less likely they are to get a chance to last long enough to outwit or outplay.
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This week Susan Appleby continued our analysis of Adam’s play, and pointed out there are certain moves in the game that you simply can’t walk back. Once Adam was an integral part in removing Figgy from the game he should have realized that Taylor was never going to become an ally in the game and acted accordingly. As much as I’m a believer in not burning bridges and I believe in trying to keep your options open in the game… you also need to be realistic. Sarah Freeman did note (correctly) that Adam kept the secret of his immunity idol to himself, so he didn’t reveal all of his secrets. However, trusting Taylor with any kind of secret just seems like a bad investment.
Mr. E, pointed out that it was possible, barely, that Taylor might have been aiming for a goat / Fabio strategy where he made himself so unthreatening (by way of cluelessness), that his fellow competitors would be willing to carry him forward farther in the game. I would say that’s possible with almost any other player of the game… but not Taylor. As zjzr points out, of Figtails, Figgy was by far the more dangerous of the two players, Taylor was disruptive and annoying, and a food thief… but he wasn’t a danger to be a strategic player.
Regarding Michelle’s exit from the game, the consensus was that she chose an extremely bad week to settle back and put her faith in Jay and Taylor to keep her alive in the game. As trekbot pointed out, by immediately cozying up to her alliance and not reaching out to any of the other players, she insulated herself from any chance of catching word of the way the vote was going. Catching rumor of Figgy’s elimination before tribal council allowed Michelle to engineer a flip that saved the game for her tribemate at least briefly. By removing herself from the information stream, she eliminated any chance she had of generating a similar save for herself.
Key Points in Episode 9: Still Throwin’ Punches
Mania is not a viable game strategy
I’ve been critical of Adam’s gameplay since the merge, particularly the way he’s dealt with Taylor, and what appears to be an extremely optimistic view of how Taylor will react when the player who eliminated his love interest attempts to strategize with him. That situation lead directly to what was a fairly bad tribal council for Adam.
It’s easy to look at the avalanche of votes for Taylor and Jay and think that Adam is still relatively safe, but keep in mind that it is extremely uncommon for the outcome of a vote to change at tribal council, particularly when so many moving pieces are involved. The possibility of a change in the votes leading to confusion and some in the majority going home, makes that sort of switch far too dangerous.
So Adam survived this vote cleanly… but a lot of information was revealed that doesn’t cast him in a very good light–that he made an agreement with Taylor to conceal the fact that Taylor stole food, that he revealed to Taylor his advantage, and that he may or may not have been involved in stealing the food in the first place. This was every possible bad fallout from Adam’s decisions last week, and they all came out in tribal council.
The good news for Adam is that while the information was damaging, he at least did a very bad job of handling the revelation. In all sincerity, what Adam should have done immediately after last week’s tribal council is outed Taylor’s secret as well as his own. He had clearly put himself on the other side of the tribal lines from Jay and Taylor, so he should have assumed it would come out and gotten ahead of the narrative. Adam should not have been shocked at Taylor’s reveal of his secret, and the fact that his tribemates heard about it for the first time at tribal, seriously damaged his credibility.
The worst thing Adam stated wasn’t his invitation to his tribe to vote him out if the advantage was a game-breaker. It was fairly unlikely that the vote was going to change as we discussed. However, the throwaway statement of how putting his trust in Taylor was a mistake is probably something he will regret having said. You generally don’t want to reinforce in people’s mind that you’ve been willing to put your trust in someone they’ve engaged a lot of effort into eliminating.
Taylor and Jay’s attempted game flips
One of the unfortunate issues for Adam this week was that Jay & Taylor decided that their route to a possible return to relevance in the game was over through Adam and that they had very little to lose by trying to systematically blow his game into very tiny pieces. While this didn’t work out all that well for Taylor, this week put Jay in a very interesting position.
For Taylor, the issue has always been confusing ‘moves’, ‘big moves’, and good moves. While there is every chance that the backsplash from mason jar gate will land squarely on Adam and affect his future in the game, that’s not very helpful for Taylor who is now sharing the bar at Ponderosa with Michelle.
For Jay, the fallout from this week is a little murkier, but might be a net positive. Jay made a good decision, knowing that the votes were being split between himself and Taylor to push his vote in the direction of Taylor and keep his idol in his pocket. If Jay and Taylor’s alliance had better footing then there would be an argument for a different approach, but at this point any attempt Jay made to save Taylor was only going to make himself more of a threat and keep the target focused on him and Taylor. In this case, Jay made a reasonable decision to cut Taylor lose and make sure that he wasn’t going to be the one going home.
I disliked Jay’s removal of Michaela from the game and losing Michelle last week will further dampen his ability to make moves in the game, but every departing contest who speaks about Jay notes that he’s devious, smart, and a gifted liar. That’s a good tool set in general for someone in Survivor. In this specific case given the variegated web of alliances that make up the primary Gen-X alliance, Jay has every chance to advance in the game. The tools that are most important for him right now however are time and patience. Luckily for him, his idol should help him with the former.
Closing Points and Looking Forward: Voting Blocs vs Alliances
Over the last few seasons, there has been an evolution in the way Survivor has been played. While there still is a place for hard set alliances, there’s also a window for more fluid voting blocs. We saw this a lot in Survivor: Second Chances, where it seemed that allegiances switched at nearly every tribal council. This flexibility and fluidity makes for an extremely exciting season to watch, but for the players in the season, it makes it incredibly hard to control.
The problem with these two strategies is that it’s difficult to pull off the ‘Russian nesting doll’ model of an alliance in a game where there are transitional voting blocs. After all, part of the reason voting blocs congeal is to remove players who are too close to controlling the game. Having ties to the separate voting blocs wouldn’t necessarily make you immune from those votes coming together either since there really is no loyalty inherent in them.
I suspect we’re going to start to see voting blocs becoming the norm late in the game. Where we traditionally see alliances begin to shed members as they remove the less important ones, under the direction of a kingpin, I suspect things will be a bit more chaotic. We’ve had 30+ seasons where we’ve watched alliances march down to final tribal council, only to have the more dominant / charismatic member of the alliance win the big prize. That’s a lot of lessons for fans of the show to ignore to this point.
This seems to be particularly relevant for two players, Jay and Zeke, at this phase of the game. We know that Sunday is already itching to get rid of Jess, and if you scratch the surface of the Gen-Xers alliance there are probably more issues of contention than there are bonds between them. For Jay, he needs to do everything he can to encourage the Gen-Xers to target members of their group. This may include trying to up Adam’s perceived threat level by obviously scheming with him.
Zeke, as I said last week, has key ties to people in multiple different social groups in the merged tribe. His goal needs to be to swing the votes against those who are a threat to his game, but at the same time to wield his influence subtly. This is not the time for him to attempt to dominate an alliance, or force a vote to go towards the person he wants out. He has the additional advantage of being low-profile, which at this point in the game puts him far down on the list of people’s targets.
A little bit of diplomatic jujitsu should help Zeke blaze a clear path to the final tribal council.
For more blogs this season: RHAP Survivor Blog Schedule.