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: Queen for Three Days
Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X – Queen for Three Days
There’s an old saying that nature abhors a vacuum, which is often used as a rationale / excuse for how people respond when they suddenly find themselves in an odd situation, adapting to new roles and generally dealing with unexpected events. That is how the Gen-X tribe found itself this week; having decapitated itself they were left without a clear leader. Into this brave new world Lucy demonstrated a willingness to step into an unfamiliar speaking role on the tribe, and in this season of Survivor. This wouldn’t be the Diplomatic View if we didn’t take a look at her incipient iron reign over the Gen X tribe, and she certainly gave us plenty to talk about.
With Paul’s removal from the tribe last week, and the previews showing Lucy stepping forward, I had planned to talk about leadership in the week’s column, regardless of how events played out. Specifically, I wanted to talk about the difference between being the leader of your tribe and the leader of your alliance, the ways you player can fall into a leadership role, and how your style of leadership can all lead players into precarious positions in the game. After all, a key part of the diplomatic part of the game is determining who is calling the shots, and how their tribemates feel about that.
On Survivor, everyone wants to be the person that their alliance looks to. While it can occasionally make you a target (except when the opposing alliance goes hunting for pawns), being the person at the nexus of communication means that you’re at a far lower risk of getting blindsided. In the worst case scenario, a player at the core of their alliance is in a unique position to read the tea leaves when there’s change a-brewin’. If the leader of a dominant alliance can navigate their way to the final tribal council, they’ve also got a good chance to pull in any voters who are on the fence. After all, who wants to be seen as losing to someone they think of as a puppet?
The primary issue, that many different players have come up against, is that being the leader of your alliance isn’t the same thing as being the leader of your tribe. Often a single player inhabits both roles, but occasionally an alliance is able to throw up a smokescreen and present a more obvious leader for the other tribe to target. One of the best examples of this was in Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites, which I’ll talk more about later in this article. In that season, the Black Widow alliance decided it was best to let Ozzy and James feel like they were in charge of the tribe and the alliance. Meanwhile, they were waiting for the best opportunity to flip the game on those two notables; something they did elegantly and effectively. Their initial blind side of Ozzy led to a series of tribal council ambushes that made that season one of my favorites.
Far more important than how it seems to the opposing tribe or alliance are two factors: how attempting to be the leader is perceived by the other members of your tribe, and how you treat your tribemates when you feel you’re in control. The first issue is simple: If your tribe doesn’t want to follow where you’re going, then you’re not the leader of the tribe. That reduces you to a guy or a girl going out for a walk on the beach. A walk which, more often than not, ends up with a walk away from tribal council as well.
The most spectacular failure is reserved for those who successfully gain a majority in their tribe, and then immediately squander that position by rubbing their tribe the wrong way. More often than not, this comes down to leadership style… and how the person ends up in that position.
Some players are selected as leaders by their tribe, with little or no direct action taken to make it happen. Sometimes it’s because Jeff makes the tribe choose a leader and someone gets unlucky (no one should ever, ever, want to win that vote). That’s a rare occurrence, though, most often one person on the tribe is just slightly louder, slightly more experienced, and people turn to that person often enough that it becomes a habit. When the stars align, that person ends up being Tom Westman, and his tribe moves on to totally dominate a season that he wins handily. Tom never really had to establish his leadership; it just sort of happened. This meant that his leadership style was less ‘you have to do what I tell you’ and more ‘follow me because you want to’. His tribe would have walked through fire for him, though, it didn’t end up needing to do so.
Other players decide they want to be the leader of their tribe. Either because they are self-described ‘control freaks’, don’t respect the other members of their tribe, or find themselves facing a perceived power vacuum. This can occur on day one when they all hit the beach, when another power figure gets shown the door, or after a tribal shake-up. This kind of leadership is something akin to riding a tiger: You can’t get off… and you’re going wherever the tiger wants you to go. Try to get the tiger to change direction or become too much of a nuisance, and you’re likely to find out that you’re not so much a passenger as you’re a to-go lunch.
How that leader is treated by other members of the alliance, is one possible pitfall. Players on Survivor find themselves bereft of all of the comforts of home, and there is no quicker way to build up resentment than by having one player participate in a seemingly unfair number of rewards. In our everyday life we don’t care about petty things like that, but if you’ve spent two weeks on the beach with no hot water, and only rice to eat… seeing a person arrive back at camp well-fed and showered can be various degrees of irritating. Beyond this is the fact that a good leader should want to spend time with the least certain members of their alliance, so that they can put the kibosh on any revolts. Sometimes that means passing up rewards, or making sure you don’t just take your friends with you.
A leader like Tom Westman, Boston Rob, or even Russell Hantz has enough control that they can pick who they want to go home and push the point until their alliance falls in line with their wishes. Leaders of an ad hoc alliance have to be far more careful and be willing to let other members of the alliance settle scores as well. This may mean that the leader of the alliance has to let his primary target stick around in favor of keeping people in the alliance happy… it’s often worth it to keep people within the alliance from becoming disgruntled. Given the fluidity of alliances in Survivor, occasionally giving in to the wants of the people you’re allied with can make sure that they don’t go looking for new allies who will.
At some point in every season of Survivor, it’s time for alliances to start thinking about removing their internal threats as players begin positioning for the end game. In a stratified alliance, it’s fairly easy to start removing shells from the Russian nesting doll. Often this can happen while there are still stragglers of the opposing alliance left in the game. But in a loose alliance, particularly one that came together in the face of a threat that’s already been dealt with, this process is far more difficult. In that situation, once the leader of the alliance has declared that it’s open season, that leader may find themselves the first target.
The last danger players can get into is assuming that their leadership gives them total power. But we’ll get into that in more detail in a bit.
I realized, belatedly, that it might have sounded like I was hoping the comments were less crowded this week, which wasn’t the case. I was actually hoping that I’d get more time to spend in the comments this week which, unfortunately, I didn’t. There are a few things that came up in the comments that I wish I’d included in my original article.
First, we again have Damn Bueno, who pulled something of a trifecta this week. He was one of many who pointed out that Figgy demurred, pointing out that other people were responsible for saving her. She certainly did that publicly, but in confessional her quote of ‘If you write Figgy’s name down, you go home’ shows far less of an understanding of her position in the tribe. Her deferential behavior in front of the entire tribe is certainly a front; she thinks that she’s the Queen Bee at this point. I did a bad job of making that point, but still stand behind it… sort of.
DB also made the point that it’s a bit too early to say that Figgy isn’t a NaOnka / Abi level crazy person. Both of those luminaries, DB points out, waited until fairly deep into the game to expose exactly how crazy they were beneath the surface. I don’t quite agree with that point. While neither NaOnka nor Abi went nuclear until late in the game (unlike say J’tia Taylor), they both showed early warning signs that something quite worrisome lay beneath the surface. Figgy, thus far, seems to mostly be self-centered. She wants what she wants, which happens to be Taylor, and she has no interest in those people who get between her and her man.
Lastly, he mentioned one issue that we haven’t seen raise its head yet… the impact of Michelle’s exposure on the Gen X tribe. As I discussed last week, for whatever reason, the Millennials have decided that the way to get Michelle out of the game is to target Figgy. In their construction of events, that will make Michelle use her powers of manipulation in their broader interests since they’ll have broken up her alliance. This is fairly bad strategy from my perspective, and is unlikely to work out the way they want it to. However, DB does point out a hidden danger: the tribal shake-up. When the GenX and Millennial tribes intermingle, there’s a significant chance that hearing of Michelle’s power position will make them specifically vote her out. It’s certainly what I would do in their position if I had the numbers, and there are several likely configurations that will give them those numbers.
Michel Trudeau, really, really, really doesn’t like the final 3. He gives the final 3 ‘abomination’ a lot of the credit for Yul’s win, and I can see his point. Personally, I don’t have a problem with a final 3. Often that 3rd player is something of an also ran, sometimes not even getting a question at tribal council except for the bitterest jurors. There’s one key case where I think having a final two instead of a final three was a miscarriage of justice: Cirie Fields on Fans Vs Favorites.
Cirie was one of my favorite players in Survivor history. A lot of very kind things have been written about her, including on RHAP. For someone who isn’t a challenge threat, Cirie is a master strategist and the queen of the social game. She was a key part of the season of blindsides on Survivor: Fans Vs Favorites, and I don’t think Erik makes his massive mistake if not for Cirie’s driving the nail home regarding actions speaking louder than words. In Fans Vs Favorites, it looked like we were all set to have possibly the greatest final Tribal Council in Survivor history, with Cirie Fields facing off against Parvati Shallow… only to be denied at the last minute. One final challenge, and Amanda takes Parvati to the final, only to lose 5 to 3.
It’s always been clear that Amanda made the right move, Cirie would have wiped the floor with her, but I’ve been intrigued by that always haunting phrase ‘What might have been’. While I think a 3-way final goes to Cirie, it would be interesting to have heard the arguments that were made, and see which members of the Fans tribe would have voted with Parvati. Could the Favorite vote have been split between Amanda and Cirie? Would Amanda have been less prone to meltdown if Cirie was there with them, or more prone to do so? These are all open questions, and sadly we’ll never get the answer to them. My largest regret is that she’ll never be rewarded with the top prize, even if she were to come back to the game.
In the current world of Survivor, Cirie is far too dangerous for any player that recognizes her to let her go past the early stages of the game. Even a season of returning all-star players would have to have her high up the target list. She’s a player who outwitted and outplayed some of the best to play the game… she just couldn’t quite outlast. Wishing that she’d gotten her chance to stand in front of the jury and state her case is why I’ll never quite hate the Final 3, like some other folks do.
Key Points in Episode 4: Who’s the Sucker at the Table?
Sometimes you draw your way into a good hand and run into someone’s trump card
When we spent the first three episodes with very little in the way of appearances by Lucy, I started to wonder if she would be a complete non-factor or if the producers were biding their time because great things were coming from her. It turns out that both of these things were. Lucy decided that Jessica, who arranged the Paul blindside, has to be the next one to go. This honestly wasn’t the worst idea, there wasn’t much of an alliance left on the Gen X tribe and Lucy could have easily gathered what remained into something resembling an alliance after Jessica was ousted.
Most impressive of all, for me, was Lucy’s ability to hold the plan together after Ken went to Jessica with it. The diplomatic / social game is most clearly defined at the moment a player is told contradictory information by different players on their tribe. How the player reacts to that information is completely about who has established their (theoretical) bona fides more clearly. In Jessica’s case she clearly trusted Lucy more, and she proceeded to blow up Ken’s game by telling Lucy everything. At that point, Lucy had several options. She could have switched her target to Ken, she could have alienated Ken completely, but instead she brought Ken back into the fold.
Part of that was likely due to Jessica’s resistance to being saved by Ken, she had clearly decided that he wasn’t to be trusted and was resolute in that decision. That gave Ken little enough reason to throw a protest vote towards Lucy, and every reason to fall into line with the new tribe majority alliance and vote against Jessica. Ken could only do that if he knew that he wasn’t the next person on the chopping block, an assurance that could only come from Lucy. In that sense, and in sweeping up Chris and Bret effortlessly, Lucy’s diplomatic game was strong.
So what were Lucy’s mistakes? The obvious one is that she was trying to be a dictator. There is very little that rubs someone the wrong way more than stating that they’re not allowed to talk to other players. Beyond that, there’s almost no way for a player to avoid talking with specific other players other than being incredibly rude to them and immediately walking away when that player approaches. A better approach is to try to keep track of who is talking to whom and if you see a potentially dangerous conversation brewing, find a way to insert yourself into the conversation. On top of all of that, there’s also the first rule of leadership: Don’t give an order you know won’t be followed.
The other mistake Lucy made is that she was far too open in discussions at tribal council. While none of what she said apparently had much impact on Jessica, Lucy did everything short of saying ‘Yes, everything Ken told Jessica is true, and she should believe him.’ Jeff Probst has turned into a fairly good interrogator over the years, and there’s an art to answering questions without giving away too much information. Lucy was reckless confirming information that should have been kept hidden, volunteered information that she didn’t need to, and maybe in that conversation David decided that he couldn’t face being on the bottom of the new Gen X alliance.
Lucy’s rise, fall, and elimination from the game all happened in a single episode. She got to play a full season of Survivor in next to no time at all.
Knowing who to believe is the hardest thing
I’ve been a fan of Jessica’s from day one, when she got her mysterious advantage in the supplies scramble, and I think she cemented a few fans with Paul’s ouster. I’m pretty certain I wasn’t the only person screaming ‘No!’ when she walked up to Lucy and told her everything that Ken had told her either, particularly since Ken had put himself at a fair amount of risk by sharing the plan with Jessica, and as fans, we like to see that kind of play rewarded. Survivor is a game, as Jeff Probst likes to say, of imperfect information. Looking at what Jessica knew at the time, there are a lot of reasons for her to react the way she did.
From Jessica’s perspective, Lucy was one of her allies who helped her remove Paul from the game. While Ken was one of the votes that made it possible: Ken, Cece, and David were the straggles that they swept up to be part of the vote. Paul’s ouster was triggered, in part, by her concerns about the possibility of an all-guys alliance and that single vote likely didn’t wipe those concerns away. So from Jessica’s perspective, Ken is still a potential threat.
At the point that Ken comes to Jessica to tell her of Lucy’s plan, she is forced to choose between her ally and someone who might be a threat. The information that Ken is providing doesn’t fit the picture of the tribe that Jessica knows to be true, and she just can’t quite believe him. We know that Ken is being honest, but from what Jessica knows, his story makes no sense.
Jessica did bring it up to Lucy, though, and I think she used that to try to get a bit more information. Last week, Paul shot himself in the foot by telling her he’d sell her out to a non-existent all-guy alliance. This week, Lucy was unflappable as she denied the very real plan to take Jessica out of the game. Jessica had to make a decision at that point of who to trust, and she decided that she had to trust Lucy. Once she’s made that decision, she can’t be blamed for putting all of her chips on that bet.
Though we might have liked her to read the tea leaves a bit better at tribal council, it’s also extremely difficult to wade through the information being presented and change the course of a vote. Unless, of course, you happen to have an idol.
David makes the biggest move he can make
By the time everyone had voted at tribal council, it seemed clear that Jessica was going home. The attempt to forestall Lucy’s decision had fallen apart because of Jessica’s distrust, and there weren’t enough votes available to stand things on their head. The only question was whether or not David was going to waste his idol out of paranoia that he would be the target, and not Jessica. When David got up to play his idol, even he appeared to think that playing the idol for Jessica was going to result in him being sent home… but he did it anyway.
There has been a lot said about David’s move, whether it was a bad idea or a good idea, and whether burning the idol at that point was wasting a power best kept saved for self-defense. Because the focus of this article is on the diplomatic side of the game, I’ll focus on that area first. David knew, that as of last week, he was on the bottom of the tribe looking up. That’s what made him a useful vote against Paul because he knew that before too long he was going to outlive his usefulness, and Paul would send him on his way. That changed, briefly, with Paul’s ouster but Lucy’s ascent to power threatened to restore a very anti-David status quo.
I’m generally for using an idol when its impact is greatest, which isn’t always synonymous with using it to save yourself. While a three-day stay of execution can open a window of opportunity to flip the game, idols can be used to greater effect when they’re used to save someone else (a lesson Terry Dietz never learned, but Natalie Anderson did). I’m also a firm believer in looking at the process that was followed to make decisions without dwelling too hard on the actual results of that decision. Partly, this comes from poker, where if you make the correct decisions often enough you’ll be profitable long-term regardless of small runs of bad luck.
As an example I think one of the most underrated idol plays ever was JT giving his idol to Russell in Heroes vs. Villains. The decision blew up spectacularly for him, but the logical process he followed that brought him to that decision was defensible. He’s knocked for giving his idol to a villain, but there were members of the villain tribe who barely qualified as such. He saw an opportunity, a player he thought might be vulnerable, and a chance to remove the biggest threat in the game. What did him in was the imperfect information he had; he didn’t know who Russell Hantz was.
So for David’s position in the tribe, playing the idol puts him in a good spot in the short-term. His position with Ken and Jessica is secured, even though all three of them voted for different people this week. Plus, with seven people left on the Gen X tribe, having a strong three-player core is a great position to be in. From that standpoint, this was a great use of the idol for David.
Unfortunately for David, there is a larger strategic picture and looked at through that lens his move is substantially less optimal, and it’s all because of the timing. In almost every season where there’s a theme, there’s a subsequent tribal shake-up after 10 – 15 days. When Gen X walked into Tribal Council it was day 12, which is well into the sweet spot for having things change. This is all information that any contestant on Survivor should know, regardless of what path they took to get on the show.
This means that David faced a very real risk of having used his strongest weapon in the game to cement the loyalty of two people only to be immediately separated from them. Or worse, being isolated on a tribe with Gen X members like Chris and Bret, who likely won’t appreciate his big move. It’s possible that David took the tribal summit fake-out to be an indication that there wasn’t going to be a merge, but that’s a big gamble to take.
Unless David gets very lucky when the tribal swap occurs, he will likely have burned his idol to very little result. Since he has every reason to expect that a swap is coming, that makes the idol play a bad move on his part, however well it may end up working out for him.
Closing Points and Looking Ahead
As the previews revealed, there is a tribal shake-up coming, so we can expect that next week will feature a lot of scrambling and new alliances shaking out, as old tribes are split apart. There are two key items that I’ll be watching for next week. The first is whether some combination of David, Jessica, and Ken stay together, which will give David some benefit from his idol play.
What I’m far more interested in is what happens with Michelle. We’ve talked in the comments about whether or not Namaste risked too much in her defense of Figgy in week two. For the most part she survived any fall out on her tribe, but a tribal shake-up could mean that all bets are off. Of all of the players on this season, Michelle should be targeted if she ends up on the light side of the numbers.
If there’s anything Survivor has taught us, though, is that what should happen… isn’t always what does happen. See you next week!
For more blogs this season: RHAP Survivor Blog Schedule