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.
Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
A Diplomatic View: Sometimes Namaste Means Goodbye
In my diplomatic view of the first episode of Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X, I didn’t spend a lot of time focusing on the nascent relationships emerging on the two tribes, with the exception of the TriForce Alliance. While the interpersonal relationships on any given tribe are the foundation of what I write about from week to week, there is one fact about them that can’t be overlooked. Nothing is certain until a tribe has faced, and gotten through, their first tribal council.
The initial target of a first boot can be almost random or can be based on minor issues, but, because the reasoning can be so tenuous, there is every chance to flip the script and change that targeting. We have seen some extremely chaotic early tribal councils through Survivor’s 33 seasons, and more than one person who thought they had everything nailed down has ended up going home. It’s not just recent history either; the script was flipped as early as the second Maraamu tribal council of Survivor: Marquesas. I can’t even begin to list the number of people who walked away from an early tribal council (let’s say in the first 2 for a given tribe) wondering what happened… but it could be a fun exercise for us in the comments.
So, that being the case, for the first few episodes I tend to watch the relationships develop and take notes. I don’t put too much faith into anything someone says about how they’re going to vote until we’ve actually seen them cast at least one vote. Until then I watch who they’re spending time with and who they’re talking about. In part, this is because of the fleeting nature of first impressions when you’re sharing a beach with people 24 / 7. Last week, I stated that first impressions last, but that specifically applies to the impression you’ve given the other tribe whom you have very little (and restricted) interaction with.
For people on the tribe with you, the grind of life at camp gives more than enough time for any initial positives to get worn away; the reverse is also true. That pretty person, whom you were flirting with, may be useless around camp and it may drive you crazy. Maybe the person you thought was going to be shiftless and lazy is an asset at camp and is good at challenges so they grow on you. On other outstanding occasions, you find yourself on a tribe with Phillip, and you realize you have to take that crazy person with you all the way to the end. In the 3 – 12 (or in Koror’s case: 24) days before the tribe’s second tribal council there is more than enough time for ties to form, break, and form again.
While I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about relationships in my first article, I couldn’t quite resist making a few comments on Twitter about Michelle / Namaste (and I only wish I’d gone ahead and put them into last week’s column like I thought I did). Specifically, I liked the way she was playing the game and her willingness to use people’s impressions of her to get farther in the game. This week, Michelle doubled down on that impression, giving me several reasons to regret not choosing her as the winner (one of which was that she sent my pick to win, Mari, home).
I’d like to thank everyone that reached out in reply to last week’s column. It’s great to be part of the site and I’m looking forward to interacting with all of you as the season goes on. Occasionally, I’ll be referencing something out of the comments in each week’s article. This week there were two points I’d like to circle back to.
The first was a point raised by Michel Trudeau, regarding the effect of editing, which limits my analysis to imperfect information. I’ll concede there are times when the editors will hide information to build dramatic tension, but often we’ll see that play out in the results of the tribal council. More dangerous to the discussions in this column is the trend of editors splicing in less than accurate reaction shots of people, to try to build a narrative. It’s something I’m almost always looking out for, to varying degrees of success.
The second was a discussion started, at least in the Diplomatic View article comments. by Susan Appleby. That discussion, which had several people chime in, revolved around why Rachel was chosen for elimination. The question in essence: Was Rachel’s race and gender the primary reason for her elimination? This question has also been bandied about on social media, and pretty much everywhere in the Survivor internet extended universe.
My take on it is no.
As I’ve mentioned more than a few times, the first elimination target is generally chosen almost randomly, with an emphasis on almost. That target can be changed with various degrees of effort. While Rachel was clearly the odd person out on her tribe, it wasn’t really gender or her ethnicity that did it in my opinion. Much of it had to do with her stepping up, and failing, on the puzzle on the first immunity challenge. This was exacerbated by her being slightly stand-offish and talking primarily with Cece. From the position of the nebulous initial majority on the Gen-X tribe, she was the more dangerous part of the outsider pair… and she did nothing to change the situation.
That being said, I’d be a fool to say that people’s latent prejudices and preconceptions don’t factor into the decisions that they make. This is something that I use to my benefit as a poker player and something I have to be aware of as a minority American. I just don’t think it was a significant motivating factor in what happened last week, that was all Rachel and Cece.
Enough about last week, let’s take a deeper dive into the second episode and the key three points I took away from it; almost all of these points are variations of the theme I discussed earlier: Nothing in a tribe is really certain until they’ve had to cast votes.
Key Points in Episode 2: Love Goggles
Sometimes you have to do your best impersonation of Russell Hantz to flip the game in your favor
Last week, I took David to the cleaners for what I saw as his weak and paranoid gameplay. In my judgment, at the time, he had hopelessly undercut his own position in the tribal hierarchy and was living on borrowed time. Well, this week, David improved his position by leaps and bounds, thanks to a mix of luck and smart play. Personally, I’m a bit shocked to be writing those words this week, but there you go.
One truism of Survivor is that members of the tribe are almost always willing, or eager, to find chores for their goofier tribemates to do. Whether it’s because they don’t want to listen to them, want to strategize behind their backs, or just don’t want to see their purple underpants anymore (last Phillip reference for this column). David seems to have clued in on his status and used that eagerness to create the perfect cover errand for idol searching: finding rock chairs for the fire area. While David searched all of the likely spots, we’ve certainly seen previous contestants do the same thing and fail to find the idol, so that’s where luck came in.
What David did with the idol was the absolute correct thing. David knows that he is, at best, at the bottom of the majority alliance. He is seen as something of an over-eager, high energy, and paranoid puppy while Ken is one of the two alpha males of the Gen-X tribe, serving as the tribe provider. David even showed out-of-character levels of patience by talking with Ken about deposing Paul, before revealing he had the idol, rather than leading with it. What remains to be seen is how sympathy for Paul’s close call clashes with the groundswell of resentment for his leadership style. I’m inclined to think any sympathy bounce will not be enough to keep him in the game. If anything, a sense of Paul’s possible weakness may only reinforce the other reasons for sending him home.
As an aside, however, not really the best look for David to see Paul’s collapse as a potential opportunity. That isn’t something you say out loud… you think it… but you don’t say it, even in confessionals.
If you leave the sugar out, you’re going to rile up the ants
Last week we talked, at some length, about the Clique Alliance, particularly the inevitability of the Millennial tribe targeting them immediately due to their tight bond and small numbers. Doubling down on the reasons for targeting them, Figgy and Taylor were unable to restrain their hormones and spent an evening at camp making out in the shelter. Shockingly, this gave Jay a chance to show more self-awareness than he showed in the first episode.
Any questions about Figgy and Taylor’s gameplay were answered as they proved unable to suppress their hormones long enough to get through even a week at the game without making it obvious what they were up to. There are people who disagree with Jay’s statement that no (romantic) couple makes it through Survivor. They cite Rob & Amber as a clear, and famous, example of players who made it through. I can’t contradict that point, but I can point out this: Rob and Amber made it to the finals because Rob played one of the best games of Survivor, and Lex made one of the biggest mistakes in Survivor history. They are literally the exception that proves the rule.
Figgy and Taylor severely compromised their future in the game, for a few minutes (hours?) of making out. Doing so essentially knocked them out of the power position in their alliance, turning them into voting members, but certainly removing any sort of leadership position. I certainly hope that it was fun, but I can’t help but remember that they’ve been 4 or 5 days without a toothbrush at that point.
Michelle’s very good episode part 1: Saving her pawns
For all of the impact on Figgy and Taylor’s diplomatic standing with their tribe, their lack of control of their libido wasn’t a big turning point in the game as a whole. But it set up Michelle’s masterful response both on the beach and at tribal council.
When Jay came to Michelle and told her that Figgy was going to go home, and why, Michelle has two courses of action open to her.
- She can go along with the ‘will of the tribe’, knowing she’s safe for at least two votes
- She can show her tribe what a woman of will really is, and take control
She chose the Keyser Söze option.
Countless times on Survivor we’ve seen players take the easy path. There’s so little to be gained by fighting for the fate of an ally this early in the game, particularly one that’s already shown themselves to have poor judgment. Taking solace in the numbers and trying to find a place in the new hierarchy is the safe road, and it’s well-worn. However, it’s rarely a winning play.
One of my (many) philosophies of Survivor is that there are times when you simply have to risk everything if it gives you a chance to take control of the game in a meaningful way. On a 10-person tribe hopelessly deadlocked at 5/5, sometimes the right play is to pick a rock, rather than flip and become the new number 6. However, in Michelle’s situation, I think I probably would have written Figgy off, rather than put on the full court press to save her.
Michelle faced a very real risk. By plotting to keep Figgy, she could have replaced Figgy on the chopping block… particularly since her reasoning was that Figgy wasn’t all that dangerous. The justification for the risk was in order to save Figgy she had to cement alliance ties and put herself in the central position on the Millennial tribe. Whether that power position will hold for longer than one vote remains to be seen, but for now, she’s in an extremely strong position.
To revisit my nesting doll analogy from last week, her new alliance is set up as follows:
Power duo: Michelle (dominant), Jay
Second duo: Figgy, Taylor
Outer swing members: Michaela, Will
Compare that to the personalities that were arrayed on the opposing side: Hannah, Zeke, Adam, and Mari.
Of the people that Michelle has surrounded herself with, only Michaela is dangerous to her game. Michaela’s position is extremely tenuous within that alliance; she has no chance of pulling Figgy, Taylor, or Jay away from Michelle. So when the alliance inevitably begins to spin apart, Michaela is likely to be a first target.
It gets even better than that when we look at the non-Michaela members of the alliance. Each of them has a strong bond of personal loyalty to Michelle directly, more than to the voting bloc as a whole. Jay, Figgy, and Taylor personally owe loyalty to Michelle for ‘saving’ Figgy. Beyond those three, Will thinks that Michelle is his duo partner, so is unlikely to flip against her. Overall, this is an alliance of six people that Michelle should be able to spin and manipulate in whatever direction she needs them to go.
Michelle is the central hub of communication and decision making for the alliance, and there was very little she could have done to make her situation better as they walked off to tribal council.
Michelle’s very good episode part 2: and then it got better
A lot has been written about Hannah’s vote; after all, we had a lot of time to write while she made up her mind. People have said, correctly, that Michelle got Hannah to vote against her alliance and with Kappa Kappa Survivor; they’ve also pointed out that it was a smart play by Michelle to hedge her bets against Michaela flipping against Figgy. All of these things were true, but an under-discussed point is that in getting Hannah to flip and vote against Mari… Michelle vastly improved Hannah’s game position. Going forward, Michelle has every reason not to let Hannah forget it.
Had Hannah voted for Figgy, she would now be one of the four at the clear bottom of the Millennial tribe. While at least a few of them would have survived until the inevitable tribal shuffle, there is every chance that Hannah would have found herself on the chopping block before that happened. Michelle can, with at least a hint of truthfulness, tell Hannah that she knew where the votes were going and didn’t want Hannah to be on the outside looking in.
The only thing better than a nesting doll alliance is having an additional player outside the alliance who is specifically loyal to you. Hannah has no bonds with the rest of Kappa Kappa Survivor; she changed her vote specifically out of her loyalty to Michelle. While it was an agonizing decision the first time, she’s only going to find it easier to go along after these votes were read. Hannah serves as an excellent Plan B for Michelle in case anything goes wrong, or the tribal shake-up finds them on the same tribe.
Closing Points and Looking Forward
It’s extremely early in the game, and the loose coalition that Michelle has put together can easily fall apart with a bit of bad luck, an unfortunate tribal shake-up, or a dust-up back at the Millennials’ camp. One of the things I particularly love about Survivor is even when someone plays it exactly right, things can still fall apart. Watching a good player trying to maintain their hold on the game while waiting to see if one of their opponents will realize the need to make a move, can make even a bad season intriguing (paging Survivor: Thailand).
I’ve mentioned that I play poker, and one of the things I have to be careful of as a poker player is not conflating the correctness of my decisions with their results. A bad decision that happens to win a pot is still a bad decision, that it won money is almost irrelevant. Michelle’s decision this week could clearly have backfired and sent her home, but it would have remained a good decision in the context that she made it. As this is her first time playing the game, I find that impressive.
It’s possible that Michelle simply got lucky: making the right decision at the right time for the wrong reasons. Moreover, it’s only the first tribal council, and as I pointed out at the beginning of the article, things can swing completely in the other direction between the 1st and 2nd tribal councils. Based on her early confessionals I don’t think that’s the case.
In the Olympic sport that is Survivor, it’s still far too early to win the gold, but Michelle ran quite a good heat this week.
For more blogs this season: RHAP Survivor Blog Schedule