Although the opening episodes of Survivor: San Juan Del Sur featured some less than stellar gameplay, the post merge game is shaping up to be far more exciting. In two weeks we have seen the two most strategic players blindsided and sent to the jury, and it is actually feasible for any of the players left to win the entire game. Jon and Jaclyn’s constant flipping have shown that there is no security in alliances, and that the power in this game can switch in an instant. Jon and Jaclyn have been the power couple for too long, and I hope this vote has shown the other players how dangerous they are. Even with the votes of Baylor and Missy, they are still only a four-person alliance in a nine-person game, and Reed is a free agent. He has no reason to be loyal to the two couples, and will go with whichever alliance offers him longer in the game. What Jon has in his favour is that he has the immunity idol. If he can use it correctly, he may be able to retain his grip on power to the final three.
Jeremy’s blindside was a cold and calculated move by Jon and Jaclyn just a few days after Jeremy had given everything he had to ensure that they stayed loyal. When Jeremy and Natalie’s team won the reward challenge, Natalie volunteered to give her place in the reward to Jon. Jeremy followed suit, giving up his reward for Jaclyn, and was then promptly sent to Exile Island. Jon and Jaclyn seemed incredibly grateful. Jon said “I’m like holding back tears right now. I love you guys!” Jeremy and Natalie believed that they had bought Jon and Jaclyn’s loyalty, ensuring their own safety to the final six. However, Jon didn’t react as planned. He realised that Jeremy would receive a detailed clue to the idol, and would know exactly where to look. When he returned to camp empty-handed, Jeremy would then accuse Jon of having the idol, and Jon realised that people would stop trusting him. In the end, Jeremy’s information was too dangerous. Jon perceived Jeremy as a threat to his game, and therefore he engineered his demise without any thoughts of gratitude. The fact that Jeremy and Natalie were feeling so comfortable, that they were feeling as though Jon and Jaclyn owed them their loyalty, and the way that Jon disregarded the generosity of Jeremy and blindsided him regardless, means that this week’s lesson in Survivor History can only come from one place- season 26, Survivor: Caramoan, and from Brenda Lowe, who finished in sixth place.
Survivor Caramoan was Brenda’s second time playing Survivor, and she came into the game with a reputation for being strategic and cutthroat, due to a strong showing in her first season, Survivor: Nicaragua. However, Brenda had changed her game plan for her second appearance, and she played a far more laid back and low key game. She didn’t try to decide the strategy. She was happy to take a back seat, while louder and more dominant personalities such as Phillip Sheppard determined what the main alliances were, and how the players were voting. While Phillip was taking on the position of leader, and frustrating everybody with his overbearing nature, Brenda was quietly making friends, not making any moves and keeping the target off her back, and as a result, viewers barely saw Brenda- she went eight episodes without giving a single confessional.
Brenda’s first moment of visibility in Survivor: Caramoan came in episode 10, when she heard Dawn Meehan screaming, and ran to her rescue. Dawn had lost her retainer in the water, and was completely hysterical, repeating “I’m going to pull myself if I don’t find it. I’m pulling myself”. Upset and unable to face being on camera without her false teeth, Dawn was in a vulnerable situation. Brenda was able to dive down and find the missing retainer, leading to Dawn sobbing in gratitude. As far as Brenda was concerned, she had saved Dawn from quitting the game, and she believed the two of them now shared a close bond. Brenda said “after that incident, I’m not going to turn my back on her. And vice versa.” Dawn became Brenda’s closest alliance, and she believed that Dawn would certainly stay loyal to her. After all, without Brenda’s generosity, Dawn would have quit the game; and because of this fact, Brenda allowed herself to get comfortable in her alliance. Unbeknownst to her, Dawn’s true alliance in the game was with John Cochran. Dawn never lost sight of the fact that she was playing a game, and she wasn’t interested in getting to the Final Tribal Council with someone that would beat her.
Brenda’s second big moment in Survivor: Caramoan came three episodes later, with the family visit. Brenda was thrilled to see her father, and the two shared an emotional reunion, with Brenda telling her father that she had played in a way that would make him proud. The survivors competed in a reward challenge, with the winner getting to spend some time having a barbecue with their loved ones. Brenda won the challenge, and chose to take Dawn with her on reward. However, Brenda was thrown a curveball when Jeff Probst offered her the chance to give up her reward, and allow the other four contestants to receive the prize instead. Brenda quickly accepted the deal, much to Dawn’s disappointment, and Brenda and Dawn returned to camp while the other players enjoyed some food and some time with their families.
Brenda knew that her decision had been risky. She said “Whenever you do anything big in this game, whether you save someone, whether you do something bad to someone, it’s funny how it’s always a double-edged sword. It could be amazing because they’re like, ok, I’ll never vote off Brenda because I owe her, or it could be boom, downfall.” She knew that Dawn was upset with her for giving up their reward, and she knew that by making a big gesture, she was putting a target on her back. And it was a move that she didn’t need to make- she was playing a strong game, and had made strong connections with her tribe mates. Her big move made it obvious that she was a threat to win the game, and made it clear that nobody wanted to be sitting next to Brenda at the Final Tribal Council. As Cochran said, “We’re at that point in the game where likability is a liability”. In a move that left her crying and devastated, Brenda was blindsided at the next tribal council, after she had stepped aside in the immunity challenge and allowed Dawn to win. At the Final Tribal Council, Brenda asked Cochran about his decision to blindside her despite having just received a reward thanks to her generosity. He replied “beyond this game, I’m willing to prove my gratitude to you, but that’s because I consider that an emotional gift that you gave to me, not a gameplay gift.” Brenda may have expected that she would receive gratitude for her kindness, but Cochran was always going to put his interests in the game ahead of his emotions. All of her generous gestures didn’t create any loyalty for her- in fact, they had the opposite effect, destroying her under the radar strategy, and putting a target on her back.
Jeremy learned this lesson the hard way this week. Although the move to make the swap with Jon and Jaclyn wasn’t directly responsible for his vote out, it did set off a chain of events that led to Jon making a move against him. Had Jeremy stayed with the winning team, he would not have been sent to Exile Island. It was Jon’s paranoia that his idol would be discovered that led to him wanting Jeremy taken out.
There is no doubt that Natalie and Jeremy intended for their generous move to earn them more time in the game. Natalie said in confessional “I wanted to do this so that he knew that I appreciated him siding with us last night at tribal, but also just to make sure that moving forward, I could always count on Jaclyn and Jon to trust me and Jeremy, and you know, this is going to be leverage for me down the road.” The other players, particularly Wes and Keith, saw the motivations behind the generosity of Natalie and Jeremy, and congratulated them for their strong move. Keith told Natalie “Well, he’s with you for life now. He was almost crying.” Reed was livid about the move, noting how transparent her motivations were, and threatening “Natalie’s just trying to ingratiate herself to everyone…yes, it cements Jon and Jaclyn into their alliance, but does it really mean anything? Not if I can help it.”
This is the second act of kindness that we have seen from Natalie- when Baylor was sent to Exile Island, Natalie offered to go with her in an effort to consolidate her relationship with Missy, and to have Baylor and Missy indebted to her and Jeremy. Both times she has made a big social move, she has been explicit about expecting that she would gain some capital from it- that Baylor and Missy would take care of her if she was in a weak position post-merge, or that the reward could be used as ‘leverage down the track’, Natalie wasn’t just handing out favours. She expected to get something in return. Ironic then, that it was the recipients of Natalie’s two acts of kindness- Jon and Jaclyn, Missy and Baylor, who joined forces to vote out Natalie’s closest ally Jeremy. As with Brenda in Survivor: Caramoan, Natalie acted to force gratitude and loyalty in her allies, but her actions had the opposite effect. In Survivor, favours don’t always get returned.
This isn’t to say that no Survivor player should ever do anything out of kindness- the most important thing about playing Survivor is to make sure that other people like you and want you around, and to do that, you must have a strong social game. Natalie’s social game has had both good and bad points- she has shown the ability to form strong relationships, and seems well liked by the women and respected by the men- but she has also shown that she has a temper, which showed itself against John Rocker. The biggest problem with Natalie’s social game is that the big gestures- volunteering to go to Exile Island, giving up her reward- are coming across as disingenuous to the other players. They could see the move for what it was- strategic, and not genuine. It was done expecting something in return, and Jon certainly didn’t feel like he owed Natalie anything. In a confessional immediately after the reward, he said “It was a very good way for Jeremy and Natalie to show their gratitude, and we’re very thankful for it. But you do have to realise that this is a social game, and that was a very big play on their part.”
Jeremy and Natalie have been in a situation where they had to rely on the goodwill of other players (particularly Jon and Jaclyn) to stay alive in the game. They didn’t have a tight grip on their alliance, apart from their bond with each other. It is true that they lost Julie, who was an easily manipulated number, and Kelley, who was a key part of their alliance, and this was through no fault of Jeremy or Natalie, but they needed to be careful about keeping their alliance strong. Instead, they sent Jon and Jaclyn off on reward, where they were able to spend some quality time with Reed, the most dangerous player on the opposing alliance, and that was not wise. In season 22, Survivor: Redemption Island, Boston Rob played one of the most dominant games of Survivor ever seen, and his dominance was due to the fact that he had his alliance on a tight leash. He knew where each of them stood, and knew they were loyal to him. This kind of awareness is crucial to winning the game.
Brenda played her game in Caramoan always on the fringe of the dominant alliance. She relied completely on Dawn’s loyalty to her to remain in the game, and it was through her relationship with Dawn that she was voting with the majority. She thought that because she had found Dawn’s teeth, that she was Dawn’s strongest alliance partner, and would remain loyal all the way to Final Tribal Council. She felt so comfortable in Dawn’s loyalty that she was dropped out of an endurance based immunity challenge. Ultimately, when it came to Dawn, Brenda was making emotional decisions- she didn’t have the awareness to see how close Dawn was to Cochran, or to see that Dawn had been close friends with Corinne Kaplan, and yet had voted her off. Despite Dawn’s emotional and vulnerable appearances, she was playing a cutthroat game, but Brenda was too emotionally involved to notice it.
The close relationship between Missy and Jon came as a surprise to the viewers this week, and I am guessing that it was also a surprise to Natalie and Jeremy. Since Jon and Jaclyn have been at the centre of the vote for the last four tribal councils, it is extremely important that the other players pay close attention to their relationships, which seem to be changing every day. Since the merge, Jon and Jaclyn have switched alliances every three days. Right now, Missy seems to be the person that they are closest to, yet at the merge they were willing to vote with Josh’s alliance, which would have seen Missy as one of the next to go. Last episode, Jaclyn told Jon that “I feel really comfortable with Missy and Jeremy”, yet three days later, they blindside Jeremy. It seems that the players of San Juan Del Sur are placing far too much reliance on the easily swayed duo, and need to take some of that power back. For one couple to have been the swing vote for over two weeks in the game is too much, and this should be obvious to everyone. Unless a move against them comes quickly, Jon and Jaclyn could continue to be the power couple, all the way to the final three. They are certainly good at eliminating any strategic threats that may stand in their way.
Ultimately, an alliance needs to be built not on friendship, or acts of kindness, but on mutual self-interest. That was Brenda’s problem in season 26, and that was Jeremy and Natalie’s problem in season 29. The players need to remain aware that this is a game, and while those in their alliance may be their friends, they are also opponents in the game. It was in Brenda’s best interests to be aligned with Dawn, who was spending much of the game crying and needing support, and then viciously backstabbing her friends in her quest for victory. It was never going to be in Dawn’s best interest to take Brenda to the end (Sherri said that everyone saw Brenda as “pretty much like a saint”), and it was Brenda’s responsibility to recognise this.
When Jeremy decided to take Josh out of the game, it made it harder for him to avoid putting a target on his back. Suddenly, Jeremy became the biggest and most obvious threat in the game, and that is never a good place to be. Last season, Tony Vlachos managed to win by keeping Spencer Bledsoe around. As long as Spencer remained in the game, Tony knew he could rely on his alliance. He knew they didn’t want to be sitting with Spencer at the Final Tribal Council, and so he knew that they would be loyal to him. Jon might now find that he has made a similar mistake to Jeremy- he has lost his place to hide, and now Jon is the biggest target left in the game.
At this point in the game, the players are looking for an alliance that will take them to the end, and they are thinking about who they can beat when they get there. In a season with so many goats, Jon might find it difficult to get through to the Final Tribal Council. There are so many more attractive options available for his allies- unless he starts to plant seeds in the minds of the players that he is beatable because he has betrayed so many who would be sitting on the jury. It is a tactic that has worked for so many- Boston Rob in season 22 had every member of his alliance convinced that he would take them to the final three, where they would win the game. Cochran had Dawn convinced that her only chance would be if he was sitting there, when actually she would have been in a stronger position if she was the only strategic player facing the jury- because Cochran was able to take the credit for many of Dawn’s moves.
Ultimately, each player is not playing to make friends; they are playing to win the game. And that is why appeals of ‘you owe me’ never work. It didn’t work when Josh tried to guilt Baylor into voting with him because he had saved her earlier in the game, and Jeremy and Natalie bought themselves nothing with their grand gesture to give Jon and Jaclyn reward. While Jeremy was on Exile, Jon was already scheming with Missy, saying “I would like Jeremy out either this time or next time.” Natalie may have assumed that she had cemented their loyalty, but Jon felt no obligation to reciprocate the favour at all. He made it clear that the only people in the game that he is truly looking out for are Jaclyn and himself- and his decision to vote Jeremy out of the game was simply an attempt to protect himself.
I am sure that this season will continue to offer up some spectacularly unpredictable gameplay and flexible alliances before a winner emerges. Any player looking to take control of the game must demonstrate the perceptiveness necessary to understand what is in the best interests of each player, and take advantage of it. Each player wants to win. But ultimately, the winner won’t be someone who stays in an alliance due to a misplaced feeling of loyalty, or who is manipulated and guilt-tripped into taking the wrong person to the Final Tribal Council. In this game, there is a million dollars at stake, and people make decisions based on self-interest. The key to winning is to line up as many other player’s ‘self-interests’ with your own.