Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, Catherine Lucas revisits another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.
Lessons in Survivor History: A Tribute to Troyzan
As much as I am enjoying this season- and I honestly am- I find that the story is completely baffling. A clear example of this is Sierra willing the legacy advantage to Sarah… despite the fact that Sarah hasn’t voted with Sierra for the past two votes… despite the fact that she has been working with Brad the entire time… and despite the fact that she has a pre-game alliance with Troyzan and they’ve been loyal to each other throughout the game. What was it about that conversation with Sarah that made Sierra feel so strongly about their alliance moving forward? I think the answer is that there is an intangible bond between the two women, both of whom came into the season with something of a question mark about their ‘game changer’ status, both of whom came into the season wanting to prove something, and both of whom share similar values. Sierra explained really well in her exit interview that she was hungry, tired, and emotionally drained and that was what led to her trusting Sarah so implicitly. But on the show, it was difficult to follow. I wish we had seen more of the Sarah and Sierra friendship– it would have made Sierra’s decision make more sense.
And then there’s Cirie, who is one of the greatest players ever to play the game, who is known for being a skillful manipulator–and who is yet to come up as a possible target. She’s somehow hiding behind Andrea– who is a far better challenge performer than Cirie but has never gotten as close to the end of the game. As far as winning the game is concerned, Cirie is by far the biggest threat left, but somehow, nobody sees this. They see the sobbing mother embracing her son, the broken woman on the balance beam– all the while forgetting that this is the same woman who is a “gangster in an Oprah suit”. How has she managed to slip under the radar? How, in a game where all of the big names have been targeted and sent home, one by one, has Cirie managed to stay safe? She’s a four-time player! Again, like Sarah, Cirie is making subtle moves. She’s creating relationships. She’s making sure that everyone knows that she shares their values. She’s talking about her family back home. She’s making sure that everyone enjoys being around her. She’s doing things that don’t necessarily make good television– but they do keep her in the game.
All of the idols remain safe with Tai and Troyzan, neither of whom seem to be keen on playing them for anyone other than themselves, and this has affected the story too. It almost feels stagnant. Other than Debbie and Andrea, nobody wants to make any waves. Nobody wants to be seen as being in control. Nobody wants to target someone else. They are happy to vote the way that their alliance has told them to vote. Even when they don’t agree with the move, it is safer to go along with it rather than risk putting the target on your own back. We saw this with Sarah and Michaela last week. Neither of them wanted Zeke gone. However, both decided that it was better to just let Zeke go rather than to defy Andrea. It is strange to watch a season where everyone (to various extents) is playing ‘anyone but me’.
The story feels a little disjointed because although this season has had its fair share of ‘big moves’, those big moves have been driven by the smaller, more subtle moves. Sarah sent Sierra home, stealing her legacy advantage from her– but she wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that without first making the smaller, less flashy, less television-friendly move of befriending Sierra, of listening to Sierra’s stories and sharing her own. Cirie and Andrea have created their power base with a series of small moves, and although small moves might not make for the most entertaining television, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be valued.
And that brings me to Troyzan, who has been playing the most subtle game of all (although it could be argued that he and Aubry are tied for the title!). In the edit, he’s invisible, seemingly just a number for the Culpepper side, or a possible pawn for Zeke and Sarah to take to the final five. We haven’t seen a lot of Troyzan’s game or Troyzan’s intentions. He hasn’t been the star of the show, but I’ve always been a fan of subtle gameplay. I don’t think that playing under the radar is the worst strategy, especially in a returning player season, but it is a strategy that comes with risks. And for this reason, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are looking back to Troyzan’s original season– season 24, Survivor: One World, and the second place finisher, Sabrina Thompson.
Survivor: One World was a men vs women season, and Sabrina began on the women’s tribe, Salani. The ‘one world’ twist meant that both the men and the women, despite being in two separate tribes, were living on the same beach. From the beginning of the game, it was clear that Sabrina was a force to be reckoned with. She easily found herself in the majority alliance, along with her eventual final three partners, Kim Spradlin and Chelsea Meissner, as well as Kat Edorsson and Alicia Rosa. She was seen as a leader among the women, and her power within the game continued to grow when she found an immunity idol on the second day of the game. However, it turned out that Sabrina had found the men’s idol, and had to give it to one of the men. She gave the idol to Colton Cumbie, cementing her relationship with the player who was to become the kingpin of the men’s tribe. The women’s tribe did struggle in the challenges, but as a member of the majority alliance, Sabrina was never in any danger of going home.
When the two tribes swapped, Sabrina’s game began to change. She had, in the early stages of the game, been happy to direct the play. She had taken a leadership role in the camp. But on the swapped tribe, things were different. She remained on Salani, along with her allies Kim, Chelsea and Kat. They were joined by three of the men– Troyzan, Jay Byars, and Michael Jefferson. At this point in the game, Sabrina went quiet. She later claimed that it was part of her strategy, saying at Final Tribal Council, “My strategy coming in is much like my strategy for real life. You have to have balance. You go to the extreme one way, you’re going to have a target on your back. I already knew– I have got to scale back.” After the swap and throughout the merge, Kim took a much more central role, with Chelsea as her closest ally. Sabrina said during Final Tribal Council that she had let Kim take the reins throughout the game. “Kim, she and other people would go ahead and say, ‘Alright, let’s vote this person off’, and although we agreed to do it, we were more or less the messengers. I chose not to step up.”
Kim formed tight bonds within the new Salani tribe and convinced the men of the new Salani tribe to continue to vote with her after the merge. Once the women had a numerical advantage, she directed them to turn on the men and voted the men out of the game one by one. When the men looked at the women’s alliance, they knew that it was Kim, not Sabrina calling the shots. In some ways, this was great for her game– the minority alliance targeted Kim. If Kim had immunity, they targeted Chelsea, Kim’s closest ally. Sabrina was able to slide towards the final three almost unnoticed. It was also good for Sabrina’s game because Kim Spradlin is an incredibly gifted Survivor player. Letting Kim call the shots wasn’t a bad thing– it was Kim’s gameplay that got Chelsea and Sabrina to the end.
Where Sabrina’s under-the-radar game wasn’t so great was in the Final Tribal Council. She had played a strong social game. Nobody came into that Final Tribal Council angry with Sabrina. In fact, just the opposite– they really, really liked her. They just couldn’t vote for her, not with Kim sitting next to her. Jonas summed it up in his question to her– “Sabrina, I totally love you. If it was the most popular person getting the money, I’d vote for you. I still might, but out there on the challenges– I mean, it was amazing how badly you sucked!” The One World jury liked Sabrina, but they didn’t respect her. In the end, she received the votes of Troyzan and Leif Manson, with Kim receiving the remaining seven.
The good part about playing an under-the-radar type game is that you are in a great position to get to the end. Look at the boot order this season. The big threats… the players who have made the huge moves and came in with the big reputations? …With the exception of Cirie, they’re all gone. It has become a fact in Survivor that it is extremely difficult to play from the front. If you put yourself out there and are seen as the one making the decisions and calling the shots, then you are going to be seen as a threat. And with the merge at 13, that’s an awful lot of immunities that you would have to win. Once people see you as a threat, then it makes the Final Tribal Council almost an impossible goal.
Something that Jeremy Collins used to great effect in Survivor: Cambodia was the ‘meat shield’ strategy. It is something that can be seen in the games of many recent winners. There always has to be someone that is a bigger threat than you. For Sabrina, Kim was always the bigger threat. Even if the minority alliance did ever get together a plan, they weren’t trying to come after Sabrina. She’d hidden herself behind Kim. Kim was the one winning immunities. Kim was the one who was seen as the leader of the alliance, and so it was Kim who took all of the bullets. Sabrina was able to align herself with a skillful player like Kim and benefit from Kim’s ability to strategise and make relationships. At the same time, she was able to use Kim as a shield and make sure that her own path to the Final Tribal Council was secure.
Troyzan is set up well to get to the end. Nobody is threatened by him. This week, when Brad won immunity, there was no talk of perhaps getting rid of Troyzan. Sarah, who before the immunity challenge had declared that she was wanting to protect Sierra, and that Brad’s game was “over”, never once tried to get the target on Troyzan. Troyzan also comes into the game with the advantage that he doesn’t have a past reputation for being sneaky. He hasn’t shown the ability to be manipulative. There are always going to be bigger targets than Troyzan– and I think that he has made a deliberate decision to appear as non-threatening as possible. You could say the same for Aubry, who came into the game with a threatening reputation and has managed to hide herself perfectly behind Andrea and Cirie. Nobody is looking to vote Aubry out. It is like they have forgotten her impressive showing in Survivor: Kaoh Rong.
Sabrina’s biggest strength in her game was her social ability. She was good at building bonds and making genuine connections with people. The people on the jury didn’t feel bad about voting for her– and had Kim not been sitting next to her in the end, she would have won. This season, Troyzan has shown similar social skills. Nobody has a bad word to say about him (although to be fair, nobody is really talking about him at all). He has been shown to have a bond with Sarah, and Brad and Sierra obviously felt good about their alliance. The way that he spoke to Tai and Michaela about voting out Andrea shows that his social game is strong.
Aubry’s social game has always been her strength. She was able to get to the Final Three in Kaoh Rong because she was able to talk Tai into voting with her. And again this season, she has been able to find herself a valued member of an alliance. She started off on a different tribe from Andrea and Cirie, and yet she seems to have their complete trust. She’s had to play from the bottom this season, and she has done it well– kept her head down and focused on making friends. It isn’t exciting to watch, and as an Aubry fan, it has been so disappointing to see the lack of confessionals that she is getting, but although it might not be a big move, making friends and being patient is the best thing that Aubry can do at the moment. There is no point making a big move just for the sake of it. I think that in modern Survivor, the social game has become extremely underrated, when it is actually the most important skill.
Sabrina played a really, really solid game in One World. Games like hers– under-the-radar, quietly social games– are often undervalued. When it comes to Survivor, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to play. Famously, in Survivor: Samoa, Russell Hantz played an over-the-top, in-your-face, strategically dominant game. Natalie White quietly made friendships with those who would go to the jury and voted the way that Russell told her to. The jury, furious with Russell, voted to give Natalie the win. Sabrina thought that her jury would see the game in a similar way. She knew that Kim had been the one to vote out every person on the jury. She had made the tough decisions, and Chelsea was seen as her pawn. Sabrina thought that an angry, bitter jury would vote for her to win, but the jury weren’t as angry as Sabrina expected them to be. They respected Kim’s play, and they voted for Kim to win.
I think that Troyzan and Aubry are going to have similar problems. We’ve seen Cirie previously refer to Troyzan as Brad’s puppet. Playing under the radar has served him well to this point, but he cannot go all the way to Final Tribal Council without making his own mark on the game. Luckily for him, he has the tool to make a move– he has the idol, and nobody knows that he’s got it. At some point, he’s going to play it, and that can be a move that he can point to in the end. Because it is one thing to get to the end, but as Sabrina found out, you need to have an argument to win the money. The Samoa jury were the exception, not the rule.
Aubry doesn’t have the idol. And she doesn’t seem to have strong relationships with those outside of her alliance. We haven’t seen any interaction between her and Tai, and it would make sense that Tai feels unsure about working with Aubry again. If Aubry wants to step out from Andrea’s shadow, it is going to be risky. She’s seen so many of her alliance members throughout the game get sent home. She doesn’t have many options left to work with. The best thing for her game might be Andrea getting sent home and Cirie adopting Aubry as her new meat shield. At the moment, Aubry’s path to the end looks difficult, and her path to the win looks impossible.
What really matters is who else is at that Final Tribal Council with you. Aubry may never have to make a decisive move, if she can get to the end with two people that the jury don’t want to vote for. I don’t think Michaela has a hope of receiving any jury votes. We’ve just heard too much negativity towards her. Sarah is playing a dangerous game, and if anyone figures out just how ruthless she has been, then she could be a good person to be sitting with. I think that people generally like Tai, but find it difficult to respect him and vote for him to win. But if Aubry continues to be loyal to her alliance, and ends up going to the end with either Cirie or Andrea, then she has no chance. It would be like the One World cast letting Kim get to the end. Cirie and Andrea are the best players out there, and if either of them get to the end, they win.
Troyzan has been seen as Brad’s puppet throughout the game, so he can’t go to the end with Brad. With anyone else, he might have a chance. Looking at the jury, and assuming that Brad isn’t sitting next to him, I think that Troyzan has a good shot at getting the votes of Debbie, Sierra and Brad. That’s three, and that’s nearly enough. A well-played idol, an excellent Final Tribal performance, an immunity win down the stretch…there is definitely a path to victory for Troyzan. But to win the game, you need to know what the jury want to vote for, and you need to be that person.
Is this a jury who will vote for an under-the-radar player? Typically, returning player seasons reward the quieter players. They don’t like being beaten by players who are going to be arrogant about it. They don’t want to go to the jury feeling humiliated, and so they vote for players like Amber Brkich in Survivor: All Stars or John Cochran in Survivor: Caramoan. Returning players want to see some humility in their winners. The Heroes vs Villains jury had the option of voting for Russell or Parvati Shallow, who had strategically dominated the season. They chose to vote for Sandra– who had strategically been a failure, but had played a great social game. It is a bit early to see whether this jury will vote similarly, but if they do, then Troyzan and Aubry both stand a chance. Even if neither of them win, I still think that they deserve credit for a game well played.