Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, I will revisit another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.
Lessons in Survivor History: Choose Your Allies Wisely
And just like that, another Survivor off-season is over, and we are back for another season. For me, it felt like a strange premiere, with the weather getting more airtime than some of the contestants, and the theme was emphasised over and over again, to the point that I found it quite off-putting. Yes, I get it. Gen Xers work hard. Millennials like to have fun. I understood it within the first five minutes, and I didn’t really need the players to tell me over and over again. After watching Australian Survivor this week, I do have to say, though, that it was quite a relief to watch an episode where someone got voted out, and I wasn’t devastated by the outcome. I mean, Rachel seemed like she would be fun TV, but I was glad that we get to enjoy David’s eccentricities for at least one more episode.
I do have a few early favourites. Some of them have lived up to my preseason expectations, and some have by far exceeded them. On the Millennial tribe, I still retain a soft spot for my winner pick Will, and I am thrilled that he managed to make it past the first episode unscathed. But it was Mari and Hannah who really impressed me. Hannah, whom I thought was going to be super irritating and probably the first person out of the Millennial tribe, managed to tone down her one-woman comedy act, and she and Mari set about making a low-key, under the radar alliance that I have extremely high hopes for. I’ll always be cheering for the misfits.
Over at the Gen X tribe, I really enjoyed watching Bret. He’s a superfan, and I thought that he would try and take control of the game, but he’s been able to rein in his excitement. He embodied the three Cs, and his cool, calm and collective manner has put him in a great spot.
Caramoan: The Cool Kids Alliance
As a Survivor history buff, something that obviously stood out from the episode was the formation of the ‘cool kids’ alliance on the Millennial tribe. It reminded me (and I’m sure most fans watching) of a similar situation from season 26, Survivor: Caramoan, where the four most attractive members of the fans tribe, Reynold Toepfer, Eddie Fox, Allie Pohevitz and Hope Driskill were quick to form an alliance. They spent their time hanging out in the water and pretty much ignoring the rest of the tribe. They were isolated, and even though they were fans of the show, they didn’t seem able to do basic math. Like the cool kids from the Millennial tribe, they didn’t seem to see that in a tribe of ten, four does not, in fact, equal in. Unsurprisingly, their strategy was unsuccessful. The misfits took control, and Allie and Hope were the first and second people out of the tribe.
For the males on the ‘cool kids’ alliance, the consequences were not so dire. While Allie and Hope lost the game, both Reynold and Eddie escaped relatively unscathed. They were kept around for their challenge strength, and both of them made it to the tribe swap and eventually the merge. I wonder if the ‘cool kids’ alliance from this season will meet a similar fate. Will the men escape scot free while the women pay the ultimate price? Is Figgy doomed to go home before the merge, rendering her forever undateable? Is it ever a good idea for a woman to align herself with the strong, attractive, athletic males?
China: Aligning with the Alpha Males
I would argue that Figgy is playing a very risky game–risky, but not impossible. In fact, over on the Gen X tribe, Figgy’s fellow Jessica, Jessica Lewis, has formed a similar alliance. She’s in tight with Bret and Chris, the two strongest men on her tribe. But while Figgy’s future in the game looks shaky, Jessica has built herself a much more secure foundation (that is, assuming her eye infection clears up). Aligning with the alpha male types doesn’t have to be a death sentence in the game for women. For a look at how the strategy can work, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are heading back to season 15, Survivor: China, and third place finisher Amanda Kimmel.
Amanda began her game on the eight-member Fei Long tribe, and like Figgy this season, she was athletic and strong in challenges. Like Figgy, she was beautiful- her background was in beauty pageants. And like Figgy, Amanda gravitated towards aligning herself with men. Early in the game, Amanda aligned herself with Todd Herzog, a slightly built flight attendant from Utah. Todd and Amanda then aligned themselves with the strongest men on their tribe- Aaron Reisberger and James Clement.
With Aaron as the nominal leader of the tribe, and Todd and Amanda pulling the strings behind the scenes, Fei Long were unstoppable, defeating the opposing Zhan Hu tribe in nearly every challenge. As a tribe, they only lost immunity once. On day 14, the game changed. Each tribe was asked to select the two strongest members of the opposing tribe. Zhan Hu selected Aaron and James, and as a result, Aaron and James became members of Zhan Hu, with Amanda and Todd remaining safe as part of the majority alliance at Fei Long.
If you can make it to the tribe swap, it can be extremely beneficial to have the athletic males on your side. It is at the tribe swap that the athletic males stop being assets, and start becoming targets. This is what happened to Aaron and James, who became huge targets as soon as they arrived at Zhan Hu. Zhan Hu even threw a challenge in order to vote Aaron out of the game. James managed to make it to the merge, where Todd and Amanda spearheaded a move to blindside him at final seven. Amanda was willing to align with the alpha males in the tribal stage of the game, but her true ally was always Todd. Unfortunately, this would end up costing her the game, as she lost to Todd at Final Tribal Council, but the strength of Amanda’s game was that she always had options.
Reach Out to Others
Gen Xer Jessica has similar options. She might be working closely with Chris and Bret, but we haven’t heard her making any plans for final three. She seems to be quite close to Sunday, and I think Sunday probably considers Jessica to be her closest ally in the game right now. We saw David approaching Jessica and wanting to work with her. And the vote at Tribal Council showed that she and Lucy seem to be on the same page.
Also, although Ken was not named as part of the alliance, he did end up voting for Rachel. Whether he did that on his own instinct, or whether he was brought into the group remains unclear. Jessica is working with Chris and Bret, but not exclusively. She isn’t isolating herself. She’s making bonds with everyone. And just as Amanda had plenty of allies on her tribe, Jessica can choose who she wants to work with moving forward.
It’s a lesson that Figgy would do well to learn. She, Taylor and Jay spoke about the need to bring others into the alliance. They spoke to Michelle (By the way, did anyone else find it humorous that the missionary who studies dragons for a hobby is considered to be one of the cool kids?), and she was seemingly on board with them, although she seems more of an ally for Taylor and Jay than for Figgy. But in a tribe of ten, an alliance of four is really not much better than an alliance of three. Figgy needs to start making some more friends.
One thing that worked in Amanda’s favour was that Fei Long was such a strong tribe and only attended Tribal Council once before the tribes were swapped. At that Tribal Council, Amanda was not targeted. Leslie Nease, the older lady on the tribe, was an obvious boot. Amanda’s alliances were not so obvious as to make her seem threatening. Figgy might get lucky in the same way. In this early stage of the game, she’s in danger of receiving the same treatment as Caramoan’s Allie and Hope. but once the tribes swap, it is the men who will be targeted. If the Millennials can keep winning, and Figgy avoids Tribal Council until the swap, then she could go really deep into the game.
Have Meat Shields
Todd and Amanda deliberately aligned with Aaron and made him the leader of Fei Long, with the intention of using him as a meat shield. The idea was that if the tribe started to lose, the blame would fall on Aaron. In the event of a merge, Aaron (and not Todd or Amanda) would become the first target. Although Todd and Amanda seemed to genuinely like Aaron and James, the primary reason for allying with them was not because they wanted to be friends. The primary purpose of aligning with the strong athletic males was to use them as a shield- which Amanda was successfully able to do. By surrounding herself with such obvious threats, Amanda was able to keep her own head down and avoid being targeted.
I think that Gen X Jessica might be playing similarly. Chris and Bret will both make perfect meat shields when the tribes merge. Their physicality and obvious strength will mean that like James in Survivor: China, everyone will want them out once the tribes start swapping. And meanwhile, Jessica, who with her legacy advantage and her intelligence, is likely a much bigger threat than either Chris or Bret, will be able to skate right under the radar. I don’t see any evidence of Figgy having the same plan. In fact, we saw reiterated over and over again that Figgy, Taylor and Jay intend for the three of them to be the final three. For Figgy, her strong male allies are not expendable. They are not stepping stones for her to get to the end. They are her friends. And they are her only options. That shouldn’t be the case. Figgy should be looking at Taylor and Jay the same way that Amanda looked at Aaron and James- not as potential husbands and final three companions, but as tools that can be used in the game to her advantage.
Playing the Flirt Card
Another problem for Figgy is that the game plan that she has come into Survivor with is something that very, very rarely works. She wants the million dollars, but she wouldn’t mind if she got a husband as part of the deal. Figgy knows that she is a flirty girl, and flirting is going to be part of her plan. She wants to use her sexuality to manipulate the men and to get her own way. Although Amanda is clearly an attractive woman, she did not use her sexuality as a weapon in China. In season 16, Survivor: Micronesia, she showed that flirting is part of her arsenal when she charmed Ozzy, but her relationships with Aaron and James were strictly platonic. She didn’t get too attached. It is hard to lead someone on, blindside them, and then receive their jury vote in the end.
To be fair to Figgy, her plan isn’t entirely without merit. Taylor told us in confessional that he was a sucker for a pretty girl, and it is very much possible that she will have Taylor eating out of the palm of her hand. But this is a numbers game, and while it is nice to have an extra vote that you can control, there are ten people on that tribe. By playing an aggressively flirtatious game, she is not exactly endearing herself to the majority of the tribe. Her overt, in your face sexuality is making Mari and Hannah feel like social outcasts and band together as a result. Amanda was able to develop friendships and alliances with the women on her tribe, but so far we have only seen Figgy working with the men.
You Can Only Be Who You Are
On Survivor, deprived of all comforts, and particularly on this season, where the constant rain, cold, and wind would be so demoralising, you can only be who you are. If Figgy is naturally a flirt who gets along well with men and struggles in her relationships with women at home, then it is going to be difficult for her to play the game any other way. Perhaps she knows what she should be doing, and is just struggling to connect with these people. Just because the show didn’t show her talking with anyone other than Jay and Taylor, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It is possible that I am misjudging Figgy, but from the limited footage that we see, her social game seems to be just a little flawed.
Over at Gen X, Jessica, who has a lot more life experience than Figgy, has a much stronger social game. She’s not playing the flirt card- not that it would likely work on Chris or Bret anyway. She’s winning people over by being friendly, approachable, and above all, non-threatening. I really think that, fair or not, for a woman playing Survivor, the ability to be non-threatening is the quality that you should most want. Anything else, and you become an easy target.
A big part of successfully aligning with the strong athletic males is to be aware of their personalities and how they are coming across to the rest of the tribe. In Caramoan, Reynold and Eddie were openly dismissive of the rest of their tribe. They completely ignored three of their tribemates and made no effort at all to work with them. They were arrogant, and it was the arrogance of Reynold and Eddie, not the arrogance of Allie and Hope, that led to Allie and Hope being sent home.
Alpha But Not Arrogant Allies
It is dangerous to align with the athletic men on Survivor, but it is suicidal if those athletic men also happen to be the most arrogant people on the tribe. Figgy might not have the most sparkling social game so far. But the fact is that both Taylor and Jay seem to make alliances based purely on how much of a “bro” the other person is, or how physically attractive they are. By doing this, they make everyone else in the tribe feel like a self-conscious outcast. We haven’t seen them make any efforts at relating to Hannah or Mari. Imagine how they will go when the tribes swap, and they end up on a tribe with someone like Paul. The arrogance of Taylor and Jay is going to sink Figgy’s game if she isn’t careful.
By contrast, Amanda’s allies Aaron and James were loved by the rest of the tribe. They were hardworking, and made an effort to establish relationships with everyone. James and Aaron worked well with Todd and Amanda, but they also had strategic conversations with poker player Jean Robert Bellande. They joked around and worked hard with lunch lady Denise Martin. They were an asset and not a liability.
Bret and Chris seem to be far more similar to Aaron and James than they are to Reynold and Eddie. They are aligned with Jessica and Sunday (and I guess Lucy, although we really have zero idea what Lucy is doing at the moment), but they are friendly with David and try to allay his fears. They are building the shelter with Ken. Like James and Aaron, Bret and Chris have strong relationships with everyone. For them, the challenge is going to be ensuring that their likability doesn’t become a liability and that they avoid the same fates as Aaron (targeted immediately in the event of a tribe swap) or James (blindsided because nobody wants to sit next to them at the Final Tribal Council).
Keep Your Options Open
Unfortunately for women, the fact is that the first part of the game is always the hardest. Premerge, the stronger males are always viewed as the biggest assets. They are needed for the challenges. It is the women who become expendable. We’ve seen this so many times- in Caramoan, when Allie and Hope were voted out instead of Reynold and Eddie, in season 23, Survivor: South Pacific, when Elyse Unemoto was voted out in an effort to weaken Ozzy, and recently in season 32, Survivor: Kaoh Rong, when Elisabeth Markham was voted out ahead of Peter Baggenstos. The first part of the game naturally favours those who have perceived strength, and so when an athletic male ostracises himself from the tribe, it is usually his female ally that pays the price.
Amanda was easily able to navigate the early portion of the game, despite being aligned with the strongest and most athletic men in the game. In part, this was due to luck, and her tribe being strong in challenges. But a huge part of Amanda’s success in China was that she went in there with a plan. She didn’t just naturally gravitate towards Aaron and James, she deliberately aligned herself with them, and with others. James and Aaron were expendable pieces in the game because she had so many options. To align with the athletic men isn’t necessarily a bad idea, as long as you do so in an intelligent way.
This is what I found so impressive about Jessica this season. She’ll do well because she has so many options- as long as her eye doesn’t let her down. If Chris and Bret are targeted, then she still has Sunday and Lucy. And her social game is strong enough to assume that she can make friends with the Millennials too. Reading Jessica’s bio preseason, I was underwhelmed. But one episode in, I’m a fan. I’m rooting for her success.
And I’m also hoping that the other Jessica, Figgy, can make it far in the game as well. Despite the situation that she has gotten herself into, I’m hoping that she can make it deep into the game. I’d hate to see her game destroyed by the stupidity of the men she has aligned with.
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