That was an incredibly entertaining episode of Survivor. What made it so good, and the main reason that I am enjoying this season so far was the unpredictability. I was convinced that this was the episode that we would say goodbye to Alecia, and then out of nowhere, here comes Jenny practically volunteering to leave! More importantly, there are still 16 players left, and of those 16, at least ten of them have a good shot at winning. Nobody is the obvious frontrunner. The editors are doing an outstanding job, and I’d love to see the unpredictable nature of the game continue.
Jeff Probst has been saying it for years. To win this game, apparently you have to make a ‘big move’. And he’s been saying it so often that the contestants are starting to believe him. Six days into the game, on a tribe that had already lost two challenges, Jenny was already looking to build her resume for the Final Tribal Council. She’d heard the rhetoric of ‘big moves win Survivor’, and she was willing to throw away her security in the game in order to blindside someone on the second vote.
Let me just remind you that in season 30, Will Simms made a big move on day six, joining with the younger members of his tribe, and sending home Vince Sly. By day 39, nobody cared about what had happened to Vince. Will couldn’t point all the way back to day six as the reason that he deserved a million dollars. You do need to give the jury a reason to vote for you, and you do need something of a resume (even if that resume is just that you were a nicer person than the two people sitting next to you), but the jury doesn’t reward big moves that are made early in the game. They judge you on what they’ve seen- which is usually post-merge. Simply put, a big move on day six is a huge amount of risk and a very small likelihood of getting any return on your gamble.
Poor Jenny had such an epically comical downfall- she went from being in a completely comfortable position in her tribe to standing and begging for her life in the game. And all that within the space of a few hours. It was brilliant television. But exactly where did it all go wrong for Jenny? Was there anything that she could have done to save herself? For this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going to have a look at one of my all-time favourite early boots, the 18th place finisher from Survivor: Philippines, Zane Knight.
Like Jenny, Zane started the game on a tribe of six. Also like Jenny, he started the game on what Boston Rob might refer to as the ‘buffoon tribe’, Matsing, who would go on to lose every challenge. Like Jenny, Zane was a strong social player. He got along with everyone. Every member of Matsing wanted to work with Zane. Also like Jenny, Zane got himself into some strong alliances and was in a strong position in the tribe. And Zane’s story ends in exactly the same way as Jenny’s- Zane was voted out entirely as a result of his own stupidity.
Coming into the game, Zane listed Brandon Hantz as the Survivor he was most like- only Zane promised to be even crazier. And he definitely delivered on his promise. Almost as soon as he reached the beach, Zane had aligned himself with all three women on his tribe- ultrareligious Roxy Morris, beauty queen Angie Layton, and sex therapist Denise Stapley. All three of the agreed to an alliance with Zane and seemed to sincerely like him.
Not long after aligning with all the women, Zane aligned with the men as well, making a three-person alliance with Russell Swan and Malcolm Freberg. The men agreed to work together. Zane then decided that it would be a good idea to tell Russell and Malcolm that he had made alliances with each of the women- but that his true alliance was with the men. Unsurprisingly, this news did not impress Russell or Malcolm. Zane had successfully made alliances with each member of his tribe, and had he stayed quiet about it, he would have been in the perfect position. There was no reason to reveal his multiple alliances. Like Jenny, Zane’s mouth got him into trouble, but Zane’s mistakes didn’t end there.
Matsing lost the first immunity challenge. This was in large part due to Zane, who literally had to be dragged along by Russell. Zane had quit smoking two days before and was in terrible physical shape. After losing, Zane took responsibility for the loss and asked to be voted out, but this was apparently all part of his master plan. He was hoping that despite him asking to go home, the tribe would refuse to vote him out and instead get rid of Russell. It didn’t work, and Zane became the first boot of Survivor: Philippines.
Zane’s game has a lot in common with Jenny’s final hours in the Brawn tribe. Zane set out to play a crazy game, and unfortunately for Jenny, I think that the game just got to her. She may have only been out there for six days, but it was a tough six days. The Brawn tribe are on the Angkor beach, which was described by the Cambodia castaways as a dead cove. And then you have the bug. Jenny was on Survivor for six days. For two of those days, she had a bug making her ear bleed. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t think straight. Add to that the disgustingly humid conditions, and it is understandable that Jenny wasn’t herself.
Survivor is obviously a physical game. Some people are able to thrive in the harsh conditions, like Jason, who told the cameras that he was able to get through anything due to his experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. But no matter how fit you are, or how used to hardship, what happened to Jenny would have been incredibly difficult to overcome, so I guess I am giving her a pass. Yes, her last day in the game was not good. But Zane came into the game intending to play like a crazy person. I think that if Jenny were to get another shot, and could avoid ear bugs, she could actually be really good at the game. Zane, on the other hand, will always be Zane.
I do think that in both cases, the edit was misleading. Jason has said on Twitter that the decision to send Jenny home was made back at camp. Her Tribal Council meltdown may have confirmed their suspicions, but Jason already knew about the proposed all-women alliance. He had already decided that Jenny was too dangerous to keep around. Although it may have seemed that her mistakes were made at Tribal, Jenny’s real mistakes in the game were the smaller, less entertaining mistakes that she had already made back at camp.
In Survivor: Philippines, it seemed as though Matsing went into Tribal Council willing to vote out Russell. In reality, that would have been suicidal gameplay. In a six-person tribe, keeping the strongest members is imperative. Zane was literally dragged along in the immunity challenge. He was a liability. Russell, at least, looked like he would be an asset in the challenges. I doubt very much that sensible players like Malcolm and Denise ever considered keeping a loose cannon like Zane and voting out someone who had the potential to contribute so much in the challenges. Of course, in hindsight, it wouldn’t have mattered, as Matsing went on to lose every challenge. But I think that Zane’s fate was sealed when he couldn’t complete his section of the challenge. All of the other ridiculous things that he did were just icing on the cake.
Although I think that Jenny made her mistakes back at camp, we cannot ignore the Tribal Council implosion. Both Zane and Jenny had a problem with talking way too much. Zane didn’t have to tell Russell and Malcolm that he had made alliances with the women. All that did was make him look untrustworthy. He also didn’t have to tell his tribe that he was sure that Russell had found the idol. If Russell had the idol, then voting him out would be too risky. Zane had already made himself an easy target when he asked to be voted out, but the narrative that the show presented to us indicated that, despite his apparent willingness to leave, Zane was still likely to stay. Russell’s overbearing leadership style was so irritating that Matsing were willing to vote him out. And if Zane had stayed quiet, and let things play out, perhaps things would have been different. Certainly, telling the tribe that Russell had the idol didn’t help Zane’s case.
Jenny seemingly had Scot on her side before Tribal Council. She also had logic on her side- if the Brawn tribe is ever hoping to win a challenge, then Alecia is clearly the person to vote out. Even if Jason and Cydney had already made their minds up, it wasn’t going to be impossible for Jenny to convince them to go with her. After all, if they are going to go the way of Matsing, then they won’t all survive. Cydney might think that she has a strong relationship with the men, but she is at best third in that alliance. And if they lose every challenge, Cydney will be going home.
Any hope of Jenny changing anybody’s minds at Tribal disappeared very quickly when she openly admitted to considering a women’s alliance and targeting Jason. As Jason pointed out, “Never in this game has someone walked up to their alliance and went, guys, I just want you to know, I’m considering a flip. I’ll get back to you, let you know how things work out. If it doesn’t, then we’re still good, right?” They already had their suspicions. But Jenny’s candour sealed her fate.
When Jeff asked her if she had considered working with Alecia, Jenny responded by saying: “It was definitely up in the air”. This phrase alone seemed to alienate Scot, who referred back to it multiple times. And then there was the cringeworthy moment when Jenny stood up to get everyone’s attention and begged her tribemates to forgive her. Jenny’s case at Tribal Council should have been simple- focus on Alecia’s weaknesses. Emphasise the importance of winning challenges. Instead, she decided to go for honesty. It was quite ironic, given the conversation she had had with Alecia earlier, where Alecia had said that honesty was the most important thing in the game, and Jenny had responded with “No, that’s not the best thing.” At Tribal Council, Jenny really should have taken her own advice.
Zane’s strategy to align with all the women, and subsequently all the men, had a huge problem. The women didn’t want to work together. They had so little in common that the alliance between them would have collapsed. Similarly, Russell and Malcolm didn’t want to work together. Alliances are usually built on commonality- people with similar interests, similar ages, or similar approaches to the game. Zane’s ‘alliances’ had little in common with each other, and so they were always doomed to fail.
One of Jenny’s biggest mistakes was the assumptions that she made about Cydney. Cydney came into the game telling the audience that she didn’t usually get along with girls. Her game plan was to work with the men of the tribe. More than that, Cydney hasn’t been shy about her dislike of Alecia, and yet, Jenny assumed that Cydney would be on board with an all-girls alliance. I’m guessing that Jenny hadn’t spent long talking strategy with Cydney previous to this. We saw in the first episode when Darnell wanted to work with Cydney and Alecia, Cydney shot him down immediately. She told him that her plan was to work with the guys and vote out the women.
Cydney’s game this season has completely surprised me. I was so looking forward to watching this insane woman driving everyone crazy. And while I am enjoying Debbie, I am shocked by how quiet and logical Cydney is playing. I don’t think she would have told Jenny that her plan was to work with the guys. I am convinced that if Jenny had discussed strategy with Cydney, she would have been aware of her intense dislike of Alecia. It reminded me very much of Russell Hantz in Heroes vs Villains, boasting that he was so good at the game that he could find two people who didn’t like each other at all and bring them together. It might have worked for Russell, but he is certainly the exception rather than the rule. Trying to get Cydney and Alecia working together was a bad move.
Not only was the all-female alliance a bad idea to begin with, but Jenny managed to make it worse when she expressed doubts about the idea to Cydney. After thinking things through, Jenny realised that working with Alecia would mean betraying Scot. She didn’t want to do that, so she went to Cydney and told her that maybe they should vote with the men. Cydney was not impressed, remarking: “The girl is just all over the place”. If Jason’s claim on Twitter is true- that he was already planning to vote Jenny out before Tribal Council even begun- then Cydney must have told him about Jenny’s duplicitousness. Jenny’s original decision to try and work with Alecia and Cydney was a bad one. It wasn’t an alliance that would hold together. But she made her problems bigger when she showed Cydney how wishy-washy she was. Any thoughts that Cydney had of working with Jenny had to disappear at that moment.
I think that in the multitude of mistakes made by both Zane and Jenny, the most interesting one is that they were both playing the game fully aware that they were on a television show. For Zane, that meant that the most important part of his game was being memorable. After he asked to be voted out, a move that is among the most ridiculous ever seen on Survivor, he boasted: “You’ve never seen a move like this in Survivor history!” In his exit interviews, Zane repeatedly talked about the possibility of a return appearance. Zane was more interested in being a character than he was in winning the game.
I’m certainly not trying to say that Jenny made the same mistake (although, like Zane, she has also talked a lot about the possibility of playing again). She was clearly playing the game the best way that she knew how, and she was playing to win. She wasn’t making ridiculous moves just to get the maximum amount of airtime.
What did happen to Jenny is that she accepted the narrative that big moves win the game. It is in the best interests of the show that as many players as possible believe this. CBS wants to see big epic meltdowns. They don’t want to see people just making an alliance of five and sticking with it- it makes for boring television. They want people willing to make the big moves as early as possible. They want the David Samson, who made the big move in episode one of Cagayan by nominating Garrett Adelstein as the weakest on the tribe. They want the Jeff Varner, who made the big move in episode one of Second Chances when he blindsided his pregame alliance and voted against Vytas Baskauskas. These people have something in common. If you are going to go for the big move early, then you will most likely end up on the pre-jury trip. Don’t be seduced by the lure of the big move.
Is there anyone else on this season likely to find themselves in the same spot as Jenny? Well, there are certainly players who are playing for the cameras. You only have to read Debbie’s bio to know that she is a lot more self-aware than she is letting on. When asked which Survivor she is most like, Debbie replied “Coach. Period.” I think Debbie is like Zane, playing the game with the primary goal of being a memorable character. And while I am enjoying watching the tribe’s reaction to her (I’ve been particularly pleasantly surprised by Peter), I think that ultimately the fewer goats in the game, the better the game is. Debbie is playing the perfect game to make it to the end. But despite Nicole’s predictions, she is not playing a winning game.
Because Brawn is the only tribe that has gone to Tribal Council, they have dominated the airtime. Of the remaining Brawn tribe members, I think only Jason is really out there playing to be a character. Cydney and Scot are coming across as far too normal, and I think that Alecia is understandably just playing to stay alive. On Beauty, I think that the girls are quiet and happy to play under the radar. Nick was completely invisible this week. Caleb is a professional reality star and knows what the cameras want to see. A few different commentators have spoken about whether his friendship with Tai is genuine, or whether it is for the benefit of the cameras. I’m not sure. I actually think that both Caleb and Tai are thinking about the cameras, and both of them know that their friendship is getting them airtime. However, I don’t see either of them sabotaging their games just to be memorable. Neither Tai nor Caleb has been chasing any kind of power role- in fact, both of them have been playing the game perfectly. They are both having fun, and making for entertaining television, but without buying into the idea that big moves are intrinsically necessary to the game. Because as exemplified by Jenny this week, making a big move just for the sake of making one is never a good idea.