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: Either Way, It’s Going to Hurt
I want to begin with some thoughts on the outcome this week. I’ve never been a Caleb fan. I didn’t want him to come back, and I’m glad to see him gone pre-merge, but I have to give some credit where credit is due. He has been incredibly classy in his exit press, without a bad word to say about anyone. It must have been brutal to leave the game so early, and to be betrayed by Tai, the person that he trusted more than anyone else out there, must have been particularly hard. But Caleb has been effusive in his praise of all of his tribemates. He is a good sportsmanship, and I was impressed.
Compared to the blistering pace of the premiere, this episode seemed a little slow. Although the switch into three tribes was intended to create drama and excitement, it seemed to actually do the opposite. On a ten-person tribe, you can have so many intricate and interesting social dynamics. On a six-person tribe, you lose some of that. It didn’t help that Mana, which is the tribe with the least dynamic personalities (no offense intended to Sierra or Hali, but nobody on Mana has been at the centre of any of the action so far this season), was the tribe that lost immunity this episode. It was set up as an episode where either Caleb or Hali was going to go home, and I’m not sure that any of the viewers were fussed one way or the other.
I also don’t like making one tribe start from the beginning, while the other two tribes get beaches with fully developed (and decorated) shelters. Even though Tavua didn’t seem to struggle too much, and Ozzy got the chance to show off his shelter building credentials, I still don’t like this as a part of the game. It puts them at a disadvantage in challenges and it means that their morale is down. While Nuku were out on their snorkelling trip, and Brad Culpepper was going antiquing over at Mana, Tavua had to build a shelter, and get camp started. On Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X, Ika Bula got an extra member to make up for this. Tavua didn’t get an extra member, but they did get Ozzy, so I guess it all worked out in the end.
The way the three tribes were split up was interesting. On the Mana tribe, there were four old Nuku members, and two old Mana members. On the other two tribes, there was a 5-1 split, with Troyzan as the odd man out at Tavua, and JT as the odd man out at Nuku. Immediately it appeared that those in the minority- Troyzan, JT, Caleb and Hali- had to start scrambling to survive. Interestingly though, when Survivor switches from two tribes to three, those in the minority are usually safe. Think of the Angkor tribe in Survivor: Cambodia– despite Tasha Fox and Andrew Savage being the only two ex-Bayon members on the six-person tribe, when they went to Tribal Council, it was Peih-Gee Law and Jeff Varner who wound up going home- both of whom appeared to be in the majority. In Millennials vs Gen X, each six-person tribe went to Tribal Council. Each time, a member of the majority flipped, and sent one of their own home.
This season, everyone in the minority seemed to have one thing on their minds- the idol. Caleb has said in his exit press that he searched for the idol, JT stranded his tribe out at sea so that he could comb his beach, and Troyzan managed to stumble across the clue, and then successfully pick the idol up at the challenge. We also saw JT and Troyzan try to integrate themselves into their new tribe socially- Troyzan making small talk with Andrea, and JT capturing the goat. For what it’s worth, I think that both Troyzan and JT would have been fine, idol or no idol. Ozzy and Cirie might be playing nice, but Cirie knows she is at the bottom of the old Nuku tribe. If she just allows all of the old Mana members to be picked off, then Cirie is finishing tenth. She’s smart enough to know that she should make her move against Ozzy now, while she can get Troyzan’s vote, and while she has Zeke (and possibly Sarah). On the old Mana tribe, Malcolm and Sandra were certainly not working together, and I think Malcolm knows how dangerous Sandra can be. Sandra has also expressed interest in working with JT, saying that the winners need to stick together (although that didn’t exactly work out for Tony). Even without the idol, JT has room to move.
On the new Mana tribe, Caleb and Hali never seemed to try to get the majority on their side. They assumed that it would be one of them, and went to work trying to throw each other under the bus. Although it should have been feasible that Caleb could use his connections from Survivor: Kaoh Rong, and recruit Tai and Debbie over to their side, that never seemed to be an option. Once they lost immunity, the choice was between Caleb and Hali. It seemed that Tai was interested in saving his buddy Caleb- he made arguments about keeping the strong- but ultimately Brad Culpepper was able to manipulate him into turning against his friend and sending Caleb home. It was presented as Tai acting against his best interests, following his heart rather than his head, and instead making a move that furthered Brad’s position in the game.
Has Brad’s position improved? Absolutely. Instead of being vulnerable to a possible Kaoh Rong reunion, where he would find himself at the bottom of the tribe, he is at the hub of things. Everyone there is connected to Brad, and seems to be depending on him and his leadership. By removing Caleb, he made himself the only option for Tai, and also for Debbie, but I don’t think that Tai actually made the wrong move. In his position, I think I would have voted the same way. To discuss the merits of Tai deciding to send Caleb home, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to season 15, Survivor: China, and the eighth place finisher, Michael ‘Frosti’ Zernow.
Frosti began the game on the Zhan Hu tribe, where he quickly integrated with his tribemates. At the time, Frosti was the youngest person ever to play the game (he was 19 years old), yet his age was never a problem for him. He fit in easily, and everyone liked him. Frosti was also physically fit, and was considered to be the strongest player on the Zhan Hu tribe. Frosti was never in any danger of being voted out.
Although Frosti was in a good position within his tribe, the game was not going exactly as planned for Zhan Hu. Right from the beginning, the Zhan Hu tribe had been hopelessly outmanned in the challenges, and to make matters worse, they began to get physically ill. Camp life was hardly harmonious either- Dave Cruser and Ashley Massaro were constantly at each other’s throats, and their actual camp was a swampy mess. Unsurprisingly, Zhan Hu struggled to win challenges and lost three of the first four immunity challenges.
At Tribal Council, Frosti voted with the majority of his tribe. First, they voted out Steve ‘Chicken’ Morris (damn), who was the odd man out. They then voted out Ashley, followed by Dave- the two people who had been causing the most discord in the camp. This left Zhan Hu with five members- Jaime Dugan and Erik Huffman (who had formed a tight pair), Peih-Gee Law, Frosti, and Sherea Lloyd. All five of them liked each other, and got along well. All five of them had voted together at the previous three tribal councils they had attended. There was a strong amount of trust among them.
And then the tribe swap happened- and Frosti’s game plan changed completely. A note was sent to each camp, asking them to select the two strongest warriors from each tribe. Zhan Hu gleefully selected James Clement and Aaron Reisberger from the Fei Long tribe. They didn’t realise that they were not only receiving the two strongest players from Fei Long- but they would have to give up their own strongest members. Fei Long selected Frosti and Sherea, and just like that, Frosti became a member of Fei Long.
Over at Fei Long, things seemed bad for Frosti. He was, after all, down in the numbers 5-2. But at the challenge, his former tribemates at Zhan Hu threw the challenge, voting Aaron out of the game. During this time, Frosti created real relationships with the people on Fei Long, particularly the younger people of the group, Courtney Yates, Amanda Kimmel and Todd Herzog. At one point, he saw Amanda and Todd attempting to get the hidden immunity idol. Rather than try to use this information against them, Frosti helped them retrieve the idol. Rather than work against Todd and Amanda, he joined their alliance.
Like Tai this week, Frosti found himself in a position where he had to choose between alliances. He could stick with the Zhan Hu five- or he could flip and vote with Fei Long. Like Tai, Frosti chose to abandon the older relationships, in favour of the new friendships that he had created at Fei Long- and he therefore joined them in voting Sherea out of the game. At the merge, he continued to vote with Fei Long, even voting out his friend from Zhan Hu, Jaime. Frosti was able to successfully work his way into the Fei Long alliance, and had people within Fei Long that he thought he could trust- only to be blindsided and go home in eighth place. Will Tai suffer the same fate?
To be honest, Frosti’s decision wasn’t that hard. Pre-merge, Fei Long were either going to vote against him or Sherea. It was common sense that he would join Fei Long at that point. For a more skilled player, there would have been options. There were definitely splits within the Fei Long tribe that could have been exploited. But as a Survivor player, Frosti was actually quite similar to Tai: a nice guy, with a strong social game who didn’t do very much strategising.
At the merge, there were only four original Zhan Hu members and six Fei Long. For Frosti, going with the Fei Long alliance was common sense. And I think that the same is true for Tai. Mana is a sinking ship. Once Tai realised that Caleb and Brad were not going to work together, once he had to make a choice between them, it makes complete sense that he would choose Brad. Nuku still have all of their original numbers- and Caleb doesn’t even have any of his own numbers. When Tai asked him who he was working with, Caleb replied with ‘Jeff and Malcolm I was cool with. No one else.” So to go with Caleb, Tai would have had to burn his relationships with Brad and Sierra (and possibly the rest of Nuku), and would gain virtually nothing.
There was no point in Tai going out of his way to save Caleb. He did give it a shot- pointing out that Caleb’s challenge strength would help them and offering to throw Debbie under the bus- but once it became clear that the rest of the tribe was wanting Caleb out, Tai did the right thing. I don’t think that Brad manipulated Tai into something he didn’t want to do. I think that Tai saw the writing on the wall. When talking about how much he wanted to play with Caleb, Tai did say that “if I protect my buddy, I have to betray Brad…either way, it’s going to hurt.” Despite what the edit told us. Tai knew. He knew that Brad wanted Caleb out- and he knew that if he was to stick with Caleb, and continue to campaign for him, then he was sinking his own game.
Tai didn’t want to vote against Caleb. He wanted to protect his friend, and leave his options open. But Caleb really has very little value to Tai. Caleb has no numbers. He isn’t a strategic player. He is a physical player that might win immunities down the stretch. But most importantly, Caleb is one of the four players from Survivor: Kaoh Rong. The only reason that people might be looking to get rid of Tai is because as one of a group of four, he is threatening. By cutting Caleb loose, Tai is no longer threatening to anyone. Without Caleb, he can put his head right back under the radar, and make a deep run into the game. He might have felt bad about his vote, but he made the smartest move for his game moving forward.
Frosti was identified by Fei Long as one of the two biggest threats on Zhan Hu. But they ended up working with him because of how unthreatening he came across. Frosti was just a likable kid- and that was the kind of person that Courtney, Amanda and Todd wanted to work with. Tai has come into the season as a huge threat- because the Kaoh Rong four are seen as a group. Survivor: Cambodia is fresh on everyone’s minds, and in that season, the final five were made up of people from two seasons. If the Kaoh Rong four were to get together, then that would be a scary voting block for the rest of the cast to deal with.
Debbie knew this, and immediately disassociated herself from Caleb. She was never willing to work with him, and I think this was a big part of Tai’s eventual decision. Getting the Kaoh Rong four together was never going to be an option. Debbie was 100% sticking with the alliances she had made on Nuku. Debbie said in confessional, “My logic is this: I got Caleb and Tai from Kaoh Rong that I could potentially work with, but Tai and Caleb have a history.” Debbie knew that if she agreed to work with Tai and Caleb, then she would be in a weak position within that alliance, and she wasn’t willing to take the risk. Coming into the Mana tribe, she was clear. She said, “I believe we’re rock solid, sticking together”, and she meant it.
Debbie’s read of the situation was correct. Brad and Sierra were both wary of the Kaoh Rong connection- and no doubt come merge time, everyone would have been. Brad said, “Truthfully, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of Caleb first. Caleb, Debbie and Tai played together on Survivor: Kaoh Rong, and that’s the threat.” Debbie knew that her loyalty was being questioned, and she acted decisively to shift that target. At Tribal Council, Tai had to do the same thing. As Tai said, if he was playing with his heart, then he would have tried harder to protect Caleb. But playing with his head, he knew that Caleb was a liability, and he had to be prepared to move against Caleb or jeopardise his own game.
Voting against Caleb was also a chance for Tai to solidify his own relationships with Brad and Sierra- two players that are likely to be a lot more useful to him than Caleb had the capacity to be. In Frosti’s case, he voted with Fei Long, and created relationships with Todd, Amanda and Courtney. Courtney became particularly enamoured with Frosti and became his advocate. When other members of the tribe were questioning whether they should keep Frosti, Courtney would stand up for him. In abandoning Zhan Hu, Frosti found himself a friend who was fiercely loyal, and who also had a lot of power within the game. It seemed an easy decision- abandon Jaime, Erik and Peih-Gee, who had nothing to offer him and pick up Todd, Amanda and Courtney, the three players who were controlling the game.
Tai’s decision had the same benefits. Had he forced the issue, and tried to get Hali out, then he would have been damaging his relationship with Brad, who would have been worried about Tai, Debbie and Caleb turning against him. Brad was convinced that this would happen, and that together they would vote Brad out of the game. Voting Hali out of the game would have angered Debbie, who didn’t want to be seen as a threat. She wants to lay low, and if the Kaoh Rong connection remained, then Debbie would have a target on her back. I don’t think Sierra would have been thrilled to see Hali go out either. As much as she protests, there is a connection between Sierra and Hali. They might not be allies now, but I think that Sierra could use Hali down the road. Keeping Caleb would have meant that Tai lost too many relationships- and he would have gained nothing.
For Frosti, voting against his Zhan Hu allies was the right move. But it still ended in a blindside. Frosti’s easy-going personality and close relationship with Courtney didn’t go unnoticed by Todd and Amanda. They recognised that as a strong physical and social player, Frosti was a threat, and he had to go. Even Courtney, Frosti’s closest friend in the game, voted against him, in an effort to prove her loyalty to Todd and Amanda.
Tai made the right move in choosing Brad over Caleb, but he can’t get too comfortable. There’s a lot of game to play. In his last season, he got no votes at the Final Tribal Council. He was seen as untrustworthy, someone who flipped too often. The jury couldn’t respect his game. What is he going to do differently this time? He needs to own his moves. He betrayed a friend, and he should own that. He can’t give Brad the credit! Getting rid of Caleb was nasty, but necessary in a self-interested game. And Tai needs to keep playing a self-interested game, all the way to the end.