It’s been days since Tai made that move, and I’m still cheering for him. What a beautifully satisfying episode of Survivor that was. Jason and Scot had been built up into such formidable villains, and their downfall was just so fitting. As fans, I think that most people knew that their undoing would happen- in Survivor, the villain rarely prospers. The underdogs always get their chance at revenge. Generally, the villain falls victim to their own hubris, and that is what happened here. Scot and Jason were so certain that they were safe, and so excited to play the super idol, that they were not as observant as they should have been. They failed to notice Tai’s bond with Aubry (even though he told them that it existed!), and they failed to notice that Tai had never felt comfortable with their sabotage tactics. Their overconfidence led to one of the most enjoyable blindsides in a long time.
I know there has been a lot of talk about Tai’s move. It would seem that he had a clear path to the end. Julia was in fact with the men, and had they used the super idol, Aubry would have been sent home, and Tai would be firmly in the majority alliance. Even better, his two closest allies were Jason and Scot- the two people that everyone blames for making camp life difficult. If he could get to the final three with those two, then it was a fair assumption that he would win the game. Tai himself even said that his head was telling him to do the logical thing and stick with Jason and Scot. But in the end, he made an emotional decision. It might not have been the best decision for his game, but it was the best decision for his peace of mind moving forward.
While I think that it would have been strategically beneficial for Tai to stick with the plan, and vote for Aubry, who is undoubtedly the strongest contender for the win right now, I don’t think that his move was completely terrible. For one thing, I don’t think that Tai necessarily beats Scot and Jason in the end. He was running the risk that the jury would see him the same way that the Heroes vs Villains jury saw Parvati- as an abused spouse who should have made a move against the villain. He had tagged along with Scot and Jason, and I don’t think a jury would have given him credit for that.
Then there’s the question of whether he was headed for the Final Tribal Council with his original alliance. Scot has confirmed in exit interviews that he was telling Julia the truth. He didn’t intend on sticking with Tai all the way to the end and was concerned that Tai would be able to beat him and Jason in a Final Tribal Council. Tai was unlikely to get to the end of the game anyway. This way, he gets to be the kingmaker. He can ensure that the ‘good people’ win- which firstly helps him sleep at night, but also improves the way that Tai comes across on television. I think that Tai is definitely aware of the cameras. He knows what to do to get screen time. I think that he was uncomfortable being associated with Jason and Scot because he knew that it was bad for his image.
I think that he has improved his odds of making Final Tribal Council. He has unquestionably made himself some enemies on the jury, and his style of play, flipping from one side to another makes him an attractive person to be sitting next to in the end. Scot will never vote for him. Should Jason be voted out, Tai isn’t getting his vote either. People aren’t going to be afraid to sit next to Tai at the Final Tribal Council anymore. He’s also in a pivotal spot numbers wise- he can flip to his original Beauty tribemates, Michele and Julia, or he can stick with Aubry, Cydney and Joe. He’s still got the only idol in the game, and he’s got the extra vote advantage. Ideally, he should play the extra vote as soon as possible, to remove the target from his back. It could be particularly advantageous for the Beauty tribe if he used it at six. In short, although Tai’s move was risky, I think he made the right call.
Obviously, Tai’s move was disastrous for Jason. Tai managed to vote out both Jason’s closest ally and get rid of Jason’s idol, all in one moment. For the viewer, it was glorious. For Jason, it must have been devastating. Scot and Jason were completely in control at the beginning of the episode. And somehow, all their strategy came to nothing. They had thought that the rest of the tribe was at their mercy. And so for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going to season 22, Survivor: Redemption Island, and the eventual winner, Rob Mariano- for a look at how Jason and Scot should have played if they wanted to maintain control over the game.
For Rob, Redemption Island was his fourth attempt at winning the game. He first played in season four, Survivor: Marquesas, and even then his philosophy was to play the game as the ‘godfather’. His strategy was all about making people afraid to go against him. In season four, this strategy failed. He made himself an obvious threat and then didn’t have any numbers on his side. He was voted out in tenth place. On his second attempt, using much the same philosophy, Rob made it all the way to the end- only to have the jury award the million dollars to his ally (and eventual wife), Amber Brkich- mostly because the jury were angry at the way that Rob had played the game. They didn’t appreciate him using fear to manipulate them, and in the Final Tribal Council, they got their chance for revenge. In Rob’s third game, season 20, Survivor: Heroes vs Villains, he never really got the chance to implement any strategy. His intention was to play a quieter game, but he couldn’t help himself, and took on a leadership role. This put him on a collision course with Russell Hantz, and it was a battle that Rob couldn’t win. He was voted out in 12th place.
Coming back to play Redemption Island, Rob knew two things about his game. He knew that he had to play a leadership role. It was his natural style, and it was what he was best at. He knew that he played best if he made sure that people were afraid to go against him- but he knew that if he simply repeated his game from All-Stars, he would lose again. In season 22, Rob played using essentially the same tactics. He was still the godfather. He was still dictating strategy throughout the season. But unlike his game in All-Stars, this time, he was rewarded with the win. So, what were the differences? How did Rob manage to maintain his strategy of using fear and control, and go on to play possibly the most dominant game of Survivor ever seen- and how did Scot and Jason, who had the same basic strategy, go so wrong?
Redemption Island was billed as being the season that pitted arch enemies Rob and Russell against each other- both Rob and Russell returned, and were placed on different tribes. Rob landed on the Ometepe tribe, and was immediately idolised by those around him. Russell had worse luck, ending up on Zapatera, who disliked him so much that they ultimately threw a challenge so that they could vote him out. Without Russell in the game, Rob was able to ride an easy path to victory. He formed a close alliance early in the game, and then when Ometepe entered the merge with numbers over Zapatera, Rob ensured that the Zapatera tribe were quickly pagonged. Nobody ever came close to blindsiding Rob- they were all completely and totally loyal. The reason for this was that they were afraid to make a move against him. He had them all under his control- and for Rob, this strategy won him the game.
To get other players afraid, it takes a big move. For Rob, that big move came in the second episode. Matt Elrod, one of the members of his alliance, and also one of the strongest members of Ometepe, shook the hands of the Zapatera tribe after a challenge. Rob already felt threatened by Matt- he was worried that Matt’s social game was strong and was also worried that Matt was becoming part of a strong pair with Andrea Boehlke. Rob noticed that Matt appeared to be fraternising with the ‘enemy’, and used that to justify moving against him. Matt was sent to Redemption Island, completely clueless as to what he did wrong. Matt might not have understood why he was blindsided, but the rest of the Ometepe tribe got the message loud and clear- if you are ever perceived as being disloyal, you will be sent home. That fear kept them loyal to Rob throughout the entire game. Matt’s elimination was important not because Matt was dangerous, but because Rob had to make a statement.
Jason and Scot had a few attempts at using a big move to create fear. They have sabotaged the camp- a move which the edit told us accomplished nothing, yet Jason saw it as pivotal. After they returned from Tribal Council, where Debbie had been voted out, Jason had a gleeful confessional where he said “It worked! And all we did was hide the machete and an axe, and put a fire out. They couldn’t handle it. We caused chaos. It made them get rid of one of their own.” From Jason’s perspective, it was sabotaging the camp that had caused fear.
Their showy moves with the idols were no doubt intended to cause fear also. They made it known that Jason and Tai both had possession of an idol. They then carefully handed Jason’s idol off to Tai. We now know that this had to have been for show. Tai didn’t need to be in possession of both halves of the idol. They did this because they wanted the girls to be caught unaware. Perhaps they wanted to emphasise how strong and impenetrable their alliance really was. They trust each other so much that they are willing to pass the idols around. At the same time, they never told anyone exactly what they were doing. They made a big show, ensuring that everyone knew that they were all protected by idols. This was their statement. Just as voting Matt out of the game told everyone on Ometepe that they had no choice but to be loyal to Rob, Jason and Scot were making a statement with their idols. Jason spelled it out at Tribal Council- “If you already caught wind of what’s going on, it’s smarter to be on the right side of that. Might as well jump on board the train; otherwise, the world’s going to be dictated for you.”
Whereas Rob’s statement had the desired effect, Jason and Scot were unable to produce any real fear in their tribemates. I think a lot of that was because of the way that Rob delivered his message. Rob refused to stand up and take responsibility for voting Matt out- he continued to claim that it was a group decision. He made the other players afraid to be disloyal- but the other players were under the assumption that their loyalty was to the tribe, not necessarily to Rob. They all believed that it was in their best interests for the tribe to stick together, and didn’t see that they were giving Rob control of the game. Rob had complete power and control- but he was subtle in how he wielded that power. After the merge, he introduced the “buddy system”, where nobody was ever left alone. If anyone said or did anything disloyal, it was reported to Rob at once. The other tribe members agreed to the buddy system because they were afraid to move against the tribe. The buddy system ensured that nobody on Ometepe ever had the opportunity to flip over and vote with the Zapatera people. Rob’s intention was that he would have control over as many people as possible- but that isn’t what Ometepe thought. They thought that the buddy system was the best way to ensure that they moved forward as a tribe. Of course, the whole time, it was Rob that was using fear to control the other players. But the other players were too complacent to notice.
Jason and Scot lack that subtlety. They aren’t even trying to make Aubry, Cydney, Joe or Michele believe that doing what they ask will be good for their game. Their offer basically comes down to what Jason said at Tribal- “It’s either they decide, or we decide.” Rob was successful in controlling the game and yet still receiving the votes at the end because he hid behind the ideology of ‘tribe loyalty’. Jason and Scot aren’t hiding at all. They are putting themselves front and centre, and asking the other players to be afraid of them.
Whereas Rob’s tactics made the Ometepe tribe feel as though they were helpless to make any moves, Jason and Scot have done the opposite. Their attempt to use fear to manipulate the tribe has had much the same effect that Rob’s tactics had on the Survivor: All-Stars jury. Instead of being impressed, or converted over to join the alliance, Cydney, Aubry, Joe, Michele and Julia are being driven further away. Judging by what we saw last week, Aubry and Cydney both desperately wanted Julia out. They saw her as the most dangerous player in the game. But this week, they spearheaded the movement against Scot. I think the moment that Aubry made that decision was when Scot decided to exercise his power against Aubry and try to offer her a deal to vote against Cydney. She was disgusted by the idea that he would only stop sabotaging the camp if she gave him what he wanted. Instead of fear motivating Aubry to do what she was told, it motivated her to formulate a new plan. A plan that would lead to Scot’s elimination. Scot and Jason succeeded in making the other players afraid- both Tai and Aubry expressed that they were afraid to take Scot out this episode. But instead of letting their fears cripple them, the way that Ometepe did, Aubry and Tai were both able to overcome their fears. They might have been afraid of the repercussions back at camp, but for both Aubry and Tai, the payoff was worth it. Scot and Jason’s intimidation tactics didn’t give them the control that they craved. Instead, it united the other players against them.
The biggest difference between Rob’s game and Scot and Jason’s game was the social element. People liked and respected Rob. He was not the person that everyone wanted to eliminate. Rob had deliberately protected Phillip Sheppard, and it was Phillip that continually annoyed everyone around camp. If the Ometepe players were going to turn on anyone, it was going to be Phillip. Phillip’s role was to act as a shield for Rob- Phillip was the one with a target on his back, and in the Final Tribal Council, it was Phillip who only received one vote. Rob entertained everyone with games and stories, and led them to immunity wins through his leadership. He made camp life more tolerable for everyone. Although it is true that he was not loved, and many of the players from Ometepe went to the jury feeling betrayed by him, but Rob made sure that he was not hated. There were still at least two players in the game (Phillip and 19-year-old Natalie Tenerelli) that Rob knew he could beat.
Jason and Scot haven’t really thought through the social side of the game. There is a small chance that putting out the fire-induced fear in their tribemates. But it is certain that it is difficult for a jury to vote for someone who made their life miserable. At the end of the game, the jury has to feel comfortable voting for you. And I think that even Joe- who has made no strategic moves, but has worked hard, could beat Jason. Before starting operation sabotage, Jason had a decent chance in front of the jury. He wasn’t loved, and people saw him as lazy, but he did have a sympathetic story (his daughter is autistic), and I think people saw him as basically a good person. That perception is now gone. There’s nobody left that Jason could beat.
From here, Jason needs to abandon his game plan. It’s too late to try and play the Boston Rob game now- especially now that he has lost his main allies and his idol. He has no power in the game. His best option is to quieten down, perhaps hope to be dragged to the end as a goat. Perhaps before the Final Tribal Council, someone will make a bigger mistake. There might be a bigger betrayal. Someone might end up with a worse reputation than Jason. He should be looking to shift the target off of himself- perhaps on to Tai, who with his idol, and the advantage is probably the most powerful person in the game. But if he continues to try to control the game through intimidation, as the previews for next week suggest he might, then there is no hope for him. There’s no point in having complete control of the game unless you can maintain that control, and convince people to vote for you in the end. Jason wasn’t able to do either of those things and so he has made himself the perfect person to take to the end. If someone can take Jason to the end, they will win the game.