Each week, Catherine Lucas examines the gameplay of a contestant or a tribe and compares them to players from past seasons. It’s a mix of history, strategy, and culture in “Lessons in Survivor History”. You can expect the blogs on Monday mornings.
Lessons in Survivor History: Giving the Idol Away
Okay, lesson learned. If you really do need to aquadump, don’t talk about it. And please, please don’t rejoice in it. Because if you are an early boot, it is a really humiliating way to go out. And it was kind of depressing to see Simone, who was such a superstar in the preseason, reduced to that. Yes, we saw her gut a fish. And I guess that was nice. But she definitely didn’t live up to her promise. We didn’t get any of her biting wit in confessionals. It made me really grateful for the outstanding preseason coverage that has shown us so much more of the player’s personalities than the show is able to.
However, after the frenetic pace of last week’s episode, where I felt as if I hardly knew any of the players, I felt that this week was a huge improvement. We are starting to understand the characters on each tribe, and where the alliances sit. Such a fluid game makes storytelling very difficult. Needing to rely on JP as a narrator doesn’t help either. The alliances on the Heroes tribe that made the decision to vote Katrina out have apparently completely dissolved. Now, everyone is looking to quiet, dependable Chrissy. They have had a taste of working with a paranoid player, and they didn’t like it.
There are some players, like a Boston Rob Mariano in season 22, Survivor: Redemption Island, who love to play with polarising competitors. They see someone that can be brought to the end. They see goats who are easily beaten. And Alan would be a dream to sit next to at the end. Surely nobody is going to award a million dollars to the guy that made them strip to prove they didn’t have an idol. But in a new players season, identifying goats early is such a risky strategy. I was really glad to see the Heroes tribe collectively decide that Chrissy was a better option than Alan moving forward. I was glad to see Chrissy seek out Ben as a rational player. I think that finding a strong strategic partner that you can bounce ideas off is the best move. For that reason, I love the pairs of Chrissy and Ben, as well as Ryan and Devon. And Ryan and Chrissy have the super idol connection- is it possible that the four could work together?
On the Hustler’s tribe, the decision to get rid of Simone was based on the old school mentality of keeping the tribe strong. You can’t vote out one of your only strong people if you want to win any challenges. I’d love to see a tribe attempt the intentional Matsing strategy, where you lose every challenge, leaving yourself with a tiny but strong alliance that will be forgotten about at the merge. I’d love to see someone acknowledge that challenges are not the most important thing in the game. And I think that this Hustlers tribe were the perfect candidates. They are so badly outgunned by the other two tribes that for them, avoiding Tribal Council will be a miracle, no matter who they vote out. Whether Patrick is there or not, I would be shocked if the Hustlers don’t visit Tribal Council at least once more before the swap.
But those of us who have kept up with preseason coverage know that Patrick didn’t just survive the vote because he is physically strong. He has a pregame friendship with Ali, and that has definitely come into play. No matter how trustworthy Simone seemed, Patrick is someone that Ali knows in her real life. Simone seems to be simple but could be putting on an act. Ali can trust that Patrick isn’t just pretending to be a goofball. She knows that he’s a goofball in his everyday life too. Although Ali seems to be playing old-school Survivor and voting for tribe strength, she was actually playing new-school Survivor and voting for the person whose loyalty she doubted the most. I think that Simone’s biggest mistake was not understanding the bond between Ali and Patrick. Ali was never voting for the person that she has known, albeit superficially for years, not this early in the game.
And then there is the Healers tribe, where the action so far has been driven by Joe, and his intense desire to out-Tony Tony. Whether it is confronting Dr. Mike and accusing him of having an idol, or confronting Cole and accusing him of having an idol that he somehow found out in the ocean, Joe really, really cares about idols. And this week, his dreams came true, as he managed to actually find an idol. Of course, without Cole’s help, Joe would presumably still be digging around in the ocean searching, but now that he has the idol, he is in a really powerful position.
For many viewers, Cole’s decision to help Joe find the idol was a confusing one. Joe couldn’t read the clue. He couldn’t find it on his own. All Cole would have had to do was to keep his mouth shut, go to the well alone, and claim the idol for himself. To look at why Joe shared the idol clue with Cole, why Cole helped Joe find the idol, as well as what both players should do next, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to season 15, Survivor: China and the seventh-place finisher, James Clement.
James began the game on the Fei Long tribe, and thanks in part to James’ immense physical presence, the Fei Long tribe dominated in the challenges, winning the first three of the first four immunities. During this time, James managed to integrate himself into the tribe well. He worked hard around camp, contributed to challenges, and didn’t come across as a strategic threat. Although he was an introvert who struggled to create relationships, James seemed to be in the perfect spot. He also had strong alliances which would later prove important- with eventual winner Todd Herzog, and with Todd’s strategic partner, Amanda Kimmel.
Survivor: China had an interesting twist. After each reward challenge, the winning tribe was told to ‘kidnap’ a member of the losing tribe, taking them back to their camp. The ‘kidnapped’ member of the losing camp was given a note, which could be shared with someone on the winning tribe. Inside the note were clues to the location of the hidden immunity idol. Due to this system, Todd had gained a clear idea of where the idols were hidden in each camp. For both tribes, the immunity idol was hidden in plain sight, placed at an archway leading into camp.
On day 13, James’ game completely changed. The two tribes were asked to select two warriors from the opposing tribe. The Zhan Hu tribe, who had been struggling in the challenges, chose James along with Aaron Reisberger, who was the nominal leader of the Fei Long tribe. At Zhan Hu, James and Aaron were immediately in the minority. Seeing their opportunity to vote out some strong players, the Zhan Hu tribe threw the subsequent challenge and voted out Aaron. For James, it looked as though his game was coming to an end- he was on Zhan Hu without allies. He was defenseless.
However, when Fei Long won the next reward challenge, they kidnapped James. And while James was at the Fei Long camp, Todd and Amanda found the idol and gave it to James. The three assumed that Zhan Hu would throw the next challenge, and planned for James to play the immunity idol, negating their votes against him, and sending one of them home. Because the idols were in the same place in both camps, James returned to Zhan Hu and took their idol also. With two idols in his hands, James’ fortunes in the game had changed rapidly– and all thanks to Todd.
As it turned out, James didn’t need to use an immunity idol at that vote. Scared that they were headed into the merge hopelessly outnumbered, the Zhan Hu tribe decided not to throw the next challenge. Despite James’ best efforts, Zhan Hu won immunity, sending Fei Long to tribal– and leaving James safe at camp with two immunity idols. Todd had helped James gain possession of the idol because he thought he was protecting an important ally. He saw James as a perfect shield and wanted him there at the merge. For Todd, giving James the idol was a power play. But it didn’t end up benefitting Todd’s game at all.
And although you would think that holding two idols would be beneficial for anyone’s game, it actually ended up hurting James. It is true that James would have certainly have been a target at some point– his hulking physical presence, combined with the fact that everyone seemed to enjoy being around him made him too huge a threat to ignore. However, give the biggest perceived threat in the game two immunity idols, and any chance for him to play under the radar was gone. He already had a target on himself, but that target became bigger and bigger with each vote. It was easy for people to turn on James when they saw how much power he had.
But James didn’t notice. When Jean-Robert was voted out, James received three votes. Jean-Robert had been targeting James, saying that leaving someone with that much power in the game was dangerous. Despite this, James still felt safe in the game. When he was voted out in seventh place, he still had two idols in his possession. Having so much power made him feel safe, and blinded him to the game. He never thought to play one of the idols to protect himself.
And now we have Joe with an idol. An idol he only got thanks to somebody else interpreting the clue. Is Joe headed the same way as James Clement? Or does he have enough game awareness to see the blindside coming? He is certainly a more aggressive player than James, and that might mean that he can avoid sharing James’ fate in the game.
There is no doubt though, that having the idol in the Healers tribe is enough to put a target on your back. I think that was behind Cole’s decision to tell Joe where the idol was– having an idol would force him to start playing the game. Someone like Cole doesn’t need to do that yet. He’s such an asset that if he just lays low, he’ll make it to the merge. He doesn’t need to put a target on his back. So far, Joe has spent four days trying to create paranoia and put a target on Dr. Mike. He’s been telling the tribe that Mike has the idol, and therefore can’t be trusted. Joe isn’t targeting Mike for physical reasons. His play is purely strategic. He sees Mike as a threat, and he also sees an opportunity to throw somebody else under the bus. So Joe has been telling everyone that will listen that Mike is untrustworthy- because Mike has the idol. Now Joe has the idol, and Cole knows it. That paranoia that Joe worked hard to create around Mike will now circle back to him. If having an idol is a reason for the tribe not to trust you, then Joe has just put himself into a very dangerous spot. An idol might protect you for one tribal, but having strong allies will get you to the end.
Joe was already perceived as a threat. In Survivor: China, Todd was definitely annoyed that James kept both the idols for himself, but he trusted James enough to continue to work with him. James was known for the straightforward game that he wanted to play. You could take James’ word at face value. Joe doesn’t have that social capital built up. We haven’t actually seen Joe socialising with anyone. He must be doing some socialising but hasn’t created any strong bonds yet. Cole, on the other hand, has clearly formed a strong bond with Jessica. And as we just saw on the Hustlers tribe, when you have a pair in a tribe of six, it is really difficult to navigate around. Joe doesn’t have a pair. Whereas Cole has Jessica to vouch for his trustworthiness, Joe has nobody. And then there’s the fact that he looks so untrustworthy– he came into this game looking like a Vlachos clone, and Cole looks like an easy-going kid. Joe has made himself into a huge threat– and he really didn’t need the extra attention.
Joe is playing a really frenetic game. And while I appreciate his efforts at making great television, I cannot really understand what he is thinking. He seems to be valuing the idol above social bonds. It could be said that James Clement made a similar mistake– bonding with his tribe was out of his comfort zone, and comfortable in his knowledge that he had the idol, James wasn’t interested in making small talk with others. His social weaknesses contributed to his blindside. Joe needs to see that having the idol isn’t everything. Having close allies would be better. And perhaps that is what he was trying to do here.
Although his sharing the idol clue with Cole, and immediately accusing Cole of having the idol came across as pure paranoia, it was clearly an attempt to get Cole on his side. Perhaps he has missed Cole and Jessica’s connection. Perhaps Cole and Jessica are better at hiding their attraction than Ashley and JP were on the Heroes tribe. But Joe seemed to think that this was a chance to bond with Cole and get a strong ally. Cole thinks that now he has helped Joe get the idol, he suddenly has power. Cole thinks that he and Joe have an alliance. But knowing how paranoid Joe is, Cole shouldn’t be feeling so safe. Now, Joe knows that Dr. Mike isn’t a threat. He has no idol. And so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Joe try and turn the tribe against Cole– the only other person who knows about his idol.
I think that would be an unwise move for Joe to attempt to make. It is incredibly risky. Firstly, to get Cole out, I think Joe would have to throw a challenge. The Healers tribe are the strongest ones out there. They have physical strength as well as puzzle ability. I don’t think they are going to lose a challenge. So Joe would have to make sure they lose. And then there’s the second problem. Even if they do lose, how does Joe make sure that Cole is the one going home? How in the world is he going to convince the tribe to turn on Cole? Just looking at Cole, his value is obvious. But Cole is also doing well in the social game. Cole has created enough bonds to see him safe. I think that for Joe moving forward, his best move is to align with Cole– at least until a swap gives him another option.
And what about Cole, who found himself in the Todd position, sharing all the information, but ending up without an idol? I think that Joe put Cole in a really terrible position, and Cole did the best thing possible. I think that Cole is kind of like Tai Trang from Survivor: Kaoh Rong and Game Changers. He is a really nice, social player who does well in the challenges. But once you start getting idols and advantages involved, Tai’s game goes downhill. And I’m worried that the same is true for Cole. I think that Cole is primarily out there for the experience. He loves the physical aspects of the game, seems to love meeting super cute girls, and thrives in the outdoors. He’s not like a Simone, who was bearing the camping and the challenges as a necessary evil. Also, to state the obvious, Cole is in such good physical shape that there is absolutely no reason to target him in the tribal portion of the game. Cole isn’t the type of player who needs to start playing strategically immediately. He would have been better suited to lay low, and avoid strategy as much as possible. This seems to have been his plan. And then Joe appears.
Joe didn’t ask for Cole’s help. He began by accusing Cole of having the idol. Cole has heard Joe putting the target on Dr. Mike. He’s heard the rest of his tribe talking about whether they trust Mike or not. And here is Joe, accusing Cole of being sneaky and having the idol. I think that Cole’s number one objective in that moment was to get the target off of himself. And to do that, he pointed out that the idol wasn’t where Joe thought it was. It wasn’t in the water, it was near the well. As soon as he made the decision to share that information, he made the decision to work with Joe. Joe wasn’t going to rest until he had the idol. And I don’t think that Cole wanted the idol. For Cole, the ideal situation would be to have the idol in the hands of someone that he trusts, and who trusts him. And Cole at this point is pretty sure that he has Joe’s undying loyalty. This way, Cole feels that he has some control over the idol, while at the same time avoiding the target that the idol brings.
I know that most Survivor fans would say that Cole made a mistake. That if you know where the idol is, you go out there and take it for yourself. Every time. But I actually think that it depends on who you are. For some people, the strategic element of the game is a real strength, and those people should grab the idols, and use them to make their big moves. But if you are someone who isn’t a strategic player, maybe you are better off teaming up with someone who is. In China, James would have been better off with the idol in Todd’s hands. James had many strengths, but strategy wasn’t one of them. And I don’t think that there is one single way to play the game correctly. Find your strengths, and play accordingly. I think that both Joe and Cole have done that. And I hope that they continue to work together, because I am really enjoying watching Joe throw himself at the game. I’m not ready for him to go home anytime soon.