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: Preparing for the Merge
I really thought I was watching JP’s boot episode this week. This is the guy who, according to Jeff Probst and everyone watching, contributes as much to the show as a block of granite. But instead, we saw Ali, one of the brighter lights of the pre-merge, get her torch snuffed. And obviously, it was slightly disappointing. Ali was one of the few cast members this season that I was really rooting for. I’m enjoying this cast, but for a season with the subtitle of Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers, there are precious few heroes out there. I’m sure JP is a wonderful human being, but it is impossible to root for someone who doesn’t seem at all interested in actually playing the game. I think that with the merge imminent, JP is going to be a very attractive ally. He’s someone who can be completely trusted– he isn’t going out there scheming against you, and even if he tried, it is doubtful that he would be capable of bringing anyone on his side. He’s going to be strong in the immunity challenges, and most importantly, he is someone that can be beaten at the end. And for Ryan or Chrissy, both playing really cutthroat games, they are going to need to be looking out for people that they can actually beat at the end.
As for Ryan and Chrissy, they ultimately made the correct decision. A mute, placid JP is obviously much less dangerous than a socially smart (and probably still furious) Ali. They absolutely chose the right person to take into the merge. However, I think that this episode underlined how bad Ryan’s play last week really was. He assured the audience that he had to blindside Ali because she and Chrissy would never work together. However, Ali didn’t seem to share that view. It was Ali who wanted to talk with Chrissy about getting JP out of the game. Ali and Chrissy were absolutely able to sit down and have a strategic conversation. Ryan excluding Ali from the vote last week was completely pointless– and it left him without options this week. And now that he has voted Ali out, he finds himself approaching the merge without as many options as I’m sure he would like. There are three original Hustlers left- himself, Devon and Lauren. He still has his original bromance, but we haven’t seen any bond between him and Lauren. If Ali was still around, he would be able to count on Lauren’s vote. But as it is, he has Devon, and he has Chrissy. Ryan’s powerbase has been steadily shrinking. At the same time, Chrissy has been growing in power. She has Ryan. She also has JP, and we have seen her and Ashley working together at the Heroes beach. She still has Ben, her ally from her original tribe. Getting rid of Ali was excellent for Chrissy’s game because now she is at the centre of the alliance. She’s the one with all the power.
And now the merge is here. And it should be a chaotic one, with many of the players not having been on a tribe together at all. Which of the remaining players has set himself/herself up well for the merge? Who is unknowingly in a position where he/she very well could be the dreaded merge boot? (Hey, at least they’ll be dateable!) To answer this question, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to season 21, Survivor: Nicaragua, and the merge boot for that season, twelfth place finisher Alina Wilson.
Nicaragua was a season with two starting tribes– those who were over thirty, and those who were under thirty. Alina was placed on the younger La Flor tribe. Unsurprisingly, the younger tribe excelled at the challenges and only went to one of the first four tribal councils. During this time, Alina found an idol clue with her tribemate Kelly Bruno. As the two of them now shared the secret, they found themselves unwillingly in an alliance. Believing that she was in the majority when La Flor lost immunity, Alina and Kelly aligned themselves with strong alpha male Shannon Elkins, only to find themselves blindsided when Shannon went home. From that point onwards, Alina was on the bottom of her tribe. To make matters worse, Alina and Kelly failed to find the immunity idol, which was instead found by NaOnka Mixon– who hated Kelly and actively campaigned against Kelly and Alina.
On day 12, the two tribes were mixed up, and Alina was separated from her only ally, Kelly and placed on the Espada tribe. At Espada, she was able to work with former La Flor members to vote out two of the older members of the group, and Alina wasn’t targeted. But she also failed to gain herself any new allies, and over at the new La Flor, Kelly was voted out of the game. Heading into the merge, Alina felt fairly safe. She felt that she had bonded with NaOnka on their new tribe (not realising that NaOnka was far more loyal to her original alliance), and she knew that the younger players had a numerical advantage. And yet, when the merge came, it was Alina who was the first one voted out. And it wasn’t close. She received ten of the possible twelve votes.
Some of what went wrong for Alina was completely out of her control. For one thing, NaOnka was one of the more unpredictable castaways in Survivor history– and that is somewhat understating just how erratic her gameplay was. At the merge, NaOnka decided to hide some food. She was found out, but NaOnka’s actions ended up affecting Alina. Alina was blamed for the stolen food, whereas NaOnka was given a pass, as many of the remaining players in the game wanted to sit next to NaOnka at the end. A big part of Alina’s downfall was the unpredictable behaviour of someone that she considered an ally. However, there were definitely mistakes made by Alina, flaws in her game. She came into the merge as the easy vote. She was the person that everyone was happy to vote out– primarily because Alina wasn’t in anybody’s long-term plans. She wasn’t anyone’s ‘ride or die’ alliance. She wasn’t anyone’s intended Final Tribal Council goat. She was just a number, easily picked off, and without anyone to really stick their neck out and try and save her. And unfortunately, I think we can see this mistake being repeated by many of the players this season. I think that just like in Nicaragua, the first vote will be an easy vote, where as many players as possible will come together to vote out the person without any real ties. Who is the Alina of this season?
Strike one against Alina was that she was on the bottom of her tribe from the beginning. In the first vote, she voted against Brenda Lowe, who would prove to be an intimidating power player. Alina was never really able to recover from this early mistake. Of the original tribes, there are very few players left in this position. In the Heroes tribe, the first vote was unanimous. There was clearly tension on the tribe caused by Alan’s paranoia, but Alan is gone. The remaining Heroes– Ben, Chrissy, Ashley and JP– could all conceivably work together. More than that, if one of the Heroes names was to come up as a potential merge boot, I think that they have each created enough cross-tribal bonds to make sure that somebody would try to save them. Ashley has Devon. Ben has Lauren, and perhaps Dr. Mike. And Chrissy and JP have Ryan. It seems to me that the Heroes and Hustlers are so intertwined, and this should keep them safe.
As for the Hustlers, the situation is quite similar. However, it seemed clear that if the Hustlers were to go back to Tribal Council, then Lauren would have gone home. Lauren’s main social bonds were with Ali, not with Ryan or Devon, who both seem to think she is a little strange. Lauren is a real wild card here. I don’t think she factors into the end game plans of either Ryan or Devon. I can definitely see them throwing her under the bus if either of them were in danger. And I really like Lauren and don’t want to see her go home, but unfortunately, she does have a little of Alina about her. If this season is going to follow Nicaragua’s pattern, and go for an easy merge boot, then Lauren, unfortunately, fits the bill.
And then there’s the Healers, who never visited Tribal Council as a unit. They’ve never had their loyalty tested, and all we can do is speculate about what might have happened. The only true way to build trust is to vote the way you said you would vote, and the Healers haven’t had the chance to do that yet. On the original tribe, Dr. Mike seemed to be the one on the outs. But now he’s built up some trust with Ben and Lauren, and with Jessica and Cole. Plus, he has an idol. I think that Dr. Mike has solid allies now. I hope I’m right here– but I feel confident that Dr. Mike is okay for now. The other person who was seemingly in trouble if the Healers had to go to Tribal Council was Joe. And the target on Joe’s back has only intensified since the tribe swap. It is just that with the idol in his pocket, the entire merged tribe would need to work together to blindside him. And that seems like a really difficult move to pull off.
Alina’s biggest mistake wasn’t just that she was on the wrong side of the first vote. It was that she socially isolated herself, both within her original tribe, and then in the swapped tribe. She thought she had built bonds with NaOnka- who promptly re-joined her original alliance and helped them campaign to get Alina out of the game. At the vote, one of the other players called Alina a “grade A dirt squirrel”. She clearly had problems making friends out there. If you are looking for an easy move to make at the merge, you are looking to vote out the person that nobody really needs. The vote that isn’t going to make anyone mad. Alina was that person in Nicaragua.
During the tribe swap phase of the game, there are definitely players who are isolating themselves. We’ve had so many negative confessionals about Cole now that he is starting to look like a good candidate for merge boot. Particularly if his merge feast etiquette is similar to his peanut butter etiquette. Jessica is the only person out there who wants to play the game with Cole– and even she has expressed misgivings about aligning with someone who is in all likelihood going to destroy her game. After he passed out this week, she said that she wanted to play the game with him. But now we are no longer in the Tribal portion of the game, does that still hold true? If everyone is looking to send a healer home, is Jessica really going to allow her infatuation with Cole to stop her from getting further in the game? I think that once Ben and Lauren reunite with their former tribemates, they will be pushing to get rid of Cole. And Jessica should join with them.
I am also worried about Jessica– particularly if Cole wins immunity, or people worry about him having an idol. Cole does know where the idols are hidden this season, and I assume Dr. Mike isn’t going to be telling everyone that he has it. If the merged tribe doesn’t try and get Cole out, they might at least want to weaken him. And to weaken Cole, they would vote for Jessica, his only real ally. And while we have seen Jessica solidify her relationship with Dr. Mike, we haven’t seen her working with either Ben or Lauren. She has had the opportunities to create social connections, but from what we’ve seen, she hasn’t done it. This puts both her and Cole in a very vulnerable position. In a 12-person merge, you need numbers. And I don’t think either Jessica or Cole have them.
Another reason that Alina was a target was that she was seen by many of the players as a strategic threat. They were wary of her and didn’t want to align themselves with her– lest they also be seen as a target. In the end, Alina couldn’t shift the perception that others had of her– they thought she was deceptive and sneaky, and so they would not work with her. Of the players left in the game, Chrissy and Ryan have been playing the most ruthless games. Ryan called himself a weasel this week– I wonder if being a weasel is comparable to being a dirt squirrel! Ryan wondered to the camera why anyone would want to work with him and admitted that they shouldn’t. Of course, in a four-person tribe, there isn’t much choice about whom to work with. You need to work with everyone. In a 12-person tribe, you can work with the people whom you want to work with. Have Ryan and Chrissy done enough to get people to work with them?
This is where both of them deserve credit for getting Ali out of the game. Of course, it must be said that Ryan didn’t need to create an enemy of Ali last week. But having made the initial mistake, the only path moving forward was to take Ali out. She was the only one who knew how brutal a game Ryan was playing. JP isn’t going to say anything. I’m not sure JP has even noticed. He probably still sees Chrissy and Ryan as harmless– and that is the reputation that they want going into the merge. Ali was the only person with reason to distrust Ryan or Chrissy, and now that she is on the pre-jury trip, Ryan and Chrissy can go into the merge without the stigma of being strategic threats. They go into the merge without the reputation of being untrustworthy. They go into the merge without a target on their backs. And as long as they lay low for a few votes, stay out of the limelight, find those easy votes and don’t betray their allies, then they are safe. Ryan and Chrissy aren’t winning any challenges. So who’s coming for them? If they can put forward the idea that they are loyal, and aren’t a threat to anyone, then they are going deep into the game.
The last thing that blew up Alina’s game was the immunity idol. At the merge, Alina targeted Marty Piombo, a member of the older tribe who was known for being sneaky. Marty had previously found an immunity idol, which he gave to a member of the younger tribe, hoping it would buy him trust. As a result, when Alina targeted Marty, Marty had someone who was willing to protect him and shift the vote to another target. The immunity idol bought Marty trust- and meant that it was Alina who was sent home.
There are two idols in the game right now, and I have no doubt that the idols, or at least the fear of the idols, will influence the merge vote. As mentioned earlier, there is the possibility that the tribe is afraid that Cole has an idol, and target his allies instead. But when we talk idols and season 35, there is really only one player to talk about, and that is Joe. Of everyone out there, Joe is the person most likely to be the victim of the Alina vote– where everyone just joins together and decides to take out the person that none of them want to work with. At the moment, Joe’s closest ally in the game is Desi– and she has told Ashley that she is completely open to voting Joe out of the game. At the original Healers tribe, the entire tribe was willing to come together to blindside him. And since then, Joe hasn’t exactly been winning friends and influencing people. He deliberately irritated Ashley, Devon, and Alan to get them to put the votes on him–and then correctly played an immunity idol that none of them knew he had. He’s a terrifying player to have out there. There’s a reason that Devon has been watching him like a hawk. I think they all know that Joe deserves that million dollars. He’s worked hard enough for it. And that means that none of them want to be the Woo that goes to the end with Tony– they’ll want to vote Joe out sooner rather than later.
Right now though, Joe has an idol. And nobody saw him find it– even better, Devon has made it his personal mission to follow Joe around like a puppy, making sure that he doesn’t find another idol. Devon might even feel confident telling the rest of the tribe that Joe is unprotected. And whether you like Joe or not, I think that it is hard to argue that he does have a good read on people. Blindsiding Joe is going to be a difficult task, particularly at the merge when there are so many people involved. I think Joe’s smart enough to see it coming- and to play his idol correctly. And if Joe plays his idol, then the person going home won’t be the easy target. It won’t be the Alina, who doesn’t really have a shot at winning the game anyway. Instead, we might see a real power player leave the game. And that would make for much, much more entertaining television.