Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, I will revisit another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.
Lessons in Survivor History: The Illusion of Control
I loved that we got the merge this week. In all of the seasons where Survivor has used the three-tribe format, they have always reverted to two tribes before the merge. This was the first time that we got to see the three tribes enter the merge as three separate tribes, and I think it had the potential to be really interesting. I think it is fantastic that the players never really got the chance to regroup. The merge vote is crucial, and they had to make a quick decision– to go with their original alliances or to trust their new allies in the swapped tribes. With so many players left in the game, this had the potential to be really chaotic.
In practice, it wasn’t as entertaining as I’d hoped. For the most part, things are exactly the same as they were at the beginning of the game. Jay still has his ‘cool kids’ alliance. Zeke and Adam are still trying to rally the geeks. Chris, Bret and Sunday are in lock step. The Gen X tribe stuck together, and those who weren’t deemed to be cool enough to join the Triforce recognised that they were on the bottom of the Millennials alliance, and so they flipped. But just because it ended up being quite straightforward with this group of players, I hope that it doesn’t discourage Survivor from trying the same format again. I’d love to see another group of players merge from three tribes into one. I think it has the potential to be fantastic.
But instead, as Chris predicted, a line in the sand has been drawn. And there are nine people on one side of the line- the Gen X group and the self-professed ‘nerd alliance’. This leaves Will, Jay and Taylor out on their own. Are they doomed to be the next ones voted out? What can they do to save themselves? Moreover, how on earth did they get themselves into this situation in the first place? I don’t think it was as simple as ‘they shouldn’t have voted Michaela out’. I think that they made other mistakes– very basic, relational mistakes– that led them to their current position. And it is for that reason that for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are going back to season 13, Survivor: Cook Islands, and looking at the game of the eventual winner, Yul Kwon.
Survivor: Cook Islands was a season in which the castaways were divided by race into four separate tribes, each with five members- Manihiki (African American tribe), Puka Puka (Asian tribe), Aitutaki (Hispanic tribe) and Rarotonga (Caucasian tribe). Yul was placed on the Puka Puka tribe, where he made a close alliance with Becky Lee- an alliance that would take them both to the Final Tribal Council. The Puka Puka tribe were strong in challenges, and never had to vote anybody out of the game. During this time, Yul was sent to Exile Island, where he found an immunity idol. Yul’s idol was incredibly powerful, as it could be played after the votes were read.
On day seven, the three tribes were merged into two. Together, Yul and Becky moved to the Aitutaki tribe. The Aitu tribe lost the first immunity challenge, and Becky was targeted for her perceived weakness in the challenges. Yul was able to save his ally by creating a new alliance with original Rarotonga members Jonathan Penner and Candice Woodcock. They were able to get Cao Boi Bui and Jessica ‘Flicka’ Smith to vote with them, and were able to gain control of the tribe.
Yul, Becky, Jonathan and Candice had a tight alliance. And within this alliance, Yul was in a great spot. There were seven people in the tribe, and so the four of them had complete control. Yul saw both Candice and Jonathan as rational, trustworthy players- the perfect people for him to align with. And then, with 14 people left in the game, everything changed. The two tribes went to what they thought was going to be a routine reward challenge. Instead, before the challenge happened, the tribes were given the chance to mutiny. They had ten seconds to decide whether they wanted to voluntarily switch tribes. With only a few seconds left, Candice stepped off the mat, and Jonathan quickly followed her. Two of Yul’s closest allies were suddenly members of the opposing tribe, and he had to adapt his game plan quickly.
The remaining members of Aitu- Yul, Becky, Ozzy Lusth and Sundra Oakley- became Yul’s new alliance. Through a mixture of luck and skill, the four of them were able to manoeuvre their way to the end of the game. In the end, Candice’s mutiny was probably a positive thing for Yul. But at the time, he was devastated. When Jeff Probst asked him his thoughts, he answered “I’ve got a pretty good game plan, and I’m very surprised.” Candice’s betrayal derailed his plans. Like Jay this week, Yul thought that he had a good hold on the game. But it turned out that the people that he was counting on actually weren’t with him at all. Jay thought he was the kingpin- but ended up with only three people that were willing to vote with him.
So what went wrong for Yul? How did Yul turn it around? Can Jay do the same? Personally, I would count Yul as one of my favourite Survivor players. He played the game intelligently and strategically, but in the end his best move was his ability to use social capital. I don’t think that Jay has the same level of Survivor skills as Yul. But there are certainly some lessons to be learned from Yul’s experience. Jay looks like he is in a hopeless spot, but his game isn’t over. There are still moves to be made.
How did we get here?
Candice’s move was an emotional one. On her original tribe, she had formed close bonds. She and Parvati Shallow had become close friends. More importantly, she and Adam Gentry had a budding romance. The thought of being with Adam was more appealing than remaining with Yul and Becky. Candice’s allegiance was always with her original tribe. She was willing to vote with Yul and Becky while they remained on Aitu together, but once the merge came, she was always going to flip. Jonathan was more committed to the alliance with Yul, but when it came down to it, his number one ally was Candice. And so when she mutinied, so did he. Yul thought that he had a strong alliance with the two of them, but that was an illusion. They were never really on his side.
Jay came into the merge believing himself to be in a good spot. In confessional, he listed his numbers. “I’m back with Michelle, and I got Tails back. But then I also got in my pocket, I got Will and Hannah, and I’m pretty sure Bret and Sunday.” He believed himself to be heading up a seven-person alliance. And with thirteen left, seven was the magic number. He was right about some of those numbers. He really does have Will in his back pocket, and Taylor has no other option but to work with him. He was also correct about Michelle– who despite seemingly being quite close to Zeke at Vanua, didn’t think twice about returning to Jay and the Triforce.
Hannah was definitely not in his pocket, but I can kind of excuse him for thinking that she was. After the Michaela vote, we saw Jay attempt to restore his relationship with Hannah, and she assured him that she would have voted with him– she just didn’t like being left out. Hannah hasn’t exactly been a strategic mastermind up until this point, and has been happy to vote the way that she is told to vote. She voted with Jay (and against Zeke and Adam) in the Mari vote, and had a close relationship with Michelle. I can’t blame Jay for counting Hannah as one of his numbers.
What does seem inexcusable is his belief that Bret and Sunday were going to be his numbers. What incentive would either of them have to vote with a group of five Millennials? Did Jay really think that Bret and Sunday were just going to go along with his plans and be happy to go home in sixth and seventh place? Bret did consider perhaps working with Jay depending on where the numbers fell, but he made it clear in confessional that his preference was to work with his fellow Gen Xers. He said, “I still truly trust Chris and Sunday the most.” Chris is Bret’s Adam- they have been separated by a tribe swap, but they are still absolutely in each other’s end game plans. They have been waiting to reunite and always planned on working together again.
For both Yul and Adam, their illusion of control was due to the same thing- they failed to see the game from the point of view of the other players. Yul didn’t take into account the original bonds that Candice had made. Jay didn’t take into account that Bret and Sunday probably didn’t want to be on the bottom of a Millennial alliance. Yul learnt from that mistake. At the merge, he was able to manipulate Jonathan perfectly and was able to convince Jonathan to vote with him, giving his alliance the numbers. To get Jonathan on his side, Yul put himself into Jonathan’s shoes. He knew that Jonathan wasn’t well-liked or respected by his alliance and also knew that Jonathan wouldn’t risk getting voted out. He was a rational player, and would make a rational decision. Knowing this, Yul was able to leverage his immunity idol to bring Jonathan over to his side. Yul may have made the mistake of underestimating Candice and Jonathan once, but given the chance, he was able to rectify his mistakes. Can Jay do the same?
Who can you work with now?
When the mutiny happened, Yul had to immediately change his alliance. He had actually planned on voting Ozzy out at the next immunity. Instead, Ozzy became an important ally. The four members of Aitu were united– not only by necessity, but also by real bonds of friendship. The first thing that they did as a tribe of four was to share a reward where they were given letters from home. They began to see each other as family, and developed an unbreakable bond. With Yul and Ozzy, two of the strongest people in the game, on their side, the Aitu tribe won every remaining immunity challenge.
Adversity does bring people closer, and if this was the tribal portion of the game, then Jay would be able to trust the loyalty of Taylor and Will completely. But this is the merge. Every individual for themselves. There is every possibility that Will or Taylor will abandon the sinking ship. Adam wants to work with Taylor, and if he was smart, Taylor would take that offer. He would join the majority alliance and work with Adam, at least until the numbers became smaller. If he was smart, that is. I’m guessing that Taylor will stay loyal to the bitter end, but Will is a fan of the show, and perhaps he has the savvy to become a number for the opposing alliance.
I actually think that Jay should be testing the waters with the opposing alliance as soon as possible- particularly with those that he has previous relationships with. Jay and Zeke were originally friends at the Millennials camp. He has a relationship with Bret and Sunday from Ikabula. Right now, the alliance is nine people, and that is enormous. Only three of those people can make it to the top, and so there have to be cracks that can be exploited.
At the centre of the action this week were Adam and Zeke. Along with Hannah, they seem to have joined the Gen X tribe. The original Gen Xers seem to be completely united. The early trips to Tribal Council have done them good, and even the original conflict that did exist between Chris and Jessica is being ignored. They are all on the same page. Are Zeke, Adam and Hannah really going to be in a secure position if they go to the final nine with six Gen Xers? I think that those three are smart enough to know that Survivor is a game of numbers. They are going to need people that are on their side.
Jay might have thought that he was the kingpin, but the actual kingpin in the game right now is David. Through their experience on Vanua, David became close to Zeke and Chris. Chris described the three of them as his ‘core group’. David already had a strong relationship with Ken from the Gen X tribe, and Jessica owes her life in the game to David– he played his immunity idol on her, saving her from elimination. I think that David is the linchpin for the Gen X alliance– in the past, Chris has said that he cannot stand Jessica, but David has been able to keep them together. Through Ken and Jessica, David is connected to Adam. If you get David out, I think that alliance will crumble. If Jay can see how much power David really has in the game at the moment, perhaps he can convince Zeke and Adam to make a move.
What strategic moves can you make?
After the mutiny, Yul was in a terrible position. He’d lost his main allies, his tribe was severely down in the numbers, and the merge was fast approaching. He was the number one target for the majority alliance, and was recognised as a threat to win the game. He was able to turn his game around and put himself in a winning position– and the number one reason that he was able to do that was that he was in possession of the idol.
Jay also has an idol although his idol is the regular variety, and has to be played before the votes are read. His idol has definitely lost some of its power– the nine-person alliance can all too easily split the vote between him and Taylor at the next Tribal, forcing Jay to play it. But as Yul proved, the idol can be used for more than just saving yourself for one Tribal Council. In Survivor: Cook Islands, the two tribes merged with nine people left in the game. The majority alliance of six people targeted Yul at the first vote. Yul could have simply played his idol, sending one of them home, and returned to camp with each alliance containing four members. But instead, Yul used his idol as a bargaining chip, recruited Jonathan to his side, and took control of the game. If Jay is to improve his spot in the game, he is going to need to leverage that idol correctly.
I think that for Jay, the only way forward is to take some risks. From the moment he voted out Michaela (and perhaps even before that), he has been in a vulnerable position whether he knows it or not. He’s target number one for the majority alliance. He has very few numbers on his side. What strategic options are available to him? Yul gained control of the game by working with Jonathan, someone with whom he already had a relationship. Can Jay use his idol, as well as his relationship with Bret and Sunday, to do the same? Can he convince Zeke that they are on the same side? If he can get either Bret or Zeke on his side, his game gets a new lease of life. At the moment, Jay needs to be willing to try anything. He truly needs to play like he has nothing to lose.
What about everyone else?
Jay came into the merge with an illusion of control. Yul, before the mutiny, had the same thing. For Yul, the illusion of control was momentary. It wasn’t long at all before he was actually in the kingpin position. He was able to use his intelligence and his people skills to eventually win the game. While I have thought that Jay has been playing well (up until the Michaela blindside), he’s no Yul. I’d love to see him be able to change things around, mostly because I’m dreading the next three vote-outs being just a predictable pagonging of the bros. I’m definitely rooting for Jay and hoping that he does well. He’s great in confessionals, and the stone cold “Yeah, I did it” from last week was absolutely iconic. I don’t want to see Jay and Michaela both leaving the game so quickly.
I think that all the other players in the game need to learn lessons from Jay’s mistakes. That enormous nine-person alliance can’t last much longer. And I think there are plenty of people within that alliance that are currently under an illusion of control. As I said, I think David is the one with the most power within that alliance right now, but everyone else feels really good about their spot. If you really want to have lasting control in this game, you need to keep your allies feeling safe. You need to think about the game from the point of view of the other players, and you need to be everyone’s best option moving forward.
Adam is an example of someone who absolutely should be insuring his position in the game remains solid. Instead of trying to make big moves with Taylor, he should be making sure that his alliances are solid. We saw Zeke willing to vote him out. We barely saw him interacting with Jessica or Ken, and last week they were willing to vote him out in favour of keeping Taylor around. He might be in the majority, but he is doing a bad job of keeping his alliances happy. Jay made the mistake of assuming that he was in control, while doing nothing to actually ensure that he was. The other players have seen the results of that strategy now. There is no excuse for them to be behaving the same way.
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