Let’s just start by getting it out there. Last season, I chose Shirin as my winner’s pick. She went home second. So for season 32, I was confident that at the very least, I couldn’t do worse, and then I picked Darnell. So really, from this point forward you should take everything that I say with a huge grain of salt. I am absolutely terrible at winner’s picks. Next season I might just draw a name from a paper bag and see how that goes.
Despite my disappointment at seeing Darnell go, I still find myself feeling positive about the season. I’m excited to be back blogging Survivor again. We have a three-tribe season, and that usually makes for interesting gameplay. I absolutely loved the 90-minute premiere, bugs, aquadumps and all. Every castaway got a fair amount of airtime. We got a clear snapshot of each character, and apart from a few notable exceptions, they seem quite likable. For the moment, I’m trying to ignore the obvious foreshadowing for the medivacs that are coming and hope that they don’t end up changing the outcome of the game.
One thing I’m not so excited for is the return of the Brains/Beauty/Brawn format. While it is undeniable that Cagayan was a fantastic season, I am concerned that Survivor is returning to the well a little too early. It might have been nice to try something new. Maybe I’m a bit of a purist, but I don’t believe that every season has to have a theme. Just watching 18 strangers play Survivor is entertaining, too.
One of the most entertaining things from the season premiere was the dynamics within each tribe. In Cagayan, the Brains tribe was a trainwreck. On the other hand, even when the Brawn tribe tried to throw a challenge, they couldn’t do it. Their strength gave them a huge advantage and every single brawn tribe member made the merge. This season, the producers are determined not to have the same thing happen, so the tribes are physically much more evenly matched. Each tribe, including the brawn tribe, has physically weak members. And while this might make for more exciting challenges, it has also led to some nasty dynamics within each tribe.
Each tribe has players who are standing out- for all the wrong reasons. This isn’t new. Nearly every first boot in Survivor history has been an outsider, who just cannot fit into the tribe. Whether it is for being too old, like Sonja Christopher back in Borneo, or just being a little bit too strange, like Semhar Tadesse in South Pacific, there is always someone who doesn’t quite fit in. In those first few votes, when people are playing a game of self-preservation, the outsiders are easy boots.
This season, the producers seem to have placed several players in tribes where they had very little hope of fitting in. Alecia is a real estate agent on a tribe of athletes. As Scot said, “We’ve got strong people, and then we got the California girl”. If Alecia was on the Beauty tribe, then she might have stood a chance. On Brawn, she was immediately isolated. Over on Beauty, it is Tai who is the obvious outsider. He’s not a model. He doesn’t have the sculpted bodies that the rest of them do. He’s clearly different. The Brains tribe is interesting. Over on Brains, the younger tribe members have joined forces against Debbie and Joe. There are two outsiders, and apparently it will be down to challenge performance to see which of them goes home first.
What do you do when you get to the beach, and can immediately see that you don’t fit in? What can Alecia, Tai, Debbie and Joe do to survive? This question takes us back to season seven, Survivor: Pearl Islands for this week’s lesson in Survivor history. We are going to be looking at 15th place finisher, Ryan Shoulders.
Ryan played the game on the Morgan tribe, where he found himself immediately on the outs. It was clear that physically, Ryan was the weakest of the Morgan men. Led by Andrew Savage, the stronger members of the Morgan tribe formed an early alliance. As there was another Ryan on his tribe, Ryan Shoulders was given the nickname “Skinny Ryan”, which he hated.
Already on the outside of the tribe, Ryan also struggled to perform well in challenges. Savage accused him of not trying hard enough. Ryan, who had applied for the show as a superfan, found himself getting more and more frustrated. He couldn’t gain the respect of the tribe, and without their respect, he couldn’t break into the alliance. His one friend out there was Lillian Morris, a 51-year-old scoutmaster who was also considered a challenge liability. Even Lill was seen as more valuable to the tribe than Ryan, as at least she worked hard in the camp.
When Morgan lost the first immunity challenge (in part due to Ryan’s lack of fitness), it seemed obvious that Ryan would be voted out. He hadn’t fit in from the start. He’d cost them the challenge. And yet, Ryan wasn’t the first person voted out. The Morgan tribe voted against Nicole Delma, seeing her as sneaky and manipulative. Ryan spent the next three days looking for his opportunity to prove himself. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to rise to the occasion, and once again Morgan lost the immunity challenge, largely because Ryan wasn’t able to keep up with the others. Despite Ryan’s tribemate Osten Taylor openly saying that he wanted to go home, Ryan was voted out by the majority alliance.
Alecia, Debbie, Joe and Tai find themselves right now in the Skinny Ryan spot. They stand out from their tribe. They look like they are going to be liabilities. Skinny Ryan was unable to change his position in the game. He may have survived one Tribal Council, but his luck ran out quickly. If you are immediately singled out as different, is there actually a way to change your fate?
Alecia is literally the Skinny Ryan of the Brawn tribe. Without getting to know her at all, Jason quickly dismissed her, saying “I have zero faith in that girl”. It was quickly established that Alecia would be the one going home if the Brawn tribe had to go to Tribal. She doesn’t have the strength that the rest of the tribe possess. And despite her protestation that she is a “mental giant”, puzzles aren’t really her thing either. The editors are enjoying showing us how ditzy she can be- and I laughed as hard as anyone when she tried to write with the pen lid still on. When it comes to challenges, or even in camp life, Alecia, like Skinny Ryan, isn’t contributing.
But being a challenge liability doesn’t necessarily get you voted out. Surprisingly, despite all of Alecia’s faults, it was Darnell who was sent home. While the episode didn’t entirely explain the reasoning behind it, I imagine that Alecia managed to survive one Tribal Council in much the same way that Ryan did- not because she played well, but because someone else was playing worse.
Ryan was saved when his ally Lill went to Savage and told him that Nicole wanted to vote out one of Savage’s allies. Ryan might have been physically weak and socially awkward, but at least, Savage felt like he was no threat. Nicole had presented herself as a threat, and therefore, it was more important that she was voted out. Savage could be sure that Skinny Ryan wasn’t going to be able to turn the tribe against him. Nicole was far more dangerous. In the same way, Alecia isn’t a threat. She probably will weaken them in challenges, but Jason has completely dismissed her ability to play the game. Darnell was a bigger threat. His tight alliance with Cydney made him dangerous. Alecia has nobody. So perhaps the best way to overcome an early social disadvantage is to make someone else the threat.
The biggest variable here is the tribe swap. In Pearl Islands, Savage and the Morgan tribe should have kept this in mind. There had been swaps on three of the past four seasons. Had there been a swap, Ryan knew that he was on the bottom of the Morgan tribe, and I believe that as a fan of the game, he would have quickly flipped. In the end, the Morgan tribe ended up losing the game because Lill flipped on them. Had she felt more accepted, more part of the group, the entire game would have changed. Ryan and Lill were obvious outsiders, but good players will try to disguise this. They will try and make the outsiders feel accepted. The Morgan tribe never tried.
The Brawn tribe aren’t trying either. Alecia doesn’t even get the dignity of a name. She’s referred to as “Blondie”. They couldn’t make her position in the tribe any more obvious. And unlike the game that was played in season seven, the Brawn tribe should be assuming that a tribe swap will happen. Unless they are planning on throwing a challenge to get rid of Alecia, which would be a risky strategy, especially as they are already one player down, then they will enter the tribe swap with a player that is guaranteed to flip on them. Survivor is a numbers game, and in one Tribal Council, the Brawn alliance lost two numbers. I think that if they had left Darnell in the game, then his relationship with Cydney would have been enough to keep him loyal. Alecia has no relationships with anyone. She’s a wild card, and she could prove very valuable to a tight alliance (the Beauty girls seem a natural fit). Of course, that assumes that Brawn can avoid Tribal Council. If not, then Alecia’s only real hope is that the same thing happens again- someone else presents themselves as a bigger threat.
Over on the Brains tribe, we have two people in the “Lill and Skinny Ryan” spot. Two people that are the obvious outsiders. Like Peter said, “Joe and Debbie are low-hanging fruit, so they’re going to be eaten first.” The four “children” of the tribe are banding together against the “parents”, and if nothing changes, then things don’t look good for Joe or Debbie. Fortunately for them, Brains seem to be the strongest tribe in the challenges. Neal has admitted on Twitter that he lost the goggles for the Brains, making Aubry’s diving performance seem even more impressive. Aubry and Liz absolutely blitzed that puzzle. Debbie and Joe could last longer than expected simply by avoiding Tribal Council. In Pearl Islands, Sandra was seen as the weakest member of the Drake tribe. Had they lost a challenge early in the game, she would likely have been the one sent home. But it was the Morgan tribe that continually lost the challenges, and so Sandra remained safe, going on to eventually win. Perhaps Nicole Cesternino will be proven right this season after all!
It is also encouraging that we saw signs of Debbie doing what Ryan should have done in season seven. She is trying to integrate herself into the group. She’s looking for opportunities. She isn’t just sitting around feeling sorry for herself, waiting to be voted out. When Aubry had a meltdown, Debbie was there, quick to comfort her. An act of kindness can go a long way in Survivor, and for someone like Aubry, who is feeling overwhelmed with the situation she has put herself in, having parental figures like Joe and Debbie around could prove reassuring.
Debbie and Joe are both making themselves useful around camp. They’re happy to build the shelter while the younger members of the tribe sit at the beach. We aren’t seeing scenes of them complaining about their situation, which I think is a good sign. In Pearl Islands, Lill and Ryan both struggled to fit in socially. Lill outlasted Ryan because she contributed more to camp life. While you can’t win the game just by being able to build a shelter, it’s not a completely useless skill. Neither of them is overtly threatening. Like Alecia on the Brawn tribe, they could easily be used to vote out a bigger threat. And if they are working hard, contributing in the challenges, and not complaining, then I think both of them will be able to make the tribe swap.
Then we have the Beauty tribe, which I found to be the most interesting to watch this week. The three girls immediately clicked. The three of them have so much in common and seem to have similar personalities and complimentary gameplans. Julia is happy to follow someone. Anna is happy to lead. Michele wants to play from the shadows. And the three of them very astutely realised that they are in the power position. The men of the tribe are too different to be able to work together.
What was interesting about this tribe is that when you look at them, Tai would seemingly be the one on the outs. And he recognised this as well, saying “Why am I here? You know, look at me, I’m bald, you know? Big head, bald, big ears, you know, skinny, little body…” Physically, Tai, like Ryan Shoulders, stands out. He shouldn’t be on this tribe. In the early game, where physical strength is paramount, he should be the easy first boot. For Caleb and Nick, he probably was. Caleb said, “I’m looking around at my Beauty tribe, and I’m sitting here kind of wondering to myself, why in the world is Tai on this tribe?”
But in a tribe where the three girls are in sync, it is the women, not the men, who will make the decision on who goes home. And their decision was an easy one- they liked Tai. They liked him because he was non-threatening. They liked the way that he spoke to them. They liked the way that he contributed around camp. Tai and Ryan Shoulders have a lot in common. They are both physically small, placed in a tribe full of muscle. But the way they differed was in their approach. Where Ryan couldn’t hide his awkwardness, Tai has approached the game confidently. And his confident approach won the women of the tribe over.
Just when everything was looking good for Tai, he was caught red-handed searching for the immunity idol, losing the trust of the women, and probably putting himself on the bottom of the tribe again. But if Tai goes home next week, it will be his actions, not his appearance, that were at fault. Tai had overcome the stigma of looking like the outsider. Losing the trust of the tribe was his own fault. And once you have proven to be untrustworthy, it is difficult to get yourself back into a good position.
Listening to Know-It-Alls this week, I was fascinated by Stephen Fishbach’s suggestion that once Tai was caught looking for the idol, the rest of the tribe said, “That paints a target on your back” simply because they had seen the show before. They knew that once you catch someone looking for an idol, you aren’t meant to trust them. Fishbach’s suggestion was that their words were simply what they knew they were expected to say, not necessarily what they were actually feeling. Do they actually feel threatened by Tai now? Anna did have a confessional where she told us that she no longer trusted him at all. If I was out there, I’d almost trust Tai more after seeing what a terrible liar he is. I think he’d be a great ally to have, because he is unable to lie convincingly. Also, Tai is just so unbelievably likable. With all due respect to former RHAP blogger Nick, and even to Beast Mode Cowboy, who I quite enjoyed watching, they don’t have the same spark to them. I think that the women want to ally with Tai because they want to spend time with him. We shall see if his likability can get him back into the women’s good graces.
Ryan Shoulders, after turning up to the beach on day one as an obvious outsider, was never able to get a foothold in the game and was voted out second. If you find yourself in this position, is there anything that you can actually do? Is there something that Alecia, Joe, Debbie or Tai can do? Well, it depends on the group. I’m much more confident in Tai’s ability to integrate into the Beauty tribe than I am in Alecia’s ability to integrate with the Brawns. I’m much more confident that Debbie or Joe can become the comfortable parent figure on the Brains tribe than I am that Alecia can become best buddies with Jason and Scot. Basically, for Alecia, I think her best chance is to hold on and hope she makes the tribe swap.
Ryan could possibly have done better in the game, had he put in the effort. He was convinced that the only way to redeem himself was to perform in the challenges, and that was just something that was beyond him. Meanwhile, Lill was working hard around the camp, and she was deemed more valuable than Ryan. Darrah Johnson, who was hardly contributing in the challenges either, was being friendly and making relationships with the power players. She was considered more valuable than Ryan. The best thing that an outsider can do is to try, to come in with the mindset that Survivor is a funny game. Things change all the time. That’s one thing that I do like about Alecia. She seems to be in a hopeless situation, but she keeps fighting. And so far, it has kept her alive. Debbie, Joe and Tai have all shown the same spirit. The audience loves to see the outsider fighting to remain in the game. And perhaps in season 32, instead of seeing the underdog go out at fourth, one of these outsiders can pull off the win.