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: Unpacking the Merge Boot
I do really like what Survivor was trying this season. And I think that it could have been really interesting- seeing three tribes all the way to the merge. I wouldn’t be annoyed if they tried it again. But in this instance, I think that it has led us to a really boring and straightforward merge, with a predictable boot, and I’m worried that we are being set up for an easy pagonging of the Healers tribe. Thankfully Dr Mike has his idol, and I’m sure that within a few hours of returning to camp Joe will have an idol as well, and perhaps that will shake things up slightly. But I am definitely worried that we are in for a really predictable few weeks.
I appreciate that there was a tribe swap and that the Survivor producers tried as hard as they could to force cross-tribal bonds with their transferrable advantages. I think that the show did all they could to try and ensure that the merge wasn’t just Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers. But in the end, the original tribe bonds remained strong. Funnily enough, it was the Healers, who hadn’t been to Tribal Council, who hadn’t had allegiances tested- it was the Healers who were the most loyal to each other. They were a tight group of five, looking for two people to join them, give them the numerical advantage, and then be disposed of when no longer necessary.
And I am so, so glad that Ben and Lauren decided not to be those people. Had Ben voted with the Healers tribe this week, his game would have been completely over. He has no relationship with Joe or Desi. He has an extremely tenuous relationship with Cole. And Dr Mike thinks that Ben is the biggest threat in the game. Betraying all of the Heroes and Hustlers just to join forces with a group that had absolutely no use for him would have been terrible gameplay. For Lauren, I’m not so sure. Lauren comes across as so unthreatening in the game that I don’t think the Healers would have turned on her. But by joining them, she would have given away any potential power in the game. I love Ben and Lauren- they are both such unique characters. I would have been devastated to see them make such a stupid move.
In an alliance of Heroes and Hustlers, Ben and Lauren have wiggle room. They have relationships. They aren’t just the disposable easy vote outs. And by voting with the Heroes and Hustlers, Ben didn’t have to vote out his secret alliance partner in Chrissy. Lauren has her original Hustlers, but she also solidifies her relationship with Ben. And they are in an alliance that has come together out of necessity– unlike the Healers who have a bond that has been there since the beginning of the game. To me, there’s no question about it– Ben and Lauren voted with the correct side. No issues with that at all.
What I do have a slight issue with is their chosen target. Not from a game perspective. Obviously, Jessica didn’t have an idol, and nobody played one for her, so it was the right move, but it is worrying for me as a viewer that another woman was sent home and that only two of the seven players eliminated before the merge were male (and Alan was the victim of an idol play). Alan and Patrick were both shown to be extremely flawed players, players that never had a shot of winning anyway. But the last three boots, Roark, Ali and Jessica– all of them competent players, all of them sent home seemingly by circumstances out of their control. And what is more worrying is that last time we saw a new player season– season 33, Millennials vs Gen X, the pre-jury followed a similar pattern. Nearly all of the female players in the game were eliminated before the merge. The merge boot was a female who was eliminated because the majority alliance were certain that she wouldn’t have an idol. I know, two seasons doesn’t exactly make a pattern, but it is unsettling nonetheless. Does modern Survivor favour male players?
After rewatching the episode, it is hard to see what Jessica really did wrong. She did have the confessional of death about being the queen bee. And perhaps she was a little overconfident, but there are certainly players out there making bigger mistakes than she is, yet it was Jessica who was sent home. I don’t think this is something that has always been true about the game, but I do think that recently Survivor has evolved to the point that being aligned with an alpha male is a really, really dangerous position for a young female player to be in. And that is why, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are only going back to season 28, Survivor: Cagayan, and the woman who almost became the merge boot- the eventual seventh-place finisher, Jefra Bland.
Cagayan was a Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty season, and Jefra was placed on the Beauty tribe, where she quickly found herself in a solid alliance with LJ McKanas and Alexis Maxwell. The three were able to convince Jeremiah Wood to join them, and together they had solid control of the Beauty tribe. During this time, LJ found the immunity idol on the Beauty beach. When the three tribes were merged into two, LJ and Jefra were together swapped to a tribe where they were in the minority. They found themselves with five members of the Brawn tribe, and they were worried about their position in the game.
Luckily for Jefra and LJ, the Brawn tribe certainly had their fair share of cracks. They hadn’t visited Tribal Council yet, and unlike the Healers from this season, they certainly weren’t one happy family. One of the Brawn tribe members, Tony Vlachos, immediately began making plans to eliminate his fellow Brawn member, Cliff Robinson. With Tony after Cliff, Jefra and LJ were safe. They joined Tony and his close allies Trish Hegarty and Woo Hwang to vote for Cliff. When Cliff was blindsided, his closest ally Lindsey Ogle was furious and decided to quit the game, leaving Jefra’s new tribe with five members. The five of them made a pact to be together at the merge, and when the merge hit, they stayed true to that. However, the rival alliance had six members, leaving Jefra again in a vulnerable position.
Jefra’s alliance did have one thing on their side– both LJ and Tony had immunity idols, and they planned to play them at the merge Tribal Council. The rival alliance had no idols, but they did have the numbers and they had a pretty strong feeling that Jefra’s alliance had at least one idol. The initial feeling was that the majority alliance should target Tony– he was arguably the biggest threat out there, and he was the one most likely to have an idol, but eventually, worried about the idol being played, the majority alliance settled on a target. They decided to vote for Jefra. Their reasoning was that nobody would see it coming. Nobody was going to play an idol for Jefra.
I think that Jefra was the first victim of this kind of vote– the kind of vote where she didn’t do anything wrong. Nobody was attacking her because she was annoying, or because she seemed like a threat. Her big mistake was to be aligned with flashier (male) players who likely had the idol. However, unlike Jessica, Jefra may have been targeted by the majority, but she made it through the merge tribal council, as her alliance was able to convince Kass McQuillen to flip, giving them the numbers. Jessica wasn’t the first person to be targeted this way, and unfortunately, I don’t think she’ll be the last. I think that Survivor is becoming harder and harder for women, from beginning to end.
In the pre-merge portion of the game, there was really one moment that Jefra felt she was in trouble, and that was when she and LJ were swapped onto a tribe with five Brawn members. At that moment, had the Brawn members decided to stick together, then it was likely that LJ would have been safe because he was valuable in challenges. And Jefra, as a young woman aligned with an alpha male, would have been sent home. It’s a common Survivor strategy. You are threatened by the alpha male, but you need the alpha male, so you send home his closest ally instead.
At the first Tribal Council, Alan was acting like a crazy person. Ashley and JP were threatening because they were a ‘power couple’, but only the women on the tribe were mentioned as possible targets. The Hustlers voted out Simone over Patrick because they needed Patrick’s strength. I know– most decisions in Survivor aren’t based on gender (unless you get the spectre of the famed ‘women’s alliance’, and I’m not even getting started on that). But in the pre-merge section, where the optimum strategy is to lay low and not call attention to yourself, women are often being voted out, whether they follow the optimum strategy or not. A male player (like a Ben) who stays low and makes friends is ignored, while a female player doing the same thing seems far more threatening. Chrissy identified Roark as smart because Roark was quietly playing under the radar. Chrissy saw her as a threat. JP is also laying low and not trying to ruffle (rustle) feathers. Nobody is threatened by JP. I think that every player comes in either benefiting or hampered by other people’s perceptions of them. And this season, in particular, the women seem to be coming across as untrustworthy, too smart, sneaky game players. The men (with the noticeable exception of Joe) have been able to avoid the same target.
Pre-merge, the perception is that the men are strong, the women are liabilities. Women are absolutely more likely to be eliminated in the Tribal portion of the game, when it is believed that they are less of an asset than the men. But even when you have men who clearly are not adding to the tribe’s challenge strength (Ryan has somehow gotten worse and worse every week), the tribe is still choosing to vote out women as the weak ones. Simone and Ryan were both terrible in the challenges, but Simone got sent home. Ryan was embraced into the core alliance. On a swapped tribe, strength doesn’t become as important, then you can go after threats (which is why Joe targeted Alan), and you vote out those that you don’t think are loyal. It is only in those first few votes that challenge strength means anything.
And then we get to the merge. And the trend in recent seasons has been to send a woman home as the merge boot. In Game Changers we had Hali Ford. Millennials vs Gen X saw Michelle Schubert go home in ridiculously similar circumstances to Jessica this season. Before that, we had Kaoh Rong, where a medevac postponed the first post-merge Tribal, but Aubry Bracco was the presumed target. And in Second Chances we saw Kass go to the jury. You have to go back to season 29– Survivor: San Juan Del Sur to find a season where the merge target was male– and in that case Julie McGee quit the game, making her the official merge boot anyway. The audience tends to think of the typical merge boot as being someone like Cole– a physically fit guy who is going to dominate in the challenges–but in modern Survivor, especially since Cagayan, tribes have been following the same logic, and looking for the Jefra, the woman who, in their minds, won’t possibly have an idol.
Going into this merge, I felt 90% sure that Desi was going to be the one going home because I figured that Joe would be the target and that Desi would be collateral damage. I didn’t count on Desi winning immunity, and I also didn’t realise that people would want to target Cole before Joe, but I did figure that the spectre of the idol would claim a female victim. And I can understand why it was Jessica– Joe has an idol. If he were to play it for someone else, he would play it for the most likely target, and that is Cole (although I think that both Ashley and Devon could vouch for the fact that Joe wasn’t going to play that idol for Cole. He’s too paranoid a player). Desi had immunity, and that left Jessica and Dr Mike. Firstly, Jessica is the stronger physical player of the two. But more importantly, I think that the Heroes and Hustlers recognised that Ben and Lauren would be more likely to vote with them against Jessica. Lauren especially seems to have some loyalty to Mike. And although Jessica has indicated in her exit press that she also felt close to Lauren, she clearly didn’t do as thorough a job as Mike at solidifying that relationship. I don’t think Jessica was targeted because as a woman, she would never have had an idol played for her. But I do think it is worrying that the female players are always the ones that find themselves in that position.
And now there are four women left: Ashley, Desi, Lauren and Chrissy. Having gotten through the pre-jury phase of the game, how do they play now? How can they get some control in the game? In Cagayan, Jefra never managed to take control of her own game. She continued to vote with Tony and her alliance, even when they turned on LJ. Even when the minority alliance offered her the chance to flip with them and change the game, she decided to stick with her numbers. And because of that, she was easily blindsided when Tony gathered the minority alliance with him and voted Jefra out of the game. Jefra’s game plan seemed to be to be the sweet young girl with a strong social game and hope that her loyalty was rewarded. She didn’t take notice of the threats within her alliance but played her own game. And I don’t think it would have won her the million. Even if she hadn’t been voted out, I think Jefra would have struggled to make any kind of case to the jury.
Can any of our remaining women outdo Jefra? Let’s start with Desi. Desi now finds herself in the minority alliance. She’s proven herself as a physical threat by winning immunity. She does, however, have several threats within her alliance that should shield her. Surely Joe and Cole will be targeted before Desi will be. The only worry here is that what happened to Jessica could very well happen to Desi, and as the numbers are still very close, and splitting the vote is risky, the majority may decide to target Desi just in case Joe has another idol. If Desi manages to stay in the game, then she absolutely must start building relationships with the Heroes and the Hustlers. We saw her talking with Ashley and Devon at the Levu beach, but she never tried to work with them at the merge. She doesn’t have any cross-tribal alliances, and she will need them going forward. Unfortunately, I think that Desi is another Jefra, and she’ll be voted out when her alliance doesn’t need her anymore.
The other three women have a little more power– they all voted with the majority. They also have alliances across more than just their original tribe, and that gives them options. The person with the most immediate options in the game is Lauren. She’s the one who has a relationship with those in the minority. She’s the one who could possibly fashion a new alliance together, one that she is at the centre of. Otherwise, I think that Lauren is at the bottom of the Heroes/Hustler alliance. And unless she makes a move, she might just finish in the Jefra spot and go out seventh.
Ashley and Chrissy, who were on the original Heroes tribe, are in a better spot. Not only are they voting with the majority, but they are both at the centre of this new alliance. Ashley has close bonds with both JP and Devon. Through those two, she is connected to Chrissy and Ryan. That’s a pretty solid group of five. Unlike Jefra, who was always at the mercy of her alliance, Ashley and Chrissy are taking a much more active role in the game, but both women are playing very differently. Ashley isn’t threatening. She’s trying hard in the immunity challenges, but otherwise staying out of trouble. She isn’t trying to dictate strategy, or influence the vote. She’s just trying to call as little attention to herself as possible, and as long as she makes her move eventually, and has something to talk about at Final Tribal Council, Ashley could be in a position to win.
And then there’s Chrissy, the most polarizing person out there. Chrissy is the opposite of Ashley, calling attention to herself at every opportunity. Chrissy wants to be involved in strategy. She wants to be calling the shots and dictating the vote. She’s not going to allow herself to be Jefra. Whoever votes Chrissy out of the game won’t do it because it is the easy vote. And if Chrissy gets to the end, she’ll have a case. She’s already got moves that she can point to– and she is one of only a few people that can say that. But does that make a winning game? Because Chrissy has definitely made mistakes. All of the pre-jury exit press has indicated that Chrissy doesn’t have strong social bonds out there, particularly with women. This jury is going to be almost entirely male, and Chrissy does relate better to the male players, so this may not be a problem. But if Chrissy is going to win the game, and I think she can, then she needs to stop seeing the other players as chess pieces and start relating to them on a human level. I think that the game is intrinsically harder for someone of Chrissy’s archetype, and perhaps part of her coldness towards other players is a conscious effort not to be seen as the mother of the tribe. But at the end of the day, the jury will vote for the player they like the most. Chrissy needs to make sure that she has a chance at that title.