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: Death of the Mom Squad
I had been excited for the premiere of season 35, and I don’t think I was the only one who felt a little let down by that first episode. Without the 90-minute opening, we just didn’t get a sense of the characters at all. The marooning felt flat, and the tribal council, despite production and the editors doing everything that they possibly could to spice it up, was a completely straightforward, unanimous vote for the obvious target– a woman who received so little airtime that it was impossible to care whether or not she remained in the game.
Maybe I’ve just been spoilt by how good Australian Survivor has been during the offseason. As an aside, if you have yet to watch this season of Australian Survivor, do it now. Seriously, it is a heck of a time commitment, but you won’t regret it. It is amazing. And now, any Survivor episode that does not include a game of Survivor charades is sure to be a disappointment. I think I’ve just gotten used to every tribal being a blindside, and the game being played at a frenetic pace– and this season felt much more like old-school Survivor. Most of the players were seen building shelter, competing in challenges, and doing very little else. Look at the players who have been the ‘first one out’ in recent seasons– Nadiya Anderson, So Kim, Vytas Baskauskas, Darnell Hamilton… In recent seasons, tribes haven’t been afraid of voting out their strength. But the decision to get rid of Katrina was made based purely on keeping the tribe strong.
There are two schools of thought here. The first is the old school thought– the way we saw the Heroes playing this week. In old-school thought, the physically strong players are safe. Alan can feel free to act as crazy as he likes. He can strip search JP, freak Ashley out…It doesn’t matter because he is strong. In old-school thought, you keep the tribe strong and keep winning the challenges, and some seasons, this works. If you have a tribe that can be united, then it is in your best interests to avoid Tribal Council, and ensure that your tribe stays in the game.
And then there’s the new-school thought, the school of thought that votes out the strong. This school of thought says that avoiding Tribal Council isn’t the aim of the game. In fact, if you can decimate your tribe, and still survive to the merge, you will find yourself in a strong position. If you go to Tribal Council often, you solidify the bond with your allies. You vote out anyone that might possibly flip on you. If you are playing a new-school game, then you keep Katrina. You either vote out Alan for being erratic or Ashley for being a threat. Tribal strength doesn’t matter in the new-school game.
The Heroes have gone the old-school route. It will be interesting to see if the other tribes follow suit. Is the game going to continue in the same vein? Are all the physically weaker players doomed? If they are, then Chrissy, who happens to be my winner pick, is doomed. Vomiting after the first challenge was not a good look. And now, with Katrina gone, Chrissy is far and away the weakest member of the Heroes tribe. If she wants to survive, then she needs to change the direction of the game completely.
Of course, she had the chance to change the game completely at Tribal Council. Thanks to Ryan, Chrissy was in possession of an idol that she could play for anyone she chose after the votes were read. Katrina was portrayed as Chrissy’s only ally on the tribe. She absolutely could have saved Katrina and sent one of the bigger threats home. Ultimately, she chose not to. She voted with the group, sending her ally home. Did she make the right decision? To take a deeper look into her decision, we are taking this week’s lesson in Survivor history from season two, Survivor: Australia, and the eventual winner, Tina Wesson. Early on in her game, Tina had a similar decision to make. Like Chrissy, she chose to sacrifice her ally. Tina was able to use this decision to catapult herself into a power position, and ultimately win the game. Can Chrissy do the same?
In season two, Tina began on the Ogakor tribe. Similar to the situation on the Heroes this season, the younger members of the Ogakor tribe formed a tight alliance. At 40, Tina was considered one of the older women (the Mom Squad had yet to be invented), and so she found that she was on the outside of this alliance. She formed a bond with quirky retired police officer, Maralyn “Mad Dog” Hershey.
When Ogakor lost the second immunity challenge, they voted out Kel Gleason, who was the tribe outsider. Kel hadn’t really formed any social bonds and didn’t have the ability to keep himself in the game. This left Ogakor as a tribe of seven, with the younger alliance (Jerri Manthey, Amber Brkich, Mitchell Olson and Colby Donaldson) firmly in control. Tina and Maralyn, along with 40-year-old Keith Famie, were on the outs. On day nine, Ogakor once again lost immunity. Maralyn, Tina’s close friend and ally, was the target of the younger alliance, primarily because she was considered the weakest member of the tribe. Maralyn and Tina were extremely close. Maralyn famously called Tina “a constellation”, and explicitly said that Tina was the one that she trusted most. Maralyn would have been an extremely loyal ally for Tina had they gone forward together in the game. But ultimately, not only did Tina not fight for her ally, at Tribal Council, Tina joined the younger alliance in voting against her. Maralyn was sent home with five votes. Keith was the only member of the tribe who did not vote for her.
From this point, it would seem that Tina was in an impossible position. She had lost her closest ally. She was on a tribe of six, with only one ally left in the game. But instead of this being the end of Tina’s game, this was the point that Tina was able to put herself in a winning position. Tina and Keith became closer than ever, and the two of them would remain in an unbreakable alliance until the end of the game when Keith was voted out in third place. But Tina was able to do more than just solidify her bond with Keith. She was also able to replace Maralyn with another tight alliance, an alliance with someone who was going to take her further in the game. An alliance with Colby Donaldson.
By convincing Colby that he should be voting with the good people (aka Tina), and not align with the people who ‘didn’t deserve to win’ (aka Jerri, Mitchell, and Amber), Tina created for herself the game’s most powerful alliance. Tina was able to replace Maralyn with someone far, far more valuable. Colby was the most powerful person in the tribe– the Ogakor tribe was on a losing streak, and they needed someone with Colby’s strength. Colby’s position in the game was absolutely secure, and by aligning herself with Colby, Tina was able to put herself in the nucleus of power. Colby and Tina were 100% loyal to each other, with Colby being so loyal to Tina that he eventually chose to go to the end with her, despite the fact that he was guaranteed to win the game against Keith, who was disliked by many on the jury. Tina was able to switch out one ally who was physically, socially and strategically weak, for an ally who was able to take her through to the end.
And now we see Chrissy in a similar spot. Just as Tina and Maralyn were the two ‘older women’ on Ogakor, and found themselves outside of the main alliance as a result, Chrissy and Katrina were initially ostracised by their tribes also. Just as Tina decided to vote against Maralyn, Chrissy made the decision to go with her tribe and vote against Katrina. And just as Tina turned to a cowboy to save her game, it looks as though Chrissy is going to attempt to find her Colby in Ben. There are a lot of similarities.
Of course, the main difference is that Tina didn’t really have any power when Maralyn was voted out. The relationship that she developed with Colby took time to form. Besides, would Colby have been so happy to join with Tina if it was clear that Maralyn would be Tina’s closest ally? At the point that Maralyn was voted off, Tina voted with the majority out of a sense of self-preservation. While she was able to use the moment to her advantage, I think that if she could have saved Maralyn, she would have. However, Maralyn was just too much of a physical liability to convince anyone to keep her around. Ogakor didn’t want to keep losing the challenges, and if they wanted to win, they had to vote Maralyn out.
Chrissy could have saved Katrina. She had the super idol in her pocket. Physical strength and winning challenges is no longer as important as it was in season two, not when tribe swaps are to be expected. She could have saved her but chose not to. And just as Tina getting Maralyn out was crucial to her success in the game, I think that Chrissy made the right decision here. Anchoring herself to Katrina would have been terrible for Chrissy’s chances in the game.
I mean, the rest of the tribe called them the ‘Mom Squad’. That has to be the worst name for an alliance ever. Nobody is going to take the ‘Mom Squad’ seriously. Also, nobody is going to let the ‘Mom Squad’ play the game. A mom can’t be involved in blindsides. A mom can’t betray. A mom can’t lie. Unfortunately for Katrina and Chrissy, the older woman spot is definitely not where you want to be. Worst case scenario, you get voted out first. Best case scenario, you end up as a Final Tribal Council goat. Of the ‘mom’ figures who have won the game, you have Sandra Diaz Twine, who won the game just by being Sandra, and you have Tina and Denise Stapley, both of whom won the game by aligning with younger men who were physical threats. I don’t think it is a coincidence that all three women won the game while underplaying their role as a mother. The mother is just not a winning game. By aligning with Katrina, Chrissy would have been allowing herself to get pigeonholed in the fatal mom role. If Chrissy wanted to be taken seriously as a player, she needed to get away from Katrina.
I also think that making herself into an obvious couple would have been the wrong move. From what we saw, Chrissy and Katrina didn’t really have any early strategic conversations. In fact, from exit interviews, we have learnt that they were nowhere near as close as they were portrayed on the show. There was very little trust between them, despite the edit telling us that they were a solid pair. In that tribe, Chrissy knows that Alan is paranoid. She knows that Alan is scared of ‘power couples’. If she plays an idol for Katrina, they automatically become a couple in the game. And for Chrissy to be stuck playing with someone that she doesn’t trust–whom the rest of the tribe thinks is a little kooky, and on top of that, someone who the tribe has dismissed as just a mom– well, Chrissy might as well pack up and leave now, because in that scenario, she has zero percent chance of winning the game.
So Chrissy made the right decision. Playing her super idol, and throwing her lot in with Katrina would have been suicide for her game. But what does she do next? Well, she needs to follow Tina’s lead. Tina found herself a Colby, and Chrissy needs to do the same. Chrissy needs a new alliance. For the next Tribal Council, Chrissy should be in a good spot. JP and Ashley are a pair, and Alan and Ben are a pair. Chrissy is nicely placed in the middle. She chooses which pair move forward in the game. She’s made herself powerful in the short term. But to get to the end, she’s going to need to find people that she can trust. Is there anyone in the heroes tribe that could be that person?
If I was in Chrissy’s spot, I’d be trying to ride it out to a tribe swap. She needs someone who is a rational and logical player. I actually think that Ashley would be a good partner for Chrissy- and I really, really hated Ashley from the preseason. If Ashley hadn’t attached herself to JP, then they would make a great pair. But right now, Chrissy isn’t in any danger. Had she played the idol, she would be target number one. But by laying low and throwing herself in with the majority– and assuming the Heroes aren’t the new Matsing, and do actually win some challenges– Chrissy should have done enough to get herself to the next phase of the game. And once she gets to the tribe swap, nobody should be coming after Chrissy. She’ll have some breathing space– and some room to find her Colby and set herself up for the end game.
As for the rest of the Heroes tribe, their next move depends on their challenge performance. If they lose the next challenge, then the four stronger players should probably join together to vote Chrissy out. But if they can avoid Tribal Council even once, getting themselves closer to that all-important tribe swap, then they can afford to go after a bigger threat. And Ashley, JP, and Alan all did a great job of establishing themselves as threats this week. Ashley and JP should have been smart enough to attempt to mask their closeness– a pair on Survivor is always going to be a dangerous thing, and a romantic pairing is more dangerous still. Plus, Alan’s paranoia and insistence on having control is always going to be threatening. I was really impressed with Ben, who managed to get himself in a good position without seeming to be an imminent threat.
And then there are the other two tribes. If they are to follow the lead of the Heroes and vote out their weakest members, then each tribe has people who are obviously weaker than others. For the Healers, the weakest member is Dr. Mike. And, handily for the other members of the tribe, not only is he the weakest, but he is also the least trustworthy. I mean, the guy wears glasses! I found the juxtaposition interesting between Dr. Mike, who was distrusted by his tribe from the beginning, and Ryan, his fellow skinny superfan, who has found himself a solid strategic partner in Devon and seems to be settling into the game well. It just goes to show how much of the game can be attributed to luck. Being with the right people is luck. And in this game, winning the challenges requires a fair bit of luck too. Had the Heroes picked an easier table maze, then Katrina doesn’t go home, the Mom Squad lives to fight another day, and Chrissy is probably headed for an early boot. I loved this twist, though, and I wish they would give the contestants more choices in challenges.
I love this show and don’t want to be too negative. I still think that as a wise man once said, Survivor is like pizza– even when it isn’t at its best, it’s still good. But I think that this cast has so much potential to be better than that premiere. I hope that the game and the show will pick up a little, that the next Tribal Council isn’t quite so straightforward. Most of all, I hope that we get a few more character moments. I loved this cast in the preseason. I’d like to get to know the people playing the game. Simone, who was one of the standouts in the preseason interviews, hasn’t had a confessional yet. I’d love to hear her thoughts on the rest of her tribe, or her position in the game. But so far, we have spent a lot of time with the Heroes, and while we understand their alliances, I’m not sure we understand who they are as people. When we have characters whom we care about, who are playing the game hard, then that’s the recipe for a good season of Survivor. And of course, a game of Survivor charades wouldn’t hurt either.