It’s been a slow build, but there’s finally been enough happening on San Juan Del Sur that I feel compelled to break my vow of silence. (Thank God, I didn’t take Cagayan off—I wouldn’t have lasted past week one.) Technically, I broke my silence last week, when I helped Dom Harvey achieve his dream of reclaiming the Dom and Colin Podcast for Queen and Country. If you listened to that, I’ll be covering some of the same points in this blog though hopefully with more coherency. (For those who avoided that podcast like the plague, we can only pray that Colin returns this week.) The other disclaimer to bear in mind is that I haven’t been watching the secret scenes this season, except for the past couple of weeks. If you feel I have omitted a key point that was revealed in those, please explain in the comments.
San Juan Del Sur has been a very strange season. Thanks to the blood vs. water element, half the players were recruited by production, and half of the remainder were recruited by the member of their family who actually wanted to play. Then there’s Corinne’s observation that there aren’t any real stand out brains on this season. Being less brutal than Corinne, I’ll note that the cast is quite intelligent enough (well, most of them), but we’re lacking the over-thinkers that populated Cagayan. (Even more tragically, we’re missing the wit too. There’s nobody who can give the one-liners in confessional.)
That was what we started with: a season of too many indians and not enough chiefs. Since then, the bigger personalities and/or people who had a longterm familiarity with the show have been dropping like flies, while the superfans have either been edited out or kicking their heels with little opportunity to go to Tribal Council and play—Josh being the notable exception up until the tribe swap. In this climate, those with the most casual knowledge of Survivor but the right amount of luck have not only thrived, but become the power players.
Thus played out the pre-merge, and thus Julie’s quit ended up working out to rather a fantastic effect. In such a slow building season, it’s only appropriate to spend the merge episode building up the stakes and save the question of who comes out on top for next week. It’s probably also just as well for the players, many of whom will need the few extra days to figure out the different angles… It’s not so good for two people who didn’t need the extra time.
Josh and Reed – The Couple of Power Players
Uniquely on this season, Josh and Reed were the superfan team who would each have gladly applied on an individual basis. Reed’s been watching longer, but when it comes to knowledge of Survivor and enthusiasm for the game, it seems like there’s not much to choose between them—yet their results from the pre-swap stage of the game were almost totally different. Josh became the lynchpin of Coyopa, the one person everybody wanted to be with, and who everybody kept on trusting. He had a wobble at his first Tribal Council where he overthought things and cast a vote against his secret ally, but otherwise, he was positioned exactly as he wanted to be for the impending Tribal Swap… his only problem was that he was in the minority tribe, but luckily for him, the swap put him on the tribe with Reed, so the Hunahpu majority was not a concern.
It’s trickier to understand Reed’s progress, because we’ve seen him talk to Jeff more than to his tribemates. Drew described him as stirring up drama, and we got a small taste of this when he told tales on Keith. Natalie certainly doesn’t hold him in high esteem. I’m not sure that I trust Drew’s conviction that Reed was an early target, but I do think it’s significant that Reed joined Josh’s alliance after the tribe swap and not the other way around.
Has Reed’s game negatively impacted Josh’s? If everybody on Hunahpu saw Reed as a schemer, it would be natural for them to distrust Josh until convinced otherwise. Josh was almost at Kim Spradlin levels of love and trust on Coyopa (admittedly a younger-skewing tribe), but their opinions are in the minority nowadays, and it doesn’t help when their loved ones are counseling them against him.
Of course, in a blood vs. water season, the playing field is leveled against the super fans anyway, because there are elements in play that we have never seen in a Survivor season before. Josh and Reed are at the disadvantage because up until the merge, they had no experience of playing with pairs. Back on Coyopa, Josh found Baylor to be exactly as you’d expect a twenty year old recruit whose priorities include maintaining her nail polish. He could be her lifeline in the game and win her vote with little effort. In Huyopa, Missy is her lifeline. Josh failed to understand that when he tried to tuck her back under his wing. He would have fared better if he had worked on a bond with her mother.
Josh and Reed are still in a good spot, but they’re going to have to wrap their heads around the unprecedented pair dynamics of this merged tribe if they want to keep control of the game.
Missy and Baylor; Jon and Jaclyn – The Accidental Power Couples
One of the oddities of the tribe swap is how it advantaged two couples who (I would guess) were not watching Survivor this time last year. No doubt they studied up on it before they went (as evidenced by Jon’s observation that he and Jaclyn are still allowed to date each other), and thankfully they’ve played it more low-key than Cagayan’s Garrett, but who thought that this foursome would have such a huge influence on the merge dynamics?
The pre-swap episodes were a little more predictable, at least as far as Jon, Jaclyn and Baylor were concerned. Jon thought he was in a dominant position until he found himself out of the loop at his first tribal council. Jaclyn was in the minority from day one, sliding by behind bigger targets, while Baylor got herself grandfathered into the dominant alliance but appears to have annoyed so many people on it that she was the alternate for every vote split and seemed destined to be booted ahead of Jaclyn. (We should probably commend Jaclyn for her social game—sometimes simply being inoffensive can get you a long way.)
Alone of this grouping, Missy seemed to flourish. She had the luck that her tribe wasn’t going to Tribal Council, but in those early days she played one of the best social games out there. She fed the hungry, she comforted the bereft, and essentially played the mother hen role to the hilt until she had formed bonds with everybody on her tribe. While Josh and Natalie also get credit for making friends and not enemies, one was in the minority and the other lost her loved one: alone of the players, Missy should have been safe with any draw in the tribe swap.
It was thanks to Missy’s social game that this foursome was able to seize control of their new tribe. Dale and Kelley probably weren’t booted so much for being superfans as because Dale was clashing with Baylor and Kelley had originally targeted Jon instead of Drew (the latter information helpfully passed on by Missy.) Still, with those two out of the way, the power couple casuals entered the merge in a better spot.
The current difference between the two couples is the adversity they have faced. Missy has never been in danger, and Baylor has always had somebody’s protection. Jon and Jaclyn are well aware how the luck of the draw (literally!) got them to the merge. This insecurity makes them rethink every decision and keep their options open. They listen to everybody and have proven willing to switch alliances without notice… This isn’t necessarily a good thing.
What has been notable about their swing vote status is that they only look at the options presented to them. As much as they say they have to think long term, they don’t have a long term goal of their own—they’re eternally supporting somebody else’s plan. They’re an attractive voting bloc, and this will keep them around for a few votes longer, but sooner or later their flexibility is going to become the biggest variable in a stronger player’s plans, and that’s when they’ll be blindsided.
Missy’s confidence is potentially even more dangerous. Obviously, she mishandled the Keith situation. I agree with Rob’s point on Know It Alls that she needed to talk to Keith one on one, so that they could talk openly without fear of revealing too much to their allies.
Still, Missy must be aware that she has lost Keith, so perhaps this will be a lesson learned. Will she also understand where she went wrong with Julie? I’ve already said that Missy played Mother Hen on her original tribe to great effect, but now she has her daughter on the same tribe, and on multiple occasions she has made it obvious that Baylor is her priority in the game. Much like Josh, Missy seems to have underestimated the shift in dynamics now that most of the contestants are playing as pairs. With Baylor around, Missy’s assurances that she would be Julie’s loved one could never ring true. Missy should have got Natalie or Jeremy to make that offer—though it’s doubtful either of them put the earlier groundwork in with Julie.
Missy was right to tell Baylor that you need to be a little phony in this game, but Baylor is making it harder for Missy to come off as sincere. Baylor herself seems to have handed control of her game over to her mother while she focuses on touching up her nail polish with the flag paint. Considering Baylor’s social game thus far, that might be the most practical move, but the most effective tandems on Survivor are the ones who combine their social skills, each befriending different demographics within their tribe.
Both women entered the merge in a strong position—and neither have realized that they have been demoted to the minority. They’re going to need to step up their game to get some power back… but perhaps they’ll have a little help from some stronger allies…
Jeremy and Natalie – Twinnies 2.0
This season’s most significant twist of fate is the fact that Jeremy is a twin, which might have been behind Natalie’s first episode declaration that he was her designated Twinnie. With their loved ones going out first and second, and with the pair of them the only ethnic minorities left in the game, they had a lot to bond them together, and that’s resulted in the tightest non-loved one alliance of the game.
Their great advantage is that with so many pairs around, their partnership is easily overlooked. I don’t know how careful they are being to downplay their friendship, but it’s always going to be harder to worry about Jeremy and Natalie than it is Josh and Reed—note that even Josh describes Jeremy as a single entity, the firefighter dad, while he lumps himself and Reed together.
Jeremy and Natalie can’t trust each other 100% like Josh and Reed can, but it makes so little sense for either to work against the other, that they can effectively trust each other. All they really lose by not being loved ones is a target and a little complacency.
Or so goes the theory. In practice, Josh and Reed have identified Jeremy as their biggest threat. As the only superfan outside of their alliance—the only superfan older than them—he knows the beats of the game, when to make connections and when to put targets on others. If they can take him out, then they should stand head and shoulders above everybody else in gameplay.
Yet I do not agree with Josh and Reed’s assessment. I think Jeremy’s a definite threat, but he shouldn’t be their only focus right now. While Jeremy positioned himself well and made lots of alliances, how many tight connections does he have? His alliance with Missy and Baylor has more to do with Natalie. Who was excited to see Jeremy again at the merge? Whose vote can Jeremy sway—because it certainly wasn’t him telling Natalie how to vote at their only Tribal Council.
And then there’s the hidden immunity idol. Jeremy had the same clue as John Rocker, yet if he went looking, we never heard about it. At the very least, he should have made a push to find it before Keith came back from Exile Island—he should have assumed that Keith would get or see a clue that would be even clearer. Once Keith did come back, Jeremy could have approached him and offered to help him find it. It seems that he didn’t, which makes his complaints that Keith should have approached him about a sub-alliance disingenuous at best. Getting so angry about that situation was not a good sign for his overall game—and we are already seeing the consequences of alienating Keith.
For that matter, what happened to Natalie’s (and Baylor’s) search for the idol? Their clue was not as helpful as Jeremy’s, suggesting that the new idol is buried ten (paces?) from the tribal flag but not in which direction. As the flag is so close to camp, it’s going to be difficult for anybody to dig around without raising suspicion. The two women have had a good long time to look, but probably very few opportunities, and I don’t think they’ll be finding it.
Still, let’s not gloss over what Jeremy has done right. While his attack on John Rocker was emotion-driven, he did a great job of whipping his tribe into a frenzy, particularly Natalie, and letting them make the scene at the immunity challenge. His effort to align with John to protect Val was worth a try, as was his attempt to woo Alec. And he was quick to reconnect with former allies Missy and Jon this episode. (Did he remember to also connect with their loved ones?) We see from a secret scene this week that Jeremy is very much aware of the numbers.
But so is Natalie. The Amazing Race recruit is almost certainly not a long term fan of Survivor, but she’s competitive and is determined to learn. In this pair, Jeremy is most likely the mentor figure, but I would give the edge to Natalie’s social game. Missy speaks of her very fondly and while there’s no evidence to suggest Natalie and Baylor have formed a particular bond, they did spend time together at Exile Island, which means Natalie has talked to both halves of that pair about their future together, instead of just the one she knows. If Natalie loses Jeremy, she can form a strong threesome with Missy and Baylor, and still have a shot at the finals. She would probably struggle without the firefighter’s strategic knowledge, but she’s bright enough that she could make it. If Jeremy loses Natalie any earlier than final four, I don’t think he’s got the social bonds to get to the end.
The other way in which I prefer Natalie’s game to Jeremy’s is that she is so aggressive. She’s not got the subtlety you want to see in a truly great Survivor player, but being willing to speak up at the right moment is a good thing. Go back to episode four of One World when Colton came up with the hare-brained plan to hand over tribal immunity. Reportedly, production told them that it had to be a unanimous decision. In confessionals, a full half of the tribe (including bootee, Bill) admitted they didn’t like the idea, but not one of them had the nerve to protest it or to compare notes with their tribemates. Suffice it to say Natalie will not be making that mistake.
Being outspoken can backfire… insisting on flint over fishing gear worked out, volunteering for Exile Island seems to have paid off in dividends, and even the John Rocker fight—while not directly strategic—could potentially have helped Natalie’s reputation: juries appreciate somebody who stood up to a villain. Yet every time she sticks her neck out, she’s putting a target on her back. One of these days, discretion will prove to be the better part of valor.
For now however, Natalie’s inexperience is tempering her game, and wearing her emotions on her sleeve has won her more friends than Jeremy’s cool reserve. Perhaps Jeremy would have fared better on a season with more experienced fans, but it looks like in the climate of San Juan Del Sur, Natalie is the one who is thriving.
Of course, if Natalie and Jeremy can’t figure out that Jon and Jaclyn have flipped, it won’t matter which of them has the stronger game, because neither of them will be making their case to the jury.
However, if they do turn the tables, they will become the pair to beat, and I have to say a Natalie and Jeremy battle before the jury could be very interesting. He’s got the experience and the qualifications, but she’s smart and charismatic enough to present her own case—one that would most likely defy conventional jury tactics, but that is sometimes a good thing. I am inclined to give the edge to Natalie who has appeared to have a stronger social game, but it’s too early to call.
Alec, Wes, and Keith – Falling Through the Cracks
One of the oddities of the merge episode was everybody’s total lack of interest in Alec. Judging by their secret scene, Jeremy and Natalie have given up on wooing him over, but equally, Jon and Jaclyn seemed unfazed by his inclusion in a couples alliance. Indeed, exactly why is Alec agreeing to go along with an alliance founded on protecting pairs?
The obvious answer is that Alec makes a great swing. It’s very possible that both Josh and Wes have individually promised him final three deals if he joins up with their pair. It’s also possible that Wes fully expected his dad to be voted off before the merge and has been grooming Alec as his post-merge buddy. Quite honestly, we have no idea what Wes has been getting up to, since he’s had the most invisible edit of the longterm fans, but luckily, I am well practiced in
fanfiction logical conjecture.
Whatever Wes’ game is, it’s probably under-rated. Nobody’s worrying about him as a threat, he’s good physically, he seems to be generally liked—or at least he’s not making any known enemies, which still elevates him above ninety percent of the cast. If he has a fault, I would guess that he’s a little wary of making a move. Just as Reed fell into the classic newbie trap of overplaying his hand, it’s likely Wes is playing a little too cautious and might well hold off on making his move until it’s too late.
But one of the best things that Wes has going for him is that he and his father are the one pair off the radar. Perhaps it’s because—unlike the other pairs—they have been working as singletons up until this point. Perhaps it’s because their relationship is less obviously close than the others’. I don’t think for a moment that anybody has forgotten Wes and Keith are a pair, but they’re seen as the least of the pairs. (Even in the immunity challenge, Natalie realized that she had been underestimating the father and son.)
Keith is much more a casual fan than his son, but we can’t forget that Wes lives at home, so it is safe to assume that Keith has seen every season. He’s probably missed episodes here and there, he almost certainly has never re-watched a season, but he should have entered this game in the erroneous comfort that he knew as much about Survivor as anybody could.
Out of this group of players, Keith has had the most airtime, so we know he’s realized that this game is harder than it looks, and he’s been able to benefit from its slow build. His idol stayed hidden until he managed to secure himself a clue. His experience in warning the group that Jeremy might have an idol has (hopefully) taught him that not all allies are created equal. A vote split showed him what happens if you take naps before Tribal Council.
Despite his bumbling social game, it should be noted that Coyopa talked to him about that vote split the morning after. There were no post-Tribal Council fireworks, and while Keith asked a few pointed questions, he did not let things get personal. After Keith won immunity, Jon was still able to speak fondly of him.
Keith has let others figure out the alliances, and most of his social game has been providing for the tribe, but he is looking ahead and is aware that things are going to get harder. There’s no evidence that he has a long term strategy, but perhaps he’s leaving that to Wes. The pair of them—three, if they’re planning on staying a unit with Alec—have an idol and—for now—the numbers. Oddly enough, as things stand, this would be our most likely final three, since I think Alec would pick Wes and Keith rather than Josh and Reed come final five.
Of course, the game can easily change in three days, and if Jon and Jaclyn flip back, then Alec, Wes, and Keith are in the minority. Do any of them have the social chops to pull a turnaround at that point? I can conjecture all I like, but we’ve seen no evidence that this group is pulling anybody over—that’s Josh and Reed’s job. But they are hardly threatening, and once Josh and Reed are gone, it’s very likely Jon and Jaclyn become bigger targets.
Assuming the status quo is changing next episode and Jeremy’s side will come out on top, I expect at least one of Alec, Wes, or Keith to fall through the cracks, and the most likely candidate for that is Keith. If he and Wes can advertise themselves as the new swing couple, or sell Missy and Baylor on the dangers of single players, the pair of them could last long enough to make a grab for power—or to give Keith a crisis over whether to play his idol for himself or his son. If not, young superfan Wes will probably be the biggest target, leaving Alec and Keith rattling around as somebody’s numbers.
This is where anybody who, like me, cherishes every moment that Keith has on screen, can take heart. In a scenario where Wes, Josh and Reed are voted off, Keith knows the game better than anybody else left with the exception of Jeremy. He’s in that sweet spot of being likeable without being obviously popular, challenge capable without being young and buff. And he still has an idol. Alec might find himself at the end, but I don’t see Alec getting the votes to win. Wes doesn’t have the edit to do so, but Keith? If the casuals are to inherit the game, then the long-term casual could be their king.
(The epilogue to this scenario will be Wes’ appearance on Reddit: “I lost to my dad on Survivor, and I will never hear the end of it. AMA”)
A Better Blood vs. Water
Whether or not I get my dream of a Keith win (Natalie would also be acceptable), I find myself enjoying this season, more so in fact that the original Blood vs. Water. It’s ridiculously unfair because the original was technically a better season—it certainly had a better cast (on average) and better gameplay. But Blood vs. Water was so terribly edited. They managed to leech all the tension out of Aras’ dramatic, game-changing blindside, and Tyson’s coronation edit made his win a foregone conclusion a few episodes later. It also suffered from the veterans vs. newbies set up and the irritant of Redemption Island. Despite its lackluster cast, San Juan Del Sur has fewer handicaps than its predecessor.
Besides that, for all its strengths as a Survivor season, Blood vs. Water never lived up to its twist’s potential. It was being played by veterans and loved ones who were more prepared to deal with the emotions. By chance, it also had a post-merge game that was dominated by the single players, and not one of the finalists had a loved one on the jury. The pre-jury Redemption Island stuff was great, and we had Ciera write her mother’s name down (though Laura would have gone home anyway) but that was the extent of it.
What San Juan Del Sur has going for it are the four pairs and three singles going through to the jury phase. The cast isn’t as aggressive and certainly not as funny as Tyson and Co, but they’re an affable group, and they are, by default, playing a game of Survivor unlike any we’ve seen before. This time, the blood vs. water theme is likely to play out right up to the final episode. I’m not expecting any great innovations of gameplay, but I’m fascinated to see how the social dynamics evolve and devolve as the pairs fight out an individual game. Just, please, no more Jeff visits to camp.
That said, I rather hope the casting constraints of this season means that a greater proportion of good applicants were pushed back to season thirty. While a second Cagayan would be too much to hope for, it would be nice to have a faster paced season for the new year. However, this year I have been forced into a more casual viewing experience myself, and so I am more than happy to kick back and enjoy San Juan Del Sur’s leisurely ride.