The following is a post from Rob Has a Website Contributor, Andy Baker
Normally I would start off this column talking about the player – or in this case, players – who left the game, but there are a few topics I’d like to tackle first. Fear not, I’ll get to Dawson and Dana; first things first, though: grab your torches and let’s discuss the merge, for that is what should be at the forefront of all strategy discussions at this point in the game (even if, for many shortsighted players, it isn’t).
1) So, here we sit with a dozen players left – and not a merge in sight. Normally, this is the time to throw everyone on one beach and shift to individual immunity challenges, but the publicity shots for Wednesday’s episode show a tribal IC, which means that the earliest we’ll get a merge is at 11 players. Assuming we’re getting a final three with a nine person jury – which is how they’ve been doing it for awhile now – why aren’t Tandang and Kalabaw merging? Adaptive gameplay, that’s why! Here’s what I think might be going on:
** The producers want to give Kalabaw a chance to even the numbers.
Heading into a merge with Tandang up 7-5 sets up a potential Pagonging. Sure, Tandang is primed to turn on itself, and Malcolm and Denise remain wild cards, but taking out individual immunity threats like Carter and Jeff would be incredibly tempting for the Tandang majority alliance. If Kalabaw could win the next IC and cut the lead to 6-5 – and perhaps follow it up with another win to even the playing field – that would give the producers the endgame uncertainty they need to maintain narrative tension. If Kalabaw loses another IC, though, the merge must and will happen immediately to avoid someone like Denise or Penner going home.
** The producers want to give Denise and Malcolm time to embed themselves in their new tribes.
Denise and Malcolm have made some solid inroads in their new tribes, but they need more time to forge the alliances which could carry them through the early post-merge chaos. Had they been targeted by Tandang and Kalabaw after Matsing’s dissolution, I have a feeling we’d be merging this week, but because they were swiftly integrated into the dominant alliances on their new tribes, the producers could delay the merge and the new social dynamics could be explored without sacrificing any compelling characters.
** There could be a seven person jury and/or a Final Two.
Just kidding! I’m sure many fans would like to see this happen, and the fact that the merge is so late puts it in the realm of possibility, but the sad reality is that Probst HATES the idea of a Final Two, and seven person juries can potentially become problematic if players quit/are medevaced. So as much as I personally would love to see this turn into an old school season of Survivor, it just isn’t going to happen.
So, what does any of this mean? How will it impact the game? Why does it matter?
There’s one crucial answer to all three of these questions: The jury is going to start forming before the merge happens.
From where I sit, there’s one HUGE downside to handling the game this way: There will be at least one juror who casts a vote for who wins the title of Sole Survivor who has no personal, firsthand experience playing with one or more of the finalists. Oh, sure, they can piece together an opinion from what they glean from Tribal Councils and are told at Ponderosa. But is that enough? Should a million dollar decision come down to half-truths and hearsay?
I would guess that there’s a reason we haven’t seen this “under-informed juror” dynamic in a while: the last time it was done with newbies was in Gabon, and before that, it happened in Fiji, Cook Islands and Thailand. My first reaction to that list? They’re often mentioned in the list of “Worst Survivor Seasons Ever.” Correlation is not causation, of course, so I’m not saying that starting a jury before the merge is the source of the suck of those seasons, but what I AM suggesting is that it didn’t help.
Would Bob, Earl, Yul, and Brian have won if the jury had been handled differently? Looking at the votes, probably. But in a social game, a few key interactions immediately post-merge can make or break a player’s chances; when a castaway never shares a beach with future jurors, however, those interactions never happen. Add in the fact that other finalists probably DO have a history with pre-merge jurors – for good or ill – and we once again have people voting who have a skewed, and quite possibly flawed, understanding of the game and those who are still in it.
(By the by, before you go on the attack, I’m aware that Coach and Courtney were pre-merge jurors during Heroes vs. Villains, but I’m sure you’ll agree that All-Star seasons are anomalous right from the start. Returnees are rarely complete strangers to one another for a whole host of reasons: they’ve watched each other’s seasons, they go to the same charity events, they hang out with one another in L.A. and New York… heck, alliances exist before the game even starts. Seasons with new players are substantively different, and given that this is what we’ve got in the Philippines, H vs. V doesn’t really tell us much.)
Anyway, here’s what we’re dealing with: Whoever is voted out next will be the first member of the jury, and he/she will likely have no first-hand knowledge of, understanding about, or appreciation for the game played by one or more of the finalists. If you ask me, that’s irresponsible game design. Would a strategist be at a disadvantage to a challenge beast or a “nice and needs the money” player in the final three, because of the subtleties of a social game? I have a feeling the answer to that question is yes.
And yet, I understand why the producers are doing it this way. They’re in the business of developing characters, and Malcolm and Denise are GREAT characters. The producers can always pull the plug if the two-tribe dynamic isn’t working (as they did after the lopsided tribe swap in One World), but for now, they’ve got what they want: drama.
But is drama enough? If, as Jeff Probst himself is fond of pointing out, jury management is one of the crucial components of the game, is it fair to start the jury before the merge? How can you effectively manage a jury when you’ve never talked with some of the individuals in it? Is being impressive at Tribal Councils and sending advocates to Ponderosa enough? I wonder.
2) Since we’re talking about the merge, I just wanted to point out that there’s a good chance that we’ll head into the individual game with more than ONE FOURTH OF THE PLAYERS POSSESSING HIDDEN IMMUNITY IDOLS. Three out of eleven! That’s INSANE! Malcolm’s pistol metaphor was an apt one: good players can use the HII to threaten, protect, or blindside. But here’s the thing: When a single player has a gun with one bullet in it, he calls the shot(s). When three of them have loaded weapons, though, you get one of two things: a Mexican standoff or a shoot-out. And the former almost always leads to the latter, doesn’t it? Get ready to see a lot of bodies dropping immediately post-merge…
3) Man oh man were there a lot of Survivor Commandments being broken this week. The first one:
Thou shalt not ostracize yourself from your tribe
Lisa was guilty of violating this one at the start of the season, and now RC, by going swimming alone while the rest of Tandang welcomed Malcolm into the tribe, is indulging in highly visible self-pity. Yes, it sucks that Malcolm’s first impulse was to team up with Pete and Abi, but you have to take a longer view of the game and let Malcolm realize, with some gentle persuasion, that he’d be wiser to join forces with you and Skoop. More importantly, you CAN’T APPEAR WEAK; when your mind tells you to withdraw from the social dynamic that makes you feel uncomfortable or defeated, you have to fight it and DO THE EXACT OPPOSITE. A clique can try to keep you out, but you should not, cannot, must not help them do it.
4) Thou shalt not confess to someone you do not yet trust (and even then, it’s unwise)
Pete, I take back all three nice things I’ve said about you so far this season. Why the hell would you tell a charismatic alpha male whose only known loyalty is to someone on the other tribe that Tandang is falling apart from within AND that you have an idol? The only reason I could come up with: You’re an idiot. Enjoy Ponderosa, Peter.
5) Thou shalt not assume alliances – lock them down and attend to them
I have no doubt that Dana, Dawson, and Katie approached Denise about an all-woman alliance. I also have no doubt that Denise was on board with the plan to take out the men (she would get to the merge with one or more alphas out of the game). Everything fell apart when Dana left, however – but did it have to? If you forge a strong enough relationship with Denise, you can leverage the Threat of the Purple Rock to possibly flip someone like Penner. The fact that Denise pounced on Jeff’s offer to join the men suggests that the law firm of D, D & K hadn’t cultivated any enduring loyalty with her… and that, my friends, is how social games are lost.
6) Thou shalt not let someone leave the game without a fight
It’s heartless and self-serving and cruel, but if I’m Dawson or Katie, I’d hug Dana and whisper in her ear, “Please stay. Best case scenario, you start feeling better, and we make it to the merge. Worst case, you help us vote out one of the guys and then go home. If you quit now, though, all the girls are gone, one by one. You don’t want that to happen to us, do you?” I’m aware I’m a jerk for even suggesting this, but you HAVE to try, don’t you?
7) Thou shalt not threaten – make a deal instead
Knowing that Jeff Kent was a professional baseball player, Dawson had two choices: Expose him as a multi-millionaire to turn the tribe against him, or approach him one-on-one and use your intel to cut a deal (“Make me a part of your alliance and I won’t tell anyone who you are – if you backstab me, though, I’ll yell it out as my torch is getting snuffed”). Instead, Dawson invented her own ill-advised third option: Threaten Jeff’s place in the game by revealing that you know who he is via coy innuendo without letting him know what he can do to get you to keep your mouth shut. And just like that, with the men deciding between Dawson and Katie, Dawson served herself up to Jeff like a batting practice fastball.
8) Thou shalt ask thyself why a castaway wants another player gone
Normally, Penner is deeply analytical about each and every game move, which is why I found his acceptance of Jeff’s “Dawson’s gotta go” edict a bit surprising. Sure, both Dawson and Katie were both pretty expendable, and sometimes it’s wise to let a guy like Jeff feel like he’s in control. But where’s the Penner who would wonder, “Why does Jeff want Dawson gone so badly? Maybe I should talk to her.” Instead, we got a Penner confessional in which he rationalizes the decision to target Dawson. Curious.
9) Thou shalt not get hung up on any single castaway – everyone is an ally, everyone is an enemy, and adaptation is key
The individual game is on the horizon, and yet far too many castaways are fixated on the elimination of specific players rather than remaining flexible for the altered priorities of post-merge strategy. Artis and Pete are focused on Skupin – but with so much anti-veteran sentiment coursing through both camps, isn’t Mike a potentially useful final three opponent? Aren’t there stronger players you should target first, players who can spin a better narrative if you’re sitting next to them at the end (Malcolm, for example)? And aren’t there dangerous Kalabaw members to dispatch, guys like Carter, who could go on a Fabio-esque immunity run, or Denise, who might well become the Tina to Malcolm’s Colby if Tandang allows it to happen? And then there’s the Abi-RC cat fight; neither one of them will be able to focus clearly on the game until the other is gone, but in the end, all they’ll accomplish is mutual assured destruction (one will get voted out, and the other will be vilified for her vindictiveness).
The players who benefit from all this monomania? Those who sit back and watch Rome burn: Skupin, Lisa, Penner, Denise, and Malcolm.
10) This column is getting waaaaaaaaaaay too long, so here’s a rapid fire list of things on my mind that I could and probably should have written more about, but didn’t:
** On the one hand, it was refreshing to see everyone left in the game competing, especially one-on-one. On the other hand, this shouldn’t be refreshing, should it? And yet it is, thanks to the insipid “You Can Sit the Same Players” rule, a rule I like to call, “Abi Sucks.”
** I’m not saying that this is definitely what happened with Dawson, but often, when players know their days are numbered, they’ll engage in self-sabotage. Might Dawson have been unconsciously painting the bulls-eye on her own back by antagonizing Jeff? I wouldn’t rule it out.
** That said, I hate that Dawson’s gone, particularly before the waste of space known as Katie, who is horrible at challenges, is useless around camp, and has an entitled sneer in her voice that makes me want to punch a water buffalo. Dawson is a SuperFan who understands the game, and she gave us an iconic Survivor moment when she kissed Probst goodbye. I think it will be the look on her face after being voted out that will stick with me the longest, however; we’ve heard the word “heartbroken” used many times this season, but that’s the first time we saw a heart actually break. You deserved a better fate, Dawson, and I, for one, shall miss you.
** Dana’s medevac was a reminder that no twist of fate in this game affects only a single person. Until Dana called it quits, the endgame was up in the air, but at this point, I can’t see any more than one Kalabaw making the Final Tribal Council. This helps explain why so many Tandang members are getting positive edits: as a result of Kalabaw’s misfortune, they’re going to dominate the jury and be well-represented in the Final Three. Every member of Tandang owes whatever stomach bug felled Dana a huge debt of gratitude.
** Crow is delicious: I couldn’t have been more wrong in my pre-season evaluation of Dana. She was strong in challenges, she bonded with her tribe (including Jeff, he of the sizeable Prop 8 donation), and she created an alliance that, with the addition of Denise, could have helped shaped the post-merge game. Survivor: Philippines HAD to have a medevac – the season theme gods demanded it – but it’s a shame that it had to be Dana.
** I was intrigued by Skupin’s reaction to Russell being voted out; until that moment, I don’t think Mike believed that voting out a returning player was a real and present danger. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he knew it was always a possibility, but until it happened to Russell, I’m sure it was easy to assume that he wasn’t vulnerable. (That’s where I think Penner and Skupin differ: one has had his torch snuffed and the other one hasn’t, and it is that ceremonial act that makes players realize just how tenuous their life in the game truly is.) I hope this serves as a wake-up call for Mike: Tandang is marshaling forces against him, and they’re no doubt emboldened by Russell’s departure. If he isn’t careful, no number of cool reward challenge moves will be able to save him.
10) The Probst Probe: I have to admit, I hate it when Probst overtly influences the game by ripping into castaways during challenges (and in the process, shaping reactions and perceptions)… but I hate it a lot less when he does it to players I can’t stand. Calling out Abi for sitting out so many challenges and brutally berating Katie for costing her team the immunity challenge win? Totally fine with me. (And yet it isn’t. I am nothing if not contradictory.)
11) Fortunes rising: This is going to be an odd choice, but I’m going with Penner. For people who can REALLY play this game – and by that, I mean players who understand that there is strength in weakness – there’s a lot of power being in the minority when you hit the merge. Penner is no doubt aware, or soon will be, that there are exploitable fractures within Tandang; with his hidden immunity idol and strategic acumen, along with a potential partner in Skupin (who just so happens to be in a minority of his own), Penner can make a lot of things happen. Will he be the one to orchestrate Pete’s inevitable downfall? No way to be sure, but I wouldn’t bet against it (and Probst almighty, I would love to see it).
12) Fortunes falling: The easy target here would be Katie, if for no other reason than she was portrayed as the heartless one after Dana was medevaced (someone always gets that thankless “my game is screwed” confessional). But I’m going to go with Pete, who not only aired Tandang’s dirty laundry and shared intel about the idol, but who also admitted, in a secret scene confessional, that he’d like to go to the end with Malcolm. Is there no end to the idiocy?
13) Prediction time: When a reward challenge is showcased in the preview and the immunity challenge is ignored, it almost always means that the IC is a blowout. Given that Tandang can sit its two weakest players, I’m going to assume Tandang wins. This will leave Kalabaw an interesting choice: Do they vote as if they’re merging, or as if they’ll be competing against Tandang down 7-4? In the latter scenario, it’s a no-brainer: As the weaker of the two women left, Katie goes home. In the former, however, would you vote out Katie or Denise? Katie remains a legitimate target because she won’t have much tribal loyalty left after the merge; if she’s smart, she’ll become a float vote, which, given how many alliances and sub-alliances are kicking around, could transform someone like Katie from a goat into a power broker.
But don’t you have to consider taking out Denise? Post-merge, odds are she’ll join back up with Malcolm, who has been warmly welcomed into Tandang (something Penner should be able to pick up on at the next two challenges); if Denise joins up with Malcolm and Tandang, she could be instrumental in a Kalabaw Pagonging. If I’m Penner, and I’m assuming the merge will happen before the next immunity challenge, I think I have to convince Jeff and Carter to vote out Denise; even if they’re not worried she’ll defect to Tandang, they would at least understand that she’s a bigger endgame threat than Katie, wouldn’t they?
Ah, but that’s what I think SHOULD happen. What WILL happen? Katie will go home.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – keep the conversation going by leaving a comment below!