After five episodes, we’re far enough into this season to start considering the Blood vs. Water concept and its impact on strategy. While it can lead to entertaining moments and more emotion, it sometimes constricts the number of interesting moves that are available to players. The first incarnation had Caleb’s surprise takedown of Brad Culpepper, the dethroning of “King Aras”, and the rock draw at the final six. Even so, those moments outshined what was a fairly limited season in terms of inventive strategies. Tyson built a large alliance to gain control and then maintained it through unbreakable connections with Gervase and Monica. It was an entertaining season with crazy moments like Ciera voting out her mom, but it might represent the best example that we’ll see from this format.
The biggest difference this time around is the lack of returning players. While that’s brought an aura of unpredictability to this season, it’s also introduced struggles on the strategy side. People have claimed to have two idols (and been believed), basically voted themselves out of the game, and vocally revealed key alliances to their tribes. It’s easy to blame the casting for choosing dumb contestants, but that’s just part of the story. The other reason this season has felt odd is the sense that options are limited. We’ve spent a lot of time on individual reward challenges, Exile Island, and emotional family moments. Some have provided solid television, but they aren’t giving much strategy. This week had only one challenge, so we spent most of the time just hanging out at camp. That should have allowed plenty of breathing room to get to know the players and their plans. Even so, the machinations felt weak from most players.Dale’s attitude probably didn’t help his pitch to Jon and Jaclyn.[/caption]
A good example is this week’s tribe swap, which created two very different tribes. The swap is frequently the time when the strategy gets rolling. People that were guaranteed to leave next become power players, and allies throw each other under the bus with little thought of the consequences. After losing the immunity challenge, Coyopa’s vote boiled down to which pair Jon and Jaclyn liked better. The set up of three pairs and Keith introduced the idea that he’d be the obvious pick, and his idol created an interesting scenario. However, this was set aside quickly for a conflict between Dale and Baylor. Because the group included three pairs, the room to maneuver was limited. Kelley was stuck with a grumpy dad who didn’t understand the game, and that helped to spur her exit. It was frustrating to see a contest with so many possibilities boil down to something so simple. While there was an old-school vibe to the battles over rice and anger over a vote that didn’t matter, that only gets you so far.
I’m trying to determine the feasibility of truly engaging strategy coming from a Blood vs. Water season. When you bring together 18 new players, there are going to be strange moves. That’s part of the charm. Adding their loved ones to the mix introduces new elements that Jeff Probst loves, but it also can distract them from the game. Kelley tried to be a peacemaker with Missy and Baylor, but that accomplished little and gave them only one chance. Because she was connected to her dad, Kelley couldn’t become a free agent and try to work out something different than the narrow approach. It’s possible that it wouldn’t have mattered, but seeing her try would have brought more complexity to the episode. We didn’t find out why Jon and Jaclyn were against her beyond Dale’s behavior. There were few scenes that gave us any information except that the couple was in the middle between the other pairs. This led to an unsatisfying result that felt like it came from left field because of our limited information.
In the first Tribal Council, Baylor voted with the majority and took out Nadiya. Dale was part of that group, but he was angry because he was the target from the minority group. He blamed Baylor for throwing out his name, and the resentment hasn’t dissipated. Regardless of his feelings on the topic, reminding Baylor about it frequently was terrible game play. The next challenge was trying not to get upset when Missy kept cooking more rice, but Dale struggled with that part of it. Instead of accepting that starting a fight with new tribe mates was unwise, Dale couldn’t help himself. I expect this played a role in Kelley’s exit. Jon and Jaclyn were looking for a more accommodating duo that was easier to handle. An older guy who gets angry over rice is typically not the best ally. What’s fun is how the basics like cooking rice are still a part of the game in season 29. When you add that to the lack of food remaining on Hunahpu, this is starting to feel a lot like Survivor Australia.
The connection with the early days is accurate for more than just rice and starvation. There’s also a simplicity and innocence to the way this group is playing the game. The Blood vs. Water format changes the scenario from an individual battle of wits to a more convoluted scenario. The early seasons showed a greater emphasis on tribal loyalty, which led to more predictable votes. While we haven’t returned to that level, having a loved one around sets certain alliances in stone. Jon isn’t going to turn away from Jaclyn; he’d rather make out with her at camp. Kelley may disagree with her dad, but she’s going to stick with him. Jeff clearly likes the emotional opportunities of this structure and how it differs from the normal cutthroat play. It’s unclear whether it will pay off this season, however.
Looking more into the “Dale cost his daughter the game” theory, Kelley did mention in her interview with Rob that the situation was more complicated. She had wanted to target Jon on Hunahpu, and Missy had spilled the beans to him. This revelation is confusing because Missy was in the same alliance with Kelley. Apparently, she wasn’t thrilled with sticking with the girls and Jeremy. What’s odd is how the editors gave us few indications that Kelley was in any danger last night. Instead of selling a more complicated scenario where Missy betrayed an ally and went a different way, they took the simple approach. It seemed like a personality conflict over rice between Dale, Missy, and Baylor. A choice like that makes the show less interesting and played a role in my feelings about the concept. I expect the decision may be setting up for a later moment, but it’s unfortunate because it delivered a head-scratching result this week.
Surround and Drown
Over at Hunahpu, we’ve discovered the secret to their challenge success. They were eating rice like Popeye guzzling spinach. Spurred on by Missy’s role as the great rice giver, they kept eating until there was little left at camp. The disappointed reactions of Alec, Wes, and Josh after learning of the lack of food were priceless. These guys were used to living it rough, but the prospect of having nothing was something else. Before getting to their attempts to barter with Jeff, let’s take a look at the tribal dynamics. Josh and Reed are the only couple, which puts them in a power spot. They already are halfway to the four votes needed to gain control. Josh has allies in Wes and Alec that could stick with him and take out Jeremy, Natalie, or Julie. It wouldn’t take much for Josh and Reed to grab control.
On the other hand, there are four people on Hunahpu who have lost loved ones. That makes them a natural alliance to start removing the pairs. There are only four pairs left after Kelley’s exit, so striking at another one improves their chances. Jeremy and Natalie understand the numbers and recognize the threat. Their “surround and drown” plan to woo Alec is the right play, especially when the target is someone who may not be the smartest guy in the game. On a side note, how was that not the title of the episode? “Blood is Blood” is lame! I expect they wanted the title to connect to what happened at Coyopa, but it lacks the same punch as “Surround and Drown”. Watching Natalie and Jeremy work their magic on “little Drew” is one of the few exciting moments on the strategy side. Inside of waiting to lose a challenge and then seeming desperate, they’re acting proactively to swing the numbers back on their side.
One More Thing, Jeff
When Hunahpu mentioned their food situation to Jeff, I was certain that he’d offer a trade of rice for a trip to Tribal Council. It would have made their decision very difficult and given a serious cost for more food. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be fair to penalize former Coyopa members for the gorging ways of the past tribe members. I also think Jeff recognized the TV potential of stretching this situation out to the next episode. Obsessed fans will spend the week speculating on what Jeff will ask for in exchange for another bag of rice. Colby’s tarp from Australia is nowhere to be found. I don’t think we’re ready for naked (and afraid) Survivor, so the clothes are staying. The obvious move is the comfort reward they earned last week, but that doesn’t feel like enough given Jeff’s grandstanding. There’s still a chance that it could impact them far beyond their camp’s amenities. Would Jeff really force an impromptu Tribal Council at camp? I have my doubts, but stranger things have happened.
All signs point to Missy being especially careless with the rice portions. She’s primed to do the same thing at Coyopa, but an impending merge will nullify the damage. This raises an interesting question about eating strategy. If you need to win a challenge and expect a swap or merge to happen, is it worth the risk to devour more and hope to grab immunity? There’s always a chance for a good reward or other benefit. Plus, if you fail, bartering with Jeff is still an option. This plan makes the assumption that eating more was the reason Hunahpu won the first three challenges. They seemed to have an athletic advantage, and the results were very close each time. Maybe the rice gave them the edge? I realize this is a stretch, but there’s a potential for more out-of-the-box strategies to come. I’m still hoping that Rob and Mike Bloom’s idea of the intentional rice dump could happen. We need more creative thinking!
Drop Your Buffs
Looking closer at the tribe swap, Jeff threw individual bags to the tribes. This move ensured that four members of Hunahpu and three members of Coyopa would be in each group. The producers wanted at least some of the pairs to play together prior to the merge, and this choice made that scenario more likely. With the exception of Keith and Wes, the pairs were all together. While it seemed to hinder Keith and Wes, they’re actually in a pretty good spot right now given the impending merge. If Hunahpu loses the next challenge, it will come down to whether Alec chooses to stick with Josh and Reed or work with the other singles. It’s unlikely anyone will target Wes in either scenario. Keith has the immunity idol and seems to have a strong connection with Missy from their days at Hunahpu. He’s ruffled some feathers with Jeremy, but he doesn’t seem in that much danger at Coyopa. The downside for him is Dale bluffing the immunity idol, which might send the votes Keith’s way and force his hand.
The manipulated tribe swap was very irritating in the Caramoan and helped to ensure that a favorite would win the game. Although the producer tactics were the same, it doesn’t seem as bad in a Blood vs. Water scenario with all new players. Kelley was put in a worse position than before the swap, but that tends to happen in most tribe swaps. It will be interesting to see if former allies like Josh and Baylor or Jeremy and Missy re-connect after the merge. I’m guessing the next episode will be the last one with two tribes, so there could be some serious chaos after one more Tribal Council. It does show the value of doing a swap beyond the way it impacts a few episodes. Jumbling things up a bit more requires players to adapt and not coast to the merge. The question is whether these players are capable enough to do it.
Who’s in the best position?
Keith: The single player with a group of pairs is unlikely to be targeted, and Keith doesn’t seem like a threat. Jeremy may be angry at him, but time could heal this wound. If he keeps the idol a secret and plays it at the opportune time, Keith could glide through the next few votes. Dale is certainly the next target at Coyopa, and few will be gunning for Keith after the merge. There is a danger if Dale convinces the others he has an idol. The two pairs would probably use the split vote against Keith as a safety valve. Of course, Keith should be able to avoid needing the idol if he votes for Dale and creates a 3-2 scenario. I’m making a lot of assumptions here, but it shows the different options Keith has to remain in the game.
Alec: If Hunahpu goes to Tribal Council, the person who will decide which group takes charge is Alec. He can stick with his Coyopa allies and go against Jeremy and Natalie or take a risk and turn the tables. Regardless, Alec has the power to determine who gets control. While being the swing vote is a dangerous spot, I don’t get the sense that everyone will band up and take him out. If Alec plays it right, he could pick his allies and put himself in a spot to avoid the vote for a long time. Jeremy and Natalie are major shields to hide behind, so that choice makes sense to me. You don’t want to give the pairs too much power following the merge. Of course, joining with a pair like Josh and Reed might give Alec another exit strategy to use down the road. It’s a tricky decision but could have a huge impact.
Who’s in trouble?
Dale: This is the obvious choice since he’s alone on the island with Kelley gone. Dale stuck to his guns and refused to reconcile with Baylor after the early vote. He also angered Missy by going after her daughter. These are all bad signs for Dale. Jon and Jaclyn made their choice, and I don’t expect them to turn around and join him. There’s a chance they’ll look to remove all the pairs, but that doesn’t make much sense. They’ll want to stay with Missy and Baylor to avoid being targeted. The previews showed Dale bringing out his trump card and bluffing with the fake idol. There’s a chance that move could work, though it’s more likely to cause a 3-2 vote that will still lead to his demise.
Reed: This choice assumes that Jeremy and Natalie are successful in wooing Alec. If they’re able to convince the new ally, the vote will turn against Josh, Wes, or Reed. Given Alec’s Coyopa alliance with the first two options, it leaves Reed as the odd man out. I could see a scenario where the singles band together, but the condition for Alec is taking out Reed. I doubt that Hunahpu will lose a challenge, but they could also end up at Tribal Council if that’s the price for more rice. There are many different scenarios in that case. I also chose Reed because we aren’t seeing much of him, so it’s unlikely that he plays a major role in deciding the post-merge game.
Despite my concerns about the strategy side of this season, I’m still enjoying a lot of it. This cast isn’t filled with brilliant players, but they’re providing solid entertainment. The pre-existing relationships will probably lead to more interesting moments as the merge approaches. I’m not sure that San Juan Del Sur is going to make the upper tier of Survivor history, yet it’s still providing unique moments. The game should really pick up at the merge, though it will be hard to compete with Cagayan. Even so, I’m trying to stay optimistic about its chances. Players that some picked to win are already gone, so who knows where it’s heading? At this point, even a final two of Keith and Missy wouldn’t shock me. This game is unconventional and might deliver a surprise winner. The Blood vs. Water format and less savvy players could provide the recipe for a lot more wild experiences down the road.