Last fall’s Blood vs. Water season was a surprise because so much of the idea looked flawed on paper. There were so many twists, and Redemption Island had led to some of the show’s least interesting seasons. The success came from the cast, who delivered unforgettable moments with rock draws, voting out family members, and stealing coconuts. From a strategic perspective, the results were pretty straightforward on the whole. A strong three-person alliance gained control at the merge and ran the game to the end. What made the season interesting was the way players had to figure out new strategies on the fly. Having loved ones in the game introduced ideas that hadn’t appeared in the past. Voting out Rachel because of her connection to Tyson was an inventive way to approach a different format.No one is more excited about the return of Blood vs. Water than Jeff Probst.[/caption]
Despite this success, it was still a little unexpected to see another installment of this theme just two seasons later. When Jeff Probst finds something he likes, look out! The obvious difference this time is the lack of returning players, and I’m intrigued to learn how much that will change the dynamic. Laura Boneham was voted for at the start because everyone knew Rupert. Beyond a few familiar faces like John Rocker and the Twinnies, there’s little advance knowledge of this group. We saw how great a cast of new players could be with Cagayan, but that group didn’t face the prospect of competing against loved ones. Probst loves the idea of “brother vs. brother”, and it should provide some great television. The question is whether it will lead to inventive strategy that provides the same intrigue that we saw last season.
This season has different twists like Exile Island and the individual duels that should keep it from being too similar to the first Blood vs. Water. Jeremy strode proudly into the reward challenge before realizing he’d inadvertently hurt Val’s chances. The producers have set up these moments to crank up the emotions from the contestants and avoid too much clinical strategizing. Come on, CBS! This column doesn’t want likable players fighting off tears after making tough choices. It needs original gameplay! All kidding aside, it’s hard to dislike a situation where even making the right choice has unfortunate consequences.
When the Past Comes Back to Haunt You
The narrative that Natalie and Nadiya were in over their heads began at the start during the “day zero” excitement. While some pairs made a fire and seemed comfortable, they were reduced to yelling for help and have no luck starting one. The Twinnies blitzed through most of the challenges during their first appearance on The Amazing Race, but this game is very different. No matter what success you’ve had in other venues (sports, business, reality shows), it takes allies to survive the early boots. People are just looking for a reason to vote for someone, and being on a prior CBS show is an easy one. It’s unlikely that anyone but Dale really cared about the U Turn and anything else from Nadiya’s past. Using that idea helped him to turn the tables, and it was clear the odds were stacked against Nadiya at Tribal Council.
So what could Nadiya have done to avoid her fate? It’s tricky because of her tribe’s makeup. Dale was in self-preservation mode, and Wes and Alec had allied with John Rocker. The only chance was starting a girls’ alliance and bringing in Josh, and Val did push for that approach. The challenge was how little it would take to nullify it. Once Baylor and Josh decided to stick with the guys, it was all over. What’s interesting is that Nadiya failed to recognize the danger. She believed the weaker girls would go first, but the game moves quickly now. If you aren’t in the group calling the shots, there’s a good chance the victim is you. The easiest way for Dale to kick the target was to create a narrative where Nadiya was untrustworthy. She’s strong but doesn’t seem essential because Val and others are also tough.
Nadiya’s fate presents a sharp contrast from Hayden’s success in the game coming off Big Brother. He wisely joined up with a solid alliance and didn’t rock the boat through the early votes. When he stepped up and tried to make moves after the merge, his Big Brother history meant nothing. Of course, we never got a real sense if the other players had seen Hayden’s game. Another reason he didn’t face the same target was the presence of returning players on that Blood vs. Water season. The Twinnies stood out more among the new cast because there weren’t stars like Tina, Tyson, and Gervase playing with them. Another great obstacle was being a woman in an imbalanced group because of the last-minute removal of two players. Things could have gone much differently if even one more girl was on their tribe.
The Mysteries of Josh
The most inexplicable part of this week’s Tribal Council was the random vote for Baylor, which caused Probst to oversell the fact that three people got votes. What made it even odder was the fact that the vote came from Josh, who appeared to be Baylor’s closest ally. The editors may be hiding important details, or something we didn’t see at Tribal Council changed his mind. Penner voted for Abi-Maria in the Philippines and accidentally sealed Jeff Kent’s fate because he misread the Tribal Council. Weirder things have happened. Given the information that aired, how can we determine why Josh voted for Baylor? There are several legitimate theories. The simplest one is that he promised not to write down Nadiya’s name and told Baylor she’d receive a vote. While this could make sense in the post-merge game, it seems like an odd reason at this point. Were Josh’s infected eyes clouding his judgment?
Another possibility (and probably more likely) is that Josh voted for Baylor to send a message. She had broken their trust in some way, and the vote called her out for it. This doesn’t make him a very good Survivor player, since her first question back at camp will be “who voted for me?” We saw a conversation where Baylor expressed a strong interest in aligning with Josh. It’s rarely wise to break that trust by throwing a vote at your closest ally. Was there an essential moment that ended up on the editing room floor? We certainly could have lost one of Probst’s many explanations about the greatness of the Blood vs. Water concept. It will be interesting to learn if Baylor and Josh are still allies following this move.
A third (and least likely) option is that Josh actually thought that Baylor was the target. Given everyone’s interest in working with him, it seems highly unlikely that he wouldn’t know which person was getting the votes. While his vote didn’t affect the outcome, it could have if Baylor had stuck with the girls. That raises a question on if Josh was testing Baylor’s loyalty to the guys. If she’d voted for Dale, it would have caused a 4-4 tie that he could have broken by switching to Nadiya on a second vote. If he chose Baylor out of anything but faulty information, it shows how Josh is overthinking the game. The last thing he should want to do is draw attention as a player that will act as a lone wolf and jeopardize others’ games.
Sidestepping the Twists
After a very lengthy intro and “day zero”, Probst finally arrived to greet the contestants in the large arena. I already miss the water challenges. His apparently harmless question about starting fire drew an endearing reply from Keith and Wes about breaking the flint. Is it better to claim ineptitude at this point? They were telling the truth, but they won points by falling short and laughing about it. They’re immediately liked by everyone and end up in the main alliance on their tribes. This may not be a coincidence. Speaking of likable, Jeremy’s move to volunteer for the challenge definitely won him some admiration. Competing for flint and a bag of beans is no minor contest. Playing against Val threw a wrinkle in the mix, but Jeremy handled the situation just right and didn’t fall into any traps.
Looking again at the original Blood vs. Water season, Brad Culpepper was a little too honest in explaining how he might lose on purpose to help Monica get comfort. It didn’t hurt his game (and may have damaged Marisa for her candid reply), but it wasn’t the best choice. Despite being conflicted about defeating his wife, Jeremy didn’t slow down and won the reward. The next step was picking the right person from his own tribe to join her at Exile Island. There are so many ways to screw up this choice. The best move is to choose the kind of person who will understand that it sucks but not hold a grudge. Keith was that guy. It also worked because Jeremy sold the choice as a compliment because Keith would help Val. This may not be the most forward-thinking idea, but it worked for several reasons. It set up Jeremy as someone who isn’t callous but also is willing to make the tough decision. I don’t believe it was calculated, and it furthered the impression that Jeremy is a good guy and a worthy ally.
In a similar vein, Val also did her best to avoid becoming the obvious first vote after going to Exile Island. She didn’t complain and competed well against Jeremy in a challenge that impacted her tribe. They didn’t hold the loss against her and seemed to respect her forward-thinking attitude. Val may be on the wrong side of the numbers after Nadiya’s exit, but I expect she’ll get an opportunity to change her fate. This doesn’t feel like a situation where the men will pick off the women all the way up to a tribe swap. It’s possible this could be wishful thinking, however. Val still has the potential to go far if she can survive the next few weeks. Some challenge victories for the tribe would help immensely.
The Return of Exile Island
Many fans let out a collective groan when Probst announced that Redemption Island would return for San Juan Del Sur. It had provided great drama in the pre-merge portion of Blood vs. Water, but it still felt unnecessary by the end. The change to Exile Island is mostly refreshing because it removes Redemption Island. I don’t get the sense that too many people are excited about watching players make a fire and hang out away from their tribes. Possibly the most ill-conceived of the twists was the idea of putting two urns at Exile Island. The players choose one and each receive a note. One of them is blank; the other includes a clue to the immunity idol. It’s a strange way to introduce more strategic choices. Val can tell Keith about the clue or keep it to herself. Her choice is easy, though her explanation for the note is less convincing.
The immunity idol doesn’t occupy much screen time but is involved with a strange moment for Dale. He grabs a removable decal from the well and believes it isn’t the idol. This doesn’t seem important until Val goes searching at the exact same spot after finding the clue. Did Dale accidentally pick up the idol and not realize it? That prospect seems unlikely since there wasn’t a note along with the item. Even so, it’s quite a coincidence that he found the piece in the same location. It would be comedy gold to watch Dale treat the actual hidden immunity idol like a fake one. The possibilities are endless, though it’s a long shot.
Who’s in the best position?
Natalie: While it’s unfortunate that she lost her loved one in the first vote, Natalie should benefit from playing alone. There will be no worries about her meeting up with Nadiya at the merge, and that lack of connection makes her more valuable. She’s also on a tribe where the guys haven’t banded together and established a good rapport with Jeremy. If Hunahpu goes to Tribal Council next week, the odds are strong that the target would not be Natalie. They’re more likely to go after one of the young guys who don’t seem to be part of the dominant group.
Jeremy: There’s a danger for Survivor’s big fans to arrive on the beach and start playing too hard. It doesn’t seem to hurt Jeremy, however. He immediately makes an alliance with Kelley, Natalie, and Misty and connects with Keith after the return from Exile Island. Jeremy calls himself the “prom king”, and his confidence is understandable after the challenge win. He needs to be wary of trying to run the show from the start. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for building a loyal alliance separate from the younger dudes. Jeremy’s avoiding the alpha males and setting them up for an early fall.
John: It pains me to say this, but I don’t think John’s going anywhere for a while. Despite Coyopa’s challenge loss, he played a huge role in getting them the lead prior to the puzzle. He stands a head taller than nearly everyone, and it will be hard to toss aside that physical benefit in the short run. John’s also part of the dominant alliance and seemed to bond with the other guys. His lie about John Wetteland is hilarious for baseball fans, and even being caught by Wes shouldn’t hurt him. John may face the music as the merge approaches, but he’s set up well for the upcoming weeks.
Who’s in trouble?
Jaclyn: We barely saw Jaclyn in the entire premiere beyond a brief early appearance with Jon and a quick question in Tribal Council. The reason she makes this spot is because of the dominant alliance on Coyopa. Baylor joined the guys in voting out Nadiya, so that leaves Val and Jaclyn on the other side. It’s possible the alliance won’t stick together or will target Val, but her strength may be needed. While Jaclyn seems athletic, another loss could send her out because she’s the easiest vote for the group.
Drew: I expected that Drew wouldn’t mesh well in his tribe, and that scenario has played out so far. When a guy says “I’m not here to be a model; I’m here to be a Survivor” without laughing, it shows that he’s not a deep thinker. The editors are going to love him, but Drew seems like the obvious target for Jeremy’s group. He really wants to be the leader but doesn’t recognize that no one respects his authority. Drew and Jon are left standing by the fire while Jeremy builds his team in the woods. Jon seems likable and should be around a while, but I don’t get the sense Drew has the same charisma.
Josh: It’s tricky to pinpoint where Josh stands after his vote for Baylor and place in the middle. That’s a dangerous position especially when the alliance has numbers without you. Will they trust him after he didn’t vote for Nadiya? He’s well-liked throughout the tribe but needs to be careful and not waffle too much about the vote. Being in the middle of the action can be great, but it doesn’t take much for the target to flip back to the guy on the fence. Josh is also struggling with a brutal eye infection, and he needs to hope that it turns around quickly. If it starts impacting his challenge performance, it might not take long before Josh is heading for the exits.
Probst has called this season “very unorthodox”, and that isn’t a surprise after watching this cast in the premiere. You don’t get the sense that anyone is ready to act like Tony and make daring moves at every turn. The loved ones create such a different feeling to the early game, especially until people start losing them. I’m still wondering how much we’ll see in terms of creative strategies. People are making alliances and trying to play, but the vote came down to a pretty simple reason. It’s a fun group of characters, and it will be interesting to see how they navigate the various twists going forward. It’s going to be much different than Cagayan, but that may not be a terrible thing.