Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers

Déjà Vu

It’s Survivor Déjà Vu. Sarah Channon has written on all of the topics contained in this blog for RHAP.

Déjà Vu

One of the things about blogging Survivor is that you start developing pet themes. Some aspect of the game strikes a chord with you, and you find yourself keeping tabs on it. I’m coming up on eight years of blogging about Survivor—I reached my five year anniversary with RHAP about three weeks ago!—and in watching the past episode, I found myself flashing back to blogs past.

Yet, as we’re so often told, the game is always evolving! So let’s throw back to these old blogs and see what needs updating and what I’ll double down on.


After Cirie was eliminated by a perfect storm of advantages last season, I wondered whether the number of advantages was helping or hurting the game. While advantages increase the unpredictability factor and certainly vary the game inasmuch as “Unprecedented Tribal Council!” goes, I was worried that it was taking the focus away from the cast and putting it on production mechanics:

Survivor has always been defined by its players. When the ongoing game gets overtaken by production’s rules, the cast becomes irrelevant.

Let’s take the new Levu (formerly the Heroes) tribe. It had two healers, two heroes and one hustler, Devon, who automatically became the swing vote in the struggle for a majority. The ex-heroes won that battle, when Ashley’s beach-lover bond proved more effective than Joe’s scare tactics.

However, the vote block rendered that all for naught. Rather than being down 2-3, Joe and Desi were facing a 2-2 deadlock, and Joe had an idol. Even if the heroes had voted for Desi, both she and Joe would have been immune from a rock draw. The heroes outplayed the healers, but they were the ones doomed to lose.

Don’t get me wrong: watching Joe and Alan have their showdown still made for amazing television. Neither man was able to refrain from the pissing contest and they carried it on right through Tribal Council. But the combination of idol and vote block took the agency for victory out of their hands and into those of the Survivor Gods. There’s a reason the Deus Ex Machina ending has been out of vogue for two millennia.

That said, I do like the one-off advantages, especially the rule that they have to be given to somebody on the losing tribe, since that can be incorporated into the social game. Jessica and the rest of Yawa are contestants too, so their (apparently joint) decision to pick Devon is something that can have a long term effect on the show.

It’s easy to hypothesize why they picked Devon: take out the swing vote and let the ex-heroes and the ex-healers battle it out on an even playing field. That’s the neutral option, where nobody needs to reveal any favor. Except Jessica, Cole, and quite possibly Mike too, all know that Joe has an idol, while chances are that Alan and Ashley don’t. Taking out the variable of the swing vote improves the healers’ odds of coming out on top.

Easy to hypothesize, but when that scene isn’t in the show, it is just speculation. As it stands, an arbitrary offscreen call overwhelmed the episode’s story.

Joe’s idol also drowned out whatever game Desi had. We don’t know if Desi was on board with scaring Devon to their side, but Joe’s plan to draw the votes to himself was certainly his own decision and not one Desi agreed with. Yet she had no alternative. She couldn’t jump ship, because she knew Joe would save himself with the idol—and if the others believed he had an idol, it would make far more sense to target her than to attempt a blindside.

It’s Survivor. It’s not supposed to be fair. Joe found that idol through his own efforts, and everybody else had the opportunity to find one too—Alan and Ashley have had an idol waiting on their beach for twelve days and counting. Had Alan not been so susceptible to butting heads, it could have been Ashley taking the fall—he’d made a good bond with Desi, which probably played into why he voted for Joe over her.

One other note: Had Joe played his idol for Desi, we would have had a tie and potentially a rock draw. But who would be eligible to draw rocks? Traditionally, those who revoted (i.e. Desi and Ashley) would draw rocks as punishment for not reaching a decision, but Desi would be immune due to the idol. Does Ashley go home by default, or does Devon have to draw a rock despite having no say in the vote? (In either scenario, Ashley would more or less be obliged to flip before that point, a la Cambodia’s Keith.)

As Logan observed in his recap, had Alan or Ashley found the Heroes idol things could have got really weird. Both idols would have been played in an attempt to break the deadlock. If both idols were played incorrectly, then we have a tie between Desi and Ashley. If both were played correctly, we have zero votes and start over, now targeting Desi and Ashley. (If either side thinks quickly enough, they’ll throw their votes on Devon, so he rather than their target becomes immune from a tie—but this is a lot to expect in the stress of the moment.)

Either way this two-idol scenario leads to a tie where nobody has an incentive to flip, because they’d all be immune from a rock draw. Idol players don’t draw rocks; the people voted for don’t draw rocks. This leaves Devon, who never even got to vote, as the one person without immunity. In other words, he’d have been Cirie’d out of the game.

I said in my earlier blog that if these “freak” tribal councils become much more common, they would lose their novelty value. It’s only been four episodes since the last Advantage-geddon. Maybe production wouldn’t have put the voting block into effect if more than one idol had been in play… but I think I’d rather see these advantages saved for larger numbers of people. When you’re down to just five, let the social game—i.e. the players stories—come to the fore.

A Relationship, Not a Date

My brother got married during the offseason, and in a fit of romance, I wrote a blog comparing the Survivor social game to real life relationships. (Due credit to Sophie Clarke who made the initial comparison in her exit interviews—some pet themes take a few years of mulling over before being committed to blog.)

While I was talking about alliances rather than island romance, this season has provided us with possibly my favorite showmance since Billy/Candice. (Unless we can count Coach/Jerri.) Jessica and Cole are fabulous. The older woman, the younger man… except the older woman is the virgin… except the younger guy is the oblivious innocent in the ways of playing this game, and the older woman’s going to go gray trying to keep him in line.

Jessica, who doesn’t fall in love easily, has been surprised by the accelerated nature of island relationships. Cole has neglected to give due respect to their intensity:

If your ally shares something with you, treat their secrets with care and acceptance, whatever they might be.

I was talking about information from their personal lives, but after the events of the past two episodes, we clearly need to include game information in that rule as well.

Watching Cole’s online confessional this week, it’s clear he wants to be a hardcore gamer. His verbal diarrhea is a result of his impatience to play the game—it’s the same problem as Joe and Alan have. We can even see the logic behind his actions. Much like Ryan and Ali on the original Hustlers’ tribe, Cole wants to be the person who everybody comes to, so he’s working hard on building bonds with every single tribe member. One of the biggest surprises in his webclip was that he considers Mike one of his tightest allies. We hadn’t seen that at all on the show, but plainly Cole has been in the habit of reaching out to the people on the bottom—as any good Survivor player should!

But if you’re juggling lots of alliances at once, it’s really tough to keep them from getting suspicious. Telling Jessica Joe’s secret was understandable. Cole didn’t trust Joe fully, so sharing the information with somebody he could trust fully would help him build a defence against that idol, while still keeping that information secret enough to retain a good value. Jessica took this secret as proof of Cole’s trust in her and assumed that the two of them were the core alliance in the healer majority: the power couple.

For Jessica, the terms of this relationship included discussing all strategy with each other before making a move. Cole’s executive decision to tell Roark about the idol and his wish to blindside Joe did not sit well with her, but she gave him another chance. When she found the secret advantage, she notified him so they could be on the same page moving forward.

Notably, she told Mike at the same time as Cole. According to her webclip, Jessica had not got along with Mike back at Healer camp, but she believed that now they were a trio and majority on a new tribe, Mike would have no choice but to stick with them. Sharing the information with him was her own way of forging a bond… a move straight out of Cole’s playbook.

Mike respected Jessica’s trust and did not reveal their secret even when it became clear Lauren had found out about it. Cole, however, decided to use it for his own private gains. This is not inherently a bad Survivor move. I had no problem with him betraying Joe because he didn’t want to stick with Joe—and it’s hard to imagine Joe would have been loyal to Cole in the long term!

However Jessica was ready to be Cole’s ride or die. He shouldn’t want to vote her off unless he absolutely has to. Treating her secrets in such a cavalier manner weakened that relationship tremendously. Arguably, it was a gamble. Had Lauren been less cynical, he might have been able to reel in the minority and—in the happy event Yawa never loses a challenge—had them on his side come the next swap.

But he was gambling an extremely precious relationship for two of lesser value. Lauren and Ben were unlikely to ever be more than a bit of insurance. Cole and Jessica could have, should have, been a close pair in the game, genuinely fond of each other and working in synch, like Rob and Amber, Yul and Becky, Stephen and JT, etc. Instead, Cole has not only lost trust with Jessica, he’s demonstrated a lack of respect for her wishes when it comes to their gameplay. One of the other points I made in that blog is that the number one reason for flipping is the belief that your allies don’t respect your opinion.

Contrast this with the bromantic pairing of Ryan and Devon. Ryan locked Devon in as an ally and friend by revealing his advantage to him and agreeing on how it should be played ahead of time. Ryan then proceeded to make lower stakes bonds with the rest of his tribe: goofing off with Patrick, sharing insecurities with Lauren, strategizing with Ali. Come the tribe swap (and associated webclips), Ali was relieved to be on a tribe with Ryan, but he admitted that he would have preferred to have swapped alone, to be a swing vote… then proceeded to say he was “crushed” Devon was on a different tribe.

There’s a genuine friendship between Ryan and Devon that transcends strategy. Granted, that can have its downsides too, but when Ryan told Chrissy he was her secret idol benefactor, he omitted Devon’s role altogether, so he still has a sense of perspective. I have considerably higher hopes for this relationship and alliance than I do for Cole and Jessica.

One final note from the relationship blog: I observed that making the time and personal attention to braid somebody’s hair is a very under-rated social move. At this week’s immunity challenge, Chrissy showed up with a braided hairstyle she never sported back on Heroes beach. She tweeted that her new stylist was Ali. We all knew Ali was playing a great social game anyway, but add some more points to her total.

Survivor’s Women

It’s well-established by now, that I like to write about the gender issues on the show. This all started a little over five years ago with the above linked blog, and while I’ve written several gender-related blogs since, I want to throw back to this one because production this season has addressed every problem I raised. (Probably and hopefully due to actual professional consultation rather than my little tirade.)

Five years ago, I felt too many women were cast for their looks rather than their personality or skillset. I wanted women with bigger characters and into extreme sports, not Miss Teen USA.

There isn’t a woman on this cast who is there solely because she’s pretty. Yes, Desi’s a beauty queen recruit, but she’s also an academic and physiotherapist who was serious about her research for this game. They haven’t even cast a beauty queen since San Juan Del Sur, and for a show that has yet to put a woman of color (or one over the age of twenty-six) on a beauty tribe, there’s something pretty great about seeing a black woman explicitly called a beauty on screen.

(Speaking of race, yes, this season is not doing well on that front with half the people of color already voted off, and I’m frankly concerned that Desi will turn on Joe, only to fall victim to Devon and Ashley if they conclude that Joe is more likely to self-destruct a healer majority post-merge. I do think Survivor is trying to figure out this issue of long-term diversity, but they haven’t solved it yet, and I have nothing new to say. At least, I still have high hopes for my winner pick, Ali.)

My other issue with production five years ago was their lack of faith in the female players to carry a storyline. The original blog was written in the run up to Philippines, and Denise would have a minimal presence for much of that season despite being the winner. Jeff Probst would later admit he was surprised by how popular she was with the audience—at that time the show was very much in the vein of playing up a few big and almost exclusively male characters. My in-blog request:

Take the gamble, restore Survivor to its ensemble origins and tell the women’s story as well, even if you don’t find it as exciting.

So I was delighted when the second episode of this season was dominated by so many women who would have been invisible five years ago. Not only were their stories told, they were told sympathetically. Even Simone got a full story-arc in one episode as she went from complaining about air conditioning to successfully aquadumping and gutting a fish, and then was credited for her fight to save herself from the vote. Meanwhile Chrissy and Ali were portrayed as the respective masterminds of their tribes, over more proven fan-favorite archetypes in Ben and Ryan.

Ryan is still the clear leader in confessionals so far, but the next three are all women: Jessica, Lauren, and Ali. (As always, thanks to Redditor m4milo for keeping track.) I’m probably the most delighted by Lauren’s airtime, because she’s fighting tooth and nail, but in the most quiet and measured manner possible, and I’m thrilled the show is willing to trust the audience to engage with her. I’m also excited to see Chrissy getting so much credit for being a nerdy mathematician rather than a mother—it’s her fellow middle-aged nerd, Mike, who’s shown talking about his kids.

That’s at least partly due to Chrissy herself, who admits in her post-swap webclip that she’s trying to mention her family as little as possible, because she doesn’t want the younger players relating to her as a Mom. It’s a reminder that however much the show has changed its ways, the players still have their own biases about women on Survivor.

In the most recent episode alone we saw men making executive decisions on strategy without consulting their female ally. (Cole with Jessica, Joe with Desi, and possibly Alan with Ashley as well.) When Levu were talking about voting off “the weakest link” it was the two women’s names coming up. Ashley and Desi are two of the strongest women in the game, Ashley must be a great swimmer, and Desi’s probably the closest thing Levu has to the ever vital “puzzle person.” Joe, on the other hand, only learned to swim once he got cast on the show, he struggled to climb the tower in the first immunity challenge and sat out of the one water challenge they’ve had.

Still, the show continues to give Jessica, Ali, Desi, Ashley, Chrissy and Lauren credit for their own strategic moves in the game. (At some point, they might even make Roark relevant too.) It doesn’t necessarily match the perceptions of their tribemates, but there’s a round of player-hopefuls watching this season who will come away more biased towards the perception of women as serious players.

Moreover and more personally, there’s a wide range of women watching this season who unexpectedly have a player they can identify with, somebody whose story resonates with or inspires them. It’s a rare treat to have a Survivor season where I not only feel represented, but I have that player’s story presented to me on screen instead of having to piece it together from secret scenes and interviews. For that, I am immensely grateful.

That wraps up this round of déjà vu! Let’s hope the next few episodes give us some fresh material to delve into and save me the temptation of retreading well-worn arguments…

P.S. Roark, Chrissy… Stop talking about women’s alliances.

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