Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: A Study in Choices

Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.

Diplomatic View: A Study in Choices

Survivor Game Changers: A Study in Choices

As a Survivor fan, I love double episodes. As the author of the Diplomatic View, I greet double episodes with a little more trepidation because on a fairly regular basis the producers double up when there isn’t much of consequence to happen in the episodes. So when I tuned in Wednesday night, I was half expecting that there wouldn’t be much to write about other than looking ahead to the true shake-out of power as the game went on. Thankfully, I was wrong, as even the obvious boot of Hali had additional machinations going on in the background. What this episode had in store for us was a massive misplay by a player whose game I respect, and an A++ move from the player I least expected to ever make one.

One thing I wrote about last year, at some length, was the myth of the big move.  To summarize the issues I raised in that column, I think all of the harping on ‘Big Moves’ or, in the context of this season, being a ‘Game Changer’ gets people to do randomly destructive things that don’t advance their game at all. When a player makes a big move as part of a larger strategy? It’s awesome regardless of the timing or the player that gets blindsided because of it. Too often, though, the players who make those moves don’t have a plan, aren’t positioned to benefit from it, and essentially ruin the game of a better player to the benefit of another, also better, player. In that article, specifically in the context of Will flipping on Zeke, I noted that Will didn’t really have an answer to the question of “Yes, and…..?” More so, the only path ahead he left himself was extremely difficult to navigate, and as it turned out, he wasn’t up to the task.

Making the wrong ‘Big Move’, or not making a ‘Big Move’ at all, is the choice that often sinks a player’s game. We’ve seen players like Kass essentially play ‘Chaos confetti’, making move after move until they get voted out, spinning like a top because they change allegiance too often. We’ve also seen players wait too long to make a move and be robbed of their choices (You could argue that Parvati would have won Heroes vs Villains if she’d gotten rid of Russell in brief moments when he was vulnerable). The right move, at the right time, makes you a legend… Everything else makes you an also ran, a footnote in the history of the game. I’m not going to lie and say that it’s easy to spot the right move to make and the right time to make it, but often you can spot the bad ones before you pull the trigger. This week we saw players making bad moves, players not making a move when they should have, and a player making a nearly perfect move.


So that brings us to Zeke this week, whose play in the second episode was the epitome of ‘Game Changers’ in all the worst ways. To revisit the situation, Andrea and Cirie had reached out to Zeke as an ally against the alliance focused around Brad and Sierra (who, all of a sudden, has been cast as the Dawnfather). Their argument, accurately, was that in a fairly short period of time after Hali and Michaela were scheduled to be executed, they would find themselves on the wrong side of the numbers. They laid out the fact that they were going to quickly run out of time and numbers so needed to turn the situation around when the timing was right. Zeke played along with this planning, but then decided he would stand a better chance standing alongside Brad and Sierra because Andrea and Cirie were too tight.

If this had happened before the merge feast, I would have said this was a case of malnutrition or stress getting to Zeke, but I honestly don’t think it’s the case. I even understand what led Zeke to think this was a workable plan. If one assumes that Cirie, based on Fans vs Favorites, is able to create a tight women’s alliance, then an alliance seemingly dominated by either Culpepper or the Dawnfather is a safer coalition. It’s possible that in Zeke’s thinking the former case, when it gets down to three, would result in Andrea / Cirie turning against him and voting him out. Whereas in the latter case, Sierra and Culpepper would ostensibly be more likely to pull him in against the other. So I don’t think this move by Zeke was simply him being addle-brained. The problem is, when he made this decision they were at 12 members of the tribe, not four members of the tribe… and the Sierra / Culpepper alliance is extremely unlikely to take a player like Zeke far enough for the 3 or 4 player decision point to matter. Essentially Zeke was trading down, from a potential final 3 with Andrea / Cirie to a 6 or 7 spot with Culpepper / Sierra.

That fact alone should have been enough to get Zeke to change his approach. Beyond that, Zeke completely ignored the fact that he is seen as being tight with Cirie and Andrea. This means that the initial response to his attempt to flip would be a huge dose of skepticism. Culpepper and Sierra are just as capable of reading the tea leaves as everyone else, they had to see that Zeke was trading down… and that they hadn’t really done anything to inspire that change of loyalty. As an additional factor, Zeke has shown himself in this season (the only time they’ve seen him play) to be pretty savvy, so they have every reason to see him as too dangerous to keep as a number. Taken together, all of these factors mean that Culpepper and Sierra had almost no reason to trust Zeke and every reason to plan for an early exit for him even if they did believe him.

My only quibble with Zeke’s play last season, was that while he was well positioned with ties to every player… there were no players who had strong and exclusive ties to him. He was a nexus point of a coalition of loose loyalties (or ‘voting blocs’ if you must). This meant it was fairly easy for one or two people to slip the leash of his social control and vote him out. In fact, he voted out one of his closest allies in that game. I wasn’t sure if he’d adjust his game this time around, and it seemed like he had initially… but now I’m not so sure. As Zeke has said, his strategy is reliant on always having a bigger threat (i.e. a ‘stalking horse’) that can be a target while he gets further in the game. In theory, flipping loyalty to Brad and Sierra would mean that he’d end up far down the target list for either group. Brad and Sierra would, likely, target Cirie and Andrea, while Cirie and Andrea would still try to get Brad or Sierra out. This could have been how things played out, but it ignores two factors. First, the natural instinct to get revenge on players who betrayed you. Secondly, that people want to work with reliable players in the game and so people who flip alliances can often find themselves voted out once the alliance they flip to gets control.


The antithesis of this maneuver was Debbie’s surgical strike against Ozzy. I honestly feel a little bit sorry for Ozzy, everyone loves him in the pre-merge phase of the game… They’re more than happy to have full bellies and the advantage during immunity challenges. However, no player wants to play with Ozzy after that merge. He’s still an immunity challenge monster, he has a reasonable social game in that everyone likes him, and because of his reputation in the game everyone thinks he’s destined to win the game if he gets to final tribal. Now, it could be argued, Ozzy should see it coming by this point and should play a more aggressive game to insure his own safety. The game style he plays works well for him, but it has a marked expiration point, and he hasn’t changed his approach to the game to account for that. I’m not sure that, other than taking complete control of a season (i.e. Boston Rob), Ozzy will ever be able to get all that deep into a season of Survivor if he plays again.

Still, outside of the staged drama of the tribal council that sent Sandra home, there hadn’t been a serious threat against Ozzy. Until Debbie decided that his time had come. We’d heard Ozzy’s name brought up on the beach before now, but it hadn’t really gained any momentum. That’s what made the pace of Debbie’s move so surprising. With turmoil brewing in camp and a swing of votes in the direction of Zeke, Debbie recognized that the environment was perfect for switching the target to a far more dangerous opponent. What’s more, Debbie didn’t dither and didn’t open it up for discussion. She went to each of the people whose vote she needed, told them whom to vote for, and walked away. That simply, the votes were locked up and the fix was in.

I’m not sure where Debbie found a copy of my textbook: ‘How to Execute a Coup’, but she basically hit all of the key points you’d find in its pages: take out a target worthy of the effort; lock in the votes and make it clear to everyone that regardless of what else they hear the vote doesn’t change; never bring it up again until the time comes to write down your vote. No targeting pawns, no endlessly debating the ouster so your target gets word of it, and no giving the target a warning that gives them time to try to flip the votes. Debbie was ruthless, focused, and effective. I am, admittedly, shocked that there is a stone cold killer bundled inside that somewhat crazy packaging.

As for the move that wasn’t made? More on that later.


Diplomatic Disqus

Shockingly enough, there was a lot to talk about in last week’s comments section. I think there was a lot of good stuff in the comments last week, and I highly recommend reading some of your fellow readers takes on the events of last week. As much as I appreciated everyone’s involvement, I’m going to focus on the non-Varner parts of those comments this week.

Damnbueno chimed in this week, with a comparison of Brad this year, and Zeke last year.

Brad has pulled together a loose, but incredibly powerful coalition.” — I think Brad is in a similar position as Zeke last season — on good footing with many, but not on GREAT footing with anyone. Who are his final 3 partners? He isn’t even aware that Sierra wants all the alpha males out. Next to Ozzy or maybe Cirie, Brad is the next biggest target in the game, and he doesn’t seem to know it.

I hadn’t thought of it that way, because I see Brad as more tightly bound with Sierra or Tai. The key problem there being that we know just how malleable Tai is and that Sierra is thinking of her past mistakes, Brad could easily find his first warning of a precarious position being when he gets blindsided.

Andy Pfeiffer shares a prediction that, much like my own, got blown up this week:

I expect it to be the Tavua group versus Culpepper’s team. The Tavua group is Ozzy, Andrea, Zeke, Sarah, and defector Debbie. Culpepper has himself, Sierra, Troy, and Aubry.
This leaves Cirie, Tai, Hali, and Michaela – three of whom are currently on Culpepper’s tribe – in the middle.

This was a prediction that made a lot of sense. But giving the way our season works, that didn’t quite work out. Shockingly, Debbie hitched her wagon to Brad, Zeke exploded his alliances, and less shockingly Hali got sent home. Going forward, it would seem like the Brad / Sierra alliance has a clear advantage… but the keyword there is ‘seem’.  After all, three of their most powerful pieces lie in somewhat unstable hands.

Sadly, with all of the comments, none of us know what the hell was up with the pizza box.


Key Points: There’s a New Sheriff In Town

An All-time Pulls The Wrong Trigger

I absolutely hate the ‘obvious boot’. With only the rarest of rare exception, I think when players concede a vote to get rid of a non-threatening, essentially non-aligned player, they are bypassing an opportunity to get someone out who could be a threat down the road. In a way, you can say that I agree with everything Hali said at Tribal Council before she got sent home. We’ve talked about how players are reluctant to make moves that directly target their biggest opponents, on the theory that if they delay the fight that’s coming they’ll be in less danger and get farther in the game. This theory is true… but it ignores that face that every unaligned player who goes home is one more advantage towards the controlling alliance. Veterans tend to play bolder games, which is why I was so disappointed with Hali’s boot. Not because I’ll miss her gameplay, but because we missed a chance for Cirie to take control of the game.

Cirie was focused on saving Michaela as a useful number down the road, which is something I agree with, and we saw her execute that strategy well. She managed to nudge the vote against Hali without overselling her case, she got Michaela to not make too large of a scene at camp, and she managed to camouflage the move completely since Michaela was on the ‘outside’ of the elimination vote. But what if Cirie had pulled the trigger and tried to eliminate Brad or Sierra? We saw in the second episode that Ozzy was in her circle of trust, so she actually had the seven votes she needed to flip the table. While Cirie ‘foiled’ Brad’s initial plan of having Michaela go home, she didn’t change the context of the argument. She accepted his premise that either Hali or Michaela had to go; she just tweaked the targeting.

If she’d rejected Brad’s premise entirely and looked around, she could have removed Brad or Sierra from the game… or at least tried. We can be fairly certain that the following players would have voted with her against Brad: Hali, Michaela, Cirie, Sarah, Ozzy, Aubry, and Andrea. Even without Zeke they would have had the numbers they needed. Now obviously, there is a big risk involved here, since she would have included Zeke in her planning and Zeke might have flipped that much earlier. Unlike Zeke’s move later in the game, however, it would have been a big move that would have seemingly given her control of the game (since she’s not aware of the *3* idols on the other side). That’s the time and place where the risk involved is worth it.

However, the move that Cirie did make? Saving Michaela and completely camouflaging the move– she executed flawlessly. The editing placed a lot of emphasis on Michaela’s feeling re: Cirie and for her hope of them both getting to final tribal. Either we’re heading towards Survivor history… or we’re heading for an Abi-Maria / Kass moment in the near future.


Debbie Executes the Cochran Maneuver, and More

The big question after Exile Island was whether Debbie would be willing, or able, to implement the strategy suggested by Cochran. He was firm on the fact that she should cozy up to Brad to remove herself from his threat radar, but I really doubted Debbie’s ability to do that… given that we know she can be volatile. Debbie’s play this week suggests that there might be a bit more than meets the eye, and I’m not just talking about her mooning everyone.

First, her apology to Brad was a thing of beauty. I’ve seen it stated that she was over-the-top and that it meant it wasn’t believable… but let’s remember how outsized her tantrum was and that she does everything over-the-top. If her apology had been more reserved, then Brad might have read it as an act or a fake apology, and he would likely have lumped her in with Hali and Michaela as potential targets. So Debbie all but prostrated herself in front of Brad and he ate it up hook, line, and sinker. I wouldn’t bet against Debbie making some comment when she finally votes out Brad that he’s had this coming for awhile.

The other act of camouflage, that I will admit was masterful, was Debbie’s pretending to be drunk at the merge feast. While watching the episode live, I admit I didn’t believe she was faking it. But on re-watching it, and thinking about it, I’m thinking that it was a little bit closer to an act of genius. At the merge, people start thinking about who they want to sit beside at the final tribal council. Is there anyone who didn’t pencil in Debbie as the crazy goat they’d like to bring with them? The big question of course remains: If she does get to final tribal council, will she have any kind of case to make to win the game? I’m still firmly in the ‘no’ camp, but I’ll admit I’ll be watching her more closely than I was.


Zeke’s Sets His Diplomatic Capital On Fire

I’m a big fan of Zeke, but outside of the factors that I listed in my opening argument, there are two additional reasons that I don’t like his move this week. Let’s set aside all of the previous arguments, assume that everything had worked out as he’d wanted, and that Cirie had gone home. Zeke would have found himself, essentially, in the Chaos Kass position. His previous allies would have felt betrayed and unable to trust him, and the alliance he’d voted with would have known without a doubt that he was someone they couldn’t trust long term. That is an extremely difficult position to operate from. Who would want to discuss a game move with him, knowing that he’d previously taken those discussions straight to an enemy? Even if Brad and Sierra had trusted him for a specific anti-Cirie vote… they wouldn’t have trusted him long term. As it was, he got the bad part of that without getting the end result he wanted.

Last week, after what happened with Varner, Zeke had a ton of diplomatic capital built up with his tribemates. While that isn’t enough, on its own, to position you to win in the game it does give you a bit of extra room to maneuver. Let’s be clear, a returning player season already is generally friendlier, when there are no Hantzes involved. These are players who are part of the larger Survivor family, and they spend a fair amount of time in company with each other. So they are predisposed to like each other, and those bonds were only reinforced when they came together to support him.

That diplomatic, and emotional, capital wouldn’t make someone ally with Zeke who wasn’t already allied… but it might make them less likely to put him out as a target. It could also mean that when alliances break down and reform, they might look to him to be a number on their side. Our emotions, empathy, and affection all have an indelible imprint on our decision-making patterns, and we’ve certainly seen that affect before in game. Zeke’s maneuvers this week essentially threw all of that out. In fact, in the cases of players like Andrea and Sarah, who were witnesses at the Varner tribal and feel like they were close to and defended him, it might resonate as a betrayal because they think of him as more than simply an in-game ally.

As an aside, the rest of this game was always going to be tricky for Zeke to navigate because of what happened. There are those who might have been inclined to ally with him, those who’d be on the lookout for producer bias in his favor, and those who think they wouldn’t be able to vote him out. We heard several people say this week, accurately, that Zeke has the best story… and he does. Pointing that out isn’t biased, it’s an acknowledgement of a factor that’s affected votes before. For myself, if I was on the island, I would do what Zeke would want me to do: make my decisions completely blind to his gender identity and status.

Dangerous players should be voted out of the game. Despite this week’s mistakes, Zeke is a dangerous player. When his eventual vote out happens, I hope he takes it in the same complimentary vein that Aubry, Brad, Ozzy, and Cirie should.



  • Debbie invented tip-toes.
  • On Ponderosa, Hali is creating art installations and enjoying saying the word ‘booty’.
  • Ironically, this was a vote where the extra vote *might* have made a difference… but again it didn’t.
  • Ozzy’s first words at Ponderosa: Where’s the beer?


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

We’ve had a number of significant players make it safely to the merge, which I’m fairly excited to see. What I’m not so certain is how long we’ll stay that way. There aren’t a lot of miscellaneous players to be eliminated at this point, as some of the players that we as fans are less interested in aren’t going anywhere any time soon. So the biggest question will be whether the Brad / Sierra alliance will start to target players like Cirie, Andrea, Aubry and Zeke, and whether those players will come together to try to swing back before the numbers (and the number of idols) make that impossible.


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