Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: Crawling Towards Apotheosis

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: Crawling Towards Apotheosis

Survivor Game Changers: Crawling Towards Apotheosis

One of the (many, many, many) things that I find fascinating about Survivor is how the game breaks down into its different phases. Pre-merge, post-merge, and final tribal were the original phases, but then they’ve added layered twists on top. Tribal shuffles, Exile Island, and returning castaways have each added their own breakpoint to the game. Each season we have notable events that we spend a lot of time talking and writing about, including here in the Diplomatic View, that don’t end up affecting the outcome of the game.

I won’t argue that Russell’s ouster of Tyson and Rob didn’t chart the course for the Heroes vs Villains season, but that’s not always the case. There have been a fair number of pre-merge events that didn’t have long term impact: Sometimes we get a good laugh about it (remember the ‘I fell in love out here’ eviction?); other times we’re all vaguely uncomfortable (looking at you Brandon Hantz), but in the end those moments didn’t help crown the winner.

Where we are now, however, is quite another story. We’ve talked in the past about how a tribe doesn’t really know where the lines of loyalty lie until they go to tribal council. Up until that point it’s all still very much theoretical. Since the beginning, the same is true of alliances post-merge. Beyond the lesson that Brad and Sierra were taught last week about the transient nature of loyalty in Survivor, there’s also the question of what happens when the alliance can’t agree on who should be going home.


When you think about it, there are really three things that tend to drive an alliance apart post-merge. The first is when someone realizes they’re not happy with their position in game so they decide to shake things up, the second is when the alliance no longer has anyone else to target (all opponents either gone from the game or immune), and the third is when there is a significant schism in the alliance over who should go home next. This third aspect can be the most violent devolution of an alliance, because often it offers hints as to what various players’ strategies are for when the alliance comes apart, and sometimes it triggers those end game scenarios while there are still far too many players left in the game.

If at all possible, as a player on Survivor, you want to avoid being the person to first throw out names (a lesson Ciera learned this season). While you want to be part of the decision, being seen as driving too much of the action can be risky; plus, you give information away. There’s a party game called ‘Werewolf’ where two players can be designated ‘the Lovers’. Those players are never allowed to even hint at eliminating the other person. On Survivor, crafty players will pick up on the fact that you never point towards certain players when discussing elimination.

It’s why my favorite answer to the question of ‘Who do you think it should be?’ Has always been, ‘I don’t know–who do you want to go?’ If there’s a goat I’d like to sit with at the end, who isn’t in our alliance, I’m going to move heaven and earth to keep you from voting that person out… but if I can keep that information hidden, that’s better for me.


Cases where allies have vastly different targets tend to put things to the ultimate test, because they can be framed as a question, ‘Who are you most loyal to?’ When people don’t like the answer, it can be the opening door to a bloodbath. With ten people left in the game, the members of your alliance who are looking for a different approach will find people willing, if not eager, to hear arguments from them. When players find themselves in the situation of really wanting, or needing, one specific player to be voted out and their alliance disagrees… they have a set of options to choose from, some of which are quite dangerous.

The option we’ve seen people try before, and only Russell has managed to pull off, is bullying your alliance into eliminating the player that you want gone. This is, generally speaking, the worst idea ever. Disagreement over who should go home is an indication of potential stress fractures in an alliance. Bullying your alliance to vote for a target over their objections is the equivalent of hitting those fractures with a sledgehammer.

It’s basic human nature that when you push on someone who has made his/her opinion clear, the first response is to dig in that much deeper. The problem some players have is they confuse the concept of being in control with being the shot-caller for every single decision that’s made. ‘You get more flies with honey than you do with a sledgehammer,’ may not be a saying yet, but it should be. At a certain point, bullying won’t convince someone to change their mind, it will just get them to find someone else who agrees with them. That’s a direct course charted for a blindside.

Even if bullying works in the short-term, it almost always has long-term consequences. If someone does vote out a friend or ally because they were forced into it, they are unlikely to forget why. Each time they see their intended target sitting around camp and see their friend’s empty spot by the fire, they’re going to remember that they were powerless to save their friend. If they weren’t someone whose loyalty was in question before, they certainly are now. For Russell in Heroes vs Villains, it was also a strategic blunder to ignore the advice of his alliance mates since it meant someone got to sit at final tribal who was untainted by association with Russell.


The second strategy we’ve seen is to approach other members of the alliance as if they’re the key to a decision that you need to have happen. In other words: wheedle, cajole, and beg. This can be a little more successful since, inherently, you’re working from a place of no perceived power. Regardless of whether you think you’re in control, by reinforcing to someone that they have the power in the situation, you subconsciously put pressure on them to help you.  It’s a strong play, but the risk of the play is that when that key vote says ‘No,’ you have no other course to take.  If you keep asking, you risk the other members of your alliance thinking that you’re as powerless as you’re presenting yourself to be.

The third strategy we’ve seen, with more success, is kicking the decision down the road another three days. It seemed that this week we might get just that. As Tai votes became appearing it seemed like Andrea and Sarah may have decided to take out an alternate target and leave both Sierra and Zeke be for the moment. While bullying is an aggressively bad choice, and wheedling can make people question your position in the hierarchy… delaying the decision has its own kind of dangers.

On the surface, you’re keeping your allies happy and you’re still voting out someone who is on the other side. Those are both reasons to celebrate, but they don’t change the underlying facts that made you want your original target out. In a perfect world, deferring this decision doesn’t have consequences, but on Survivor it does. Every person eliminated from the game is an additional tick of the countdown clock, a number that you can’t use to get your true target out. What’s more, if that target is a contender to win individual immunity there is always the chance that the window to eliminate the player will never open again.

Beyond all of that, though, is the fact that this is a player whom your ally chose over you, and who is still in the game. Moreover, your ally will inevitably share with that player that you wanted them gone… so you can bet they will start putting pressure on your ally to target you… and that ally has already sided against you once. In the early game, it really doesn’t matter who goes home… but in the late game once you’ve put out a name, there are consequences if you miss. My general feeling is that, in this late game phase, once you’ve put someone’s name out there you have to do everything possible to send them home. If they stick around, you have to assume they’ll come for you next.


This was a stand out episode for Cirie, in part because she gave a master class on how to bend the vote, though the editors hid part of the lesson plan from us. It started with her putting in work before immunity was resolved with the question of whether maybe they should target Zeke to Sarah. When Sarah immediately shut that conversation down, Cirie didn’t just pick it back up and push. There was plenty of time to re-approach the problem, and she was willing to let Andrea carry some of the water for the argument as well. By letting Andrea be the aggressive one in the conversation, Cirie also protected herself from possible blowback.

What was important was that, while she deferred conversationally to what Sarah wanted to do, she didn’t just immediately accede to Sarah’s wishes. Last week, it was important that they do so, as they needed to cement Sarah’s loyalty, but this week Sarah is part of their group. While there is no line drawn in cement on the Maku Maku beach, Sarah has to know that constantly flipping is rarely rewarded at the final. That being the case, she has every reason to find a way to stay loyal to Cirie and Andrea, and given time to consider her options, the situation they present is far better for her than Zeke’s proposed final five.

I do think that if Sarah didn’t seem willing to eventually send Zeke home, then Cirie would have potentially backed off. The key to this week was that Sarah repeatedly discussed not taking him to the end, just taking him a little farther in the game. Zeke is a dangerous player, with the best story of everyone on the island at this point. Sarah’s tacit acknowledgement of that let Cirie know that it wasn’t impossible to get her to turn on Zeke… Cirie just had to find the right argument.


Diplomatic Disqus

Andy Pfeiffer keeps scoring hits and had spun off an excellent conversation regarding the old school game vs the current game. Particularly, we dwelled on how the old school assumption that your alliance is going to stay locked in, has no place in the current game.

More players need to take initiative to ensure their votes are loyal while not being found out. Promise final threes as needed, but tell people you’re giving someone else a different story so they remain loyal. Just don’t do that to every single person because that increases the likelihood that they compare notes. This part is trickiest in the early merge when you need so many numbers to stay loyal. Not everyone is a Kim Spradlin.

One of the key traits that the most impactful, not necessarily successful, have is that they commit a lot of energy into making sure that they know who is talking to him, how people are feeling, and what kind of action / reaction is ‘in their range’. The really good ones also try to have a personal connection / relationship with each of their fellow survivors… even if it’s some form of respectful loathing that at least establishes parameters.

It’s not so much making each person think you have a final three deal with them, but knowing where they think their options might be… so that you can make sure to gradually kick those options out of the game. The number of people we still have in the game is so large, and there were so many relationships, that Debbie et al really had no excuse for not seeing the train coming.

Though to Sarah’s credit, as I’ll talk about later, her tribal council game is extremely good.

Damnbueno referenced Michaela knowing that it’s safe to break out a snack at tribal council:

I’m not sure how she’s done it, but Michaela has had a pretty solid informant every time. First it was Sandra, then it was Cirie. When you’re aligned with absolutely elite players, your information is usually pretty good. Also, Michaela knows she’s been on the bottom for a while. Its kind of hard to be blindsided when you’re expecting to see your name coming up out of that Urn.

Michaela has been extremely lucky. First Sandra, and then Cirie saw her as a necessary number so they roped her in. For Cirie, she was looking downstream at potential numbers, for Sandra I think it was a more immediate need. However you look at it, she’s essentially learning the game at the feet of the masters. It’s why I’m not quite buying the previews from last week, because I can’t imagine that she’s going to turn around and stab Cirie in the back. Mind you, if she does it’s going to be a legendary play.


Key Points in Episode Nine: A Line Drawn in Concrete

Sometimes the Optimal Strategy Gets You Into Trouble

Zeke’s thought to create a final five that didn’t include Cirie and Andrea wasn’t a bad thing. He knows that Andrea didn’t have good intentions for him, which means if he made it with them to a final five he was going to be in trouble. The problem is that the final five he proposed to Sarah was extremely good for him, and not very good for Sarah. In the proposed final five, at best, Sarah would have had the loyalty of Michaela, and that’s it. Troyzan and Brad would clearly have owed more loyalty to Zeke than to Sarah, and it wouldn’t have taken a lot of imagination for Sarah to see the trap coming.

We know from Sarah’s confessional that she didn’t see Zeke as final three material; she just didn’t want to send him out of the game just yet. The final five that Zeke proposed didn’t give Sarah that as an option. To work towards that proposed final five, they would have had to immediately turn to elimination of Cirie, Andrea and Aubry. Even if Sarah was to assume that there was going to be loyalty from Brad and Troyzan, the path to that final five was going to swiftly tilt the playing field in the direction of people that Sarah had just chosen not to work with.

I have to think this weighed things against Sarah moving forward with Zeke in the game, and I think this was a mistake by Zeke. It’s so easy to fall into the perfection trap, of trying to get a situation where every possible factor aligns with your best case scenario. With the exception of someone who has complete control of the game, trying to get that kind of scenario is the most blatant type of avarice. Zeke, as much as he is liked in the game, wasn’t in control and was trying to shelter behind Sarah in order to eliminate the immediate threats to his game. Pushing for his perfect top five, was probably a bit too much.

Part of the problem is the situation, in that there are very few final five arrangements that would work well for both Zeke and Sarah. They’ve each made decisions that pushed different groups of people out of power, and there’s almost no road map to a ‘balanced’ final five that works well for them both.

We know that Zeke wasn’t comfortable with his situation in the game as early as several episodes ago. He was facing a situation where he didn’t have power any longer, and had to just keep his head down and get along to get by. We saw him ecstatic that he could go back to what he considered a winning strategy last season, removing power players and hiding in the shadows. The problem for Zeke is that Sarah was one of those power players and was his primary protection left in the game.

Zeke was never going to be able to put forward a final five that was good for them both, and wasn’t willing to put forward one that made him even more dependent on Sarah for survival (like say a Zeke, Sarah, Andrea, Cirie, Aubry final five). If he saw Sarah as an elite, or even very good player, he likely would not have suggested the final five he put forward. He would have seen his best play, if he had to get control, would have been to try to form a block with Troyzan, Tai, Sierra Dawn Thomas, and Brad, and try to get Aubry to flip.

While we don’t know exactly what caused Sarah to choose against Zeke, I think he clearly underestimated Sarah’s ability to read the tea leaves for her fate at final five, and that underestimation of her game savvy was a contributing factor in her deciding it was time to go.


Weaving a Cat’s Cradle

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m a fan of Cirie, but I wanted to swing back to a few specific things about her influence of Sarah this episode and her game plan in general. I’ve always felt that Cirie has a very subtle touch in this game, but she excels at knowing the right spot to apply that touch for maximum benefit.  While I criticized her for not trying a bigger move at Hali’s final tribal council, I overlooked the fact that the move she did make was one with no downside.

Cirie wasn’t on the chopping block, so she knew she had time. She was able to gain an ally in Michaela while watching someone who wasn’t more than a number head home. Most importantly, she stayed behind the scenes, where a big disruption targeted at Brad would have turned it into a Brad vs Cirie situation. It’s not uncommon for those kind of situations to resolve with both players going home quickly.

Last week, we got to see the result of her not closing the door on Sarah when Sarah came back home and Debbie got sent to Ponderosa. This week, early on, we saw that Sarah clearly trusts her, because she revealed her advantage. At tribal council that loyalty to (or ability to be influenced by) Cirie was again on display as she said ‘I love you’ to Zeke as she sent him out of the game.

All of this has occurred without Cirie appearing to be at the core of her alliance. To Troy, Tai, and Brad, Sarah seems like the focus point for that alliance, with Andrea and Aubry looming large behind the elimination of Zeke. Yet while no one is pointing a finger at Cirie, none of them will have a hard time accepting that she deserves credit for what’s happened when she finally steps forward to claim it. Of course that also means no one will doubt it if someone else says she has to go, either.

I started out this season hoping Cirie would win, but not seeing any way that she could. In fact I mentioned that in an article last season before I even knew she was coming back. She was helped immeasurably by the fact that she avoided tribal council for the majority of the game thus far, but she seems to be doing all the right moves to get her far in the game. The issue she faces: She will either need to win the final immunity herself or have someone with 100% locked in loyalty who is willing to hand her 1 million dollars win it. I’m still not sure if she can do either of those things… but it’s been great to watch so far.


Loose Lips Lead to Immunity Idols Being Played

While some will say that Sarah is floating, or flipping alliances, I actually see Sarah as playing a wide open game that relies on the game-savvy of her competitors. She knows that, largely, this group of former players know what they’re doing and will respect the occasional ‘mission based’ votes (such as the removal of Ozzy) if they fit into an overall strategy of working with them… or if they simply need the numbers.

One of the most impressive things about Sarah is her tribal council game. We know that Jeff Probst is the Chief Prosecutor and judge at tribal council, and we’ve seen more than one player say the wrong thing and impressively wreck their game in response. Sarah has walked into two consecutive tribal councils, either as a swing vote or someone about to eliminate one of her (perceived) allies, and has stuck to the script that would keep the player feeling safe and sound.

There is every chance if Sarah had made a speech last week about needing to change the game that Tai might have panic-played an idol (though it wouldn’t have gone to protect Debbie). Sarah may not know that there are idols, or who has them, but she has to know it’s a possibility. Some players respond to that by trying not to give Probst any information at all, and that might set off alarm bells too. Sarah’s persona in the tribal council is exactly what the people she’s about to shank expect it to be, which should scare her allies a little bit.

I’m not sure if it’s her law enforcement background, or that she’s spent some time looking at successful players of seasons past, but it’s something that should serve her well as we head towards the end of the game.



  • As Tribal council moves forward, I try to figure out who voted where and figure out what’s happening as the votes are read. I tend to skip past the voting process so I don’t get those clues. This tribal council I must have scrapped three different models, but I’m proud to say I predicted the Zeke boot before the first Zeke vote was read.
  • For Sarah, moving forward with Cirie and Andrea gives her the best chance because neither Andrea nor Cirie will want to be together at final… Sarah will be a key vote in their play against each other.
  • It’s fascinating to watch as the votes come in, when players realize their math is wrong. This week it was the third vote for Zeke. At that point everyone seemed to get the sense that this was going the wrong way for him, and the fourth vote just removed any doubt.
  • It remains to be seen whether Hali (Game Changers) or Debbie (Idiots) was correct regarding the play. I’m okay with it. I think Zeke was stirring the pot, and that’s a bad thing at this point in the game.


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

I have a lot of respect for Zeke and his game in general, but in looking back on his two seasons so far, it’s possible that we’ve given him too much credit. He’s put himself in positions to have a fair share of influence over the game, but in each case there wasn’t a clear path for him to the end. He’s an extremely effective spoiler, having exposed Andrea / Cirie / Aubry’s plans to Brad and Sierra, but he did it in such a way that he was burned almost as thoroughly as they were. In fact, he was almost sent home for his trouble. I’d be interested in seeing him play a third season, but he’d have to adapt his game… right now he’s sort of an Abi-Maria with a better resume.

One of the most interesting parts of the tribal council this week was how split the votes of the former ‘power alliance’ were and how little impact that had on the resulting vote. How will Sierra and Tai react to their names having been written down by their former alliance mates? How did that particular vote split happen? Clearly, the different parts of that alliance were being told different things, and they went along with it… so what’s their next step?

For Sierra, nothing about this vote closed a door for her. While the current alliance in power didn’t vote in the direction they pointed her in, she clearly didn’t end up a target, so she has options moving forward. For Tai, this can only reinforce his feeling that he’s on the bottom looking up, which makes you wonder if his idols are going to come into play either at tribal council or as a tool to make inroads with the greater alliance.

The clock is ticking on this season, and we have three immunity idols (plus one inactive) and a vote steal advantage still waiting to be played. There is every chance that our favorite players won’t make it through to the final… but it should be a fascinating ride to get there.


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