Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: One Big Unhappy Family

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: One Big Unhappy Family

Survivor Game Changers: One Big Unhappy Family

One of the coolest aspects of writing the Diplomatic View here on RHAP is collaborating with others who are similarly geeked up about the possibilities of a season of the show. A fair amount of that collaboration involves spit balling about crazy things you’d like to see happen, but which you don’t think will. Before this season Dan Heaton invited Sarah Channon and myself to chat with him about the season on a Preview Podcast. There were several outlandish thoughts thrown out there, one of which was my ideal circumstance where at sixteen players the tribes would split into four tribes. Dan Heaton’s contribution to the crazy theory was that there should then be an immunity challenge where the safe teams vote off a member of the teams that lose the challenge.

We were so very, very, very close to that crazy idea coming to life, maybe the producers can steal that idea for next year. I spent much of the 48 hours leading up to the episode thinking that it was going to happen. Instead of being disappointed by what actually happened I was served up possibly the best tribal council ever, in terms of sheer insanity and enjoyment.

We touched briefly on why Survivor relies on doing some form of tribal shake-up now, but what we didn’t really touch on is why Survivor keeps throwing out new and different advantages, twists, and gimmicks from season to season. We’ve all seen seasons where players predict upcoming loved one visits, and tribe swaps, those are standard features of the game at this point. Players build their strategies based on the twists they’ve seen before, and the broad types of challenges that have come up in previous seasons (for example: who wants to lay odds that there won’t be some form of ‘stand on a block with your arms over your head and if you drop them you get doused’ challenge this season).

In order to keep players a little off-balance there has to be a sense that, as Julie Chen likes to say, ‘Anything can happen.’ Each element of uncertainty gives the players an unidentified variable to calculate against, not just in the season it first comes to pass, but in future seasons. It’s why the tribal swap has been done in several different ways (one season you’re sending ambassadors, the next season those are the players that go). While there’s almost no chance we’ll see another season with a mutiny, you can be certain that there are players out there doing the mental math just in case Probst gives them 15 seconds to decide to switch teams.

Given a season with returning players, some of who are back for their fourth time, the producers had to dig deep into the bag to come up with new twists. We’ve already seen two rarely used twists (two tribes splitting into three, and immunity idol at a challenge), but a player that did their homework would know those were certainly possible. What could the producer’s do that almost no player would have planned for in advance? That would be this week’s ultimate shake-up, when two separate tribes came together to vote off one player from the island.

We have, occasionally, seen two tribes at tribal council. We’ve seen one tribe given the chance to watch the other squirm; we’ve seen one tribe have the chance to grant immunity to someone else. But a tribe having the power to vote off someone else pre-merge? That was definitely new, and given that it came just after the swap, we had a wide range of possible elimination victims… and the added factor of an immunity idol meant all bets were off.


Diplomatic Disqus

Michel Trudeau chimed in regarding Brad’s choice to eliminate Caleb, and suggested that Brad’s predictable play was going to get him into trouble.

I always prefered Sun Tzu’s strategy to Clausewitz and a large part of “The Art of War” is being unpredictable. In that sense, Brad failed. Not as much as Caleb of course but still, in the long run, his predictable approach should cause his elimination.

I’m generally a fan of Sun Tzu as well, but I think sometimes we overestimate the value of unpredictable play. Sun Tzu’s main thrust was that you have to know your enemy, understand his objectives, and camouflage your own. While booting Debbie, as he went on to suggest, would have been surprising to his opponents, it wouldn’t have been good for his game. Debbie, through this most recent tribal council, has been a loyal tribe member and a number he could count in his pocket. Caleb was not only not loyal to Brad, he was a physical threat for later in the game. The point can be made, and was, that we’re far from the late game… but the only reason to keep Caleb is to have Caleb help you win challenges… if Caleb helps you win challenges you’ll never get rid of him later.

I’m not always a fan of getting rid of physical players… but I am a fan of keeping your nominal allies as long as you can.

In discussing old seasons, Andy Pfeiffer and I drifted into a comparison of Tai and DreamZ:

I need to force myself to rewatch Fiji so I can refamiliarize with how genuinely bad Dreamz is at the game (my fondest memory was Boo’s death glare at the Final Tribal when Dreamz was failing at lying). I just remember Dreamz being left out of the Edgardo blindside because his lips were too loose and they needed to ensure he was trustworthy. Based on that, yeah, he’s more like Tai than Abi is.

That tribal council is one of the most memorable, if only for how DreamZ spun like a top between those alliances, on the way to finally (mostly) selling out Edgardo and his fellows. One of the reasons I was so impressed by Yau-Man and Earl was that they got every piece of information out of Dreamz, and then decided they couldn’t possibly trust him enough to tell them their actual target. You could almost say that was the defining difference between them and the opposition. One side trusted him only up to a point, and then feed him misinformation. The other side went down in flames pretty much believing that he was still their buddy.

Abiel Tesfafamariam disagrees with my statement that Sandra didn’t have control of her game, and we disagree about the level to which Sandra manipulated Lil into sending home Fairplay.

Well that’s because Sandra made that appeal to Lil. She manipulated her into voting out Fairplay by saying she has kids and he’s going to party it away.

I won’t say that Sandra had nothing at all to do with Lillian sending Fairplay home. But, as I said in the comments, Lil had done a fairly thorough job of manipulating herself and Sandra echoed those concerns  back to her. It’s true that Lil echoed Sandra’s line about Fairplay wasting the money, while Sandra has kids, but that was already a reflection of how Lil felt about Fairplay, in my opinion.

Mind you, I respect Sandra’s game a lot, and I think she’s awesome TV, but as I said last week I just don’t think that strategy is a way to win Survivor reliably… it requires too much bad play from your opponents.


Key Points: The Table Has Turned

The Big Tribal Council

For the rest of this article to make sense, I have to share what I think happened at this week’s tribal council. I believe that JT and Malcolm went into the tribal council ostensibly willing to vote someone out on the other side, but looking for a chance to send Sandra home if one presented itself.

I’ve seen plenty of people bemoan the lack of potential for people to make some kind of play at that tribal council. I honestly am astounded to hear that because I saw three or four different plays get thrown out there… even before the whispering began:

  • Attempts to court Hali into the Mana alliance, which were at least initially rejected.
  • Hali’s open play to be included in the Nuku alliance, only to be shut down by Sandra et al.
  • Some interesting verbal hints by JT and Brad regarding who should be targeted.
  • Michaela attempting to stir the pot to get Hali to not vote with the Nuku tribe.

All of that was before we spent five minutes of whispering, subtitles, lip-reading and Jeff Probst’s open-mouthed glee.

In the end, I believe Brad told JT that there was an idol, and that JT told Brad whom they were targeting. Mana then targeted the player they thought was the biggest threat: Malcolm. JT and Malcolm both voted with the tribe, hoping Mana would vote out Sandra, and hoping that their ‘betrayal’ would be camouflaged. Unfortunately for them, that’s not how it worked out.

Again making big moves badly

I’ve said previously that I respect JT more than a lot of people do. While people initially gave him a bit too much credit for his first win, discounting Fishbach’s contribution, they gave him far too much blame for giving the idol to Russell on Heroes vs. Villains. I groaned along with everyone else as JT and his fellow Heroes hatched a plan and wrote the craziest penpal letter ever; given the information that they had, however, it wasn’t as outlandish gamble as it seemed. Discounting everything we, as the audience, knew about Russell the Heroes play has shades of genius to it.

Admittedly, we have to squint a little bit to see the genius, but it’s there under the surface. Looked at a certain way, it’s easy to see Russell as a new player, in over his head, on a tribe where the women are casually crushing the male players. Reaching across tribal boundaries and ambushing Parvati with an idol could have been a genius play… if they’d been right.

On the surface, JT’s move this week was also fairly solid. If Mana had voted out Sandra, JT and Malcolm could have pointed to their votes as proof of loyalty, and could have pointed out that Malcolm could easily have gone home. There were three significant weaknesses to JT’s play however:

  • JT was the person who initiated the whisper-fest. There is no way to play yourself as being the loyal member of nu-Nuku who is shocked at what happened, when you spent 5 minutes whispering to Brad.
  • Brad Culpepper is a player that respects physical threats, given a wide open shot at everyone on nu-Nuku, he was clearly going to target Malcolm. This also had the benefit of appeasing one of his alliance mates.
  • The far simpler play, in this case, is for JT to tell Brad they’re voting for Sandra and ask Brad to do so as well. It is a simpler play in that it doesn’t require Tai to use his idol at all, and while it means openly showing disloyalty to nu-Nuku, the plan they actually executed fooled the tribe for approximately negative 15 seconds.

Bad(ish) targeting by Sandra, good(ish) results

We don’t know if Sandra was initially targeting Brad at the tribal council, or if the group switched to Sierra after JT told them whom he said he’d targeted. It’s possible that their target changed multiple times over the course of the whisper-fest. Regardless, as I’ve said before, players need to take more shots at their true target instead of trying to execute a bank shot. While there’s certainly a chance an idol will surface and save your target, an idol can surface and save the next person you targeted too. I’m consistently disappointed to see people take out a lesser target, even though it’s meant second life for a player who then made it to victory.

Ironically enough for Sandra, this worked out for her about as well as could be imagined. While her tribe lost Malcolm, who is a physical powerhouse, Malcolm was only ever an ancillary ally. He was more than willing to plot with JT against her, and he was closer to Tony than he was to Sandra (at least until Tony proved that he simply had to go). Of all the players on nu-Nuku, other than JT, Malcolm is the one person that Sandra isn’t going to miss going forward.

There is also an extra benefit for Sandra in the removal of Malcolm from the game. Assuming I’m correct, then there’s a chance JT will feel that Brad betrayed him by voting out Malcolm. Certainly JT is going to find himself on the outs with the other members of nu-Nuku, and Sandra could take this opportunity to bring him into the fold as a loyal member by playing out how thoroughly Brad hung him out to dry.

Survivor is always a numbers game, but the current configuration isn’t permanent at all, in Sandra’s position losing Malcolm doesn’t make her substantially worse off than she was before. It also removes a threat, whether she knows he was one or not.

Worse(ish) targeting by Brad, bad results

I had a lot of good things to say about Brad last week, and his handling of Tai. That handling paid dividends this week with Tai finding an immunity idol. Coming into the tribal council, aware that they were a person down, Brad had an advantage in his pocket. Well that advantage was in Tai’s pocket… but Brad didn’t take advantage of it. In my opinion, Brad botched this situation by the numbers.

There were three things Brad needed to handle to get through this tribal council:

  • Get Hali to vote with nu-Mana.
  • Try to get JT to vote towards your target.
  • If you have to use the immunity idol, get out a major threat.

The first factor, was taken care of by Sandra and nu-Nuku, who made it clear they didn’t care about Hali’s vote… though they were willing to whisper with her. It looked initially as if Brad and JT were dropping hints about targeting, up until JT physically pulled Brad aside to whisper sweet nothings in his ear. At that point what Brad needed to do was to convince JT to vote with him against whomsoever, and once he knew JT had Malcolm’s vote in his pocket the target should have gone on Michaela, Aubry, or Sandra.

Getting them to vote in unison with nu-Mana, would have preserved the idol for later play… it would even have opened the window to give the idol to JT so that he could use it to send another person on the nu-Nuku hitlist home.

Assuming this plan didn’t take place because JT was hoping to keep his allegiance hidden (which, I don’t see how that could have happened when he started the whispering), what Brad should have done is voted off Sandra (or Aubry, or Michaela). Clearly, Sandra’s ouster was what JT was expecting. By not voting off Sandra, Brad left his ally JT out to dry, and while nu-Nuku has lost a powerful player if they go back to tribal council it’s his ally who is going to go home.

Even if JT makes it to the merge with Brad, Culpepper is going to be hard pressed to explain why he went back on his agreement with JT and targeted JT’s bromance. Certainly Malcolm was dangerous, but as far as Brad and JT knew Malcolm was on their side. The game is still fairly early and Brad had a chance to protect one ally, possibly gain another, and eliminate a clear rival. He chose a far less optimal path to travel, and I have to imagine this is going to blow up on him down the road.



  • Debbie is a certified chicken whisperer.
  • You almost have to feel sorry for Malcolm, regardless of whether JT and he were trying to betray Sandra, you never want to be the player who went home on a historic tribal council.
  • Props to Tai for finding the idol that his tribe so desperately needed, and for being willing to play it for another player. I imagine somewhere at home Scot Pollard is asking what Sierra has that he doesn’t have.
  • I was faintly disappointed that Probst didn’t make more ball / pole puns during the challenge, he normally lives for those moments by his own admission.


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

Normally at this point, we’re starting to get a feel of where the stress lines are on each tribe.. even after a reshuffling. On this season each tribe has a stand-out storyline now. Nu-Nuku is faced with the ‘traitor’ in their midst in JT, nu-Mana has a Hali-tosis problem that their waiting to eliminate, and on Tavua we all know that the easy target is protected by an idol… so we have to wonder who he’ll target first. What I like about a returning season is that there’s generally more than that going on.

Beyond wanting to find a goat to want to take to the finale, the best returning players are always looking for opportunities to turn potential rivals into potential allies. Courting someone who has few options, in place of someone with nebulous loyalty, can help shore up your own alliance and insure that if you’re down numbers at the merge you might not be at the top of the hit list.

The tribe to really watch is Tavua. Regardless of Troyzan’s idol, this is a tribe primed to explode. Cirie, Ozzy, Zeke, and Andrea are all players that like to consider themselves power players, so it’s quite possible one of them will try to court Troyzan in order to use his vote to eliminate a rival. Another reason to court his friendship would be to make sure if he does find an idol, you aren’t the recipient of his lone vote. What scares me as a fan of Cirie is the likelihood that Troyzan bonds with Ozzy, based on his previous experience in the game.

Either way, this season is just getting started and it’s already seen quite a few interesting Tribal Councils and twists, I’m looking forward to watching with you next week to see what happens next.


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