Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

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: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Survivor Game Changers: The Best Defense is a Good Offense

The core of the Diplomatic View, in theory, is the inter-tribal relationships that play out over the course of the season and how they lay the groundwork for the way the season plays out. I’ll be the first person to admit that I also tend to wander far afield, as sometimes the meat of the episode isn’t focused on interpersonal relations but far simpler strategic conflicts as the game plays out. This week, though, Survivor was kind enough to provide us with a lot to chew on, between the volcano that was Debbie and the masterful manipulation of JT by Sandra that sent him home.

Throughout Survivor history there have been any number of players who were particularly hard to manage or whose fickle changes of allegiance have destroyed the games of players we’d consider to be superior players.  In the past I’ve written about players like Coach, Abi, and Kass as being hard to manage, to one extent or another. We’ve seen those players twist and turn through the course of a game, flipping to one alliance and then changing allegiances at the next tribal council.

I’ve always thought the reputation of those players as ‘Game Breakers’ was slightly overrated, despite the number of players whose torches got snuffed due to their flipping. In many cases, these players’ shifting loyalties can be seen coming in advance. Often it comes down to other players underestimating the amount of hand-holding one of these players needs in order to remain loyal. Other players assume that, once a player has shifted loyalties, the new loyalty will stick. Logically, this makes sense as continuing to change loyalties is generally a losing proposition on Survivor. What players underestimate, particularly in the case of Abi, is how much weight some players will put into their feelings at the moment beyond any concept of game position.

Shane, my old writing partner, and I have had arguments where I’ve defended the game view that Abi has presented of herself as a key player. Seen a certain way, Abi positions herself to be courted to be part of key votes as opposed to being targeted by them. By being willing to switch sides regardless of her previous votes, she helps whittle out any number of strong players who are leading alliances, giving herself opportunity to advance in the game. Taken that way, this isn’t all that dissimilar from Will’s strategy last year. The fatal flaw of my argument, of course, is that Abi isn’t a strategic player… she’s an emotional one. While we can retroactively spin her actions as a grand strategic plot, as fans we’ve witnessed where her true motivations lie.

Coach and Kass belong at different points along the spectrum, and while there are different factors that drive their unreliability it is rarely a decision that comes completely out of nowhere. Even Kass’ Kaos theory has roots in a strategy… though admittedly a weird strategy that is unlikely to ever win the game. While blindsides are the best part of Survivor, most often they come not because players didn’t think a player could make the decision that sends them home, it’s because they didn’t think the player would do so.

All of which brings us to Debbie this week, and balance gate.

Where to begin? First, we’re not going to have certainty because we don’t have the raw footage of the challenge. That being the case, what we did do this week is go over the recording of the initial reward challenge as if we were the Warren Commission going over the Zapruder film.  Between comparing the positioning of players in various shots where we can see other players in the background, and checking the aerial shots that we believe are of the actual challenge and not the challenge testing crew, we have about as good a feel for the events of the challenge as we’ll have without going into the editing room. We do know that the events of a challenge are compressed, as Probst alluded to in his interview about this episode, but the events that we see are representative of the challenge as a whole.

Secondly, while Survivor editors have been known to play up the drama by omitting information, I’m dismissing the thought that they glossed over Hali struggling with the balance challenge. The only reason they would do that, specifically, is to make Debbie look bad and they have no reason to do that. From a dramatic perspective, it would be much more dramatic if both Hali and Debbie had struggled at the challenge and left us wondering whom the tribe would blame for the failure. I think we can all agree that before the challenge Debbie said she had really good balance, and Brad suggested she and Hali do that portion with Debbie agreeing. What we didn’t see is if they disagreed over who would do which balance task.

In reviewing the challenge performance, it’s clear that Hali bobbled the ball at least once (on camera), possibly twice. It’s a little bit difficult to compare since Ozzy blew through the course without taking a breath, and JT struggled mightily. However, from the timing we were privy to, her run was pretty decent and the combination of her performance and Tai’s digging got Mana out to the second balance task before Tavua or Nuku.

That is when the wheels clearly fell off the bus for Mana. Debbie appears to have fallen off of the balance beam ten or more times. We honestly stopped counting. Each of those failures was accompanied by Probst’s announcement of her continued failure, how much she’s blown the lead, and how much the team sucks. We’ve seen Survivors respond differently to Probst’s commentary, from Courtney and Penner clapping back at him to Michaela using it as fuel for her fire. Debbie didn’t do any of that, but I firmly believe that having Probst riding her lit the fuse that would then explode back at camp.

What I think happened with Debbie this week is purely human nature. After failing spectacularly at the challenge with both opposing tribes as witnesses and Probst as a narrator of her failure, Debbie felt defensive and humiliated and her answer to that was to go on the offensive before she herself could be attacked. I do believe a portion of that was her playing it up for dramatic effect, working herself up into a lather of righteous anger, but I think the core of it was honest emotions, hunger, exhaustion, and the fear that her horrible performance at the reward challenge will send her home.

The extent that she was willing to carry it to, essentially exploding over every single member of her tribe in turn except Sierra and causing a distraction at the immunity challenge… makes me wonder if Debbie is getting enough water. We’ve seen Survivor contestants fall to heat exhaustion and dehydration before… and the vehemence of her reaction so out of scope for the stakes that were involved makes me wonder if the game is grinding her down.

For context though, per All Access, it appears the meltdown confessional that she gives is after the immunity challenge, not after the reward challenge.

If Hali wants to do the balance beam, even though she cost us Peanut Butter & Jelly by dicking around for ten fricking minutes, and I zipped across the balance beam in 30 seconds, that means you don’t respect me. It’s fricking nauseating, frustrating, and I’m pissed!

This makes (slightly) more sense if it was in fact done after she was denied a spot on the balance beam for her tribe. It still represents a serious disconnect with the reality of the situation, and her performance on the beam during the reward challenge, but it makes the confessional slightly less crazy. Debbie has always been something of a wildcard on the show. We are now reaping the dubious benefits of her nature. That Mana managed to get immunity likely saved Debbie’s place in the game, but will she be safe even on a shuffled tribe? While Probst didn’t hear her complaining to Brad, I have to imagine other players did, and other than as a number, she doesn’t have a lot of value as a player when she’s that volatile.


Diplomatic Disqus

Andy Pfeiffer chimed in on JT’s misplay at tribal:

J.T. should have told Brad “Vote Sandra. You have to. Malc, Aubs, and I will join you.” J.T. is a physical threat himself, so he wouldn’t have thought Brad would target Malcolm. If J.T. says he’s with Malcolm and Aubry, Brad isn’t going to target either of them. He’d want to protect his meat shield long-term. Getting rid of Malcolm would put J.T. in a minority, so Brad would call an audible, but not to Aubry. J.T. was with her and Malcolm. Michaela, Sandra, or Varner is ideal. Who’d play an idol on Varner? Low risk, low reward, sure, but as long as it ain’t me…

I agree that this should have been JT’s plan. The difficulty of an attempt to have your cake and eat it too is that sometimes the cake is a lie. As pointed out by Andy, if Sandra is eliminated there Aubry, Malcolm and JT are in the majority on that tribe and Brad has a pre-made alliance waiting for him. For Brad it was definitely a pennywise, pound foolish decision.

Sarah Channon (Hi Sarah!) posed an interesting question regarding Tai’s play:

I agree with you that Tai made a good move in playing his idol for the tribe, though I’m not sure how much credit he’ll get. Tai’s got an image issue, and proving that he can be counted on is huge for him… will it work?

Often players on Survivor get slighted due to their previous relationships, and I think for Tai everyone gives credit for his gameplay to Mark the Chicken. Honestly, I feel that Tai is in a no-win situation, even when he makes the move that’s right for his game he is unlikely to get credit because people see him as an emotional player, not a strategic one. Everyone likes him, me included, but no one really trusts him. He’s far too easily influenced, which worked in his alliances favor this time.. but who can say what happens next time?

Also, credit to Christian Bugia who caught an embarrassing name mix-up in my original draft of the article. Thanks for the eagle eye!


Key Points: Dirty Deed

Sowing Confusion Amongst Your Enemies

Recently we spent some time talking about Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, with a focus on the importance of information: knowing what your opponents are up to, while keeping them guessing about what you’re up to. This week Sandra put on something of a Survivor master class on the art of disinformation, becoming the latest person to snow JT under and send him packing.

You can argue that Sandra didn’t need to quite go to the lengths that she did, but I honestly think she played it almost perfectly… if we assume she realized that JT had an idol. If I was Sandra I likely would have assumed that, given JT’s demeanor around camp, which had shifted from trying to prove his worth to being overconfident when dealing with Michaela. Is it possible that other members of the tribe had been irked by Michaela’s behavior? Certainly. But the outcast on the tribe is not the person who will generally get into public arguments with a member of the tribe minority.

I’m giving Sandra credit for: a) realizing JT likely had an idol, b) not being fooled for a half second regarding the information JT gave Brad. Admittedly, JT is possibly the worst liar on the planet, so that second piece isn’t really that much of an accomplishment. Given those two facts, Sandra clearly had a puzzle before her: how to vote someone off, who has every reason to assume he’ll be a target and who has an immunity idol. The answer is to get that player to take their eye off the ball.

From eating more than their fair share of bananas, to eating too much rice, to hiding beef jerky, Survivor players have a tendency to overreact to the loss of their few creature comforts. By fanning the fires of JT / Michaela’s disagreement over sugar, she made it easy for JT to assume that everyone in the tribe agreed with him regarding Michaela. He was so certain that the vote was going his way that he left his idol back at camp.

Perhaps the best part of this play, was that Sandra was able to convince Michaela to dial her response back all the way to a ‘1’ on the Michaela scale. Let’s remember that in week one Michaela almost became the target because she wasn’t willing to be the pawn. This week, not only was she the pawn, but she was the target at tribal council. Michaela responded as you’d expect someone who was going home to respond, without letting on that there was a larger plan at work until the votes were cast and the opportunity to play an idol had passed as well (that she waited to get out her cup and water until after that opportunity passed is why I think they knew JT had an idol).

I’ve said, in recent articles, that Sandra’s gameplay isn’t necessarily a power game and the lack of control in the late game can be a weakness. This season Sandra is playing against veteran players and is blowing them out of the water. No player walked in with a bigger target on her back than Sandra did, and instead of playing below the radar she’s playing above the rim. She’s dispatched Tony and JT… who will be next on her hit list? The ride may not last, but it’s a lot of fun so far.

Sometimes There Is No Right Answer

Credit to Brad. In the face of Hurricane Debbie, he did what he could to try to calm her down. He didn’t engage, he apologized, he seemed to be sincere. He did everything that I’ve pointed out in the past players should do when dealing with difficult tribemates. If Debbie was at all interested in finding a peaceful resolution, this probably would have worked.

Brad now finds himself in a puzzling situation. Debbie has been his loyal ally, but she appears to have gone all the way around the bend. Given that Hali clearly outperforms her in challenges, he should be thinking of switching up things in his alliance. A few weeks ago, Brad was essentially in control of his game and his tribe, now with yet another tribal shake-up on the horizon there are more unknowns than there are knowns.

The situation isn’t irrecoverable, but more than just about any player other than Sandra, Brad may end up being a top target regardless of how the numbers shake out after the merge.

JT’s Legacy

The question I’ve heard a lot this week is whether this season puts an end to JT’s legacy from his first, nearly perfect, season. Obviously, his reputation took a hit in Heroes vs Villains already. As damnbueno put it:

“Reaching across tribal boundaries and ambushing Parvati with an idol could have been a genius play… if they’d been right.” — I think J.T.’s HvV move was totally unnecessary. There was zero risk involved if J.T. simply held on to his Idol, and he had too many warning signs (two of them given by Amanda and Candice) to consider handing an Idol to a Villain.

Being sent home this season with an idol in his pocket… or rather buried in the dirt somewhere back at camp… is a second knock on his reputation in the game in the eyes of many fans and players.

It’s hard to argue against that and, for me, the biggest sin is that he left the idol back at camp. If Michaela had lost her temper at tribal and said ‘Yeah, well the plan is to vote out JT so can we stop harping on me?!’ JT would have had no ability to save himself from what was coming. While he had reason to think everyone was on the same page against Michaela… he ignored that he was the odd man out… that they knew he’d told Brad their plan… and that with the removal of Malcolm he had no real allies left at camp.

Nothing will ever take away the great job JT did on his first season… with the assistance of the often underrated Fishbach. For Heroes vs Villains, I think he should get credit for making a risky, bold, yet unsuccessful move… but I’ve been arguing that case alone for a very long time.

I do think this season has to take his reputation down a peg or two however. Leaving an immunity idol back at camp is a violation of the primary rule of Survivor. Beyond that, his play at the Twist Tribal Council was needlessly complicated, low reward, and extremely high-risk. We don’t need to review the specific mistakes that were made again, but there were five or six better ways he could have executed that play, as readers have mentioned in the comments.

There’s a balance needed in Survivor between throwing a Hail Mary pass on every play and patiently working the ground game. It appears that without Fishbach’s influence JT is just a little too willing to air it out on every single play. You can make a reputation for yourself doing that in Survivor, but more often then not you’re going to go down in flames in the process.



  • Nothing to say about Debbie this week as I don’t want to further crush her heart.
  • It’s rare that someone on Survivor breaks the fourth wall outside of confessionals. Was Sandra looking into the camera after snowing JT on sugar gate the first?
  • On the other hand, Michaela pouring herself some tea and sipping it as the votes were read had to have been a shout-out to the Kermit meme. That and the hairflip were priceless.
  • I’m not sure we’ve ever spent this much time on an imploding tribe without them going to tribal council. I’m sure there are lots of small blow-ups over the course of a season that we never see on camera and end up being inconsequential. The scale of this one, with the tribal shake-up coming suggests something bad might be coming for Brad.


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

This season continues to be filled with drama, and a fair amount of exciting game play. I’m not sure anyone predicted the degree to which big-name returning players would find themselves on the chopping block, but it makes the season unpredictable. In theory, this puts strong physical players like Brad and Ozzy in the cat bird seat, but I’m not so certain that will be the case.

At some point, as alpha players continue to fall, the other players will look around and see that there are one or two players left who will be overwhelming threats in individual immunity challenges. With yet another tribal shake-up coming, if those physical threats end up without a clear numbers advantage, they’re going to have to start hustling to keep their place in the game.


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