Survivor: Game Changers

How to Create a Survivor Fan, Panama-style

Sarah Channon, who formerly posted as Sarah Freeman writes special feature blogs for RHAP. This feature looks back at the gameplay of Cirie Fields, a contestant on the upcoming season, Survivor: Game Changers.

How to Create a Survivor Fan, Panama-style

A perennial question that comes up in the Survivor fandom is “Which season should I start my friends on?” Not surprisingly, responses vary wildly, from Borneo to China to Cagayan, etc., etc. What does surprise me is that people rarely answer with Panama which was the season that hooked me on Survivor. To my mind, Panama is a standout as a first season to watch, and it all boils down to three simple words:

Cirie [Epithet of choice] Fields.

The Gangster in the Oprah Suit

Too often forgotten when introducing newbies to the series is that, at first encounter, it’s the survival aspect that’s intriguing. The game itself has so few rules that its complexities take a while to grasp; instead you’re wondering how people deal with the elements. There have been few better players to represent the “Why would you do this?” at-home viewer than self-confessed couch potato Cirie who gets out there and freaks out at having to pick up leaves.

Cirie would later confess that on day one, she was furious with her family for not talking her out of it, but she was determined to at least survive the first vote. We have seen plenty of trainwrecks who weren’t suited to be out there, but Cirie buckles down and works, bonds with the other women and directs the vote. And somehow, at the end of episode one, it’s the lumberjill voted out over the woman afraid of leaves.

Bam. One episode in, and Exile Island has demonstrated that Survivor is about more than survival.

It’s a tribute to Cirie’s charm that she can vote off a woman mourning the death of her son yet still remain a rootable character. The editors made full use of that when the tribe swap put her on the dysfunctional Casaya tribe. Cirie didn’t have a whole lot to do with her escape from the second vote—reportedly, Bobby refused to vote for her after she chose him in the schoolyard pick. However, she made for an appealing underdog and the perfect narrator as she giggled over her tribemates’ complete inability to get along with each other.

Casaya’s winning streak against the cohesive team of La Mina is both one of Survivor’s great mysteries and the saving grace of Panama. (When watching episode one, note that on each of the four starting tribes, they highlight one misfit: Cirie, Shane, Aras, Courtney, all four of whom are destined for the same, glorious tribe.) Imagine the season if La Mina had had the majority at the merge, and Fighter Pilot Terry had heroically led his team in voting out the dropouts and losers of Casaya? Think of the storyline as honor and integrity triumphed over all! But think of it only once, because it’s not worth that second thought.

Instead, the Casaya crazies triumphed, and so the editors had to take a more shades of grey approach, allowing the weirdos to be lovable and the heroes to be flawed. Cirie became the viewers’ emotional guide as we first despised Casaya’s majority before learning to laugh at their antics. We couldn’t care less about La Mina as underdogs, because their losing streak was prolonging Cirie’s survival. As the older women dropped like flies, we knew Cirie was ultimately doomed… until Casaya did lose again, and somehow Cirie wasn’t even in contention for the vote. Bobby, their strongest player, became the first man to be voted out of Panama.

I remember this being a very exciting moment for me, as the first four votes had convinced me that women were ridiculously disadvantaged in this game. As a newbie I couldn’t see how Cirie had turned her fate around; I was just ecstatic she had done it. In retrospect, it was the same story as episode one: work hard, be nice, and play up somebody else’s target.

Cirie would go on to explain in her post-season interviews that she tried to wait on the men, describing herself as Shane’s secretary, but one of her real talents was being able to read a situation. She didn’t always act optimally (as in the argument between Shane and Danielle where she ruefully wished she hadn’t said anything), but she befriended everybody and knew exactly where the wind was blowing.

The Bobby episode was where we saw a new hierarchy emerge in Casaya. Aras made the call to vote out Bruce, because he felt he had more sway with Bobby. (He was probably wrong; Bobby would almost certainly have flipped to Austin and Nick at the merge.) Danielle was closer with Bruce—this was a relationship never fully developed on screen and it’s not clear if it had a basis more substantial than Bruce’s daughter also being called Danielle, but Danielle wanted to keep Bruce around and get rid of Bobby who had no time for her.

So the three women went behind Aras’ back and changed the vote. They tried to bring Shane on board, but Shane had already promised Bobby he wouldn’t write his name down. Instead, they convinced him to cast a throwaway vote for Aras. Bruce voted for Courtney—either because he didn’t know of the plan or because he had also promised not to write Bobby’s name. Aras and Bobby voted for Bruce. Bobby got voted out not by a majority but a plurality—just three votes out of the potential seven.

Although the move was orchestrated by Danielle, Cirie was actively involved. Thus she went from being an outcast to a member of the inner circle.

Quite what Aras made of the vote was never clear. Probably this would (rightly) contribute to his later paranoia, but Cirie appeared to have no trouble regaining his trust: by the time she won the reward challenge at final seven, everybody in her five thought she would take them with her. As Cirie deliberates, you can see Courtney gesturing to herself and Danielle, believing the women were the core alliance. When Cirie picked Aras, honoring a deal she had made with him, Shane assumed he would be her second choice. She chose Danielle, but nobody on the island or watching at home realized the significance this meant for the pecking order—perhaps not even Cirie herself.

The fullness of Cirie’s game isn’t going to come across to the new fan at this point, but through her enthusiastic narration, you’ve been introduced to several traditional elements of the game, from themed tribe divisions, through standard merge tactics, to medevacs. (It’s not strictly relevant to Cirie’s game, but let’s take a brief tangent to note that Panama’s family visit highlights the game politics of that event like no other. Besides, HB is one of the all time great Loved Ones, and his visit to camp is a standout.)

More importantly, even with a predictable pagonging, the season is delivering: you’re giggling with Cirie as she deals with Shane’s unfortunate rash. You’re cheering her on as she pulls off an individual challenge win. You’re cheering again as she catches a fish for Shane’s birthday (and giggling again as she’s still too afraid to touch it.) And as a newbie, you’re thinking this Survivor show is actually pretty fun.

This is where Cirie takes it to the next level.

Three… Two… One.

At the final six, Cirie starts worrying about Courtney being taken to the end as a goat. Nobody, not Cirie, not her tribemates, not us viewers, is expecting Cirie to win the final immunity challenge, so this is an understandable concern. Cirie needs the winner of that final immunity to want her in the final two. (This is a basic Survivor rule that is too often forgotten, even in today’s final three climate: you keep the goat around at risk of your own place in the finals.)

When Terry won immunity again, it was time for the crazy alliance to turn on itself. Courtney pulled Terry in with the women to target Aras, the second biggest challenge threat. Meanwhile, Aras and Shane discreetly talked to Courtney and Cirie about turning on Danielle, whom they perceived as the most dangerous of the women. By this 12th episode, the newbie viewer knows how this works. The two boot options have been set up, and the swing vote—in this case our beloved Cirie—will get the confessional worrying about which one is the right choice.

Only Cirie looks into the camera and says she wants to vote out Courtney. I clearly remember thinking “No, Cirie. You can’t take out Courtney now. You have to choose between Aras and Danielle.”

Fortunately for us all, Cirie paid more attention to the Bobby vote than I did and knew she didn’t need a majority vote to get her way. She pulled aside the two targets, Aras and Danielle, laid everything out to them and gave them the option of going with her plan: Terry, Shane, and Courtney split their votes between Aras and Danielle, while the three of them blindsided Courtney in a 3-2-1 vote.

For Aras, it was a no-brainer. If he didn’t go with this plan, the best he could hope for was a tie. It was a little less straightforward for Danielle, who probably would have done better to stand her ground and railroad Cirie into voting with the women—I’m not totally sure what the pecking order would then have been, but I’d guess we’d be looking at a final two of either Danielle and Courtney or Terry and Courtney. That was probably the most likely winning scenario for Danielle at this point in the game.

But Cirie was digging her heels in, and Aras was begging her to take the option that saved them both. Danielle fell in with Cirie’s plan, and Courtney went from being a lock for final two to a snuffed torch. And my mind was blown.

This to me has always been the biggest hallmark of Cirie’s game: finding a third option. We would see her do it again in Micronesia: given a choice between voting out Eliza or Parvati in episode three, she insisted on Yau Man being the target. The post-merge of that season was a cascade of blindsides because Cirie refused to believe any given name was off the table.

Her habits finally caught up with her in Heroes vs Villains, but it’s arguable that the Heroes could have used Cirie in that crazy post-merge. Cirie’s two previous runs bore testament to how successful thinking outside the box can be.

The Rest is Still Unwritten

The outcome of the Courtney vote was more than sending home the biggest goat in the game. Aras and Danielle were both indebted to Cirie, as they admitted in the Final Tribal Council. That move bonded her so tightly with Aras that he tried to save Cirie at final four, despite the fact that Danielle was a safer bet to take to the end. Danielle herself had no choice but to turn on Cirie, but she later claimed in interview that had she succeeded in getting Terry to give her the idol ahead of Tribal Council, she would have told Aras and Cirie to join her in voting Terry out.

Ultimately, Cirie was undone by the double whammy of Terry’s immunity idol and Aras’ immunity necklace. Had the immunity idol not started that season (or had Terry not been the one to find it), Terry would have gone home at final four. Had Terry won immunity, Danielle and Terry would have targeted Aras (as they had done before.)

Cirie might have given Aras the chance to make fire, or perhaps she would have voted with the majority, but either way, she’d have made it to final three, and odds are strong that the winner of that immunity challenge would have taken her to the final two. (Definitely, if it was Aras; Danielle takes Cirie over Terry, maybe over Aras too.)

If Cirie spent any time on what ifs after Panama, Terry’s immunity streak must have been at least as galling as her failure in fire-making. Unsurprisingly, come Micronesia, she was a great deal more reluctant to accept immunity at face value. She found a way to blindside Ozzy and Jason with their idols, and most memorably, she came up with the plan to talk Erik out of the immunity necklace.

Cirie’s game has its flaws. She tends to moralize a little more than necessary, to rationalize playing with the people she likes. That individual reward she won, she actually handled terribly, compared to Aras who was as much on the pulse as she was but made sure neither to win nor get into apologies. It’s not even certain that she would have won had she made the finals, but wouldn’t you love to see what Cirie could do in a Final Tribal Council? Talking people round has always been her strong suit…

Regardless, it’s a detriment to the season when Cirie leaves. Not only does the finale drag without her on narration duties, but we had been set up with the dichotomy of Terry’s real world survival and physical dominance against Cirie’s command of the mental and social game. The Aras vs. Danielle final could only ever be an anticlimax. In truth, both deserve more credit for their games, but it’s hard for the first time viewer to give it. Still, if Cirie couldn’t quite get us to fall in love with Aras, at least her endorsement of him helped us accept his win.

Most importantly, Panama is a great tutorial in how the game goes above and beyond mere survival, and it does it via one of the most lovable underdogs in the show’s history. Cirie is more relatable than a Hatch or a Todd or a Tony, perhaps because of her race or gender or fitness level, or perhaps because she first has to convince herself that she can do this. Small wonder she’s joined the exclusive club of four-time players.

If the would-be Survivor recruit is in the minority of people who don’t like Cirie, then this season might fall flat, but there’s still the trainwreck of Casaya’s march to victory or Terry’s doomed challenge run to hook viewers in. It has the convenience advantage of both Amazon Prime and Hulu, and while it’s not a modern season, it covers most of the basic tenets.

Oddly, Panama’s biggest weakness as an introductory season is the immunity idol, which was still in its infancy. The rules for the idol are different to most seasons, and nobody knows how to play around it—Cirie herself declares that giving it away would be the dumbest move in the history of Survivor, which is nice foreshadowing for Micronesia and probably true enough as far as Terry went… but in practise, giving the idol away has proven very effective.

Of course, the odds are strongly in favor of anybody watching this season being a convert by the end of it, so there’ll be ample opportunity to catch up with idol usage. After all, chances are that your newly minted Survivor fan is going to be eager to see Cirie’s next season. And after Micronesia’s emotional rollercoaster, they’ll be locked in for Game Changers.

Aren’t we all? Eleven years and twenty-two seasons later, Cirie remains my favorite Survivor contestant, and certainly the player to which I owe my fandom. I know that there’s every chance her tribemates won’t let her improve on her Heroes vs. Villains placement, yet the missing page of the Cirie Fields’ playbook is Final Tribal Council. I’m hoping that this spring we finally get to read it.

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