Survivor: Game Changers

Lessons in Survivor History- -President Lacina

Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, Catherine Lucas revisits another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.

Lessons in Survivor History- -President Lacina

As we bid farewell to Debbie this week, we get yet another example of how fleeting power can be in the game of Survivor. The trouble with human nature is that for most of us, power is addictive. Give someone a little bit of control and they’ll usually want more. Although I didn’t like Debbie’s move last week, and thought that it was too soon for such a power play, I did like the way that she went about it. She was the power behind the scenes, and she was underestimated while the others in her alliance, Brad and Sierra, took all the heat. Debbie could have continued like this– whispering in Sierra’s ear, and staying out of trouble. But she’d had a taste of power now. She knew the glory of the big move. In confessional last week, she proudly announced: “We will be massive game changers tonight– largely thanks to me.” And so, after getting Ozzy out of the game, she wasn’t able to step back into the background. Her ego wouldn’t let her. She wanted to create a secret, behind-the-scenes alliance with Aubry. She wanted to feed Aubry information and control Aubry’s vote. I don’t know why she thought that this would work. She has played closely with Aubry before and she had to know that Aubry wasn’t going to trust her. In the end, this led to her downfall. Aubry spilled the beans to Sarah, who was only too ready to vote Debbie out of the game–from dragonslayer to juror in three days, just like that.

Debbie was definitely power hungry– but it wasn’t her only mistake. Her biggest mistake was being far too secure in her alliance. Forgetting that in Survivor, lines are never drawn in concrete. Just because a group of six voted together against the biggest physical threat that the game has ever seen, doesn’t mean that the same group of six can be counted on to vote together to the end. Debbie’s a fan of the pithy soundbite, and I think that her confessional was partly said in jest. But despite what she is saying in her exit press, we saw no evidence that Debbie was even slightly worried about Sarah’s relationships with the minority alliance. We saw no evidence that Debbie felt vulnerable. She thought that the six were strong, and she thought that her position within that six was unshakeable. She wasn’t completely wrong– five of the six did stick together, and she did seem to be in everybody’s final three plans. But in Survivor, you can never be complacent. Sarah was definitely spending a lot of time talking with the minority alliance. Why did nobody think that it was even a possibility that she would flip?

Which brings us to Sarah, who was without a doubt the star of this week’s episode (even if she didn’t receive the Fishy!). It was her pivotal vote that decided the course of the game. She’s the one with the strongest relationships on both alliances, and to top it off, she has a vote stealer that she will definitely, absolutely, be the first one to play correctly. The parallels are so obvious that I didn’t want to ignore them– and so, for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, we are doing something a little different. We’re going back to season 28, Survivor: Cagayan, to look at Sarah’s first outing on Survivor, and the game that got her to 11th place. She’s already outlasted her Cagayan self, but will it lead her to the million dollars on her second attempt? What, if anything is she doing differently this time?


For those who have forgotten Sarah’s first time around, a quick refresher. Cagayan was the first time that Survivor tried the Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty concept, dividing the cast into three tribes, apparently due to which aspect of the game the contestants used most often in their everyday lives. As a police officer, Sarah was placed on the Brawn tribe. Here, Sarah’s social skills were quickly apparent. She was the person whom everyone seemed to work with, and quickly formed alliances with everyone. Cliff Robertson and Lindsey Ogle believed that she was working with them. Sarah quickly identified Tony Vlachos as a fellow police officer, and although Tony initially tried to deny it, he ended up confessing to her that she had been correct– and that led to the two of them forming an alliance. Tony was able to turn Sarah against Cliff and Lindsey, who were her initial alliance, and Sarah and Tony joined with Trish Hegarty and Woo Hwang to form a majority alliance of four.

Sarah was never in any danger in the early stages of the game. The Brawn tribe were so strong (and the Brains tribe were often so weak) that they easily avoided Tribal Council for the first four rounds. With the tribe still intact, some of them were eager to start playing the game. Tony had Sarah so convinced that Cliff was dangerous that she was prepared to throw a challenge to get rid of him. However, the challenge ended up having a strong basketball element, and despite the efforts of Sarah, Cliff was able to win the challenge and the Brawn tribe avoided Tribal Council.

After this, the three tribes merged into two, and Sarah was in a difficult position. There were six Brawn tribe members left in the game– and five of them went to the Solana tribe, with Sarah left alone on the Aparri beach. She was the lone Brawn member, along with three Brains and three Beauties. Although things looked bad for her, she was again able to use her social skills and found herself a part of the new majority alliance. The Beauty tribe was hopelessly fractured, and turned on each other quickly. Alexis Maxwell was voted out of the game, and Sarah remained safe.

When the two tribes merged, it seemed that Aparri had the numeric advantage– they had six members while Solana had five. But Sarah’s original tribemates were all on the Solana tribe. Cliff had been voted out and Lindsey had quit the game, but Sarah’s original close allies Tony, Trish and Woo were all part of the minority alliance. Tony was supremely confident in his ability to flip Sarah over to their side. But Tony had made a crucial mistake. After winning a challenge with Solana, he had loudly cheered “Final five, baby!”– which had sent a clear message to Sarah that she was no longer part of his endgame plans. Sarah certainly thought about going with Tony and his group, but in the end, decided to stick with the Aparri six, and she voted with them.

In the end, it didn’t matter how Sarah voted. Frustrated by her lack of commitment, the Solana alliance had already looked elsewhere. Trish noticed how upset Kass McQuillen seemed to be and approached her, offering to vote however Kass wanted to. Kass replied that she would like to see Sarah gone, and Trish promised her that it would happen. Kass switched her vote, giving the power in the game to the Solana alliance, and sending Sarah to the jury.

In Cagayan, Sarah played a pretty good game, culminating in one terrible episode. But she definitely showed strengths. She has got the ability to build relationships. People like her, but don’t find her threatening. They want to work with her. Lindsey and Cliff both wanted Sarah as part of their alliance. Instead of being threatened by Sarah when she confronted him about his job, Tony was able to use the opportunity to create a tight bond. Even when it was clear that Sarah was unwilling to commit to the Solana alliance, Tony was unwilling to let her go. Trish told Tony that she thought she could convince Kass to flip, and Tony told her not to bother. He so desperately wanted to work with Sarah that he could have sunk all of their games.


In Game Changers, she’s been able to do the same thing. Every player left in the game really likes her, and she was able to make people feel completely secure about working with her. Debbie was absolutely convinced that Sarah was part of her alliance– she said in confessional:“We have Sarah, myself, Sierra, Troyzan, Brad and Tai. We are a six that are not going to be blown away by the wind or the tide. And now we’re going to pick off the five that are left systematically one by one.” Sarah has a way of making people feel secure. Lindsey and Cliff never guessed that she was against them. Tony was convinced that Sarah would vote with them, and didn’t see how Kass’ vote was necessary. Sarah has also formed a tight bond with Sierra– and Sierra wanted to sit at the final three with her. Sierra said: “Me and Sarah are really close. We’ve really connected, so I still feel super confident in Sarah, and I think it will be absolutely amazing if we were at the final three together.” Sarah’s always been good at forming relationships, and she has again used this ability this season.

Sarah has also always shown keen observational skills. She knew Tony was a police officer even before the game began. She has always been able to recognise her position in the game, even if she hasn’t always been able to play the position well. As Sarah said this episode after finding the advantage, “The normal person that drives down the road would not know if the car in front of them’s registration tags are expired or not– I would.” As a police officer, Sarah does have some great instincts. If she can continue to use them, they should serve her well in the game.

But Sarah knows that her game isn’t perfect. There is a reason that she was the first member of the jury in Cagayan, but Sarah herself seems unsure of what that flaw is. In her preseason press, she said that she chose loyalty over winning–that she swore on her badge as a police officer and respected her badge too much to go against her vows. That isn’t entirely true. The night that Sarah went home, she was targeting Tony, the very person that she swore on her badge to.

And this episode, Sarah falsely identified another flaw in her Cagayan game. She said: “I will not make the same mistakes I made the first time I played. What I did in Cagayan was look for the safest route I could go. I sat back, didn’t make a move, and let other people make the decisions. That didn’t work. It got me on the jury, and not even close to a shot at a million dollars.” Really? Being the swing vote, not choosing one side or the other, that was the safe move? I’d argue that actually, her Cagayan game had different flaws– flaws that she is repeating in her game this season.


For me, Sarah’s biggest flaw is that she is very, very confident in her observational skills, and therefore she is quick to believe someone– particularly when they are giving her information that leads Sarah into a position of power. In Cagayan, Tony was able to convince Sarah to turn on Lindsey and Cliff by telling her that Lindsey and Cliff were out to get her. If she came with Tony, then she could turn the tables on them. Lindsey and Cliff had no idea that Tony had a vendetta against them, and they certainly hadn’t been trying to get Sarah voted out of the game. Lindsey and Cliff both thought that Trish was at the bottom of the tribe. They had given Sarah no reason to doubt them, but Tony swore on his badge that he was telling the truth, and Sarah believed him.

This season, Sarah has shown herself to be just as gullible, and the minority alliance was able to use that to get her to vote with them. First, there was the conversation that she had with Cirie, which was simply masterful on Cirie’s part. Cirie suggested to Sarah that she had to make a big move, or she’d be seen as a goat that had been dragged to the end. She told Sarah that sitting next to Brad and Sierra at the end, Sarah would get no votes. Of course, as Aras astutely pointed out in this week’s recap, Cirie didn’t mention that if Sarah went to the end with any other combination of the ‘power six’, she likely wins, and Sarah wasn’t planning on sitting at the end with Brad and Sierra anyway. She thinks that would be boring and stupid, but Cirie had planted a seed– one that would bear fruit almost immediately.

And then Aubry was also able to exploit Sarah’s tendency to believe whatever she was told. Aubry told Sarah (truthfully, I should add) that Debbie had been trying to recruit Aubry as a pawn. Sarah immediately turned on Debbie, despite having had conversations with Sierra about going all the way to the final three with her moments earlier. Sarah said in confessional, “I was thinking I might want to sit in the final three with Debbie, but now she’s spreading lies about me.” And it was that easy to convince Sarah to flip on the power six and join up with the minority.


I think that this move shows another flaw in Sarah’s game– she’s very quick to change her mind, but slow to make decisions. She said it herself– when it came to the vote, she decided at Tribal. Just as she refused to give assurance to either side in Cagayan, she refused to confirm with the minority alliance that she would vote with them this week. And while it may have turned out okay for her here, it wasn’t a good look for Sarah. Do either side want an ally that makes her mind up at Tribal? Can either side really trust Sarah now?

In Cagayan, Sarah’s indecision led to her being voted out. She was too slow to commit to either side, and so Trish went to Kass, someone that Sarah had completely overlooked. Sarah had been so sure that she was in the power position that it hadn’t crossed her mind that something would go wrong. She revelled in her spot, enjoying the length that both alliances were going to in order to pamper to her needs. That complacency was seemingly on display here too, as she assumed that she could betray both sides without any consequences. It would have been easy for her plan to blow up in her face, but we didn’t see much concern from her.

I do think that there is a little of the Tony game plan going on here– voting with the main alliance when there are even numbers in the game and flipping on the odd numbers. Tony had Woo flipping with him– he wasn’t making his moves alone. And Tony also had Trish, ready to smooth things over for him, so that he could easily rejoin the majority alliance. Sarah, despite her strong bonds with everyone, is a bit of a lone wolf. She’s the only one in the middle, flipping from side to side. And that makes her game play far more risky than even Tony’s. She might claim that she played like a cop last time, and a criminal this time, but I don’t see it. I think she’s trying to play like Tony here, and he’s the most famous cop that ever played the game!


I don’t think that Sarah is playing substantially better or worse than she did in Cagayan. I think she has been luckier with tribe swaps, allowing her to create some really good friendships with the people left in the game. I think she’s been lucky in that her reputation coming in was one of a really honest player– and that is something that not many of these players can claim.

I also think that the main reason that she failed in Cagayan wasn’t because of the flaws in her game. It was because of the players that she was pitted against. The Cagayan cast were desperate players who played hard. They swung for the fences. This time, the game has been played in a much quieter way. There have been idols and advantages played. I think that the players this season are scared to go all out in the way that the Cagayan cast did. They are all playing the Sandra, anyone-but-me game, and because of that, they are all willing to bow down to President Lacina. Andrea said: “If Sarah’s willing to make a move, I’m totally on board because I know I have a huge target on my back”. Andrea’s petrified of going home, and so she isn’t going to try and knock Sarah out. Sarah is the only one willing to work with her. She’s going to go along with whatever Sarah wants, even if it does put Sarah into a power position. Whereas Sarah’s power irritated Kass, and Kass wanted to do something about it, Andrea is just grateful it isn’t her. Zeke is just grateful for a lifeline. Sierra seems to be grateful for a friend. There is no Kass on this season.

I think that the main lesson to learn here is that there is no ‘right’ or ‘correct’ way to play Survivor. What got Sarah sent straight to Ponderosa in Cagayan might win her the game here. Different players, different season, different conditions. I think that as long as Sarah is self-aware enough to know who she can and cannot beat at the end, then she stands a really good chance at walking away with the million dollars this time. I don’t think that means that she has changed her game. She’s just changed the people she’s playing against.


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