SurvivorSurvivor: Cagayan

The Survivor Strategic Game: Owning the Game


Another season of Survivor is in the books, and it’s hard to complain about such an unpredictable game. Who could have expected that Kass wouldn’t make the end because of Woo’s misguided loyalty? After falling just seconds short of the finals, she joined an angry jury ready for blood. The editing suggested that maybe the inevitable Tony victory wouldn’t happen, but all the bitterness wasn’t enough to stop a lopsided vote. Only Tasha decided to change course and gave a single vote to Woo. Poor guy. Despite winning immunity and reaching the end, he’ll be known as the player who fumbled the football on the goal line. I’d love to say there was a brilliant strategy behind the choice, but it seemed more about misreading the jury than being willing to lose for honor. Only Woo knows for sure.

Despite the 8-1 vote, it was an entertaining finale that saw three shifts in momentum. Surprisingly, none of those came from Spencer. Once he fell apart on the puzzle and lost immunity to Kass, there was little he could do to save his fate. The jury’s sour faces and the Ponderosa video made it clear they had chosen Spencer as the good guy who deserved the million. Regardless of whether or not that’s a fair assessment, he was set to win the million if he made the end. The editors weren’t lying about the positive impression he’d made during the game. The young lad will almost certainly play again and received plenty of love from Probst at the reunion. However, he’d backed himself into a corner, and needing to win immunity to survive is always dangerous. All it takes is one mistake to send you packing and onto the jury.

Blasting to the Finish

Tony found a way to dodge the last few obstacles and win. Tony found a way to dodge the last few obstacles and win.[/caption]

Throughout the season, the experts speculated that Tony was playing too hard and would eventually succumb to the vote. The idols saved him for a while, but he was vulnerable in the finale. Few players in Survivor history have played such an open game and found success in the end. Boston Rob and Kim Spradlin dominated their seasons, but they were supported by an alliance that had their backs. Tony voted out his allies yet still found a way to avoid constant attention. His paranoid antics blinded them to the danger of allowing him to reach the end. The Tyler Perry idol might put an asterisk on the win for some, but he took advantage of the opening. I still think it was a terrible device and should be buried from the show, but I admire Tony’s ability to use it successfully. His bluff to avoid the target at the final four was handled brilliantly, and his choice to reveal the truth to the jury was smart. Tony might lack the cerebral gameplay of Spencer, but he performed some deft moves that led him to the victory.

Tony deserves some credit for pulling the wool over Woo’s eyes at the final three, but his case should have fallen on deaf ears. The jury might have lost a little respect for him for removing Tony, but they would have understood the mood. Tony didn’t push too hard and made a convincing case that would not have worked on a diehard Survivor fan. In an interesting way, Woo embodied what’s often missing from returning player seasons. His more innocent look at the game was endearing despite the way that he acted against the core tenets of Survivor strategy. Despite the poor decision making, he was an engaging character that was interesting because he wasn’t a cutthroat mercenary.

There have been plenty of comparisons between Tony and Russell Hantz, but the finale made it clear that those connections are limited. They both play the game hard, but his reaction to the family visit was genuine. He might get petulant on Twitter and swear on dead family members unnecessarily, but there was little nastiness in Tony’s game. His need for showmanship rubbed some the wrong way, but he clearly loved playing Survivor. He never won an immunity challenge due to his issues with puzzles yet gave his all at everything. He created plenty of issues with odd strategy, yet was working with people who allowed those moves to happen. This speaks to his persistence and willingness to try anything to win.

A Final and Desperate Plan

Judging by his interviews with Rob this week, Spencer is only solidifying his place as a fan favorite. This status might actually grow because he didn’t win. How could he guest on Survivor Know-It-Alls after grabbing the victory? After losing the challenge, Spencer did make one last attempt to stay afloat. I expected him to target Woo with the idea that Tony was unbeatable. Judging by Woo’s choice at the final three, this probably wouldn’t have worked. Making a pitch to Tony was a long shot, but Spencer nearly predicted how the season would go after his exit. Introducing the idea of a final two and laying out the hurdles for Tony was very wise. It made a rational case for why going after Woo made sense.

Spencer couldn't convince Tony to change his plans and keep him in the game.

Spencer couldn’t convince Tony to change his plans and keep him in the game.

Of course, Spencer omitted the fact that he was a far bigger threat to win the season. It seemed like he should have promised Tony final two before Tribal Council, but giving that promise in front of the jury committed him (in theory) to the choice. I doubt that Spencer would have honored that pact given his positive assessment of Tony’s game. He made a strong case to Tony, but there was only one right move at this stage. Even if Woo had voted Tony out at the final three, taking out Spencer was still the best choice. You can’t let an underdog without blood on his hands reach the end, especially if you’re the guy responsible for putting people on the jury. Woo and Tony made similar moves, but Spencer was a different problem for Tony. He recognized the danger and wasn’t swayed towards making the error.

A Human Side of Kass

Following an ugly battle with Trish last week, I claimed that Kass had to make the end and would soon join the “zero vote club”. My reasoning was sound, but there was more to Kass’ story this week than being a victim of a dumb move from Woo. Her dry and snarky wit remained, but she wasn’t starting arguments with other contestants. A big reason was the presence of her husband, which showed a different side of Kass than we’d seen. The family visits give us some much-needed insight into how the players act in the real world, especially when their spouses are involved. When Kass survived Probst’s negative comments and won immunity, she stepped into a different realm. After Spencer left, she became a surprising underdog versus Tony’s inevitable run to the million. I’m satisfied with Tony’s win, but it would have been something to see Kass take shots from the jury.

It was great to see the final two challenges giving everyone a chance to win immunity. Both were epic and required more than just one skill like balance. Kass’ puzzle abilities nearly won her a spot in the finals, and it would have been well-deserved. While I expect that Woo would have beaten her, I don’t think it would have been as clear cut as we might think. Probst’s questions at the reunion don’t take into account what the players would have said in front of the jury. I don’t think she could have gotten more than a few votes, but it would have been interesting to see how she handled the nasty questions. The jury refused to even speak to her at Ponderosa, which felt over the top. Kass made few friends during the game, but could they have at least said a few words?

Kass made a strong push and had prepared a different route than the normal jury approach.

Kass made a strong push and had prepared a different route than the normal jury approach.

During the family visit, Kass discussed her strategy of to play “like a man” and make the case to the jury that she deserves the same respect as Tony. I agree that there is a double standard of how men and women are treated on Survivor, but he didn’t flip off other contestants as they left the game. Kass makes valid points about the fairness in reactions towards female players, but she played a role in sealing her own fate. The betrayals and game moves were one thing, but antagonizing others was something else. Kass was one of this season’s most intriguing players, but she also must accept some responsibility for her actions.

Facing the Music

It’s normally pretty obvious to determine the jury’s sympathies from their questions at the Final Tribal Council. This one was something different. By my notes, Tony was set to probably win 5-4, assuming that he received Trish’s vote. Instead, he received every vote but Tasha’s, and she was one of the five that I’d pegged for Tony. The worst moment came from Jefra, who wanted Tony to “own” his game but then kept interrupting his explanations. Trish gave an impassioned speech about her difficulties with his swearing on dead family members, and Jeremiah had a similar reaction. It was odd to watch so many rip into him and then vote his way anyway. A key point to notice was how few really gave Woo much interest. They might be angry with Tony, but at least he drew a reaction. Woo’s answers were also pretty generic and didn’t clarify why he deserved their vote. There wasn’t enough to offset Tony’s moves.

The capper was Spencer’s convincing speech to the jury professing why Tony should win. It even topped David Murphy’s case for Boston Rob at Redemption Island, though I don’t suspect Spencer’s argument made a huge difference. Tony’s victory was set in place once he survived the vote at the final three. They might have issues with him as a person (especially Sarah), but they still awarded his gameplay. Following Tyson’s convincing win in Blood vs. Water, this sets an interesting precedent for future seasons. Players can’t expect a bitter jury to award them the win against someone who backstabbed others. The wins from Fabio and Natalie White feel like ancient history and come from a different Survivor era. We’ve moved into a new zone where the jury may get angry but still will respect the moves.

What is Survivor Cagayan’s legacy? It’s too early to rank it against other seasons, but my initial reaction is very high. If nothing else, this game proved that new players can still provide compelling drama. A key factor was casting so many fans and not the “fans” we saw in the Caramoan. Even the train wreck moments felt raw and reminded us of why it’s different to watch fresh faces: they haven’t figured out how to handle the physical and mental toll of Survivor. The editing also improved considerably this time and helped to deliver so many jaw-dropping results. I’ve been thrilled to get the chance to dissect the strategy this season, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the fall.

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