Survivor Blog: Making Sense of the Survivor Philippines Merge

Survivor Blogger, Sarah Freeman

The following is a Survivor Blog from Blogger, Sarah Freeman (@ChannonSarah)


One of my rules for this blog is to assume that none of the players on the island is a complete idiot. Everybody has some rationale for their moves and votes that makes sense to them, and it’s my job to speculate on what that could be. This is one of those episodes where that’s easier said than done. Jeff flips from a good position with a potential majority to try his luck in an alliance established without him. Pete’s aligning with the biggest threats in the game. Lisa’s in the best position to be flexible, yet refuses to turn on her original alliance. And Michael’s case against his biggest threat is that they’re too rude.

Still, as merge episodes go, that was a keeper. Dangrayne (which has probably surpassed Dabu for best tribe-name ever) has taken all the players and shaken them out into a myriad of subgroups with a dominant clique forming at the overlap. Last week, I listed off five potential post-merge scenarios, and all of them happened (in method, if not outcome).

Not only that but with a cast of this caliber, I don’t even mind which alliance comes out on top. I have definite preferences, but I’ve appreciated almost everybody’s game on some level despite the craziness of this episode. The only downside was that we lost RC who was a strong player and could have made some big mid-game moves had her flip worked out. Let’s hope the next loss won’t be Abi, because putting those two on their own in Ponderosa would be cruel and unusual punishment (for the staff as well as the ladies).

Ostensibly, the key move this episode was Jeff deciding to run with his anti-returner gambit and flip to Tandang. Yet after the episode, Jonathan used a series of tweets to tell a different story:

Great episode. Wondering, as are u all, just what bug jeff kent had up his ass about me. BUT if denise stuck w malcom who stuck w lisa Who stuck w the tandsng three, then th numbers really didn ‘t work for jeff carter and denise.

Jeff (and Carter) are taking the flak, but was denise who stayed w malcom and when she wouldn’t vote w us, skup and RC, our plan fell apart

(He also revealed that they tried to call the tribe something a mite stronger than “dang” rain, but production weren’t having it.) Carter gave a somewhat ambiguous response on Twitter:

I dont know what im allowed to say….but wasnt it obvious….?

With the producers’ usual helpfulness, we saw absolutely nothing of Denise’s thoughts on the votes. Edit-readers can speculate on what they were hiding for that one, but it seems that Kalabaw made the wrong decision when they picked Denise over Dawson or Katie. Of course, it’s easy to say that in retrospect. Had they voted off Denise instead of Dawson, we would have said that Denise might have helped them win the next immunity challenge (apologies to Dawson for assuming she would not have made a winning contribution).

It’s also important to note that Denise wasn’t lying through her teeth when she said she’d bring Malcolm over. She went into the merge intending to stick with Kalabaw, and had she been voted out earlier, she’d probably have said that they made a mistake because she could have won them Malcolm’s vote as well.

All that said, it seems likely that had Katie been at the merge instead of Denise, Pete would have gone home last night instead of RC. So let’s take a guess at why Denise flipped.

Denise in the Middle

It’s all going to revolve around Malcolm, isn’t it? Denise wanted to stick with Kalabaw, but where was Malcolm leaning? In the run up to the merge, he kept talking about how he was avoiding picking sides for as long as possible, wanting to get as much information as he could, leading me to believe that he was open to joining RC and Michael (and probably Lisa). So now he’s been able to size up all the players, he’s apparently decided that his best option is Pete’s group.

In fact, I think he’d already made that decision. When he talked about the clique inside Tandang, he used “we” and “our own tribe,” comfortably including himself. He’s been completely integrated into Tandang, as was proven by his participation in the strategy discussions this week.

Does Denise feel this way about Kalabaw? As I said last week, we didn’t see Jeff and Carter discuss last week’s vote with her. Katie might have done, but Katie’s not here to stick with. Penner might have done, but as he was blindsided by Katie’s vote against him, it was Jeff and Carter who were controlling that vote, and (as far as we know) they didn’t ask Denise for her opinion. Denise is a big enough and savvy enough fan of the game to know that if your allies aren’t talking strategy with you, you’re low man on the totem pole.

We don’t know how hard Denise worked on Malcolm to swing to her side; perhaps she realized that he was in a better position than she was. Malcolm reports that she told him she wasn’t that tight with Kalabaw – only to qualify it with an “allegedly”. After a week of separation, Malcolm’s a little wary of Denise, and that concerns me more than Denise’s motivations.

Malcolm talked in confessional about pulling over “Jeff, Denise and Carter” in that order. You might have thought, given his history, that he would have mentioned Denise first, but the recent negotiations have bumped Jeff up in his subconscious priorities. Earlier, Malcolm explained that Denise and Lisa were the two people he probably couldn’t beat in a final. I agree with that, and I’m glad he’s seeing it (well, I have mixed feelings – I’m rooting for both women), but he’s strongly implying that he wants to be rid of his alliance with them. Would Malcolm also have preferred for Denise to be voted off before the merge?

Regardless, Malcolm’s stuck with it for now, and Denise has also cast her lot in with Tandang. At least she can claim she had no loyalty to Kalabaw to start with, but I hope she knows when to cut her loyalty to Malcolm.

One thing to emerge from this is that we know what the public story about Matsing’s idol is. Denise said in a webclip that she’s been claiming complete ignorance, that she doesn’t know anything about it. Malcolm made it clear that he’s not told his allies on Tandang and wants to keep as few people as possible aware of it. This seems to have worked, since Pete said at Tribal Council that he thought the Matsing idol was gone. Pete might have been pushing a narrative there, or the rest of the tribe might not share his belief, but for now I’ll assume that nobody suspects Malcolm of having an idol.

In some ways, it’s to Denise’s advantage that Lisa has found out. Denise is outside of the Tandang clique, and while she might be able to claim an alliance with Jeff and Carter, she’s very much the third there and could well be dropped. Malcolm is having second thoughts about their alliance, and he could gamble on voting out Denise and hoping she won’t reveal his idol on her way to getting her torch snuffed. But it’s going to be a lot harder for him to blindside Denise and hope that Lisa keeps quiet.

It would be easier to keep Denise happy while voting Lisa off, but it seems unlikely that Pete, Jeff or anybody else will be interested in targeting Lisa for a while. Malcolm will have to keep both women around, even if they are the two players with the best chance of beating him at the end. His best scenario might be to take them to final five, at which point the idol becomes defunct anyway. If he’s in final five with that alliance and two players he’s comfortable he can defeat at the end, he can be fairly confident of beating Denise in one of the two (three?) remaining immunity challenges and Lisa in both.

It’s because of this, that Lisa might just be Denise’s best ally. Both women run the risk of being too likeable to take to the end, so it makes sense for them to band together and protect each other. Should they both make the end, I would think Denise’s underdog story would beat Lisa’s charisma hands down, but either woman might think they had the best case against each other. The trick will be to find a reliable third, assuming both of them realize that Malcolm will betray them at the end-game.

Taking Lisa at face value

One of the strangest things to be said this episode was Lisa’s comment to Jonathan that it was the first time in ages people have made friendships with her for who she is, rather than because she was once famous. It’s not often that somebody in Survivor feels that their relationships are more genuine than the ones they have in real life! Does this mean that Lisa is very naïve? Or is her social game so good that everybody is sincerely fond of her?

The truth is probably somewhere between these two extremes as per usual. Lisa certainly isn’t that naïve, since she knew better than to take Malcolm’s new alliance with her at face value. But she does know how to hit the right social notes. The scene where Malcolm confronted Lisa about the idol was a joy to watch, especially when compared to Abi confronting RC about… well anything. These two players know their social game. Malcolm let Lisa start the conversation so he could take his cue from her. Lisa knew why he had pulled her aside and seized the chance to set the tone. They cordially formed an alliance, then went off to their respective confessionals and acknowledged that the other might be playing them.

I have previously speculated that Lisa and Malcolm might have talked strategy already; I’m dropping that theory. While I’m sure Lisa continued her efforts to have a social connection with everybody, Malcolm’s attitude to Lisa is a little more dismissive (in particular, his recap of the conversation has her sound much more intimidated than she actually seemed), and I’m guessing he hadn’t figured her into his gameplan before now.

It was interesting to see that Malcolm and Jonathan both had the same question about Lisa in their respective confessionals. Was she satisfied with being out there, getting this far and having that experience… or did she want to go for the win? I’ve always felt that Lisa does want to win (although Jonathan makes a good point that she might choose not to make a big move because she doesn’t want to hurt anybody), yet it’s a fair assessment for her demographic: the older woman is typically more a fan of the show than the game.

Still, it suggests that Lisa (and possibly Denise) is being underestimated. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think she’s an aggressive player by any means, but she’s kind of the Sandra in this situation. She’s letting the strategists play their game while she watches and finds the safe position for herself.

Last week, I said she was in the best position, because whichever majority emerged, she should be a part of that alliance. This week, I’m not so sure that’s the case; I think a lot of the players won’t think of bringing her into their alliance – but she has the ability to get herself into it once she sees which way the wind is blowing. The issue here is that Lisa has yet to take the initiative in asking for an alliance.

Of course, it’s entirely possible she’s already influencing the game. Jonathan’s tweet claimed that Denise and Malcolm had to go with Tandang because their enforced ally, Lisa, refused to flip. We have to bear in mind that this statement might have been influenced by what he’d seen in the episode rather than what he learned later, but it tallies with what Lisa said at Tribal Council.

A few ex-Tandang mentioned their apprehension ahead of Tribal Council because they have no experience of it. Lisa certainly didn’t come off like a pro as she started gabbling her answers to Jeff’s questions, but the content of them struck me. She was very forceful about why you shouldn’t flip, summing up the basic theory: going from sixth to fifth isn’t necessarily an improvement when you’ve shown you can’t be trusted in an alliance.

Lisa is clearly aware of the argument that a flipper has never won (depending on your definition). It’s not hard to imagine that she might have been using these arguments with others that day, though we never saw it. I’m not convinced that Malcolm talked to her about flipping, but did Denise sound her out? What about RC and Skupin?

Even more interesting to me was her answer to Jeff’s question about the Matsing duo (a.k.a. Lisa’s secret new alliance). She agreed that they were a concern, but rushed through that topic to bring up the possibility of Kalabaw flipping. She chose to bring that up, and the question is why? A way of warning Jonathan to play his idol, perhaps? Taking the heat off her own tribe? Getting off the subject of Matsing as quickly as possible? Whatever her motive, she stepped up to bat, and what she lacked in poise she made up for in vehemence. She’s yet to prove that she knows when not to speak at Tribal Council, but she’s certainly ready to play that side of the game.

We can’t know the real reasons Lisa has for choosing to stay with her original alliance, but considering her pre-game concern that she wouldn’t be able to play the deception part of the game, I will take her Tribal Council comments for truth. It turns out that Pete, Abi and Artis were right to trust her, after all.

As an aside, I’m more than a little frustrated that we heard so little from the two women who apparently were instrumental in settling the post-merge dynamic. Thank heavens Lisa was a “child star” or she might have had even less camera-time than Denise! I’m sure some of you would rather hear from Malcolm and Jeff than Lisa and Denise, but I wouldn’t. I don’t need to hear Malcolm/Pete saying the same things your average young alpha says every season. I don’t need to hear Jeff Kent rehash for us the two things he doesn’t want to happen. I would like to know what Denise and Lisa are thinking about the upcoming vote.

Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s an estrogen thing, but it’s still a valid opinion. Yes, I’m going to keep this up until Jeff Probst stops saying he doesn’t know why they don’t have memorable women on the show. For the record, this is yet another season where we have only four women left at the time the jury starts. (I.e. the pool from which returners are most likely to be picked.)

The Boy’s Club – No Returning Players Allowed.

At the top of this article, it was established that Denise cost Kalabaw plus RC and Michael their proposed majority and not Jeff and Carter as the episode suggested. Yet we can’t let Jeff and Carter off the hook so completely. If they had pretended to go along with the split vote, but in fact cast their votes for Pete (and tipped Skupin off that they were doing so), they would have had five votes for Pete against six split between RC and Penner.

In that scenario, Pete would almost certainly have gone home, leaving a five-five power struggle for the next vote. Odds are decent that Denise or somebody else would flip rather than face a tie-breaker.

So they chose to break their ties with Jonathan and his idol this episode, just a few days after deciding to stick by him and vote Katie out. While this change of heart is not encouraging, I can forgive Jeff his fickle gameplan. When he voted Katie off, Tandang was an unknown quantity. Since the merge, he’s been able to size them up and make an informed decision which was to resume his crusade against returning players.

While Jeff is getting carried away by his determination that a veteran should not win, he’s not the only person who’s tired of the returning players – though perhaps the most vocal. After all, the other two tribes had bad experiences with their returning players: Malcolm was glad to see the back of Russell, and Pete and Artis can’t stand Michael. Pete also stated before the game that he would want to get rid of a returner pre-merge.

So we have a group of players sympathetic to each others’ motives, who all love the game and fancy themselves as aggressive, strategic players. They’re also all male, which I think is relevant. Certainly, while Abi is part of the alliance and was present for the strategy session, she was just hanging around in the background rather than actively participating. It is the sausage factory alliance that fellow RHAW guest blogger, Andy Baker, suggested last week, only minus the returning players.

While an alliance of so many alpha males seems destined to implode in spectacular fashion, for now each man has the security of his own sub-alliance waiting in the wings. With that luxury, they can afford to revel in Survivor analysis with kindred spirits. The Pete and Malcolm bromance has become an orgy of game-shaking.

It also provides us with an insight into how different players can each see themselves to be guiding their alliance’s strategy. Pete was the first to say that Jonathan likely had an idol; Artis was the first to suggest blindsiding him; Jeff undoubtedly congratulated himself on letting everybody reach the correct conclusion without him having to tip his hand.

This is a trite example, but Survivor is as much a collaborative game as an individual one, despite the fandom’s tendency to search for one person who is supposedly running the whole show. One person (Pete?) started theorizing a four-four split vote, and Malcolm pointed out that they could get the majority on the revote. Any one player might have worked out that plan singlehandedly, but it emerged from a collective.

Pete wound up the discussion with “This is going to be fun!” I’m betting everybody agreed with him. After all, they were about to cross off something on their Survivor bucketlist: pull off a big blindside in complicated fashion. That had to be a lot more attractive to Jeff than going along with an upset organized by the returning players. Even Pete (I’m Panicking – Pete is the calmest panicker ever), aware he would be the opposing faction’s most likely target, said he’d rather go home trying to pull off a big move than taking the safe option of throwing everybody’s votes at RC. N.B. Pete considers Jeff’s and Carter’s votes to be the risks; Denise never gets a mention.

Mexican Stand-Off

But what about the long term? Jeff has Carter, who was conspicuous by his absence from the plotting, but Carter fancies himself a dominant player as much as the next guy, and I think he’ll gain entry to the club on his own merits. Beyond the two of them, there is nobody they can count upon to be in their corner. Jonathan and Michael are out for obvious reasons, Lisa’s been clear that flippers can’t be trusted, and I’ve already talked about how there’s no evidence for a deeper bond with Denise. When the boys’ club needs to turn on each other, Jeff and Carter will be in the minority and challenge threats to boot.

Of course, they can always link up with Malcolm’s group to take on the main Tandang three. Lisa again might be the sticking point, depending on just how far she’s going to carry her loyalty creed, but they could force a tie at final eight (assuming Michael and Jonathan will be taken out in the next two votes), or get Lisa herself voted off, so they can take the majority at final seven. The downside is that as the game stands, Malcolm stands an excellent chance of beating both of them at the end.

But maybe they won’t need Malcolm. Pete explained that he understands the move is going to put Jeff on the hitlist, but Pete will protect him because he’s one of the most intelligent guys out there. This harks back to his instant liking for Malcolm, although Pete says here: “I don’t like trusting people that I just met.” Revealing his idol to Malcolm seems ever more bizarre, unless that clip was inserted far ahead of when it actually happened.

Of course, Pete did not suggest that he would take Jeff to the end, but the implication is that he’d like to keep the smart players around for a few Tribal Councils longer, rather than targeting them right away. This could prove to be Pete’s downfall, since it increases the chances of Malcolm and/or Jeff turning on Pete before he turns on them. Jonathan has been notably excluded from the smart guy clique, so returning trumps intelligence. Denise is also absent from the current line-up… possibly the automatic older woman dismissal going on there; I don’t think Jeff ever discovered how smart she was and Malcolm, who does know, is motivated to exclude her from networking.

For the record, I don’t think Pete includes Artis in his line up of intelligence, although Artis certainly knew to be on the spot for strategy discussions. My own assessment of Artis is that he is savvy enough, but yet again his confessional was focused on the challenge. Pete said he’s been dealing with “a bunch of bozos” so I don’t think he rates Artis as a guy who’s fun to play with in the same way Jeff and Malcolm are, though we know from last week that he’s considering him and Abi as final three material.

Pete also has Abi in his corner, making his three the biggest sub-alliance, (especially if Lisa proves more loyal to him than Malcolm.) Abi kept herself present for the strategy discussions, hearing firsthand what was being discussed, though we never saw her sit down with the men. She’s a hanger on, and she’s obviously Pete’s hanger on. I’m sure Malcolm and Jeff have made due note of that.

It’s probably worth mentioning that although Pete proposed getting out RC first, as the most dangerous player, the agreed plan was to vote Penner out on a revote, if he failed to play the idol. RC only went home because Jonathan played his idol, so Pete had to concede his original target there. Abi too; she said ahead of Tribal Council that her preferred scenario was for Jonathan to play the idol so that RC would go home.

They did get their way in the end, although I don’t think either of them tipped Jonathan off (or Michael). Even if they hadn’t, Abi made sure to bring up the idol clue story, holding RC up as untrustworthy for the benefit of the other players. Abi also explained that she would bring her idol with her to Tribal Council but she was hoping she wouldn’t have to play it. She did not indicate whether she would play it for Pete.

In my day, people respected their elders

With RC voted off and Kalabaw broken up, it seems to be the end of the line for Jonathan and Michael. Having sat tight and played his heart out at challenges for the entire tribal portion of the game, Michael finally took the merge as his opportunity to forge his own alliances. About time! Actually, it looks like Jonathan initiated their alliance, but Michael was determined to give the Tandang clique their comeuppance for being so rude.

Rudeness seems like an odd reason to vote somebody out at this stage. Pete’s group are a threat to control the whole game… why not bring that up? Instead, Skupin took a more moral tack: they don’t deserve to win.

This possibly goes back to his old-school Survivor roots. Mario Lanza (best known for the Funny 115) wrote in his Experiences with Survivor essay that after the original Survivor season, when Rich a.k.a. the bad guy won, the Australia cast went into the game with more of a focus on having a good guy win this time, up to and including Colby’s decision to take Tina to the finals over Keith.

I think the players in Australia were trying so hard not to be seen as the equivalent of the Borneo cast (who most people still thought of as being fun at first, before they all turned mean and nasty), that it created one of the rare moments in Survivor history where there really wasn’t a villain at all. Everyone was trying to be on their best behavior.

That’s Mario’s opinion rather than Michael’s, but I watched Australia for the first time this summer, bearing these comments in mind and it made sense to me. When you compare Australia’s cast to the Russell Hantz and Parvati Shallow wannabes who play today, it’s easy to see that Michael came in for a culture shock.

It also highlights the issue with a lot of the modern gameplay, where people embrace the villain role because “it’s just a game” and/or they want the screen-time. Pete’s vote-off words to RC were obviously cut short, so the full sentiment could have been anything from “I never liked you playing so hard,” to “I never liked you, #%@$!” But regardless of his opinion, he should have tried harder to keep RC and Michael happy.

He’s not the only one. Artis talks briefly about his case for the final Tribal Council this week, explaining that he has been a hard worker and very sociable. He’s only been negative to “two individual people.” What he fails to mention is that those two individual people represent a full third of his original tribe and thus a significant chunk of his potential allies. And we all know how Abi’s behaved.

You can get away with excluding a couple of people from your social game. Early on in South Pacific, Sophie had an online confessional where she outlined how they were making different people in the tribe feel comfortable. She ended with the admission that she wasn’t paying much attention to Stacey and Christine, but she figured they wouldn’t be around very long. She was right (though Christine almost came back to haunt them), but she at least had a seven-strong alliance without them and I still wouldn’t recommend it.

It’s also arguable that being cruel to unpopular players is a good move in the social game. Sandra won Heroes vs Villains at least partly because she talked back to Russell (whether you see that as standing up to a bully or being vicious in her own right). Of course, she did it at a time when she knew the entire jury was disposed against Russell. That’s a very different scenario to here – though I should note that it’s still not entirely clear what the actual bad behavior was on Tandang nor how much of it was a two-way street.

Still, the outcome was that RC and Michael were primed to flip. Abi (who apparently did not watch the post-merge episode of South Pacific) appeared to try and build some bridges by suggesting RC play double agent for them. RC made the unexpected reply that Tandang weren’t one big happy family. I can only assume that RC was fishing for some reassurance here, but it came off as serving notice of her defection to Kalabaw. Small wonder Abi had no idea how to respond.

Jonathan did. RC relates on her facebook page that he had heard about their treatment from Michael. When a necklace arrived with Treemail, “Penner made a speech about how this necklace should go to someone who hasn’t gotten anything before, knowing I was the only one!” This is a surprising insight into Survivor’s black market in fashion accessories, but also into why RC flipped. I don’t want to be a complete cynic here; I believe it was a sincere gesture on Jonathan’s part, but I don’t think there was any way RC would have gone back to Pete and Abi’s side afterwards.

While Pete and Co appear to have nullified the threat that RC and Michael posed to them (Michael looks like a sitting duck right now, though anything can happen), they’re still left with two jurors who will never vote for them. It’s a minority but it represents a quarter of the votes available if we’re looking at a final three scenario. This might just lock the three of them into going to the finals with each other, although there’s room to hope that Jeff and Carter will be even more disliked for their own betrayal.

Jeff, at least, isn’t likely to consider Pete’s rudeness a factor, and I don’t think it was the right line for Michael to take with him. I have to hope that he used other arguments off-camera! Jeff also seems to have taken Pete’s assessment of Michael to heart, since he made little effort to hide his bias against returning players from Mike. Unfortunately for Mike, that information is unlikely to help him now. Somebody tipped him off to vote with the majority, and he was wise to do so, but he’s had no luck integrating himself yet with the others. I can’t believe he’ll succeed now.

It’s your move

So is there any hope for Michael or Jonathan beyond going on an immunity run? Well, there’s a good chance that Jonathan’s idol will be rehidden, so he could start searching again. It’s also possible that once one veteran has been taken out, one or more of the Pete/Malcolm/Jeff triumvirate will decide that it’s time to turn on the other first time alpha males and use the remaining veteran to boost their voting bloc.

I would expect Jonathan to be the primary target, since he’s clearly a more aggressive, experienced player than Michael. I also expect Jonathan to go down with a huge fight, and I hope he can pull something off. If he wins immunity, Michael will go first, but at this point, I imagine that Michael will be the one left standing.

The problem at that point is that the players will be down to nine, and no one faction can get a majority just by bringing Michael in. His best bet seems to be Malcolm’s group. Pete’s lot hate him, and Jeff doesn’t like returners. We can’t be sure that Malcolm hasn’t been as dismissive of him as the others, though this episode showed Malcolm teasing him about his many scars in friendly fashion. We are reasonably sure that Lisa still likes him, and Denise is too savvy a gamer to exclude anybody based on personal feelings.

But if Malcolm, Denise and Lisa do bring Michael in, that’s still four votes against five. The only other vote I could see them possibly getting is Carter, and I’m completely ignoring the fact that Lisa is unlikely to betray her original alliance so early. If we say Jonathan wins immunity, and Michael goes home next episode instead, then he could possibly unite Pete’s faction and Malcolm’s against Jeff and Carter. I am dubious however.

So the only way I can see things flipping is if one of the returning players finds an idol (or is given either Abi’s or Malcolm’s). If Pete or Jeff is the victim of an idol next week, Jonathan and Michael could offer Malcolm a five-strong majority at final nine. We still run into the problem of Lisa betraying her alliance and Malcolm saving the players who are the biggest threats to win.

That said, few people behaved as I would have predicted this week, and I’m equally certain that nobody can stay their current course without their game taking a nosedive sooner rather than later. One of the alpha males is going to pull the trigger on the others; who and when remains to be seen. Meanwhile, we’re still in the dark as to Denise and Lisa’s plans, but both women will have to make a decision on their own position if they haven’t already done so.

While Pete’s group ostensibly retain their dominance, the game has been thrown wide open. Nobody’s got a clear path to the finals, but almost everybody has an opportunity to seize if they dare.

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