Survivor: David vs. Goliath

Survivor: David vs. Goliath – Taking it Personally

The season is called David vs. Goliath. That’s the theme, the narrative, how the players have been groomed to see it. Usually, this is the point where I say that, in Survivor, perception is reality… but that’s not the case for this merge. Right now, any David vs. Goliath perception is overlooking the very real power struggle of Jabeni vs. Tiva.

Oh, fine. I mean the purple and green tribes from post-swap.

A Tale of Three Camps: the best of tribes, the worst of tribes… and the other one.

The David and Goliath tribes went to one tribal council apiece before the swap, but thanks to Pat’s medevac and Bi’s quit, the swap broke down with every tribe containing three Goliaths and two Davids. Even more neatly, everybody was on a tribe with somebody who had voted with them at Tribal Council—except Elizabeth and Davie. The Goliaths had voted unanimously, and although the Davids had been split 5-4 on Jessica, Bi had quit and Carl went to exile, leaving Davie as the only person to enter his new tribe from an ‘on the outs’ position.

Davie’s would be the orange or Vuku tribe, by the way. (Yeah, you thought you could stop worrying about those names now… tough. I’m very demanding.)

I can’t fault Elizabeth too much for saving Lyrsa, who would have been a great ally for her. Had the pair swapped differently, they could probably have done some very real damage in the game. Nevertheless, Elizabeth serves as a cautionary tale against dividing your starting tribe.

Elizabeth didn’t end up with Lyrsa after the swap, nor even Gabby, Christian or Nick. She ended up with Davie who had been left out of the vote. And while we saw evidence of her immediately trying to bring him in (going idol-hunting together), she had already lost Davie’s trust. He wasn’t willing to stick his neck out for her, and if it hadn’t been for Alec’s impulsiveness, Elizabeth would have gone home when Natalia did.

Oh, Alec… We learned this episode that he was close to Alison and Mike on his original tribe, and it’s possible he had a formal alliance with them from back then. Angelina, Natalia, and Kara considered him part of their alliance: the three women and the men they were each closest to, but it’s not clear if they ever told him about that six. Regardless, he was in a comfortable position at the swap: a majority with two women who wanted to keep him around long term, and good friends else-tribe. All he had to do was wait until the merge. Instead, he opted for a Big Move in episode four.

We’ll speculate on Alec’s motives for that later, but the immediate effect was to destroy the Goliath alliance and majority within Vuku. With Carl’s addition, new Vuku broke down this way:

  • Carl – blindsided by Elizabeth at the only Tribal Council he had voted at.
  • Davie – blindsided by Elizabeth at his first Tribal Council.
  • Elizabeth – betrayed Carl and Davie at her first Tribal Council; voted for by Kara at her second.
  • Alec – betrayed Kara at his second Tribal Council.
  • Kara – blindsided by Alec at her second Tribal Council.

The old Davids now had the majority, but Alec, Elizabeth, and Davie were the only majority that had actually been sealed by voting together. Of course, it wasn’t clear if Carl was grandfathered into that or part of the minority. Elizabeth said in interviews that she wanted to throw challenges and keep the David numbers up, but it’s understandable that Davie and Carl—both of whom had experience of being on the wrong side of the vote—were wary of such a tactic. On the other hand, going to one more tribal council was perhaps exactly what Vuku needed to affirm an alliance—any alliance.

Compare to Jabeni which also voted out a Goliath but did so in a much less disruptive fashion. Everybody on the tribe was having difficulty with Natalie, and there had been a motion to get her out before the swap. While Mike and Angelina had no real connection from their Goliath days, they readily played nice with each other and the David minority. Nick and Lyrsa did have a pre-swap alliance but cheerfully made connections with their new tribemates, and were rewarded with a stay of execution through the first Tribal Council and had a fighting chance at getting Angelina out at the second.

The second vote was interesting, because Nick and Mike were both more interested in playing with Lyrsa long term, but they—specifically, Mike—felt keeping Angelina would be more beneficial to their position in the short term. Each of them could go into the merge with an argument that they were still loyal to their pre-swap tribe. They had also demonstrated loyalty to each other by voting out “one of their own”: Nick had a link to the Goliaths through Mike, and Mike had a link to the Davids through Nick, which should give them flexibility when they are ready to change things up.

They didn’t tip either of the women off to this dilemma. Both Angelina and Lyrsa felt that they had a secure alliance with the men that would carry them through this vote. Ironically, Lyrsa had more basis for good faith than Angelina did, but Angelina wasn’t given any reason to think she shouldn’t trust Mike and Nick—and this is a case where perception becomes reality. Her trust is a reason for her to be loyal to them and that’s their reason to be loyal to her. This mutual loyalty is unlikely to last more than a few votes, but it will work for now.

And then there’s Tiva which never went to Tribal Council so all its bonds are totally untested. By the same token, they’re also unstrained. It might turn out that they will break under the gentlest of pressures, but without those pressures, they’re not even cracked.

Dan and John were evidently friendly on Goliath beach, and they readily included Christian in their bro-down. While Gabby fretted that she was on the outs, this doesn’t seem to be based on any mistreatment or ill-feeling. Rather, she correctly noted that Christian was fitting in better than she was: both because of his social skills and because Gabby is even less equipped for bro-ing down than the robotics scientist.

Gabby also noted that Dan never talked game with her, and that’s a failing on his part if so. But clearly Alison was perfectly willing to talk game with Gabby, and John has been in the habit of talking to outsiders… While Gabby probably had every right to be nervous should Tiva go to Tribal Council, she also didn’t have active cause to distrust them once they became Kalokalo.

And that was as controversial as Tiva got. No arguments over jackets, eggs or bamboo. Just getting to know old friends better and making new ones. Building those connections for merge time.

Faults in the Stars

Come the merge, the Vukus were the first to crack. Carl, the only player in the game who had yet to be in the loop for a vote, immediately began reaching out to the players he’d never met. He let them know Alec had been the one to get Natalia out. He offered up Elizabeth as an ideal first vote. Meanwhile, Alec decided that now it was the merge, he could really start playing—which meant checking in with old allies and then making an alliance with every David but the ones from Vuku. Kara, who had gone from a secure position in the Goliaths to a vulnerable one post-swap, apparently dropped Vuku completely. Similarly, Elizabeth was the only person to make a serious attempt to rally the Davids together even though they were a minority.

Perhaps most importantly, the original Goliaths realized they had a ready-made majority to use as the public face of their plans. However, their maneuvers behind that façade respected the post-swap tribal lines. Take Alec’s secret strike force alliance, comprised of:

  • Vuku: Alec.
  • Jabeni: Mike, Nick.
  • Tiva: Alison, Christian, Gabby.

When ex-Jabeni Angelina targeted Christian, Alec wanted to save his secret alliance. So he went to ex-Tiva and ex-Goliath, Alison. He pitched it to her by saying they couldn’t betray “Gabby and Christian.” He made no mention of Nick, who was just as much a David as the other two but had been on Jabeni not Tiva. (Yet in the earlier conversation with both Alison and Mike, he specifically named Nick as somebody he wanted in the alliance.) For that matter, at no point did he involve ex-Jabeni Mike in the plan… I doubt Mike would have had a problem going against Angelina’s wishes, but Alec didn’t test that—at least not until he had numbers.

It was with Alison that Alec approached John and Dan. Dan was calling Alec “Brochacho!” as his boat hit the beach this episode, implying that that particular alliance predated Tiva. Alec could easily have pulled them aside without Alison facilitating, but he was appealing to them as Tivas, not Brochachos.

Notably, Alec, Dan, and John are the three men Angelina, Kara, and Natalia planned on for their own alliance of six. John even says at the end of this scene that he’ll talk to Angelina—from the men’s perspective, they’re the ones bringing the women into line, not the other way around.

Perhaps this is what Angelina picked up on when she decided to target Christian instead of Elizabeth. Alec was the man who betrayed the alliance, but he (and Kara) were downright enthusiastic about voting for their fellow Vuku, Elizabeth. The two Tivans on the other hand, John and Dan, clearly adored Christian. Of course, Nick, somebody who Angelina knows to be athletic and smart, doesn’t get so much as a mention. He’s a bonus number on her side.

(Conversely, it is entirely possible that Nick and Lyrsa had discussed Christian with Angelina, perhaps in terms of somebody they could pull over, if the post-merge tribe turned against the Jabeni minority. Once Angelina had reassured herself that she was part of a Goliath majority instead, she might have viewed Christian as a threat to pull Nick into a rival alliance.)

Whatever her rationale, Angelina targeted Christian as a way to weaken any bonds forged on Tiva while bolstering the ones she had made on Jabeni. Him being the “Heart of the Davids” was simply the rationale she could say out loud. Meanwhile, although Alec got the jump on the action, I very much doubt that John, Dan, or even Alison would have left the vote uncontested. Any friend made in Survivor is a potential vote when you need it.

And so everybody firmly sold the narrative that Elizabeth was “unpredictable” when what they really meant was “expendable.” I’m inclined to agree with Stephen Fishbach’s theory that Carl made a good move by throwing her name out there for commentary. Elizabeth’s meltdown at Vuku certainly didn’t help her game, but if Kara and Alec had been asked about Carl or Davie, they’d probably have been just as quick to assure the rest of the Goliaths that they were willing to vote them off.

Once one person had been identified as an uncontroversial target, they became the easy vote. In an untested tribe of thirteen, that’s what really matters. Most likely, from that moment on, nothing Elizabeth did on the merged tribe mattered.

So with the easy person gone, what happens next? Will Jabeni vs. Tiva set the tone for the rest of the game?

Eh, probably not. Thirteen person merges make for an unwieldy tribe so the Vuku Davids represent an easy vote right now. This could mean that Davie or Carl are targeted next. If Angelina’s wise, she won’t push the next vote—besides, as somebody who started watching Survivor as Adam Klein’s real life friend, she probably subscribes to his theory that the merge vote is the important one. Adam campaigned for the first vote at the Millennials vs. Gen X merge to go the way he wanted it to and then consciously sat back and laid low again afterwards. Angelina may well intend to follow that template.

That doesn’t mean another player won’t test the waters. Christian is now too well-connected with the Goliaths for somebody else to target him, but perhaps Dan or John might push for Nick to go as a way of reducing Angelina’s options.

Meanwhile, the Goliath-strong façade is only reassuring to Goliaths, and Gabby is already on edge. Angelina has become an obvious target and one that would satisfy both the Strike Force and the Tiva group, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Gabby suggests going against Dan next week, now that she knows he has an idol and a showmance (something that apparently never got mentioned on Tiva).

I doubt the tribe will target Dan directly, but a majority might agree to vote out Kara, an expendable Vuku who would weaken both Dan and Angelina’s positions in the game. (I had Kara pegged as the merge boot for this reason, and collateral damage is going to be the biggest danger for her until Dan’s idols are flushed.)

However, all that’s really happening now is consolidation. Players are letting the numbers reduce until a point where they can build a majority they feel confident in. Alison suggested that two Davids should go before they changed things up: i.e. going down to eleven, so their six person alliance can take over.

In theory, Carl or Davie go next, then the Strike Force takes over the game. We should then see a second consolidation, as the Strike Force players take out the big threats not in their alliance (Your Johns, Dans and Angelinas…). That order of execution will likely again be shuffled according to what Jabeni / Tiva and post-merge connections the players want to maintain so that they stay in a majority beyond final six.

In theory. In actuality? Well, there’s that one Vuku player…

We saw how Alec jumped up at Tribal Council. Making a live decision worked for him back on Vuku. I wonder if he was seriously considering granting Elizabeth’s wish and voting Angelina out, but this time there were too many people whispering back: “Not tonight, bro.” Alec’s a sharp enough player, but he hasn’t been happy with taking ‘no’ for an answer, and that could spell huge problems for the Strike Force well before final six and maybe before final eleven.

Predicting Alec’s downfall has been the meta-game of the season, so no points for me there. Here’s a different take: the ability to work within other people’s games will be the defining factor in who does and doesn’t succeed in the post-merge.

Who’s the boss?

One of the takeaways from the pre-game was that the Goliath tribe had a lot of alpha women while the men seemed to be prepared for a more beta role. (That in itself is an interesting commentary on Jeff’s “Winners at life” angle.)

Like the other men, Dan and Alec were prepared to take a beta role, but I suspect they envisioned a traditional Survivor dynamic, where they would be the right hand man to some Alpha Male meatshield, while flirting with a pretty bartender / model / beach-lover / pocket vote. So they brochacho’ed down with John, and split “the two hottest girls out here” between them: Natalia to Alec and Kara to Dan.

And then the traditional Survivor model came up against this season’s casting. Goliath is an old-skewing tribe, so Alec was its youngest member at 24 (and he’s been the youngest player in the game since Jessica’s boot). The Goliaths also tended to have a stronger focus on a career, so there were fewer people who considered beach-party to be a lifestyle.

Kara is three years older than Dan. Natalia is a year older than Alec (and a stubbornly-opinionated engineer who is used to taking the lead on her own projects.) Neither woman was exactly asking to be taken under a wing. John had no problem taking the role of Senior Brochacho, but he was determined to sit back from actual leadership, while the women were equally determined that their voices would be heard in camp and vote decisions. Natalie and Natalia clashed over who was giving orders around camp, and Angelina directed the first vote, with Natalia as the most prominent dissenting voice.

On this tribe, the women were having the pissing contest.

In the alpha male struggle we more typically see on Survivor, the women tend to take a power behind the throne role, permitting their male allies the dominant spot. They put out alpha-behavior fires, massage egos for manipulation, and talk strategy behind the scenes either with the alpha or with a fellow beta. We see Kara and Alison doing elements of that with their male allies this week. We’ve seen John and Mike deal with the alpha women in this fashion. But Dan and Alec have struggled.

The problem with deferring to an alpha is that you acknowledge their authority by doing so. Dan and Alec don’t want to cede authority to somebody they don’t respect, and following the orders of a woman no more than a few years older than them (or one with the brashness of Napalm Natalie) is too much for their ego. Similarly, Angelina and Natalia had no intentions of deferring to the ego of a man a year their junior.

Alec flipped on Natalia for her bossiness, and then he flipped on Elizabeth after she started having angry meltdowns. (I feel for Elizabeth because she’s shown the potential for far better gameplay, but pain and lack of sleep really does destroy your ability to control your emotions.) It looks like he was ready to flip on Angelina for daring to influence the vote. (To be fair to Alec, I don’t think this is entirely gender-driven. I suspect he abandoned Carl and Davie because he wasn’t ready to follow Carl’s orders either, and it’s notable that his Strike Force excludes his alpha-male brochachos.) Alec’s showing some great strategic gameplay, but a lot of his game reactions are emotional.

Conversely, Dan has managed to find some ego validation: showmancing Kara and patronising Christian by taking credit for welcoming a nerd to the macho male group. (Christian is four years older than Dan with Goliath-level career success, and for all his nerdiness, seems significantly more confident socially.) Yet Dan’s still showing signs of volatility. Both of them should know that it’s better to let the bossy people make targets of themselves and quietly manipulate behind the scenes until mid-game… I don’t think either of them can do that in practice.

So who can? Kudos to John who seems like a very alpha personality but has handled the beta role beautifully. Same for Alison, who struck me as so similar to Angelina pre-season, but seems to have avoided Angelina’s social pitfalls. (It’s also possible that the two women’s actions are interpreted differently due to the context of race and/or marital status.) Or maybe Alison just hasn’t been to Tribal Council enough… She certainly wasn’t shy about sharing her opinion at the last one. A few of the Davids have also proved themselves to be capable of both alpha and beta behavior, most notably Christian and Nick.

The dynamics this season, with women pushing for control and men resenting it, have made me think of Kaoh Rong, and accordingly, I’m really curious to see how the rest of the merge plays out. Without getting too much into the weeds of Michele vs Aubry (I did that at the time), it is worth thinking about what the jurors will be looking for…

Kaoh Rong‘s post-merge was characterized by Aubry and Cydney making the switch from betas to alphas, blindsiding the players who had been driving the pre-merge game. The new jurors weren’t happy with this change in the hierarchy, and took a perspective of reasons not to vote for the players still vying for the title of Sole Survivor. When they talked about Aubry and Cydney’s game moves, they pointed to emotions rather than strategy. Instead of crediting them for keeping their male allies loyal, they blamed Tai and Joe for not playing.

In Kaoh Rong, the winning game was one of keeping your head down and avoiding conflict. If resentments hold sway this season, who will emerge as its Michele? Kara is an obvious candidate. She’s an attractive woman who seems to have no trouble staying pleasant to everybody despite the drama springing up around her. Patience and a smile are under-rated attributes in Survivor but they hold a subliminal influence on the jury nonetheless, and Kara’s articulate enough to present a case.

Of course, as I said before… Kara runs a risk of being collateral damage as players go after Dan and his idols. Is there another Michele who is more likely to slip under the radar? How about Davie? Although he came into the game intending to be an aggressive, erratic player, none of that has materialized and instead we have an engaging presence who is thoroughly enjoying every scrap of the experience. Having an idol never hurts either. It would be hard for a juror to feel bad about voting for Davie.

On the other hand, do we have an Aubry who this alpha heavy jury will refuse to vote for? Just this episode, we saw two Goliaths independently give themselves a quiet pep talk to get through a stressful moment. Most Goliaths will probably look for a similar display of self-confidence from their winner.

Gabby, this season’s token girl with glasses, has had several similarities to Aubry’s journey, from an early anxiety attack followed by a triumphant challenge performance, to a merge where she’s frustrated at lacking power in the game and resolves to find her way forward. She’s already cried at Tribal Council, so the vulnerability that condemned Aubry is on full display to the jury.

However, we have a different context here. Aubry’s main ally (and merge boot) was Neal who butted heads with Scot and Jason—an awful lot of Kaoh Rong‘s post-merge actually played out at Ponderosa between players who weren’t ready to admit the game no longer revolved around them. Gabby’s main ally is Christian who everybody adores—if Christian were to campaign for Gabby at Ponderosa, he’d likely sway votes towards her and not away. Meanwhile, through her Tribal Council tears, Gabby actually stood up to Angelina who nobody was happy with. Picking a fight with an unpopular person is generally good (though morally questionable) strategy.

Aubry also got rocketed into an authority position early on in the merge, and was accordingly a focal point of resentment when Scot and Jason found themselves relegated to psychological warfare. Gabby’s well down the pecking order in the current hierarchy, although she’s gradually becoming a more confident voice in strategy discussions. How she walks the authority line from here will be crucial, but she would do well to heed Michele’s advice to Aubry going into Game Changers: quiet at camp; loud at tribal council.

That’s the trick of it for the Davids and the Goliaths as the Jabeni and Tiva coalitions break down into individual games. Alec, Dan, Angelina, etc. may not want to play with an alpha, but if they’re on the jury, they’ll definitely want to vote for one. To paraphrase Michele’s advice, this seasons players should be David at camp; Goliath at tribal council.

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