Survivor: Cambodia

The Survivor Strategic Game: Total Exhaustion

Part of what makes Survivor great is the uncertainty behind many of the decisions. No matter how smart a player is, planning everything right is nearly impossible. Producers face the same issues when they introduce twists that change the game. The decision to move from two tribes to three after only two episodes felt right. It diminished the importance of pre-game alliances and ensured the players didn’t get too comfortable. Particularly in a returning player season, I’m totally behind throwing a wrench in their plans and forcing people to adapt.

The new configuration has created an interesting dynamic within each group. On the newly created Angkor tribe, the numbers advantage for the former Ta Keo members meant very little. That shift led to interesting drama with Tasha and Savage quickly gaining control. They identified rifts surrounding Abi-Maria and quickly secured her loyalty. Her volatile play ended Peih-Gee’s game and played a role in Varner’s exit this week. So much has worked this season, but the producers erred in setting up Angkor as the “have nots” of the cast. Despite Savage’s epic win in the reward challenge, there was little chance they were avoiding Tribal Council.

Survivor 31.4-Immunity-Challenge-Angkor It was a sad scene for the Angkor tribe during a brutal immunity challenge.[/caption]

Forcing players to start over isn’t a new twist. The merged tribe faced this scenario in Worlds Apart earlier this year. Even so, the Angkor situation feels different. The main reason is the lack of any food, which puts them at a clear disadvantage against the other tribes. How can we expect them to compete well in grueling immunity challenges? Survivor isn’t a fair game, and the luck of the draw always plays a role. Adapting to any circumstance is crucial to winning the million. The bigger question is how the uneven playing field affects the overall excitement.

I don’t mean to be a naysayer; this season has been very entertaining. It just diminishes the enjoyment a little when you start the night knowing Angkor is toast. Even after the feast of sausages, they were too spent during the immunity challenge. In a secret scene, Tasha explained about how spent they were. It was clear before the episode that Varner was in trouble because his tribe had little chance physically. He’s been the clear star of the first four episodes, so watching him depart was disappointing. It certainly played a role in my uneasiness with the twist. That said, I still found plenty to like within this episode. There are few duds in this cast, and everyone is fighting to stay in the game.

The Loyalty Pitch

At Tribal Council, both Woo and Varner gave ardent pleas about their loyalty to Angkor. Each guy did a solid job, and Varner made a passionate case that he deserved to stay. His focus was Abi, who’d formed a strong bond with him. The episode made her look like the swing vote, but Savage and Tasha were truly running the show. Once Varner and Woo targeted each other, it set up the Bayon power pair as the deciders. Their pick needed to be someone who would help them in both the near future and after the merge. Varner would likely stick with them in the next vote to remove Abi, but I doubt he’d be reliable to the end. Tasha definitely shared this concern.

Could Varner have done anything to change his fate? I’m not sure there was an easy out this time. Even if he worked with Woo and targeted Abi, they would still face a 3-2 deficit. Tasha might be irritated by Abi, but I didn’t get the impression she was ready to turn on her. Varner’s mistake after last week’s challenge reminded them he wasn’t just playing for Angkor. His choice to join the group and eliminate Peih-Gee also set up his demise. It’s easy in hindsight to fault Varner for not forcing a tie, but he probably expected Woo to be the next target. Abi’s fixation on Woo voting for her twice might have been enough if she was really in charge.

Woo isn’t spellbinding TV, but hasn’t been as passive this time. He stood up and rejected Shirin’s pitch a few weeks ago, and his plea at Tribal Council made sense this week. Who’s more loyal than Woo? He voted with Terry and Kelly at the original Ta Keo, but I expect he’ll stick with Tasha and Savage. The original Bayon should have the numbers at the merge, so it makes sense for Woo to secure an alliance with them. When Angkor returns to Tribal Council, he’s in a better position to stay than Abi. Tasha played with Woo in Cagayan and even voted for him to win, so sticking with him is more sensible than a harbinger of doom like Abi.

Varner's connection with Abi wasn't enough to keep him in the game.

Varner’s connection with Abi wasn’t enough to keep him in the game.

Before discussing the other tribes, I have to give one last eulogy for Varner. He finished in 17th place, but his impact was much larger. Varner reminded us of how much “old school” players can bring to the modern game. It was fascinating to watch him make moves and influence less strategic people like Terry. Varner’s also such a big character, and it’s too bad that it took 15 years for us to see him again. In his “The Day After” clip, Varner talked about the emotional impact of the game, which meant so much to him. That enthusiasm and big personality are what made him so fun on the show.

I’d love to see Varner get another chance down the road. He is a perfect example of why this season has worked so well. The strategic game has been a small part of the season, and that’s totally fine. I just enjoy hanging out with this group, and that’s a key facet of the best seasons. Cagayan had big moves, but it was also entertaining because of its characters. We’re in the same boat with this cast, and I expect that trend to continue.

Changing Perceptions

When the RHAP bloggers made our pre-season predictions, none of us picked Kass to make the merge. In fact, two picked her to be the first boot. She’s yet to visit Tribal Council, and it’s given Kass time to build solid relationships. Her comments about playing differently haven’t felt like lip service. We’ve seen her connecting with Ciera and Joe, and this week showed a fun moment with Kelley. What was interesting about that scene was how Kelley initially distrusted Kass. Despite her efforts to be different, Kass still has a reputation. The margin for error is slim, but she should make the merge. Could Kass win the game? It isn’t the most likely scenario but doesn’t seem outlandish given her positive edit and different strategy.

The brief action over at Bayon focused on Spencer, who continued to woo new allies. Drawing attention to Kelly Wiglesworth made sense given her status as the other outsider. What’s strange is how little we’ve seen of Kelly since the tribe swap. Has she worked to form new bonds with Monica and Kimmi? Splitting the tribe down gender lines might force Jeremy and Stephen to vote out Spencer and avoid a tie. Monica talked this week about not trusting Spencer, so I expect she’d be open to keep Kelly instead. Kimmi’s thoughts are still a mystery, and it’s frustrating to have such little info. Too many players aren’t getting any screen time, and we should switch back to two tribes as soon as possible.

Who’s in the best position?

Tasha has control of Woo and much of her tribe.

Tasha has control of Woo and much of her tribe.

Tasha: Despite the issues at Angkor, there’s little chance that Tasha is leaving soon. Abi won’t work with Woo, and Savage is a loyal ally. She may be part of a weakened group, but there are plenty of former Bayon allies on the other tribes. Like Malcolm and Denise in the Philippines, Tasha and Savage should be stronger because they’ve survived a decimated third tribe. Judging by the edit, she’s in control of Angkor and has the better connection with Abi. She also should have Woo’s loyalty if he makes the merge because she saved him over Varner. Tasha is a physical threat, but she won’t have the same target as Joe, Jeremy, and Terry. She also isn’t considered a strategist like Spencer or Stephen. Tasha is poised for a serious run.

Jeremy: I would not have guessed that Jeremy would be such a linchpin in his tribe. Everyone wants to work with him, and we’ve seen no evidence that he’s in trouble. Having the idol also gives him an extra out for when the votes come his way. Losing the reward challenge wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to him. In a secret scene, he recognized that the loss could help his game. He’s determined to avoid being the prime target, and defeating Terry and Savage could have made him look too strong. He gave a real effort and earned admiration without standing out as a threat. He won’t escape attention forever, but Jeremy’s off to a great start.

Who’s in trouble?

Abi: It may look like Abi had a say in this week’s vote, but it’s unlikely. She also just lost the player most interested in working with her in Varner. In their next vote, Woo will certainly lobby for her exit. I expect that Tasha and Savage will decide that Abi has outlived her usefulness. She played a key role in helping them gain control at Angkor but isn’t needed anymore. Abi needed to find a way to work with Woo and Varner this past week. Barring an immunity win or tribe swap, the most likely scenario is Abi departing at the next Tribal Council.

Woo has a better chance to survive than Abi, but it's no guarantee.

Woo has a better chance to survive than Abi, but there’s no guarantee this season.

Woo: I’m not including Woo in this spot to hedge my bets. Logic would dictate that he’d be a better ally for Tasha and Savage down the road. Even so, Abi has found a way to dodge the vote multiple times already. Players admit that she’s too volatile to be trusted yet keep sticking with her. The last three people to exit had voted with Abi in the week before they left. It seems too early to choose her as a goat for the end, but weirder things have happened. Woo should try his best to ensure Angkor wins immunity to avoid even the slim chance he’ll be gone.

I’m hopeful that we’ll see Bayon or Ta Keo make a trip to Tribal Council next week, but the odds aren’t great. The producers may try to mix up the action with a double Tribal Council, and now is the perfect time. Eight of the remaining 16 players have yet to cast a vote, and that’s far too many. We may assume that Kass has changed and Stephen has allies, but we won’t know until they face Jeff. If two people exit, they’ll be set for a tribe swap in the following week at 14. These choices would help retain the momentum of the opening episodes. I’ve enjoyed this season but don’t want to endure two more weeks watching Angkor suffer. Putting others in the hot seat will force players to show their cards and set the stage for a thrilling post-merge game.

Become a patron of RHAP