Survivor: San Juan Del Sur

The Survivor Strategic Game: Enforcing the Narrative


It’s tricky to understand the strategic landscape on Survivor when one tribe keeps losing challenges. We’ve grown comfortable with the dynamics in that group but are just receiving glimpses of the other side. Recent examples like Luzon and Matsing dominated the early episodes because of repeated losses. They were still good TV because of interesting characters, and that trend has continued this season. Even so, I’m ready for Hunahpu to face the music at Tribal Council. There are few weak links in that group, and even the ridiculous Drew is providing classic goofball moments. Beyond the big model, it’s hard to say who’s on the bottom in that tribe. They’re gliding along and taking charge at every turn. This week, Hunahpu went even further and influenced the ultimate result on the opposing tribe.

It’s easy to look at Coyopa’s choice to vote out John as a mistake given their challenge woes. This assumes that their only goal is to win challenges. They aren’t losing on purpose, but certain players may benefit from thinning the herd. A guy like Josh is gradually building his control of the group with each departure. Everyone seems to like and believe him, and that expected trust was John’s undoing. He called Josh his closest ally and made the fatal mistake of saying too much to the wrong guy. The vitriol towards John probably helped to garner the votes from Alec and Wes, but I don’t believe it changed Josh’s mind. Once John gave away his connection to Val in front of his tribe, it set the stage for his blindside. It also provided more evidence for Josh to use in removing the leader of the guys’ alliance.

Things couldn’t have worked out much better for Josh during the past two weeks. He removed two players who were talking behind his back and eliminated the idol from the playing field (for now). John had formed solid bonds with Dale and the other guys, so Josh separated a potentially difficult rival. If that wasn’t enough, he also solidified an alliance with Baylor and Jaclyn by helping them to stay afloat. At their next Tribal Council, Dale is an easy vote because of his lack of allies and physical weakness. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt Coyopa to win a few challenges and push back their next Tribal Council a few weeks.

Imposing Their Will

Hunahpu took charge and pushed John Rocker over the edge. Hunahpu took charge and pushed John Rocker over the edge.[/caption]

I’d be remiss to not dig into what happened after the immunity challenge. Following another close Hunahpu win, it was time to lay into John. Given Jeremy’s anger about losing Val and the conversations we’d observed earlier, it did not feel like an impromptu event. I get the sense they’d planned to pursue the “evil John” narrative from the start. The ring leader was Jeremy, who notified the others about the infamous SI article. The outspoken Natalie was the perfect ally to make it happen, and she gave a fiery performance. Her anger at losing Nadiya certainly played a role, and it was an ugly situation all around. John didn’t help matters by threatening to fight her, and his replies just helped to reinforce their statements. So why go so far to call out one player? There are several reasons.

First of all, many on Hunahpu were truly angry at John for trash talking and because of his past history. Even so, it’s hardly that simple. From a strategic perspective, removing a former professional athlete is a good idea. Tribes have rarely been able to make a significant impact on the other tribe’s voting, but it may have happened here. Natalie wanted John out for several reasons, and calling him out in front of Coyopa made it easier. There’s been a lot of negative feedback towards her after this episode, and it’s fine if people don’t like the approach. However, I feel like there’s a double standard on display with some of the feedback. Natalie’s aggressive play stoked the fires, but it was Josh and his allies that took out John. If a less divisive player (possibly a guy) had done it, we’d call it a brilliant move.

If John truly had unbreakable allies on Coyopa, the yelling would have done little good. There was already a crack in the alliance, and this conflict opened it enough to seal his fate. The presence of the idol also didn’t help John’s case. That’s why telling others about the idol is often a bad choice. Instead of solidifying his bond with Josh, it accelerated the timeframe in ending it. The idol’s powers can save you, but it’s also a crutch that often makes things worse. Boston Rob has explained that finding the idol for him is about ensuring that no one else has it. In that case, you hang onto it and say nothing until you’re threatened. If you’re unsure of the vote, it doesn’t hurt to use it. So many players have exited the game with an idol in their pocket. It’s more helpful in theory than in practice for most of them.

Casting John Rocker

Dale was the only ally that stuck with John.

Dale was the only ally that stuck with John.

Now that John’s time on Survivor has ended, it’s time to dig into the casting question. I don’t have an issue with CBS casting professional athletes, who can bring an interesting dynamic to the game. Jeff Kent is still the best example of a former athlete who played a strong game and had a chance to go even further. He didn’t enter with John’s baggage, however. Jeff may have battled with Barry Bonds on the Giants, but it was nothing like the controversy with John. The article was too prominent to avoid coming up in a show like this one. CBS and Jeff Probst had to expect that fireworks would erupt with John in this group. Probst’s interviews after this episode have felt disingenuous and tried to push aside what they expected.

This feels eerily similar to how Probst responded after the Brandon Hantz incident in the Caramoan. He might call the scenes ugly, but that doesn’t stop them from bringing divisive characters. I’m not putting John on the same level as Brandon. He wasn’t a master strategist but tried to play the game and get along with his tribe. His exit interview with Rob was entertaining and revealed a different guy than the crazily intense competitor we saw on the baseball field. John says inappropriate things (especially on Twitter) and isn’t nice, but he’s hardly a one-note villain. It’s just frustrating to watch Probst act surprised to see the chaos when they courted it by casting John. It delivered good TV, which is what they wanted.

John and I have nothing in common politically, and I’ll admit to feeling uneasy about his casting when it was announced. This recent article doesn’t help his case. Despite that concern, I didn’t hate what he brought to the game. John’s a big character and said plenty of dumb things in three episodes. On the other hand, I don’t get the sense that he made tons of enemies. The choice to take him out was smart gameplay from Josh. He understood the climate and saw the chance. John’s comments just made the plans easier. I expect the arguments were even worse than what we saw in the show. There were some awkward cuts following the challenge, and it didn’t feel like the kind of conversation that would end in a few moments.

The Challenge of Blood vs. Water

Wes shared the type of emotional moment with his dad that's more common in the Blood vs. Water format.

Wes won the challenge and then bonded with his dad after the battle.

Playing with loved ones can lead to emotional moments that can cause Probst to nearly pass out with joy. Wes and Keith had that type of warm interaction after the reward challenge. On one hand, it brings a different layer of heart to Survivor. The downside is that it distracts from the strategy side. We do compensate with some interesting dilemmas that we don’t normally see. Julie listened to her tribe rip on her boyfriend throughout the episode, and that isn’t an easy situation. While it didn’t seem to impact her chances, it would have been interesting if Hunahpu had gone to Tribal Council. The best thing for Julie was for John to be voted out or risk the anger negatively impacting her game.

The first Blood vs. Water saw Marissa and Rachel getting voted out because of ties to Gervase and Tyson. No one’s used that approach yet, but it’s a risk in this format. Julie now has the ability to move freely and bond with Jeremy and Natalie as loners. They’ll need to stick together if Reed, Missy and others reach the merge and reunite with loved ones. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing for the dominant alliance on Hunahpu if they went to Tribal Council next week. This would give them control over which pairs make the merge instead of relying on Coyopa. Of course, the first target would probably be the giant who just can’t seem to connect with the rest of the group.

Sleeping on the Job

Drew and Alec have not been amazing strategists and have done little in their limited screen time. It’s hard to complain too much about the older brother’s contributions in providing fun moments. The editing has focused solely on how much everyone thinks he’s an idiot. Would you call this the “Coach on Tocantins” edit, or does even that give Drew too much credit? This week, he gave a proud confessional about fixing the roof of their shelter, and it sounds believable. Of course, it quickly led to him snoring while the others work. Who is this guy? I expect the reality wasn’t as bad as we’ve seen thus far. Drew’s being shown as a certain type of oblivious young guy that is heading for a blindside very soon.

Is taking out Drew too easy for Hunahpu? Given his lack of strategic knowledge, he might be worth dragging along as a big shield for the merge. If Jeremy’s alliance wants to remove someone else instead, it’s easier with Drew still in the game. The question is who that would be given what we’ve learned. Reed is doing well, and uniting with Josh makes him dangerous. Missy has built solid relationships across the board, though she appears to be in the alliance. This is what makes Hunahpu’s dominance so difficult when analyzing strategy. I expect this will change with the absence of John Rocker. It feels like the game will really start kicking into gear next week. That also might just be wishful thinking, however.

The Power of Keith

The editors have made Keith look very good so far.

The editors have made Keith look very good so far.

The editors have been really kind to Keith, who’s arguably getting the season’s best edit. He made a worthy effort at the reward challenge against his son and then broke down with pride. This moment feels genuine and shows his warmer side once again. Keith seems able to adjust to any situation, including going to Exile Island with Josh. It’s his second trip in three episodes, yet there’s little anger about it on display. Keith made a brief comment about Josh’s sexuality, but it didn’t come off as overly close-minded. Having bonds with both Wes and Josh should benefit Keith if he makes the merge. Both guys are likely to be there, and Keith will have plenty of routes further into the game.

Within his own tribe, Keith has connected with Jeremy and found a good spot in the group. He also has a detailed clue to the location of the hidden immunity idol. If Hunahpu goes after Keith because of challenge weakness (a doubtful scenario), he can grab insurance against that possibility. I don’t see Keith hesitating to play the idol like John either. He’s taken a down-to-earth, realistic approach to the game thus far. I’d place Keith in the top group of most likely winners after three episodes. It’s possible we’ve seen more of him because of all the time on Exile Island, but the editors are clearly setting him up to succeed.

Grabbing the Reins

The episode began with Josh revealing that he voted for Val to keep her for removing Baylor. It was a smart way to avoid losing an ally, and that move played a big role in his success this week. Josh needed Baylor and Jaclyn to sell the vote to Wes and Alec. It’s clear that those guys want to stay with the dominant group. They could have stuck with John and Dale, but Josh was able to make a convincing case after the challenge. Wes and Alec now have less control over future votes since Josh has Baylor and Jaclyn on his side. He’s in the power position and should be able to guide the next votes heading towards the merge. Once Dale is gone, there is a question on who would go next, however. Josh seems to have allies across the board, but keeping them all happy will be tricky once the obvious vote is gone.

John’s attempts at strategy last night weren’t as successful. He tried to set up Dale as the fake evictee for the girls, and it made sense on the surface. However, there was no reason for Baylor and Jaclyn to trust John. He’d been the figurehead for a five-person guys’ alliance that had removed Nadiya and Val. His logical next step would be to take out either Jaclyn or Baylor. Why remove his ally? In his interview with Rob, John talked about believing that he could use Dale as a shield and didn’t need the idol. This again isn’t terrible logic in theory, but it rarely plays out that way in this game. Players in recent seasons have been more likely to remove the big target early. Tony did a similar thing with Cliff Robinson last time. Instead of letting a strong guy make the merge, why not remove him from the equation? You may lose a little bit in challenges, but that’s acceptable if the numbers remain in your favor.

Who’s in the best position?

Josh has grabbed control at Coyopa.

Josh has grabbed control at Coyopa.

Josh: I’m still concerned that he’s doing too much, but Josh is running the game at Coyopa. He’s identified Baylor as an ally and has worked to ensure her survival. Jaclyn should also remain on his side at least until the merge. With only six players remaining in his tribe, having two allies puts him in a great spot. Wes and Alec are unlikely to force a tie to save Dale at the next vote. They’d likely stick with the new alliance and follow Josh. Some potential power players have left the group, and I don’t see a situation where another shakeup will occur in the near future. Of course, anything might happen with this group of limited strategists. Coyopa isn’t filled with daring players that will take chances to flip the game.

Jeremy: Hunahpu still hasn’t visited Tribal Council, so I can only surmise that Jeremy’s original alliance from the premiere remains in place. He also showed the ability to control the tribe this week by turning them completely against John. He’s in the game’s top position and has a lot of allies to support him. The main risk is for Jeremy to get too comfortable. Dominant tribes often fall apart after a swap or the merge, so there will be major obstacles coming for Hunahpu. Jeremy seems likable and hasn’t gotten arrogant this far, so he should be able to avoid the fate of past leaders when the chaos begins.

Who’s in trouble?

Dale is standing alone after this week's vote.

Dale is standing alone after this week’s vote.

Dale: It says a lot that Dale was the only person who wasn’t informed about the decision to boot John. He was committed to the alliance and wasn’t trusted enough. This puts Dale in a precarious spot for the next Tribal Council. He isn’t a challenge monster and seems like a nice enough guy, but I don’t get the sense he’s invaluable. Dale needs Coyopa to win the next immunity challenge to give him more time to find new partners. The best option would be visiting Exile Island and taking a shot at the idol. He may need it very soon barring a tribe swap in the near future.

Drew: Has anyone ever received such a first-boot edit in his tribe than Drew? His only ally may be Jon, and I’m not sure that’s true. Drew is living on a different planet from the rest of Hunahpu. He doesn’t recognize how much they dislike him either. Drew’s best chance is hanging on until the merge and reuniting with Alec, but he may not hold up physically. Big dudes sometimes struggle with the limited calories, and Drew might give in when he realizes the odds are not in his favor.

The question hanging over the next few episodes is whether a tribe swap will happen. I don’t expect it because that would nullify the battles among the loved ones at the reward challenges. A swap would likely happen in the fifth episode, and they wouldn’t toss aside the arena this quickly. Another possibility is having certain players swap tribes, which would leave the loved ones in opposite groups. I’m a fan of the swap and think it forces everyone to keep adapting, but I don’t expect it this time. It’s usually needed to avoid a complete decimation of one tribe, yet that reason may not be enough.

Without a change, it will be tough to unseat the dominant groups in either tribe. Of course, there are now two idols in play, and the producers will want them found. The next clue will probably draw a map and put a big X on it. Their biggest opponent is predictability, and the idols would keep anyone from gliding to the merge. Of course, the fates of John and Val have shown that being connected with the idol is rarely wise. If the word gets out that you might have the idol, the likely scenario is a quick trip to the exits. While taking a pre-jury trip with John would be eventful, it doesn’t compare to a million dollars.

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