Survivor: Worlds Apart

The Survivor Strategic Game: Old School


It’s dangerous to place too much weight on pre-season expectations with Survivor. Jeff Probst’s role as host and showrunner makes him an unreliable source about the actual quality. He may deride San Juan Del Sur now that fan reaction was mixed, but he pushed that season like any other. This season is facing the weight of high expectations because of so much hype before it even started. When you hear words like “best” used to describe a season, it’s difficult not to get too excited. That doesn’t mean Worlds Apart has been a bad installment. There’s been plenty of entertainment, especially during this week’s two-hour affair. It’s the anticipation of greatness that’s made some fans cautious about praising it. What if we’re focusing on the wrong things with our expectations? It’s time for a change of mindset.

When I hear such grand hyperbole from Jeff, my first thought is about blindsides and huge shifts caused by strategic gameplay. The title of my blog should make that obvious. A recent season like Cagayan offered consistent surprises along with larger-than-life characters. It’s possible that game marked the end of an era with Survivor. It’s impossible to recreate the situation that made Borneo so magical. Even so, there’s a definite old-school feeling to this cast and the episodes. The editors are spending less time on strategy and challenges; we’re often just hanging out at camp. This week, players killed a snake and a hen, and Max was stung by a stingray. These fun moments recalled Australia and Marquesas more than Cagayan. Controversy arose because Max put a foot with a planter’s wart in the drinking water. There’s little point in talking about game theory with this scene; it’s just part of what makes this show great.

Another factor is the cast, which includes fans but not many gamebots intrigued by strategy. Fights have occurred about working at camp, gender relations, and inappropriate jokes. It’s like the first season of The Real World! This difference may be disappointing for viewers who consider Survivor a chess match. Thinking too much about clever moves is risky this time. Max and Shirin talked strategy all the time, and the others looked at them like weirdos. Despite all the nods to past seasons within the show, the players aren’t so excited to talk about them. There are still alliances and discussions on keeping the numbers, but it all feels so innocent compared to the more calculated decisions of recent years.

It’s also interesting to note how players don’t seem to have the endgame in mind. They’re focusing on the target and often aren’t considering the consequences. Rodney looked foolish when he was ready to spike the football as they voted out Lindsey. It’s best not to get too cocky this early. Carolyn jumped ship from Max and Shirin with little consideration (at least on screen) of where she might go after the merge. If something weird happens and Shirin makes the merge, she’ll ensure the others remember not to trust Carolyn. That doesn’t mean her choice this week was terrible; it just shows a different way of thinking. I don’t expect that most players have a definite idea about whom they want in their final six. This concentration on the present can be smart but is surprising given the evolution of the game.

Higher Standards

Lindsey didn't have enough allies on her tribe. Lindsey didn’t have enough allies on her tribe.[/caption]

The episode’s first hour focused on the Blue Collars, who finally made the trip to Tribal Council. Last week, Mike angered everyone by getting obsessed with chores. That fact made his behavior this week extremely strange. It’s like the guy we all expected from his pre-game videos appeared! Rodney called Mike a “loyal Texan” and referred to the squabbles as “men being men”. We also saw clear evidence of a strong alliance between Mike and Kelly. They had control of the ultimate choice to take out Lindsey. Dan would follow their lead as long as he was safe, and Rodney didn’t want her around. The ultimate factor was probably Lindsey’s bond with Sierra. Mike and Kelly wanted to split the pair and maintain control down the road. Goofballs like Rodney and Dan wouldn’t be a serious threat following the merge.

More compelling than the vote were candid arguments about men and women that centered on Rodney. In theory, saying that people should hold themselves to a “higher standard” wasn’t terrible. However, his differentiation between how men and women act was not good. It’s too easy to just call him a sexist, but Rodney entered murky territory. Lindsey and Sierra were right to call him out, though it possibly hurt their spot. That’s a fascinating side of this type of discussion. It’s about more than Survivor, yet the impact could have negative consequences on the game. Lindsey had good points, but her fiery response hurt her chances. When you combine that with her arguments with Mike last week, it helped to spur her exit. She was confident Rodney would leave by a 5-1 blindside and didn’t recognize who was really in charge. Mike and Kelly wanted to be the pair that runs the show, and Lindsey was in the way.

Sierra's loyalty is not up for grabs after Lindsey's exit.

Sierra’s loyalty is now up for grabs after Lindsey’s exit.

In her exit interview with Rob, Lindsey did an excellent job describing the Blue Collar tribe and how the fights played a role in her exit. Her sharp insights made me wish she had gone further. On the other hand, getting the chance to visit Jeff should help the Blue Collars in the future. They were able to air their grievances and have less resentment going into the swap. The exception was Sierra, whose anger about Lindsey’s exit was increased by Dan’s comments after Tribal Council. A note to future Survivors: when a tribe mate is angry about a vote, the best approach is not to tell them how much they suck. Dan’s attempts to apologize later were even worse and revealed a serious lack of self-awareness. There’s no subtlety to Dan, and his struggles with social graces could doom his game. His difficulty to fit in and do the basic things like apologize reminds me a lot of how Survivor felt during its early seasons.

The Production Game

I was disappointed that we lost Max, and it wasn’t just because he was my winner pick. His presence created an interesting dynamic between super fans and the other players. It’s easy as a Survivor obsessive to criticize Jenn for dismissing the details of past seasons, but I can totally understand it. Max spoke to Rob in his exit interview about how playing for production may have hurt his social standing. It’s rare to hear players talk about that side of the show so directly. A guy like Phillip Shepard would never admit on screen that a lot of what he did was for the cameras. Once again, the old-school focus on social bonds over strategic gameplay destroyed Max’s chances. This was the case in both the White Collar tribe and the new Nagarote following the swap. Shirin and Max didn’t mesh with the more laid-back group.

We can’t blame the swap on Max’s downfall, but the new tribal configurations did him few favors. The No Collars found him arrogant from the first day, and their laid-back attitudes just don’t fit. Max did swim around naked, but his approach was very different. Jenn’s reaction to his comments on the astrological signs of winners made that division clear. Kelly was playing a smart, quiet game and wouldn’t take a risk unless Max had numbers. The death blow came from Carolyn, who didn’t connect with his goofy style. I also got the feeling she wanted to take charge and not put her fate in others’ hands. Max hadn’t built a strong bond with Carolyn on Masaya, which made the decision way too easy.

Max enjoyed his time on the show but fell short in the social game.

Max enjoyed his time on the show but fell short in the social game.

A lot of Survivor fans were pulling for Max because of the shared obsessions with the show. The surprising part was how he displayed qualities that we actively disliked in other contestants. Players like Rupert and Phillip concentrate so much on being a character that it’s hard to care what happens. Max didn’t reach that level, and he still might have been eliminated without the random comments about past seasons. Even so, it’s clear that his approach didn’t work with this group of players. With a few exceptions, they seem closer to the casts of beginning seasons than more recent ones. The production game means less, and that rawness was missing from Max’s antics.

An example of Max’s errors came with him not wanting to sit Shirin out of a challenge. They didn’t follow this advice, but the idea confirmed Carolyn’s depiction of Max as a “cult leader”. He needed to keep a distance from his closest ally and made their relationship too obvious. Max loved the idea of going to Tribal Council and didn’t recognize his spot in his tribe. It was great to connect with a fellow diehard fan in Shirin and tougher to see how people responded to her. Since they had such a bond and people already disliked the White Collars, annoying behavior would exacerbate the trouble. No matter how much he knew about the game, Max couldn’t avoid the same fate as many others who irked their tribes.

Chickens and Idols

Jenn wasn't happy to lose the chicken, but it gave her a great opportunity.

Jenn wasn’t happy to lose the chicken, but it gave her a great opportunity.

There was no better contrast between old- and new-school Survivor than the cross-cutting between Joe killing the chicken and Jenn finding the idol. Her sad response to Joe’s move to slaughter the hen recalled Kimmi’s behavior in Australia. There was quite a big difference, however. Jenn used the time away to find the idol without a clue. She was unhappy but didn’t make the mistake of disrupting camp. Instead, she gained an advantage that few will suspect. Meanwhile, Joe’s move to celebrate Will’s birthday made a social connection to retain their ally. Following the tribe swap, we never heard Will talk about going against his original tribe like Carolyn. He’s part of a solid three and won’t be considered a threat following the merge. The arrow is pointing way up for everyone from the No Collar tribe after this week.

If the chicken’s death wasn’t enough, we also saw the grisly scene of Mike slicing up a snake. This type of moment certainly happens more often than we see, but the editors are choosing to show them this time. That focus on elements beyond the immediate strategic game is providing better TV even when the votes aren’t thrilling. There was an important bond shown within the snake sequence. Mike asked Kelly for help in preparing the snake, and this was our first direct look at their alliance. I have a strong feeling now that this pair could make serious waves down the road. If Kelly can keep Sierra on their side (Dan shouldn’t try that again), they could build a force to combat the No Collars after the merge. Kelly was torn about which group to support before Lindsey’s exit, so she may have developed a bond with Sierra. However, it may not be easy to get her back on board after this week.

Kelly decided not to stick with the Blue Collar women.

Kelly decided not to stick with the Blue Collar women and remained in the majority.

Kelly also faced a major scare during the first reward challenge with a nasty head wound. Her down-to-earth approach to the injury matched her playing style in the game. Kelly wasn’t fazed and revealed fortitude that many don’t have on Survivor. The others should keep a close eye on Kelly, who’s emerging as a sleeper to win the game. She doesn’t make waves and seems liked by everyone. She appeared to play both sides this week to figure out the best choice. However, I don’t get the feeling that anyone thought she was being suspicious. Sarah fell prey to a similar situation in Cagayan after the merge and tried too hard to wield control. Kelly hung back and made the right pick to help her avoid the target.

Who’s in the best position?

Tyler: Despite being at a numbers disadvantage on the new Escameca, Tyler remains in a strong position. He’s behind a number of big shields and should easily make the merge. If Sierra sticks with the Blue Collars, they’ll likely target Joe as the challenge threat. Rodney’s bond with Joaquin could also put both of them in jeopardy. Sitting apart from it all is Tyler, who’s playing a smart game. Before the swap, he talked about letting Carolyn feel like she’s in control and not taking a direct charge at Max. Tyler benefits with as many potential threats as possible remaining, and the numbers disadvantage for the White Collars is a good thing. If he continues to play the social game well, Tyler could be ready for a serious run.

Jenn isn't considered a top threat and has the idol as a bonus.

Jenn isn’t considered a top threat and now has the hidden immunity idol as a bonus.

Jenn: Despite being front and center in the show, Jenn hasn’t played that role within her tribe. This makes her seem less dangerous than players like Joe or Mike. Jenn was close to leaving in the second episode, but that means little now. She’s taking the game as it comes and doesn’t seem to be looking too far ahead. Jen lacks the obsessive game knowledge of someone like Max, but that may benefit her. She won’t get too paranoid or start planning her final speech. If Jenn can keep the existence of the idol a secret, she should avoid the target at the merge. The big question is about numbers if Kelly rejoins her Blue Collar allies. Jenn must ensure they retain Carolyn as an ally and try to connect with Tyler to gain an edge.

Who’s in trouble?

Shirin: This is the obvious pick due to the loss of her closest ally. Shirin has also made few friends on Nagarote because of her personality. They’re likely to lose the next immunity challenge, and Shirin would be the obvious vote. There is one case that Shirin should make to the No Collar trio. Kelly voted with them to take out Max, but she’s unlikely to stick around after the merge. There are four Blue Collars on Escameca, so eliminating Kelly next is critical. Shirin is less of a threat without Max, and she needs to sell her limited power to remove someone who may cause problems following the merge.

Rodney's been playing with fire; will his luck continue?

Rodney’s been playing with fire so far; will his good luck continue?

Rodney: I hate to read too much into a short preview, but Rodney isn’t a subtle player. If he finds a buddy with Joaquin, everyone will know that his loyalties are in question. It may not hurt him this week due to the tribe’s challenge strength, but Rodney needs his allies to go far. He talks about it being a game of numbers and thinks it could lead him to the end. I’m not so convinced it will happen. They’ll be good in the short term with the “monster goon squad”, but few will want to stick with him.

Coming into this episode, I would never have guessed that Max would fall. I expect that unpredictability to continue following the merge. There isn’t an obvious front runner who should coast right to the finish. The three-tribe format makes it difficult for any group to secure a real numbers advantage. Also, the character-driven editing style has paid attention to more than just strategy. There are few players that we don’t know well after only five episodes. Sierra and Kelly both got a chance to stand out this week after quiet starts. The editing has been the primary driver in building the old-school vibe. I am loving this renewed emphasis on telling a more complete story. It may not give us incredible strategic moments every week, but the shift is delivering a consistently entertaining show. There’s nothing better for a long-time Survivor fan.

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