The Baker's Dozen - Survivor: Blood vs. Water

What’s the fun of writing a column about Survivor strategy if I don’t offer up Baseless Opinions™ and pass them along as facts?


Furthermore, I’m sure you are looking to me to ask the Hard-hitting Questions™ – and I’m nothing if not an obliging writer.


That’s right, dear readers, the Baker’s Dozen is your H.Q. for B.O. …


Accidental genius

1) B.O. #1: Caleb’s move at Tribal was Accidental Genius™.


Let’s take a look at the situation Caleb found himself in as he headed into last week’s Tribal Council:


** The Good: He was in a four-man alliance on a six-person tribe.

** The Bad: That alliance was targeting the player he was closest to, personally.

** The Ugly: The leader of the Five Guy Hamburger Alliance had already targeted one of its own members – and he’s the same guy who had selected Caleb as “The Pawn” aka “The Bottom Man on the Totem Pole” aka “The Guy Who is Easily Backstabbed.”


Given this dynamic, how secure could Caleb possibly have felt? Even if Tadhana had voted out Ciera as promised, Caleb would have had to remain uneasy until the merge; should Brad have wished to bridge the growing divide between the two tribes, Caleb would have been the easiest elimination. Sticking with Brad, Hayden, and Vytas would have offered Caleb post-merge protection – there’s almost always an alpha male witch-hunt in the immediate aftermath of the merge – but getting to the merge, and trusting Brad and Hayden once he got there, would have been a dicey proposition at best.


All of this tension boiled over at the tail end of Tribal, when Caleb, I would guess, wasn’t thinking about the long-term benefits of flipping on Brad; all he was worried about was that he was about to get “Johnned.”

As it turns out, though, no matter his motivations, Caleb picked the perfect – and only – time he could pull off a game-changer like this. It was, as I said at the start, Accidental Genius™.


If Caleb decided not to do it, Ciera would have gone to Redemption Island, and he would have been safe for, at most, one more loved ones vote.


But if he did go for it and it worked, he would have…


** … instantly created two new indebted allies, both of whom have partners on the other tribe. Better yet, that foursome – Ciera/Laura & Katie/Tina – will likely survive the post-merge testosterone attack intact. Not a bad idea to hitch your wagon to a four-person alliance that might well coast to the final eight. Imagine, too, that this alliance made it to the final five; Caleb would be in the fulcrum position, deciding which of the two tandems would join him in the final three. Yes, this is impossibly long-range thinking – so much can happen between now and the endgame – but I think it’s reasonable to argue that Caleb traded up in the alliance department.


** … forced Hayden and/or Vytas to flip on Brad, which makes them uneasy accessories to Caleb’s crime, and makes them precariously positioned pawns until the merge. They would be wise to follow Caleb’s lead for the foreseeable future.


**… turned Hayden into an immediate target as the resident alpha threat.


Not to be underestimated in the calculus of this decision is the fact that it was GUARANTEED to work – the purple rock demanded it. There is NO WAY that Vytas and Hayden would have both been willing to risk elimination from the game to protect Brad. One of them would have had to cave to the pressure (although both of them should have).


As Cochran pointed out last season, timing is everything: one week earlier, Caleb couldn’t have flipped because of the numbers (creating a 3-4 split with you in the smaller group would be endlessly idiotic); one week later, and Katie would likely be the only player willing to flip. By looking around and thinking, “Hey, at the very least, I could force a tie here – which is better than being voted out tonight,” Caleb created the perfect conditions for bedlam and betrayal.


On a related note: the pre-merge purple rock tie breaker will always force someone in the dominant alliance to flip, because the marginalized players will exchange a one-in-whatever shot at going home, something they would be doing soon anyway, for the massive payoff of taking over their tribe – if not the game entire. As solid as he’s been thus far, Hayden should have immediately understood this dynamic and written Brad’s name down; loyalty, when the best-case scenario is a one-in-four chance of being sent to Redemption Island, is unmitigated folly.


Let me explain – no, there is too much – let me sum up:

Before Caleb’s move, the elimination order was likely Ciera, Katie, Caleb… and could conceivably have been Ciera, Caleb, Katie… and Caleb couldn’t have ruled out Caleb, Ciera, Katie.


After Caleb’s move, the boot order looked more like Brad, Hayden, Vytas, Katie, Ciera, Caleb.

I’d call that a brilliant move.


2) H.Q. #1: Which is worse, hatching the theory that crabs are opening coconuts (Monica), or believing that theory (Laura B.)?


Given how quickly she came up with her theory, I’m going with Monica on this one. In what world do crabs systematically break into coconuts? And if this sort of highly evolved crab does in fact exist, and you have to share a beach with a horde of them, how can you possibly sleep at night? I know I’m pointing out the obvious here, but the human head is distinctly coconut-shaped…


All hail our coconut-opening crab overlords.


3) B.O. #2: If Brad and Caleb were true Survivor strategists, their Tribal Council battle could have gone two rounds longer.


Round 2: Brad, instead of telling Caleb, “I’m not writing your name down,” counters with, “He’s promising you a tie – I’m promising you that you’ll both be here tomorrow. Vote for Caleb – that’s what we’re going to do – and he’s heading to Redemption.”


Brad needed to throw Caleb under the bus here; had he thought through the tie breakers, he would have realized that the odds of Vytas and Hayden both being willing to draw rocks to keep him around were zero.


Round 3: Caleb turns to Ciera and Katie and explains, “He’s offering you three more days. I’m offering you new life in this game. Which would you rather do, delay the execution, or guarantee that you’ll see your moms at the merge?”


Whether Caleb had thought through all of these possibilities or not, the moment he said, “I’m writing Brad’s name down,” the game was going to be down a Culpepper (much to Probst’s chagrin; how much do you think he hated the purple rock at that moment?). I’d go so far as to say that those five words so profoundly affected the trajectory of the game that when we look back at this season after the finale, Caleb’s “You Get the Horns” maneuver may be the defining move of Blood vs. Water.


Fishing for laughs

4) H.Q. #2: Is the crowbar Gervase and Tyson used to replicate the coconut-cracking  methods of evolutionarily-advanced Philippine crabs considered "fishing gear"?


Or was it an unexpected addition to the “comfort items” Galang won, along with pillows and blankets? Or might it have been a utensil meant to open croissants, grind coffee, and steep tea?


My sources tell me that both tribes received a box of tools at the start of the game not only to build their shelters, but also to help Kirhoffer construct the challenge sets – just one of the many ways that CBS is saving money in these tough economic times.


(For those of you who are used to me being super-serious all the time, that’s a joke.)



5) B.O. #3: Marissa was a victim of pre-game alliances.


In her exit interview (which you can find in the secret scenes over at CBS), Marissa makes two observations which made me raise an eyebrow:


“My experience wasn’t really what I expected – I came out here thinking that I was going to play with a team, but that team instead had individual motives.”


“I should have been with Galang’s tribe because they wanted to win challenges, whereas our tribe didn’t really care about winning challenges.”


While the first statement isn’t particularly inflammatory – Survivor is, after all, a competitive-cooperative game in which group and individual goals forever pull players in diametrically opposed directions – when it’s paired with the possibility that Tadhana was throwing challenges, we head into dangerous waters, indeed.


Setting aside the fact that the Blood vs. Water set-up doesn’t just encourage tribes to intentionally lose challenges but guarantees it (a dynamic that, as foreseeable as it may be, must be driving Probst absolutely nuts), what’s deeply troubling about Marissa’s accusation is that it hints heavily at pre-game alliances.


The harsh, undeniable truth of this pre-merge drama is this: The castaways aren’t playing to unite with their individual loved ones after the merge – they’re making strategic decisions based on the alliances which await them, confederacies forged over the phone in the months leading up to this season’s start.


Rupert paid the price. So has Marissa. And sooner or later, so will both John and Candice. The simple fact is that they weren’t in league with the right people. Their fates were sealed not because of their own in-game ineptitude, but because the meta-game – the game within the game – was going to claim victims for reasons beyond their control.


Survivor is already an incredibly complex game; add to that the Blood vs. Water twist and the return of Redemption Island (not to mention the other rule changes regarding RI challenges and immunity idols), and you’ve designed a construct that’s nearly impossible to learn, never mind master. When you factor in the pre-game alliances, and how they will further undercut any sort of pre-merge tribal cohesion, you’re suddenly looking at a multi-dimensional maze from which only the fortunate will emerge. (I’ll say it right now: The winner of Blood vs. Water, whoever that may be, will be the luckiest sole survivor in the history of the game.) 


Just because I find thought experiments to be fun, here’s how I think those alliances will shake out:


On the Outside Looking In
Rupert/Laura (reason: no one wanted to deal with Rupert’s ego)
Candice/John (reason: they were last-minute replacements, so couldn’t arrange any deals)


The One World Alliance


Old School Alliance


The piece of the game that doesn’t fit the puzzle: If Ciera is in the One World Alliance, why was Brad targeting her over Katie? A possible clue can be found in one of this week’s secret scenes: in a potentially revealing confessional, Ciera references plans that she had made coming into the game, but that events that have transpired since then have changed everything. Might she be talking about how the pre-game alliances are being tested by the politics of early eliminations?

(Or I might simply have incorrectly identified the composition of the cabals; I think it’s a virtual lock, though, that larger alliances exist.)


I doubt we’ll ever know the truth about the deals players had in place before the game started – and how those illicit agreements ultimately impacted the game – but I, for one, feel that Marissa and others have every right to be angry over their fates being decided by forces largely beyond their control.


6) H.Q. #3: How many characters are you allowed for a fantasy football team name?


Because I call dibs on F**k You Brad Culpepper.


Eyes wide shut

7) B.O. #4: Anyone who suggests that Brad Culpepper might actually be good at this game is wrong.


Let’s examine the evidence, shall we?


** He vacillated between two strategies: “Take out a player with a partner to weaken the opposition for the post-merge game” and “Take out someone who’s solo so that the other tribe doesn’t get angry.” By waffling, Brad only made everyone mad at him.


** Once it was clear that the inhabitants of Redemption Island would stop at nothing to turn him into Public Enemy #1, he needed to embrace the role of WWE-level heel; by swallowing his pride and becoming the guy that everyone wants to sit next to at the Final Tribal Council, Brad could have blazed a different path to the endgame. It’s a difficult transition, one that requires a player to be comfortable with interpersonal discomfort (over an extended period of time), but it’s hardly impossible. This wasn’t the sort of game that Brad wanted to play, however. And as an end result, everything in the china shop is shattered, and the bull has been put out to pasture.


** He should have been able to observe that Ciera and Caleb were tight, and that Caleb might ultimately balk at any plan that involved her going home.


** He should have known Survivor Commandment #83: Always stick to the pattern. Staying behind to talk to the girls – when the entire tribe knows that the guys “go get water” after a challenge loss – will worry everyone in your alliance. And when you’re the guy who “Johnned” John right before the last Tribal Council, you shouldn’t be doing anything that might raise suspicion.


** Instead of sending the signal to Caleb that he’s at the bottom of their alliance, why not let the girls vote for whomever they wish? Heck, let them vote for you, Brad! Given his experience during Big Brother, Hayden could tell you a thing or two about how much players enjoy being pawns; why sow the seeds of discord within your alliance long before you have to?


** At Tribal Council, instead of owning up to encouraging the girls to vote for Caleb when Probst called him out, he scratched his chin during a long, awkward silence while he searched for an answer. All Brad had to say was, “Caleb knows that we gave the girls his name to keep them from campaigning against any of us,” and he would have been fine. Hesitating cost him his spot in the game.


** In his secret scenes, Culpepper talks about himself in the third person.


** Also in the secret scenes, Culpepper says that Culpepper is proud of his blindsides and thinks that people trust Culpepper.


** In Brad’s brief run as putative leader, Tadhana lost every challenge, he arranged for the elimination of arguably the strongest woman on his tribe, he opened Pandora’s box by backstabbing a member of his own alliance, and then he ended his reign by being blindsided by someone he had given every reason not to trust him.


Brad Culpepper may be many things – former NFL player, lawyer, husband, father – but one thing he is not is a good Survivor player.


Talk to the hand

8) B.O. #5: Redemption Island possesses the potential to ruin a great season.


If you watch the secret scenes, you’ll swiftly realize just how much of a festering boil of bitterness Redemption Island has become (and with so many players there, that was unavoidable). All of those attacks on Brad Culpepper? Totally rehearsed. From Candice flipping the bird to John calling out Brad for being the architect of every elimination, to Marissa’s proud profanity, none of it was spontaneous, all of it was scripted.


Sure, these are great TV moments (which is why Probst tolerates it), but I’m sure I’m not the only one who is uncomfortable with the idea that the players who have orchestrated a blindside can and will be haunted by the ghosts of their victims. Carry this reality to its logical conclusion, and aren’t we doomed to tepid gameplay, tentative moves, and tortured consciences? Doesn’t this set-up undermine the possibility and potential of aggressive gameplay? I really hope not, but I worry that we’re in for a fair bit of post-merge predictability – and it’s all Redemption Island’s fault.


9) B.O. #6: Before we pillory Brad for being a raging misogynist, we need to take Redemption Island into account.


There’s been a lot of talk this week about misogyny in Survivor courtesy of the NPR article by Linda Holmes (I agree that this is a problem, with Survivor and with popular culture as a whole; that said, I don’t know that Holmes made the most effective argument, although I applaud her calling attention to a critical societal issue), but I think it’s important to note that most, if not all, of the confrontation before the RI challenge was an orchestrated effort to antagonize Brad. Which is to say that attacking him for “shushing women” – whatever the degree of truth contained within that statement – was less about speaking honestly than it was about damaging a player’s reputation and standing within the game.


I’m not saying that the depiction of women on Survivor isn’t highly problematic (and representative of a troubling cultural norm) – it most certainly is – but I don’t know that the well-rehearsed accusations of a few infuriated individuals with an agenda is the best place to start.


But what about ME?

10) B.O. #7: As bad as Brad Culpepper is at Survivor, Monica Culpepper might actually be worse.


If there’s one skill that defines the best Survivor players, it is the capacity for empathy; elite castaways such as Kim Spradlin, Boston Rob and Denise Stapley, whatever their faults, all possessed the ability to see through the eyes of other players and to give them what they needed. In a game that’s all about backstabbing and betrayal, one has to be able to convince people that they’re safe, that they’re wanted, needed, heard, validated, even loved. We live most of our lives making everything about ourselves; in the game of Survivor, every moment of every day must be lived making everything about everybody else. It’s the paradox at the heart of the game: only by sublimating one’s own desires can a player get what he or she desires the most, the title of Sole Survivor.


If ever there was a season fraught with empathy exigencies, it would be this one; in the Galang camp alone, you have a one-armed man who lost his girlfriend, an uncle whose niece just went home, and a wife who watched her iconic Survivor husband be booted first from the game he loves. Clearly, one must tread lightly around these three – and everyone else in camp, too, for that matter – when talking about how the game is going and how one is coping with the plight of loved ones over at Tadhana. Emotions are raw, and the wounds are weeping.


And yet Monica simply couldn’t help herself; rather than biting her tongue and keeping her pride in check, or confiding in one trusted individual about how much it hurt to see Brad attacked, she openly complained in front of the entire tribe. To say that her words struck many, if not all, of the other returnees as staggeringly unwise would be to undersell it. Did you notice their expressions? Incredulity… annoyance… pain.


In other words, it was a colossal error in empathy.


I can’t help but wonder if this lack of awareness is, in fact, the blindness of privilege: Monica has lived a charmed life (with both wealth and beauty to pave the way), which can be an almost insurmountable obstacle to empathy (it can be hard to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes when the only footwear you’ve donned in your adult life is designed by people like Jimmy Choo). Or perhaps this is simply a case of a wife who is unfamiliar with the pain of seeing her husband publicly attacked. Or maybe Monica was reacting to witnessing her odds of winning the game going into free fall. Or there’s the distinct possibility that it was a disastrous combination of all three.


Whatever her reasons, Monica did almost incalculable damage to her social standing by defending her husband, which had everything to do with empathy – namely, her lack of it.


Add Monica to the growing list of players who can’t win the game – right below her Co-Culpepper.


11) Fortunes rising: Gervase


After Monica finished her ill-advised venting about the endless attacks on Brad, Gervase made the most salient observation of this young season: “You know Brad from Tampa – you don’t know Brad in Survivor.” Anyone who is empowered to say something like that in front of the group is in the coveted and cozy “tribal spokesman” spot often inhabited by players like Penner. And anyone who knows enough about the game and the people who play it to state a fundamental truth so succinctly, earnestly, and convincingly has the social intelligence a player needs to go very, very far in this game. I enjoyed Gervase in Borneo; I’m impressed with him in Blood vs. Water; the distinction is an important one.



12) Fortunes falling: Hayden


...who broke two Survivor Commandments during last week’s Tribal Council.


** Survivor Commandment #41: Don’t remain aboard a sinking ship.

I understand remaining loyal in the first vote – Hayden needed to see if Caleb would follow through on his threat and to figure out what Ciera and Katie were going to do – but once it was clear that those three were united, and once he thought through the tie-breaker rules and realized that another 3-3 deadlock was unlikely, and then factored in that a tie would give him a one-in-four shot of leaving the game via random chance, he needed to turn on Brad. By not doing so, Hayden is an easy next boot, both for being a post-merge threat (physically and strategically), and for being the only one who thought that keeping Brad around was a good idea.


** Survivor Commandment #63: Never hesitate when you’re in the voting booth.

Not only did Hayden need to flip on Brad, he needed to do so with conviction. The other players have to sit and wait while an individual votes; more often than not, they can see the back of the voting player as he or she hovers over the parchment, pen in hand. By taking an eternity, all Hayden managed to accomplish was to make everyone else in the tribe doubt his loyalties; by the time he sat back down on his stool, Hayden had turned everyone against him.


Yep, I think we need to add him to the “won’t win” category, too. Which is a shame – he knows his Survivor strategy. Here’s hoping he can at least manipulate his way to the merge.


13) Prediction time:


When I hit this category, I immediately wonder, what the heck am I trying to predict? The winner of the Redemption Island challenge? Because that’s who’s really going home, right? But that’s not really all that compelling to think or write about, is it? Challenges, particularly those for individual immunity (or RI victory), are notoriously difficult to handicap, and infinitely less compelling and complex than interpersonal politics; building a bridge puzzle is, when you get right down to it, the checkers to the social game’s chess (wasn’t it Rob Cesternino who famously said, “Let’s just flip a coin for the challenge and get back to camp”?).


But if I have to guess about the fate of the three residents of Redemption Island, given this week’s preview tweet, I’ll say that Brad pulls off an improbable win, and John throws in the towel so that Candice can keep her hopes of a return to the game alive. That’s the narrative that’s been woven thus far – John’s guilt over not swapping places with Candice on Day One – and the only way to neatly tie up the existing threads is for John to sacrifice his spot in the game so that Candice can live to fight another day.


And now, to the more interesting topic at hand: Who is headed to Redemption?


All of the previews suggest that, at long last, Galang is headed to Tribal Council.  Even before the teasers began to air on TV and various internet outlets, I would have been willing to wager that Tadhana would win the next immunity challenge; we’re overdue for a less physically strenuous challenge, and Probst & Kirhoffer want to give a struggling tribe at least a modicum of hope (we can save the “can the producers really pick and choose challenges?” debate for another day; I assure you, though, that we’ll talk about it eventually… the potential for producer-based adaptive gameplay is a topic I find fascinating). So the question is, who is Galang’s primary target?


Using my hypothesized pre-game alliance structure from #5, the Old Schoolers have a numbers advantage, and I have to believe that they’ll exploit it. With that in mind, I see Monica, Laura M., and Kat as potential targets (I’m ruling out Laura B. with Rupert already eliminated). Monica is less of a threat now that Brad is banished, so we’re left with Laura M. and Kat; in the end, I think it will come down to which partner is more dangerous. I can’t believe that Aras and Tyson want to battle with Hayden for individual immunity... which means that Ms. Edorsson will be blindsided for the second time in her Survivor career. There may be more than one way to skin a Kat, but in this case, novelty won’t be necessary.


That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!


Andy Baker

Andy Baker is a Survivor blogger who wants nothing more than to get a back rub from Jeff Probst the next time he's thinking about quitting his column. Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius