1) If you’ve been reading the Dozen for any length of time, you’ve encountered more than a few of the Survivor Commandments
...periodically, I’ll reference one or more of them after a castaway has committed a venial or cardinal social game sin. Forget the Boston Rob Rulebook; if you want an edge on the enemy when you finally get to play Survivor, take these Commandments to heart and you’ll have a significant advantage over any newbie (and more than a few returnees). Surprisingly, for a game with almost no rules, Survivor does have a blueprint, even in a season as crazy as this one, and the Commandments – a list which is forever growing, expanding, evolving – is a good place to look for guidance.
What follows is not the prime Decalogue for Survivor – I’ll save an exploration of my personal Top Ten Commandments for an off-season column – but is, instead, a litany of sins committed in the latest episode, along with some praise for the minor miracles known as solid gameplay.
2) Survivor Commandment #1: Do not mistake reality for Reality
It hit me when I sat down to write this column: Despite having written about dozens of commandments over the last two and a half seasons, I had never shared #1, the foundational, fundamental rule of Survivor. Sorry about that. ’Tis long overdue.
The usual application of SC #1 is this: A good player never forgets, not even for a moment, that Survivor is a game. It’s one of the reasons that angry juries frustrate me; they’re taking everything personally, when, in the end, they just got outmaneuvered in a game. I understand why it happens – Survivor is as immersive as games get, and the line between truth and fiction becomes blurry beyond measure – but a needlessly vicious jury speech, such as Penner’s in Survivor: Philippines, always seems like a 5 year-old chucking Chutes & Ladders off of the kitchen table just because he hit the cruel chute that takes you from space 87 all the way back to space 24.
Interestingly, this rule touches on the area of Survivor that would, I feel, test me the most: I think I could handle the lack of food, the weather, and the limited sleep, but needing to stay on top of everything, to have a constantly updated read on everyone, would be exhausting. I’d want to be the last one to bed and the first one to rise because I wouldn’t want to miss anything, and every moment in between I’d have to keep reminding myself, “This is a game, this is a game, this is a game.” You have to play it, as Gervase reminded us, every minute of every day – or it plays you.
But the reason I bring up SC #1 right now doesn’t have anything to do with the game itself, and yet it’s a big part of the reason why this is the cardinal commandment: In the end, Survivor is just a game, and, despite being considered “reality,” it pales in importance to capital-R Reality, the journey we’re all on, the ephemeral and ineffable thing we call existence.
Over the years, the Survivor family has been surprisingly immune to most of the drama and damage that plagues reality TV shows. Yes, Hatch had his battles with the IRS, and Jennifer Lyon left us too soon (and now B.B. will be building a shelter for their tribe of two), and more than a few finalists and winners have blown through their financial windfalls, but overall, the four hundred plus players have, by and large, avoided tribulation and tragedy.
Which, at long last, brings me to my point: Todd Herzog was a brilliant Survivor player, and from all that I’ve heard about him in the years since Survivor: China, it’s clear that he has a kind and compassionate soul, so it kills me to see him struggle with sobriety.
As I understand it, Todd is currently in rehab and has limited internet access, but he can and will read any messages sent to him at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
I hope you’ll reach out to him and let him know that he has a legion of fans who look forward to seeing him return from rehab clean, sober, and ready to face the individual challenges ahead – challenges that aren’t about immunity but Reality.
And Todd, if by chance you’re reading this, please know that you’re a remarkable player and an even more remarkable person, and I look forward to telling you so at some point down the line. Get well, be well, stay well.
On a related “Reality is bigger than reality” note, please consider joining the Survivor community in contributing to the Red Cross to help the Philippines recover from Typhoon Haiyan: https://www.redcross.org/donate/index.jsp?donateStep=2&itemId=prod4650031
Like many of you, I’ve seen the report/meme about charities that suggests that only a small piece of every dollar donated to the Red Cross actually gets to people in need. But a quick look (at Snopes, among other sites) tells a different story: despite having a CEO with a staggering salary, the Red Cross as a charity is incredibly efficient (with more than 90% of funds finding their way to those who need it). So, please, give if you can; the Philippines served as the host country for the most recent four seasons of Survivor (including the upcoming S28), and they could use our help.
Thank you for hearing me out – now, it’s time to return to the game.
3) Survivor Commandment #6: Save it for confessionals
One facet of Survivor that never ceases to amaze me is how players are forever opening their mouths as wide as possible and shoving in their feet. Were I to play the game, I have a feeling that I would be constantly Mirandizing the members of my alliance: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Do you understand these rights as I have explained them to you?” There is a time and a place for everything, and the time and place for saying something unwise isn’t in front of a group of people who want an excuse, ANY excuse, to get you gone. If you need to vent – if you need to gloat – if you need to mock – do it in a confessional.
The producers of Survivor look at confessionals as windows into the minds of the players, and rightfully so. But the way I look at it, a conversation with the camera would be my much-needed daily therapy session. I’d say what needed to be said, get everything off my chest, and then return to my tribe with my game face on.
I’m painfully cognizant of the fact that I sound like Captain Obvious when I say stuff like this, and I’m aware that even marginally savvy Survivor players know to keep quiet. So I am baffled when a player like Tina – whose social game in Australia was one of the greatest individual efforts the show has ever seen – can’t help but “speak my feelings.” It must be difficult – borderline impossible – to keep a lid on one’s true feelings for days and weeks on end. But you have to. HAVE TO.
4) Survivor Commandment Interlude: A preemptive apology to Monica
Over the past several weeks, I’ve had more than a few people point out that I’ve been relentlessly negative about Monica this season. I didn’t set out to be this way; I thought she played well in One World (she was undone by the tribe switch, a cruel and lopsided twist of fate), and I have a fondness for the games played by mother figures. (Hello, Denise!) As the season has progressed, however, Monica’s edit has been increasingly negative, and my read on her performance has followed suit.
Truth be told, I think Monica is better at Survivor than many people who have played it; her paranoia in this latest episode was warranted (she was the alternate target after Katie won immunity, after all), and her secret scenes make it clear that she understands how to approach the post-merge game. I think her edit could have been shaped far differently if her story ended with victory; I’m guessing there is quite a lot of footage left on the editing bay floor that reveals her strategic side.
She’s being edited as a third place finisher, however, and so the producers are going out of their way to narratively support that conclusion. As a result, we see the mistakes Monica has made, both large and small, and hear what the other players think of her, almost all of it negative. And it is these mistakes that I will be writing about in the paragraphs ahead.
But please have faith that I’m aware Monica knows what she’s doing (even if I stand by my assessment that her lack of empathy will be her undoing each and every time she plays).
5) (SC #6 Cont’d) … And then there’s Monica
There is nothing to be gained – and much to be lost – by bragging about your voting booth confessional. (What the heck does, “What up, Brad” mean, anyway?) Everyone within earshot is going to be on the jury, and everything said from this point on will be dissected at Ponderosa. Now is NOT the time to be dismissive about a departing player (particularly one who might very well return to the game).
It would also be wise to remember legendary Lions running back Barry Sanders’ comment about end zone celebrations: “Act like you’ve been there before.” It’s bad enough that Monica assaulted Probst after her Gross Food Challenge victory, but telling Gervase, "This has been a dream of mine for a long time – thanks for helping it"?! Poor form! Once again, Monica has made an error in empathy; the idea is to convince everyone that you’re a supporting character in their Survivor success story, not to treat them as if they’re extras in the movie of your life.
The one person who crushed SC #6, offering lies as truth in camp and telling the truth behind the lies during confessionals? Vytas – and he’s marooned on Redemption. Damn.
6) Survivor Commandment #26: When you have to assure others that you're trustworthy, you're not
When you tell someone, “No offense, but…” – the odds are high that you’re about to offend them.
When you habitually use the phrase, “Honestly, I…” – the people you say it to will eventually begin to wonder if you’re lying to them.
And when you feel compelled to tell everyone that you’re trustworthy – as Monica did at Tribal Council last week – then the truth is that you’re surrounded by people who don’t trust you.
Looking on the bright side, not being trusted makes you a handy goat at the Final Tribal Council. But it virtually guarantees that you can’t win once you're there. Monica has a really good shot at lasting 39 days – but her reward will be a vicious grilling by the jury or, even worse, being entirely ignored while the other two players battle for the gold and silver.
7) Survivor Commandment #71: Once Tribal Council begins, never change your vote
Tyson knows this better than anyone: only bad things happen when you change your vote. The best case scenario is that nothing unexpected transpires – but no one will fully trust you ever again. The worst case? Someone in your alliance goes home, and it’s all your fault.
The reaction to Monica’s vote switch was predictably vitriolic; had the numbers situation been a bit different, or if Tina had been in possession of a Hidden Immunity Idol, Monica might have paid for her crime with a snuffed torch. As it was, we got to see just about everyone describe Monica in negative terms: paranoid, annoying, a flipper, can’t trust her, poor Monica, she’s on the bottom. At this point, we’ve heard just about every prospective juror denigrate Monica (the only one who hasn’t, as far as I can tell, is Caleb, the Invisible Man); is there any final three configuration that she could possibly win? If so, I can’t see it.
Being at the bottom is such a peculiar position in Survivor; on the one hand, Monica is all but guaranteed a spot in the final three because the others have identified her as a player that they can beat. On the other, someone in her position has got to feel powerless, isolated, and ostracized – a psychologically crippling set of conditions that must be really hard to endure for the two weeks left in the game. Personally, I don’t know that I’d handle in-game irrelevancy all that well.
And, yet, hope springs eternal; I’m sure Monica believes that she can turn the game around at F7 or F5, and make a compelling case at the FTC. I’m sure players have done it over the course of 27 seasons, although an example escapes me at the moment (maybe Bob in Gabon?). I wouldn’t bet on it… but then, stranger things have happened.
8) Survivor Commandment #18: Be willing to blow up other people’s games on the way out, particularly when you’re on a season with Redemption Island
In general, I’m a big believer in both winning, and losing, with class (which is how Brad Culpepper redeemed himself in my eyes; he took his downfall with dignity). But I have to say that I LOVE how Vytas handled himself at Tribal Council. He knew he was getting voted out, and he decided he was going to go down swinging.
In the days leading up to his inevitable end, Vytas pointed out potential threats, asked for a few more days, and even offered his jury vote to Tyson if he would put four votes on Katie rather than on him. He played like someone who sincerely, urgently, desperately wanted to stay in the game, and isn’t that what we want from our Survivor players? When so many post-merge players are lambs led to slaughter, Vytas was a lion (homophonic pun intended; he’s one of the better liars we’ve seen) who was relentlessly reluctant to release his hold on the game.
The best part of Vytas’ performance at (perhaps) his last Tribal Council was that, intended or not, exposing the fractures in the dominant alliance might well help whoever returns from Redemption Island. Tyson, Gervase and the gang will have to turn on each other eventually, of course, but the conflict and confusion will have been started with Vytas’ coldly calculated verbal assault. By being willing to blow things up, Vytas will have had an enduring impact on how the endgame will play out, which, given how meekly most people play the Tribal Council game these days, is laudable indeed.
9) Survivor Commandment #34: Let members of the jury think you’re blameless
Allow me to set the stage: After the Aras blindside, Tina had just publically called out Tyson and Monica and insisted that neither of them could win the game. She then turned to Ciera, Laura, Hayden and Caleb and told them that they were innocent bystanders. The implication, of course, was that they were the only ones who could get jury votes from Tina, Katie, Aras and Vytas, which is half of the eight votes available.
Did the newbies let Tina feel this way and allow Tyson and Monica to shoulder the blame? NO! They proclaimed that everyone had had side deals with Aras, and that it had been a group decision to get rid of The King.
When someone wants to hand you four jury votes, there is only one appropriate course of action: SHUT UP AND LET THEM.
10) Survivor Commandment #5: Do everything you can to avoid making yourself a target
Among the many balancing acts a player must perform in Survivor is to be seen as someone who is responsible for major moves – while avoiding being HELD responsible. Or, as Tyson puts it, don’t be the kingpin. So far, no one is doing a better job at keeping all of the spinning plates aloft this season than the Kingslayer himself.
Tyson's getting everyone to agree on whom to target… he’s resisted the temptation to tell everyone he has the hidden immunity idol… he’s even babysitting Tina when he knows he doesn’t have to. He’s playing the role of dutiful team player. And everyone’s buying it.
Sure, they see Tyson as a threat… but they don’t see him as a THREAT, someone who, if he maneuvers his way to the Final Three, will, without a doubt, win the game.
(Although it would be even more impressive if he'd done this his first time out. Compare Tyson to Vytas, who in a secret scene explains the mistakes he made of not manipulating pliable players like Monica and Ciera. Returnees got to learn such lessons before the start of Blood vs. Water; newbies understand the secrets of Survivor only after the snuff.)
11) Survivor Commandment #67: When there’s a distinctive tree in the middle of the jungle that has a bizarre, twisting vine connected to it, that’s where you can find the Hidden Immunity Idol
(Why didn’t anyone find it before the merge?! It’s not THAT hard!)
12) Survivor Commandment #51: Don’t eat dinner while you’re watching the gross food challenge
(I could have sworn that my baked ziti moved while I was eating it.)
13) Prediction time!
(Editor’s Note: I’m “borrowing” Rob C’s nickname for Redemption Island… hope he doesn’t mind.)
Red-I Departure: I can’t envision a single challenge which would give Tina a distinct edge over the Brothers Baskauskas, can you? So Tina – who was incredibly well-positioned just a few episodes ago – will become the first member of the jury. I wonder if she’ll be forced to live up to her declaration that neither Tyson nor Monica can get her vote… (that would be GREAT news for Gervase).
Red-I Arrival: Given the Survivor theorem that what is heavily hinted at in the trailers will absolutely NOT come to pass, Laura M is safe this week.
There’s only one other player that the majority alliance can agree upon: Katie.
Which brings me to Survivor Commandment #11: Don’t turn on your alliance until you absolutely HAVE to
At F7 or F8, Tyson will have to convince Ciera to turn on her mother – otherwise, the newbies could team up and use Laura M, who wouldn’t dream of ditching her daughter, to swing the vote and, thus, the game. He can’t blindside Laura M at F8, though, because that would be a CHOICE, a decision that people would hold against him.
At F7, however, the alliance HAS to split. So Tyson will wait. Reluctantly, because he’s rolling the dice that Ciera will side with him. But he can’t risk alienating his entire alliance by turning on them prematurely.
In the end, Tyson will take the easy – and prudent – path and send Katie to take her mother’s place on Redemption Island.
Thereby setting up an intriguing F7 flip zone episode next week…
… and, then, should Laura M be taken out, we’re headed toward an even more compelling F6, as the returning players and newbies square off, 3-3.
And whoever wins THAT confrontation will win the game.
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 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