For the first 10 episodes of Survivor: Palau, there was really no strategy. Most of those episodes were simple, straightforward failure-porn, as Ulong lost immunity challenges again and again and again (and again). They kept their strongest challenge competitors around, hoping for better days ahead. Those days never came. Following the collapse of Ulong, the next two episodes featured the snap Tribal with a near-unanimous Coby boot, and the episode where Janu quit. Still no strategy shown.
But as Episode 11 dawns, Palau finally starts to develop some strategic intrigue. Suddenly, everyone is giving confessionals about how the game is individual, and how they're playing to win. Koror finally considers forming alliances, and starting to turn on each other. Then, just as it seems like it's getting interesting, they all inexplicably turn on Stephenie instead. In Episode 12, the gears start turning again, and Caryn (who as Katie says, sucks) "plays to win" by joining up with obvious winner candidates Ian and Tom to force a tie. Then Ian waylays Katie right before Tribal, convincing her to turn on her new friends and alliance-mates, Gregg and Jenn, to avoid that tie.
So there finally is strategy, but it's all bad, and the end result in the consolidation of Tom and Ian's power. Hooray?
Worst of all, as this is Survivor: Palau, it's really unclear what happened to derail everything over these two episodes, because whatever took place appears to have involved people who weren't Tom. The crux is obviously the Final 7 vote. There were four clear anti-Tom votes, but somehow they decided to vote otherwise. The show tries to handwave an explanation that Tom *gestures vaguely* did ... things? Which, given that every other confessional or scene has Tom in it, seems a bit suspicious, as there's no footage shown to support that.
By Episode 12 a Big Move™ is no longer possible, and even though people like Caryn continue to act in direct opposition to their own best interests, the edit does present a concise case that Ian and Tom collectively forced a believable threat of a rock draw, and that made Katie skittish enough to defect from Gregg and Jenn. And at that point, the anti-Tom threat was extinguished.
So what really happened in Ep11, then? Let's take a look.
Episode 11: When Caryn sucked, but maybe everyone else did, too?
The opening segment of Episode 11 explores the aftermath of the Janu quit, and the discussion is pretty interesting, especially from a modern perspective. There's a good case to be made that Stephenie played that Tribal Council exactly wrong — she emphasized how hard she'd worked to stay in the game, how much she wanted it. That's fine if it's Cochran at the first Tribal in South Pacific. But when you're the last member of Ulong and you've routinely trounced the Koror women in head-to-head matchups in challenges, maybe you should consider downplaying your threat level a bit. Stephenie doesn't, but as far as the edit shows, not one person in Koror holds it against her.
What's most amazing is that at the start of Episode 11, there are two separate groups trying to vote Tom out. The Gregg and Jenn pair are presumably still on that path (last seen at the Willard boot in Episode 5), and Katie hatches an all-women's alliance plan. Somehow, neither of them follow through, even though Tom doesn't win immunity, even after he does it all wrong and begs them not to vote for him.
How did Tom do this? Was it a Jedi mind trick? He acknowledges to Stephenie that if she gets voted out for being a challenge threat, he's probably right behind her. Tom then asks the assembled Korors to please not hold his challenge prowess against him, because he lamentably tried his hardest to win challenges for Koror in the pre-merge. He "revealed his game" after giving 100% for the benefit of the tribe. It's not fair! He had too much heart!
Now, almost any modern player would immediately reject Tom's sales pitch. Thanks for all those rewards, Tom, but we're voting you out. You're too good in challenges AND you have too good of a story. And in the following scene, Katie, Ian, Jenn, and Gregg even say almost exactly that! And then, as time passes, they all just ... get distracted? What happened is a mystery.
This is somewhat important from a historical perspective, because Tom's win is regarded as one of the most dominant of all time, and his spotless record of zero votes against — despite being an obvious challenge threat — is often held up as a particularly impressive achievement. So how did he wriggle out of this predicament? The show tells us close to nothing. The only explanation the episode's narrative gives is that Caryn told Tom people were thinking of voting against him, and the mere suspicion that Tom might see it coming scared everyone away from actually doing it. They had the numbers either way, so that makes absolutely no sense.
In contrast, Gregg's crusade against Stephenie in Episode 10 (when Janu quit) made perfect sense ... for that round. Tom had already won immunity. As the last remaining Ulong, Stephenie was an easy-to-rally-around target who was also good in challenges. You could make a case that maybe Ian was a good second choice, but Stephenie was the obvious first pick. Then Janu quit, absolutely and completely on her own, with no prodding whatsoever from production. So that was the end of that.
Then in the next episode, when Ian wins immunity the day before Tribal (with an assist from Tom, no less), *everyone* is already thinking they should vote out Tom. Presumably Gregg and Jenn are still up for that. Meanwhile, Katie wants to form an all-women's alliance, but she, Jenn, and Steph put off telling Caryn until the last minute, and predictably, it blows up in their faces. Tom has already talked to Caryn (for the first time since she yelled at him for picking the new camp on Night 3, perhaps?), they promised to look out for each other, and within 24 hours, Caryn is telling him he's a target. Which, for some reason, he questions.
Side-question: Was Tom's conversation with Caryn so boring that he simply forgot about it?
Day 29, Tom to Caryn: "We should watch out for each other."
Caryn: "Okay, sounds good!"
Day 30, Caryn to Tom: "Psst, they're talking about voting for you, Tom!"
Tom: "Who is this Caryn person, and why would she tell me that people want me out?"
So everything falls apart, in Katie's words, "because Caryn sucks." Katie's view of Caryn is absolutely right here, of course. Caryn admits she has no alliances with anyone, so what exactly was her plan? She knows she has no chance of winning against Tom, and to be honest, her prospects are not much better against Gregg or Ian. In the speculative all-women's alliance, none of them can beat Stephenie, and Caryn has only slightly better chances against Jenn. Even Katie may be a stretch for Caryn as an F2 opponent. But that's still a chance! A chance she promptly throws away, for unknown reasons. (How fantastic would it be if there was a competing confessional from Caryn, where she says "Katie still wants me to be in an alliance with her, but I'm not going to do that, because Katie sucks.")
Anyway, Caryn tells Tom the women are plotting against him, Tom tells Ian, Ian tells Katie. Ian and Katie discuss maybe voting Caryn out instead, since she's "playing both sides." Ian's probably not up for voting Tom. Fine, but why not pull in Gregg to the plan? He already wanted Tom out earlier! But as soon as you start wondering this (assuming it's not from the previous episode), in swoops Gregg himself, confident that they *really* need to focus on the original plan, booting Stephenie. Stick to the plan!
Why? Tom didn't win immunity. It's their first opportunity since the Willard vote (when it wouldn't have made sense) to take him out. It's an odd-numbered vote, the perfect time to flip the game. Katie's on board! Jenn's on board! Stephenie's on board! You have four votes and a seven-person tribe! You can't really depend on Ian or Caryn, sure ... but hey, it doesn't matter what Ian or Caryn do, just vote him out!
But no. Ivy League-certified genius Gregg had been pushing to overthrow Tom's leadership since Episode 5, but he was denied his Stephenie scalp last time, and consarn it, he's just not going to think about anything else until she's safely on the jury, apparently.
It's just an incomprehensible position. Tom has won 2 of 3 individual immunities since the merge. Tom only lost the Ep11 IC because he and Gregg accidentally hit two of Ian's tiles, handing him the 5-3 win over each of them. Tom has demonstrated since Day 3 that he's a physical machine. He's an FDNY firefighter. He's a solid, reliable family man. He's the stoic, heroic leader of Koror. He has an absolute conflagration of a story to tell the jury. In contrast, Stephenie is athletic, sure, but she was last in Episode 11's IC. And Tom, Ian, and Gregg all outlasted her in "Last Gasp" in the previous episode. Stephenie is nowhere near the physical threat that Tom is, at least not to Gregg or Ian. Why would you vote out Stephenie over Tom, especially when she's happy to write Tom's name down now, and you can just vote her out the next time?
The thing is, Gregg is obviously not a dumb guy (despite being in a public showmance two seasons after The Romber Experience). So something must have happened that the show left out. Did Jenn and Katie really not consider replacing Caryn with Gregg in that grouping? Is it possible that when it came to down to crunch time, Stephenie or Katie refused to write Tom's name down? Who knows?
Again, as with all things Palau: data not shown. None of the exit interviews at the time with Stephenie or Gregg say a word about this. There's DVD commentary for the following episode, and during the Probst's "Previously On..." recap, Gregg, Jenn, and Katie acknowledge "That was our shot!" but don't elaborate at all on why Jenn and Katie didn't pull in Gregg when Caryn blabbed.
- So very groundbreaking: One the one hand, Survivor's first winner was an openly gay man, and they did feature exactly one openly gay person this season (along with a redneck who spouted homophobic and Islamophobic nonsense for "balance"). On the other hand, now that Coby's out of the game, there's apparently so little content to use that the show feels the need to fill the dead air with latent homophobia for laughs. After Probst tells Ian he reeks at the auction, Ian decides to take a bath, and — get this *hilarious* twist — asks Gregg, who's also there bathing, to scrub his back for him! Everyone is cracking up at the implications of this, because as everyone knows, assistance while bathing is exactly the same as gay sex! Jenn gets a rare confessional to mock it, so does Katie. Tom shows up and very sternly tells Ian he will *not* be touching him, thank you very much, but that Ian's neck looks clean. Bet the guys back at the station gave him grief about that! He looked at another man's neck!
- Katie's curious strategy: In the flood of individual game talk, Katie elaborates on her overall strategy: Her plan is to stick with the people in power (Tom and Ian) until the point where they lose power, then flip to the new group taking power (Gregg and Jenn). Katie's perceives correctly that she can't beat Tom, and has a better shot against Gregg and Jenn, and her attempts to flip the game in Episode 11 are very game-aware and rational. But her strategy doesn't really make any sense, especially with this jury. Since when do juries reward treacherous underlings, especially in seasons with no strategy beyond prototypical alpha-male leaders and tribal loyalty? Even so, given the dearth of gameplay chatter this season, it's a welcome step to hear the thought process of anyone other than Tom.
- The lost art of the SuCha: The Ep12 IC, "Second Chance," was a Super-Challenge (SuCha), a multi-round series of mini-challenges featuring elements of prior challenges from this season: the net crawl from the Ep1 RC/IC; the slide-puzzle from the Ep7 IC; balut eating; untying knots on a crate and raising a flag (Ep6 IC); and the replica gun/tile-shooting from the Ep6 RC. This sort of challenge was a staple of early-season Survivor, especially as a late-game immunity challenge. One person is eliminated each round, and it tests a wide variety of skills, and it tends to favor someone who's all-around athletic, which is usually someone production wants to succeed. So why did it disappear in favor of a thousand variations on "stand in one position and balance something"?
More-recent multi-stage challenges tend to have all-new tests (the stupid "throw one rock to smash a tile" thing from the Ep10 IC in Samoa, for example), and eliminate a large swath of people right off the bat, which is far less fair or interesting. Part of the problem may also be simple logistics: This was a five-stage challenge, because six people were left (with two episodes still to go). That's often the first boot of the finale these days, and this works better as a pre-finale look backwards. But there's also no reason the final round has to be two people, as it is here. This was a final two season, so just make the final stage three people for a final three season. Problem solved!
That doesn't solve the other problem: There often aren't memorable, location-specific elements from prior challenges (the gun, balut eating, for example), but then again, a lot of modern challenges are already simple remixes of elements from various challenges in past seasons. So why not try it? Bring back the SuCha!
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes