The Baker's Dozen - Survivor 31: Cambodia
Narrative acceleration
By: Andy Baker | Published: September 27, 2015
Survivor: Cambodia Episode 1 recap/ analysis

Narrative acceleration

In my pre-season column, I wrote about how there will be too many Second Chance stories for the producers to tell ’em all. What I didn’t anticipate then – although I should have – is what this truth leads producers to resort to: Narrative Acceleration. More than any premiere in recent memory, Wednesday’s episode blatantly foreshadowed most, if not all, of the short- and long-term storylines. 

For the record, I LOVED those 90 minutes. The location, the characters, the drama of how the game got underway, all worthy of an All-Star season. I was just surprised that they revealed so much so soon.

Of course, I could be totally wrong about what the producers are trying to say. And at least some of the foreboding music and heavy-handed hints have to be misdirects, right? We’ll find out how much of a fool I really am in the weeks ahead… .

But enough of my own lame foreshadowing; time for me to commit to my premiere predictions. When I’m wrong, feel free to mock me. And when I’m right, don’t credit me, blame Narrative Acceleration.

Before that, though, a word about…

Alas, poor Vytas

1) ... Vytas, whose Survivor savasana came too soon.

If you haven’t read Pat Ferrucci’s incredible column about Social Identity Theory, by all means, go over HERE and then come back.

(So, Pat is going to write about communication theory – which involves social psychology, sociology, anthropology and a lot of other awesome –ologies? AND he loves both Survivor and the Patriots? If he tells me he likes Guns & Roses, insists that Brian Heidik should play again, and agrees that Coach, Ozzy, and Rupert should fight to the death so that we don’t have to deal with at least one of them on Survivor: Legends, we may have a bromance on our hands.)

Okay, so, to build on what Pat says about Vytas, social dynamics, and SIT:

The groups we belong to in life tend to be A) ones that we were born into (extended families, neighborhoods, religious affiliations, etc.) and B) ones that existed before we joined them (and we had time to study them before becoming a member).

Survivor, obviously, is a little different from that. Everyone starts as an individual (yes, they’re all part of pre-season alliances, but those groups aren’t really established or tested until the game begins); alliances form swiftly, shift constantly, end abruptly, and you can’t be exactly sure what you’re getting into before making promises. As a result, there is no growing into one’s role, nor is there time to sit back and study a group before making a commitment. One simply jumps in and hopes for the best.

Ah, but that statement – “hopes for the best” – is utterly too passive for what good players do in Survivor (and, just as a reminder, I think most of this cast are good-to-great players). A castaway must be actively reading the group to see if he has the social identity that he is seeking to cultivate; as Pat writes, we seek not only to belong to groups, but to be seen approvingly within them (in basic Survivor terms, we want to be at the center of the onion, the player everyone wants to take to the end even if they shouldn’t). It is an endless and exhausting act of empathy, this ongoing social analysis, but it is critical if a player’s to have any shot.

Which is a long-winded preamble to say that Vytas – whose Blood vs. Water game I have praised all over the interwebs – was surprisingly unaware of the impact he was having on the other players. The standard proviso applies here – the story the edit gives us is never comprehensive or even necessarily accurate – but whatever actually got Vytas’ name written down, his strategic over-correction (which benevolent overlord Jeff Pitman covers well in his recap) led him to literally and figuratively rub his tribe mates the wrong way.


(Side note: To give credit where it’s due, I don’t want to downplay the importance of Shirin’s labeling/libeling – such a fine line in Survivor – of Vytas as “smarmy.” Whether or not he came off that way is immaterial; perception is reality in Survivor, and once that word was being thrown around, everything Vytas did was viewed through that prism. Shirin even went so far as to ask Vytas to help her with her back – right in the middle of camp! – overtly putting his “smarminess” on full display for the rest of the tribe. If one of the keys to Survivor success is turning other players into targets, Shirin’s pretty good at this game.)

Vytas needed to realize that if his “hidden immunity idol” had become an open topic of conversation, then he was in danger of going home; you don’t make “junk” jokes about people you’re planning to keep around. So, too, did he need to realize that the behaviors that come so naturally to him as a yoga teacher – demoing a pose (which was edited to look like a random hip thrust) and assisting someone (again, recast as creepy groping) – had been deemed by the group to be reason enough to get him gone. The group makes the rules, and it is up to the player to find a safe spot within them; sadly, Vytas – in his effort to ingratiate himself with his tribe and counter the perception of him as a dangerous player – didn’t pick up on the fact that the women of Ta Keo (most notably Shirin and Kelley) had decided that his approach wasn’t going to work. His empathy, it would seem, failed him (perhaps because he was so focused on adapting the group perception of him as an individual that he lost sight of who he was as an individual within that group).

As I suspect I will be saying about many players this season, it is a shame that you left so early, Vytas. The game would be better with you in it. Namaste.


As for the other 19 players, given the Narrative Acceleration needed to tell their stories, we can expect…


2) ... the eight people who didn’t get an opening confessional to be non-factors.

While every player was seen and/or spoken about before the “grab what you can then go for the rice” challenge, not everyone got a true confessional. In a season on fast-forward, those who didn’t likely won’t play a significant role over the next 12 episodes. There just isn’t room for a slow burn or a dog that didn’t hunt.

A quick alphabetical run-down of those eight:

Keith: He’s gonna spit his way through a ton of confessionals, but there’s no chance he’s anything other than a number in someone else’s alliance.

Monica: Perhaps unsurprisingly, I took a lot of heat when I wrote a column about my S2C ballot. The criticism mainly revolved around the exclusion of two players: Shane and Monica. In the interest of finding out if I was indeed an idiot, I re-watched both Exile Island and Samoa this summer (with my son, who had never seen them before), and having done so, I stand by my picks. Shane is a huge character, to be sure, but he is a terrible player (never mind the fact that island detox is just a bad idea); Monica, on the other hand, was simply boring, and I get the sense – then and now – that people just don’t like her all that much. Anyway, she didn’t get an opening confessional, and the only time we heard her talk during the episode was admitting that other people see her as small and soft. Her days are numbered, and that number is not 39.

Peih-Gee and Abi-MariaPeih-Gee: The war with Abi is going to have some casualties, and I suspect that Peih-Gee is one of them; that, or she and Varner keep flipping, and she’s targeted before he is; or maybe the swap messes her up, and she’s the weakest player on her tribe of 6. That, or her fate is a less interesting version of what happened in China: she ends up on the wrong side of the numbers, and is unable to extricate herself from her inexorable fate. No matter the machinations, she’s going home empty-handed.

Shirin: More on her later, but the quick version is this: Her edit is all over the place, so much so that I can see her going as soon as next week or being around for the endgame. I lean towards the latter read, but that could be my subjectivity speaking (I am an unabashed Shirin fan). The fact that she didn’t get an opening confessional means that she won’t win, though, even if she’s around for the long haul.

Stephen: More on him later, too. But given his edit this episode, I’m not surprised that he didn’t get an opening confessional. It’s pretty clear which of the two fates he outlines later that awaits him in the weeks ahead.

Terry: We’re getting a “still an old schooler” edit for him… and Spencer, a new schooler, is going to use him and then lose him.

Vytas: Already gone.

Woo: Getting the rice will likely be his biggest move in the game. Seriously, all we need to know about Woo as a Survivor player is that he had no idea what was going on at Tribal, when seemingly everyone else did. Sure, a strong strategist could use him as a predictable pawn, but when he’s this far out of the loop, who would want to?


3) … Spencer will be the strategic voice of the season.

The first time anyone extensively explicates his S2C strategic approach alongside footage of the player actually employing that strategy, it’s Spencer:

“Terry’s children, thank you for having your dad trust me, because I don’t trust anyone, and I’m gonna do what’s best for me… I’m a new school player but I’m an every school fan, and so it’s important for me to have real relationships, and to know what people are thinking. I’ll have more 1-on-1 conversations in the first three days here, this time, than I had in my entire game in Cagayan.”

There are so many potential strategic narrators this season – Jeremy, Kass, Spencer, Shirin, Stephen, Tasha, Vytas – that it’s important to note who is getting the first shot at the position. In this brief but revealing sequence, Spencer is articulate, self-aware, and simultaneously genuine and duplicitous; why show us this if his strategic approach isn’t effective, and one that will carry him deep into the game? And if he’s going to be around after the merge, who is going to wrest the “Strategic Narrator” gig away from him?

It won’t be Stephen, that’s for sure, because…


4) … Stephen will be gone sooner rather than later.

Stephen himself gave us the binary: “Either I’m going to be totally in charge of my tribe or I’m going to dramatically overplay and flame out really quickly.”

Juxtaposing that statement with his ineffective wood-chopping and palm frond weaving – and the music that mocks him throughout – and then adding in his failed and ill-advised solo search for an idol (which Kimmi, of all people, called out), and you’ve got a China-fighting-the-Soviet Union sea of red flags.

In a slower season, maybe Stephen gets the same edit he did in Tocantins – the Fishbach out of water who picks the right partner and navigates to the end – but with Narrative Acceleration needed, and production likely not wanting to duplicate the storylines they used for players in the past, Stephen’s fate is far more likely to be “flame out” than “taking charge.”


5) … Varner will be our journey player.

Anyone who says this…

“I’ll be 50 next year, that’s a big year. And most men my age go through a mid-life crisis. They buy a corvette and cheat on their wives. I go on Survivor. It’s not about a mid-life crisis; it’s about a mid-life quest. And the second half of my life begins with Survivor: Second Chance.”

… is going to be your journey player. He is going to go from “Is this how the game is played now?” to “I’m pretty good at this, don’t you think?” between now and the merge. And with his flip at the last vote, his journey has already begun.

(If I had to wager money right now on who gets another invite to play again, I’d put it all on Varner.)


6) … Abi will crash and burn.

The entire arc of her story has now been put in place: she is trying to correct her “little” mistakes… she’s wants to give the benefit of the doubt to her fellow castaways even if they’ve stolen her bag… and she’s doing all she can to keep the Brazilian dragon inside. But she’s failing across the board. In the episodes ahead, she’s going to unleash her particular brand of vitriol on anyone and everyone; if she makes the merge, it’ll be one of the biggest upsets the game has ever seen. Not that Abi was ever a contender, but her longest of odds have now hit zero.


7) … Jeremy’s plans will fall apart.

Whether we’re talking about Abi or Terry or Joe, it’s clear that one of the primary story angles production is taking – which makes sense in a season called Second Chance – is, “Those who learn will do well; those who don’t are doomed.” Even if the players don’t REALLY grow and change and adapt, production will include every possible moment they can which suggests that they did. Conversely, they will also show us players who are making the same mistakes they did in their first rodeo, to reinforce the message that this season is Darwinian in nature: adapt or die.

Just as he did in San Juan del Sur, Jeremy has spent the early days of the game assembling an alliance; this time, however, he’s focused on the other alphas – Joe and Savage – and complimentary pieces like Keith and Tasha (although the latter, Jeremy admits, is one of the strongest players out there). Seems like a reasonable plan, surrounding himself with other potential targets. Why, then, is he in trouble?

Because he says things like “It’ll be so dumb for someone to mess this up.” Such loaded language. And it’s ever so easy to read into why the editors included this line, and paired it with a pan over to the women and accompanied it with subtly ominous music, isn’t it?

It may not happen right away – in fact it may not happen until after the merge (as it did in San Juan del Sur) – but at some point, Jeremy’s plans are going to unravel, and it’s going to be because the women – who are the very opposite of dumb and will see through what he’s doing – gang up on him.

And, because those who haven’t learned must be made to look foolish (to further reinforce the theme of the season), he won’t see it coming (or, because the producers like their blindsides, even if he is aware of the executioner’s axe, it will be edited to look like he doesn’t).


8) … Savage will be given a mid-season journey edit…

… which will be used as a stark contrast to Varner’s story. Summed up: Jeff learned; Andrew didn’t. And even if they finish around the same spot (I can see them both getting taken out around the merge), their stories – in plot, tone, and feel – will be utterly and completely different.

Everything about Savage’s story belies his last name; he isn’t savage, he’s tame.

His voice. His body language. His approach to the game.

Soft, soft, soft.

Now, to be fair, this isn’t a bad thing outside of the game; in fact, I find it commendable (I bet he’s a kick-ass guy to know in person). As Savage tells us, he’s got a fantastic life: Wonderful family, great job. The only facet of his life that isn’t a shimmering jewel: Pearl Islands.

Here’s the thing about pearls: over time, a grain of sand transforms into an iridescent gemstone. And, metaphorically, I’m sure that’s what Savage is trying to do here: turn the Outcast Twist, the thing that has eaten away at him for a decade, into something beautiful. It appears, though, that Savage believes that it was not his game that failed him last time but a cruel twist of fate that did him in… and so he’s coming into S2C the same earnest, genuine alpha that he was back in Season 7.

And so he will say nice things (“We’re a team of ten”), he’ll talk about his kids and how they adore Joe, and he’ll form an alliance with “deserving” straight-shooters just like himself.

And he’ll get eaten alive.

(Not entirely unlike an oyster.)


9) … Joe will not be taken seriously.

As a triple threat of recent vintage, he’s a target coming in. So what does he do? He starts fire, and he kills it at the first challenge. (In other words, he didn’t learn a thing.)

Given what he accomplished over the first few days, Joe could easily be edited into a dominant force who makes it deep into the game.

Instead, we get #Joega … the aforementioned story about Savage’s daughters… and a lot of admiring looks from the ladies.

This isn’t the narrative you spin for a guy who shapes the endgame.

Might he, given his confessional during the intro, share the loved ones visit with his dad? Absolutely. But that’s as far as he can go (and even that will be a little surprising).


10) And for a few others, the jury’s still out:

Kass: She mentioned making the merge in her intro confessional, while also talking openly about changing things up… these are both good. She was invisible the rest of the way, however, which doesn’t bode well (though it could be attributed to Bayon not going to Tribal Council). The next week or two should tell us where her story is headed.

Kimmi: Having Kimmi expose Stephen for idol hunting wasn’t a mistake; it’s one of those small details that helps us understand why she’s around for a while (it’s an early cue that she’s got more awareness than some of the other old schoolers, and kicks off her endgame resume, if she’s fortunate enough to get there).


Shirin: We got a lot of good (talking strategy about locking down an early alliance; convincingly breaking down the dynamics of inter and intra-tribe alliances; setting up Vytas for an ignominious departure; sending her boot target home)… but some seeds of doubt were sown as well (lingering shots of her seemingly/ostensibly watching Vytas from afar, which could be construed as a paranoia; Varner’s characterization of her as a runaway train; her mocking of Sanskrit yoga terminology, the depiction of which hovered between humorous and snide). We’ve been warned by Probst that Shirin will be emotional this season; how soon does the stress of S2C – and playing too hard too fast – catch up with her? Next week should tell us a lot. (On a side note, I find it interesting that Shirin opted to point out the connections Vytas had on the other tribe; by doing so, Shirin makes this a thing for others to analyze and talk about openly… and they ALL have connections on the other tribe, including people she’s aligned with. It’s one thing to paint a bull’s-eye on a castaway’s back; it’s another thing altogether to use a paint brush broad enough to splatter your closest allies with paint (for example, Spencer has Cagayan counterparts all over the place).

Tasha: They found ways to make her visible (weaving palm fronds, dancing when Joe made fire), and she got a negatively-charged confessional in the opening (seeking forgiveness after the game is over). Feels a lot like Abi will be the short-term villain (because she didn’t change her game) and Tasha will be the long-term one (because she came in with a whole new approach). As I wrote about in the comments section of my pre-season column, I can see Tasha finishing second with a Heroes vs. Villains Parvati edit, the player who has earned her place at the Final Tribal Council, but who discovers that begging for forgiveness doesn’t work when there are other great players around.


11) Fortunes rising: Kelley

Captain Obvious strikes again!

Seriously, though, premiere episodes don’t get any better, do they?

She even has a winner quote!

“I think I definitely have to take into consideration the game that I played last time. I didn’t take as many risks as I should have. You don’t always get second chances, and I’m not going to waste it.”

This confessional kicked off the chain of events that led to her finding an idol… and within the confessional, no doubt making the producers positively giddy, she name-dropped the season… and then made the producers swoon by also referencing the theme of the season (she’s learned from her mistakes and is coming into S2C with a better game plan).

This, if you ask me, is the equivalent of Mike and his #HappyDance idol discovery in Worlds Apart, which also paired a player with a theme (in that case, Blue Collar work ethic being associated with Survivor success).

So, until we’re shown footage that directly contradicts this singular sequence, I’m firmly in the “Kelley wins the season” camp.

Kelley's idol

Side note: There is good and bad when it comes to these challenge idols. The good is obvious: picture someone (or, even better, multiple someones!) from each tribe knowing there’s an idol at a challenge… cloak and dagger could quickly give way to complete mayhem as individuals and/or tribes try to put themselves into position to grab it. The bad: With clues being placed in the woods, presumably near both camps, and with those clues needing to be swapped out or relocated to new “obvious-not-obvious” hiding places – there’s a lot of room here for producer manipulation. Because of Probst’s interviews, we know there are multiple idols this season; will one or two more be introduced before the merge? Will this happen only at challenges? Will all of the clue hiding places be equally easy/difficult? Would production be happy if all of the idols ended up in the hands of the same alliance? Idols exist to create uncertainty, and one has to worry, with this added layer of complexity, that there’s even more room for game-shaping choices by the people who have a stake in creating and maintaining the conflict.

12) Fortunes falling: Abi

I find it amazing that she has shifted from aggressive to passive-aggressive – complaining to everyone other than the person to whom she’s giving the benefit of the doubt – and considers it an evolution in her approach.

If we ever get a Heroes vs. Villains 2 – with a fan vote – I implore all of you to leave Abi off your ballot.

There is nothing redeeming about Abi-Maria Gomes as a Survivor player.

Angkor Wat

13) Prediction time: So Many Targets, But Only One Can Go

The upcoming challenges will be physically brutal – as they always are early in the game, particularly in All-Star seasons – and Ta Keo just got rid of one of their strongest competitors. I’m playing the odds and saying that they’ll lose again. Which puts a lot of power into the hands of the Varner/Peih Gee tandem (if they are indeed a pair).

I can see two opposing forces at work:

** The tribe agrees that they cannot lose any more strength, which means Abi will be targeted over Woo, Kelly, or Terry – IF the alliances stay as they are. If Varner and Peih Gee are trying to keep both alliances happy (after insisting that they flipped to the new schoolers to avoid a tie vote), though, they might instead focus on “the weakest in the tribe” and put the crosshairs on Shirin.

** With everyone assuming there’s going to be a tribe swap after this elimination (the cast knew about that particular rumor before leaving for Cambodia), they can take out someone like Woo (and then hope they don’t end up on a physically limited tribe, thanks to the absence of both Woo and Vytas). There’s always the chance that Varner and Peih Gee could flip back to the Old Schoolers and go after Spencer instead, but I’m guessing that won’t happen because Varner LIKES Spencer (in part because Spencer’s love for the show – and Australia as a season – is so genuine).

So, which way to go?

This week’s column is all about the edit, so I’m gonna say that Abi and Shirin stick around a little while longer – Abi is being set up for a fall, and Shirin’s edit is complex enough that it would be hard to wrap up in one episode – which means that Woo is gonna go. I think. Maybe.

Or perhaps it’ll be Abi.

Or Shirin.

Or, if Bayon loses, it could be Ciera, because with her closest ally, Vytas, voted out of the game, the fear of incurring the wrath of an alliance just before a swap is less of an issue.

Or maybe Bayon goes after Kass, to remove chaos from the game.


(The early edit makes it easier to figure out who is safe than who is going home on any specific week; we may know the group of people doomed from the outset, but we can’t know for sure about how, when and why.)

(And no, I’m not going to take credit for being right if any of these players get voted out next week – I mentioned a quarter of the cast! It’s too early in the season to be sure about anything anyway; there are too many stories being serviced. But I’m always thrilled to be in the dark; everything is more interesting in the shadows.)


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 Survivor recapsAndy Baker When he’s not blogging about Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.

Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.