The Golden Ticket - Ben Martell's recaps

Three stories


Hi everyone


My optimism continues!  Sierra Dawn Thomas really gave everything she had this season, and I admire her for it.  But she was still a very poor fit for this season and it would have been difficult to stomach her winning.  My sister even said to me ‘now we have 8 good players left’, by which she meant players who she’d be perfectly content with as winners.  I’m inclined to agree. 


Even in the event someone like Troyzan won, he is coming across as very likeable this season, and as someone who is making the most of his second chance on his own terms.  Looking at the jury, I would have found it hard to be content with a win from Hali, Debbie or Sierra, and now all of those players are gone.  Pre-season, I thought I would find it tough to take a Brad win as well, but he’s turned my opinion around.


While it’s clear some still feel the overall negative vibe lingering over the season (including overlord Pitman), I have found that CBS have deftly navigated some deep challenges this season.  They had to know that the pre-merge portion of the season had the potential to be fraught with negative reactions, with so many legends of the game going out and with one of the biggest controversies to hit Survivor in years.  But somehow, they have managed to make me forget all of that, and I believe it’s simply by speaking about the remaining contestants and their decisions in a compelling way.  It’s not even as though there has been any true flipping this post-merge (other than Sarah changing sides once).  Somehow it’s all been engaging and appealing anyway.


It’s hard to believe there are only two weeks to go on this season.  I can’t wait to find out how it’s all going to turn out.


So, whats on the ticket this week?

  • A new Sierra Dawn
  • Leaving a legacy
  • Five without a story
  • The story of the Godmother
  • The story of the criminal
  • The story of the neat man
  • An alternate history


A new Sierra Dawn (how the end of the sheriff improves the season’s position in history)

A new Sierra Dawn


Look, I don’t want to rag on Sierra too much.  She had decent moments this season, particularly around the Caleb boot and again around the merge.  There is no doubt that she and Brad formed a power duo that was seen as a threat and had a chance to run the game for a while.  While my preseason prediction was that she would be dragged as a passive player to wherever she ended up (and would be a zero vote finalist if she got there), I’m not sure that was on point in the end.  I think she had more respect from the players than I ever expected her to get.


But it doesn’t matter.  Because Sierra was the poster girl for everything that was wrong with the Game Changers cast, and her success could only have ever reinforced the idea that this season was a dud from the moment it was cast.  No matter whether she had won or simply made final tribal council, I think it would have been the darkest timeline, the ‘I told you so’ to win any argument about how bad the season was.


With Sierra and some others (Caleb, Hali) gone, everyone left in the cast feels as though they have a legitimate claim, based on their first season, to have been brought back.  Even though some (Brad, Sarah) may not have been our favourite choices, at least we could understand why they had been cast.


If my sister’s reaction to Sierra’s ouster is any indication, we’re now in a position where this season is able to be remembered positively.  Will it be a top ten season?  No.  But I’m willing to bet it will have its fans and defenders.  It may well end up being another San Juan del Sur, another recent season over which a pall of negativity spread while it was airing but which is now seen by a decent portion of the fan base as underrated.


Leaving a legacy (does one theft justify its existence)

Leaving a Legacy


Anyone who has listened to the Know it Alls live from Toronto this week will know that Stephen Fishbach vehemently believes that the legacy advantage has failed and should be abandoned.


I just can’t agree. The legacy advantage is probably my favourite twist to hit the game since the hidden immunity idol. I’d certainly keep it ahead of the copious extra vote/vote steal twists, which are incredibly situational and very hard to use correctly while providing very limited extra power.


The case for its abandonment is fair.  In two seasons, it’s barely been mentioned, and it’s easy to forget it’s even present.  Beyond that, for us watching at home, it often protects someone at final 6 who wouldn’t go home anyway.  The idea is that it’s boring, a lot of hype for something that doesn’t even pay off when it arrives.


But I don’t think it’s the arrival of the legacy advantage that even matters.  It’s the journey where this twist is really able to thrive.


Sarah is the first player to show the potential of the legacy advantage.  After finding out that Sierra had it, she literally voted Sierra out to get her hands on it.  Imagine Sierra had any other twist at that point... a hidden immunity idol, for instance.  Sarah said outright that Sierra simply telling her about the twist garnered enough trust for her to want to keep Sierra, so it might have been enough to see Sarah flip and send Andrea home.  The thing that pushed Sarah over the edge into voting out Sierra was the fact that she would get a direct benefit to herself, the legacy advantage.


What makes this twist so good is the legacy part.  It doesn’t even really matter what the advantage is. It incentivises everyone to figure out who has it and how to get their hands on it. It’s guaranteed to come into play since it survives its owner being voted out (unlike so many idols that have gone home in their owners pockets).  And it’s only going to create more of a target in a new season, now that the idea is out in the world.  Here are just some of the ideas I can think of for what could happen with it:


  • Sam gets voted out with the legacy advantage in his pocket.  Sam doesn’t have any ally he desperately wants to help, but boy does he want to wreck the game of his enemy Dean.  Sam stands up, declares he has the legacy advantage, and says he’s willing it to Dean.  Dean now has a target on his back.
  • But wait – Sam knows Dean’s after him.  So he can tell Dean that if Dean doesn’t vote with him, that’s exactly what he’s going to do at Tribal Council.  Dean suddenly decides he’d rather keep Sam, and Sam saves his butt with the play.  He never got voted out at all.
  • A few votes later, and Dean has told people about Sam’s legacy advantage.  Sam gets voted out for it, but by this point he’s made some friends, so he gives it to Ellie without telling anyone.  Dean and his allies think about what Sam might have done with the legacy advantage, and try to figure out how they could get their hands on it.  Dean believes that Sam willed it to Fred, so he gets Fred voted out as a result, even though Fred never had the Legacy Advantage.


Now, I did say it doesn’t matter what is inside it, but I do think immunity is a particularly strong incentive.  It’s easy to say ‘Ken didn’t need it at final 6, so it fell flat’, but no-one knows when they will need immunity very far in advance.


Sarah might not need immunity at 6 this season.  But here, at final 9, she has no idea whether she will need it or not.  The thing everyone is afraid of in Survivor is being voted out and something that guarantees you won’t get voted out at a point in the future creates a huge incentive to get your hands on it.  And it’s not as though idols actually do any better – there are plenty of seasons where they have no strategic impact at all, and get used incorrectly.  We find that entertaining because it’s flashy and exciting, succeed or fail.  It’s true that the legacy advantage isn’t going to be particularly exciting if it never comes into strategic play.


But the worst case scenario?  Some seasons the legacy advantage won’t have any impact, but in those cases it needs nearly no air time – just the event of someone finding it and the use of it as an immunity idol when it matters.  So many twists (Redemption Island and Medallion of Power spring to mind) have so much impact that they have to take air time away every single week.  A legacy advantage doesn’t need that at all.


I think it has a very high ceiling for how great it could be, and a really solid floor that it can’t sink below.  To me, it’s going to be a big winner at some point if they stick with it, and they should keep in the mix every season going forward.


Five without a story (thinning the winner pool)

Five without a story


At this point, my mind is consolidating around three people who have stories that could point to them winning the season.  That means there are five players who don’t.


Aubry was my winner pick, not only at the start of the season but at the merge.  And I still believe she is in the best game position right now, except perhaps for Tai.  But she is nearly invisible in the edit.  For someone who is such a good narrator and got plenty of air time in Kaoh Rong even though she lost, I can’t see any reason they would keep Aubry’s role in the season so quiet unless it ultimately didn’t matter.  Given all of our other legends have been treated with care and respect and given a good role in the edit, I feel like it’s a shame that Aubry (who genuinely is a legend) has been reduced to reaction shots at challenges.  The only way this makes sense is if she’s the victim of the need to cut something, and her things just aren’t important to the narrative of the season.


Troyzan is in a similar position to Aubry.  At the end of the merge, I really believed Troy might be getting a winner's edit.  He had good content in the premiere, was given an emotional edit when he found his idol, and had a couple of bizarre scenes that pointed to him getting Andrea out and working with Sarah.  Then we hit the merge, and Troyzan has essentially vanished from the edit entirely.  You may have heard talk this week that Troyzan has had fewer confessionals this season than Tony had in the premiere.  That’s not the exposure Survivor is giving to its winners in this day.


Andrea’s story is running out of steam.  I noticed a few weeks ago that her story appeared to all be about Zeke, and that story is now decidedly at an end.  What we saw from her this week was (I believe) a big misjudgement of Michaela.  She believed Michaela would go away and be mad and then come back and vote with the alliance.  And while Michaela did do that, I don’t think for a second that Michaela has forgotten how being left out of that reward made her feel.  She, Sarah and Tai are now are a trio, and I think that trio is coming for Andrea soon.  Possibly even next.  Andrea went in Redemption Island when it became apparent she was the biggest threat to Rob left.  She went in Caramoan when it became apparent she was the biggest threat to Cochran left.  And it feels like everything is pointing to her exit having the same narrative again.  If we get to see one of our three ‘stories’ talk directly about Andrea standing between them and the win/the end, that could be a huge sign that we are looking at the winner.  Andrea has certainly had air time and a story this season, but the story is out of steam.


Tai’s story this season has been as a supporting player.  He supported Brad, he supported Debbie, and now he’s supporting Michaela.  If Tai was our winner, we would have seen much more focus from Tai about how he was on the outs in his old alliance and needed to make big changes to win.  Instead, we got Brad talking about thinking he had lost Tai, Cirie talking about picking Tai up, and then the Michaela/Tai alliance was presented from Michaela’s point of view.  While Tai remains a fun character, he has no story that connects him to winning.


Michaela’s story has been all about her anger and inability to keep herself in check.  This has only been reinforced in recent weeks.  Too many people have talked about not liking Michaela for her to win at this point.  There’s very little counterbalance in the story being told despite the fact that we actually see a lot of things Michaela is doing right.

None of those five will win the season.  That leaves three.


The story of the Godmother (a family woman with a perfect social game)

The story of the Godmother


Why Cirie will win

Cirie is the lynchpin around which the majority alliance is hanging together.  She has maintained a close relationship with Andrea and Aubry, another with Sarah, and another with Michaela, and she has been shown as being the key ally for each of them. We have even seen her make an effort with Tai and have him want to work with her, so she could still pull him in.  And in many of these cases, we’ve seen her use her ability for social manipulation to get people to see things from the perspective she wants to see them from.  I don’t think it will be hard for her to sell, and get others to buy, that she got to the end on her own steam and deserves to win.


In addition to that, her name still isn’t coming up.  Andrea is on the block, and Aubry seems to be the alternate name thrown out if she wins immunity.  Sarah is making herself a threat.  There’s every chance that Cirie makes it to the finale without her name even coming up yet.


Cirie has been provided with a ton of personal journey content, which is something we’ve also seen from other winners lately (Adam and Jeremy come to mind).  Scenes like ‘Cirie on the balance beam’ were given so much play (both in the moment, but then in confessionals and tribal council as well) and it would make a lot of sense if the reason for this was that Cirie ended up winning and having a big emotional story at FTC.


If Cirie makes it to final tribal council, I believe she beats all comers hands down.  She will certainly get the votes of Ozzy, Andrea, Aubry, and Michaela if they are on the jury.  I expect that she would get Sarah, Troy, Tai as well.  That only leaves Hali, Zeke, Debbie, Brad and Sierra, who would have to all vote for the same person against Cirie to make it 5-5... I’m just not sure that I see that.  Cirie only needs to get herself to the end to win.


Why Cirie won’t win

Cirie probably has to get to the end without winning any immunity challenges, but I’m not sure who in their right mind wouldn’t vote out Cirie at final 4 if she was still around.  Her name might not have come up yet, but it would take a monumental oversight for her competitors not to recognise she’s the biggest threat before all is said and done.


Cirie’s path to the end

Cirie needs to pull Michaela to final 4 and hope she will vote with her.  Cirie’s ideal allies right now are probably the Michaela/Tai alliance, as both could be conflicted when it came time to get Cirie out.  It would also be helpful if she could keep Andrea around as long as possible, since she is possibly the only person who would get voted out before Cirie at final 4.  Cirie’s other hope is that people believe she won’t win any immunities, and somehow she pulls one out at final 4.


The story of the criminal (using jury members heads as stepping stones to the top)

The story of the criminal


Why Sarah will win

Looking at the overall sentiment of the super-duperfan crowd, Sarah seems to be the overwhelming favourite in people’s minds to win. 


It’s not hard to see why.  Sarah is being given credit by fans for playing the middle ground superbly.  She seems to have a reputation for flipping from side to side amongst fans, but has she really?  She did take out Ozzy, but otherwise she has voted with the Cirie/Andrea alliance every single time in the game.  I think the reason her game hasn’t really hit anyone’s radar yet is because, to those who remain in the game, she doesn’t actually look too much like she is playing both sides.


Yet, for us at home, she’s been lethal.  While she hasn’t really set up most of the moves (before this week), she’s certainly been portrayed as the swing vote for all of them, and in this way she has consistently managed to maintain control over her fate in the game. What’s more, her moves will be objectively clear.  So far, she is able to own the fact that she put Ozzy, Debbie, Zeke and Sierra on the jury, in each case despite them believing she was their ally.


If Sarah makes it to the end – and at this point, the edit is really making it feel as though she will – it looks like she will easily have the biggest resume and be able to claim that she controlled and dominated the game. She has definitely ‘played like a criminal’, and she has lied and thieved her way into a very strong position.  It would be difficult for a jury to believe that she didn’t earn it.


Why Sarah won’t win

Having said that, though... Sarah is potentially alienating people quickly.  Debbie has given her the finger, Sierra is going to realise that Sarah voted her out just to steal the legacy advantage from her, and Zeke was her closest ally and would have survived had Sarah simply stayed loyal to him.


Sarah is relying on the idea that the players will be willing to see past their personal feelings of betrayal and see how well she’s played, but there’s no guarantees that this will be true.  It feels like Sarah has a very real and personal connection to each person out there (or at least a good many of them), in a way that goes beyond the game.


In some ways, Sarah’s ‘I’m going to play like a criminal’ refrain reminds me of Tasha from Cambodia saying ‘I’m here to win a million dollars, and when it’s all done, I’ll pray for forgiveness’.  There is an idea sitting behind the strategy that presumes that a jury will recognise the game as the best one out there and reward it, but Tasha got no votes at the end.  Dawn Meehan is another who comes to mind, and although there is no suggestion that Sarah needs as much emotional support as Dawn did, Dawn ultimately lost because people felt very personally betrayed by her in a way that they did not by Cochran.  It’s very possible that Sarah’s story arc is leading towards being a story of ‘why Sarah lost’ and not a story of ‘why Sarah won’.


Sarah’s path to the end

Because she’s in the middle, Sarah probably has the most options to get to the end, although she will know that she absolutely has to turn on Andrea and Cirie at some point to win.  Her path to win, though, probably relies on her using her vote steal advantage perfectly and perhaps using immunity when she’s a target at 6 as well.  The more things she is able to do at tribal council that prove she is playing the best game, the more difficult it would become for the jury to vote for someone else.  She has to earn respect, no matter how begrudging it is, from the people she has betrayed.


The story of a neat man (the personification of a changed game)

The story of a neat man


Why Brad will win

Brad has been shown to be the person who has possibly done the best job of making strong connections in the game.  His social game has led several people off a cliff this season - Caleb went because he could work with Tai, Malcolm went because he could work with JT (and so did JT), and Hali went because he could convince Ozzy not to turn on him yet.  The six person alliance that Debbie thought would stay strong was primarily built around Brad, as I think he was the closest ally of each of Sierra, Tai, Troyzan and Debbie.


The edit has been very kind to Brad.  It has given him an element of credit among situations where he may not really have deserved it, such as in the Malcolm vote which appeared to be much more Sierra’s doing.  It has made sure to point out how well his diplomatic skills have worked with people such as Debbie and Tai.  Brad has always had the ability to put people at ease and make them believe he has their backs 100%.  And there are also episodes like this week’s one, which make Brad look good. In this week alone we saw a discussion with Monica that was laced with meaning about Brad’s endgame, we saw him beast two challenges, his name wasn’t truly mentioned as being on the block despite the fact it appeared he would have gone home if not for his immunity, and he seemed like he was sheltered from the worst of the ‘who goes on the reward’ decisions, with all the blame apparently being shouldered by Andrea and Aubry.


If Brad makes it all the way to final tribal council, he could well be a palatable choice for the win – very likeable, a guy who has played a relatively loyal game, humble, focussed on his family... it wouldn’t be hard to see a jury feeling good about giving him the win.


Why Brad won’t win

But Brad has two things against him.  He’s rich, and he’s a lawyer.


Now, being rich has proven in the past to not be the primary factor in deciding who wins Survivor.  If someone is clearly the best choice on the table, but they are also rich, they are likely to still win, because first and foremost people are concerned about being happy with the winner of their season, and the fact they will also win a million dollars tends to be secondary.  But, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant.  If the season comes down to a close contest between two people, the fact that Brad is already wealthy could potentially tip the scales on a vote or two that end up being the crucial difference in the final tally.  It’s entirely possible that Brad loses for this reason alone.


But there’s also his being a lawyer.  I’ve promised a couple of times this season to talk in more depth about why I believe lawyers have a massive uphill climb to win the game, so here goes.


Lawyers are, at heart, risk managers.  They tend to consider every possible move available to them, analyse the risks of each one, and then decide their best move based on that analysis.  There’s two big problems with this.  The first problem is that they can’t help but show their thinking, and the second is that the best risks in real life and the best risks in Survivor look like very different things.  I’ll talk about these separately.


(1) There’s no bigger threat out on the beach on Survivor than the guy who you can already tell is two steps ahead of you. Think Deena, David Murphy or Chris Hammons.  Sometimes lawyers can’t help but show you that they already have the game mapped out in their minds if you just do what they want you to do.


Another part of this is that lawyers don’t tend to give opinions like other people do.  They state opinions as facts.  “The best person for you to vote out is Sandra” instead of “I think that the best person for you to vote out is Sandra.” This is simply part of the training – you need to give clear advice to your clients, and one of the first things you learn to remove when giving legal opinions is, well.... any reference to it being an opinion.


We’ve seen Brad fall prey to that part of the lawyers mindset a couple of times already.  Debbie felt like her voice wasn’t heard in the swap.  Sarah flipped and voted out Debbie because she felt that the decision was already made without her.  On both occasions, Brad was shown as being a little culpable, and on both occasions I think his problem lay in the lawyers mindset.


(2) When it comes to making the best risk decision, lawyers also tend to suggest two approaches; the most risk averse, or the calculated big throw of the dice.  We’ve seen plenty of lawyers fall to being too risk averse and simply wanting everyone to stay the course – Jaison, Liz Kim, Becky Lee, Alex Angarita, and most notably Andrew Savage... twice.  There’s plenty of others too... it feels like the most common thing we see from lawyers, who just want to stick to the plan.  It’s very easy for lawyers to feel like a move that is available and on the table for them to make carries too much risk to their own game, and makes them a target.  I think that lawyers are most likely inclined to play a game of minimising their own threat level, more often than not.


I think Brad has done that somewhat since hitting the minority.  He’s probably had plays available to him (one of which I’m going to talk about shortly), but he hasn’t tried to rock the boat from the minority at all.  Instead, he’s trying to make it through three days at a time and waiting for someone to see flipping back as their best move.   It’s very possible that Brad is falling in to the trap of never making a move at all, and his passivity is currently probably the biggest obstacle to him winning.

On the other extreme, are lawyers who see the world closing in on them and decide that their best chance of winning the game is the big throw of the dice.   Chaos Kass immediately comes to mind, but Monica Padilla taking on Russell is another, and Deena another.  These moves tend to be so big that the player’s threat level immediately rises and their chance of winning the game goes down significantly.


While we haven’t seen this from Brad yet this season, there’s a while yet... he could still do something to blow up his game if he feels he really has to, and there’s every chance it will be the nuclear option.


Having said all that, I’ve always believed that a lawyer can win, but they need to be something else entirely... they need to be a mediator instead of a risk analyst.  I called Brad ‘the mediator’ at the merge for a reason, and that’s because I believe he is really putting in an effort to use that side of his legal training and skills and put it to good use.  If he can continue to focus on that side of his game – and put the risk analyst aside – then maybe he can overcome the curse that has always plagued lawyers on Survivor thus far.


Brad’s path to the end

Brad is clearly in the minority and probably the strongest member left of that minority.  His path has to be in convincing people that now is the time to flip, and flip with him.  One more immunity win right now could be ideal, as it seems unlikely the group in the middle are likely to be seeing Troy as a big threat at this point.  Provided he does that and removes one of Cirie and Andrea, he’s putting himself back in a spot to win.


But Brad is a guy who still might need to win immunity at final 4.  Unlike Cirie, though, he’s a guy who might be able to pull that off.


An alternate history (would this have been the best play for Brad and Cirie?)



An overlooked part of this episode was how quickly Brad recognised he wasn’t going to get Tai back, and how quickly Cirie realised she might be able to pick him up instead.  It should be noted that Tai did flip and vote with the majority in reaction to being voted for by his own alliance last week.


However, Tai’s loyalty at this point is most likely to sit with the middle – Michaela in particular, but possibly also with Sarah.  If for any reason they look to bring in a fourth, his most natural ally is Aubry.  This may spell bad news for both Brad and Cirie.


Everyone in this episode recognised that Michaela and Tai were now in the middle, but everyone fought for their votes.  At a similar point of Millenials vs Gen X, the sides came together to vote out Will Wahl, who talked of playing the ‘pendulum strategy’ and going back and forth between alliances.  It was in all of their best interests to take out such a variable.


I think Brad and Cirie were in a similar situation here (and Andrea, for that matter).  A genuine pendulum strategy from Michaela and Tai would probably be taking out the three of them and leaving players like Troy and Sarah in the game.

I’m not totally convinced that it was their best move, but it certainly would have been an interesting move for Cirie and Brad to talk to each other and come together to mute the power of the middle.  Brad knows that his bridges there are burned and he would be cutting his losses while keeping his ally Sierra.  Cirie would be taking out someone who she has a good, but limited, relationship with, and potentially reclaiming a floating Michaela vote for herself after looking like she was losing her hold on it this week.  Sarah’s power would have been reduced (not to mention she wouldn’t have obtained the extra advantage).


While I am a big Tai fan, seeing him go out here with two idols in his pocket would have created a very balanced and exciting end game.  Instead, I’m guessing that what we’ll end up seeing is Tai’s idols decide a vote or two.  If they knew Tai had the idols, it would surely have been something that was on their radar.   But because they don’t know, Tai was left as a problem for another day.


It was an interesting ‘what if’ scenario coming out of the episode for me, but it looks like it wasn’t explored at all.  That’s that conservative risk management I’m talking about.... 




Alright, that’s plenty of words for this week.  Please don’t forget to comment or tweet me about the column, and for those of you following NZ Survivor, I’ll see you again with another column in another couple of days.





Ben Martell - The Golden TicketBy day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.

By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.

By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284