Yay, two episodes that Survivor pretends are one! It was the best of times (yay, new season), it was the worst of times (Tony's already gone, and there are 12 episodes left?). While we're generally against Survivor shortening its season's run-time by airing episodes back-to-back, here it actually made sense. The first hour on its own probably would have been highly underwhelming. Packaged together with the clash of the titans in the second hour, however, it served as a satisfying (albeit tragic) appetizer for the season as a whole. With a tribe-shuffling swap already coming next week to scramble the game board, things still look pretty bleak for the other winners. But hey, they can't all be voted out next episode, at least.
Marketing vs. gameplay
Ciera Eastin has now joined Vytas Baskauskas as a former Blood vs. Water first-time player who then became the first boot in a subsequent all-star season. In the next hour, big-time player, character, and Cagayan winner Tony Vlachos became another in a series of returning former winners who had extremely short runs in their first post-win appearance. This begs the question(s): To what extent were these boots CBS's fault, and in returning player seasons, how difficult is it for players to escape their edited-for-TV (or worse, edited-for-ads) reputations?
In the pre-season ad campaign for San Juan del Sur, Ciera and Vytas became the faces of the Blood vs. Water format, and scenes of them in BvsW made up a massive chunk of the early ads, which for some reason avoided showing any of the actual SJdS contestants (except occasionally John Rocker). This despite the fact that neither had been a finalist, nor even particularly integral to the first season's eventual outcome, although they were certainly among the best of the first-time players in BvsW. CBS probably felt this was necessary because they had to reintroduce the format, and because they wanted to turn notable new players into the new generation of stars of the show. Boston Rob and Parvati probably weren't playing again. Probably not Coach or Tyson, either. So... full speed ahead on the newbies!
Still, those early San Juan del Sur ads really seemed excessive, especially since they seemed to be elevating Ciera and Vytas at the expense of the actual SJdS players. Soon after that, in the leadup to Cambodia, a certain host seemed to constantly remind us that Ciera "voted out her mom!" This was also grating, since that single vote had almost nothing to do with Laura's being voted out, and while voting with her alliance may have helped extend Ciera's game, it didn't lead to a win for her. One of her Game Changers castmates (Malcolm?) even cited that as a reason to watch out for Ciera this season. Taken together, Ciera and Vytas's reputations were both enhanced, up to and perhaps beyond the brink of overhype. Or at least, they were receiving praise, but mostly for reasons that had little to do with their actual gameplay. They weren't former winners, but were being shown more than the actual winner of their season.
In light of that, it's intriguing that both have now gone on to become first-boot returnees. Entering Cambodia, both were seen as potentially dangerous players who had not yet achieved their full power in Blood vs. Water, partly because newbies stand virtually no chance in a season stacked with veteran players. Their Cambodia castmates were aware both had been flogged extensively just two seasons earlier. To what extent did that Cambodia cast, consciously or unconsciously, factor in that hype? It makes intuitive sense to want to vote out a perceived strategic threat early, but it becomes even easier to do so if there's also some reason to dislike them, whether by accepting the network hype that amplified their gameplay reputation (Ciera voted out her mom!), or through simple resentment of that hype. We can't know how much that factored into these two first boots. But it has to be greater than zero, no?
Tony's standing similarly received an immense lift from his edit in Cagayan. His confessionals and idol searches and bags of tricks ate up an immense amount of screen time that season, so much so that it seemed inconceivable even at the merge that someone so visible could go on to become the winner. But win he did, in one of Survivor's most successful marriages of showmanship and actual gameplay. It seems unlikely Survivor: Cagayan could have been anywhere near as enjoyable with less Tony in it, but here again we have a perceived strategic threat who also had extensive exposure from the show... who is out early in his next appearance.
In Tony's case, it's less a problem of CBS hype, and more that the small screen simply can't contain Tony's outsized personality. And as Rob Cesternino and Stephen Fishbach explored in this week's Know-It-Alls, Tony also seemed to be trying to please his fans/the network/the show by increasing, or at least maintaining his level of antics this time around (#spybunker). So the hype affected Tony's gameplay directly, which limited his ability to actually play. Sure, this is partially his own fault, but still, what is a well-known, perceived strategically-oriented player to do in a situation like this? (See also: Russell Hantz, Redemption Island.)
We have no answers. But we can't help but think Ciera and Vytas, and probably also Tony, were poorly served by CBS's star-making attempts.
Changing the game's record books in 3+ days
As much as Ciera was clearly upset to be the first person out, there's at least sort of a silver lining for her early exit: Ciera is now (temporarily?) the all-time career record holder in VAP, or Votes Against the Player. She entered the season with 23 lifetime VAP, four behind (now-former) career leader Ozzy Lusth's 27. But in the very first vote, Ciera leapt past Ozzy, and claimed the title for herself. The record now stands at 32. Beat that, Poseidon! (He only needs six to do so, which seems well in the realm of possibility, although the switch to six-person tribes could hinder that.)
Also, in overall days played, several contestants are moving to the top of the leaderboard. Ozzy ascends to #3 all-time (110 days, 4 behind Parvati), Cirie to #8 (91 days), and Sandra to #11 (84 days, 4 behind Russell Hantz). Probably no further movement next week for those three, but if they all last the next two episodes, they'll climb to greater heights. Meanwhile, Andrea & Malcolm have now cracked the top 20, JT has passed Stephen, Ciera ends up three days ahead of her mom, and... Caleb moves all the way from a tie for last place at #90 to sole possession of #90. Wow!
What about Tony's early exit? Well, as a former winner playing for the first time after that win, his ouster could be the earliest, depending on how you count it. Appearing after her The Australian Outback win, Tina Wesson was the first boot in All-Stars, lasting just three days. So she lasted fewer days than Tony's six. On the other hand, Tony ended up in 19th place, while Tina was 18th. So Tony is the lowest-placing former winner. Note that this is not a mark against either of them: Tony and Tina both faced substantial barriers their second times, as former winners who were viewed as massive threats. Other similar returning winner games: Tom Westman in Heroes vs. Villains (16th place, Day 14), and Richard Hatch in All-Stars (14th place, Day 15). A little farther, but both with similarly insurmountable opposition.
Short-term changes to the game: the trouble with treble, revisited
Next episode, as Probst announced very early in the pre-season press, we'll be seeing a swap similar to Cambodia's, from the original two tribes to three new tribes of six players each. The new Nuku tribe of JT and five Manas (Aubry, Michaela, Sandra, Malcolm, and Varner) was shown in the post-premiere preview. As we opined back inWorlds Apart, three tribes is not always better, and particularly in the cases of Sandra and Cirie (and maybe Varner, again), it poses a major threat to their continued presence in the game.
Why? Because six-person tribes are especially hazardous to players who are poor challenge performers (Cirie, Sandra, Varner). Particularly this far from the merge. If that six-person tribe loses, and it does so on a brutal, early-season physical challenge, "keep the tribe strong" has a good chance of becoming the prevailing groupthink. And if the non-physical player somehow survives that first boot from a six-person tribe, their challenge deficits will be on full display as they're forced to compete in every successive challenge, while the other two tribes get to bench their own challenge liabilities.
There may be a glimmer of hope for Queen Sandra, though. New Nuku has four of the strongest challenge competitors in JT, Malcolm, Michaela, and Aubry. Is that enough to cover for her and Varner's lack of strength? Mmm... maybe? Then again, if that group does go to Tribal, three of the other ex-Manas are the ones who least wanted to vote out Tony (Aubry, Malcolm, Michaela), and the other (Varner) is highly unlikely to kick up a fuss just to keep a winner around. But then again, again, JT just joined them from the other tribe, and he's a former winner. So if there's another battle between two ex-winners looming, Varner will be getting a second Christmas early. And maybe also Sandra.
Longer-term future game changing: on the rocks
The new tie-breaker rules this season (no re-votes after a tie, only a unanimous decision can avoid the non-tied Tribal attendees drawing rocks to break the tie) are an intriguing development. One lingering flaw in recent seasons has been, despite the alleged rise of "voting blocs"-style tactics, the seeming invincibility of supermajorities. As 12- and 13-member merge tribes and a three-tribe pre-merge structure have become the new norm, all it takes for short term dominance at the merge is for two of those three groups to come together to pick off the third. This was the case in Kaoh Rong, as the Beauty/Brawn alliance seemed set to Pagong the Brains (before Neal's medevac removed the urgency), and it was also the case twice in Cambodia, where in pre-merge Ta Keo, Spencer and Shirin found themselves outnumbered 7-2, and when the mostly-Bayon post-merge group targeted the Witches Coven. Even in an age when idols are plentiful, it's simple and easy for a group with a more than 2:1 advantage to simply split their votes between two minority targets, and at worst pile all their votes on the non-idol-player at the revote.
This rules tweak upends that power imbalance, perhaps completely inverting it. Now, an even 1:1:1 vote split ratio is dangerous for the majority, because the targeted minority group has close to zero incentive to agree to one of their own being voted out during the post-tie negotiations, especially since two of them won't even have to draw rocks. The odds are heavily in the favor of the majority group losing a member instead. That then shifts the tactical imperative to simply avoiding vote splits, and piling votes on a single target (as we saw this week). But again, that move can then be thwarted by a single idol. So maybe vote splits are worth a shot after all? It'll be interesting to see which option this group of players chooses.
At the very least, there should be a heightened chance of a fourth (or a fifth, or a sixth) person joining Paschal English, Katie Collins, and Jessica Lewis in the Rocked Out club this season. Here are a handful of interesting narrative developments that could result from that:
Other Game Changers Episode 1 recaps and analysis
Episode 1 exit interviews: Ciera Eastin
Episode 2 exit interviews: Tony Vlachos
Episode 1&2 podcasts