This week we had an episode of Survivor that had close to zero tension. Chrissy’s edit through the first four episodes had spent plenty of time establishing her potential relationship with Ryan, her relationship with Ben – it is an edit that was essentially telling us that Chrissy is going to be around for the long haul. Roark, on the other hand, was barely present. When the vote out became Chrissy vs Roark, it was clear it was only ever going to go one way.
It would be easy to criticise the producers for creating an edit that made the result so clear, but I don’t. I think it was important that the bond over the super idol was well established in the show, especially if it’s going to matter long-term .
Anyway, what’s on the ticket this week?
Swap-screwed (is there anything Roark could have done to survive?)
Roark’s final words acknowledged that there is always something people can do to survive in a swap, and that she doesn’t accept she was swap-screwed. In her exit interviews, she has changed her mind somewhat, now believing there was nothing she could do and, because of the super idol bond between Ryan and Chrissy, she was swap-screwed. I think that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Roark assessed that she was a swing vote between two sides, and that she’d get to pick which side to go with. It seems as though from there, she only made relationships with one side, i.e. Ali and Ryan, and made little or no effort to connect with Chrissy and JP.
From Roark’s side, it might have seemed safer to make a bond with one side and stick with it—but that’s rarely the best move in Survivor. You never know what could happen to immediately break up the tribe—an idol play from Chrissy, for example—and in that scenario her lack of bond with Chrissy and JP saw her as the target, and would have seen her go home despite Ryan.
Of course, Chrissy and JP didn’t need her as the swing vote—Chrissy already knew she had Ryan. Where it’s easy to say that both Chrissy and Roark were culpable for not striking up a strategic relationship, I think that Roark was more culpable. In the case of Chrissy’s belief that Ryan was the swing vote, she had substantial tangible evidence to back that up—Ryan was already deeply invested in her game. She also had Ryan sleeping with her in the shelter, something Roark knew she should have been paying more attention to in hindsight. Chrissy accurately read that she didn’t need Roark (and, in fact, probably had Roark in her sights as the target from the start, given Ryan would have said he would bring Ali with him).
If Roark had been open to the situation being less complex than it seemed at the start, and had made a good strategic bond with Chrissy and JP, she might have learned that they weren’t as close as she might have initially thought. Chrissy did have to manufacture the threat of a woman’s alliance in order to secure JP’s vote, which suggests it wasn’t a given. It’s not impossible that by establishing a good bond with JP, Roark could have ended up with his vote against Chrissy—safeguarding her against Ryan. We heard from JP himself that he liked Roark, so clearly she had connected with him on a social level.
Could a Roark/Ali/JP alliance have carried the day? We just don’t know, but in the spirit of Roark’s exit interview, and believing there is always something that can be done, I believe that was the one avenue she had open to her to survive.
Of course, knowing that she would need that option to survive requires her to have perfect information. The fact she is gone is probably far more due to how well Ryan was able to deceive her and Ali into believing he was on side and she didn’t need to pursue other options, than it was to a genuine failure of Roark to play well. But if you’re relying on a single option without exploring others as well, and that one option doesn’t go well, it does come back to your own play to some extent.
The long game (why Ryan got it right)
Right, having dealt with Roark’s elimination, we come to the meat of the week – the big question on which everyone has an opinion. Did Ryan make the right move?
There’s really no right or wrong answers to this one. Dan Otsuki, earlier in the week, set out his reasons for why Ryan made the wrong move. I’m here to make the counterpoints.
Before I do, though: I’m not arguing that Ryan’s move was necessarily perfect. The thing that is very difficult to explain is why Ryan did not bring Ali into the move to boot Roark. Did he think Roark had an idol? Did he think he had lost Ali as a long-term ally? Did he just think he had no chance of being successful and didn’t want to expend the emotional energy? Whatever the case, Ryan’s ideal situation was definitely to get Ali on board with this vote as well. But he didn’t, and we haven’t yet been given a window into why he didn’t (other than his statement that he wouldn’t be able to get them to work together). So for now, I’m willing to give him a neutral grade on that – to be marked after we hear his reasons for keeping Ali in the dark.
However, here’s why I believe the choice to keep Chrissy was Ryan’s best move, even if it required burning Ali in the process.
Playing out of a six or five person tribe is hard. In many ways, it’s like playing the end game, except with two disadvantages: one is that you don’t know when the end is coming for that phase of the game for sure (so you could get down as far as two in a tribe), and the other is that you can be voted out without fear of jury retribution. These two differences make it imperative to ensure you are putting yourself in the majority for the entire future of that tribe—you need to be in the five, the four, the three and the two.
On the original Hustlers tribe, Ali should have had the advantage to achieve that (more on that later). Instead, it was Ryan and Devon who managed to set themselves up to be in the majority the whole way down to the two (as we heard in secret scenes that they would have booted Lauren next, unless Ali managed to wise up and force rocks). Here, again, Ali was setting herself up (in her own mind) to be in the four, the three and the two – she would get to pick between Ryan and Roark as to who she wanted to keep if that tribe got down to three. Ryan could see that coming, and realised he very well might not survive two more losses on this tribe if it goes for two more rounds.
By taking out Roark, Ryan has ensured he is in the three (with Chrissy and either one of Ali and JP) and then in the two (with Chrissy). He’s future-proofed his way through this tribe even if it loses all the way to a merge at 11. That’s a smart outmanoeuvre of Ali’s plans.
Ryan’s goal was to come out of the first vote with himself, Chrissy and Ali all still in the game—this left him in the best position going forward. He knew he was never going to get traction on a JP vote given how physically outmatched that tribe is at this moment. That only left him one good option – a vote for Roark.
While there is an argument to be made that Ryan has burned his bridge with Ali, that all depends on how he is able to do damage control with her. He can’t do damage control with an ally that is gone from the game. He at least has a chance to do damage control with Ali when she is still in the game. Ryan chose the option that kept his allies in the game.
This one sort of speaks for itself—Ali has very few connections left in the game (again, more on Ali in a bit). By building a connection with Roark, Ali was potentially setting herself up as a key part of a Roark alliance that included Desi, Jessica, Cole and perhaps Mike – at least in the short term. Without Roark there to facilitate that, Ali has to build the trust for herself. At this point, Ali potentially has zero allies in the game if she decides not to stick with Ryan. Listening through the Evolution of Strategy, Rob often said that an incidental burning of an ally was good strategy when he couldn’t see where else that ally could turn. Where is Ali going? Deprived of her ally Roark, her only real option is to turn back to Ryan.
Similar to the above, Ryan is now at the point where he has to think about his numbers at the merge. He can’t know exactly what’s going on at the other tribes, but here’s what he should know. He knows (from Chrissy) that Ashley is at least a somewhat stable and reliable ally, especially if they remove JP. He knows that Devon will expect him to bond with Chrissy, so he might expect (or even have planned) that Devon would start by trying to bond with any of Chrissy’s allies that he swaps to. He knows, from Chrissy again, that she is close with Ben. He can see that Ben and Lauren would be forced to bond early just because of the mere perception of the fact they are in the minority on their tribe.
If Ryan is smart, he can see that the Hustler and Hero tribes are inextricably linked and will be natural allies against the Healers come merge time. By keeping Chrissy, he preserves all of those relationships—he knows Chrissy will go back and vouch for him with Ben and with Ashley, and it leaves him in a very strong position. If he votes out Chrissy? He’s relying on everyone else’s bonds, he’s reducing his potential majority at the merge, and that’s a much more shaky position.
So, he potentially gains three allies in Ben/Chrissy/Ashley and trades on bonds that he should guess could form to keep Devon and Lauren onside. That’s already 6; with either JP or Ali, that’s a majority.
If he burns Chrissy now? There’s definitely no guarantee he gets Ben and Lauren, in particular. Ali would potentially have connections to the Healers, but his bargain on that side is to be 8th of 8— there’s definitely no power equity. There’s a real risk that Ryan could go out very early merge in that scenario, and he would certainly be far less in control of his destiny, placing all his trust in a Healer tribe where the close bond isn’t even his.
The key number, though, is 4 vs 0—the number of allies he loses in the first scenario—Ben, Lauren, and possibly JP and Ashley. The number of allies he loses by voting out Roark? A potential 0, because I believe the Healers never keep him and Ali needs him too much to be a loss. Based just on the ally math alone, Ryan seems to be obviously in a hugely preferable merge position by removing Roark over Chrissy.
Ryan’s playing the long game, and in that long game Chrissy is important and Ali is relatively irrelevant. Just as we saw him ensure he would remain in the five, the four, the three and the two in both his first two tribes, I think he already has a plan to keep himself in the majority for a long period after the merge – and it might just work, unless people begin to see it coming.
Ali’s allies (as mentioned above – they number zero)
As a devil’s advocate scenario, I started considering the question as to whether Ali has actually been making poor decisions all along. It was only two weeks ago that I praised her decision to boot the unpredictable Patrick as he had the opportunity to blow her game up in the future. As such, I think the idea of retrofitting a ‘bad’ game onto Ali in hindsight is definitely flawed—in the moment, on each occasion, she may have made the decision that was immediately best for her.
But while I’m praising Ryan for his foresight in keeping himself in the majority down to the final two in each tribe he’s in, there’s no doubt that on both occasions, that has been at the expense of Ali’s position in the tribe. This makes me assume that Ryan has probably taken her in (and that she thought she and Ryan were a pair, not Ryan and Devon). But, if she had realised Ryan wasn’t her ride or die from the start, would she have made different decisions that would have put her in a better position?
I did wonder as far back as week two, whether Ali might have made a mistake in agreeing to boot Simone. Simone was obviously quite bad at many facets of the game, but she also knew she had found it difficult to bond with nearly everyone, and she seemed to be gravitating to Ali. If Ali had realised Simone could be a loyal vote for her and had cultivated that relationship better, she might have been able to turn that first boot into Lauren vs Patrick instead of Simone vs Patrick.
Ideally, I think, Patrick goes at that vote (he’s still unpredictable). Be it Lauren or Patrick, though, Ali’s job is then to keep the other of them, along with Simone, in an alliance of three—convincing them that Ryan is too popular and not helpful in challenges, and needs to go. In this way, Ali would have kept herself in the 5, the 4, the 3 and the 2. Of course, changing one thing changes everything, and the swap turns out completely differently (you can’t assume people would have taken the same buffs), so even in this scenario Ali could have turned out worse off.
But I do think there’s a lesson to be learned from Ali’s situation. Simone was an easy unanimous boot in episode 2, but if Ali could have seen the world through Simone’s eyes, I think she would have seen a loyal ally. That’s ideally someone you want to keep – especially when there are other legitimately weak people in the tribe that you might be able to swing things to instead without raising much suspicion. It’s very easy to say that Ali was better off preserving relationships with the whole tribe rather than rocking the boat at that early stage – but it’s always critical to keep the long game in mind. Ali may have lost sight of it in that moment.
Most likely, though, she was just deceived by Ryan. He’s proving to be quite adept at it.
Is Chrissy consistent? (or is she hurting her jury chances)
In the first episode of the season, I wrote that I expected this season’s winner to be “social, with a consistent and visible game plan.” Up until this week, that would have described Chrissy to a tee. But did she put a dent in it this week?
Some people do feel as though Chrissy was inconsistent this week—having cast a motherly image across the first four weeks, this was the first time we saw her be overtly ruthless on screen. Her play to get Roark to agree to a women’s alliance that both of them knew to be entirely fake, but then use that to secure JPs vote, was a masterstroke. When Roark—believing herself to be in the majority—threw out straw men (like talking about their future in-game relationship) and half-stories (like the lack of strategic connection between them) at tribal council, Chrissy was completely willing to shoot them down. This ended with a vote out confessional that seemed brutal in the context of the previously optimistic, motherly character we had seen.
On one hand, this bothered me. There is a chance that this could be the start of a Dawn edit, where other players feel such a dichotomy between the ruthless strategic Chrissy and the motherly Chrissy that they feel overly betrayed and hurt by her moves and don’t see the consistency of character that I believe a winner needs.
This bothers me for more reasons that one—the first is that I really want to believe that Chrissy can win if she makes it to the end. The second is that I find it to be inherently gendered. I can’t help but feel as though a player like Boston Rob, making the exact same moves as Chrissy, would be praised for his aggression and ruthlessness. What’s more, BR is the kind of guy who would and did imply he was the smartest in the room (as Chrissy did this week)—but he was. I don’t think Chrissy truly takes it literally—she isn’t about to be blindsided as a result of her own ego. Instead, I think Chrissy is beginning to talk a big game, and that’s not something I mind.
In the end, though, I think Chrissy has one pretty big difference from Dawn, and that is that I don’t believe the players playing out there with her are missing her ruthlessness for a minute... and if they are now, they won’t be by the end.
Chrissy had the opportunity to save an apparent ally on day one with a Super Idol; she kept it in her bag. At some point, Chrissy may well make one of the most flashy ruthless moves this season—get someone to play that very idol as a fake, and go home doing it. Even if that’s not her move, I can’t see any scenario where Chrissy makes the end and the majority of the jury didn’t realise what a smart and ruthless strategist she was. She lacks Dawn’s crying, and she is playing down her age with the very goal of coming across as less of a mother than she actually is. She’s putting in so much effort to not be perceived as a Dawn-like player, and I believe she’ll be calculating it correctly. In the end, I expect players will recognise her game play as social but consistent if she makes it to the end. I can’t see a scenario where she’d be a zero vote goat, at least not right now).
Easy idols (A Pitman-esque lament)
When Dalton Ross did his Q&A with Jeff Probst this week, he asked if production was at all concerned about players getting swapped to another tribe and finding a second idol in the same spot. Jeff’s answer was simple – “no.”
I just don’t understand this at all. It’s not at all dramatic to see a player get a second idol by doing exactly what they did at the first camp (it was vaguely dramatic when Tai did it, just because finding two idols in a single episode was unique). Add to that, a player with two idols at the same time theoretically reduces the number of ways any particular Tribal could play out. While there have been some players who have used an idol to great dramatic effect and have felt safe to because they had another (Parvati, Jeremy), it’s much more likely for players with two idols to be able to float to the end as people find them untouchable, or to be blindsided with both because they get blinded by how safe they feel. Neither of these outcomes leads to the most dramatic purpose of an idol—getting used effectively.
And that’s besides the fact that, frankly, it just feels unfair—and if that’s not a good enough reason for production behaviour to change, then they’ve got a culture problem. Fundamentally, Survivor should feel fair: when it’s doling out horrible twists, there should be the sense that everyone has an equal chance of being screwed by them; when it’s doling out idols, there should be the sense that everyone has an equal chance of finding them.
Even in a season where you paint the clues on trees, it’s surely possible to put the idol in different places. Put one near the tribe flag, and another near the tree itself—three tribes, three idols, all buried, all led by a similar clue—but very difficult to find without having the clue.
On the bright side, we were saved here by the fact that Cole is dumb. I’m glad that Mike has the idol, a little excited about the possibility of a Jessica/Mike alliance, and hopeful that it’s going to lead to great effect. Let’s just hope Jessica knows not to tell Cole.
There’s still the chance Joe could find the blue tribe idol, though... a thought I really don’t want to have to imagine.
The big picture (a bad edit omen?)
I’m not the right person to be talking about Ben’s PTSD – not least because New Zealand does not have much of a culture of military or of honouring veterans beyond World War II (because we just don’t have that many). But it’s worth checking out Jeff’s words on it, if you haven’t already.
What I noticed, though, was a particular sentence Ben uttered in his confessional – he said this: “Winning the million for my family is my goal, but there’s a bigger picture and it’s bigger than me, my family, the game of Survivor, it’s about just being able to show vets who have gone through battle and war and depression and PTSD, there’s ways of life outside of all that hell – and that’s what I’m doing.”
Ben’s story was delivered in depth before this sentence came along. If it has ended before then, it would have ended with an inspirational quote about the past eating you alive but the future saving you. Even if just the following words – ‘winning the million for my family is my goal’ – then this quote would have come across as significantly different. Instead, Ben is shown to be saying that although winning the game would be nice, him representing vets and showing them there is a life for them is his bigger goal.
This can be contrasted with Adam Klein after the family visit in Millenials vs Gen X. Adam had just had the opportunity to speak to his brother and talk about how his mum was doing. Immediately after that visit, Adam said “I’m here to bring joy to my family, to make them proud, and to give them as much to look forward to as humanly possible. And the better I do in this game, and the longer I last, and the more than I make my mum happy, I have to stay focussed, and I have to use this as inspiration to continue fighting. I’m playing for so much more than a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. The stakes for me are higher than for maybe anyone whose played this game.” After winning immunity later in the episode, he had another confessional. This time he said “I only have one check box left – and that’s winning this game. And you know what? It might actually happen.”
In contrast to Ben’s situation, Adam was shown having his personal circumstances as making it more important for him to win the game, raising the stakes higher. The big picture, for Adam, remained winning the game, despite all that he was going through.
I’m not sure this quote is great for Ben’s long term chances in the game—while many are calling the PTSD scene as one that points towards him doing well, I tend to believe the scene makes the episode no matter what—it’s the kind of powerful personal connection that allows Survivor to remain relevant 35 seasons in. But I’m just not convinced they include that quote—at least, not all of it—if Ben goes on to win this game. Not every mention of the million should be seen as a good thing; they have to be seen in context.
All right, that does it for this week. As always, please comment and tweet at me about the review. I always appreciate hearing from you. This week in particular – with strong takes about Ryan, Ali, Chrissy and Ben, it would be very interesting to hear your views.
I think this season is just about to heat up—the merge is looking very promising indeed.
Thanks for reading
By 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