I’ll admit it: The post-merge game has bored me. Enough so that I’ve been finding it hard to write. But I promised myself—and you—that I would see this thing through. And so I shall.
Survivor is a great many things (including “occasionally boring”), so let’s take a look at some of the adjectives that apply.
All we need to know about the extreme subjectivity of Survivor storytelling can be found in Michael's season-long edit. Yes, he tried to make an interesting play with the China idol... but other than that (and, lest we forget, that move failed), what has he done? He had a pretty dive in one water challenge, I suppose. But his tribe lost almost every time, and he never really accomplished much strategically. Heck, he even got outmaneuvered, idol-wise, by Donathan. And now, he leaves the game because he screwed up in crunch time (how the hell was he not on the same page as Kellyn?).
And yet, the edit wants us to love him. We kept getting confessionals that portrayed him as a plucky underdog. I mean, how many times did he give us some variation of, "I know things haven't gone so great up till now, but I'm going to keep fighting, and if I can just get something to go my way, watch out, I think I can win this thing!" And yet, nothing ever materialized. When you get right down to it, his game was unremarkable at best, pretty awful at worst.
Yes, a lot of that was circumstances and bad luck. But he left the game because he was unable to make the connections he needed to pull together a successful coup (had he built something substantive with Kellyn—someone he was on the same tribe with for almost three weeks—they would have voted together, Laurel would have gone home, and Michael would still be playing). If production didn't love the kid, his edit would have raked him over the coals, and could have done so easily and convincingly (if not fairly): figurehead for Malolo’s relentless failure followed by the ever-so-familiar “every strategic plan he attempts is either rejected or falls apart” edit (an arc that would end with Donathan’s refusal to share the idol, undoubtedly accompanied by music full of mockery).
To be fair, I think Michael has a ton of potential as a Survivor player. He’s a game-aware SuperFan with the physical and mental tools to do some real damage in the game. His fate is likely that of Malcolm, however—someone who is so obviously a threat that he doesn’t stand much of a chance in returnee seasons—but Michael is a mortal lock to play again, and I, for one, look forward to it. The kid—and he really is a kid—has skills. Unfortunately for him, though, the other players feared him as much as the producers, and the edit, loved him.
Chelsea’s edit is ludicrous. For all we know, she gives the worst confessionals in the history of words and language (although what we’ve seen in camp footage, she couldn’t be THAT terrible, as grating as her voice can be). But she doesn’t deserve to be the most invisible Survivor endgamer in the history of the show.
She’s been a significant contributor to Naviti’s dominance since the start of the game. Post-merge, she has been in on almost every vote, no one has voted for her, and she’s won back-to-back immunities. Objectively speaking, she’s played a much better game than Michael; one could make the argument that she should have his edit, and he should have hers.
To address one point I can hear you shouting at your computer: Yes, one reason that no one has voted against her could be that no one sees her as a threat. Here’s the thing: Is that because she’s been useless and no one can see her winning? Or has she been cultivating relationships and proven so useful in votes that the other power players don’t want to lose her? She’s proven her loyalty time and time again, and not only can that keep a player in the game, it can often be edited to look like an admirable quality (one that can contribute heavily to a win). And then there’s this: Don’t we often give players grief when they have to use their idols to stay in the game, pointing out that if they were really good at the social game, the other players wouldn’t be trying to backstab them? Chelsea is doing precisely what we think social players should do: be active within the game, but keep the target off your back while you do so.
Okay, I’m done ranting. Benevolent Dictator Jeff Pitman has some stats for you if you want to be even more annoyed by Chelsea’s edit. The bottom line is this: Chelsea’s edit is completely dismissive, this is an active choice from the producers, and if you ask me, they’re being mean.
But should we be surprised? Chris was made to look like an idiot. Bradley was edited as a one-note villain (The Complainer), despite being good at puzzles and earning an A+ from himself. And a fistful of players—Jenna, Desiree, Angela, Sebastian, and Libby—have been all but invisible.
Note to all future players: If Ghost Island is any indication, you have a 25% chance of being savaged in the edit. Mean is just what they do. Unless you’re a handsome, athletic male who scrambles his way to a 9th place finish, of course.
Ghost Island -- the location and twist -- is an unmitigated disaster. What a colossal waste of potential! If you want to get really frustrated, go back and re-read all of the pre-season Survivor blogs (here and elsewhere), and re-discover all the great ideas people came up with as they speculated about what Ghost Island might be.
Instead, we’ve had one highlight (The Noble One’s night foray and folly), numerous lowlights (Jenna being the poster child for “What’s the point?”), and, most tellingly, two “no lights,” episodes where Ghost Island was ignored altogether. The moral of this story? When you skip your twist not once but twice, your twist sucks.
While I can see the potential in The Double-Yi Twist (once again, Pitman crushes us all in the analysis department), and there’s a lot of value in creating a dynamic which might encourage players to reduce the growing stockpile of idols and advantages, the impact on the game was, for me, too high a price to pay.
I speak, of course, of the loss of the F9 flip zone. Post-Panama when the F3 took over (other than a few twists), the F7 became a key inflection point, because it was the last time the non-finalists outnumbered those who would eventually make it to Final Tribal. The ripple effect was that F9 took on added importance, too, as a key post-merge point where alliances could flip the game.
Having a true F9 Tribal Council was especially important this season, when it would be the last chance for the remaining players to counter the Navolo Four. Instead, we completed the Pagonging, and now, with eight players left in the game, the best we can hope for is a tie. Unless Laurel finally betrays Dom and Wendell, that is. (But she won’t.)
As an antidote to all of my negativity:
One thing I love about being a field producer in the Survival Challenge is seeing close relationships form right before our eyes. The humanity of it, the authenticity of it, reminds me what can be so beautiful about the game and the people who have a chance to play it. It’s a privilege to see lifelong friendships crystallize over the course of a handful of days.
And so it is with Dom and Wendell.
No matter how the game plays out, they will be friends for life.
Just one of the ways that Survivor—the game, not the show—is truly transformative.
** Kellyn’s excruciatingly inaccurate gut is all too familiar: seeing Survivor play out in real-time (once again, as a field producer of the SC) really opens your eyes to just how wrong people can be, over and over and over again. Reading people with any degree of accuracy is incredibly difficult.
** Speaking of reading people, as much as the edit wants us to believe that Dom has some sort of Survivor Spidey Sense, it’s far more likely that he just knows the game. He knows that he has an idol… that Wendell has an idol… there’s a good chance that he knew that Donathan had an idol (I don’t see Laurel keeping that information from him)... and he found the fake idol after Michael played a real one, so he has every reason to suspect that there was nothing else for Michael to find. It goes without saying, but say it I shall: The game gets exponentially easier when you know who has what.
** This is particularly true if you’re aware of the meta game: If there’s going to be two five-person tribals, production can’t have more than three idols in the game. There’s also an immunity necklace to win, and SOMEONE needs to be vulnerable; they’re cool with someone getting Cirie-d out of the game, but I don’t think they want to face a Tribal where everyone is immune from the vote. (Although I don’t put it past production to play with that idea at some point down the line: “If everyone is immune… then NO ONE IS.”) If Dom was able to do this meta-math, then calling Michael’s bluff isn’t nearly as bold as it might seem.
** And a bit more about the meta-game: When Dom found David Wright’s fake idol, I wonder if he thought, “The only reason they plant a fake is because they can’t have another real one in the game. Which means there are three out here. Mike’s got NOTHING.”
7) Hard Part II
** Back to Kellyn: We’ve seen it time and time again, players can see their ideal endgame playing out, get locked into that vision, and become blind to the machinations of other players. She thought Naviti Strong would hold, and then she’d turn everyone against Dom and Wendell, and then she’d make her way to the Final 3 with a tandem culled from Angela, Chelsea, and Sebastian, guaranteeing her the win. It’s a reasonable plan, arguably an obvious one, and when you have a plan like that, you have to anticipate how others—who are going to see it coming—might try to stop you. As paranoid as Kellyn has been the last few weeks, I’d argue that she hasn’t been paranoid ENOUGH. If she was genuinely skeptical of everyone out there, she would have been able to see the countermoves that Dom and Wendell are making.
** Right now, Wendell and Dom both think they can win, and they’re right. Kellyn, too, has an argument to make, if not up against either of those two. As proof that it is hard— perhaps impossible—to see things clearly when you’re lost in the fog of war, I’m sure that everyone left in the game not named Sebastian thinks that they can win, too. Laurel thinks she has the “Malolo who played both sides argument”... Donathan is trying to build his resume with idol moves… Chelsea can point to her challenge wins and probably assumes that she’ll get some social and strategic credit… and Angela undoubtedly feels she can ride her underdog “they tried to slit my throat over a month ago” narrative to a win.
An undeniable truth about post-merge Survivor: Only one player will win, and only a few have any real shot, but almost all of them are completely convinced that they can take down the title.
I’ve read and heard a lot of complaining that when the players were split into two temporary tribes, one group had all of the interesting people, and the other were narratively and strategically unimportant.
And whose fault is that, exactly? Production’s. Not in how they picked the tribes; I’m all for random draws. It’s about the story they’re telling: they could have edited several of these players into more interesting characters, but opted not to. So when this episode falls flat, the responsibility can be laid, almost entirely, at the feet of the producers.
(That said, I couldn’t have been the only one who wished that they called an Outcast audible and suddenly replaced Chelsea, Jenna, Sebastian, Donathan, and Angela with Stephanie G, Stephanie J, Brendan, Bradley, and Morgan.)
If you have any remaining doubt that Kellyn is going to leave the game soon, and that it will most likely be a heart-wrenching blindside, do me a favor: whenever she’s on screen, close your eyes and listen. So many times, melancholy music is playing (is it a violin? A viola?). Last Wednesday, when Kellyn was misreading yet another situation and the orchestra kicked in, it brought to mind the scene from the James boot episode when Kellyn was trying to convince Angela to vote with her and Desiree (and doing so in a way that might easily alienate Angela). Which makes me wonder if they’re linking “Kellyn’s Downfall” scenes with music, and that when Kellyn leaves, Angela is instrumental.
When we see Laurel say that she feels comfortable with Wendell and Dom, we’re being told—with no ambiguity—that she will not be flipping on them. Which is...
11) … Maddening...
… because Wendell is waaaaaaay too comfortable. Only players who feel like they’re not in any danger use their downtime to carve a nickname necklace. The other castaways need to look at that thing—which is really cool, BTW—and say, “This guy has gotta go.” (Heck, even if he’s actually worried, and channeling that nervous energy into arts and crafts, someone needs to turn him into a target by suggesting that his handiwork suggests that he’s too powerful.)
Anyway, Laurel KNOWS she needs to turn on Dom and Wendell. But the longer she waits, the harder it will be. Both of them have idols, and with each passing vote, there are fewer players around to target with the blowback vote (and fewer still with legitimate Final Tribal arguments; Dom and Wendell would have every reason to boot her over pretty much everyone other than Kellyn). Plus, as soon as the Navolo Four have the numbers advantage (after this week, assuming Kellyn, Chelsea, Sebastian or Angela goes home)—and with a Tribal Council almost every day until the end of the game—Laurel will cling to the certainty of making the Final Four, hope that she can take out one of them before the F3, and then trust her intellect and tale of Malolo triumph to carry her to the win.
12) The Little Things
** In the end, Kellyn’s “One Bad Decision Can Haunt You Forever” error will be having too much faith in “Naviti Strong.” It kept her from entrusting Michael with the truth of her extra vote and her plan to vote out Laurel. It kept her from seeing Dom and Wendell’s alliance with Laurel and Donathan. And it will keep her from making the moves now that might resuscitate her game.
** And now we understand why, despite how effectively Naviti eviscerated Malolo, there was a negative edge to her early references to the Pagonging of everyone in orange (her confessionals—and conversations with Bradley—reflected the overconfidence that has now blossomed into full-blown hubris): Naviti Strong was effective for much of the game, but it will eventually be the cause of her downfall.
** Question: How hard would it have been to build up the Sebastian/Jenna showmance so that Sebastian floating Jenna’s name would be a shocking betrayal? Not too difficult, right? Jenna admitted in her exit interviews that they held hands a lot. Put some of that onscreen, people! What could have been a gasp-inducing moment was barely a blip on the emotional radar. Sigh.
** Are people giving Jenna a pass for casually referring to Donathan as an idiot? I don’t want to. I guess her RBF isn’t entirely unearned.
** Average age at the start of the game: 28. Average age of those still in the game: 30.625. Average age of the players the edit is telling us are controlling the game (Dom, Wendell, Kellyn, Laurel): 32.75. See a trend there? If you want to play Survivor with a chance to win, be in your early 30’s. Young enough to endure and compete, but old enough to be wise, aggressive, aggressively wise and wisely aggressive. You can pack a cast with as many kids as you want, SEG; in the end, adults are better at the game.
** If you’re approaching the endgame and you don’t know where the idols and advantages are, you’re in a lot of trouble. Someone has them, and if it ain’t you, they’re gonna come for you. The hardest realization of all, though, when you’re empty handed and you know that other people aren’t? Accepting the truth that production likes other players more than they like you (Chrissy Hofbeck learned this the hard way).
** When Dom says that he’s the perfect person to find and use David Wright’s idol, we know two things: one, that he’s going to use it to trick someone (Kellyn?)... and two, that he found it precisely because he’s the perfect person to have it.
** Know what would be fun? Dom making sure that Kellyn finds the fake idol, and later asks her if she’s found anything… and when she denies it, he uses that as a justification for booting her.
** In a season defined by missed opportunities—specifically, chances to vote out Wendell— Dom saying that he’s willing to vote out his right hand man isn’t a sign that he’s going to do it… it’s a sign that he’s going to try (probably at F4) and fail. Fan Fiction: He almost pulls it off, but Wendell has Malcolm’s F4 Do-Over Advantage, and he wins individual immunity.
At this point, the worst case scenario for The Navolo Four (assuming they stick together) is a tie vote. All they need is one person to join them, and those five will control the rest of the game. And really, all of the goats should jump at the chance: they’ll be the swing vote, and they’ll get to pick which tandem joins them in the F3 (although the F4 fire-making twist might have something to say about that).
The one person most likely to make that move: Angela. That’s why we saw her (in her visibility spike episode) say that she plans to play her own game now.
That means that one of three players is going: Kellyn, Chelsea, or Sebastian.
Kellyn is the last remaining threat.
They’d be wise to take her out.
Dom and Wendell are wise.
So Kellyn will go.
(In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. Two of those three are going home before the 6-player finale. Book it.)
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius