Being a diabolical middle school English teacher (is there any other kind?), I often ask my students to create a thesis for the analytical essay they’re writing on, say, Romeo & Juliet. Then, just as they’re ready to settle in and articulate their arguments, I blindside them with this requirement: They must now take the opposite position. Think Romeo’s actions at the end of the play are fueled by a timeless love, and that he’s the unfortunate victim of fate? Forget that nonsense! Your job now is to convince the reader that Romeo is an impetuous, hormonal teenager whose lust leads to a whole slew of dead bodies. Have fun!
When I talk to my students after they’ve wrestled their new thesis into submission, they often admit that while they didn’t necessarily agree with what they were trying to prove, they learned to see the play in a vastly different way. And that’s the point, of course: by entertaining alternative ideas, we can’t help but see our own in a whole new light. What’s true in literature is true in life… and as I’ve said in this column many, many times, what is true in life is true in Survivor.
Which is a long-winded way of saying this: I’m dusting off the cape and cowl of The Contrarian, the antagonist of assumptions, the first of his name, nemesis of Captain Obvious, keeper of conspiracies, Pundit Provocateur, he who resists the easy explanations, and The Great Usurper of conventional wisdom. Do I agree with everything he says? Not entirely. But his opinions—like the best counter-arguments—allow us to entertain the possibility that not everything is as it seems.
1) Not having Ghost Island was a GREAT decision
With fourteen players left in the game, over a third of them are nearly invisible: Angela, Des, Jenna, Chelsea, and Libby (side note: all women). If you add in Wendell and Laurel (side note: the only players of color left other than Des), who have only recently emerged from oblivion, you’re talking about more than half the cast whose stories we don’t really know. And when you consider the inconsistent edits from players like Donathan and Sebastian, you’re left with a quarter of the cast dominating the narrative.
And that’s happened with TWO tribes, never mind three.
With the addition of Yanuya—and with only 42 minutes of screen time— if production wanted to introduce viewers to all of the new tribe dynamics, something had to give. They couldn’t very well focus on even fewer players, could they? (Well, they could, but all of the confessionals would have been Chris and Dom complaining about each other and Bradley complaining about everything.)
In the end, they had a choice: have Ghost Island or a reward challenge. Without the reward challenge, though, how would they have sent anyone to Ghost Island? They weren’t going to return to the immunity challenge method (which allowed the player to miss Tribal Council); the tribes had only five players in them, and the LAST thing production wanted was a 2-2 tie and a pre-merge fire-making challenge (they want to save that drama for the Final 4).
Wisdom prevailed: Ghost Island got shelved for an episode so that we could spend a chunk of time in each of the three camps. And what we got was worth it: Players took on new dimensions (hello, Wendell! Nice to meet you, Chelsea! Laurel, you’re gonna be around a while, aren’t ya?), and several storylines beyond Chris vs. Dom started taking shape. That, to me, is the heart of Survivor: players adapting their social games to new conditions. Which is why swaps, as much as they so often screw over players I like (hey there, Brendan and Stephanie), are a necessary evil in Survivor.
2) James isn’t a very good Survivor player
Okay, before all the James fans jump down my throat (and there are a lot of you), let me say this: According to just about everyone on the planet, James is in contention for “kindest person ever to play Survivor” (side note: I’d like to see a nice-off between James and Dawn Meehan). I’m sure he’s a great friend and ally; in many ways, he’d be an ideal wingman in an endgame alliance. But Probst was right about James during the casting process: Despite being sweet and sincere and smart, James just isn’t warm enough to win. There aren’t enough Tony Robbins podcasts in the world to remedy that.
As we heard in the pre-season, James’s IQ is so high that it was a squiggle mark on his test results. But there are a lot of different ways to be smart, and given all that we’ve seen—how James talks, how he moves, how he interacts with others— it would appear that his EQ and SQ (emotional and social intelligences) aren’t as high as his IQ. Orchestrating the Morgan blindside was an impressive—and decidedly IQ-based—move. Had James been able to establish long-term loyalty with Angela in the aftermath of saving her, that would have been EQ and SQ at work, and would have likely saved him this past week and ended Des’ game.
Bottom line: There’s a reason why Michael didn’t feel a connection with James… there’s a reason why James couldn’t convince Angela to flip… and there’s a reason why James was the split vote target during the Jacob vote (and it wasn’t just his challenge performance). Within the game of Survivor, everyone liked James… respected him... appreciated him… but they didn’t love him. And really, there’s no shame in that; only the best players can inspire that sort of emotion within the confines of the game.
3) Angela made the right choice.
Let’s look at the game from Angela’s perspective: At the start of the game, you’re on a tribe that’s split down the middle. On one side, Domenick, Wendell, Morgan, Kellyn, and Bradley. On the other side, Chris, Sebastian, Chelsea, Desiree, and you. Thankfully, battle lines were never fully drawn before the swap, since you didn’t go to Tribal during the first week of the game.
Meanwhile, you’re having a hard time connecting with the other players. You don’t want to talk about your divorce. You don’t want to talk about your years of military service. The social game is infinitely harder than it looks on TV, especially when you’re this guarded.
And then, after the swap, three players from your original tribe betray you. Thankfully, James orchestrates a blindside, and one of the people who tried to “slit my throat” goes home. Even after that, your only real ally is Chris, and he’s a polarizing figure that you don’t really trust.
And then there’s another switch, and you’re suddenly the swing vote. What do you do? For starters, you REALLY don’t want to rock the boat; returning to camp with an angry Kellyn and Desiree would make a difficult situation worse. And really, what do you have against those two? Kellyn may not have been on your side of the original Naviti split, but she always seemed nice. And you were aligned with Desiree from the start. Plus, you’re not the type of person to betray anyone; heck, you were ready to draw rocks for the original Navitis before they turned on you.
And then, there’s the future to consider. Your two options:
Align with Michael and James… who presumably have Libby on their side… and Jenna, although now that you think about it, she might flip over to Naviti because of Sebastian… and what about Donathan and Laurel? They seemed to be getting chummy with Wendell and Dom. Plus, if you take out Des, you’re putting everyone on notice that you’re willing to make moves.
Stay the course, stick with Naviti, vote out James and then Michael (which they’d presumably be willing to do with the impending merge) and head into the merge with your original five-person alliance fully intact… pull in Jenna (which has probably already happened)... and now you need only one more (Libby, perhaps?) and you’ve got a seven-person post-merge majority. And within that group, who wouldn’t want to go with you to the end? Yes, your resume might be thin following this path—indeed, you’d have to make some moves later in the game to have a shot at the million—but seeing a way to the endgame is more than half the battle.
TL;DR: Both because of who she is and because of the post-merge picture, Angela made the right call siding with original Naviti and voting out James.
4) Wendell is Colby
I don’t know about you, but when Wendell returned that smelly conch shell to Sebastian, I had flashbacks of Colby handing out pieces of (illegal) Great Barrier Reef coral to his tribemates in Survivor: The Australian Outback. Combining Sebastian’s gratitude (expressed in both the camp shots and in a confessional) with Chris’s “you were just with the wrong guy at the wrong time” fist bump, and suddenly, Wendell’s in a GREAT spot. In fact, I think this sequence being included the edit all but screams that Wendell is making it to the endgame.
I’ll write about this more next week—when I take a close look at the final thirteen players—but given the likely composition of the jury (the odds are extremely high that there will be a Naviti majority), a player who can pull in all of the purple votes will take down the title. And Wendell is the sort of guy who could do just that.
5) Blindfold challenges are not funny
WARNING: If you want to avoid insufferable sanctimony, skip ahead to #7.
When Kirhoffer and his team design challenges like this, do they laugh as they envision the players crushing their groins into bars, slamming their shins into boxes, and smacking their faces into poles? Do they continue to laugh when they see this play out right in front of them? Or do you suppose that from time to time they think, “Oooooof, that looked really painful… my bad”?
Here’s the thing: I understand and appreciate physical comedy. There’s something hardwired into the human brain that makes us enjoy seeing others suffer. Heck, I watched the Three Stooges as a kid.
But this is reality, not fiction. These are real people smashing into these obstacles. Libby and Chelsea—both victims of diabolical challenge design and poor callers—stumbled away from that challenge a little less lovely.
What does it say about the challenge designers that they create something which is likely to inflict pain? What does it say about the producers that this is a Survivor staple? And what does it say about the viewing audience that this is accepted as entertainment?
Whatever it says, it isn’t good.
6) Making fun of Chris is not funny
Picture this: For the last several Wednesdays, Chris has been sitting on the couch watching Survivor with his mother. She watches him watch the show more than she watches the screen herself, because she loves her son more than anything in this world; she is so proud of him, he’s on TV, he’s on a billboard in New York City, but more than anything, he is her beautiful boy.
He has helped her all of her life as she’s struggled with her MS. He’s done more for her in his life than any mother ever wants to ask of her son. And he’s done it all because he loves his mom.
And there he is on her TV, on Ghost Island, talking about her struggles! As he talks about her and her MS and how much he needs her and she needs him, he’s sobbing, her boy is sobbing. It’s a gift, this moment, and as they watch it together, they’re both shedding tears.
But then, this week… oh, this week. The conversation with Laurel in the shelter. The ego. The arrogance. And then that confessional. Benefisherary. They’re mocking your son. Yes, these are his words and they reflect the less flattering facets of him, and yes, he knew what he was signing up for when he agreed to be on the show.
But that doesn’t help ease the pain of watching the producers invite eight and a half million people to laugh at your beautiful boy.
7) Libby is, in fact, Parvati 2.0
At least, she wants to be. The problem is, she hasn’t yet had the right mix of men around her. Who are the flies to be trapped in her Shallow web? Let’s take a look at who’s still out there:
On Her Tribe
Dom? Too old (and he’s on to her).
Donathan? Not interested.
Sebastian? In a showmance with Jenna.
Bradley? Joined at the hip with puzzle partner Kellyn.
The Other Possibilities
Given that Dom has invoked the Parvati comparison—and the editors saw fit to share that moment with us—the odds have gone up considerably that Libby will:
** Make the merge
** Parv it up from there and amp up the allure
** Get some interest from Wendell, Chris, and Michael
** Which threatens players like Dom and Kellyn
** Who then target Libby to remove the threat.
Making matters even more difficult for Libby? That she doesn’t have access to players who might join her Parvati plans. Every potential member of her Black Widow Brigade is already taken! Jenna’s got Sebastian, Kellyn has Bradley, and Chelsea has her cup of coffee… they don’t need her. Which leaves Libby, that devil in an angel’s body, isolated and alone.
8) Des will have her hero moment
Desiree’s despair after she let down her tribe in the challenge was given a LOT of screen time. We saw a ton of tears… heard a confessional… and then had it brought up again during Tribal Council. The focus throughout was how Des wanted to have her signature hero moment of the season, but instead suffered an existential blow.
To be sure, we might have seen all of this to highlight why Des was a target and to build her up as an alternative to a predictable James boot. But there was an edge to how it was all presented that made it feel like more than that. I can’t shake the feeling that Des is going to get pretty deep, and extend her stay in the game with an improbable individual immunity win. She’ll have her hero moment (and then promptly go home the next week).
9) Kellyn will become a villain
How could this be?! Kellyn’s so sweet and unassuming! That smile! Those teeth!
Here’s why I worry:
** She’s gotten some ominous music behind her recently, including when she was trying to convince Angela to stick with Naviti. Go back and take a listen. That’s the soundtrack of sinister shenanigans.
** When she talked to Angela in that scene, Kellyn emphasized that she and Desiree were working together, and that Angela should join them. That’s the sort of language that alienates members of an alliance.
** In a confessional, Kellyn expressed frustration with Dom and Wendell for turning on Chris and Angela; there was a vibe to it that felt like she has a specific vision for the game, and is annoyed when others make moves that indicate they don’t share that vision.
** After the merge, when the members of original Naviti have to turn on each other, Kellyn’s strategic ruthlessness— which was fine when it was aimed entirely at the Malolos—will start to rub the other players the wrong way.
** A Survivor truism: The bigger the gap between the collective perception of a player and how she plays the game, the more swift and severe the response. For Kellyn to go from kind to cutthroat will create social and strategic whiplash for anyone not included in her endgame plans. And it’s hard to see any path for Kellyn that won’t involve backstabbing and betrayal.
10) Domenick isn’t Tony, he’s Boston Rob.
I’ve heard and read a lot of Domenick-Tony comparisons over the last several weeks, largely triggered, I imagine, by Domenick’s growing bag of tricks and New Jersey accent. But the better comp, I feel, is Boston Rob, and it has to do with Domenick’s need for control. While Tony kept players like Spencer in the game to serve as targets (and thus, keep the heat off of him), Boston Rob systematically removed any threats to his power.
There was a small moment last week, when Dom was reconnecting with Bradley, that set off all of my “alpha alarms.” When Bradley—who had gotten used to being in control over on Malolo 2.0—told Dom that he was happy they’re together again, Dom said, “You have nothing to worry about.” In that exchange, Dom is quite clearly re-establishing dominance over Bradley (and I can’t help but wonder if that was the nature of their dynamic before the first swap).
Which is why, when “Next Week On” suggested that Dom and Bradley will be at each other’s throats this week, I wasn’t surprised at all.
Dom strikes me as the sort of guy who will keep identifying, manufacturing, and building up enemies as he navigates his way through the game. His war with Chris will be the defining confrontation of the season. He and Bradley are going to butt heads. After the merge, he’s likely to go after Libby (because she’s Parvati 2.0), Michael (because he has the potential to be another Malcolm/Joey Amazing), and Kellyn (because she’s a threat to establish her own sub-alliance).
This can be a remarkably effective way to play Survivor: most people back away from aggression so long as they’re not the target. It worked for Tony… once. It worked for Boston Rob… eventually. But it didn’t work for another player Dom’s been compared to, Russell Hantz. Should Domenick earn a seat at the Final Tribal Council—and he might, given his edit—the big questions will be how he got there, how the other players feel about that, and who is sitting next to him.
11) Chelsea is playing a great game
Once again, I ask of you an exercise in empathy:
You’re Chelsea. You were recruited to play Survivor, and you thought, what the hell, why not. Once you get out there, though, you realize that you’re on a season full of people who are REALLY into the show. Might be wise to take a back seat for a bit and let things shake out.
You’re also on a tribe that has a pair of players at each other’s throats, and as a result, the tribe is split down the middle. It’s probably best to keep a low profile, be non-committal. Why limit your options before you even have to go to Tribal?
And then, thanks to your tribe’s challenge dominance, you don’t have your torch lit at Tribal until Day 12, after the first swap. At that point, you’re part of a 5-4 majority, and there are obvious Malolo threats who need to go. No need to flip now, particularly when everyone you were (loosely) aligned with on Naviti are still in the game.
And now, here you are on Naviti 3.0, and you’re once again part of a numbers advantage. Even if something goes haywire, they’re certainly not going to target YOU. And then there’s the merge, where everyone is going to underestimate you. If you can become part of a Naviti sub-alliance—Desiree, Angela, and you, for example—and make it to the Final 3, who knows what might happen? Heck, if you’re sitting next to Dom, maybe you can become his Natalie White. For now, though, just make it to the merge, and see what possibilities unfold from there.
In other words, kick back, drink coffee, and avoid the crossfire as the threats take each other out. Not a bad game plan, right? Worst case scenario, you leave mid-merge and use your winnings to pay off your student loans. Not a bad deal for a month and a half of work.
(Okay, so, objectively speaking, this isn’t a great game—but it’s a great game for her.)
12) The Little Things
** Just to clear up some of the confusion I keep hearing on podcasts, there’s a sign at Ghost Island that says that there are no idols to be found, so don’t bother searching. And, given that there’s one, maybe two people out there with you (someone with a camera and perhaps a field producer to ask some questions), they REALLY don’t want you wandering around the island at night.
** Speaking of podcasts, I continue to marvel at the quality of the material RHAP churns out, I remain a loyal fan of The Dom & Colin podcast, and I desperately miss Survivor Talk w/ D&D. I’ll keep my trap shut about all of the others.
** While it is true that original tribe designations are random, and thus seem like an arbitrary foundation for unbreakable alliances, it has been my experience—after playing in the DWSC and then helping produce it ever since—that players are deeply indebted to, and grateful for, those who offered their friendship, safety, and trust in the earliest days of the game. Those are the hardest hours, when everything is chaos, and it is in the flames of those first campfires that the deepest bonds are forged.
** When Jeff was asking the players what they vote with, would it have killed anyone to say, “I vote with the pen, Jeff”? My son would still be laughing. He’s in 6th grade, and all middle school boys enjoy humor based on extreme literalism.
** As so often happens with newbie seasons, almost everyone is refusing to cultivate relationships with the players on the bottom. A notable exception: Laurel. Which is why she’s in this for the long haul.
** Three things seem to show up in every episode: several people crying, someone talking about how there are different ways to define strength, and a reference (earnest, ironic, and/or sarcastic) to how Malolo is the best tribe ever. Are we to assume, then, that the winner of this season is going to be an emotional original Malolo whose game is strong in less overt ways? Hmmmmm. Gonna have to think about that one.
The easy assumption is that Malolo is going to lose again… and looking at who they have left, that makes a lot of sense.
But with the merge on the horizon, it feels like we’re going to get the denouement to the “Malolo is the best tribe ever/worst tribe ever” story… and would they have emphasized this particular narrative if it simply ended with another crushing defeat? I mean, it’s not like Malolo lost every single time (they won both reward and immunity in the episode when Morgan went home)… and with the two tribe swaps, only Michael has been on Malolo the entire time, and it’s not like this suckitude has been his fault (and the edit certainly doesn’t want us to think so)… so it’s quite possible they’re pushing the “orange is awful” angle so that they can get a small moment of triumph here at the end.
I certainly don’t see Yanuya losing anything ever.
So that leaves Naviti. Last week’s episode set up Libby as the initial target, but “Next Time On” offered up Bradley as an alternative. The question then, is, whose story appears to have more momentum to carry them to the merge?
As I’ve argued the last two weeks, Bradley’s edit is comprised of fast-burning fuel, and it can’t last forever. Libby, meanwhile, was labeled Parvati 2.0 without any substance other than sauntering around looking beautiful and sitting down next to Dom. Neither seems like an endgamer.
But I’m going to run with the idea that Libby gets her Parv on after the merge…
… which means that Dom decides that Bradley is a threat to his dominance…
… and the guy who gives himself an A+ for how he’s been playing so far is going to fail.
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius