As we head towards the endgame of Edge of Extinction in less than 48 hours, I feel like this season is solidly midpack, but how I ultimately feel about it will, as always, depend on how the finale plays out. Back during Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers, I was enjoying the season throughout, but it fell off steeply after a finale that still triggers me to this day. Ben Driebergen wasn’t a satisfying winner to that season; it doesn’t feel as though you should be able to play a social game as poor as he did and still win. The end result is that I don’t look back on that season fondly.
Similarly, during David vs Goliath last season, the season was firing on all cylinders through the middle portion of the season, but in the last few episodes it lost its momentum, culminating in an end-game full of bitterness, several characters that obviously weren’t winning because of how far behind the ‘visibility curve’ they were, and a winner that wasn’t, to me, very satisfying (even amongst the final three).
All of this is my long way of saying that the way the endgame of this season plays out will affect my enjoyment of the season as a whole. But I think there are reasons to be optimistic.
Is it fair to compare Rick to Ben?
Image by: Ryan Kaiser
On the first watch through this episode, it was quite frustrating to see Rick get both another idol AND win immunity. It sucked all of the tension out of the episode and left the march to Rick’s win feeling somewhat inevitable, despite the fact that all people want to do is vote him out. That is reminiscent of Ben’s run in HvHvH.
In thinking on it further, though, I think there are some fairly key differences.
First, Ben wasn’t winning immunity challenges. I’ve never reacted quite as poorly to Mike’s run in Worlds Apart, because immunity challenges are clearly a fair fight — everyone is there and has the same thing they need to do to win the challenge. Luck plays far less of a role; skill is more rewarded. This oversimplifies the fact that certain challenges favour certain archetypes, but overall I feel better about a person staving off their elimination through immunity wins. Small immunity runs to win a season you probably would have lost otherwise have been a staple of Survivor as far back as The Amazon, and while they can be frustrating, that’s the fabric of the show as it’s always been. If Rick had solely won immunity in this episode (and not found an idol), this would have felt a lot more satisfying. If Rick could win out immunity challenges this season and never use his idol at all, I feel as though his story for winning would be more compelling.
Second, Rick’s idol finds have clearly required significant time and effort to achieve. In HvHvH, I had genuine concerns about how legitimate Ben’s finds were — one was literally buried where he slept at night; another appeared to be on the way back to camp after his confessional. The same concerns don’t present themselves in the case of Rick.
Lastly, for the simple reason that Rick had been voted out and returned to the game, I don’t think Rick had the same opportunity Ben did to make inroads with a social game. Sure, Ben had the story of being a Marine working to make him a threat, and plenty of his fellow cast saw him that way. But Ben really butchered the social game and abandoned it completely in the later game; actively berating people. That he managed to get enough votes to win at the end is a quirk of the fact that the early jury weren’t in the game while this was happening.
Rick, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily a bigger threat than others simply by being Rick, and his social game seems pretty good. Everyone seems to like him. However, it seems a simple narrative is dominating the minds of the players on the season — anyone who goes to the Edge of Extinction and makes the end will win, because their narrative will match the theme of the season and the jury will feel a lot of satisfaction in voting for Rick as a result. Rick seems to have been a big target primarily for this reason, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect he had a genuine opportunity to make social inroads that could carry him to the final 3.
The end result? Rick winning this season from here wouldn’t truly be a retread of Ben’s win — there are a number of reasons to feel as though this win would be the product of Rick playing the best game he could in the circumstances, rather than being kept in the game by production despite playing poorly.
So, would Rick be a satisfying winner?
Despite this, I don’t love the way the show has presented Rick’s idol finds. Shannon Gaitz pointed out on twitter that Survivor is now really built around the value of ‘work ethic’, rather than highlighting a range of possible values that could make a satisfying winner.
The language used tonight just reemphasised for me that the only strength modern #Survivor values, rewards and highlights is work ethic. It's been a trend in similar stories in recent seasons that the edit and actual game mechanisms overwhelmingly care about this strength.— Shannon Gaitz (@ShannonGaitz) May 9, 2019
I think Shannon is absolutely correct, and the thing I find most challenging about this is that ‘who has work ethic’ can singlehandedly be decided by the emphasis of production. Do I really believe that Rick is finding idols because no-one else is looking? No. Do I believe he’s winning challenges because no-one else is trying as hard? No.
It’s easy for the show to present one person working hard and simply not show others doing the same and paint a narrative that one person is succeeding because they are working harder when it isn’t really true. We need no more proof than this season to show that they don’t show people searching and failing to find idols — we saw footage of Aubry searching for idols in her two previous seasons that was never shown at the time. The focus on work ethic unfortunately feels as though it takes us further away from being presented "what happened," and a step closer towards "why you should like our winner," and that’s not a step I’m in favour of.
It’s also a shame because I don’t even think ‘work ethic’ should be considered the defining characteristic of Rick’s success in the game so far. Rick hasn’t played everything right by any means, but he’s used some strong social strategy within the confines of his position in the game; him keeping Julie onside just after calling her a villain is his most recent strong work; but he also worked with the Wardog to remove Kelley and did enough socially to keep himself from going almost immediately back out at the merge. His eventual win, if it comes, will be as much as a result of him getting himself to final 9 through his social play as it will his winning out from there.
The end result is that I believe I can still really like this season if Rick is a satisfying winner, but it will depend how he gets there. If it’s with idol plays at 6 and 5 and winning fire at 4, it won’t feel good. If it’s by winning out in immunity, I’ll be fine with it. If it’s by surviving a vote without protection, it will feel well earned.
And in any event, Rick is a pretty likeable guy — much more likeable than some of the recent winners I’ve mentioned — and that alone is sometimes enough to stop you minding if the way in which they got there isn’t that great.
BUT — and it’s a big but; Survivor is now entering a phase where there could be ten people left and nine of them simply never have a chance to win because the tenth is never vulnerable. In fact, it’s becoming common. That’s a really big concern, because it doesn’t make the show fun — what’s the point of watching a season if the last half literally doesn’t matter at all?
The answer: Survivor really has to start introducing fewer ways to survive without a social game. Idols at the merge should only be reintroduced once there are none left in the game. All idols should be done at 7, or 6 at the very latest. And the final four fire-making challenge desperately needs to go. When there’s fewer chances to propel yourself to the end without a social game, doing it will feel truly spectacular instead of the run-of-the-mill event it seems to be becoming.
Are the other players handling Rick poorly?
A lot of the talk this week has been about how the players should have been talking down Rick’s game at tribal council; the theory goes that only by putting holes in his game now could they have a hope to argue he doesn’t deserve to win at final three.
I tend to disagree.
Let’s say Victoria had spoken out this episode and said that Rick was playing poorly: he’d been voted out; he was out of the loop on many votes; he could only survive through idols, and that his proposed idol play had no effect on them at all. What does Victoria achieve by that?
In the eyes of her fellow competitors, she becomes the threat who is standing up and trying to claim the game for herself — a good person to take out if Rick is immune. In the eyes of the jury, she becomes the person who is trying to "sell them a line." The jury aren’t going to buy that Rick is playing poorly — primarily because he is (as discussed above) playing the game available to him pretty well. Even more importantly, it raises a very simple question: "why did you just vote for him, then?" It’s extremely difficult to argue that you don’t think Rick is playing well or would beat you when he had saved himself with an idol just the tribal council before.
Her words would achieve nothing. Actions speak louder.
If the rest of the players really wanted to run the argument that Rick wouldn’t win, they needed to go all in, and sooner. They needed to unanimously vote out Rick the vote before, knowing that they’d either learn that Rick didn’t have an idol, or that he would play it pointlessly (undermining him even further). They needed to make Rick look impotent through his actions.
Similarly, the best move at this tribal council wouldn’t have been to try to tell everyone he was playing badly. It would have been to vote out Julie (even though they went in with a plan to vote out Aurora; they would have needed to switch TO Julie on the fly). There was no chance that Rick was going to play his idol for Julie. By voting out Julie as he threatened to play his idol for her, not only does it look like you aren’t scared of Rick, it also once again shows that he doesn’t actually have the power to achieve his goals in the game.
The risk is, of course, that by not actively targeting Rick, you are letting him get further and win anyway. So what is the best tactic? Should you act as though he’s not a threat and support your narrative that he’s beatable, and risk him getting to the end and beating you? Or should you admit that he’s the threat that he is, and act like he is, and bank on getting him out before the end?
I don’t think the answer to that question is actually a straightforward yes or no. Either path is fraught with risks. But I do believe that you are best to go with one path and stick to it; acting is though he’s a threat while talking like he isn’t is only going to get the jury to see you as someone who is lacking a grasp on the game and the jury, and I think it’s probable that it actively costs you votes in the end.
So, who is winning this thing?
Despite all of that — I still don’t think Rick is actually winning. He certainly could, and his win would be consistent with other wins in the past where he is easily given the most content of the season. But his win feels far too obvious, especially in the context of a season where Jeff Probst has said the editors are playing it "like a murder mystery." More likely to me is that Rick’s immunity run is done, his idol run is done, and he’ll finally fall at 4, setting the stage for a final three without him.
After the merge episode, I said I had five potential winners — Rick was one. The others were Aubry, David, Victoria and Lauren. I think the chances of Aubry and David winning from here are extremely slim (although I remain convinced they are the only people who could win if they do return).
At the time, I thought Victoria was the winner. I still think there’s a good chance of that. We’ve had critical lines from her at key times that have set out her strategic philosophy — like saying "nobody should trust me." But this week we heard her talk about how her game was slipping away, as Lauren was getting her own way (getting Aurora out) and Victoria didn’t have the clout to stop it. The vote should have been Julie from Victoria’s perspective; but it seemed clear that Victoria simply couldn’t swing it that way. In the end, Lauren won the day and is pushing towards her own preferred final three, that includes Julie and potentially Gavin, at the exclusion of Vic.
Lauren got her way this week. She has an idol to play at one of the next two tribal councils. She won’t be the target if Rick is an available target. And that might be enough to get her to final four. If Lauren can make it to the end – especially if she successfully played her idol on the way – I think she stands a very good chance of winning. And I’m beginning to believe that’s the story we’re seeing on screen. Victoria remains a chance, but I think her chances of winning rely on Lauren losing firemaking at four, and her being up against some combination of Gavin, Julie, and an uncompelling returnee at the end.
So, final prediction?
I’m sticking with Victoria. Rick out at 5. Lauren out at 4. Victoria brings it home at the end.
Thanks for reading this season, I really appreciate those of you who have read and taken the time to comment. See you all next season!!!
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