I’ll admit it: In my effort to play catch up on this season, I’ve been way too focused on individual players over the past two weeks. As a result, I haven’t paid nearly enough attention to the group dynamics in play right now. Which is a glaring mistake, given the impact that these group dynamics have on individual games.
As we’re seeing, this merge is a mess. One tribe came in without having their loyalties tested by a vote … another was whittled down to a pair of strategists whose relationship is, to put it mildly, strained … and a third thought they were unified but have now found out how wrong they were. Dysfunction everywhere, which is fun for us, but deeply problematic for them.
So let’s take a closer look at these players within the context of group dynamics and see if that can shed any light on where things go from here.
(By the way, I’m going to do my best to keep my column shorter this week and moving forward. One, because no one really needs 4k words about a 42-minute episode. And two, because I’m in the process of launching The Baker’s Dozen Podcast, where I’ll be deep diving on shows like Wheel of Time as well as sharing an audio version of this column. More on that later, though!)
1) Perception problems: Heather
The Luvu winning streak has had a significant impact on all five of the remaining members. Did Heather know from the earliest days of the game that she was on the outside looking in, and would have been voted out if Luvu had lost a challenge? At Tribal Council, she certainly acted like someone with a psyche scarred by being on the bottom for the past two weeks. The only way she knows how to view the game is as an easy target, which has created a massive disconnect between how she sees herself and how the other players see her. Heather thinks that she’s in danger, but, despite her name being mentioned as a split vote backup plan, she should know that there’s no reason to send her home yet — and that anything she might do (such as go rogue at Tribal Council) would only make a “They’re coming after me!” reality a self-fulfilling prophecy.
To be sure, Heather’s inability to see the game objectively (or at least, less subjectively) has an empathy component to it as well: if Sydney and her exit interviews are to be believed, Heather viewed everything through the prism of self, using the stories of others as excuses to talk about her own lived experience. That’s low EQ behavior. And if Heather can’t see how her approach to human connection is keeping her fellow castaways at arm’s length, then there’s a good chance she can’t see or sense how everyone feels about her. That, in turn, allows her own distorted sense of imminent danger to put her in a perpetual state of stress.
So where does Heather go from here? She’s probably safe for a few votes while bigger threats are addressed, but then her lack of allies and her sudden status shift from “predictable” to “erratic” will get her booted. Strategists prefer their goats to walk in a straight line.
2) The loose electron: Naseer
Naseer seems like a sharp guy, game aware. He had to have come into the merge knowing that he was on the fringes of the Luvu power alliance. And now that he’s found out that his name is being used as a backup vote, he’s gotten all the confirmation he needs. The only question is if he believes he’s a target because of his idol, or because he’s an endgame threat (or both).
As they’re discussing over on Kaiser Island (in the comments section), Shan resisting Danny and Deshawn’s plan, and then quickly throwing them under the bus with Naseer, could be evidence that Shan has been cultivating Naseer as a number (she might envision a F5 where she wants Naseer to side with her and Liana over Danny and Deshawn). Smart strategy — everyone needs to audition goats and meat shields (always better when a player is both, but Naseer is more dangerous than a goat, given his positive personality and sneaky-strong athleticism). It has to be dawning on Naseer, though, that just like on Luvu, he’s on the outskirts of the post-merge power alliance. The real question, then, is if he can do anything about it.
So, CAN he do anything about it? The edit would suggest that the answer is no. His content has been about the joy with which he plays the game; we haven’t been given much if any meaningful strategic content with Naseer at the center of it.
There’s another reason to worry about Naseer as well: he has a habit of saying and doing things that make the others worry that he’s a threat. Example: he sat out of the immunity challenge to help the tribe, which is a dangerous but understandable social move (and he wasn’t alone since the immunity idol brigade all did the same); but then he announces in front of everyone that he thinks he would have won the challenge had he competed. Extremely unwise when the other players are looking for reasons to target anyone and everyone. I just don’t think that Naseer is self-aware enough at this stage of the game to make smart choices, a fear confirmed by the Next Week On teaser, in which he confronts Heather for targeting him rather than trying to build a bridge with someone who also caught votes at that Tribal.
Here’s the thing: I worry that Naseer thinks he’s on the inside of the power alliance nucleus with Danny, Deshawn, Liana, and Shan, when he’s really an electron spinning outside. Shan appears to be doing a good job maintaining the attraction, but seeing one’s name on parchment has a way of weakening the forces that bind an alliance together. That’s why a more functional foursome would have picked one backup vote — and then kept that name under wraps. Apparently, that’s too much to ask of the Core Four, however. The question now is if Naseer will see the group dynamics for what they really are, and put together something new, a counter-alliance with him at the heart of it. I’d love to see it … but I’m not optimistic.
3) Making a mess: Shan
When I’m driving around running errands and find myself yelling at every minor infraction by another driver, I eventually realize that the problem isn’t them, it’s me. Self-awareness requires us to accept when we’re the common denominator; that’s the only way to improve. The trouble with post-merge Survivor is that every day is a stressful 10-car pileup in the middle of rush hour. It’s hard to keep our emotions in check and see that we’re the cause of, and solution to, the problems that plague us. We manufacture our own messes.
What does that have to do with Shan, you ask? Everything. She has had repeated issues with her supposed #1 Ricard, and now she’s butting heads with Deshawn. That, in turn, makes things difficult with Danny. It won’t be long now before she has issues with Heather, and who will it be after that? Liana, who has expressed some interest in working with Xander and Evvie? At some point, Shan will need to do some damage control, or her mounting conflicts will converge and she’ll find herself in a lot of trouble. This was all avoidable if she had been more diplomatic and deferential … but maybe she can’t play that way, given both who she is outside of the game and who she’s become within it?
To explain: As we saw in the episode, Shan is used to getting her way as a pastor, and guiding people to walk the path she wants them to. In the game, she and Ricard drove the strategy on Ua, and once they hit the merge beach, it wasn’t long before Shan started asserting dominance within the Core Four. The problem for Shan is that Deshawn and Danny aren’t JD and Genie; her new alliance partners are used to getting their way, too. And as we saw with Ricard, Shan isn’t quick to let things go.
To be fair, Shan is right: Xander is dangerous, and it would be wise to get him out before his idol and extra vote become threats to their plans. But at this point, Shan should remember that sometimes being right has to take a back seat to being kind. Naseer needs to be dealt with, too, and even if Shan is cultivating him as a number, she has to be willing to pivot to other pieces if that will keep Deshawn and Danny appeased (and not worrying that she’s got Naseer in her pocket, which they have to be concerned about now).
Bottom line: Shan needs to rethink her approach within the Core Four and with Ricard. Let Deshawn and Danny dictate a vote. Stop picking fights with Ricard. Can she do it? If she has enough time to reflect and regroup, yes. But the game is accelerating, and she’s hemorrhaging allies. And “Next Week On” doesn’t offer much hope: It looks like Shan is playing like she’s back on Ua … or at home in her church. I still think she’s an endgamer, but the road is going to be rough because she can’t stop making messes.
4) Aggression is good except for the passive kind: Deshawn
Credit where it’s due: Deshawn did brilliant work on Luvu before the merge. If they had suffered the same fate as Ua, there’s a good chance he’s the Shan of Luvu, right? Problem is, he may have gotten too used to being in a good position, and is having trouble recalibrating as the end approaches. Shan’s right: Deshawn is acting like a baby. Sitting down in the middle of a Live Tribal, pouting, and telling Shan you’ll do whatever she wants you to do? That’s as close as you’re going to get to a Survivor tantrum. It’s a HORRIBLE look — especially when everyone is watching.
Despite how horribly unwise it is for Deshawn to fall into the same passive-aggressive patterns that Ricard did with Shan, I understand and empathize with where he’s coming from: Shan’s approach feels patronizing (and it doesn’t help that she’s being reductive about gender; he needs to be heard as a man? Come on now). And really, what has Shan brought to the table? Ricard and Liana? Luvu came into the merge six strong. Deshawn’s the one with the numbers, but suddenly Shan is calling the shots? I wouldn’t be happy, either. But being petulant about it isn’t the answer.
Side note: There was a quick shot of Deshawn walking with Heather and Erika … seems like he’s doing some goat herding of his own.
5) An Iago who needs his Othello: Ricard
Let’s start at the end: Ricard telling Xander to play his idol not once but twice is a really bad look for him. The fact that the edit chose to highlight both attempts (they could have included only one) doesn’t bode well; there’s a good chance he gets targeted for being ineffectually sketchy (the good news for Ricard is that he’ll get a spot on Heroes vs. Villains 2). But edit aside, the fact that Xander didn’t believe him tells us how Ricard is perceived by the other players: someone not to be trusted. As Ricard told us in an Ua Tribal, he comes up with ideas, but Shan implements them; Ricard is the Iago who whispers in Othello’s ear, only this time, Othello was too busy dealing with a screaming baby and a frisky fifty-year-old. The power dynamic is problematic, though: Ricard needs Shan, but she doesn’t need him.
It’s also not a great look when a superfan isn’t aware of the rules around food after a reward. Surely, Ricard has heard about banana etiquette, right? He should have known that there was a papaya protocol. As Shan points out, small moments reveal character, and, despite being the only non-idol-holder to risk elimination to get rice for the tribe, Ricard will likely be targeted for his choices, one of which involved the politics of papaya. There’s a reason why we saw Shan say, “He’s my number one, BUT ….” That “but” looms large.
On the positive side of the ledger, I do appreciate how self-aware Ricard is: he knows that his choices have put his alliance on edge. I wonder: will he tire of walking on eggshells? I know I would. But it feels like he’s all in on Shan, which will cost him the game.
6) When you’re behind you’re ahead: Xander
I love how this kid is playing the game. He’s always thinking. He understands that everything matters.
I do wonder if his ability to have perspective is due to the constant threat of being booted. I’ve long argued that playing from the bottom, as scary as it is, can be liberating: you’re free to make moves. You can sit out of a reward challenge. With an idol in your pocket, you can forgo a shot at immunity to get rice for the tribe. You can choose to be with emotionally vulnerable players in the hopes that they’ll be more open to working with you.
Knowing how the other players perceive you is empowering. In Xander’s case, he knows they want him gone. As a result, he can take some big swings. So far, so good. But the distance between F10 and F3 is vast … here’s hoping that he can at least make things interesting.
7) High highs and low lows: Evvie
What I loved: Evvie did about as well as one can, patching things up after Tribal. Yes, there was some awkwardness, but Evvie smoothed things over with Liana (really liked the whole, “On a personal level, we’re fine” approach) and then talked with Shan (clearly everyone knows who has the power right now). Evvie is still an obvious target, but perhaps, if some cracks start to form, they can once again become a little turtle waddling towards the surf.
What I didn’t: if you’re trying to lower your threat level, you don’t finish a puzzle in five seconds. Struggle a bit, watch the other tribe, see if they’re getting close. If they are, that’s when you crush it. But to do it without hesitating, and then bask in the glow of Probstian praise … that’s an egregious unforced error. I know it’s hard to resist having a moment on Survivor, but you have to just let it go. Because the only moment you really want to have is hearing your name read off of pieces of parchment at the end.
8) The final three (but not THE final three): Danny, Erika, Liana
Danny: Interesting that he was the one we saw proposing a Naseer vote to Shan but then wasn’t caught up in the chaos that unfolded after that. It feels like he’s riding the Luvu momentum and avoiding all of the drama. One problem with that: the jury often interprets drama as evidence of dynamic gameplay. Danny is going to have to get his hands dirty if he wants to have an argument at the end.
Erika: She’s not a lion or a lamb … she’s a pony. Breed: One Trick. She smashed the hourglass, and then promptly disappeared from the edit. She may glide to the finale as a floater given the bigger threats still in the game; she might even have a seat at Final Tribal alongside Deshawn. But there isn’t much hope now that she’s going to help flip the game.
Liana: Might she make a move and work with Xander (and by extension, Evvie)? The edit sure wants us to think so. Given that it didn’t play out in this episode, was this a hint of things to come? Possibly. But it feels like a misdirect. While we’re likely to see Liana flirt with the idea of flipping, I think we’re being fed false hope. (I’d like to be wrong about this, though.)
9) Random things I thought about during the episode
** Was the Advantage note waterproof?
** Oooooooh, they acknowledged the baby turtle animal metaphor and then let Evvie say NOPE. Brutal.
** Interesting new squeeze clips to release puzzle pieces. Wonder why. I’ve always worried that players would get their clothes caught on the old setups ....
** While she wasn’t my favorite player, Tiffany fought hard and brought some humor to her scramble to stay in the game. She’ll be an excellent Mayor of Ponderosa.
** I take perverse pleasure watching players overthink things: Evvie and Xander were theatrical before, so maybe they’re being theatrical again, so we need to be theatrical about their theatricality and use theatrics to counter their possible theatrical theatrics. There is an important lesson here, though: In Survivor as in life, we are defined by our actions. And in the game, assumptions are made based on a handful of moments. Everything that Evvie and Xander do now will be viewed through the lens of the Knowledge is Power/fake idol move.
10) Probst Probe
That’s it, I’m done with Live Tribals. Can Probst tell everyone to sit down and shut up, please? Tribal is supposed to be an open forum: if you need to say something, everyone’s gotta hear it. And if a wrench has been thrown into your plans by what has been said and/or done at Tribal, you need to adjust on the fly, publicly, or let the chips fall where they may. I just don’t understand why Probst sits there smiling while what’s supposed to be a Council becomes a series of sidebars. Yes, there’s chaos, but it isn’t particularly interesting, and it undermines the point and purpose of Tribal Council. This is especially problematic once there’s a jury: they need to hear everything, not stare at a bunch of players huddling, whispering, and scheming.
11) Fortunes Rising
Liana was in a REALLY bad spot last week. Betrayed her allies. Blew her advantage. Limited her options.
This week? Exploring possibilities with Xander. Repairing things with Evvie.
She could have taken a step back and let the dust settle, but instead, she’s back in the thick of things. Not bad. Not bad at all.
12) Fortunes Falling
A lot of candidates this week: Heather, for her catastrophically poor decision to trigger a Live Tribal; Ricard, for pissing off Shan yet again; Deshawn for letting his frustrations with Shan bubble over at camp and at Tribal; Evvie for solving the puzzle so quickly; Naseer for proclaiming that he’s could have won the immunity challenge ....
But there’s really only one choice: Shan. She has further to fall. And she’s plummeting. When there’s conflict everywhere, eventually the players will identify the source and deal with it. Yes, she still has allies, an idol, and an extra vote … but things are going to get hard up ahead, and she has only herself to blame.
I just saw a ten second promo for this week’s episode, and it reveals a lot about what will happen on Wednesday (regarding the immunity challenge, not the outcome). If you don’t want to know about any of that, stop reading now! If you feel like CBS commercials are fair game, here’s what we know:
At the immunity challenge, the ten remaining players have a rock draw to determine tribes. Here’s how they end up:
Probst articulates the stakes: two people will win immunity; two people are going home. Presumably, that means that each group of five will go to Tribal to vote someone out (rather than all ten being present). That certainly makes things interesting, even if two people might join the jury thinking that they got screwed by a rock draw.
In the first tribe of five, we’re getting the payoff to Liana talking about working with Xander and Evvie. Does she side with her old Yase tribemates? Or stick with Deshawn and Danny? It’s an extremely dangerous dynamic because of Xander’s idol and extra vote, and the 1-in-5 chance that Xander or Evvie has immunity. If they’re both immune, the other three have to turn on each other. If only Xander is immune, his extra vote could still force a tie … and that, too, would force the other three to turn on each other. What a mess! In the end, Liana seems risk-averse to me; she’ll side with Evvie and Xander and send Danny home (Deshawn would be the better boot, but his story doesn’t feel like it should end yet).
The second tribe of five has to deal with two idols and an advantage, two players who are at odds because of what happened at the last Tribal (Naseer and Heather), two more players who are at odds because they don’t fully trust one another (Shan and Ricard), and Erika, who, all evidence aside, is not still on Exile. Next Week On shows Shan talking about playing her extra vote, so she must be afraid that Naseer, Heather, and Erika might team up to take out Ricard (if she thought she was in danger, she’d be talking about playing her idol). Naseer could be immune; if not, he, too, has an idol to play. In the end, this feels like a situation where everyone decides to avoid the mayhem and agrees to take out Heather. Shan and Ricard don’t need her, Naseer doesn’t trust her, and Erika, well, we don’t know what Erika thinks but she’ll be happy it isn’t her.
So there you have it: Danny and Heather. Whoever goes home, though, there’s going to be fireworks. It doesn’t feel terribly fair to force the players into small tribe dynamics at F10 (via rock draw, no less), with so many idols and advantages in the game, but fair, as we’ve learned, has got nothing to do with it. The monster is hungry, and it will get fed on Wednesday.
Baker When he’s not blogging about
Survivor, Andy Baker helps run a Survivor-based LRG and is
podcasting about TV shows. Which is to say he spends
entirely too much time in front of the TV, typing on his
laptop and muttering about bad narrative decisions.
Andy can be found on twitter: @B13pod.