In Episode 2 of Survivor 41, Xander foolishly decided to open a package that said in big letters "Beware Advantage" this week, even after also reading that he would have to do whatever it said inside. It seemed like a bad idea at the time, but just a few seasons after Jeff Probst was bouncing around encouraging everyone to "say yes" to everything, Xander soon learned that Survivor is happy to make him look like an idiot.
(Seriously, go back to the premiere, where Yase is debating whether to do the Savvy or Sweat task. Voce complains in confessional that the Sweat task takes two people away from the tribe for four hours during the critical Day 1 bonding period. "You would have to be an idiot to do that!" He says. Then there's an immediate cut back to the beach, where Xander says, "Like, we could definitely do the water.")
Having just risked his vote to earn an extra vote in the premiere, Xander also opened the "Beware Advantage" packet in Episode 2. In due time, he learned that there are a lot of convoluted rules to this "advantage" (shown here). The main tenets: (1) he loses his vote until all three idols have been found and activated; (2) they're only activated when each finder from each tribe says a specific phrase (each of which is deeply ridiculous, the only fun part of this) prior to the immunity challenge, all three phrases are required before any idol is activated; (3) until the idol has been activated, Xander is unable to vote at Tribal Council (but can still be voted against); and finally, (4) if all three idols are not found by the merge, the penalties go away and the idols are dead. (This last rule was not mentioned in the show, so in all likelihood it doesn't come to pass.)
Clearly, this is not an advantage. It's the promise of a modest advantage at some undetermined point in the future, but in the meantime, a pretty severe punishment. It's the same risk he took in the first episode (losing his vote for one Tribal Counicl), but continued indefinitely, possibly all the way to the merge.
This is obviously a problem for Xander. But it's also a punishment for his allies on Yase (or elsewhere if there's a swap), because he can't participate in any Big Moves™ they want to make. On the plus side, he might be able to give away his extra vote, if necessary (like much of the rules, this is not clear). But there are a number of obvious problems with the twist.
Problem 1: Too many idols at once - Everyone (except Probst, apparently) hated Cirie's elimination at the Game Changers "Advantagegeddon" Final 6 vote, not because she was voted against, but because she was the only person who lacked some form of immunity. The Beware Advantage seems designed to try to make that happen again, just in the pre-merge. How? By keeping the tribes small, having no idols at all for several Tribals, then activating three at once. Critically, they have to be activated by the merge, or they're useless. With the merge somewhere between 3-4 episodes away, and a swap possibly looming, that could potentially give us a 4-person tribe and 3 idols at once.
Originalist fans have complained forever about idols. "There are too many idols nowadays. Please remove three," they pound into their typewriter, whisk the paper out, shove it in an envelope, and snail mail it to Jeff Probst, c/o CBS Television. "Why can't we have a season with no idols?" they bellow, while waving their fists at passing clouds. Well congratulations, here is that season! There are no idols (unless you count the 1/6th idols of Shot in the Dark). But soon — maybe next episode, maybe after that — there could be a whole mess of them, all at once. It's the worst of both worlds!
Problem 2: The no vote penalty could last until merge - This seems like the part that's the most poorly designed, or at least the most unfair, especially considering Xander was not informed of the risk beforehand. Now that Deshawn knows the penalty associated with opening this advantage, he could warn Luvu, and they could collectively decide just to never open theirs. This will guarantee that Xander does not have a vote until the merge. (As long as there isn't a swap.) He's entirely at the mercy of the other two tribes, who have absolutely no reason to want him in the game with a vote, and would probably be more than happy to vote him out at the merge as an obvious physical player, anyway.
This is potentially a devastating curse for Xander, and seems completely unfair for an "advantage" that he had no reason to expect could penalize him for multiple Tribal Councils. Previous disadvantages (Devon's phantom "no vote" in HvHvH, various vote steals) seemed unfair even when they expired after a single use. They weren't great, but at least they were manageable. This "advantage" in contrast is taking away all of Xander's power in the game, apart from trying to win challenges, an effort that notably hasn't gone so well so far.
Problem 3: The idols are, or at least will be, 100% public - The only payoff to this "three-part idol" is eventually having a functional idol. But it's not like a regular idol, it's one that, by the time they finally become active, EVERY person in the game will know exactly who holds each one. Already, everyone on Yase knows the three phrases. Deshawn may, too. It looks like someone on Ua (Brad?) finds theirs next episode, so word will trickle through that tribe too. By the time the third idol is active, it will be clear to everyone who the three idol holders are. How is that an "advantage"?
So here we are. If everything goes right, in a couple of weeks we could have a Tribal where multiple people are unable to vote because they thought they'd found an idol, multiple people are unable to vote because they chose to "risk" their votes on the dumb hill trek, and then have the few remaining players deciding to play their Shot in the Dark, and throwing their votes away too. Then what will happen?
Voting is the core mechanism of advancement in Survivor. The most central action. Not idols, not winning challenges, not building shelters or whatever. Why is Survivor doing everything it can to get rid of it?
Oh well, at least the cast delivered entertainment outside of the ill-considered twists.
There may be some life yet in old Brad
The Brad sprinting-and-stealth sequence that opened the show was fun, in that it hearkened back to old moments where other fun players (Tony Vlachos, obviously, but also Luke Toki in SurvivorAU, Chappies in SurvivorSA ... and George Mladenov in SurvivorAU, and heck, even Sandra in Pearl Islands) did the same thing. Hiding in bushes (aka "creepin'!") is now a Survivor staple. Brad played it off as novel by relating it to his experience as a hunter, which was probably a bit disingenuous, but still worked out.
Did it pay off in any detectable way? It's unclear at best. All we know for sure that Brad heard JD and Ricard say "he," which Brad correctly inferred meant him. JD and Ricard (as Ricard later tells Shan) weren't even saying anything negative about Brad. Brad seems convinced, in fact, that JD might have an idol, because he seems less paranoid post-Tribal. Still, Brad's conviction from his hunting background that he needed to close his eyes so as not to alert his prey to his presence? That was the latest hilarious addition to the genre, which made it all worthwhile.
So our one visit to Ua this week was a light, comedic bit, with Brad approximately playing Survivor, but not really coming up with any meaningful intel. Still, we appreciate the effort, and are also relieved that Brad didn't call it his "Spy Bush."
The edit goes all in on mocking Tiffany
Last week, after Yase lost the immunity challenge and Tiffany realized Abraham was targeting her, she made a last-ditch effort to look for an idol. This included searching the tree that had been featured in the opening sequence, where Probst placed the Beware Advantage. The tone of this, flashing back to the shot with Probst, was clearly, "Ha ha! Look at dumb Tiffany! She can't find the advantage!"
Flipping ahead to this week, now that we know what the advantage contained, it's clearly a good thing she didn't find it. Had she opened it (and considering her paranoia level both episodes, she probably would have felt desperate enough to do so), it would clearly NOT have contained an idol, because they had already been to the immunity challenge. So, like Xander, she would have had to wait until this week's IC to even try to activate the idol. Furthermore, and more importantly for Ep1, the "advantage" would have taken her vote away.
So why was it necessary to make her look so paranoid and clueless last week? Why include that? That seems pretty unfair.
On the other hand, she was objectively so paranoid this week that she endangered her own and possibly Evvie's and Liana's games, by insisting on booting Voce even after Evvie told her straight out that the paperwork — which Evvie had personally seen — said Xander's idol was not active, AND that he couldn't vote. (This latter part was ridiculously unclear though, see the "Ball of confusion" section, below.) Yes, Evvie and Liana were asking Tiffany to take a risk by voting for Xander. Tiffany sort of had a point that voting for Voce was safer, because he didn't have an idol. But was stopping Xander from giving his to Voce?
Tiffany seemed irrationally scared here, which is somewhat understandable, as she was targeted for the second time in a row, and admitted she was starving and sleep-deprived at the top of the episode. (Again though, as we'll get into below, the murkiness of the rules didn't help.) Still, with clear heads and full explanation of the various twists, it's clear Xander was absolutely a sitting duck at this vote, and also one who could become extremely dangerous and bullet-proof as soon as the next episode's vote. Worst of all, this change would be entirely dependent on the actions of people on the other two tribes, not on the people who could have voted him out this week.
If they'd had time (Voce said in his RHAP exit interview that an additional complication was that Evvie got back to camp mere minutes before Tribal), Evvie and Liana should have gone with a (glorious) 2-1-1 plan, let Tiffany vote for Voce, then voted for Xander themselves. Worst case scenario is that Xander finds another idol that works, he plays it, Voce and Tiffany are tied 1-1, and Voce leaves on the revote. But there wasn't time, and the goal with this vote was building up Tiffany's trust. Let's hope that pays off, somehow.
This dilemma? Again? Well ... okay, actually
This week, Survivor backtracked on its aesthetically pleasing decision to have only one of the three tribes win immunity (while introducing a second-place idol that instead of the first-place beer stein, looks exactly like a bong). At the same time, they kept the "Risk or Protect" hike/dilemma from the first episode virtually intact (this time reducing the participants to two, with at least one person from the losing tribe, with both trekkers picked by the first-place Luvu tribe). This was a bit dull, because everyone involved including the audience had already figured out the optimal play here, but back we went to the trudge up the hill in slow-mo, anyway.
This seems like a poor decision, because at this rate, JD, Deshawn and Xander could all end up at the same post-swap Tribal, each armed with two votes (assuming Xander is released from his no vote purgatory by then). The correct response to "extra votes are rarely all that useful" is not "Okay, but what if everyone had one, though?"
Even so, there was a silver lining, and that was Evvie's resourcefulness. Evvie and Deshawn used the time to maximal effectiveness, forming what seems like a reasonably plausible cross-tribal connection (hey, some of us are still scarred from the bait-and-switch in Tocantins). Evvie knew she needed to keep her vote, and gave Deshawn a free gift of an extra vote by telling him she would do so, and encouraging him to "risk" his. She also ensured he would have a vote to cast in the first place, by warning him about the Beware Advantage.
Will this connection pay off in the future? Maaayyyyybe. (Again, Tocantins says no.) Evvie is right in trying to plan ahead here. If she and Liana are Intentional Matsing-ing Yase, they will need all the goodwill they can find on the other two tribes, but they'll be aided by seeming unthreatening, dependable extra numbers, as Denise and Malcolm were. Having an in with Deshawn can't hurt.
Ball of confusion
Much like the audience after the first episode, everyone on Yase was deeply unclear on how all the various plusses and minuses of voting swirling around Xander fit together this episode, according to Voce's interview with Dalton Ross. As we saw at Tribal (in the note above), Xander in fact couldn't vote at all, because of the Beware Advantage. That superceded his Extra Vote, and the Shot in the Dark die.
Even Xander himself was confused, as when he first showed his note to Evvie and Voce, he softened the "no vote" penalty by happily announcing "but I have the extra vote!" Except that he's apparently not allowed to cast an "extra" vote until he casts his first vote.
It's a design failure when the audience doesn't understand a twist without extensive Q&A followup on twitter with a producer (Joe Lia and Matt Van Wagenen, likely among others, have been generous with their time in trying to help both fans and ex-contestants understand, on twitter).
It's a much bigger failure when the contestants themselves don't understand the game they're playing, even with a page-long set of instructions. This cast is filled with smart people. Xander is no dummy (in addition to designing apps, he's a student at a top-tier university). Voce and Evvie — a doctor and a nearly-doctor — certainly aren't, either. If they can't parse the intricacies of all these overlapping advantages, how can a player who's just a normal person (who's also starving and sleep-deprived) be expected to?
Tiffany's paranoia looks a lot less ridiculous when you take into consideration that she could reasonably have thought that if Xander had an extra vote AND an idol, a 3-2 vote against him would fail. And that's not even considering the Shot in the Dark.
It's not fun to watch contestants muddle around, trying to decipher complicated rules in a fast-paced game like this. It's much more rewarding to watch people try to maximize their performance under a set of rules they do understand — as, for example, we saw with Evvie at the Risk/Protect dilemma hike this week. Survivor would do well to remember this in the future: The game needs more transparency, more things spelled out in advance. SurvivorSA: Immunity Island did this to perfection, despite a lot of twists and advantages. Maybe watch that one, US Survivor! The point is: Let the players play the game. Don't change the rules, then keep what's been changed hopelessly vague.
Xander took a risk. He had no idea how much of a risk he was taking. He still had only a partial idea after he read the provided instructions. That's not particularly entertaining. It's unfair to him, it's unfair to his allies (like Voce, who deserved better than an Ep2 boot), and it's unfair to the unlucky people on the other tribes who eventually take the same leap of faith.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes