If last week's episode was the Red Wedding of SurvivorSA: Immunity Island, where multiple important characters met a shocking end, this week's was the death of Ned Stark. (Yes, I know they're in reverse chronological order, and were from different books/seasons, but let me have this analogy. It's all I have left.)
Anesu felt like not just a possible winner, but the most likely winner on this cast. She was calm, she was perceptive, she was insightful, she talked with people, not at them. She made overcoming unfavorable odds, winning allies, and competing in challenges seem virtually effortless. She had an entire segment in the premiere episode that detailed how everyone on her original tribe wanted to form an alliance with her! (Including real-life connections to two of the three main people who drove her blindside!)
Losing Anesu here was a reminder that you can be a top-tier all-around Survivor player — smart, social, strategic, physical — and still lose. Anesu's implacable demeanor and elite social skills set her apart as one of the most capable players not just in South African Survivor, but in Survivor in general. Nothing seemed to faze her, whether it was unfavorable swaps, multiple formidable foes, or even the lack of appropriate rain gear on a season where it has rained almost constantly. She stayed positive, she kept fighting, and here in the post-merge she seemed like she was finally ready to come out on top.
And then she was gone.
Like Ned Stark, Anesu was out-maneuvered by a strategically savvy opponent (Kiran), who recognized the threat she posed to his plans. It was absolutely the correct move, and the right time for Kiran to make it. But it was still shocking, because so much of Anesu's season-long edit was so positive.
The shock of loss here is a sign of good storytelling, of misdirection, of building up multiple complex characters, and not just one overwhelmingly positive protagonist. It also reflects just how game-aware and hard-playing this cast truly is. On another Survivor season currently airing, Anesu would be head-and-shoulders above most of the cast socially and strategically (as would several others from this cast). Here, she's a mid-jury boot. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
SurvivorSA has elevated its game and its game players dramatically this season, and it's exactly the sort of season viewers have been craving over the long hiatus the various franchises have had to take. Great season, great players. Even when their runs are cut short like this.
The great Anesu-Kiran showdown: Could it have gone another way?
Anesu, Chappies, and Santoni ("Operation Destiny") knew they had to act here. Between the three of them, they had two different ways to turn this Final 8 vote into a Final 7, which is of course one of the magic numbers for making a big move in Survivor, especially against an alliance of three. To pull it off, they needed one of Anela and Nicole to join them, or both, depending which way they went.
The problem for them was, Kiran also recognized the opportunity, simultaneously realized that Anesu was his most dangerous opponent, and was able to put together a better sales pitch to Anela. But the Destiny trio had a lot of options available to them, considering their array of available tools. Is it possible they overlooked a play that might have worked better?
Chappies winning immunity set up Santoni going to Immunity Island, as they had planned prior to the challenge. There was a trade-off here that took some options off the table. Had Santoni chosen to Give Up and Go, they would still have had all three of their votes, Chappies is immune, and Santoni would have the Immunity Island necklace to bequeath. Going this route was dangerous, though, because it would have left the idol (which everyone knew was at Immunity Island) still sitting there, waiting to be claimed at a later date, perhaps by their opponents.
The idol didn't get played though, and this path gave the trio the following set of plays, starting with the basic set-up: Chappies is immune, then Santoni and Anesu can decide which two people to protect with the II necklace and the Tribal pass. Importantly, they still have all three of their votes.
- Option 1: They protect each other - Santoni bequeaths the necklace to Anesu, Anesu plays her pass on Santoni. All three are now safe, but Anela and Nicole are still vulnerable. Another drawback here is that by playing the pass on themselves, they lose a vote, so it's also back to a 3-2 vote, and Anela and Nicole can add their votes to either side. There might be more incentive for them to go with the side that has two votes, because the alternative is one of them goes, since Anesu and Chappies are both immune. So this might work? Or Anela just bails on Nicole, and goes for the F3 with Kiran and Tyson that he was promised. If he does, Anesu/Chappies/Santoni are outnumbered 4-3 on the next vote, and are basically screwed going forward. There's a chance it might work, but it would work best if Chappies and Anesu discussed the plan with Anela and Nicole beforehand. Then its odds go up considerably.
- Option 2: Protect one, keep three votes - Santoni bequeaths the necklace to Anesu. Anesu then plays her pass on one of Anela or Nicole. This then sets up a 3-3 standoff, with Anela or Nicole as the swing vote in the middle. The problem is, Santoni is exposed. Protecting one of Anela/Nicole is a solid trust-building measure, and it might be enough to sway Nicole to join them, giving them a 4-3 majority. (Sending Anela back to camp also removes Anela from the equation, and Chappies didn't trust him anyway.) This might have worked, and it's better than Option 1. Again, it works best if Nicole/Anela know it's coming. You tell Anela that Tyson and Wardah have said they're voting for him (accurate), and you want to keep him safe, and that you hope Nicole sees this as a gesture of goodwill. But it could still fail, if whichever Zamba stays there could still decide to vote with Kiran, Tyson, and Wardah anyway. (Which they did in the actual show.)
- Option 3: Protect one, go back to two votes - Here, Anesu plays her pass on Santoni, and Santoni bequeaths her necklace to one of Anela or Nicole. It's the same play as Option 2, except riskier. You're swapping Santoni's likely reliable vote out for either Nicole's or Anela's, who may or may not side with you. Option 2 is better, which you could probably have guessed from the simple math of the subtitle.
Let's also explore the staying and playing options, since that's the path they actually chose. Now the trio has an idol, Santoni and Chappies are both immune, Anesu still has her pass, but they lose Santoni's vote. We can't really count on Santoni's idol for anything, though. She declined to play it here, and it apparently wasn't part of the plan before she left for Immunity Island, probably because she couldn't realistically guarantee she would find it. So leaving that out, what else could they have done?
- Option 4: Stay & Play version of Option 2 above - Anesu uses her pass on one of Anela or Nicole (ideally Anela). Santoni is present and immune, but unable to vote. Again, it's down to a 3-2 matchup vs. Kiran/Tyson/Wardah, but now just one of Nicole or Anela remains as a potential swing vote, while the other is protected. The Zambas might be somewhat grateful to Anesu for protecting one of them, but is that enough to convince them to force a 3-3 tie and maybe go to rocks? Chances seem pretty slim there, and it seems much more probable that they go instead with the easy 4-2 majority, which is no different from what actually happened. Anesu out.
- Option 5: Similar to Option 1 above, minus the bequeathing - Since Chappies and Santoni are already safe, Anesu uses her pass on herself. Now it's a 3-1 vote, Chappies vs. Tyson/Kiran/Wardah, but Nicole and Anela are now both vulnerable and voting. Chappies *could* try to convince Nicole and Anela to go to rocks in a 3-3 tie. No risk to Chappies, he's immune! But it seems more likely that Anela would side with the group of three, and they vote out Nicole. The next Tribal, Anela is part of a 4-3 majority, and again, Santoni, Chappies, and Anesu are screwed (although Santoni does have her idol).
In her exit interview on TNO, Anesu suggested an Option 6: Showing her Tribal pass to Anela beforehand, and bluffing that it gave her the power to see some of the votes before they were read, to decide if she wanted to bail on Tribal or not. That might have worked, but Option 2 above is probably better, because it uses the pass's actual powers, no additional variance from bluffing involved. Even so, nothing here was guaranteed to work. Anesu could certainly have saved herself for one round, but if she had done so, it still hurts the trio's prospects long-term.
Another scenario that might have worked out better was sending Anesu to Immunity Island, rather than Santoni. Anesu was at the time the top overall individual challenge performer. The downside for Santoni in this scenario is that Anesu would then have her pass, the II necklace, probably the idol, and maybe the prize she wins for playing the game, while Santoni has no guaranteed safety, and is as vulnerable as Nicole or Anela, entirely dependent on Anesu's generosity for safety. While that would be amazing for Anesu, it's easy to see why Santoni might object to that.
So really, while there were other plays available, they went with one that made a decent amount of sense and gave everyone a piece of power. They reasonably assessed that leaving the idol unclaimed on Immunity Island was too much of a long-term risk. They thought they had a decent chance to pull in Anela and Nicole, simply because Tyson, Kiran, and Wardah were an obvious tight trio. They needed the Zambas to join them regardless, as numbers for the next round.
They just got outplayed by Tyson and Kiran's existing bonds with Anela, and Kiran's superior sales pitch. The same swap that put some distance between Tyson and Anesu also ended up bringing Anela closer to Tyson, Kiran, and Wardah. (Maybe there was also some over-confidence due to the stories of Anela's prior feuding with Wardah?) In the end, Anela saw a plausible path to the Final Three with Tyson and Kiran that he didn't see with the other side. Anesu put in solid effort on that front, but at Final Four, Anela would face a Santoni-Chappies pair and Anesu, and he should reasonably be worried about that.
Sometimes it just doesn't work out, even with so many options!
For Chappies and Santoni, it's not necessarily dire going forward, either. Chappies could well win immunity again, and send Santoni to II again. And as a duo, they're more attractive to the Anela-Nicole pair than they were as a trio, and make more sense for them to join up with than the Kiran/Tyson/Wardah trio. Having an even 2-2 split at final four seems a lot better than being the obvious numbers 4 and 5 in a five-person alliance (no matter what Kiran promises you). Three is both a threatening number to a pair, and a difficult number to protect.
- Nicole had great reads this episode: Despite her snap reward decision last week, which may have contributed to her alliance-mates Renier and Amy both departing, Nicole's read of the game came off much stronger this time around. She was skeptical of the sales pitch she received at the reward. She correctly perceived the Kiran-Tyson pair as more worrisome than Tyson-Wardah (also that Kiran seems to be the one designing the plays). Then again, Nicole is almost certainly better off going with Anesu (and Chappies and Santoni) than with Anela and the other trio, but she was apparently talked out of that by Anela.
- So close ... almost: The editing of Santoni's task at Immunity Island turned it into quite a nail-biter. It looked like she really had a solid shot to complete the pulley/snake maze task, but maybe the sand had already run out when she was about to place the ball in the hole? But then that point was apparently moot, because she dropped the ball on the final push. (As edited, at least. If she had placed it, but time had run out, presumably they film her failing anyway? How would that look?) Poor Santoni, so close to a full wallet at the auction (and a fire idol).
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