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Survivor: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers Historical Perspectives: A Convergence of Idol Paranoia


Andy Pfeiffer takes a look back into Survivor history to talk about how to avoid being on the wrong end of an idol play.

The merge brings tribes together into a single venue to open the floodgates for a bloodbath between alliances, the individuals within them, and the idols which they hold. Idol paranoia runs most rampant when a merge occurs because people from the other camps don’t know who was looking for the idol and where, unless of course somebody is either dumb enough or that far on the outs to blab. Often times, they figure the mastermind had to be the one that has it and will dictate where it’s played, so the end goal is to outthink them.

This week’s edition of Historical Perspectives will examine something briefly mentioned in Week 3 – how to avoid being on the wrong end of an idol play by picking the person that’s not going to play it.

SURVIVOR 101: DODGING AN IDOL

Fiji was the first season to have the Hidden Immunity Idol in its true form, and once Stacy Kimball suggested the Moto alliance take out Edgardo – the one name Dreamz never mentioned as having the Ravu idol – Survivor was forever changed. Alex confidently played the idol, not realizing he’d been sold out. Once Dreamz’s vote for Mookie turned up, three long faces gaped to the ground, only to fall even further when Edgardo’s name showed up five times. It was, by all means, a #blindside, and it set a precedent for the future that when you don’t have the numbers to split the vote – or the loyalty of an unknown quantity like Dreamz – to instead take out the person least likely to play an idol. The majority would then stay in control and, hopefully, the idol would be misplayed.

To do this, you have to enter the mind of the person you think has the idol. If you’re, say, Laura Alexander from Caramoan and you know whose pockets are bulging, you try to vote out the person you think is most expendable to them (in this case Hope Driskill). Or, if you feel they’ll be perceptive enough to pick up on that, the lieutenant they’re likely to think is too valuable to the tribe (in this case Eddie Fox). Laura orchestrated a split vote in hopes of forcing Reynold to make a choice with his idol, which made no sense as it didn’t involve targeting the idol holder foremost. Naturally, Reynold saved his idol for later, since neither target was him.

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However, if it was a 5-4 split, with Allie there instead of Shamar, Laura could not have split that vote. In that case, it would be excusable to vote for any of Hope, Eddie, or Allie with the thought that Reynold would spare himself. The two principal archetypes that tend to get targeted are the “inconspicuous blonde” – the likes of Hope, Natalie White, Whitney Duncan, Jefra Bland, Fan Favorite Sierra Dawn Thomas, and now Jessica. Or the “big threat lieutenant” – including Parvati, Grant Mattos, Keith Tollefson, Malcolm Freberg, and now Cole. Targeting the idol holder means if they played it, the majority would lose a number. Laura could not have afforded that as she was the likely target for being labeled a challenge liability.

Players should remember an idol holder will always play the idol for themselves. That does not necessarily mean ON themselves if saving an ally helps further their game. Jeremy protecting Fishbach in Cambodia to keep a strategic shield, David saving Jessica in Millennials vs. Gen X and buying her permanent loyalty, or Russell saving Parvati in Heroes vs. Villains while convincing Tyson to blindside himself, allowing Russell to break Jerri away to vote Boston Rob out next. At the merge, an alliance wanting power has the goal of thwarting the other side’s vote and will thus play their idol(s) on anyone, so it becomes a strategist’s nightmare. The “mastermind” figure is often the one who has an idol – the Tony, the Russell, the Boston Rob – so they’re the least likely to be targeted out of fear and paranoia.

THE INCONSPICUOUS BLONDE

They say blondes have more fun. While that is up for debate, one thing that is not is the subconscious stereotypical association with an inconspicuous young blonde being the most expendable member of an opposing alliance and therefore being the one least likely to play an idol. It may be a coincidence that all of these ladies are blondes. This stereotype led Savaii to conclude Whitney would be the target at the South Pacific merge. They had seen it happen to Natalie White four seasons prior, after all.

For that Final 10 tribal in Samoa, Galu was gung-ho on targeting Russell again, dubbing him the mastermind of the Foa Foa Four and a major strategic threat. They figured his idol magnetism was still in gear and that he had found another idol, yet wanted to vote for him anyway until John Fincher called them idiots. Fincher knew an egomaniac like Russell was going to keep any idol for himself and that if he would let someone walk, it would be the woman who would eventually defeat him. Russell did not play his idol, recognizing Galu as too scared to challenge him directly, but it didn’t matter as Fincher switched his vote in the revote because he wouldn’t go to rocks for Laura Morett.

In the oft-discussed Cagayan merge, Aparri called an audible at tribal the moment Tony whipped out an idol and flaunted it. Spencer outright claimed the vote was for “The Other One” because the variable of which member of Solana had an idol was partially resolved – they had planned to vote for Tony because President Lacina decreed it so. Tony thought “The Other One” was big threat lieutenant LJ, a presence both physical and charismatic, but it was actually inconspicuous blonde Jefra. Tony and LJ both played their idols on each other needlessly, though they had no idea that Chaos Kass had flipped.

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Despite the opposite result, the Cagayan tribal’s comparisons to the merge tribal in HvHvH are striking. Like Tony, Joe whipped out an idol in the middle of tribal to intimidate people, though unlike with Tony, Joe’s did not cause much reaction amongst his peers. This was a big sign Joe did not pick up on, a sign he should have used the idol on someone else. Of the four Healers vulnerable, Joe had to have thought his enemies thought he was the most likely to have an idol and therefore was the most predictable person to play it. After all, at the Outback Steakhouse, he mentioned when subtly probed by Ben that the idol he’d used against Alan had been found at Soko, not Levu. Ben’s seemingly innocent question provided a wealth of information. Since Ben and Chrissy hadn’t figured out how the idols had been hidden and had no knowledge of one being found at Levu, they concluded Joe was likely to have located that one as well.

Had he paid attention, Joe could have seen Jessica, whom he apparently had a Day 1 final two deal with, as an obvious target. While less inconspicuous than prior ladies in her role and by no means a bad player, Jessica was the lowest-profile of the Healers once Desi won immunity. She was driving the strategy, but in a way that did not attract attention to herself. Even so, her lack of care toward the two swing votes alienated them just as much as her boyfriend did. Had she not told them she’d be bringing in Joe and Desi – a clear sign her original tribe was where her loyalty was and that she didn’t care who they’d want in the alliance – and had she asked for their opinion on who the target should be, perhaps she wouldn’t have found herself on a plane to Vietnam with Patrick, Katrina, and Alan. Either way, Ben and Lauren picked the right side because neither is playing for seventh.

THE BIG THREAT LIEUTENANT

What defines a “big threat” is loose and inconsistent. There are big strategic threats, big social threats, big physical threats, and people that satisfy two or all three. Cole is a physical threat, and while he’s a moron, he is not somebody the likes of JP and Devon would want to compete with in the challenges at which they would excel. It also had become public knowledge, thanks to Cole himself, that Cole had helped Joe discover the idol. This painted a clear picture of Cole as one of Joe’s lieutenants.

This is no different than Ozzy and Keith in South Pacific. At that merge, Ozzy’s idol was common knowledge given how he publicly gave it to Cochran for “safekeeping, ” and on top of that, Ozzy being a veteran made him the de facto leader of Savaii. That group thought Whitney was the standard “inconspicuous blonde” that Upolu would think Ozzy would never play his idol on, so they chose to save her. Instead, because Cochran was a weasel, they picked Keith since he was an Ozzy in training and it would be good to send him to Redemption Island early to get him out of the picture. If Ozzy changed his mind to one of his other allies (he was immune) by picking up on Upolu’s knowledge of his plan at tribal, it would likely have been to Dawn, not Keith.

The season prior, Zapatera targeted Grant, believing Boston Rob would not think to play the idol they correctly presumed he had on his enforcer and that the anticipated target would be then-inconspicuous blonde Andrea Boehlke, now a Survivor legend, a predictable pick because she was on the bottom of Ometepe. Rob didn’t care who Zapatera was targeting, of course, because he took out the rat in Matt Elrod – somebody Zapatera would NEVER have thought to play their idol on, a masterful move that left David Murphy in awe. Farmer Ralph wasted his idol on their equivalent to Grant, Mike Chiesl, and found themselves in a hopeless minority for the rest of that season.

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Rob’s move is not something you can always count on, but other situations could have called for it. Look at the two-tribe tribal council in Game Changers. Queen Sandra’s posse was certain the inconspicuous blonde (Sierra) wouldn’t have found an idol, but they didn’t foresee Tai lateraling the idol to her. To avoid being on the wrong end of an idol, knowing they didn’t have one themselves, they could have cut Hali, who offered nothing strategically. Hali was of no use to Culpepper after her open betrayal of her current tribe for her former one. No chance Culpepper would order Tai use the idol on her. Culpepper’s Mana group voted for big threat lieutenant Malcolm, though there was nobody inconspicuous on Nuku, with the Queen, strategists Aubry and Malcolm, loudmouth Michaela, and Jeff Varner. If somebody on Nuku was armed, they would have just saved themselves, so it was a matter of who would have it. That said, Malcolm is an odd pick, but they probably presumed that if he had one, he would have shown it to everyone at tribal to get the heat off of him. Of the others, only Sandra had ever found an idol.

Also of note, at the Final 9 of Heroes vs. Villains, Russell played his idol for himself, but the Heroes targeted Parvati as they assumed Russell or Danielle would have found the idol and that Parvati was the biggest threat who wouldn’t be playing it. Because Candice was dumb, however, it didn’t matter.

The big-threat target here is Cole. He is a physically intimidating guy, and he’s also known to be unable to hold a secret, meaning he’s not particularly trustworthy, either. The key difference is that Cole’s name had been spread around throughout the merge, which means he’s the most predictable target. However, does that just add another layer to it and that, in turn, makes him the most inconspicuous?

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THE VERDICT

If Joe had presumed the target to have been Cole, it’s not without precedent. If Chrissy had argued to vote Cole out, Jessica certainly wouldn’t be wrangling her in the preview. However, Joe knew that Cole’s name had been tossed around, so why didn’t he play the idol for Cole after seeing the non-reaction when he flashed it? Devon’s laugh indicates Joe’s Tony impersonation was off. There was no audible called. Many of the majority reacted with a “meh.” The target had to be someone else, and Cole was the biggest threat. Joe does have experience reading Ashley’s face, but he was sitting too far from her. He should have read the room better and recognized Jessica as the “safe vote” because Cole was the most likely. That can mean the “safe vote” may actually be the riskiest for those voting that way. An “inconspicuous blonde” will only play the idol when it is given to them – unless someone presumed to be inconspicuous is actually a badass like Kelley Wentworth.

There’s also the possibility of Dr. Mike being a target since he doesn’t fit into either category – his relationships with Ben and Lauren probably saved him, but that closeness makes him an unexpected choice. Jessica was the only person to know about Mike’s idol, so the sex doctor could have played it for her or himself since there’s no real point in the Healers not colluding to use both of their idols to ensure their chances are high. This is no different than in Cagayan’s merge when four of the five-person majority were vulnerable. And to boot, there’s a pair this time, so splitting them up had to be on the minds of the Heroes and Hustlers, unless the strategy was taking advantage of that presumption.

In every instance discussed here except Caramoan and Samoa, the group who won that vote came out on top in the game. Solana, Upolu, Ometepe, Culpepper’s original Nuku crew, and the Villains all ended up excelling in their respective seasons. Being able to predict who the opposition will deem “the safest vote” and playing the idol on them will save the games of an entire alliance. The Healers will struggle to find a footing as the game continues and one of them is likely to be the first member of the jury. But it’s still possible that the last remaining Healer will find themselves amidst a self-destructing Hero-Hustler group and be able to do something we haven’t seen since Chris Daugherty and Danni Boatwright did it a year apart in soloing against an entire alliance without having immunity every time they needed it.


Andy is a 29-year-old from Wisconsin, having an English major from UW-Whitewater. He has watched Survivor from the very first episode and can't go a day without running Survivor-related thoughts in his head. When he's not entranced by a computer at home or work, he's probably playing a video game or out and about somewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @IAmAndyPfeiffer.