We all like to see good gameplay. Survivor is one of the most intricate and fascinating games ever created, and seeing people expertly manoeuvre through it is rewarding. That said, questionable gameplay can make for truly riveting television. After tonight’s tribe swap seemed to hit the Davids with a one-two punch, by following up Bi’s quit for medical caution with a Malolo-esque unlucky draw putting them in the minority on all three of the new tribes, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that it would be a straightforward vote. Despite some of the dissension brewing among them, the Goliaths seemed like a mostly united front – and giving up those numbers seemed an impossibility.
Yet tonight was all about the role reversal, the topsy-turvy upsy-daisy turnabout. It saw players facing certain doom find an unexpected victory. It saw the underdog tribes beat out the physical favourites. And it culminated with one of the most unexpected and head-scratching flips in recent memory, thanks to one of the most unlikely candidates: Alec.
The newly christened orange Vuku tribe seemed stacked from the start – pound for pound, the most physical of the new tribes. It looked like they would have the advantage for any looming challenge, but even if they were to head to Tribal, the Goliath trio of Alec, Kara and Natalia seemed like they had a no-brainer decision. Particularly with Carl waiting in the wings to replace the eliminated castaway, retaining the Goliath numbers would be easy – and all they had to do was choose: Elizabeth or Davie? And that seemed like the direction the tribe was heading. Despite Davie’s efforts to show off his PT Cruiser and makes friends with the white guys, and Elizabeth’s attempts to bond with Kara over faith and horses, the Goliath trio seemed firm to the point where the former David pair began turning on each other out of self-preservation after Vuku’s Immunity loss.
And then, somehow, everything got turned upside down. Interestingly, Alec found himself in the swing vote position as both Elizabeth and Davie individually sought him out as a potential ally and number for making a big move. Elizabeth seemed uncertain of her read on Alec, but her pitch to him to play hard and lead the charge with a big move for his resume seemed to set the foundation. Thus, when Natalia’s need for control began grating on him, Alec saw the feasibility of another option, particularly once Davie stoked Alec’s concerns about trusting Natalia and then shared that Elizabeth had wanted to target her. In the moment of watching the episode, it seemed like a red herring – a distraction from an obvious David boot. In hindsight, I have to applaud Elizabeth and Davie for finding the right buttons to push to convince Alec to turn. Their conversations with Alec cascaded in a domino effect as he mulled on his decision until Tribal, and then turned the tide of the vote with a game of telephone. As he got up from his seat to whisper to Elizabeth, his change of heart seemed to catch her by surprise (suggesting that until that point, the vote was still leaning towards Davie or Elizabeth), and he managed to rally the three votes to send Natalia packing.
But… why? The Goliaths had a safe majority in Vuku – and it looked like Alec was in a pretty strong position in the Goliath numbers as part of the core six alliance. On paper, keeping the Goliath numbers advantage would be a beneficial tactic, and if he did flip, he’d be handing a majority to the Davids once Carl joined the tribe, as well as burning all of his former Goliath allies. Turning on Natalia might have been a power move at this Tribal, but it robs him of power moving forward as his vote becomes superfluous if Carl, Davie and Elizabeth are to stick together. There was a lot of talk of making big moves to impress the Jury, but the key to big moves is timing. A flashy move on Day 11 will be all but forgotten by Day 39 – if you can even make it that far. While Elizabeth was right to clarify that you don’t want to wait to make a key move until it’s too late, Alec wasn’t in any danger at this vote, so was it really a now or never decision to make his mark?
While I wouldn’t be surprised if Alec was channelling Millennials vs. Gen X’s Jay Starrett and the iconic Michaela blindside by making a strike against Natalia, I do think there was more to Alec’s choice to flip than just lighting the fireworks. Alec’s tie to the Goliath alliance was through Natalia, and that relationship seemed to be deteriorating quickly following the swap. His trust in Natalia appeared shaken by her dictating intensity heading into Vuku’s vote, but his conversations with Elizabeth and Davie seemed to offer him a platform as equals and co-conspirators. He’s in a risky position now, but I have to wager that he feels like he can trust at least one of Davie or Elizabeth more than he could trust in his old position in the Goliath hierarchy.
That said, I’m not convinced it was the right move for Alec at this juncture. The Davids now outnumber him, and he’s alienated Kara, having presumably blatantly lied to her through the whispers at Tribal (if her errant vote for Davie and her flabbergasted reaction to the result are any indication). It makes him an easy mark for a scorned Kara, a devilish Davie or a savvy Elizabeth, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see this decision to commit to the big move wave come back to dunk him. That said, Alec surprised me tonight, so I’m not going to rule out anything – and I’ll happily accept more of this kind of chaotic, impulsive gameplay!
Whereas Alec went from background Goliath to centre stage move-maker, Natalia underwent a very different reversal of fortune. Although she has been portrayed negatively on the show, between her one-sided feud with Natalie and tonight’s barrage of over-confidence and paranoia, Natalia seemed to be in an enviable position in the numbers. She appeared to be in a strong alliance on Goliath beach, and – unlike Dan – she was swapped to a new tribe with her close ally Kara as well as her supposed partner in Alec, not to mention having the numbers against the Davids. She was sure of her position, and with Davie and Elizabeth both seeming to throw each other under the bus, she had little reason to doubt it.
Yet Natalia had an intensity about her that proved her fatal flaw. When she was uncertain, she was frantic and paranoid, such as her panic over Kara having old-school human conversations with Elizabeth and fearing that she’d flip, her aggressive demands that Alec and Davie explicitly articulate their loyalty to the plan or her (completely warranted) unease at Alec’s whisper campaign. When she was certain, however, she read as cocky and inflexible as she shut down Alec about the target of the vote or boasted that she was happy to be at Tribal and proud to go home that night if she was going out swinging. The editors had a field day transitioning from the high of that statement to her shocked and flustered torch-snuffing moments later. In all, Natalia proved to be a bit of a one-note character, but there are worse ways to go out in Survivor than playing the role of a minor villainess defeated by a jaw-dropping blindside.
…such as a quit brought about by an injury. It is disappointing to see players leave the game of their own volition, but I will always argue that the occasional quit can be good for the show as it evidences just how difficult Survivor can be. Do I want to see players quitting willy-nilly – of course not! But a quit is never a black mark against a season (Pearl Islands? Philippines? Cagayan?). Furthermore, it can’t be ignored that quits come in many different forms, and Bi’s decision to leave the game to protect her health was worthy of the respect shown by her castmates.
At the end of the day, Survivor is a game. It’s a brutal and challenging game, and there have been countless players who have pushed through pain and injury to fight for the title. But to hold every player to that is reckless, particularly when a player’s out-of-game livelihood could be compromised by damage sustained in-game. The Survivor medical team is only authorised to evacuate a player from the game if a situation is life-threatening or requires immediate treatment that cannot be performed on the island. And so cases like Bi – or historically, someone like Dana Lambert or a couple of early boots from this year’s Australian Survivor – fall in the grey area between medevacs and quits. Bi mentioned last week that this wasn’t the first time she had injured her MCL, and for her to continue to put herself at risk on the island would have been reckless – even more so because her profession relies on her physicality.
It is disappointing to lose Bi in this way, particularly as she seemed to be a player seeking to play a more aggressive game, especially after getting the wake-up call of a total blindside at her first Tribal. In an alternative universe, I could imagine Bi becoming a cut-throat and pivotal part of the season, but that’s just not how this story goes.
“VULNERABLE PEOPLE AND WEIRDOS”
The Vuku tribe certainly took centre stage in tonight’s episode, but the dynamics of Tiva were just as compelling – and not just because I could have watched odd couple Christian and John banter about job opportunities in the civic service of Slamtown for the entire 42 minutes. The new green-buffed tribe’s story tonight was a meditation on communication. John continued to reveal his unexpected vulnerabilities as he self-identified as awkward in small social situations relative to the inflated charisma of performance. In contrast to the muscly wrestler, the assurance of self in Christian allowed him to lean into his own inherent charm to connect with John and Dan as a way of overcoming the almost gerrymandered numerical disadvantage of the tribe division. If Alison were to have been given a confessional, I’m sure she too would have spoken on the topic of social communication, such was the theme on this tribe.
Yet the most satisfying arc lay with Gabby. I find myself drawn to her character in her anxiety surrounding the social politics and her simultaneous confidence in her ability to play the game when it counts, and tonight’s story was a perfect summation of it all. Landing in the numbers deficit, Gabby was already in a precarious position on her new tribe, but as she saw Christian making in-roads with the other men, she grew despondent. In a heartbreakingly honest confessional, she spoke of her envy of his natural charm in contrast to her self-doubt, and how it compounded her isolation on a tribe where she felt like she was excluded from the cool kids’ table. Fearing she would be the target should Tribal loom, she shared a tearful conversation with Christian who gave her what encouragement he could, speaking to their admirably symbiotic friendship. However, for all of her struggles to communicate with her new tribe, Gabby found herself in the clutch position at the blindfold Immunity Challenge. Singlehandedly, she guided Tiva to decisive victory not through strength or smarts but through calm and effective communication.
Meanwhile, the new Jabeni tribe had their own struggles with communication – and whereas Vuku and Tiva all demonstrated the powers of communication at work in changing a player’s path, Jabeni saw a more consistent trajectory. Last week, Natalie preached that she would be Goliath strong, but I had hoped that she would at least entertain working with the Davids when the time came, given her uneasy position with the Goliaths in power. However, a tribe swap saw no change in Natalie’s approach to the game, and she immediately fell back into the habit of directing the work at camp and aggravating her tribemates. Almost immediately, it seemed like Natalie began picking at the resolve of her fellow Goliaths Angelina and Mike – a fact that was immediately recognised by the outnumbered Nick and Lyrsa. As Nick and Mike forged a new alliance – and although I admire their enthusiasm for the name, I feel like “The Rock Stars” could do with some workshopping! – Natalie seemed to once again stand out as an obvious target. Her character has been drawn in a fairly one-dimensional light through four episodes, and although I am sure Natalie has had other facets to her game, the continuous trend of controlling and off-putting behaviour doesn’t bode well. After all, Alec turned on Natalia for less.
Last of the oddballs on tonight’s episode was Carl, abandoned on Exile until it came time to draw a new buff. Whereas communication played such a critical role throughout the rest of the episode, Carl’s story focused on his complete lack of connection to anyone else and the loneliness that comes with being totally severed from the world. But there was a silver lining for the truck driver, and it came in a blue-laced coconut. In a race against time, Carl was dispatched to the crashing surf of the ocean to find one coconut among many floating in the sea, but he emerged victorious with one of the most intriguing new twists in quite some time: the Idol Nullifier. Refining the rules first seen in last year’s Australian Survivor, Carl’s advantage allows him to play the Nullifier when he votes in order to target and negate an Idol that might be played on an opposing castaway. There is so much room for it to be misplayed, but it makes knowledge of Idols so much more impactful – timely, given we saw Davie keep the knowledge of his Idol secret even from his fellow underdog Elizabeth, while Mike immediately spilled the beans to Nick about Dan’s Idol. Carl seems like a pretty level-headed figure, and I can’t wait to see how he puts his new “slingshot” to good use.
It’s almost a cliché at this point to say that David vs. Goliath is delivering an altogether fantastic season, and I hope there is more in store. With the double elimination episode out of the way early in the season, I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will give us more time to explore this great cast of characters (including some more airtime for the under-edited castaways to this point, like Alison and Lyrsa) and the strong game they’re bringing to the table. So with the balance of the game shifted by a shocking turn of events this week, I can’t handle waiting another week to see how this all unfolds.