Three advantages may have been the featured story at this week’s Tribal Council, but the headline harkens back to the elegant complexity of Survivor’s strategic numbers game and the essential social dynamics that drive it. This season has had its ups and downs, but it has continually surprised with an onslaught of blindsides and shifting loyalties to create one of the most unpredictable instalments in the show’s long history. Though for the hubbub of big twists like the Edge of Extinction and the staple diet of modern Survivor’s advantage, the excitement of the plays at Tribal Council have come from the deft and/or daft gameplay of its aggressive competitors, and it’s showing no sign of slowing down.
This episode was a great addition to the great Fall of a Villain collection, as Ron’s hubris led him to an early demise. Although he fell victim to the season’s first successful Idol play, his defeat stemmed not from being on the wrong side of an advantage, but from his own shortcomings in his social game (and those of his allies) and importantly, the need for a reliable back-up plan. Rick’s Idol may have saved himself, but it was the strategic contingency plan devised by Victoria, Lauren, Aurora & Gavin that sealed the deal.
ORDERING OFF THE MENU
At every turn this week, Ron came up short. It’s been a roller coaster for him – a blessed pass through the pre-merge thanks to the unbeatable Kama tribe, overconfidence followed by devastation at Eric’s blindside, and a slow regaining of power that once again spilled into complacent arrogance. Ron has made some cunning plays over his Survivor journey, ruthlessly marshalling forces against Joe, boldly flipping his vote against Kelley, managing to weasel his way out of a sudden minority by exploiting other players’ mistakes. But much like Wardog – who met a similar demise last week – positions of power were his ultimate undoing as he got caught in the tangled strings of his own perceived puppet mastery.
It started with his management of a frustrated Rick, furious at being lied to by Ron about the vote against Wardog, at the top of the episode. While Ron handled the spurned voter better than Wardog managed Gavin last week, he made his first and perhaps biggest mistake in the moment of hearing Rick out. Having performed some surgery on his Advantage Menu to remove its expiry date, Ron gave it to Devens under the guise of a show of good faith and apology. The Menu, which included the option for an Immunity Idol, had the potential to be a great distraction. Fake Idols have duped players before, sedating them with confidence before a brutal execution, but the most notable of these examples – the Effing Stick played by Jason & Eliza in Micronesia and David’s fake played by Jay in Millennials vs. Gen-X – were hidden to be found by an unsuspecting adversary. Gifting a fake Idol directly to another player has had instances of historical success – Bob’s Idol played by Randy in Gabon – but it introduces a more complex element. Not only do you have to make the fake convincing enough to deceive a player into believing it’s real, but you also have to convince them of why you’re giving it to them.
Even from the outset, Rick was suspicious – he had no reason to believe Ron after he’d betrayed him hours earlier at Tribal, and couldn’t fathom why Ron would give him such a powerful Advantage out of nowhere. While he didn’t immediately discount it as a fake, he was right to be wary, and rather than lull him into a false sense of security as Ron intended, it only seemed to light a fire under Rick to arm himself with more defences, perhaps invigorating his ultimately successful Idol heist later in the episode.
But Ron’s narrative of giving the Menu to Rick as an apology wasn’t inherently flawed. The peace offering strategy could have worked to his advantage to strengthen an allegiance in much the same way that Aurora’s gamble with her extra vote helped stay Ron against voting her out despite opportunity and temptation. If he planned to restore trust with Rick to gain an ally for a vote or two, it could have been a brilliantly devious play to build loyalty without sacrificing anything of actual value. But Ron had no seeming intention to use it as a tool to gain an ally, but simply as a distraction to make it easier to snipe Rick which makes the whole play much more questionable.
The other problematic aspect of giving a player a fake advantage over hiding it for them to find unawares is that the fake – which will almost inevitably be discovered to be a fake – is directly traceable back to its creator. It’s not as though lying is unforgivable in Survivor. From the very beginning, lying to a competitor to divert their attention from an incoming blindside has been an essential tool in the Survivor strategy kit. Yet there are still degrees of lying, and lies solely designed to embarrass a player on their way out the door is often seen as a step too far. Recall Sugar’s laughing fit as Randy played Bob’s Idol, or last season when Alison felt belittled by Angelina’s attempt to pile on to her likely departure by trying to get her to play a fake Idol. Realising you were lied to and having your torch snuffed is hard enough – suffering the humiliation of playing a fake Idol only rubs salt in the wound, and if you know who to blame for your degradation, then it’s not going to be a pretty sight.
While Rick’s reaction to discovering the Menu was powerless was undoubtedly hammed up to work the Jury, his point stands. He accused Ron & Julie of not only lying to him but going out of their way to embarrass him on the way out and making him look like a fool in front of his fellow competitors and more importantly, his kids back home – a particularly raw accusation in the immediate aftermath of the family visit. Yes, Rick’s theatrics were a part of his subsequent play of his real Idol (and his performance notably enthused the Jury, starved for entertainment on the wasteland of the Edge and eager to root for the “one of us” returnee) and were a calculated play to in turn call out Ron & Julie for their deception. Though it’s worth recognising that Rick voted Aurora, and thus expected to be returning back to camp with both of them, casting a dubious cloud over his social management, but there was reason amongst the flourishes.
If Ron intended to vote Rick out and had the numbers to do so, then what did giving him the advantage achieve? What did he hope to gain by the move? It would humiliate a player that the Jury liked right before sending him to join said Jury. Not only that, but with the Edge of Extinction in play, it would give Rick total permission to poison the Edge against Ron – an ominous sign for the next Extinction returnee, and more importantly the Jury vote at the Final 3. While Ron might have been able to spin it as a devious play, it couldn’t be framed as a necessary deception, and it just makes him look cruel.
THE FALL OF RON
But the Advantage Menu is only one part of the Fall of Ron and isn’t even the reason he ultimately went home. Rather, it was his management of the rest of the Vata tribe. There was a lot of overconfidence from the sound majority who had banded together against Wardog in their treatment of Rick. They isolated him completely socially and strategically. Aurora’s unapologetic searching of his bag was a ballsy play on her part – though herself on the outs of the tribe, she had nothing to lose by playing brashly just as Devens has been. They critically became as blasé about keeping an eye on the number one target as the heroes, healers and hustlers who dropped the ball with Ben Driebergen, which allowed Rick to secure a bonafide Idol that he literally secured while they were sleeping. So while all of Vata could be held responsible for mismanaging the age-old social game of neutralising a threat who knows they’re a dead man walking, Ron’s overconfidence seemed to exceed it all.
After his self-hyped strategy to herd the Kama majority by promising the family visit had backfired before, prompting Julia, Gavin and Victoria to flip on Eric, it’s almost too poetic that the family visit again fuelled his comeuppance. The family visit itself was a great return to form – the iconic water bucket challenge last seen in Heroes vs. Villains and short but meaningful family reunions capped off by the beautiful moment between newlyweds Gavin & Carly. Yet it set the stage for Ron to make yet another mistake of confidence after winning the challenge with his husband Lloyd.
Allowed to choose two players to join him on the family picnic, he picked his ride-or-die Julie and the sentimental favourite Gavin. While his choices were understandable, determining who gets to come on the family visit has ended players’ games before, and the decision has to be carefully managed. Robbing players of love makes for natural resentment – even where there was none before – but assuming that rewarding a player with familial love cannot be taken for granted either. Ron misstepped in both arenas here, as he ultimately failed to assuage any concerns Victoria, Lauren or Aurora had about being left out, while also confidently boasting to his husband that he had the game on lock as he believed that granting Gavin & Carly a belated honeymoon would make him an eternally grateful ally.
That was not to pass, but yet again, that would not have been enough to damn him. The tribe was still salivating at eliminating Rick – particularly after he dropped out of the Immunity challenge – and Ron believed he had complete control of the gameboard. Rick had his fake advantage, which would nullify his threat and allow them to pile the votes on him. But even if he did find himself a fake Idol, he had used the tenuous trust between them to ensure that Rick would vote for Aurora (a plan he eagerly agreed to given his frustration with her snooping in his bag), thus resulting in Rick’s sole vote eliminating someone expendable.
But Ron failed to devise a back-up plan – the back-up plan that’s been a part of Survivor lore ever since Cao Boi dreamed it into existence at the dawn of the Idol. Where was Ron’s split vote? Perhaps it was an intentional play to foster trust within the majority of six, but why not load up a few extra votes somewhere? Pile a few on the other remaining Lesu in Lauren, or throw an extra vote or two on Aurora to be sure that the final decision – in case of Idol – wasn’t solely determined by Rick, who has shown a willingness to change tactics on the fly at Tribal if he feels cornered.
However, for all of his errors tonight, this instance of confidence was the crucial mistake. Ron and Julie might not have concocted a split vote, but that left room for the more vulnerable players to construct their own. While Ron may have felt confident that Rick wouldn’t suddenly turn on him if he had an Idol, the likes of Lauren, Victoria and Aurora had no such certainty. Lauren and Victoria have been peripheral to the last few votes, but have managed to stay out of the firing line even as they were divorced from any strong allies. Both are savvy women eager to play a strong game, and here they forged a new partnership and a new plan. Both were disappointed by Ron’s decision to leave them out of the family visit, and it left them wondering if they were also expendable to his ultimate gameplan. With his assuredness and strong gameplay to this point, he was also a dangerous target. Thus, he made for a tantalising contingency plan, and they put it into play immediately. Assuming Rick had one vote unaccounted for, they had to ensure at least two votes on another player, and they decided to have Lauren and Gavin vote for Ron.
But wait, where did Gavin come from in this? This is the part of the plan that was more oblique in the episode. Victoria & Lauren built a smart counter-strike against Ron and gained the support of Aurora with ease, so they had the numbers themselves to put two or three votes on Ron for the split Rick-Ron vote. Yet they decided to incorporate Gavin into their plans – the same guy who’d just been wined and dined with his new bride by the man they intended to turn into collateral damage. Aurora reasoned that Gavin, hot off his second Immunity win, would be the only player who could maximise her extra vote.
With the extra vote expiring at this Tribal, and only valid at a re-vote if the user was able to vote, Gavin was the only player who could use the advantage and guarantee an extra vote at a re-vote too. While this aspect of the plan seemed over-complicated (what possible scenario would yield a re-vote?), and it’s jaw-dropping that Aurora once again relinquished her advantage when she was in danger of going home, these players saw Tribal devolve into chaos when Julia went home. They’ve seen an unchained Devens bring out the big guns and light up Tribal – so preparing for the worst is just as much of a contingency plan as preparing an effective split vote.
Yet I don’t think that the surety of the advantage was the reason Gavin was brought into the fold. Instead, it seems like Aurora, Lauren & Victoria wanted to ensure that they had a majority in on their plan. Bringing Gavin in would give them 4 out of 7, and moving forward, they would have a clear majority over the obvious power couple of Ron & Julie. Leaving Gavin out of their machinations would only push him further into Ron & Julie’s court, particularly if Devens went home as planned – and that could lead to a 3-3 tie, advantage to the sturdier power couple. This is hypothetical rationalising, but it seems a possibility given that this coalition also went out of their way to use the minimum amount of firepower to blindside Ron, effectively obfuscating who was actually involved to cover their tracks against a blindsided Julie & Ron. While Ron was focused on his master plan and Rick was forced to play Tribal by Tribal, this unlikely bloc could make their move with foresight towards the next, and it was flawlessly executed.
It’s worth noting Gavin’s actual role in the vote, though. Ultimately, this vote came down to his choice to either stay with Ron and Julie, trusting in on the goodwill earned from the family visit, or make a massive play to the contrary. Gavin has not been shy about turning on people he trusts or values if he sees it as advantageous to his game or his resume of Big Moves™, so I wasn’t shocked to see him join the women’s scheme. Taking out Ron is another head on his wall, and it also serves to break up the power structure between Ron & Julie, opening up a more fluid game for him to navigate. But even the contingency plan had a contingency plan for Gavin – with only three votes on Ron, he could potentially feign innocence to the plan should Ron return to camp questioning what had happened. With the extra vote in the mix, it confused the trail even more. Gavin could take the shot at Ron without fearing any significant blowback – and that’s an ideal opportunity.
PLAN B, PLAN C, PLAN D
Ron headed to Extinction in epic fashion, and while this episode highlighted the blind confidence that doomed him, he made for a highlight of the season with his cunning gameplay and dramatic character, so it is unfortunate to lose him at this point in the game. But the attention is now squarely focused on Rick, who’s been hovering in the scopes for the last few votes. His Man vs. the World arc recalls the likes of Ben or Mike Holloway, and there’s a freedom that comes with knowing the odds are not in your favour. I know that Rick’s bombastic humour and Tribal Council showboating has earned him critics, but I’ve enjoyed the reckless abandon with which he’s bounced through the post-merge. Although I’m not in favour of an Extinction returnee winning out in the end – purely from the purist instinct – Rick’s energy has helped make for an exciting run of chaotic episodes.
But that’s not to shortchange the real movers and shakers of the episode. Rick might have put on the big show at Tribal with his Idol play, but the people behind the curtain are coming into their own. Victoria, Lauren, Aurora and Gavin are not to be underestimated, and despite more subdued narratives throughout the game, each has played aggressively at every turn and have made bold strategic moves that have changed the course of the game. Julie, too, is a force to be reckoned with, setting the scene for a highly competitive endgame – and that’s before we even see another player rise from their grave on Extinction.
Edge of Extinction has been a bizarre season, but it’s hard to deny that it’s not for lack of compelling gameplay or exciting TV. There’s certainly been no shortage of things to write about! So when we can’t get one of those stars-aligning perfect Top 10-worthy seasons, I’ll take a peculiar anomaly like this as a Survivor contingency any day of the week.