“Playing Survivor’s like climbing Everest,” mused Zeke. “It gets harder and harder the further you go up… It only gets harder every single day.”
With every day of hunger, every night of sleeplessness, every exhausting challenge and every intense Tribal Council, Survivor gets tougher and tougher. It’s one of the most important driving forces in the structure of the show because every day, the stakes get higher. Every day and Tribal survived is another step closer to the title and a million bucks, but when you’ve come so far, it means you have so much more to lose.
Naturally, the mounting pressure weighs heavily on the castaways. Coupled with the physical and mental fatigue of survival, it grows harder and harder to think straight. If it took the castaways an hour to solve the word scramble at this week’s Reward Challenge, imagine how much harder it must be to organise the “grid” Cirie spoke of, running scenarios and executing strategic manoeuvers with the necessary finesse. Yet there is no room to rest for the players barely get a chance to breathe a sigh of relief at surviving one vote before they have to start thinking about the next. Such is the brutal, cyclical nature of this epic game.
These castaways have come so far already. They’re nearing the home stretch, and it’s only getting tougher. For some, it’s the challenge of making the most of a difficult situation. For others, it’s weighing the cost of turning against allies. For everyone, though, it’s about finding the right opportunity to make their move, and that’s easier said than done. This week, only a third of the cast found themselves in a position to actually make a choice. Everyone else was snowed in and just had to weather the storm.
COMMAND & CONSEQUENCE
At Tribal Council, Zeke proposed that in a game so dependent on timing, it was not the right time to orchestrate a big move. If only he’d taken his own advice a couple weeks back! If he hadn’t grown impatient and succumbed to his hunger for control, there’s a high chance he’d still be in the game. He might have even had the command he so desperately wanted. But he acted too soon, and the consequences of his miscalculation were severe.
He was making some solid decisions this episode. His options were limited, and he knew that he couldn’t work with the Andrea/Cirie/Aubry contingent long-term, so he went to work assembling a new faction. As he had done with Chris in Millennials vs. Gen-X, Zeke bro’d down with alpha male Brad over the topic of football at the Reward feast. He also began planning ahead for a coup at the subsequent Final 9, looping Brad and Troyzan into a potential majority alongside himself, Sarah and his Millennial buddy Michaela. Although he warned them he’d have to leave them out of the next vote, he assured them a long-term plan. It could have worked if he’d been able to get past this Tribal. But he couldn’t outrun his past mistakes.
Zeke was never able to recover from his decimated relationship with Andrea. By revealing himself to be a duplicitous player, he ended up “handcuffed.” Zeke prided himself on his ability to scramble around and organise votes, touting it as the element of the game he was best-suited. However, his reputation prevented him from being able to seize control. He was viewed as a shady dealer (and his not-so-subtle buttering up of Brad served as a present reminder of Zeke’s sneakiness) and someone with a threatening understanding of the game. By playing too hard too early, he forced himself into a position where he had to over-correct and try to slip back under the radar. Thus, when he decided to tone down his gameplay (with limited success), it only served to restrict his options, and it left him vulnerable to a karmic assassination.
SECURITY & SUBTLETY
As for the assassins, Andrea, Cirie, and Aubry were the only players who truly got to make a choice. Fresh off of the reversal of fortune with Sarah’s flip and Debbie’s ouster, they were positioned well to actually consider the best strategic options for them. Do they just whittle down the numbers of the minority four, or do they trim the fat on their own alliance?
For Andrea, it was an easy choice and a perfect opportunity on every level: she could eliminate Zeke when he wouldn’t see it coming, and the act of revenge would also provide a level of security in knowing that a public enemy could no longer target her. Her good fortune at the Sokolowski Memorial Immunity Challenge helped to solidify her certainty, as she could make the move without fearing immediate personal repercussions. Cirie and Aubry were wholly on board with taking a threatening and dangerous Zeke out, and thus, the circumstances in her favour.
But was it a good move? Or was it history repeating, with Andrea repeating Zeke’s mistakes of rash, impatient betrayal? There were definite drawbacks to the plan – alienation of Zeke’s closer allies Sarah and Michaela, becoming the face of a big blindside, not to mention reducing the numbers margin between the alliances – but for Andrea, this was absolutely the right play.
In her own words, her relationship with Zeke was “out of control: we went from what I thought was BFFs to him totally betraying me.” Zeke had annihilated any possible future with Andrea by showing his unreliability, and as such, he could only be a detriment to Andrea’s game. She also correctly surmised that Zeke would be coming for her soon and she needed to strike first. Her instincts were right: we saw Zeke marshalling troops for a flip at the next vote, and in his Final Words, he reiterated that Andrea would have been next if she hadn’t taken her shot. In a game of timing, Andrea and her allies got it just right.
However, Andrea’s organisation of the blindside wasn’t perfect. Despite initially suggesting she was “completely content with going bam, bam, bam” to pagong the minority alliance, she seemed to be chomping at the bit to get Zeke out of the game. Her confidence boost following her Immunity win also led her to rub Sarah and Michaela the wrong way, and those hairline fractures in that coveted trust could result in fragmentation in the weeks to come.
Cirie’s social manoeuvring, however, was a masterclass in how these moves should be managed. When Andrea initiated the hit on Zeke, Cirie was acutely aware that they would have to be careful with how they managed the move. They couldn’t be openly aggressive about it, and they also needed to persuade Sarah, who was “touchy” about her alliance with Zeke. “We need to feel out Officer Sarah,” Cirie warned, “Let’s ask her what she wants to do.” So Cirie used the most important rule of organising a vote: ask, don’t tell.
Rather than dictating the move to Sarah (which, given her frustration last week, would not have ended well), Cirie approached the cop gingerly, proposing the idea but accepting Sarah’s counter-offer. She treated Sarah as an equal, perhaps even showing deference (body language alert: note how often Cirie sits or positions herself below her alliance members, giving them a physical position of authority). Sarah felt so comfortable with Cirie that she shared the information about her advantage, which she proposed as a backup plan to take out Zeke at a later point.
Even at the well later, Cirie tried to ensure that she and Andrea handled Sarah carefully so as not to drive her away. That sort of trust is huge at this point in the game, and yet again, shows why Cirie is the best of the best. Even when she’s running the numbers, she never treats anybody like “human chess pieces,” and maybe that could be what gets her to the endgame.
TREPIDATION & TRUST
But what of the reluctant parties involved in Zeke’s elimination. Both Sarah and Michaela saw Zeke as an ally they could trust going forward. They might have seemed to have the choice to either turn on him or jump ship, but in reality, their hands were tied.
Sarah has been playing a very flexible game with impressive boldness. She was willing to own up to her flip but kept the line open to the allies she had wronged. Just as she was cautious last week, she exercised a measured response to the shifting targets this week: “I find myself sitting in the middle which, again, works perfect for me. So I’m gonna let the plans develop and then I’m gonna pick a side.”
On the surface, Sarah’s approach put her in a great spot: she’s able to take credit for being the deciding vote, but she doesn’t have to stick her neck out to make it happen. But the “play-the-middle strategy” could leave her vulnerable (swing votes aren’t always safe, as she well knows!). Even at this vote, her reactionary gameplay left her arm getting twisted as she was forced to choose between voting out a close ally and friend in Zeke or breaking rank with her new alliance.
Sarah had grown close to Zeke, both personally and strategically, and she was continually reluctant to turn against him. She had options with Zeke – she could flip with him to join Brad and Troyzan down the line, or they could stay loyal with Cirie, Andrea, and Aubry, and in either case, she had her “backup” vote steal if Zeke started veering off the course. However, by trying to play the middle, she made it difficult for her to enact a rescue plan. “I need Zeke for a few more votes, but I really need to keep my mouth shut because if I start scrambling around to try to save Zeke, I’m going to get in hot water.” If she stuck her neck out, suddenly she wouldn’t be in the middle, and that could have been enough to get her voted out.
Michaela was also reticent to vote out Zeke – she knew him from their time on Season 33 and felt she could trust him (a good read, if Zeke’s proposed Final Five was honest). As her authentic tears at Tribal demonstrated, she also considered him a friend. However, her primary concern was narrowing the numbers gap: “If you leave four people on the bottom, they only need one more person to be in the majority for the rest of the game.” It’s a very real concern – Sarah had just taken advantage of this exact margin to go rogue. But the fluidity of Maku Maku suggests that even if the new six had stuck together, Zeke (or another flipper) would only need to pull in one ally, and the numbers could still turn back the other way.
Although the numbers are a real and present danger going forward, there was no way around it for Sarah and Michaela. With Andrea, Aubry and Cirie set on taking out Zeke they had no real alternative available to them. If they’d tried to team up with the minority four, who would they target? Aubry does not appear to be viewed as a big enough threat to hinge a flip on, and both women have very close bonds with Cirie. And if they’d just thrown their votes on Tai or Sierra, they might have gone home, but they would have still broken their trust with Cirie and her allies. Despite their reservations, the only course of action was to take a deep breath and stick to the plan.
As Michaela stated at Tribal, “Sometimes you gotta turn the heart down so that I can make sure I get to the next day and make the most of this experience for me.”
REVERSAL & RESPONSE
The once-mighty Power Six, now a measly Minor Four, also found themselves having to toe the line and hope that fate broke their way. At Tribal Council, Sierra related her position – and that of her allies – to a game of Russian roulette: “When the gun’s pointed at me, I hope that there’s no bullet in that chamber because if I pull it, I might be gone.” Brad, Sierra, Tai and Troyzan had no resources to retake control – all they could do was try to get on the majority’s good side and go where they led. Interestingly, though, each took different paths to the same point.
Brad was, by far, the most active player. He worked hard to forge a relationship with Zeke, and it briefly yielded fruit when he offered a possible Final Five deal. Sierra, meanwhile, offered herself up as a free vote, promising to vote how Andrea and Cirie instructed, even to the point of putting a star on her parchment to prove her loyalty. Tai and Troyzan, meanwhile, anxiously discussed how helpful it would be to have an Idol – ironically holding all three Idols in the game between them. Even if one of them had tried to instigate an upset, taking a stand may have only served to put the target on their chest.
Without having the numbers or an obvious crack in the opposing alliance to exploit, the Four’s only response was to sit on their hands and wait. It’s for this reason that we saw them vote for each other. It may not have been explicitly shown in the episode, but between Zeke’s hint that Brad and Troy were safe, and Sierra pledging that she would vote how Cirie and Andrea told her to vote, it stands to reason that they were just trying to slide under the radar and go where they were sent. I suspect that this was the plan Cirie implied when trying to plan the attack on Zeke. Rather than risk arousing suspicion of Zeke’s impending blindside, it was easier to distract the Four with a red herring in Tai (or in his case, Sierra).
UP & UP
It was a challenging week for the players, with everyone but Andrea, Cirie, and Aubry finding themselves at the mercy of their circumstances. But with the status quo shaken up by Zeke’s blindside, it could loosen the binds just enough for the players to take control once again. Michaela and Sarah are well-positioned to swing to the other side should they wish, and with only a single vote difference between the five and the four, there’s a lot more room for Brad, Sierra, Tai and Troyzan to work – alone or as a unit.
So as the players continue to head deeper in, the game will continue to get harder with every step. The physical weariness will worsen, the paranoia will increase, and trust will be tested more vigorously at every Tribal. The Final Nine can see the finish line now: it’s just a question of who has the stamina and strategy to get there.