Et tu, Brute?
March 15th, the Ides of March. A date that literary tradition marks with the infamous betrayal of Julius Caesar by his pal Marcus Brutus. How fitting that Survivor celebrates this occasion with the death of one of their most iconic bromances of recent memory.
Tribe swaps are dangerous times, particularly so early in a season. For some, it’s a Survivor jackpot – a chance to start anew. But as evidenced tonight, an unlucky draw can put a player’s life in jeopardy. It is not easy to turn the tides, but those who found themselves in dire straits had to play daringly to come out on top.
One thing is for sure. A tribe shake-up always forces players to adapt and launch themselves into game mode. When Probst says “Drop your Buffs,” he lets slip the dogs of war.
FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN
It’s hard to pinpoint what Caleb did wrong to get voted out of the Mana tribe – beyond the Survivor gods having a cruel sense of humour. This season, he’s proved himself to be a capable player. His primary asset is his challenge capabilities, but he seemed to be an easy-going strategic player, eager to play second fiddle in an alliance, but willing to vote out his allies if needed. But when he’s voted out on Day 9 – the same day he was evacuated in Kaoh Rong – it seems to primarily be a result of an unlucky swap into the minority on his new tribe. His physicality may have overcome the numbers in other circumstances, but the spectre of his pre-existing close friendship with Tai sealed his fate.
As Debbie stated bluntly, “Past relationships absolutely matter, and you’re a fool to discount them.”
Every one of Tai’s old Nuku tribemates voiced their concerns about the bond between Tai and Caleb – and more broadly, their connection to Debbie who had also played on Kaoh Rong. Brad feared he might be the target if the Season 32 players teamed up down the line. Sierra stated that the former Beauties were a “huge concern” for her in the public forum of Tribal Council. It’s still early in the game when players are looking for any reason to vote out somebody other than themselves – and pinpointing pairs is a tried and true strategy. Sierra made a point of distancing herself from Hali – although they played together on Worlds Apart, she emphasised that there was nothing personal between them.
Tai, however, never shied away from openly discussing his friendship with Caleb. It would have been impossible to hide – even without Probst calling attention to it at the mat and the opposing tribes ‘shipping a Taileb kiss. It would have been difficult to downplay such a well-known relationship. But ultimately, Tai ended up going too far the other direction and painted an even bigger target on Caleb’s back as he repeatedly went to bat for his friend when the tribe batted back and forth on whether or not to vote out Hali or Caleb.
Soon after the new Mana tribe arrived on the beach, Tai approached Brad about swapping Caleb into their Nuku alliance over Debbie. Tai didn’t just say he wanted to protect Caleb through the first vote; he indicated that he wanted to work with Caleb deeper into the game and would prefer to dismantle his Nuku alliance to do so. Tai wears his heart on his sleeve, and so often, he reveals more information than he intends, and tonight it bit him once again.
So what became of poor Tai, caught in between his head and his heart? He lamented his position in the tribe, fearing that if he voted out Caleb, it would be a betrayal of their friendship: “My heart says you’re not going to be able to live with it. You’re gonna keep reliving this moment over and over again.” Yet Tai pulled the trigger. It may have been more Ciera and Laura than Boston Rob and Lex in its degree of betrayal, but Tai made the right call to stick with his alliance and vote out his friend. He could have easily thrown his vote at Hali without changing the outcome at Tribal, but it would have ostracised him in his tribe. He was trapped in an unfortunate situation, but he made the right call to take part in the assassination. Nevertheless, it’s a dark turn for Tai so early in the season. It seems as though the literary tragedy of Tai’s character arc is not over yet.
LEND ME YOUR EARS
Despite a relatively simple result in the voting booth, Mana showed some promising strategic manoeuvring. The tribe is populated by arguably the least threatening players coming into the game, but the legal team is presenting new evidence of savvy play.
Brad Culpepper is a fantastic character, and a better player than most give him credit for. He may have crashed and burned early in his first season, but he was always willing to take risks and make a play. It seems that time (and the calming influence of his WWMD mantra) has soothed him into a far more nuanced player.
Last week, Brad talked about wanting to let others come to him, and even in his new six-person tribe, he maintained that approach on the surface. He wanted to take out Caleb before Hali but wanted to ensure he wasn’t framed as the leader and instead, put the decision upon Tai. In an elegant demonstration of inception, Brad sat down with Tai and managed to turn the gardener’s initial desire to vote out Hali on its head. Brad didn’t dictate the move, but got the result, by framing the argument for taking out Caleb in the context of Tai’s game, suggesting that Caleb would become a burden for Tai in the long run: “So you gotta think about what’s best for [Monica] your game this season. Are you in it for him or are you in it for you?”
For a player notorious for his abrasive personality and strategy, Brad showed some deft social play tonight, and there may be more to him than meets the eye. I mean, did anyone go into this season suspecting he would have a penchant for interior design?
From one lawyer to another, “budding attorney” Hali also deserves some props for her articulate management of Tribal Council. Whether or not she knew the direction the majority was leaning, she took every opportunity to present her case, and twist Caleb’s own words against him. When Caleb argued that Hali would be the better person to vote out because she would be “easier to manipulate and possibly a little bit easier to take along,” Hali threw it back at him, suggesting that Caleb just presented himself as the bigger threat, so why would you want that around? Boom. Lawyer’d.
Aside from that courtroom moment, Hali’s gameplay may come across as meek – she wasn’t on the offensive, she wasn’t scouring the beach for idols, she wasn’t forming a coalition. But she’s masterfully playing into her tribemates’ perception of her – a little bit of a dippy “no collar” beach girl who has some smarts but is ultimately not a game threat. By playing to those expectations and downplaying any potential she has to break out of that mould (“I’ve been myself, and I will continue to do that.”), she managed to skate through an uneasy situation in the minority on her tribe. Nobody is worried about Hali, so the question is whether she can parlay that underestimation into the infiltration of the majority.
New Nuku might not have gone to Tribal Council, but they were undoubtedly the stars of the episode. How could they not be? They’re a tribe consisting of some of the biggest personalities on the season – Aubry, Jeff, JT, Malcolm, Michaela and Sandra – and they did not disappoint.
JT was in a terrible situation, the only member of his old tribe outnumbered 5 to 1. It’s no wonder that he took a gamble right off the bat and set the rest of his tribe out to sea. While the old Mana tribe were gawking at the balls in the trees (Culpepper Installations; for all your salvaged decorating needs!), free-range chickens, and a shelter straight out of a “dinner parlour in Mexico,” JT played right into that sense of wonder and discovery by suggesting they all paddle out into the ocean to go snorkelling.
When an opportunity arose, he pounced and swam back to shore alone to try to find an idol – and also search through the belongings of his new tribemates to gather intel. JT’s social game in his first season may have been the key to getting a win, but he’s always been willing to play a little dirty to get his way, particularly when he’s at a go-big-or-go-home crossroads. Although his idol hunt may have come up short, it’s clear that JT has balls just like the trees on Nuku beach.
It’s rarely a smart move to play so visibly aggressive, particularly in a situation where there’s already a target on your back. But the most astounding thing about this whole ploy is that nobody batted an eye! The whole sequence felt straight out of a sitcom: while JT tore up camp on his idol hunt, the rest of the tribe happily sat out on the abandoned raft in the ocean, talking about how JT is probably back at camp looking for an idol. They knew he was scrambling, but it didn’t concern them. Is JT’s Southern charm just so disarming? Or is original Mana not as stable as a 5-1 majority suggests?
One thing’s for certain: JT wasn’t the only winner in a 5-1 minority on Nuku.
IF YOU HAVE TEARS, PREPARE TO SHED THEM NOW
Survivor has evolved into a show that is hyper-focused on strategy, and sometimes it feels as though it’s lost some of its core charm. Ultimately, this is still a game being played in the wilderness, and while the players are trying to get ahead in a gruelling mental game, they’re also having to survive – literally. Fire, food, shelter. The primal conceit of castaways on a beach constructing their own society is fascinating, and I love when the show takes the time to put these stories on the screen.
Of course, the goat scenes from tonight’s episode are not going to be everybody’s idea of a good time. Yet the ethical dilemma of whether or not to kill and eat wild goats –a momma and baby goat, at that – is a compelling sequence that not only highlights the stakes of living in the game but also reveals some fundamental aspects of character underneath it all.
JT caught the goats in the hopes that feeding the tribe might earn him some safety in his tribe’s pecking order. It could have been his big break, but when the tribe realised that they had caught a mother and its kid, the prospective guilt of playing the hunter in “the goat version of Bambi” became the overriding concern. Malcolm and JT felt sick about the idea of abandoning an orphaned goat in the wilderness, and Jeff and Michaela also balked at the notion. Even in a situation where hunger is a driving motivator, moral quandaries and conscience are still factors in every decision made. Nothing is cut and dry in Survivor.
But true to form, Sandra “does not give a damn.” She is unapologetically herself, even when it’s the unpopular opinion. As far as she was concerned, the animals were food, and it was as simple as that – and even as her tribemates grew uneasy, she unabashedly stood her ground. To her credit, she acknowledged that to kill the goats, she’d need to get everybody to agree to it, and when she found herself outvoted, she didn’t put up a stink. Ultimately, a thumb that sticks out is going to get hit, whether it’s in the game of Survivor or the game of survival.
At the end of the day, the goats ran free. The decisions made to get to that point, however, continued to demonstrate the power of groupthink, the need to work together and the constant presence of morality. Survivor is a game played with people, not pawns, and it is that very humanity that makes the show such an intriguing experiment.
TAKEN AT THE FLOOD
Luck and fortune ebb and flow like the tide, and it’s those who take the opportunities when they arrive who will gain the upper hand. The new Tavua tribe got dealt a bad hand, having to start their camp from scratch without the bounty of resources afforded from the marooning. But the castaways wearing green played leprechaun and made their own luck.
Cirie and Ozzy tried to hash out their differences in the premiere to limited success, but being forced into closer quarters on a new tribe has given them the chance to begin anew. Cocooned in a comfortable 5-1 majority with fellow old Nukus Andrea, Sarah, and Zeke, Cirie and Ozzy agreed that they needed each other at this stage in the game. Recognising that “this is a crucial time to build trust,” the four-timers agreed to a new start. The tribe configuration might have been a lucky break, but forming stronger bonds is a necessary tactic to twist that opportunity to their long-term advantage.
For Troyzan, however, the lone Mana member of the new tribe, the future was dark. An outcast both in numbers and in social bonds (the attempt to build a bridge with Andrea was futile), Troyzan knew he needed a miracle to cure the plague afflicting him. Taking advantage of his isolation (and to some extent, the expectation he would be scrambling for an Idol), Troy tore down the beach and happened upon a message in a bottle, rewarding his gumption with a clue to the Hidden Immunity Idol. Troyzan managed to claim his prize later, translating a lucky break into hard-earner good fortune to earn a feeling of power he desperately needed.
I love idols hidden at challenges. The inherent drama of coordinating a stealthy idol nab during such an intense part of the game is so exciting, as evidenced by Troy’s growing unease as he crouched by the right rear corner of the puzzle table, feigning relief at victory while desperately feeling around for the idol. It’ll be hard to top the thrill of Wentworth’s inaugural idol find in Cambodia, but an idol at a challenge is always going to be an event.
SO CALL THE FIELD TO REST
As we wrap up the second week of Game Changers, there is no telling what will come next.
Hali, JT, and Troyzan are taking steps to secure their safety as they remain outnumbered in their new tribes, but will it be enough? Will those in the majority be able to keep their numbers strong or form new factions to take control, or will opportunity slip through their fingers? Not even the soothsayers can help us with a double Tribal Council looming – and after watching Australian Survivor, it’s hard not to be suspicious that there’s more than meets the eye.
The unknown awaits.