Trust is, and always will be, a rare and highly-prized commodity in Survivor. When the game deprives you of your basic physical and emotional needs, social contracts are the only thing left that the players can hope to rely upon. All relationships, whether friendships, business agreements, or alliances, are forged from trust – or are shattered by a lack thereof.
As Andrea said at the first Merge Tribal, “This is the point in the game where lines are drawn.” It is a pivotal moment in the game, where everybody has to take stock of the situation and do whatever creative accounting is required to crunch that data into positive personal gain. With thirteen individuals each trying to ensure their security, it becomes chaos. And when these thirteen players have endured the most unpredictable twist-heavy pre-merge yet, it becomes even more challenging to ascertain power.
Over and over, throughout this double episode, the remaining Game Changers fought a vicious battle for some modicum of control. Some won, some lost. It didn’t come down to complex numerical calculations. It wasn’t dictated by chance. Whatever the outcome, the power struggle all rested on the human element and the factor that lies at the core of every interaction – trust.
With so many players in the mix and even more relationships between them all, let’s hone in on the games of some of the key cogs in this Merge machine.
SIERRA, THE SHERRIFF
Sierra and Brad have moved through the entire game together, working in tandem to navigate each swap and bring allies under their wings. Pre-merge, Brad received a lot of the attention for his social game, which he capitalised upon at the Prisoner’s Dilemma of the Merge Feast. He curried favour by giving up his spot at the “Last Supper,” but it also afforded him the opportunity to reinforce his trustworthy alliance with Tai going into the scramble for power.
Yet it was Sierra who emerged as the commander-in-chief this episode. She seized control for herself – a risky move at the merge, and it almost saw her targeted by the opposing faction as the top link in the chain. Whether or not she can escape that reputation in the future, she accomplished a lot in the first few days on Maku Maku beach. She was the nexus of the first vote and an essential part of the second – and she accomplished it all with the trust of her alliance partners.
It made sense for the two factions of the Original Nuku tribe (plus Troyzan and Aubry) to pick off one of Hali or Michaela. They might seem like harmless “weaklings” – but kittens still have claws. It is incredibly challenging to forge trust with a known free agent, and Sierra had already spent days and weeks with Hali and Michaela, unable to build a working relationship. There was no incentive for her to keep them in the game as wildcards that could potentially end up in someone else’s pocket. Sierra seemed to particularly struggle with Michaela, who fuelled paranoia every time she walked in on conversations. There was no trust between them – and Michaela became a natural target.
However, Sierra’s trust in her alliance – her partnership with Debbie, with her herded tom cats Brad, Troyzan, and Tai, and even with the leaders of the opposing faction in Cirie and Zeke – granted her flexibility. When she grew paranoid of Hali, reading her behaviour as a possible indication of an Idol, she orchestrated a split vote to ensure the elimination of one of the bottom dwellers. Split votes require an incredible amount of trust, especially when a tied vote – whether intentional or not – could immediately lead to a rock draw. Sierra’s trust in her alliance also afforded her the ability to be flexible in changing the primary target to Hali over Michaela. That may not have been the best move for her, but it showed her allies that she was reasonable and they could trust her to listen to their own interests, a fact that served her well in the second hour.
Sierra’s confidence as the New Sherriff in Town and her growing reputation as the “godfather” of her alliance could set her up for a fall in the coming weeks. But for now, she is insulated in an alliance that trusts her judgment – and that could propel her deep into the game.
CIRIE, THE AUNT
Cirie accomplished the incredible feat of making the merge without having to attend Tribal Council, and tonight marked her big coming-out party for the season. There’s no doubt that Cirie is an incredible Survivor player: a strategic mastermind with a smile and a cool trigger-finger. The fascinating aspect of her gameplay, however, is not her manipulation of the numbers alone but the way in which she goes about it. She builds real relationships and uses them to help her own game, and isn’t afraid to let her machinations go unnoticed.
Her heart-to-heart with Michaela was a beautiful scene. After learning she was on the chopping block, Michaela initially considered going after Cirie – but when she talked with her, it became immediately apparent that there was a natural trust between them. In a confessional, Cirie observed, “I used to be like that. When I was Michaela’s age, I was a hot-head like Michaela. I thought I knew everything! But I’ve learned that when you put that guard up, you push people away and in the game like Survivor, you want to bring as many people in as possible. You don’t want to be pushing people away or making people feel uncomfortable.”
Cirie brought Michaela under her wing, offering advice not just for the game, but for the real world. Her genuine kindness and her mentorship from an African-American woman of one generation to another helped Cirie to break through Michaela’s stern exterior. Michaela’s trust in Cirie “skyrocketed” and the two forged a mutually beneficial path ahead together.
Of course, for Cirie to benefit in the game from her budding relationship with Michaela, she needed her to stay on the beach. Cirie’s near-effortless sway of the direction of the vote was another example of her legendary qualities, and yet again, it was all built on trust. She entrusted her preference to vote Hali out to Zeke, and then let him do the heavy-lifting in taking the proposal to Sierra. She trusted the eleven-strong alliance to stick to their word as they agreed to put the majority of votes on Hali.
She trusted them to the point where Cirie actively worked to keep up appearances by casting her own vote for Michaela and asking Michaela to still vote for Zeke. Even after the vote, she asked Michaela to keep their partnership on the down-low, to which Michaela readily agreed: “I’m deferring to her right now. She understands the dynamics of what’s going on more than me. And the last thing I want to do is mess up her game when she tried to help mine.” Cirie worked hard to bring in Michaela as an ally and to save her from the vote, but she ensured that the ploy could not be traced back to her.
That takes guts, but most of all, it takes trust.
ZEKE, THE WARMONGER
Zeke, on the other hand, has plenty of guts but doesn’t value trust nearly enough.
It’s frustrating to watch because Zeke is very skilled at forming real relationships with people. He finds common ground and can seemingly connect with even the most unlikely people. He has people flocking to his side who want to trust him. And then he throws it all away for – what, exactly?
He really should know better – after all; he helped coin the delightfully ridiculous “trust cluster” buzzword of Millenials vs. Gen X. Unfortunately, however, Zeke is always in game mode: “Your mind needs to be running, and if it’s not running all the time, you’re probably not in the game anymore.” He over-values strategy as an inert concept, treating his opponents as troops, plastic soldiers in a game of Risk, rather than as living, breathing, self-interested competitors.
Zeke’s impatience and hunger for power torpedoed his game this week. In the “big Italian family brawl” of the second hour, the numbers were aligning in Zeke’s favour, 7 to 5 against Sierra. Unfathomably, however, Zeke grew restless at being a trusted lieutenant. Andrea and Cirie may have been the ones gathering intel and bringing him the plan, but they trusted him to be in their inner circle of scheming. Zeke, however, wanted to be commander and instead of biding his time, he tried to strike first – and lost the trust of everybody on the beach.
He first approached Debbie and Tai at the Reward, suggesting they form a coalition to take out Andrea – perhaps a miscalculation already, as Tai seemed primarily interested in having a fun escape from both the game and his clothes. Although he shared the truth that Andrea hadn’t wanted to loop Debbie and Tai into an attack against Sierra, Debbie was sceptical of his motivations. After all, Zeke was high in the chain of command: why would he suddenly turn coat? The same thing happened when he later approached Sierra. In a telling line of conversation, Zeke laid his untrustworthiness out when she queried that he’d seemed so close to Andrea: “You’d think I would be, but I’m not.” In one sentence, Zeke summed up that he could not be trusted at face value, and that’s a dangerous revelation.
Naturally, news of his betrayal made its way back to his alliance. Rightfully confounded by his behaviour, Andrea, Cirie, and Ozzy decided to flip the script and take him out. It may have been a reactionary response, but it was the right course of action. Relationships – friendships and alliances – are based on trust, and without it? “How can you build on that?” asked Cirie. Ozzy answered, “You can’t.”
For Andrea, particularly, it’s an astounding betrayal. She had aligned with Zeke since Day One, moving through every tribe swap with him. They were close alliance partners and close friends, and for Zeke to throw her under the bus simply because he wanted to be sitting in the driver’s seat was a baffling decision.
In the end, both alliances turned on Zeke. Even as Debbie and Sierra decided not to target him, they left him out of the loop of their manoeuvre and misdirected his lone vote to Aubry. Zeke needlessly discarded his hard-earned trust with Andrea and Cirie and revealed his slippery side to the opposing alliance. For someone who so desperately wants to be in control, it’s going to be a hard road ahead when he’s shown his hand.
DEBBIE, THE DRUNKEN MASTER
Debbie, however, is keeping her game close to her chest. She is truly an enigma, and between the bragging, the over-confidence, and her outbursts, it’s easy to forget that Debbie can sometimes be a very astute player.
The fascinating aspect of Debbie’s gameplay is how eager she is to play the fool. At the merge feast, she dirty-danced with Cirie, dropped trowel for Tai and slurred her way through conversation – all sober, at least according to her. Assuming she was telling the truth, Debbie’s outlandish behaviour served her well. It ingratiated her as a wacky laugh riot, and also cemented her as a non-threat in her opponents’ minds. Why worry about her? She’s just kooky Debbie.
In Debbie’s own words: “It’s okay if people think I’m quirky. You can underestimate me at your own risk.” Debbie made some huge strides this week to take the game into her hands. She extended the olive branch to Brad, swallowing her pride to rebuild trust. She forged a clear partnership with Sierra as a right-hand woman nobody would expect. And to cap it off, she initiated the surprise counter-strike against Ozzy.
With Zeke blowing up his game, and the opposing faction viciously turning against him, Debbie suggested to Sierra that they take the opportunity to knock Ozzy off of his post. Hot off an epic performance at the Immunity Challenge, Ozzy’s challenge prowess was looming large, and it was a perfect opportunity to strike. Debbie dictated the move efficiently, passing the word to Troyzan and Tai directly and without preamble. It was efficient, effective and assured by the use of her Extra Vote advantage (an unnecessary play, but a reasonable gamble).
Debbie is playing a game of bait-and-switch: putting herself out there as an innocent oddball and fostering trust in that false perception, allowing her to work in the shadows and muster power through tight, close relationships with a select few. She showed such promise in Kaoh Rong, though it eventually fell apart. This time, can she keep up the ruse for long enough?
THE FIRING SQUAD
Two blindfolded victims fell to the firing squad in very different manners tonight: one, an execution, the other, an assassination.
Hali showed herself to be a capable player in her second season. Notably, she showed she had an exceptional knack for Tribal Council, consistently speaking up for herself, challenging her opponents’ claims and seizing opportunities to scramble. Her swan song pitch – if you’re worried I’ve got an Idol, just ask, and I’ll submit to a strip-search – was a bold play. Aubry offered an excellent analysis: “That’s the sign of a good player. We can say we want to be as upfront, as clear, as possible but there’s always a shroud of mystery in this game, and things can change on a dime.”
Hali fought bravely to the end but still lost the battle. Perhaps she can take comfort in the fact that she made Survivor history as the first player to be the Mayor of Ponderosa – the first member of the Jury – on two separate seasons. And the Mayor stays Mayor.
Ozzy, meanwhile, was unceremoniously blindsided, the first casualty of the coming war. After all these years, Ozzy still puts too much value on challenges and the literal survival component, putting his trust in them rather than in his fellow players. Although his fourth attempt at Survivor was largely uneventful, he showed a maturity that mellowed out the arrogance of his prior games. His willingness to mend fences with Cirie is a solid example of this, and their reconciliation served as a sweet coda to his Survivor career.
One final note on Ozzy’s elimination: what was the deal with Cirie’s wayward vote for Sierra? It’s a total mystery that we can hope gets explained next week, but until then, I propose two possibilities for the baffled viewer. Either she believed the vote for Zeke was near unanimous and wanted to “spice things up” by lighting a paranoid fire under Sierra. Or she realised they could be heading into a 6-6 tie (assuming Sarah was on her side and Zeke was voting with Sierra’s faction) and decided to cut her losses to avoid a rock draw. Cirie’s a smart player; she’s surely got her reasons. We’ll have to wait to learn what they are.
ONE JUMP AHEAD
We’re heading into the thick of the merge next week with a lot of moving parts still in play. The aftermath of Zeke’s betrayal and Andrea and Cirie’s failed counter-attack will loom large over them, as the emerging majority dwarfs them. It’ll be no mean feat to overcome them: particularly given the alliance of Sierra, Brad, Debbie, Troyzan, and Tai have three Idols (and a Legacy Advantage) between them.
It’s going to be a vicious race from here on out as everybody fights for themselves. But for these players to stay one jump ahead of the breadline and one swing ahead of the sword, they’re going to have to ask each other one thing before they leap into the next big move…
Do you trust me?