Last week was all about the Middle Game – the nebulous phase where consensus targets dominate Tribals as the players try to feel out their competition and make their moves in the shadows to prepare for the future. Sometimes this phase trickles throughout the entire merge when a Pagonging takes effect and sometimes it only lasts one or two votes if the gameplay is particularly tumultuous, but tonight’s episode was all about the tension of transition between the cautious Middle Game and the cut-throat End Game.
It only took one player accelerating their strategy to force every other castaway to evaluate whether they should likewise ramp up to the big moves now or whether to try to maintain the status quo. Like toppling dominoes, the decisions of one castaway directly influenced the next to become a deadly game of tag. It was a fascinating cascade of events, choices and strategies – so let’s break it down step-by-step.
THE SPARK OF REVOLUTION
Desiree has been an intriguing supporting character throughout the season, with a unique perspective and entertaining turn-of-phrase in the occasional instance she was featured. This week, though, she clambered out of the backseat in a daring attempt to take the wheel. Revealing the much more aggressive competitor she prophesied in the pre-game, she sought to instigate a massive power shift that caught me off-guard. To this point, Desiree had been firmly Naviti-strong, often working closely with Kellyn to sway the direction of the vote against the Malolos she wanted to oust. She was playing the game but was hidden behind the bigger players, and now she saw the opportunity to step out of their shadows.
She quietly approached the Malolo minority to pitch a coup, telling them that she believed she was at the bottom of the Naviti pecking order and wanted to flip against the leadership – first against her long-time ally Kellyn, then Domenick and Wendell. To Donathan, Laurel and Jenna, she proposed that they could pull in Michael, she could sway Angela and Chelsea, and just like that, they’d have the power. It was an offer of salvation for the outgunned Malolos, and it would give Desiree clout for her resume should she finagle her way to the end.
We viewers so often decry the players on the bottom of an alliance for just plodding along and waiting for their turn at the guillotine, so it was incredibly exciting to see Desiree not only recognise her position in the game but also do something about it. She sought to use minority numbers for her own gain. She settled on a good target – a huge threat and one who would never have seen it coming (even after rumours began to circulate, Kellyn disbelieved the very thought that Des would betray her). She planned to flip with allies to help take the heat off her betrayal – assuming she truly had the support of Angela and Chelsea (in one of the unfortunate editing decisions, we never actually heard their side of the story). In all, Desiree’s move was clever and calculated and had the potential to restructure the game in her favour.
The only problem was that she didn’t have all the information she needed. If Malolo really were as helpless as she believed, her offer could have played out perfectly. But while Michael and Jenna had nowhere to really go, Laurel and Donathan had cards up their sleeve that Desiree could not take into account. Because of their secret four-strong alliance with Dom & Wendell, Donathan and Laurel didn’t need Desiree’s move because they had the luxury of choice.
A ROAD DIVERGED…
The partnership of Donathan and Laurel is a fascinating dynamic of collaboration and tension. They’ve been working together since Day 1, but since establishing their alliance with Domenick & Wendell, they’ve repeatedly been drawn in opposite directions. For the second week in a row, they were presented with the choice of sticking with the Naviti numbers (and their secret alliance) or causing an upset with Malolo. In both instances, Laurel stayed the course with her alliance of comfort while Donathan pushed for the big move. Laurel ultimately got her way at each decision, but this tension seems to be mounting – perhaps to a crux in the future. But for now, they are easily the most pivotal players in the game.
Laurel is playing a fantastic, if steady, game. Despite being down in the Malolo numbers, she’s seemingly earned the trust of the whole tribe and has been able to gently push the Middle Game in her favour by keeping the focus on easy votes that do not threaten her closest or most influential allies. Tonight, she was faced with a choice that barely registered as a decision point. Despite her hesitation to fully trust Wendell and Domenick, her actions have reinforced that they are her ideal allies, and so Desiree’s pitch to target them as two-thirds of the Three-Headed Dragon of Naviti was an unsurprising non-starter. Even though Des wanted to target Kellyn first, breaking rank with Dom & Wendell even for one vote would be a dangerous move and a betrayal of trust at this point in the game.
As such, her decision to leak Desiree’s plan to Domenick was a natural continuation of her loyalties and was a well-played distribution of information. She didn’t throw Des under the bus explicitly, merely sharing the news and letting Domenick do what he wished with the intel. Even when her snitching came back around on her as word spread, she was able to exploit her role as a mere messenger and rely on the social capital she held with Domenick to keep her safe. Ultimately, it was a successful move – she strengthened her alliance while eliminating a threat to her status quo. That said, Laurel is running out of opportunities to disarm her Idol-powered allies and build her own winning reputation – she might not be able to pass up too many more of these opportunities for revolt.
Speaking of Idol-powered allies, Donathan had quite the night as he bagged his first Idol – the fragments of the unplayed Super Idol held by Scot and Tai in Kaoh Rong. Cleverly using Michael’s dead-man-walking status as cover for an Idol hunt, he was able to accompany him on the search and come out ahead. However, his predicament of needing to retrieve half the Idol from under the Lavita shelter led him to enlist support. Just as Laurel’s sharing of information with Domenick underscored her allegiances, so too does Donathan’s unfazed willingness to reveal his Idol to the Malolos. The Idol is undoubted power in his pocket, but the public knowledge of his advantage could put him in a predicament of peer pressure or make him a target if he’s not careful. That said, Donathan has a casually merciless approach to the game, showing an eagerness to cut the castaways that don’t fit into his plans, and I have no doubt that he’ll only use the Idol on his own terms.
THE NAVITI DIVIDE
To shift back to the falling dominoes, we’ve got to turn to Naviti fallout. Armed with Laurel’s reconnaissance, Domenick’s distrust of Desiree skyrocketed and he immediately began marshalling the troops against her. Dom has never hesitated to target somebody who he suspects to be playing him, and recognising that the quieter players are hungry to make their move – like automatons achieving sentience – he knew he had to crush the robot revolution before it started. Banking on Laurel’s honesty, he approached Kellyn when she returned from her Reward picnic to spread the news – Des had gone rogue and they might need to take care of the situation.
However, Kellyn (and her gut) felt very differently. Kellyn has been in a quiet position of power throughout the game, utilising her Naviti numbers to pick off the Malolos without any consequence. She was confident that the Middle Game would continue along a path littered with fallen orange torches but that security deceived her into doubting that her closest allies could turn on her. This is a challenging lesson to learn in Survivor and Kellyn was extremely lucky that her tribemates saved her from the bullet, but her obstinate insistence that Desiree was not trying to flip suggested that her inflexibility could be her downfall. The theme of “trusting your gut” has been Kellyn’s mantra, but there are so many head-games in Survivor that an over-reliance on gut instinct can be fatal.
Nevertheless, she survived the vote – but at the cost of one of her closest allies. The game seemed to completely slip out of Kellyn’s control as she also lost the battle with Domenick over who to vote out. With Dom focused on eliminating the erratic Des and Kellyn intransigently insisting they keep the vote on Michael, it seemed that the stalemate could divide Naviti. However, Kellyn ultimately yielded and joined the vote against Desiree. It’s unclear if it was just self-preservation if it became clear that Dom was unwilling to follow her lead and she had no choice but to side with the numbers or if he managed to convince her that Desiree had been lying to her, but the future seems grim for this amateur detective.
At this point in the timeline of events, it seems apparent that Desiree was well and truly on the block. Laurel’s reveal of the plan and Dom’s reactive crusade had turned her into an easy name that Malolo and the distrusting Navitis could rally against, but Des wasn’t giving up yet. Although her efforts to shirk the blame were ultimately unsuccessful, it’s worth dissecting her defensive lies. Firstly, her straightforward lies to Kellyn that she had never considered flipping were brilliantly stone cold. Her decision to deny the charges against her was a smart one, but it seemed to fail in the delivery when Laurel challenged it.
Her confrontation with the Malolos started off well as she queried why she’d been thrown under the bus, and her snap decision to change her tact when Wendell came within earshot was a clever move. The problem, however, was that these shifts in her own narrative coupled with the mounting frustration in her tone began to signal her guilt. It also hurt Desiree’s defence that she had no witnesses in her favour. Whereas the four Malolo could corroborate the story that Des had pitched them on a flip, no one came to her defence with any true evidence – even Chelsea and Angela left her out to dry. This disparity is the proof that the social game can never be ignored in Survivor. Desiree had a lot of good strategic ideas, but without social connections, she didn’t have enough social capital to cash in for success nor the support behind her when she faltered.
There does remain the question of whether Desiree could have gotten out of this. Perhaps she needed to dispel the accusations by presenting her own, framing Laurel and the Malolos as manufacturing a lie to turn Naviti against each other. It might not have convinced a paranoid Domenick, but could it have swayed the others? Numerically, it’s doubtful. With Angela’s vote negated by her unlucky game at Ghost Island, and the Malolo Four and Domenick taking aim at her, she had no recourse – and like the last domino in the line, she had no option other than to fall. It was a brutal reminder of why flipping from one alliance to another is such a fraught move, but at least Desiree went out of the game having tried to turn the odds in her favour.
With Desiree out of the picture after such a tense few days on Lavita, the layout seems largely unchanged. Naviti still maintain their decisive 6-4 majority, and the Domenick, Donathan, Laurel & Wendell alliance remains a secret powerhouse with complete control of the moving parts – as well as the only three Idols currently in the game. While Des sought to ramp up the game, she ultimately became an easy target and the Middle Game lives on.
Yet it looks like we’re in for a twist next week with a double elimination. The details are uncertain now, but a shake-up as big as this seems poised to tip the attitudes of these castaways towards End Game thinking – and I’m ready for it.