After two effectively unanimous votes, it was about time to see some true strategy emerge. With an early tribe swap foretold in last week’s preview, I was apprehensive about it coming so soon. There’s been increasing precedence in recent seasons for mix-ups right off the bat – and with such a large cast of new players, it felt like it was too early to shuffle the deck. We barely know these players, and we hardly understood the dynamics of their starting tribes. However, in an unexpectedly fortuitous twist of fate, the swap (thankfully staying as two tribes for now!) managed to inject intensity into the game and put the pressure on those early bonds, forcing them to strengthen or snap.
With the Malolo tribe, already outnumbered by Naviti, drawing the short straw and ending up in minorities on both new tribes, the shared misfortune tested the strength of their allegiance and fuelled their hunger for success. Meanwhile, the overconfident former Navitis relished their numerical advantage to their collective detriment. Meanwhile, the ever-present dynamic of luck served up a new main course and a devastating drive-by blindside.
It’s not uncommon to see majority alliances swell with power and turn to in-fighting, but it’s disastrous to see how quickly the majority on New Naviti devoured each other. The brewing distrust between Chris and Domenick was bound to bubble over sooner rather than later, but it seemed like neither had any hesitation about making the first move. It’s hard to criticise the instinct when it’s apparent that both were, in fact, turning their guns on each other. Yet in their aggressive approach, the swift lust for betrayal only handed all the power over to the Malolo minority.
Chris’ aggressive approach was clumsy straight out of the block. Without waiting to assess the situation, he launched straight into attack mode. He strong-armed Angela into his scheme to blindside Domenick and then immediately pitched his plan to the Malolo tribe with a sketchy intensity. Naviti and Malolo alike, Chris’ attitude rubbed both Angela and Libby the wrong way, and his actions set in motion the friction that would start the combustive fire. As suspicion of Chris rose, Domenick, Wendell and Morgan sought out their own cannibalistic blindside, attempting to recruit Malolo to aide them in taking out the model when he least expected it.
And it may have worked – were he not saved by the fate of a rock draw when the victorious Malolo could not unanimously decide who to send to Ghost Island. (Side note – I appreciate that production enacted a unanimous decision and tie-breaker here, preventing cross-tribal alliances from becoming too powerful). As the third resident of Ghost Island, Chris underwent a wholly different experience. Rather than marvelling at the Survivor museum, he instead was overwhelmed by the spooky and isolating atmosphere of his exile and broke down. Freed from the prying eyes of his competitors, Chris became a more down-to-earth man, particularly as he reflected on the strength of his mother battling MS. While flushing out the emotion was surely therapeutic, Chris was nevertheless conscious of the fact that he was missing a vote – a vote that would ultimately fall in a way he could never predict.
With Chris pardoned by chance, the New Naviti found themselves in a new pickle with the 4-4 split by old tribal lines. While Chris’ aggressive plan to target Domenick was benched by his absence, and Domenick’s reciprocated blindside also delayed, the field was open – but the Naviti self-destruction continued. Angela tried to push her original tribemates to unite against Malolo, voting Libby and putting their own necks on the line for a rock draw should the votes fall even. When she bristled at Chris’ overbearing approach early on, I was optimistic that Angela’s common sense might serve her well, but this naïve plan to risk rocks at their very first Tribal was concerning – and in turn, almost turned the cannibalistic Old Naviti onto her. Naturally, Wendell and Morgan had no interest in risking their game on chance so early and endeavoured to use Malolo to take out Angela, a threat as Chris’ strongest ally. It would have been a solid Plan B, particularly as it appeared this Naviti faction had seen more success in ‘stepping out of the kitchen’ to connect with the minority. The only trouble was that serial over-player Domenick foiled his own alliance’s plans with another bout of over-selling.
I was skeptical about the efficacy of Domenick’s fake idol shenanigans last week, and I’m even more dubious after his further machinations this week. While I appreciate his gusto for the game, and no-holds-barred players can make for exciting TV, the execution of his grandiose ideas is troubling. With Chris, understandably, weaponising Domenick’s sketchy idol against him, Dom tried to pull back control of the reigns by showing the Malolo Four his fake to assuage them of his innocence and convince them to stick with the plan against Angela. It was a good defensive move (replacing the actual idol parchment with a fraudulent scrap of Tree Mail was a clever touch) – but it would have been far more successful if Domenick didn’t exude an unpredictable untrustworthiness. It’s not entirely his fault – just like nerdy-looking young men like Jacob get slapped with superfan baggage, and older women get typecast as The Mom, the spectre of players like Tony Vlachos and Russell Hantz haunts bigger, brasher men. Nevertheless, Domenick’s erratic behaviour has played right into that archetype. Chris picked up on it in the first few days but botched the execution of his reaction, and it was no different for the Malolo Four who were now left with all the cards on the table.
THE BUFFET TABLE
When buffs were drawn at the start of the episode, it was a dire situation for Donathan, James, Laurel, and Libby. But with the implosion of the Naviti tribe, they found themselves transformed from vulnerable minority to crucial swing votes – and ultimately the real decision-makers. Doing well to nod along and hear out the plans of the Navitis, the four took on all the information they had and made the smartest move they could make, pulling off an incredibly cut-throat pre-merge power move.
Wary of Domenick’s honesty, the four found themselves uncertain of whether they could trust him or whether the fake idol gimmick was just a ploy. James, particularly, recognised the traits of a devious over-player and proposed a brilliant and elegant solution: if Naviti were divided, then why couldn’t the Malolo Four use it to their advantage to take out an unsuspecting cog? With Angela being targeted by her old tribemates and the Four uncertain of Domenick possibly possessing a real idol, it came down to Morgan and Wendell – ultimately settling on the whale trainer. The ability for swing votes to actually turn the tables and not just pick the winning side is a rare occurrence in Survivor. For James to recognise the unique opportunity and corral his allies into taking the gamble was a great play – and it gives them a lot of leverage moving forward, with the wedge driven deeper between the remaining Naviti players who will have to put aside their now-proven differences if they want to regain the upper-hand. For all of the talk about the tribe being split in between the kitchen and the living room at Tribal, it’s clear that Malolo one-upped them all by turning the whole house upside-down.
It’s becoming commonplace for alliances looking to make big plays to avoid voting for anybody suspected of having an idol. But if this is a blindside, then shouldn’t you go for someone who doesn’t expect it, particularly so you can flush out their idol? This strategy of targeting a bystander has backfired before (c.f. Malcolm in Game Changers), but was it the right move for Malolo to take a shot at Morgan instead of Domenick, especially given he’d emphasised that he was voting for Angela and wouldn’t see it coming? The trouble with dissecting the move is that we viewers knew that Domenick, Morgan and Wendell were upfront about their intention to blindside their own, but with Dom’s sketchy fake idol business, there’s very little reason the Malolos had to believe them. If Naviti had been selling them a lie, and Dom did have an idol he was willing to use, they could have walked into a trap. Targeting the innocent is the smart move here, and even though it leaves Dom in the game – possibly with an idol – it also leaves the major source of tension intact between Chris and Dom, maintaining Malolo’s upper-hand.
There’s one major component of this plan still to discuss, and that’s the cute blonde. After her invisible premiere, Libby stepped into the spotlight tonight to show her stony game face and play this game hard. She worked with her former tribemates to gather intel, mainly finding a prospective alliance with Morgan. The two women bonded over their similarities – their Catholicism, their shared bubbliness – and seemed well on their way to becoming tight allies. In fact, it seemed as though their relationship helped lead Morgan and Wendell to be confident they could trust the Malolos. Unfortunately for Libby, her allies had other plans. Viewing Wendell as a more valuable asset to the tribe, their ideal target was Morgan – which put Libby between a rock and a hard place.
It’s clear she was reluctant to turn on her newfound friend – and reason states that cutting a promising ally is a poor move at this point in the game. However, Libby had little wiggle room – she could fall in line and vote with the Malolos to take out Morgan, or she could put greater stock in the new allegiance and stick with the plan against Angela. As she mused earlier, “The good part about people coming up to you, wanting to trust you, is that you can choose between which alliance you want to be with.” Libby ultimately found herself in the actual swing vote position, but her decision to stay orange-strong was the right play. Even though she lost Morgan, she strengthened her alliance with James, Donathan and Laurel – who now hold the majority against the split Navitis. When the Ghost Island twist can disrupt the numbers (as it’s done two out of three times so far), the larger your alliance, the safer you’ll be. Furthermore, Libby has no qualms about the brutal realities of this game, grinning ear-to-ear as she confessed she’d be willing to lie at Tribal – and even then, Morgan defended the cute blonde beside her, unaware of the tragic irony her words were about to have.
There’s no question about it: Morgan got extremely unlucky. She was playing the game well up to this point – she had strong allies and was giving out trustworthy impressions so effective that the other tribe felt them. Out of her cheerfulness, she’d gained the Legacy Advantage via Jacob and had drawn in an ally with Libby. With athleticism on her side, Morgan was in an excellent position to go deep. But as the Malolos made their move, there had to be a victim, and Morgan joined a long list of the unlucky. It’s hard to pinpoint where the whale trainer went wrong – other than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but Survivor is a brutal game, and sometimes you just get outplayed.
TAKING THE APPLE
It seems that, all around, it’s the Malolos who are taking this game by storm. Perhaps it’s the solidarity of having already faced two Tribals heading into the swap or the necessity of collaboration in the face of a numerical disadvantage, but it’s fascinating to see the underdogs come out on top on both new tribes tonight. At the New Malolo, Brendan, Jenna, Michael and Stephanie were in a pretty grim situation – only made grimmer by their new tribemates’ over-confidence. I don’t blame Bradley, Chelsea, Desiree, Kellyn and Sebastian for wanting to stay Naviti-strong. It’s the smart move to stick together when you have the numbers, and if Chris and Dom had managed to find their inner banana-flavoured Laffy Taffy at New Naviti, tonight’s Tribal might have played out very differently.
The trouble with this old Naviti group is that they’re projecting their confidence. A margin of one is hardly a majority – particularly given the wrench of Ghost Island. Openly admitting that your alliance will stay strong is not a great look. Although Kellyn was clearly willing to open up “new treasure boxes of love” with her new tribemates, her blunt admission of her true loyalties was a worrying symptom of her alliance’s confidence. Not to mention offending your new tribemates by insulting their camp – that’s really going to ignite the rebellion. If Bradley’s whiny Anakin Skywalker “I hate dirt – it’s coarse and irritating and it gets everywhere” routine continues, something tells me he might be back sleeping on pillows pretty soon.
But who won’t be taking this game lying down? The other Malolo Four. Fuelled by their need to find a saving grace against the Naviti majority, Jenna and Stephanie initiated a desperate search for their tribe’s idol. In another example of the unfortunate pattern in Survivor’s history books, the women came up without the idol in hand, but their recruitment of their allies to join the hunt paid off when Michael unearthed the idol – none other than one of James Clement’s cursed idols from China. Michael might not be a Survivor geek like Donathan or Jacob, but he’s definitely a fan, and for one of the most iconic relics of Survivor past to fall into his possession is a pretty special event for the youngest contestant ever. Even more importantly, it gives his alliance a fighting chance against the unified and overconfident Navitis. If I had to place my bets, I have a feeling that Malolo is going to take James Clement’s sage advice not to take the apple and manage to reverse the curse of the first idol to ever go home in somebody’s pocket.
THE NEXT COURSE
If tonight’s intense strategy and endearing cast is anything to go by, we’re going to be in for an exciting season. The power dynamics of New Malolo are uneasy thanks to Michael’s idol find. The New Naviti is completely re-structured thanks to the brilliant move of the minority four. And the feud between Chris and Domenick – armed with a real idol, a fake idol and now the cursed Legacy Advantage – is still very much alive.
The table is set – good bread, good meat, good gods, so let’s eat!
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