If there was any question remaining about the Ghost Islanders willingness to play hard, the machinations of this episode should put that concern firmly to rest. Between the fallout of the Morgan vote over at Naviti and conflict of strategies at Malolo, this episode was teeming with instances of castaways angling for their best path forward – and with so much to talk about, why waste any more time on the preamble? Let’s get straight down to it!
TWO FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
Whereas the tribe swap led to a scrappy battle for supremacy on New Naviti, the dynamics of New Malolo were harshly cut in stone. Old tribe loyalties were the prevailing strategy, and that clearly put the four Malolos in a terrible bind when an intense come-from-behind Naviti victory at the Immunity Challenge sent them to Tribal. Exasperated by their inability to crack the majority Naviti Five, hope was failing for the tropical penguins Stephanie, Jenna, Brendan and Michael. But there was one ace up their sleeve: Michael’s Idol, the cursed relic of James Clement that the young real estate agent was determined to use to not only preserve his alliance but also to reverse the long-seated curse of James’ mistake.
Naturally, the guessing game arose: who would Naviti target between the four of them? With the Naviti majority remaining tight-lipped, it was a real gamble, but Michael did his best to turn the odds in his favour with a bold, if flawed, plan. With impressive confidence, he pulled out James’ Idol at Tribal and threatened to play it with a manufactured lie: due to James having left with two Idols, Michael’s new Idol was blessed with the ability to save two people. As Naviti looked on with concern, Michael elaborated that he would be using the Idol to protect half of his alliance, and added that they would be putting their votes on Bradley as the perceived head of the Naviti alliance, urging Sebastian and Chelsea who appeared to be the outsiders of the five, to flip with the Malolos.
It was a harebrained scheme, but down to the last minute, Michael made his daring play with nerves of steel – and there was a lot to like about his plan. Firstly, the decision to collaborate with his alliance to coordinate the move was a necessary choice. The rule of thumb is to keep Idols a secret (remember The Gandalf Rule!), but in dire circumstances such as these, it’s far more important to make sure your endangered alliance is on the same page going into Tribal. I was also thoroughly impressed with Michael’s bold-faced lie. While it sounds ridiculously over-powered to have an Idol with doubled powers in the game, it’s not out of the realm of possibility and leaning into the “reversing the curse” theme gives it a greater edge of believability. Also, as the first relic of the past to be played, there’s no precedent for how these artifacts work in Season 36, giving more credence to his claim. Lastly, Michael’s presentation at Tribal was fantastic: he spoke well with unfailing confidence – for any Survivor player, much less an 18-year-old, it was an impressive show.
However, all of his machinations ultimately came up short when he misplayed the Idol for Stephanie, leaving Brendan to take the bullet. Obviously, the most critical error of his move was misplaying the Idol, but there was another problematic aspect to his plan that hearkens back to another mistake of the past: the infamous Three Amigos Tribal in Caramoan. For those needing the Ghost Island-style colour-desaturated flashback, the Three Amigos – Malcolm Freberg, Reynold Toepfer and Eddie Fox – were outnumbered and lined up to be voted out by the majority alliance, but found themselves in possession of Individual Immunity and two Hidden Idols, guaranteeing complete Immunity for their alliance at the next vote. At Tribal, they revealed their invulnerability, sending the majority into a spin, until they made the critical misstep repeated by the Malolos tonight: they named their target. In Caramoan, the majority (bar one inconsequential vote) stuck to their plan, forcing the Amigos to flush their Idols and let their named target take the heat without affecting the status quo. In this week’s episode, the Naviti majority did the same, sticking to their plan and flushing Michael’s Idol out of the game.
Why is this such a questionable move? Because it takes away the fear. Fear of going home is an incredibly motivating feeling, as evidenced by how drastic Michael’s own tactics were in response to being in danger. But by Malolo explicitly targeting Bradley, they removed any motivation for any of the other Navitis to flip. They implored Sebastian and Chelsea to consider switching sides, but there was little reason for them to take the bait. If they stuck with their original plan, they had the numbers to take out a Malolo, but even if Michael played the Idol correctly, it wasn’t like either of them were in danger – it would be Bradley as the expendable victim. As such, Michael’s passionate pitch to Sebastian and Chelsea amounted to nothing and left the fate of his move in playing his Idol for the right person. It might not be the bad decision that will haunt him forever, but I hope that future Survivors learn from the mistakes of the Amigos and Michael. If you’re going to publicly threaten to play an Idol, don’t tell your opponents who you’ll be voting for and giving them the easy out of calling your bluff!
Michael might not have reversed James’ curse (and you can bet that if James were watching at home, he would exasperatedly lament, “That’s why you don’t eat the damn apple!”), but it was the most Hail-Maryest of Hail-Marys, and it’s better to play hard than roll over and die. It’s unfortunate for a player like Brendan – strong, intelligent, likable – to be voted out simply because of an unfavourable numerical disadvantage at a tribe swap, but sometimes, that’s the bad luck of Survivor – and the unfortunate victim of an opponent’s excellent strategy.
STAYING THE COURSE
Alliance loyalty doesn’t make for the most compelling television, especially compared to the bombastic gameplay of the Malolos tonight, but Naviti’s unity and commitment to using their numbers was extremely smart gameplay – particularly this early in the game. Sometimes, just surviving one vote at a time is the best way to go – and saving your complicated posturing for the merge is the best strategy. Just last week, I chided the majority of New Naviti for allowing the Chris v Domenick rivalry to fracture their guaranteed majority, but the Navitis of New Malolo were not having any of it – and it worked out perfectly for them! And thanks to some insightful suggestions from Chelsea and Desiree, they also evaded the predictable Idol play by gunning for Brendan, rationalising that Malolo would expect them to go after one of the ‘weaker’ women instead of the ‘stronger’ men. Naviti’s move wasn’t flashy by any stretch, but it was calculated, cold and effective – and right now, that’s all you need.
However, the Navitis have still made some missteps. I expressed concern over Naviti’s outward displays of numerical confidence last week, and it seems they’ve only doubled-down this week, openly asserting that there was no question an Old Malolo was going home. There is something to be said about avoiding the pitfalls of granting false hope, but with tribe swaps, merges and all sorts of Idol shenanigans lying in wait, making enemies with the minority by exuding indifference can backfire. Case and point? Bradley, complainer about dirt and recipient of four votes at his first Tribal. Bradley’s callous dismissal of even talking to Stephanie was brutal and clearly a symptom of why he was targeted. He spoke of wanting to keep his ducks in a row like Rob Mariano or Kim Spradlin, but what he’s missing is the very thing that made those players so successful. People wanted to work with Rob and Kim because they liked and trusted them, and they also had the advantage of playing with people willing to follow. Bradley doesn’t have the latter luxury in this cast of gamers, and without the charisma of these Survivor icons, his reputation is merely a figurehead leader. If the Idol had been played correctly tonight, he would have suffered for this hubris, but he has a chance to fight another day – but is the damage already done?
Meanwhile, another member of the Naviti alliance was faced with a difficult choice, forced to choose between their alliance and their individual gain. With a white rock and the cruel sense of humour of the Survivor Gods sending her to Ghost Island, Kellyn was presented with the second game of the season, once again offered the chance to wager her next vote for a secret advantage. Unlike Jacob, who had nothing to lose when he was presented with the same choice in the premiere, Kellyn had everything on the line. While an unknown Advantage could certainly open some doors to her, it was far from guaranteed and with such a tight majority in New Malolo, her vote was essential to victory at the next Tribal. Kellyn ultimately trusted her gut that the risk was not worth the reward and it was better to stay the course, keeping her Naviti numbers strong. As she elaborated, trusting gut instinct is a valuable skill that’s served her in life, and so far, has also served her well in this game. Her willpower against the temptation was impressive and paid off by ensuring her alliance maintained the majority heading into Tribal. Kellyn made her decision that provided immediate benefit, but there’s a lot of game left to play. If she ever finds herself in a dangerous spot, I’m sure she’ll be wondering… what would have been in that box?
DIVIDE AND CONQUER
Across the ocean, a very different kind of gameplay was taking hold, as the shattered alliances on New Naviti scrambled for control. After successfully driving a wedge into their Naviti opponents, the Malolo four of Donathan, James, Laurel and Libby had the pick of the litter. As expected, Angela was devastated that Domenick and Wendell had turned on her, whilst the two men feared that they were in danger given the Malolos had betrayed them by blindsiding Morgan. Predictably, Chris returned from his tenure on Ghost Island with fire in his belly and immediately set about recruiting the Malolos to continue the battle against Dom and Wendell, but in an intelligent consideration, it was not as cut and dry as it might have seemed.
Donathan and Laurel, largely overshadowed by James and Libby last week, rose to prominence as they weighed up their options, rationalising that Domenick and Wendell would be far better allies than the domineering Chris. Laurel seemed to lead the charge, and after spending the first few weeks diving under the radar, she emerged to make her play. Sitting down with Domenick, she proposed an allegiance, which was music to Domenick’s ears – so much so that he revealed that he did, in fact, hold a real Idol. While it was a good decision to share his secret with his partner-in-crime Wendell given their numerical predicament, spreading the information to Laurel seemed reckless (but by this point, it’s pretty clear that reckless is Domenick’s modus operandi). Enormous kudos have to go to Laurel, though, for seeking out an alliance that gave her control and her rational, social connection to Domenick not only opened doors for her own game but also granted her key information that she could utilise down the line.
Of course, with New Naviti at an even eight numbers, there’s still the pull and tug of a majority. Do Laurel and Donathan have enough sway to pull James and/or Libby over to this new alliance with Domenick and Wendell, or will the other Malolos side with Chris and Angela to put two new alliances into reshaped combat? Only time will tell, but the players of Naviti have plenty left in store.
Old tribal lines on New Malolo, new allegiances on New Naviti. Risky Idol plays, social maneuvering, and the age-old question of alliance strength. We’re only four episodes in, and I have to say, Ghost Island is delivering the goods – and I hope that this calibre of gameplay, mixed with an enjoyable, enthusiastic cast of characters, continues long into the season. Let’s play!
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