With the first boss battle won and Chris sitting on the Jury, it’s time for the next phase of the game to begin. Yet for all the talk of the merge signalling the start of Big Moves, this philosophy rarely plays out in reality. Instead, the early merge is all about navigating the social minefield to escape elimination and garner influence amongst allies so that you have the ammunition to make big plays in the actual end game. This approach has been emphasised in recent years with 13-player merges. With so many castaways scrambling for control and so many individual agendas, it’s much simpler to look for the consensus targets. Perceived low threats like Hali Ford or divisive irritants like Taylor Stocker or The Noble One himself make for ideal targets that everybody can agree on just so they can make it one more day.
This week was much the same. Having survived the first merge vote, the twelve castaways of Lavita invoked the Diaz-Twine Rule of “Anybody But Me,” coalescing around a common target. But each player was also evaluating their current state and their future path to victory. For some, it was the realisation of their unfavourable predicament. For others, it was keeping a desperate grasp on their previously constructed plans. And for a few key players, it was about finding the fine line between playing dangerously and playing recklessly. After all, it doesn’t take much in the middle game to become the easy name.
The near-unanimous vote against Chris was the easy baby step into the merge, but it was the stray votes for Libby that carried through to this episode’s decision. For Libby, a third consecutive Tribal at which she’d received votes left her in crushing confusion. What was she doing wrong to earn the target on her back? Unfortunately, the truth hurt just as much. It wasn’t so much that she was doing anything actively errant. Being an outnumbered Malolo and the exaggerated perceptions of her as a manipulative vixen and part of the mythical “power couple” with Michael had drawn attention pre-merge, but those motives were ancient history. Now, voting for Libby was just tradition.
It’s happened before. Once a player’s name has been put in the urn, it seems to become a safe option. There is often danger around pointing the finger at a new target – in fact, Michael’s move against Wendell tonight is a prime example – but once somebody has received votes, they’re in the conversation for elimination almost by default. When Libby queried Angela and Chelsea about why she’d received two votes at the merge Tribal, this was their exact reasoning. She had been put on the block because she’d already faced the chop before – simple as that.
Naturally, Libby rebelled against this predetermined fate by trying to cut her ties to Michael and pave a new, independent path forward, but she still couldn’t escape the guillotine forever. Once more, her name was raised as the easy backup option. It’s a shame to see a capable, intelligent and social player like Libby pigeonholed by cumulative bad luck, but did her mild efforts to escape this perpetual target contribute to her demise? There’s value in diving under the radar in the wake of unwanted attention, and Domenick’s efforts to appear humble after his victory over Chris seemed to suggest a largely successful implementation of this strategy. Libby tried to do the same, assuring the Naviti majority that she would just follow their orders. But Libby’s target was an ingrained rhythm and changing that pattern required more than just staying out of trouble.
Even after Donathan revealed to her that Naviti intended to split the vote between Michael and – surprise, surprise – Libby, she opted to stick to voting Michael. Instead of seeking an opportunity to exploit the split vote and turn the tables on the majority alliance who were still throwing her name around, she just tried to hide in plain sight and hope for the best. That said, I don’t know if she could have avoided her ultimate fate – it seems as though Michael had kept his Idol a secret and even if she’d thrown her vote at Wendell, it wouldn’t have made a difference if Donathan, Jenna and Laurel had bailed on the plan. Besides, siding with a secure majority in the middle game against an obvious target – and one who is an albatross around the neck – is not inherently bad gameplay. Libby’s elimination is not so much the result of a single bad decision on her part – it’s just the snowball effect at a point in the game when any reason can be a good reason to vote someone out.
STICKS AND STONES
However, Libby wasn’t even the true consensus target. That honour went to Michael. The eighteen-year-old has had a tough run of it since the first swap with each of his allies systematically voted out to leave him with no strong bonds at the merge. The simplicity of the Chris vote gave him a chance to get his feet under him, but the odds remained insurmountable. He tried to make a connection by approaching Angela and suggesting that she’d been left out of the vote because the other Naviti women didn’t trust her – a good play for an outsider needing to peel off any stray vote available. He laid out a plan to target Wendell, deemed a bigger threat than Domenick, in a logical pitch, but Michael failed to give Angela a good reason to jump from the bottom of one alliance to the apparent bottom of another. Perhaps prompting her to name a target would have helped persuade her – or at the very least, it might have avoided giving her the ammunition to turn around and throw him under the bus.
Like falling dominoes, whispers of Michael’s intention to target Wendell transformed him into a consensus target so straightforward that Kellyn, Chelsea and Desiree felt confident enough to bring his Malolo tribemates into the conversation of voting him out. Yet there was still some fire in Michael’s game as he tried to utilise the planned Naviti split vote to unite Malolo and blindside Wendell. Numerically, it was a good move in theory, but whereas Michael’s back was literally against the wall, the other Malolos had other options. Libby only saw a future for her game if she could break her association with him, Jenna, while disappointed that her trip to Ghost Island offered her no personal advantage, at least has alternate ties to Sebastian, and of course, Donathan and Laurel had deep connections to Dom & Wendell and Naviti at large. For Michael, one more day was a godsend; for his prospective allies, turning a 7-5 split into a 6-5 minority would only put a bigger target on their backs.
Angela has been one of the more intriguing supporting characters of the season, and her rise to prominence in this episode suggests that she may be a major player in Act Two. Her military training and her surrogate Naviti family have been the key traits of her character, but her story has always been about learning to play the game for herself – a narrative that matured tonight. Whether it was rebelling against Chris’ plan to turn on Naviti at the Morgan boot or weighing up her personal loyalties at the James vote, she has often been a quiet but pivotal player. However, in the aftermath of being left in the dark at the Chris vote, she was spurned to take greater control of her own game.
The evolved form of Angela charged into this episode with an unexpected fury, whether she was attacking the gross food challenge with an intimidating intensity or attempting to stir the pot on a strategic level. However, was her strategy sound in throwing Michael under the bus after he’d offered to work with her? There may have been avenues for Angela to build new allegiances if she’d flipped to Malolo, but Angela had very few ties to that band of divided underdog players and has much more room to move within the familiar Naviti network. At Tribal, Chelsea noted that staying at the bottom of an alliance was a losing move, but Kellyn elaborated that moving from the bottom of one alliance to the bottom of another was just as damning.
Besides, I wouldn’t assume Angela is at the bottom of the purple pecking order just because she was left out of the Chris vote. Naviti is divided into the Dom/Wendell and Kellyn/Desiree/Chelsea factions that will inevitably come into conflict with each other or with the remnants of Malolo, and Angela is well positioned to ride the middle and play these factions off of each other. It may not have seemed like Angela’s move to target Michael – already a threat and an outsider – was a game-changing power shift, but it showed that she wasn’t just an orphaned Chris acolyte. She’s an active player.
Her warmongering was what riled up Kellyn for the first time in her game and marshalled Naviti against Michael, the player of her own choosing, rather than a default ‘easy’ target like Libby or someone else’s big move like Wendell. Even though her plan ultimately fell through because of Michael’s Idol and was only salvaged by Chelsea’s acute suggestion to split the vote, she got the majority of votes onto the target she wanted, and that’s big for a player in Angela’s relatively disconnected position. Angela is literally hungry to make her mark and leave casualties in her wake – she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Thus, Michael was left with only one friend: a charred stick with a little face on it. In contrast to his creative and blustery approach to James Clement’s Immunity Idol earlier in the season, Michael hid his possession of the Effing Stick. While I am generally a proponent of the Gandalf Rule when it comes to Idols (“Keep it Secret, Keep it Safe”), I wonder if Michael could have success by utilising such an iconic relic with some creativity. But that’s a lot to ask of a starving and dejected teenager, and at the end of the day, he still came out ahead, successfully cancelling seven votes by playing the matured Idol, reversing its curse and earning him another few days in the game. I’m doubtful that it will be enough to turn his game around – like Libby, his name is now in the rotation – but all it takes is for someone else to draw the attention and he might be able to dodge the bullet.
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE MIDDLE
This episode may have seen Angela step up to the war table, but this vote truly solidified that Laurel and Donathan are the underestimated decision-makers in this game. Perfectly positioned between a secret foursome with Domenick and Wendell, the trust of the Naviti women who went out of their way to butter them up as essential allies, and their old Malolo off-cuts, this pair are at the center of it all and are playing their risky swing vote position with calculated excellence.
Laurel’s uncertainty surrounding her allegiance to Wendell was a pivotal plot point that demonstrated how carefully she is considering her path through the game. As Wendell revealed his Idol to her in an effort to assuage what he perceived as wavering paranoia, she responded with initial scepticism but ultimately assured him that she was completely committed to their alliance. Privately, however, she weighed up this new information, recognising the power that Dom & Wendell held and noting that they had gone out of their way to keep secrets from her – Wendell’s Idol find and Dom’s Legacy Advantage, particularly. For her and Donathan, this warned them that this alliance held great opportunity but also needed to be handled with caution.
However, when presented with the opportunity to act upon their suspicions of Wendell’s threat level when Michael turned the target against him, they took the appropriate consideration of their options but landed on the right decision. Siding with Malolo to take out a member of their secret alliance would not only alienate Dom but also their carefully built trust with the Naviti women. It was too early to make such a reckless power play, particularly given they would still be outnumbered at the next vote. While Michael and Libby were forced to play one vote at a time, and players like Angela emerged seeking to make their moves now, Laurel and Donathan expertly made the right move for this middle game – stick with a simple majority to leave their own options flexible for the votes ahead and just write down the easy names in the meantime.
ONLY A MATTER OF TIME
The scattered factions of the Lavita tribe present an open field moving forward. With the middle game still in full effect, it would be easy for the majority to continue to hold strong against an Idol-less Michael or even shift against an easily identifiable ‘big dog’ like Wendell or Domenick. But the middle game is a nebulous concept and playing it safe won’t be an effective strategy for long. At some point, somebody will have to make a legitimate big move that will propel the game past this purgatorial phase of caution.
Will this shift happen next week?