It’s so easy to get caught up in the minutia of Survivor. Whether you absorb the episode as it happens, getting caught up in the moments of the big moves, or whether you dig into all the extra-curricular material of secret scenes, exit interviews, hours upon hours of podcasts, page upon page of commentary, there is so much to dissect. Each episode is brimming with strategy, social nuance and blink-and-you-miss-it slices of humour. Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.
It can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture as a viewer – partly because it’s hard to assess a narrative as a whole without knowing the ending. Yet sometimes Survivor pulls back the curtain and allows us to get a broader sense of what’s happening on the beach beyond the two or three days of island time. This season has felt like one that has prioritised that bigger picture, seemingly setting up stories that promise to pay off down the line, even as game twists rise and die within one episode. This episode delved into that approach further and gave us a plethora of big-picture stories, from long-term strategic thinking to real-world applications.
FRIENDSHIP, SAFETY AND THE GAME
For Soko, it was all about the long-term game, as the castaways tried to build trust that would not just get them through the swap phase, but would help them in the long run. For Roark, who was objectively outnumbered by two Heroes and two Hustlers, it started with building friendships that could expand into strategic partnerships. Her position naturally leant itself to being the swing vote, and she gravitated towards Ali and Ryan, choosing to continue to pick apart the Hero tribe by targeting Chrissy and then JP. Ali was eager to move beyond the decimated Hustlers and forge her own path through the game and saw an alliance with Roark as a door to safety amongst the six-strong Healer numbers at the merge.
It seemed like a natural partnership for the two women, and Ali’s relationship with Ryan offered the obvious third ally. Ali knew Ryan from Day One, and the two had worked in tandem through the first couple Hustler votes. Naturally, Ali believed she could trust him – and that he would trust her above all others in the tribe. She was half-right: Ryan saw Ali as a key ally, for sure, but his loyalty was also split with Chrissy, with whom he’d built a secret alliance with the Super Idol.
Ryan’s game has centered on his social game, using his natural charisma to put people at ease and make them laugh, lowering their defences so that he can build meaningful bonds with them. So far it has paid off, even allowing him to skirt a disastrous showing in the Reward challenge with little blowback. But you can’t be everyone’s friend forever in this game. As Roark and Ali turned their sights on Chrissy after her own poor performance at the Immunity challenge, he was forced to choose sides and wrong one of his own closest allies.
For Chrissy, on the other hand, her decision was simple. Sensing that she was the easy target, she resolved to play big and try to save herself. Threatened by Roark as a savvy gameplayer with her whole Healer tribe still in the game, Chrissy put a plan in place to outsmart her. She first approached Roark for a one-on-one strategy conversation that both women immediately recognised as a bogus formality. For Chrissy, it confirmed that she couldn’t trust Roark; for Roark, it solidified her desire to cut Chrissy out of the game. But Chrissy wasn’t finished yet, using her time alone with Roark to incept fear of a women’s alliance into JP to sway him to vote out a physical asset like Roark, and utilising that turn of events to present a plan to Ryan, capitalising on their secret bond to gain a majority. It was a clever strategy that ultimately paid off – in spite of near disaster at Tribal Council.
HER SIDE, MY SIDE AND THE TRUTH
The dialogue at Tribal Council can often be a jumble of buzzwords, idioms, and generic conversation as the castaways try to avoid tipping their hands. Tonight, however, much of it was laid out on the table as Chrissy came in swinging. Perhaps fear of going home lit a fire under her, giving way to a combative approach to Tribal, which saw her interrupting Ali to rebut the accusations of her challenge performance and scrapping with Roark over who was responsible for their lack of strategic connection. Not only that, but she wandered dangerously close to revealing too much information, openly discussing with whom she had talked strategy. Perhaps the veneer of desperation was an act to dupe her opponents, but Chrissy’s antagonistic behaviour was a dangerous omen nonetheless.
Yet she wasn’t the only one, as Roark’s directness gave way to smug superiority as she chastised Chrissy for not talking game before the day she needed her and glibly requesting that they have a more ongoing strategic relationship moving forward. Maybe it was over-confidence speaking, but her assertion that she felt “the same comfortable” about her security in the game after the heated arguments was another ominous signal. Yet Roark had no way of knowing about the real swing vote in Ryan.
While Roark believed she was the swing between the Heroes and Hustlers, Ryan was the actual decision-maker, ultimately choosing to blindside Roark and his Day Dot ally Ali in order to preserve his alliance with Chrissy. It was undoubtedly the right decision – Chrissy was a huge asset for him moving forward, whereas Roark had no real value to him as she was more connected to the Healer tribe and Ali than to him. By voting out Roark, Ryan now found himself with two of his closest allies still in the game – even if he must now make amends to a wronged Ali. On the plus side, however, Ali has no other allies to turn to, so may realign with Ryan by default – nevertheless, that trust has been broken. It was a dangerous move, but a smart one for the present. But will it pay off in the long run?
CRAZY AND SMART
Meanwhile, over on Levu and Yawa, the castaways were making moves to solidify new alliances that could propel them deeper into the game. On Levu, Ashley congratulated Joe for his move at the last Tribal Council, noting that she’d underestimated him as being crazy, not recognising that he was “crazy and smart.” Nevertheless, with the tribe now split between Joe & Desi and Ashley & Devon, new plans had to be made. Winning the Reward Challenge gave the tribe reprieve, but it also ignited a confidence in Devon to ensure his mind stayed focused. He confirmed his strong trust in Ashley and the two conspired to work on flipping Desi against Joe. It seems like a good sell on paper, particularly given the rocky relationship between her and Joe already, and if Ashley and Devon are honest about being willing to force the tie to rocks, it seems logical for her to flip out of self-preservation. Either way, the new pair of Ashley and Devon are planning for the long term.
Another new pair emerged on Yawa. With Cole incapable of keeping secrets last week and his gluttony and poor manners getting under Lauren’s and Ben’s skin this week, Jessica was searching for a new Number One. She reached out to build a new partnership with Dr. Mike and the unlikely duo immediately set to work, working in tandem to dig up an Idol by the Yawa well. While I’m wary of Jessica’s choice to let Mike do the digging (after all, he explicitly says in confessional that the Idol is his, and not for the two of them as he posits to her), the shared experience of finding the Idol immediately strengthens the new alliance. For Mike, it’s the hope he’s been needing, finally turning his game around from bottom-dweller to power-player. The only hitch is that someone knows his secret, and that might just be the key to his big-picture success.
THE FUTURE WILL SAVE YOU
One of my favourite aspects of Survivor is that amongst all of the social manipulation and cutthroat strategy, real people are undergoing a very real and very raw experience that exposes a truth that is bigger than the game. Ben’s story tonight was one incredibly powerful example, and easily the standout scene of the episode.
When a length of bamboo on the campfire began popping in sharp, sudden bursts reminiscent of gunfire, the former Marine retreated to the water, clearly shaken by the sounds. In confessional, he spoke of the toll of military service: that war wreaks havoc “upstairs” and the soldiers who come home have to carry a burden that no civilian can possibly imagine. It’s harrowing, and sadly it’s not uncommon.
Although he still grapples with these demons, Ben sought to find hope. Inspired by his wife and his family, he’s looking towards a better future and hoping that his pursuit in Survivor will be an example for all servicemen and women grappling with the realities of war, depression and PTSD that there is a life beyond that hell. The term ‘inspirational’ can get thrown about pretty loosely, but there’s no denying the power of this scene and the wisdom in Ben’s words. “The past will eat you alive,” he says, “but the future will save you.”
Survivor – the game and the show – is a wonderful thing. It’s why we watch – and it’s why Ben and his castmates are starving on an island. But it’s not the be-all and end-all, and I’m grateful that Survivor takes time to point towards that bigger picture and give this very real and very raw matter the spotlight it deserves.
KEEP YOUR MIND IN THE GAME
This season has continued to deliver, and as the game gets messier, these competitors are stepping up to the challenge. With shifting allegiances, secrets galore and three different tribes on the table, the stage is set for an exciting run.
It’s still early days, but right now, I’m feeling confident. When all is said and done, and we look back at Heroes v Healers v Hustlers as a whole, I reckon we’re going to be pretty happy with the bigger picture.
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