There are moments you can pinpoint throughout Survivor history that helped shape and influence the game. Moments that significantly impacted the evolution of gameplay. The formation of the first ever voting-bloc alliance in Borneo. The first tribe swap in Africa. The fall of the Rotu 4 in Marquesas. The introduction of the hidden immunity idol in Guatemala. Zane Knight asking to be voted out in the Philippines. Okay, that last one was a joke. But the rest were all monumental moments that changed Survivor gameplay forever.
In Episode 7 of Survivor: Cambodia – Second Chance, at the first merge tribal council where Chaos Kass had her torch snuffed, there was a lot of hyperbolic talk about how the game was evolving and changing the history of Survivor strategy from that point forward. Hmm…
The biggest culprits of this hyperbolic bollocks were host Jeff Probst and Survivor’s Allen Ginsberg, Stephen Fishbach. Now, we all know Probst is the king of the over-sell. Whether he is trying to sell you on a blindside or a daytime talk show, Probst will tell you it’s THE BEST EVER! But even Fishbach was getting in on the act at tribal council.
However, it was unclear just what exactly this evolution in the game that they spoke of was. Both men seemed to be hyping different things.
Was it this idea of ever-changing alliances and temporary voting-blocs?
With two tribe swaps, and now a 13 person merge, Survivor Second Chance has allowed for multiple relationships and agreements to form between the players. Alliance wise we’ve seen muddied waters; this was evident by the so-called “Ta Keo alliance” in this episode being made up of Abi, Ciera, Kass, Keith, and Wentworth. Only two of which were on the original Ta Keo tribe. The “Bayon strong” alliance included former Ta Keos like Spencer and Wiglesworth.
Probst seemed to think the very idea of shifting alliances was ground-breaking. Maybe if this were Season 5, it would be. But perpetually shifting alliances and temporary voting blocs have been a part of Survivor gameplay for years; Rob Cesternino set the ball rolling back in The Amazon. Perhaps the shifting of alliances is happening more frequently this season, but still, seasons like Gabon and Nicaragua had shifting alliances almost every episode.
There is this false sense of “unpredictability” surrounding this season. It presents itself as if anything can happen and anyone could go at any time. But what this episode hammered home was that the story is Bayon versus Ta Keo – still; which translates as Strong versus Weak. Coming into the merge, only one original Bayon member had been voted out (the weakest one). That essentially means that the pre-merge was a well-disguised Pagonging. Arguably, only the Monica and Woo eliminations were real, unpredictable blindsides.
Throughout the merge episode, there was lots of strategy talk, number counting, and alliance chatter. It made for some compelling television. But ultimately, it came down to the Episode 1 formed “Bayon strong” alliance being able to secure the numbers over the weaker, outsiders. Admittedly, Kass didn’t help herself by bringing out her chaotic alter-ego and getting into confrontations with Tasha. But had that not happened would the result have been much different? Probably not.
Or was the evolution Stephen talked about the idea of stronger players joining forces at the merge and voting out the weaker players? Stephen highlighted the absurdity of three smaller women being on the chopping block at the first merge vote as opposed to some freakish muscle head. With Joe and Spencer voting with the “Bayon strong” alliance, it put all the big threats into one big troop of testosterone.
Well, first of all, yes, that is rare. Pre-Micronesia it was almost always the case that the stronger men would be merge vote targets. But, throughout Survivor history, ten women have been voted out at the merge vote. In fact, just last season in Worlds Apart a woman was voted out at the merge (her name was Kelly if you can’t remember) and Jenn was the other target.
Also, if we go way back to Africa, the alliance of Ethan, Lex and Big Tom was very much a “meat-shield” alliance. Their intention was to protect each other as the biggest threats in the game, and had Kim not won the final two immunity challenges; they would have succeeded in making it all the way. That was in Season 3; so actually, this is more of a devolution of strategy than evolution.
Secondly, if this is the “big evolution of the game” then what does that mean going forward? Stronger players voting out the weaker players essentially means men voting out women. Again, that was highlighted by Stephen in last night’s tribal council. In Survivor, nine times out of ten, the guys are perceived as stronger than the girls. We heard the term “bro-down” a lot in Episode 7, and we witnessed countless scenes of alpha-male back-slapping and high-fiving – after Savage had stopped crying about being lied to (like a lawyer has never told a lie before!).
If this is the “bro-down” revolution then that to me, personally, does not make for a dynamic or exciting season of Survivor. In a season that has consistently played up the old school versus new school dichotomy, this strategy is very old school.
The biggest merge in Survivor history brought about lots of plotting and scheming. It was a fast-paced episode that contained on the surface a compelling mirage of alliances. But in the end, it turned out to be just that, a mirage. The dynamics that were set-up in the first few days of the game (before the game?) held strong and dictated the vote. It was a strong episode of Survivor but certainly not up there with the best merge episodes.
The growth, or lack of growth, from the Cagayan players, was interesting to watch; this was primarily Cagayan’s episode from top to bottom. And while it was Stephen reciting poetry in the shelter, the episode itself was very poetic for Kass McQuillen. Chaos Kass was born at the merge vote in Cagayan, and the funeral of Chaos Kass took place at the merge vote in Cambodia. Where will the rebirth take place?