There’s a reason that the game has only come down to rocks a handful of times in the history of Survivor. The game is such a brutal experience that willingly risking it all on pure chance is a true Hail Mary. But that’s precisely why, heading into Tribal Council, I thought there was a very real chance that we could be ending with the chaos of a rock draw. Vakama had been shunted to the sidelines from the merge by an immovable alliance that only cracked under the influence of the days-long Exile twist. They had no power, except the ability to disrupt and play the gambit of rocks—high risk for their own life in the game, but high reward for the possibility of coming out on top with the majority.
But it’s also why it’s no surprise that the resolve to go to rocks ultimately crumbled. Through a series of sliding doors and small ripple effects, the circumstances shored up against the big, risky play. While a part of me still wishes AK, Brooke, and Shonee had stuck to their guns, spun the roulette wheel and hope for that 25% chance that Sharn would draw the purple rock over any one of them, I can’t begrudge them for backing down when the odds had grown so stacked against them. After all, Survivor is ultimately a game of grasping for some modicum of control over your fate through managing social bonds, developing effective strategies and physically surviving the onslaught. It’s only if there is no other hope that leaving it to chance should even be a question. Nevertheless, I fear that stepping down from the ledge leaves the Vakama 3 in a very precarious position—they’re not out yet, but it’s still a grim outlook.
For what was ultimately a straightforward outcome—Jacqui goes home in direct retribution for making the big move against Zach, even with the blessing of her closest allies—there were a lot of moving parts and steps to get there, even before we got to the possibility of a rock draw. So let’s reset the scene before we wheel out the AKountant to crunch the numbers on that razor-edge Tribal.
THE FOLLY OF CONFIDENCE
Overconfidence is one of Survivor’s biggest killers—and it was fascinating to see two opponents both riding the false high of confidence after the outcome of the last Tribal. While Vakama was certainly justified in the thrill of finally breaking the game their way for the first time after merge, Jacqui was on another level. The jokes of being the “Golden Goddess” may be silly theatre, but as it has been said before, once you taste a blindside, you’re always hungry for more. Sure enough, Jacqui was champing at the bit to make another big play. It wasn’t entirely unfounded as the Exile twist exposed her place within the Mokuta alliance, and she made a huge move in retaliation while still keeping avenues open to her allies. If everybody else was playing smart, she was in a great position to advance, rack up a couple more moves to her name, and possibly even win her way down the home stretch given her track record in taxing endurance challenges.
The best play for her was to commit to the Vakama core and continue to work to dismantle her old alliance until it benefited her to swing back to them. Key to that was removing David, and had he not emerged victorious at the Immunity Challenge, and had he somehow not played his Idol (which seems unlikely, especially as he ultimately burned it on Tarzan in an attempt to lock in the vote), then maybe it would have worked out for Jacqui. But the trouble with Survivor is that players so often play irrationally, and in this case, it was David’s confidence in his terrible choice of Reward companions.
Of course, it all worked out in the end for David and his alliance, so how critical can I be, but it seemed to be a total misstep to exclude Jacqui from the Reward. As he said himself, games can be won or lost by who gets to go away from camp together—and who gets left behind. After the debacle of losing Zach, David should have been making every effort to reforge some degree of trust with Jacqui—or at least enough to make the pitch of reuniting the Mokuta alliance a convincing story. Instead, David fixated on revenge, and once again, it put up blinders on his game. He saw the Reward as an opportunity to secure Sharn’s loyalty, but Sharn is going to Sharn no matter how many champagne flutes you ply her with. And if it’s crucial to secure Sharn, then why not still take her–along with Jacqui—and work to recoup them both, while leaving Moana or especially Tarzan back at camp as an immovable object for the Vakama 3 to fruitlessly try to sway.
Bringing Jacqui back in was important regardless of whether or not the Mokuta alliance wanted to seek immediate revenge. David’s ideal plan predicated on misleading Jacqui to vote for Shonee “with the alliance,” while the alliance actually voted her out in a 4-3-1 count. But by leaving Jacqui out of the Reward, it only cemented her distance and crippled any chance of her actually believing she was still a part of the fold. An even smarter play might have been to truly try to get her back on side to whittle down Vakama, at least by one more, before exacting revenge. I see this as especially beneficial to Moana & Sharn, who shared a working relationship with Jacqui, and tossing that away to kowtow to David’s revenge plot seems a little shortsighted. But perhaps they had already seen that that ship had sailed given Jacqui’s pride in her big move. Regardless, David’s shortsightedness in managing the fallout with Jacqui was risky—and even though the events of Tribal ultimately toppled in his favour, they very easily could have gone the other way.
RAISING THE STAKES
So with the remnants of the Mokuta alliance coming at Jacqui and David immune, the Vakama 3 plus Jacqui agreed upon voting for the next biggest threat in Moana. It wasn’t a bad choice. Mo is definitely a dangerous opponent, and she has made it abundantly clear that there is no room in her game for the Vakamas. It also avoids replicating the previous strategy of voting for David’s most obvious connection in Tarzan, which would have been foiled by David’s equally clever use of one of his Idols to protect Tarzan. Most of all, though, it leaves room for Sharn as the swing vote. Sharn is a player who has shown herself to be willing to entertain manoeuvring in the middle and, as AK insightfully noted, a player intelligent enough to see the logic in not risking her game on a rock draw.
But with Sharn most definitely on the fence, there was a very high chance of the vote coming down to a deadlocked tie and a potential rock draw. The nervous excitement of that prospect was palpable with AK, Brooke, and Shonee. After their extended stint at the bottom of Kalokalo, even having enough numbers to make the majority quake with a rock draw was huge, and it was the kind of gamble that could completely change their fate. Not for nothing, but going out swinging hard seemed a lot more impactful than just dwindling one at a time as a minority picked off by a majority. Their sheer determination to force the majority’s hand had me excited. Perhaps Sharn, notoriously fickle in her self-preservation instincts, would be prompted to flip by the threat of rocks, or if not, then surely Vakama wouldn’t willingly choose to continue in the minority. Right? …Right?
With Vakama’s anticipated plan, there was a pretty decent chance of them winning out if it came to rocks. One of them and Moana would be safe, as would David, leaving Tarzan and Sharn against three of them—a 40% chance of securing a new majority at the Top 7. It would be groundbreaking and game-making all in one. But steadily and surely, the potential for a rock draw was whittled down from a worthy risk to a raw deal by a series of circumstances that shaped the odds against them.
The first big factor was, ironically, the Mokuta alliance continuing to turn on each other instead of finishing off the Vakamas. It’s an open secret that the Vakama 3 are thick as thieves, and even though Jacqui is a key number for them at this stage, she’s clearly the low rung at this point. If Mokuta had gone with the decoy plan to vote for Shonee, it is far less likely that Brooke or AK would concede the vote to unanimously eliminate Shonee. Of course, there’d then be the risk that Jacqui would have flipped back at the revote for self-preservation, but with how keen she was to ramp up her game and how little she trusted the current Mokutas, it seems likely she would have stuck with her new alliance. And if it did go to rocks, the odds are even better for the Vakama core as only 2 of the 5 people drawing rocks. So as shortsighted as David’s revenge plot against Jacqui may have seemed, it ended up being coincidentally critical to the breakdown of the rock draw.
The second big factor also came from Dave: the Idol played for Tarzan. I was surprised David used the Idol here. He was guaranteed Final 5 with his two Idols, and with another Immunity win or a successful bluff with his pretty convincing fake, then he’s well and truly in the endgame. However, there’s still an advantage to be gained by David’s logic. It protects against Tarzan being targeted in the same manner as Zach—and if he guessed the target right, it nullifies any chance of a tied vote. On top of that, it works to secure Tarzan’s trust and loyalty, which is something that is in increasingly short supply for David.
But the other huge effect is that it swings the odds into Mokuta’s favour at a rock draw. Now a rock draw drops from a 40% chance of succeeding for Vakama to a mere 25%. That’s a big hit for Vakama—and coupled with the vote on Jacqui putting the core Vakama 3 at risk, it puts the heat on them. AK, Brooke, and Shonee openly championed their intention to go to rocks on a big risk. The Idol play, even if unsuccessful in blocking votes, forces the minority to put their money where their mouth was with making a move this big, especially when they could just take the easy way out, folding their hand and just voting out Jacqui.
The final death knell, however, was Sharn. The Vakamas had pinned their hope of winning out without rocks on Sharn flipping, especially at a revote, when the pressure would be on. Sharn certainly felt the heat and wanted to avoid the possibility of rocks, and even after she made the decision to tow the party line, she attempted to convince Tarzan to flip his vote in vain. In many ways, I’m surprised Sharn stuck with her alliance here—with all three of David, Mo, and Tarzan safe, it was her neck on the line should Vakama really want to risk it all. But once again, a lot of the action of the season comes back to the under-the-radar relationship between Sharn and Moana that has been massively underplayed in the edit. If the vote had been against Tarzan (with no Idol in play), then maybe Sharn would have flipped, but after multiple votes where she’s reneged on a plan to vote Mo, it seems well-established at this point that Sharn is reluctant to send Moana home.
Yet Sharn talking Vakama off the ledge was an ultimately impressive play. Sharn had a decent chance to survive the rock draw. Still, a 1 in 4 chance of going home on Day 40 when you’re otherwise in a solid, well-connected position seems far too risky for the measly reward of getting rid of one of the obvious minority Vakamas. For Vakama, though, the rock draw was still a Hail Mary, and there’s certainly a world where they stick to their guns and spin the roulette wheel. However, Sharn’s appeal to their better sense was shockingly effective.
Her pitch that she would work with them if they just voted Jacqui out, effectively forming a new majority with her in Jacqui’s place, is incredibly suspect, especially given how often she’s left the minority at the altar—including minutes before at the revote! But I can certainly see how it played on the trepidation of going to rocks, especially with the events of Tribal making Jacqui the scapegoat and removing Tarzan from the equation. At the end of the day, just as Sharn didn’t want to risk going home, did any of them really want to lose out on a random draw that was far more likely to scuttle their close alliance than removing a piece from their opposition?
It also seems telling that Vakama regularly huddled up between themselves, despite the open forum of discussion. This convening suggests that the all-or-nothing play of going to rocks was something they would only do if all three of them agreed to risk it. AK certainly seemed to be the ringleader pushing for the big play, but if Brooke or Shonee—or even AK himself—were starting to get cold feet, it seemed like the agreement was to back away.
But was this the right play? Unfortunately, I think it was. They’d worked hard to secure Jacqui as a number, but she was still expendable compared to their alliance of three forged through weeks of playing together. The odds were even worse thanks to the Idol. And even though it was surely suspicious, Sharn’s plea was not without merit. Although she’s hovered indecisively in the middle, they know her to be a player with smarts who’ll understand that a move needs to be made. With David’s only known Idol now flushed, it certainly opens the door to take him out at the next vote, and perhaps Sharn could be the saving grace for Vakama at a critical Final 7 vote. Is it a guarantee? Definitely not, but a slim chance is better than no chance at all, and a rock draw is only the best option when there’s no chance at all.
This vote ended up being the biggest threat to the Mokuta majority. If AK, Brooke, and Shonee had forced rocks, and Sharn had been the unlucky one, David, Moana, and Tarzan are surely toast. But through David’s choices—intentional or incidental—and Sharn’s convincing plea, they avoided danger and now have a clear path to the Final 4 if they wished to take it. This leaves Vakama in a very iffy position, but it also leaves Sharn in a crucial place.
Sharn’s ability to coast down the middle of the road without any repercussions is a marvel in and of itself. But she’s running out of time to pick a lane and is running even lower on good partners to face off against in a Final 2. Even if she makes a clear choice at the next vote, her middle-of-the-road reputation to this point could catch up to her, and I think there’s a non-zero chance we could be on the precipice of Sharn following in the footsteps of Amanda Kimmel and Russell Hantz of two-time losing finalists. So while Sharn pulled off a great play of self-preservation in her conversations here, she’s going to need to tighten up her game in the coming episodes and play more decisively in this final stretch.
We’re down to the Final 7, and with Sharn clearly in the middle between Mokuta and Vakama, we seem poised for a classic game-deciding vote in the next episode. After the dreary prospects of the merge, the season has certainly picked up steam again through Zach’s downfall and Jacqui’s unlucky fate at the hands of a near rock draw. The greater focus on background characters like Jacqui, Tarzan, and AK certainly helps this uptick, but the storytelling of the season still feels a little too narrow as a whole. Nevertheless, I’m hoping for some exciting gameplay and compelling stories in these last five episodes. However, even if it peters out again, we’ll still have the thrill of anticipation built in this episode’s nerve-wracking crescendo.