I think I’ve said it every week this season, but Survivor really knocked it out of the park with its casting this season. The diversity initiatives point us towards more varied stories and positively impact the players as they play, as seen during Shan and Liana’s trek. But the casting also succeeded in gathering a group of castaways who would come out of the gate hard. While production’s decision to keep tribes small has created a beautiful pressure cooker of paranoia, the players have embraced the game with unfiltered, and often messy, enthusiasm.
That combination of complex characters and complex social gameplay has made for a phenomenal pre-merge, and if the previews are to be believed, there’s more still to come. But this week’s instalment was another fascinating episode, driven by thrilling and paranoid social dynamics that still outshone the return of advantage talk and the truly stellar climax for the Beware Idol.
WHEN THREE BECOME T-UA
Survivor has rarely seen a tribe fizzle out, so when it happens, it makes for rare intrigue. A tribe of two was first whittled down from 9 during Palau, as Bobby Jon and Stephenie became the last survivors of the ill-fated Ulong who never succeeded in winning an Immunity challenge. Fifteen seasons later, Malcolm and Denise recovered from the similarly cursed Matsing in Philippines before they were absorbed into the two remaining tribes.
Now, 16 seasons later, we are here again, except Ua’s trajectory has been a little different, even managing an Immunity win in Episode 2. But nonetheless, they ultimately arrived at the same endpoint, with Shan and Ricard becoming the third tribe of two in Survivor history.
Coming out of last week, this outcome seemed likely based on the Ua tribe’s social structure. Ricard and Shan were the clear core controlling the votes, and unless Genie managed to secure herself an Idol or a game-changing advantage, she was the obvious easy boot. However, nothing about this week’s march to Tribal felt rote or predictable. And even though the episode never fully succeeded in selling the possibility that Shan or Ricard would team up with Genie to blindside the other, the tension throughout the back half of the episode was palpable.
One of the gifts of small tribes is that with nowhere to hide, paranoia and self-interest are pushed to the fore. It’s part of why I lament US Survivor’s eradication of votes in the end-game. The pressure cooker of a single vote at Final 3 and the intensity of the Final 4 vote pale in comparison to the format changes over the years. So to see such a pure dynamic here, arguably even more intense due to the lack of an Immunity necklace, produced a fascinating study in who to trust and how to survive in a space barren of any protection.
Genie’s approach, to her detriment, was to champion loyalty. After her blow-up following the Brad blindside, it seemed as though she was poised to let Genie Machiney loose like a rampaging robot. But instead, she folded back into the Ua tribe in the space she’d occupied previously. She was willing to play the game, but ultimately, she valued social trust. Shan and Ricard managed to beautifully perform their parts to convince Genie she was in a tight three with them, and their work, consolidated by the JD vote, paid off handsomely.
However, Genie was handed a golden opportunity when she uncovered the Beware Advantage. Knowing its contents, thanks to Brad finding it previously, Genie could have easily taken it, risked losing her vote and hoped to secure an Idol to save herself. As it turned out, it almost certainly would have. But instead, she chose to leverage her discovery to build trust with Shan and Ricard, going so far as to show them the Advantage’s hiding place with the agreement to treat it as a shared advantage for their supposed 3-strong alliance.
I’m all for leveraging advantages for social gain, but Genie’s error was misreading that Shan and Ricard wouldn’t seize on it themselves. By focusing on her place in the alliance and the tribe, Genie bypassed an opportunity to save herself. Although she had time to pitch her case to both Ricard and Shan after the challenge loss, it was quickly apparent that neither had any firm desire to keep her. She was a loyal vote, but they’d thrived with each others’ strategic strengths, and going into a potential merge or swap down in the numbers, they needed more than just an ally; they needed a partner-in-crime.
Shan and Ricard have been identified as Day 1 allies, but it took us a little while to see that partnership truly in lockstep. But if their scheming around the Beware Advantage is any indication, it’s no wonder they’ve run circles around Ua, with Ricard as the mastermind and Shan as the closer. Recognising that Genie could easily snatch the Beware Advantage for herself, they conspired to open it in secret, confirm the Advantage’s properties, and re-hide it with a bracelet as a fake Idol.
Thus, Shan came into possession of the Beware Idol. However, she lost her ability to vote in doing so, which could be a death knell on their small tribe. Thankfully, JD’s extra vote was still in her pocket, and by giving it to Ricard (who could still vote), the pair could maintain a 2-1 advantage over Genie if they returned to Tribal without activating Shan’s Idol.
Furthermore, Ricard had a stroke of genius to make the gamble to activate Shan’s Idol, suggesting she say the broccoli activation phrase in the hopes that Xander and a member of Luvu could finish the job. But with Genie in the know on the phrase, it was critical that they didn’t blow up their spot. So Ricard instead pitched to her that Shan say it as a way of testing whether the other tribes had found it. That could allow them to ensure that all Idols had been found before taking the risk and potentially losing the vote. It was a smooth play to not just cover their tracks but to also arm themselves for any coming battle.
Sure enough, the phrases were stated, and Shan’s Idol activated, giving Ricard and Shan unprecedented control. But, alas, there was still trouble in paradise. With the tribes so small, even Ricard and Shan found reason to question if they could truly trust each other. While Ricard held down the fort, Shan was sent on a trek to the Ship’s Wheel during the crucial pre-Tribal phase. Although she found kinship with Liana in a beautiful moment, she also grew paranoid that her time away from camp could have allowed Ricard’s fake plan to buddy up with Genie to become an actual plan.
This paranoia led to a raw and paranoid confrontation between the pair, as Shan pressed Ricard to return her Extra Vote as he’d promised. Much as she’d done with JD in the first place, she attempted to argue that it would be a show of trust that Ricard wouldn’t turn on her. However, Ricard had seen this exact play twice before—and outright partaken in it in the lead-up to blindsiding JD. Rightly, he pushed back. Shan already had the Idol they’d conspired about together; why did she also need the Extra Vote to trust him? And if he gave it to her for insurance, then where was his insurance that she wouldn’t vote him out just like JD?
While Shan has played a remarkably effective game, underscored by incredible social connections and an ability to close the deal on complex and sneaky plans, it seemed evident that that success is not always a sure thing. Her insistence over the Extra Vote directly lampshaded that she carried a significant enough degree of mistrust in her closest ally Ricard to warrant the request. That could prove to be a huge red flag for a savvy player like Ricard.
It’s clear that Shan and Ricard work well together, but this was an obvious indication that Shan, and certainly now Ricard, are ultimately out for themselves. I’m hopeful that this duo can restore balance in their alliance—at least for the time being—now that the pressure of Tribal has subsided. And yet, there is no guarantee, especially with a swap, perhaps, on the horizon.
Shan still has the Idol, and it is implied that Ricard still holds the Extra Vote. While they went to great lengths to obtain them (and it’s especially impressive that neither advantage was originally found by them), it could still be that that power will corrupt their trust in each other moving forward.
It’s a fascinating theme of the season, where advantages have been more detrimental to a players’ game than anything else. Xander, Brad, JD have all fallen victim to this season’s advantages to one degree or another. And it’s terrifying to see that curse shift to Shan in particular as she grows increasingly paranoid and reliant on her accumulated power.
However, Shan hasn’t lost the spark of what’s made her a strong, if flawed, player to this point, even as she wields greater and greater power. Shan’s strength is her social game and her ability to powerfully connect with her fellow castaways. Her moment with Liana was especially powerful in that respect, connecting as two Black women and finding a deep emotional kinship in a vulnerable moment as Shan discussed the loss of her mother.
The Ship’s Wheel is already showing wear as a game mechanic (as once again, Shan & Liana were able to game the system, like Evvie & Deshawn had done before). However, it’s this side of it, the cross-Tribal social connections and the opportunities for moments of human connection outside the game, that have made it a worthwhile addition to the season.
Yet even through the intensity of the emotion, Shan and Liana remained game-focussed players and quickly agreed to forge an alliance that could aid both of them moving forward. Recognising that her vote was too valuable to lose on a 3-person tribe, Shan agreed to protect her vote and allow Liana to walk away with a mysterious advantage. Perhaps that sacrifice impacted Shan’s burning need to reclaim the Extra Vote from Ricard, but regardless, it’s clear that Shan can manoeuvre and manipulate situations in her favour. And once she’s free of the Ua pressure cooker, maybe the smoother skills she’s exhibited previously could resurface, as they did her for Liana.
Liana coming into possession of an advantage is also fascinating. At the Voce vote, she was the most agitated by Tiffany insisting on an illogical plan to save Xander with a cavalcade of advantages in his pocket. Now with those advantages reactivated by a flawlessly executed third iteration of the butterfly line, Xander is no longer a helpless factor. He is now one of the most powerful players in the game. Well, at least until Liana’s Knowledge is Power advantage came along.
On face value, I’m intrigued by the irony of Liana holding the kind of power she’d wished to flush previously. But given how over-powered her advantage is, I’m curious to see if the season’s trend of danger following those with advantages continues.
The Knowledge is Power advantage itself pushes straight into the territory of the David vs. Goliath Idol Nullifier. It’s an advantage that is so powerful and game-breaking that it feels legitimately unfair to secretly introduce into the game. Essentially, the Advantage allows Liana to ask a single player if they hold an Idol or an Advantage. They must answer truthfully, and much like Go Fish, if they have what she asks for, they must give it to her. Essentially, it allows Liana to steal an Idol or an Advantage.
On paper, it’s the kind of Advantage that has a high reward but could be easily wasted due to a bad hunch or bad information. The problem is that the “guessing” question-asking aspect that limits the power level of the advantage is completely removed when an Idol or Advantage is public information.
Giving the ability for a player to directly steal an Idol or Advantage goes directly against the commonly understood mechanics of the game, wherein such things are explicitly protected from common theft. Colton can’t just go and steal Bill’s Idol and throw it in the ocean. If you have an Idol or an Advantage, it’s yours. So a surprise mechanism that changes that impacts the entire approach to holding such abilities because it punishes a player for things they don’t expect to be punished for.
The idea of revealing an Idol to build trust has been around almost since its inception, and this season’s advantages have been actively employed such that other players will know they’re in play. The Ship’s Wheel has meant Evvie and Shan know Deshawn and Liana earned advantages, and the three-way Idol passphrases were built to ensure that those that found them would be able to identify who else earned an Idol.
So the Knowledge is Power is overwhelmingly powerful when that Knowledge is already out there. And if Xander or, especially Naseer, is to lose an Idol to an advantage they had no way of predicting, it does feel like this tips towards being game-breaking in an unfair and frustrating way. And that could have been avoided if all players were aware that an Idol-stealing advantage could be in play.
As I’ve said a million times with respect to Australian Survivor in particular, it’s always more fun to see a player play WITH a twist or advantage rather than be played BY a twist or advantage. And let’s be honest, the season has been at its worst when it has been in the weeds of the advantage rules. The advantages have been most interesting when the players are discussing them with each other, playing with and around them. The Knowledge is Power Advantage actively discourages this, and I am concerned it could disincentivise players to discuss their advantages with each other in future seasons, removing the social components of Idol and Advantage play that make it fascinating.
And it does seem like Xander is in the prime position to suffer for being open about his advantages, though from his gameplay this episode, that’s not his only problem. Tiffany has remained a force on Yase, her paranoia still cooking even after surviving the Voce vote. Suspicious of Evvie and Xander potentially having a side alliance, she and Liana searched Xander’s bag to confirm his holdings.
First of all, bad on Xander for not hiding his advantages, especially the Extra Vote that wasn’t public knowledge. But Xander also made a major gaffe when, to build trust with Tiffany by telling her about his Idol, he made the unnecessary lie that he’d only found it that morning. However, when he proceeded to show her the paperwork, she was able to piece together that he’d already said the line about butterflies. As Tiffany animatedly mugged at the camera at her disbelief, it was understandable. She had unambiguous proof that he’d lied to her, and she could call him out on it without revealing her own bag-snooping subterfuge. Proof of a lie is difficult to find in Survivor, so Xander scoring an own goal on that one was particularly brutal.
In many ways, I feel bad for Xander having his game so thoroughly scuppered by the punishment of the Beware Advantage. However, it is apparent that even though he’s had a few Immunity wins allow him the time to survive even without a vote, he’s not been able to crack the social structure of the tribe and reverse his fate. And it may very well be because of these kinds of simple errors and misreads. The saving grace for Xander is that he has finally recovered his powers,yet without a social game, that won’t get him very far.
But Xander isn’t the only one facing a crux between social game and advantages. Naseer has been a whack-a-mole over on Luvu, consistently in and out of the firing line. This week, he seemed somewhere in the middle as he appeared to make peace with his long-term target Danny. Deshawn was still itching to throw a challenge to vote out Erika, and he and Danny discussed trying again, especially as they grew paranoid about the increasing gender disparity. However, after Naseer had single-handedly overcome their attempt last time, they decided to loop him into the plan this time around.
Naseer, however, wasn’t having it, and rightfully so. He has to know he isn’t in a power position on the tribe, and so willingly losing could put him in jeopardy. But to Danny and Deshawn’s credit, even though they remained distrustful of Naseer, they acquiesced to his refusal to throw the challenge. Immediately, Naseer saw this as a sign of trust, which is great for Danny and Deshawn, but could prove dangerous for our resident goat on AstroTurf.
Yes, that’s right, Naseer is the Luvuian to finally come upon the Beware Advantage, as revealed in a stellar flashback. Survivor’s experimental editing this season hasn’t been perfect, but when it’s worked, it’s been phenomenal. Heading into the Immunity Challenge, and hearing Shan and Xander utter their activation phrases, it felt like this would be a funny moment in the long saga. But out of nowhere, Naseer uttered that pivotal phrase, and we flashbacked to him finding the Idol the day before. The editing trick landed perfectly, preserving the surprise but not robbing Naseer of his moment—arguably enhancing it.
Naseer is an absolute delight of a character with his unabashed enthusiasm. His recounting of his daughter training him for Survivor by hiding Idols in the backyard for him to find was a perfect encapsulation of what is so great about this cast. Many and varied, but passionate about the game that they’ve come halfway around the world to play. Finding an Idol is not just an advantage in the game, but it’s a culmination of an emotional investment in the meta-game, the show, and what makes Survivor, Survivor. And more importantly, it’s human.
I am thrilled to see Naseer with an Idol in his pocket, but I do worry he could be punished for the mechanics of the Idol that were outside his control. While Luvu might be oblivious to the codephrase and the Idol, every member of Ua and Yase, including Liana and her Knowledge is Power advantage, knew the phrase and could clock to Naseer having the Idol. Meanwhile, he has no idea that they know. This asymmetric knowledge is beautifully complex in game theory, but I would hate to see it be the reason Naseer is targeted. Yet in the season where advantages bring ill omens, the prophecies are not looking great…
MERGE? NOT QUITE…
We’re down to 12, and precedent certainly suggests that we’re due for a merge soon. But as the preview laid out, we’re dropping buffs.. but mixing things up. A swap is seemingly on the horizon, but whether we whittle down to two tribes of 6 or lean to a more extreme three tribes of 4 (or something even more insane), it’s clear that the show is eager to keep these players on their toes and keep amping up the pressure cooker.
Even if the tribes are granted the ability to move to the same beach, facilitating more interaction in the lead-up to the end game, maintaining the intensity of small tribes is sure to make for more and more fireworks in weeks to come.