The pre-merge of Survivor 41 burgeoned with players willing and able to play calculated and proactive games. The merge felt destined to be a competitive meeting of the minds—a pavlova, if you will. A little sweet and varied with its assorted fruits, a little crunchy and a little gooey with its delicate and light meringue but with just enough cream to give it a bit of weight in the gut. It’s a treat that tastes great and looks impressive to boot.
Instead, the merge has been completely cacophonous. These capable and driven castaways have been in a complete scramble to just survive, any illusion of elegance dispelled. It’s still been entertaining—still tasty with the same ingredients, but it looks far from pretty. Not so much a pavlova as an Eton mess.
And why am I tucking into this episode with a belaboured food metaphor? Well, it’s been bandied about for years that the producers’ efforts to reignite the survival element have never really translated to the screen. And yet, with this season, and the complete deprivation of food supplies, it’s starting to become so impactful that it’s forcing its way into the strategy.
Shan and Ricard have been bickering allies for weeks now, but papaya etiquette feels like it carries enough significance that it could actually impact their alliance and the game. The tension of sitting out the challenge for rice was a forced negotiation, but it brutally demonstrated player priorities and hierarchies. And perhaps most significantly, it’s impacting the players’ capabilities when it comes to the game play.
The fog of starvation hangs heavy over the season. After all, the merge tribe name, Viakana, is the Fijian word for hunger. But trying to carefully manoeuvre social strategy is challenging on a full belly, so with the players starved to their limits, it’s no wonder that the deft, calculated intentions of the first few episodes have descended into chaotic, impulsive madness.
Still fun in its own way, but it’s not what the season looked like it might be at the outset. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, nor a good thing, and until the season’s end, it may be difficult to discern the cause of all of this unsettled sloppiness. Yet for now, it’s still entertaining Survivor, even if it’s a mess.
In the wake of Sydney’s elimination, the unpredictable chaos started quickly. Feeling betrayed by Xander and Tiffany’s choice to not play the Idol on them, Evvie was understandably wary of their ostensible allies. Were it not for Sydney panicking and erroneously playing the Shot in the Dark, Evvie would have gone home in a re-vote. Their allies didn’t save them… luck did.
But the animosity was mutual, as Xander was understandably wary of Evvie after learning they’d divulged all of Xander’s secrets to Deshawn weeks ago. For coming into the last Tribal as a unified trio with a rock-solid plan to disrupt Liana’s Knowledge is Power, Evvie, Xander and Tiffany had all emerged more divided than ever—trust in Liana obliterated, trust in each other fractured, and unambiguously on the bottom of the tribe.
So without any glue to hold them together, it became a scramble for numero uno, each willing to sell the others out if it saw them last one more round. While Evvie and Tiffany were proactive in trying to shore up new options, they seemed to be bluntly shut out. For instance, Deshawn rolling his eyes at Evvie’s attempts to start fresh and Danny openly shrugging off Tiffany’s questions and bluntly telling her she could be on the block.
Xander was clearly facing similar struggles too (and was ultimately left out of the vote just like Tiffany & Evvie), but he was making some notably active, if transparent, efforts to curry favour. He gave up his shot at Reward to give Erika a chance after her Exile. But this choice also gave him a chance to search the sit-out bench for an Advantage (which he still struggled to find, to my absolute shock) and also positioned him with the challenge losers where he hoped he could capitalise on the shared frustration to discern more about those in power. When it came to the rice negotiation, Xander was also the only member of the minority alliance to step forward, an effort to try to win any goodwill he could.
The desperate self-preservation might not have been the most tactical move (which is surely to stick together and try to pluck off the outsiders of the majority), but such tactics require too much coordination. And they’d just witnessed how quickly the best-laid plans could devolve into unmitigated chaos at Tribal. Why risk it? It was better to just play according to the old adage: don’t worry about being the fastest to outrun the monster chasing you; just make sure you’re not the slowest.
Trouble was, the majority alliance doubted that the three old Yase members were truly divided. And after witnessing their mind games with the fake Idol, it was not out of the realm of possibility that their mutual betrayals were just for show to mask another sneak attack. So the Yase Three were facing the worst of both worlds—their own alliance falling apart and few inroads to a new alliance.
In many ways, the majority—the remaining 5 Luvu (Danny, Deshawn, Naseer, Erika & Heather), the Ua Duo (Shan & Ricard) and Liana—had everything laid out perfectly. They could split the votes comfortably, 4-4, and ensure one of the Yase Three went home. Even when Evvie, their ideal prime target, won Immunity, they were still perfectly positioned to take out Xander or Tiffany. And while they ultimately succeeded in doing just that, it was far from elegant.
The majority knew that Xander had an Idol. The entire logic of a split vote is to target the person with the Idol. If they play it, you’ve stacked votes on a contingency, but if they don’t, then you send them home with it in their pocket. Yet impossibly, the majority decided to stack their votes on Tiffany, rather than Xander—the guy known to hold not just an Idol but also an Extra Vote. Liana mentioned in passing that they were hoping to flush Xander’s Idol and see him waste it because the majority of votes were never going to be on him, but I have to ask… why?
Why not just call Xander’s bluff and pile the votes on him? Why try to get cute by trying to make him “waste” an Idol? Perhaps this was symptomatic of Liana’s demonstrated desire to make a move flashier than it needs to be (especially as compensation for the Knowledge is Power snafu). Or maybe it was just the first of many sloppy strategies this episode. Either way, it was a baffling choice that now leaves the majority in a position where Evvie & Xander could both be immune next round, forcing the majority to eat its own and prematurely define its internal battle-lines.
But who are we kidding—the majority is not remotely cohesive. They’re eager to start throwing votes on their own “extraneous” numbers like Naseer or Heather, and even those at the centre of the decision-making—Deshawn, Shan, Danny & Liana—are at odds over the smallest disputes. Whereas Evvie, Xander, and Tiffany might have every right to be scrambling to save themselves, the majority’s gameplay is arguably more inscrutable. And it’s simply their numbers that are keeping their hole-riddled boat afloat.
The plan started to unravel when Danny and Deshawn proposed the idea of splitting to vote onto Naseer. Only a few episodes ago, they were desperate to protect him as a number against a potential women’s alliance, but now they were happy to throw him under the bus. There’s been long-term animosity between them going all the way back to Naseer spotting them Idol hunting on Day 1. Still, it felt like a sudden strategic turn, especially given they cut Sydney instead of him last week.
Perhaps it was the realisation of Naseer’s likability and role as a provider beginning to increase his threat level. Maybe it was the anxiety of his Idol as a potential disruptor to their ideal Final Four with Shan and Liana. Or it could have been something else entirely. But splitting the vote on one of your own numbers (and a loyal number, at that, based on what we’ve seen recently from Naseer) feels premature. Luvu already lost Sydney last week, why not ensure a Yase goes now?
On paper, I completely agree with Shan’s dismay at the change of plan. Eating your own too early can be disastrous. She recognised the value of loyalty from her time on Ua—perhaps even doubting her own past choices with choosing the Strategist Ricard over the Loyalist Genie, given the ongoing tension between her and her ostensible closest ally. However, Shan’s game is quickly beginning to spiral. Her reads are still generally incisive, but between the intense hunger and the fatigue of the Ua losing streak straight into the chaotic merge, her smooth social gameplay of the first few days have shifted into a whole other beast.
She’d been showing an increasing hunger for control on Ua, but she’s brought that same energy into the merge and a new alliance. Pushing her perspective forcefully rubbed Deshawn the wrong way multiple times, including in the heat of yet another whisper-fest at Tribal, as he felt she wasn’t making room to “absorb his opinion.” Shan alluded to some male ego in her confessionals, and it does feel like there are some gender politics at play in this tension, but it’s not as though Shan’s manner of playing is an isolated issue for Deshawn.
We’ve been seeing it with Ricard (who worried his tasting a sliver of papaya after winning reward would see Shan transform the personal offense into a game vendetta). We’ve seen it with Liana—shocked and anxious that Shan was loose-lipped about her advantage in a way that led to it blowing up in her face. And we saw it again with Heather, who was baffled at Shan’s half-baked attempts to take control of the split vote into her own hands (telling Naseer, him suggesting Heather as the split target instead, and then Heather being baffled why Shan had helped throw her name into the mix).
It’s difficult to gauge from the freneticism in the edit, but it felt as though Shan was driving the constant changes in plans to suit her own agenda, seemingly to protect the loyal number in Naseer. But she’s been approaching the strategy with an intensity that is at odds with her allies. It’s understandable: Shan has been in the crucible since Ua, while her balking allies like Deshawn, Danny, Heather, and Naseer are only just warming up. Nevertheless, that intensity could quickly fracture the freshly forged alliance—and if she loses Deshawn (and by extent Danny), then she could very quickly end up in a precarious position with no allies to back her up.
Shan remains a fascinatingly complex character and a breakout star of the season, but the precision of her gameplay has been slipping, and I’m worried it could be nearing the point of no return.
Yet it’s not only the players in power making baffling decisions. Heather has been essentially absent all season, especially when it comes to strategy, so it’s not ideal to see her make her strategic debut with a bungled initiation of whispers at the literal last second. It’s understandable—a move of self-preservation to ensure there are enough votes on Naseer to protect her from being Idolled out. But it’s baffling in its execution as she misread that the priorities of the people she whispered to, Erika and Liana most notably, who quickly revealed Heather’s attempted manipulation to the core power structure of the alliance (almost leading to Shan pushing the vote onto Heather in defence).
Heather copped a few votes in the end from Evvie and Tiffany, but she ultimately settled back into the majority’s split vote on Yase, though her unsuccessful attempts to upturn the game could sign her demise. Heather seems to be getting caught in the same mire that Naseer fell into as well. After learning his name had been thrown out, Naseer pushed for the split vote back-up to be Heather instead. And it’s the same issue the Yase outsiders Evvie, Tiffany, and Xander encountered.
When you’re on the outside looking in, either because another alliance is clearly against you, or the allies you supposedly trust are happy to make you a decoy or split vote without your consent to the risk, the temptation is to try to be the lone wolf. Doesn’t matter who you push out of the way; just don’t be the slowest as the monster bears down. But the problem with that is that you’re only earning the animosity of the other players on the bottom of the power structure. We’ve talked about the Yase 3, but now Heather and Naseer have created bad blood between them too. Those other players on the bottom are your best chance of dismantling the power structure that you’re not a part of, and even if you outrun a few others on the bottom, eventually, you’re going to be the one at the back of the line.
But that’s easy to see on paper. It’s easy to say that Luvu outsiders like Naseer, Heather, and Erika should just flip over to the Yase 3 and BOOM, there’s a new majority. But the reality is that between the hyper-competitiveness of the season, the chaotic and ill-defined social dynamics, the fog of starvation clouding the players’ judgment, and the the fact that the players can’t see the top-down perspective we, the viewer, are afforded, it’s completely understandable why they’re all playing for self-preservation.
THE CORE TRUTH
Understandable. Maybe you’ve noticed I keep using that word, and it surprises and delights me too. For all of the chaos of the season, for all of the mess, what’s fascinating to me is that I can see WHY these players are making suboptimal moves. Why they’re getting lost in the panic and chaos in pursuit of their individual goals over their alliances’ gain. The tension of needing allies and a support network is so clear (highlighted even outside of the strategic context through the rice negotiation sacrifices and the arguments to keep Naseer as a necessary provider). Yet the individual game is in full force. And it’s an individual game being fought in the fog of war—uncertain knowledge and hunger alike.
But for all of the mess at Tribal Council, the vote was ultimately pretty clean. The majority split their votes 6-2 on Tiffany and Xander, while the Yase 3 scattered their votes onto seeming decoys Naseer and Heather. It’s a poorly executed split vote (an Idol on Tiffany, and the Yase 3 voting together could have done some damage here), but what it suggests is that even with all of the mistakes and pitfalls of the majority alliance, they were still able to keep the ship on course through this vote.
Tiffany going out in a relatively unceremonious way is unfortunate. While she’s brought her own brand of chaos to the game, she’s also played with a degree of grit and humour that’s buoyed the season so far. However, if her Halperting to camera with Xander’s apology in the pre-merge is anything to go by, she’ll make for an excellent foreperson of the Jury. And I’m fascinated to see the Jury tone that develops under her influence. This season started out with such good vibes, but the pressure cooker of the game is starting to feel particularly intense and personal, so it’s difficult to gauge if we’re in for a light & frothy or dark & intense final act.
But arguably, we’re not even in Act Three yet. The Viakana tribe is still huge, and while Evvie and Xander now stand alone against an enormous majority, the opposing eight are held together by quickly-fading scotch tape. I anticipate we’ll be served more chaos in the coming weeks. It might not be a pristine “perfect gameplay” pavlova, but the ingredients are the same, and with a cast this interesting, even a mess can still be worth it.