Survivor has always been a numbers game. From the days when “alliance” was a dirty word, whoever could amass the largest army was unstoppable. Even as the years have gone and the game has evolved, getting the numbers on your side has been the biggest priority. Of course, the advent of Idols and Advantages has skewed that, as players in the minority, who would otherwise have been stonewalled out of the game on the basis of mathematics, have been afforded alternative tools to beat the odds. But at the end of the day, except in the most exceptional of circumstances, the game will come back to those numbers.
For all of the energy devoted to Idol shenanigans this episode, the vote was a clean one, as a sitting duck managed to cash in on one of her numbers and the dominoes fell from there. It’s impossible to ignore the headline story of Rick Devens, the Unstoppable Man, but whether or not you like him as a character or a player, Edge of Extinction isn’t only about one man. Week after week, Rick’s showmanship and career-honed TV-charisma has drawn the camera, but the gameplay has been a veritable parade of classic Survivor social strategies that are still relevant in the modern age.
But let’s get the broad strokes of the episode out of the way first so we can then hone in on the finer details. On the surface, this episode was another big night for Rick Devens. He obtained his third Idol – equalling the single-season record presently held by Russell Hantz, Tai Trang and Ben Driebergen – as he wasted no time in getting back out to find it. He won a much-needed Immunity – also his third – to secure his safety. He was the talk of the town at Tribal as the big bad that no-one could defeat and he owned it as he piled on another flourish-filled performance with an Idol bluff that played out perfectly before the Jury as he got his way in the vote.
Rick is undeniably the star of the season. Not only does he represent the season’s theme as the first returnee from the eponymous Edge of Extinction, but he’s larger than life, willing to crack a joke and make a scene which creates bombastic television. He’s also found himself falling into one of modern Survivor’s popular tropes – the nothing-to-lose underdog who’ll fight tooth and nail to get one step further in the game, competing hard in challenges, finding and playing Idols and Advantages and being willing to take big swings.
Take all of the above into account, and it’s easy to see why so many of the show’s fans are projecting him to emerge victorious on Day 39. Devens is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea – and I do think Survivor could be doing more to make the other players in the game feel more active in the season’s narrative and thus bigger contenders for the crown, rather than becoming a supporting cast for an apparent main character – but Rick himself is making the most of his opportunity and that cannot be faulted. As he said at Tribal, going out softly in the pre-merge and getting the rare opportunity to press the reset button has given him freedom to push his game to the other end of the spectrum – and it’s been a hard run.
He might seem unstoppable now – but let’s not forget that he was in the conversation as an easy merge boot and faced danger at every turn. Every potential alliance he forged fell apart for one reason or another – David, Wardog, even Ron – yet he’s continued to stir the pot whether it was calling out Julia to open the door for the insane Tribal audible, his dramatic Idol play last week or exhausting his competition here with his relentlessness. It’s the freedom that comes with being the marked man, and that need to continually dodge the target has lit a passionate and reckless enthusiasm that tears through the competition and all of his opponents’ carefully laid plans. His gameplay is flawed at best, as he’s often been on the wrong side of the vote or made gaffes due to his more emotional instincts, yet Rick remains an enthusiastic and entertaining force – and best of all, he is having the time of his life, and I find that energy infectious.
But let’s stomp down for a moment on some of the specifics of Rick’s game this episode, because when you strip away the big moments, there are actually some fascinating tactics underneath. With his back against the wall, Rick made every effort to distract and feint his opponents – the majority alliance of Victoria, Gavin, Lauren & Aurora. He lied about how he’d gotten his last Idol, claiming that it – like most advantages in the game – had been borne out of the Edge, thereby discouraging Vata from looking for a re-hidden Idol. Lauren – herself having found an Idol in the early days of the game – saw through the lie, but it nonetheless opened the door for Rick to exploit the alliance’s paranoia, particularly once he had confidence in his safety after finding the Idol.
Whether it was running away from his other castaways’ futile efforts to babysit him, hiding conspicuously amongst trees and rocks or altogether disappearing off the map, his erratic antics left his fellow tribemates’ minds running wild as they tried to account for his behaviour. It was no secret that they would target him if given a chance, but in attempting to discombobulate their read on his actions, it disrupted the situation to turn an obvious vote into a mostly-obvious-but-maybe-not-but-maybe-yes web of uncertainty. While Aurora had no trouble calling out his BS and firmly opposing him regardless of what he tried to spin, Gavin seemed particularly ruffled by Rick’s unpredictability, and Victoria and Lauren shared his exasperation. As Rick amped himself up on the madness, his behaviour sapped his opposition’s energy. How much this exhaustion affected their decision making was ultimately unclear, but it was an intriguing – and self-amusing – strategy.
More notable, though, was Rick’s bluff at Tribal. With Immunity around his neck, it was obvious that the alliance of four had no other option than to pile their votes onto Julie – if they truly planned to stay strong. So Rick made an unexpected, but not unprecedented gamble – announcing his Idol at Tribal Council, and claiming that he would play it on Julie, while he and Julie would cast their votes for one of the other four. The latter aspect of the strategy was certainly laudable, clearly learning from the lesson of the Three Amigos in Cagayan who managed to use Idols and Advantages to protect themselves, but then named their target, incentivising the majority alliance to call their bluff instead of turning on each other in fear of self-preservation.
Rick’s move to ultimately keep the Idol rather than follow through on the threat to play it also recalled a similar move made by Mike Holloway and Shirin Oskooi in Worlds Apart, though in that case, the bluff was called and Shirin was sent packing. There was certainly danger in the move; if his bluff was called and Julie went home, would she resent the broken promise and would the betrayal play well with the Jury? But it was a smart play for Rick. With two more standard Tribals until the Final 4 fire-making (assuming the last Edge returnee would come back into the game before the F4), Rick’s Idol leaves him with only one vote where he could be entirely vulnerable – and those odds are far too appealing. It’s also on brand with his reckless, showy, self-interested game and the Jury seems to be buying that stock.
In the end, the bluff paid off as Rick kept both his Idol and his on-again-off-again ally in Julie while eliminating Aurora, a vocal advocate against him. Down only 2 to 3, a returnee from Extinction could even the score, and then it would be a whole new game. But how much of it was smoke and mirrors, and how much of it was the bluff influencing the decision of Lauren, Gavin and Victoria to flip and throw their votes on Aurora? If I’m honest, I think it’s more an illusion – much like Rick’s performance made the Ron vote look like his plan all along when really, it was a fortuitous coincidence. As fancy and well-played as Rick’s bluff was, I think the decision to turn on Aurora had very little to do with Rick and his Idols and performative game. In this case, it all comes back to the simple numbers game.
The crux of this move came down to the relationship between Julie and Lauren, and both parties making use of that connection to ensure their numbers in the endgame. For Julie, her roller-coaster of a game had left her in an unenviable position. With her closest ally now being the dead man walking who had just publicly called her out for humiliating him with the fake Idol ploy, Julie was in absolute danger and was the straightforward vote for the four-strong alliance that had been forged by the Ron assassination. However, Julie had one other card up her sleeve, and that was Lauren.
Back at the spa reward preceding the Wardog vote, the two women had forged a bond and it paid off in this episode. Julie recognised that her game was precarious and that the Jury’s perception of her did not seem particularly warm, thus making her an ideal candidate for a goat. Lauren certainly saw the advantage in this, viewing Julie as someone she could not only trust but someone she was confident she could beat in the end. For Lauren, Julie was a promising number for her own ends – certainly a more valuable number than the independently-minded Aurora, who also happened to be a challenge threat and had a growing case should she be able to make her arguments to the Jury.
Because of this one relationship, Lauren sought to preserve her number and flipped the entire vote on its head. She approached Gavin about voting Aurora – a more dangerous and active player than Julie – and assuring him that they could make the move together by siding with Rick and Julie and that their four would be enough. Victoria – more staunchly determined to vote Julie over Aurora – didn’t even have to agree, or even know. This was where Lauren’s game fell short, as she became so fixated on saving a number in Julie that she openly neglected another number in Victoria.
For Gavin, uncharacteristically cautious about making a big move if he didn’t need to, was rightfully wary of Lauren’s brash confidence in the move. He was unwilling to make the move without consulting Victoria, and so he took the plan to her – complete with the admission that Lauren was willing to leave her out of the blindside. Naturally, Victoria was, in turn, cautious about what that meant for her alliance with Lauren if she was so much more invested in keeping Julie around. And thus, the complexities of Survivor’s numbers game came to the fore.
With Lauren firmly pushing for Aurora, Gavin cautious but historically reticent to go to a tie or rocks (cf. the Wendy combined Tribal), and Victoria historically seeking to side with the majority, even if she didn’t agree with the plan (cf. the Eric blindside), I would bet that this trio had decided to vote out Aurora before they even set foot in Tribal. Rick’s Idol-bluffing antics might have solidified their confidence in their plan, but these three have been careful, calculating players. In the chaotic Julia Tribal, they were among the least active parties in the shifting landscape – they do not strike me as players willing to cast aside their carefully considered numbers because of Tribal theatrics.
So was voting out Aurora the right move? For Rick and Julie, it made perfect sense. Although trying to target the brains of the operation in Victoria or Gavin would have been a smart play if Rick actually planned to use his Idol, eliminating Aurora made sense for both of their games. Aurora had no love lost for either of them and was actively campaigning against Rick while Julie had been trying to get Aurora out for days. For Lauren, it was a compelling choice as it scored her a stronger ally moving forward, and one who seems to be an ideal opponent at the Final Three.
For Gavin & Victoria, I’m less convinced. Sure, they would have forced a tie if they’d stuck with Aurora to vote out Julie, but would Lauren have gone to rocks for her perceived Final 3 goat? I’m not so sure. But more importantly, Aurora was a clear number for Gavin and Victoria and casting that aside leaves them vulnerable.
Aurora has had a rocky run through the game. She coasted through the pre-merge on a winning streak, but from her very first Tribal where she was conspicuously left out of the Joe vote by the rest of Kama, she has been unmoored and searching for someone – anyone – to work with. She took daring gambles by using her extra vote to curry favour, first with Ron and then with Gavin, but in both cases, they seemed to be tenuous allegiances at best. She fought hard in challenges, scoring two victories, and spoke her mind plainly – but even these attributes put her in hot water, with the latter seemingly earning ire from her tribemates. In a way, she was almost a mirror to Rick – the outsider with nothing to lose and willing to take risks to advance themselves all while being vocal at Tribal. Yet Aurora and Rick alike recognised it – the lone samurai way can work, but allies cannot be scoffed at because Survivor is a numbers game.
Even after being left out of the reward by Gavin, Aurora repeatedly affirmed her allegiance to her new alliance of four. For Gavin and Victoria, particularly, Aurora seemed like a valuable – and most importantly, loyal – ally. Even if she were to squeak into the Final Three, it feels like they’d stand a better chance in an all-Kama Final Three, as opposed to going up against a sole Lesu in Lauren, who at the very least would have a locked vote in Wentworth.
So I’m puzzled why they were willing to cut Aurora at this point just so Lauren could preserve an ally in Julie. Did they too come to see Julie as a better option for their own Final Three plans compared to the more intense, no-holds-barred Aurora? Did they see Rick and the other inevitable Extinction returnee as such huge priority targets to see losing Aurora as having little impact on their numbers in the last few votes before fire-making? Was there other reasoning obfuscated by the show’s edit? Whatever the reason, I fear for Gavin & Victoria’s chances now that they’ve not only lost a number of their own, but they’ve granted a number to their major adversary in Rick, and given Lauren another, better Final Three ally.
Before we wrap things up, it would be remiss of me to ignore the strange segment that concluded the Edge of Extinction narrative – save for the re-entry challenge promising to kick off next week’s finale. The horde of castaways stranded on the Edge received another batch of sea-mail: letters to themselves, written before the game began. The time capsule gave each of the castaways a moment to reflect on their journey – from the high hopes of an eager player on the cusp of the game, through the jaws of defeat and the anguish of Extinction’s purgatory. For some, there was encouragement – Julia finding strength from her determination to never give up, Chris recognising that the perfect game he dreamed of pre-game paled in comparison to the experience he’d gained through his Survivor journey.
For others, it was an epiphany – David reflecting on his desire to build up his life back home in his relationship with his girlfriend, or Reem coming full circle as she embraced her Survivor experience including getting voted out on Day 3. Scored with the swelling strings of inspiration, it served as a reminder of who was still surviving out on the Edge before next week’s battle royale of re-entry, but it seemed designed as an emotional capper to the narrative of struggle and self-reflection that dominated the Edge of Extinction arc.
I always appreciate the human side of Survivor – the emotion, the struggle, the journey. Yet I couldn’t help but be frustrated by this segment. Putting aside the contrived nature of it, it didn’t even feel deserved as the conclusion to the Extinction narrative. All of the early emphasis on how hard Extinction would be, how much it would test you and how it would force its occupants to wrestle with loss, grief and determination was thrilling because it was raw and organic. It was unflinching and bleak, and it reached its zenith as the five castaways who fell short of returning to the game at the merge broke down in tears as they accepted defeat once again.
But post-merge, Extinction has been a literal afterthought – often relegated to the stinger over the credits as Reem welcomed the new arrival to the Edge. It lost all of its sense of challenge – it became the place where high-energy scavenger hunts took place, and with an ever-growing guest list, it just became a holding ground. Thus, when this emotional moment of reflection came in this episode, it didn’t feel like it was genuinely concluding an emotional journey – mostly because we barely saw any of these contestant’s emotional journeys on Extinction. So while I appreciate Survivor’s earnest attempt to end the Extinction experience with an emotional, character-driven segment, the landing isn’t all that exciting if we didn’t see much of the flight.
IN THE END
So onwards to the finale. Rick may be the most prominent character on the board, but can he pull off a win against the odds? Or can Victoria, Gavin, Lauren or Julie do the unexpected – each has played a solid game with highs and lows and could be a rewarding winner, but at this point, it seems like the long shot. And how about the mystery flavour – the Edge of Extinction returnee? One of the 11 – yes, ELEVEN – players on the Edge will be returning in the opening moments of the finale to have a legitimate shot to win this game, or at the very least, disrupt some plans along the way. This will also mark the first time in the show’s history where two loser-bracket players are in play in the finale, so I’m intrigued to see how a fresh-faced returnee matches up against the battle-hardened Rick who has clawed his way to the finale, or the four traditional players who have experienced the danger of the Extinction returnee.
Ultimately, I expect this season’s conclusion to be polarising – either we’re getting a winner who was voted out in the same season, or we’re getting a winner whose game has been largely under the radar in the season’s overall narrative. But either way, it’s going to be something to talk about.