Wow. What. Just. Happened?
Tribal Council has been our amphitheatre for the drama of Survivor’s narrative for 19 years, and in recent seasons – with Idols, Advantages and a lust for big moves – that drama has escalated even more. After David Wright coined the term “live Tribal” back in Millennials vs. Gen-X, it became a term that was seldom applied accurately. Few Tribals are actually live – in most cases, the vote has been locked in back at the beach, and all of the soliloquies and performative chaos of whispered conversations are merely theatre. Perhaps the events of Tribal do sometimes shift the plan – a swing vote is uneasy but must land on one side or the other, or a player grows wary of the tone of Tribal and chooses to play their Idol – but for the most part, the notion of a Live Tribal has been more illusion than reality.
Not so, this week. The events of Tribal tore the page out of the typewriter, threw it in the trashcan and started a new story fresh. This is a night where plans were abandoned and everything bottled up behind the veil of subterfuge came spilling out into the light. It was pure chaos, but it was meaningful and impactful insanity – a giant “however…” in the closing statement that meant that everything before was a lie, and everything that followed was what mattered.
This vote was intended to be the death knell for one of the returning players – both David and Kelley had been shuffled into the firing line by a tenuously reconciled Kama – but with plans revealed and outsiders provoked, we ended with a near-unanimous elimination of Julia – whose name was never on the table until the “Survivor madness” took hold. But how on earth did we get to that point?
Vata beach was a hotbed of paranoia and unease. The distrust that had been mounting since the Joe vote and only amplified by the young Kamas move against Eric, leaving the once-powerful majority in a vulnerable state. Even the old Lesu was split into two factions – the “Lesu 3” of Kelley, Lauren & Wardog, and the pair of David & Rick, themselves fractured by ending up on opposite sides of the vote. Thankfully, the pair had at least one reason to let their disagreement be water under the bridge: their halved Immunity Idol. I suspect that without that need to stay together for the children, as it were, this may have been a messy divorce of close allies (and may have even prevented David from striking out alone at the last vote). But common ground bred some degree of understanding, and the two were able to reconcile and pave a new path forward.
After the Joe vote, I derided the Kama majority for giving the outsiders a reason to band together. It nearly happened last week, prevented only by Rick’s emotional (but understandable) distaste for working with the former allies who’d now betrayed him twice. Yet the prophecy was echoed here as the players left out of the last vote sought to put aside any of their differences and solidify a counter-attack. Rick (with David in tow) approached the ostracised Julie & Ron and assured them that he was the lone vote who’d stuck with them, and now they had every reason to keep working together, and perhaps pry away another couple votes to reclaim power, but in a new form separate to the sullied image of “Kama Strong”.
The blindside on Eric was a humbling – and perhaps humiliating – experience for Ron & Julie. Together, they had ridden the Joe train to the merge without facing Tribal or significant adversity. This was their first true betrayal – and failure – and it stung. Hubris had led them to exclude Aurora and the majority of Lesu from the Joe vote, and now they had a taste of that same bitter medicine. Ron was unmoored – two Tribals ago he’d been effusing his love for the invulnerable Kama, and now it was in tatters. Accurately fearing he was in the firing line, he stowed his mantle of leadership and strategic wiles, offering himself up as a passenger just wanting to avoid going home.
Julie was even more distraught and took the betrayal to heart. Survivor is an inherently emotional game. The trick is that the game itself encourages emotionality through the conditions of starvation, isolation and a rulebook that favours deceit and selfishness, yet it simultaneously punishes players who are ruled by their emotional reactions and cannot find it in themselves to forgive or make concessions to advance strategically. Julie found herself face-to-face with that reality and struggled to make sense of it. She knew it was a game and did her best to be logical and impartial, but she couldn’t shake the feeling of betrayal which left her feeling alone and aimless. Whether she was talking new plans with Rick & David or tentatively trying to mend bridges with Kama, her fear and paranoia continued to creep in before it ultimately burst out at Tribal.
For Ron & Julie, their games had been upended, and they found themselves hovering in a purgatory of unenticing options. David & Rick were willing to work with them, but that wasn’t a majority. The younger Kamas were open to getting the band back together, but could they be trusted? The biggest challenge to breaking away from an alliance is managing the people left behind. It’s one thing to make a clean break, but if you have any interest in maintaining a working relationship with the people you betray, then you have to be aggressively proactive in healing the wounds – and that is the first strike against the younger Kamas’ play here.
Unlike many, I saw last week’s move by Gavin, Julia, Victoria & Aurora to be a beneficial and opportunistic one. They couldn’t guarantee that they would have the allegiance of the Lesu minority down the line, so they struck while the iron was hot. Of course, I reached that conclusion under the assumption that they all saw the move as a prelude to the next, a relatively clean break from Kama. Gavin, at least, seemed to be in this camp. Despite being a close ally, Eric had kept Gavin “behind the curtain,” and by voting him out, Gavin had the opportunity to build a new alliance that placed him in a seat of influence.
Gavin approached the Lesu 3 and assured them that, with Julia & Victoria, they had a powerful new alliance of 6, ride or die. To solidify that plan, he wanted to target David – he was a strategic and social threat, but he was also an unexpected physical threat (as evidenced later in the episode when the Immunity challenge ultimately came down to Gavin vs. David). It was also an unspoken opportunity for Lesu to return the favour – the young Kamas had drawn Kama blood, now it was Lesu’s turn. It was an advantageous arrangement and one that rationalised the bold move last week as something with more value than just a Big Move™ for the resume.
Unfortunately, Gavin’s partner-in-crime, Julia, seemed to be in a different headspace. In her mind, the Lesu 3 were too dangerous to trust in an ongoing partnership. With a hint of irony to her suspicious pitch to Eric last week to target David over Kelley, Julia now found herself in the shoes of the shot-caller as Lauren pitched the Lesu 3’s preference to take out Ron over David, so as not to immediately hand Kama back a decisive majority. But where Julia found Eric’s inflexibility concerning, she found Lauren’s flexibility equally worrying.
The trouble is that Julia found herself threatened by the thought of other people having other plans. She herself was playing both sides – she nodded and smiled at Kelley to confirm their schemes with Lesu while collaborating to get the old Kama back together. Worst of all, she was far from subtle about it (and we’ll get to her abysmal performance at Tribal later) while also being indignant at the idea that her allies could be willing to make plans that didn’t involve her. Like Ron & Julie, she had the charmed Survivor pre-merge and had been on the right side of the Joe & Eric blindsides. She was untested against adversity, and her overconfidence in holding the reigns was a critical error.
Julia had betrayed two of her former allies (who, notably, she had spent the entire game with on Kama) to join up with the outsiders, but was then unwilling to commit to a budding new alliance either. So, without putting in the hard work to mend her relationship with Ron & Julie, she tried to pick up the Kama banner as if nothing had happened. However, in doing so, she and Victoria went behind her fellow-flipper Gavin’s back to change the plan, leaving him feeling overruled (which, for his own part, was a degree of inflexible petulance that did not bode well for Gavin). Julia was in a position of power but fell into the trap that awaits many Survivor players who have early unopposed runs. She began to view her fellow castaways as nothing more than puppets, blunt tools for her to use when she needed them but disposable enough to be discarded when they weren’t. It’s arrogant, and arrogance is rarely rewarded in Survivor in the long run.
Thus, in the final moments before Tribal, the tension could be cut with a knife. Julia, Victoria and Aurora seemed confident in their schemes to lead Lesu on but flip back to Kama, but Gavin was frustrated with the change of plan, and Ron & Julie still felt far from assured. It was a fragile Kama reunion, and the Lesus felt even more on edge as their supposed ex-Kama allies avoided them. Paranoia is present in every moment of Survivor, and the sequence preceding Tribal was one of the best-edited demonstrations of it. Underscored by the silence of an awkward family dinner and then the eerie, monotonous scraping of the rice pot. Emphasized by close shots of furtive glances – some communicative, some lost in thought and explained by those who know this experience best: our returning players.
David described his Spidey-Sense responding to the strange quiet around camp and Kelley noted the peculiar body language of her supposed allies who wouldn’t look at her or talk to her – save for Julia’s suspiciously assuring mime from across the campfire – it brought us into the minutia of Survivor. You’re always on, the game is always happening, and it’s always in the little things – a glance, a smile, a whisper. It’s so pervasive that the absence of it is one of the hardest aspects of the transition out of the game, described by Eric on Extinction as the “great slow-down” from a million miles an hour to zero. So as torches were taken for the march to Tribal, the paranoia that would explode into imminent chaos was already well-and-truly brewing…
Before we get into dissecting the events of Tribal itself, it’s worth noting the timeline of this episode – Eric was voted out on Day 22, Julia on Day 23. All of the drama in took place within 24 hours, which perhaps sheds some light on just why everything was so intense. Usually, the Survivor cycle doesn’t reach a 1-day turnaround until the Final 5 or 6, where there are fewer players and plans to account for. A 24-hour cycle with 11 players still in the game and off the heels of a blindside is a very different beast. Julie & Ron were still processing their betrayal one night earlier – perhaps if this had been a 2- or 3-day cycle, they would have had time for their emotional reaction to settle, or for Julia & Gavin to have been able to get on the same page to either stick with Lesu or agree to reunite Kama, or for Lesu to be able to act more proactively on their collective unease.
To call back to Julie quoting the wisdom of Aubry: the game can be played in 3-day chunks, or 3-hour chunks or 3-minute chunks. Timing can be everything, and in this case, the truncated timeline of this vote was a powderkeg underneath the burning paranoia of Vata.
This week’s episode all built towards its 15-odd-minute centrepiece of Tribal Council. It was such a feature that we even ended up with an unprecedented mid-Tribal commercial break. It was invigorating in its audacity, thrilling in its unpredictability and unlike the return of the players from the Edge of Extinction, this was a moment that was “instantly iconic” without the on-the-nose label from Probst. With so much going on, and so many players to talk about, it’s worth clarifying the narrative before we get down to the brass tacks of analysis.
Tribal began as per usual – metered and considered answers to Probst’s questions that highlighted the gulf between Kama and Lesu and their suspicion that the Kama Cult had formed anew. And the ominous premonition of a new David Wright metaphor inspired by watching a shark tear through a school of minnows during his morning aqua-dump, predicting the big Kama shark feasting on the helpless Lesus.
But the usual fare took a turn as Julie began to break down under the emotional toll of the game, expressing her bewilderment in the wake of the blindside and her fears that everything Kama had told her earlier was a ruse. Her tearful concerns, meanwhile, were undercut by a surprised Kelley turning to Julia and asking if they were still set on their plan, to which a confident Julia gave the affirmative through a stifled giggle. Here, Probst turned the spotlight on Julia like a teacher asking if the talkative student had something to share with the class, and Julia bluntly reiterated her conversation with Kelley.
For Rick, himself ostracised, this was an opportunity, and he pounced on Julia’s slip accusing the Kamas of working with the Lesu 3. Then Aurora waded into the mess, attempting to divert the conversation by making Lesu’s distrustful inter-politics the topic, which again got turned around on her as Rick highlighted Kama’s own dysfunction. In the ensuing back-and-forth, Aurora’s arguments grew obtuse as she asserted that other problems might be forcing the minnows into a vulnerable state primed for a shark attack and Julia interjected that Aurora was spilling the beans by leaning into David’s metaphor of the Kama shark and the outsider minnows.
But here was the opportunity Rick needed, and he pitched a new idea. Clearly, some Kamas didn’t want their plans messed with – but Lesu and the ostracised Julie & Ron numbered a decisive 7-strong majority, and if they wanted to, they could work together. In response, Julia derided Rick’s proposal as asinine and erroneously dismissed his gamble to make a move by labelling him a “passenger.” With the tension heating up between Rick and Julia, Julie took the opportunity to reach out to Wardog, offering to work with him. He, too, quietly jumped at the chance and promised that he could get Lesu on board to vote out Aurora, as Kelley jumped from her seat to talk to Aurora herself. Then all bets were off, and Tribal became a flurry of strategizing as every plan was laid bare.
Rick offered Kelley a truce, as Kelley tried to assure the young Kamas that they had always been in on the original plan to vote for David. Meanwhile, Julie & Ron were locked in conversation with Wardog, Lauren & Rick – with Victoria listening in – as Julie promised to flip and Wardog pitched to her either Julia or Aurora – it’s her call. Ron called over Julia, who got into the argument, as Julie began arguing with the younger Kamas about being left out of the vote. At the other end of things, David and Kelley calmly sat down and laid it out – David asked what the plan was, and she honestly told him that he was in danger. With the madness escalating, Julia pleaded with Julie to not throw away the Kama control, but Julie had had enough – she was on the outs and had no power. It was time to jump ship, and in one of the most literal expressions of a flip in Survivor history, she ran across the Tribal set to perch on David’s lap amongst the conspiring Lesus.
The insanity continued – fragments of strategizing bubbling to the surface. Ron pleaded to Kama that he could get Julie back, as Aurora threw up her hands in frustration with “soccer moms.” Victoria tried to explain to Lauren & Wardog that they’d told Julie & Ron to vote David, to which David wryly interjected, “I heard that.” As whispers and side conversations continued, Rick happily announced that he must be in the pilot’s seat – he’d been called out for pitching his new plan at Tribal, but it seemed to be achieving something! As the ruckus began to simmer, the tension remained high all the way to the voting booth. Rick and David combined their Idol parts to protect David, but it was almost an afterthought. Aurora and Julia stuck to their plans, voting for David and Kelley respectively, but everybody else – even Gavin and Victoria – decisively cast out Julia. It was certainly one for the ages.
So where did it go wrong for Julia? Her over-confidence came to a head at Tribal, with her arrogant dismissal of the Lesus descending into pure pettiness by the time she was telling Wardog to “shut up” simply for suggesting they go to the vote. She spoke brazenly and recklessly, revealing information when she did not need to be so direct. She, understandably, was frustrated by the spiralling Tribal, but instead of meeting Julie in her space to assure her that she could trust them, she got caught in her own narrative of “Kama control” and how little she could trust Lesu. Julia had no reason to be in danger, but she summarily signed her own death warrant through her performance at Tribal. Like Aurora – who also nearly ended up the target – she engaged in arguments when she didn’t need to and spoke out about plans that should have always been secret, thus empowering the disenfranchised outsiders to rebel against the fat cats in power.
Julie, meanwhile, made the pivotal move to cross the floor, but also had a rough night as she let her emotional reaction to the Eric blindside completely rule her decision. While distrusting Kama was certainly valid, her heightening impulses cast her as a loose cannon as much as Julia’s loose lips were sinking ships. Nevertheless, she was able to parlay her paranoia and desperation into an actionable plan to excise revenge and fracture the power structure that had wronged her. Flipping against Kama isn’t an inherently bad move, but Julie’s game now hinges on how she can manage the emotional – and perhaps more importantly, the strategic – fallout of her big play.
The winners of the Tribal chaos, however, are unambiguously the Lesus. Rick Devens pulled off the impossible. In a sense, he’s playing with house money – he already lost the game once this season and his second chance is flailing in the water. He has nothing to lose by being bold, and his choice to call an audible at Tribal was a risky move, but one that capitalised on the evident cracks in the Kama alliance. Much like Julie, the move benefited him here, but his game now rests on the aftermath. He and Julie will likely be pinned as the kingpins in this upset, and they’ll both have to work to assure their allies that this Tribal was the exception and that they can be trusted to be loyal and rational moving forward.
Wardog, meanwhile, was the unsung hero of the move. He’s a smart player who is at his best when he’s playing the Littlefinger role and climbing the ladder. We saw it in the first few episodes of the season, where he managed to subtly turn the vote against Keith and Chris, and we saw it again here. He facilitated Julie’s willingness to draw her and Ron into a flip by quietly offering them the head of Aurora or Julia. He didn’t engage in the theatrics of boisterous arguments like Rick or Julia or Aurora or Julie – he stayed quiet, kept his head down and got the work done (while also pointedly pinning the move on Devens at the end). It was stellar gameplay from a calculating player, though he’ll have to watch himself – the seat of power doesn’t suit him and exposes his weaknesses in over-strategising, as on Lesu beach in the pre-merge.
The returnees, too, played smartly. Kelley sought to maintain her perceived alliance, but as the Kamas crumbled into in-fighting, she spoke to her adversary – and target – David with plain honesty. By allowing herself to put down the hatchet, she embraced the opportunity for Lesu to dodge the torch-snuffer again. David, too, was exemplary in his social management. With an uncanny ability to de-escalate his own social interactions, such as reconciling with Rick at the top of the episode, calmly speaking to Kelley during the chaos and even disarming Victoria with his unthreatening acknowledgement of overhearing her admit to him being in the firing line, David managed to manoeuvre a chaotic and potentially game-ending circumstance to emerge unscathed. And while he and Rick may have used their Idol when it wasn’t ultimately necessary, it’s also telling that David had repaired his relationship with the news anchor to the point where he would protect him with an Idol instead of himself. David’s good, and when players like Gavin want to target him because of his challenge strength and not his social and strategic game, that speaks wonders.
So where do we go from here? This vote completely reset the game. Kama is in tatters, and despite Lesu working together to save their skins, it seems unlikely that they’ll form a happy family even though they now stand equal in number to their opposition. It feels like a new and open game, and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
To conclude this article, I have to give a round of applause to Survivor. This episode was stellar, and though the players are to thank for the drama at Tribal, the story was expertly told. From the pervasive paranoia in the first half to dedicating almost half the episode to the ridiculous Tribal Council, the convoluted story somehow managed to be both confusing and crystal-clear in following the Vata tribe into the depths of pandemonium.
I have been surprised by how much I have enjoyed this season, and if I had any doubt left, this episode cast that aside as the show continues to embrace the absurdity and novelty of this strange experiment. Edge of Extinction might not be the best Survivor season of all time, but it’s damn fun, and this episode will go down in history for all the best reasons.