Survivor is a perilous game. Even 34 seasons deep into the show’s history, these haggard, hungry castaways still play each day in uncharted waters.
There is no security in this game. No quantity of Idols or Advantages or challenge prowess can save you. No alliance is water-tight. Even relationships built on trust – so necessary to succeed, as seen last week – can falter. No plan is guaranteed; no route assured. They’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters.
So how do you survive, unmoored, amongst so much uncertainty? As demonstrated tonight, it takes observation, perception, trustworthy relationships and the challenging task of honest self-assessment. It’s not easy, but when these factors coalesce with luck, you’ve just got to have the guts to seize the opportune moment.
TURNING THE TIDE
Episode Ten belonged, undoubtedly, to Officer Sarah. She was in the eye of storm – in the center of the action and in the ear of every other person on the beach. In the era of Survivor where “big moves” are a talking point, whether you like it or not, it is a high priority to earn credibility as someone willing to take the helm to control their own destiny in the game. But it’s not just about making moves for the sake of making moves – Zeke is still trying to right the ship after torpedoing his game last week in pursuit of his White Whale of a Big Move. “This game is all about timing,” Sarah observed, “and I’m not sure the time is right to make a big move, but I’m ready for it in the event that it is.”
From Day One, where she talked about wanting to play like a criminal, Sarah has been itching to play. However, she’s been a cautious figure, waiting for the right time to attack. Her position at the Final Eleven, as a swing vote between two factions of five, is a familiar one. In Cagayan, she relished her presidential power, lording it over her tribemates and ultimately turning allies against her. Sarah has learned from her past mistakes, however, and rather than chasing control of the vote, she’s letting that control come in with the tide.
Impressively, Sarah forged tight relationships with just about everyone on Maku Maku beach. Over the course of the episode, she shared strategic one-on-ones with Zeke, Cirie, Andrea, Aubry and Sierra – and these are just the moments we saw! Everybody wanted to work with her, and it afforded her the ability to gather intel and assess her options carefully. In conversation with Andrea, she suggested that her position granted her a unique perspective: “Don’t you think to be in with enemy could be a good thing?”
Ostensibly, Sarah was in a reliable majority with the “Power Six,” and had a bond with Sierra that offered a potential Final Three alongside an easy-to-beat Debbie. But she recognised that she had very little control in the alliance – a suspicion confirmed when the vote for Andrea was decided without consulting her. Conversely, she had close ties with Zeke (who she welcomes under her wing after he was unceremoniously excised from the Ozzy vote) and Andrea. She also had a positive relationship with Cirie, strengthened by Sarah’s support at the Reward Challenge. Spoiled for choice, Sarah had the opportunity to choose her moment and to decide whether this was the right time for a power play.
Whether or not her decision to quietly flip against Debbie plays out in her favour is yet to be seen. However, the stars had aligned and it truly was a perfect opening for Sarah to turn the tides. Her position in the Power Six was ambiguous at best, and Debbie proved to be an unreliable ally, lying to Aubry that Sarah mistrusted her. It was an opportunity to destabilise the core group of the power alliance and leave her with options open going forward.
Sarah can choose to stick with her allies this vote, where she has links to Zeke, Andrea, and Cirie individually. Or she can swing back to the remnants of the Power Six, supplanting Debbie as a bigger cog in the machine. Armed with a vote steal, cleverly obtained through the art of careful observation learned from years of car spotting, Sarah still has power going forward as her advantage could break a tie, even if lines in the sand change again.
It may have been a challenge for Sarah to muster the courage to step out of the apparent security of a majority alliance, but by exercising patience and keeping her options open, she managed to steer the game towards her own goals. She seized upon a perfect chance and played it with expert tact. At least for now, the winds are blowing in her favour.
THE CURSE OF CONFIDENCE
Of course, there is no sure thing. As the core players in the Power Six can attest, this vote was a rude awakening to this fact. Their satisfaction following their well-executed stealth attack on Ozzy was understandable, but their confidence blinded them to the fact that the Final Six was not a done deal.
Brad and Sierra both relished their control of the tribe with a portion of awareness but with a little too much certainty. As Sierra rightly observed, the numbers in her favour and a fractured minority were all signs of clear sailing, but she didn’t appear to consider that a storm could roll in. Brad also believed his alliance was nigh uncatchable, and although he correctly remarked upon the importance of keeping his alliance split between the reward challenge teams to inoculate against contamination, he didn’t consider that such precautions were not foolproof. Even Troyzan’s assertion that the hierarchy of the Six wasn’t an issue until the Final Six suggested an almost delusional level of confidence.
It wasn’t just that the Six were overconfident – they were so sure that the path ahead was already paved with success that they visibly short-circuited when the final vote against Debbie was read. It speaks to Sarah’s subtlety in her move that they were so completely blindsided, but it also demonstrates how narrow the Six’s attention to reality had become.
There was no better dichotomy than the opening remarks of Sarah and Debbie. Sarah observed, “As much as people want to think that the line is drawn in the sand, well, I hate to break it to people but the tide comes up pretty quickly, and that line gets washed away.” Debbie, however, had set her feet immovably in brick and mortar: “We have complete control of this game. There’s not a line drawn in the sand; there’s a line drawn in concrete.”
Debbie’s approach to Survivor was a roller-coaster. One week, she was an emotional and impulsive wreck. The next, she’s seeking redemption through forging strong relationships. On the one hand, she operated with strategic finesse, and on the other, she became a cocky and insufferable dictator. As Aubry astutely pointed out, Debbie suffered the same fate as she did in Kaoh Rong. A few votes into the merge, Debbie’s ego took control, and her inflexibility and self-confidence drove her allies away.
To give her some credit, Debbie showed a modicum of restraint in going with the alliance’s plan to take out Andrea – a strategic and physical threat – over Michaela – a target for more personal reasons, but such self-control was but a small drop in an ocean. Debbie does Debbie no matter what, and her unyielding belief in the infallibility of her perspective makes her a difficult opponent and perhaps an even more difficult ally. Her remarks at Tribal Council bore much dramatic irony as she lorded her alliance’s power over the minority only to be blindsided moments after.
Debbie may have tried to build her game on concrete, but she failed to realise that, on the islands of Fiji, sand and water are far more plentiful.
WALKING THE PLANK
On the other side of the divide, Cirie’s story and gameplay solidified her as a key figure in the Game Changers post-merge. Her tribulations at the Reward Challenge were a relatable reminder of the strenuous and daunting nature of playing Survivor. Although Probst’s framing of the moment was a tad hyperbolic, it demonstrated how great of a Survivor legend Cirie has become. From a woman afraid of leaves to a strategic icon, Cirie has earned her stripes again and again. But everybody has their storms to weather.
Cirie has worn her emotions on her sleeve this season, from her tearful thoughts of home to her determination to make it on her fourth attempt. Her fear and embarrassment during the physical challenge was palpably real, as was her relief and gratitude for the support of her tribemates. Perhaps most impressive, however, was her gumption as she picked herself back up to focus on the task ahead of her: “I’m not letting my mind tell me ‘be afraid, don’t do it, give up’ anymore. I can do it. And if I can’t win this game by winning challenges, I’m gonna do everything I can to try to solidify my relationships in the game. It’s gonna be what’s necessary for me to win this thing.”
Sure enough, Cirie’s next move was to have an upfront conversation with Sarah about Sarah’s chances to win if she were to continue as a lackey of the Power Six. Cirie deftly intimated that Sarah would stand no chance beside Sierra or Brad, and her straight-shooting opened Sarah up to be honest in return. As with her talk with Michaela last week, Cirie is an expert at relating to others in a non-threatening manner. She draws them to her with her natural charisma and honesty, and in doing so, cements herself as a trustworthy ally.
Cirie dodged a bullet this week thanks to Sarah’s decision to vote alongside her; perhaps she’ll be able to parlay the growing goodwill amongst her tribemates into a deep run for the title. Of course, that relies on a number of very unreliable allies.
THE MOTLEY CREW
Between Zeke and Andrea’s blood feud and Michaela’s pettiness, the “minority” alliance is a shambles of unbridled emotion. Andrea’s confusion and anger towards Zeke is largely justified given his irrational moves last week, but it seems as though Zeke has grown to resent Andrea further in the fallout. It’s a wonder that they managed to put aside their differences for mutual gain this week, facilitated by their unenviable standing in the game and their individual partnerships with swing-vote Sarah, but going forward, the fracture between them appears to run deep and could yet irreparably crack.
Meanwhile, Michaela seemed to shrug off Cirie’s solid advice and reverted to petulance. Her outbursts after being left out of the Reward Challenge stemmed from an understandable frustration given her physical capabilities as a challenge beast. However, her emotional response may be indicative of the reason she was left on the bench: she continues to be a “quality of life” problem around camp. Her props at Tribal might make her fodder for Internet memes, but they aren’t earning her any likes or follows on the beach – and could make her an easy target ahead.
As a last bastion of sanity, Aubry seemed to be gaining some traction in the game. After bouncing from one perilous situation to another, losing close ally after close ally, Aubry has had her options amputated at every turn. But her status as a free agent has finally yielded fruit. Her past relationships with Debbie and Tai are a boon, and this week it provided her the ammunition to earn Sarah’s trust. After Debbie tried to loop Aubry in for a decoy vote, Aubry weaponised Debbie’s lies to help turn Sarah to their side. It may not be flashy, but with the tide ebbing and flowing so quickly, Aubry may find her opportunity to draw her own lines in the sand in the weeks to come.
ON CHANGING TIDES
The game of Survivor is ever-changing and full of unpredictability. Sometimes the deck gets reshuffled, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the lines drawn in the sand run deep, but sometimes they get washed away.
In the aftermath of Debbie’s blindside, the stage is set for a chaotic Final Ten. The two factions may continue to war, or new allegiances may rise from the ashes. As the power struggle continues, the castaways must learn one lesson from these events: nothing is assured. Whether it is challenges, strategies or relationships that form the laws and codes by which these castaways play…
They’re more like guidelines than actual rules.