Let’s state the obvious: Pagongings make for dull strategic programming. That’s not to say that it’s a bad strategy – if you hold the majority and are confident in your position within that majority (at least for the time being), then it is absolutely within your interest to maintain that status quo. Nevertheless, the systematic elimination of one alliance by another leaves little room for excitement or intrigue as a viewer. Well, at least when it comes to complex gameplay and Big Moves™.
Without needing to devote time to the planning and execution of bold ploys, Survivor is left with 42 minutes to explore one of its greatest assets: its characters. This week’s Survivor was a prime example of an episode devoted to this necessary component of character. It is easily the least eventful of the season thus far, as we bade farewell to one of the shining lights of the Malolo Minority. But I sense that when we look back at it in the context of the season as a whole, it will stand as a key pillar in the development of its competitors. As the hurtling momentum of the season slowed for a more predictable vote, it offered the chance to delve into the experiences of a handful of players as they grappled with the picture perfect dream they’d envisioned for their Survivor experience and the harsher realities of the game and life itself.
THE MALOLO LOW
As the majority breathed a sigh of relief and the minority sighed in despair in the wake of Michael’s misplayed Idol and Brendan’s unlucky exit, it was undeniable that the line between the two alliances had been firmly drawn in the sand. And as Naviti plowed forward, once again dominating the challenges, it was clear that nothing was going to change that. Even Jeff Probst commented on the static formation after Malolo’s Immunity loss – even though the Naviti alliance had predominantly led the challenge, the loss held little consequence for them as inevitably it was going to be one of Jenna, Michael or Stephanie seeing their flame go out that night.
It’s unfortunate to see capable players forced into an inescapable corner simply because the luck of the numbers didn’t fall in their favour, but thankfully none of the three vulnerable parties was willing to go down without a fight. With last week’s Big Move falling short, each Malolo opted for a subtler approach this time around. For Jenna, it came down to the realisation that she had to look to play the game for her individual advantage. In this case, that meant she needed to build individual bonds and break down the walls of cold demeanour to connect on a personal level. With some flirtatious hair-sniffing, she managed to appeal to Sebastian who was flattered and saw their connection as a reason to keep her around.
Michael, meanwhile, wore a much heavier burden. With the weight of the un-reversed curse of a wasted Idol hovering over his head, and the added guilt of his mistake resulting in the elimination of his closest ally and a grim outlook for the rest of his alliance, he was devastated. Nevertheless, he also struck out on his own by presenting himself to Bradley as a valuable physical asset to a weaker tribe and further sought to pledge himself as “locked and loyal” to the majority alliance. Understandably, Naviti remained wary of trusting him particularly after the strong, handsome and charming type had just revealed that he had smarts too, so it’s hard to say whether Michael’s play worked, but he did manage to evade one more Tribal. For a young fan raised on the show, being caught in the harsh predicament of unfavourable numbers was a living nightmare, but Michael found a way to play his cards right and dodge a target that had every right to land on him.
Finally, Stephanie. I’m legitimately floored that Stephanie is out this early – presented as a strong strategist, a social threat and a likable underdog in these first few episodes, I was convinced she was destined for a deep run. But like Stephanie’s dreams of winning that million dollars, it was a false illusion. Stephanie played her cards the best she could, plastering on the smile and sucking up to the majority, but she drew the short straw. At Tribal, Desiree stated that the Naviti had found a good reason to vote out their chosen target, and it seems that Stephanie’s strategic capabilities, coupled with the threat of a possible advantage gained from her tenure at Ghost Island, were the death knell. Perhaps Stephanie could have tried to make a big play, claiming she’d found an Idol or an Advantage at Ghost Island, but I suspect that would have only enlarged her target and made such a move moot.
Freely admitting her motivations and her fear of letting her children down, she made the heartfelt plea at Tribal without veering into playing for pity – and it certainly found its mark, moving the empathetic Kellyn to tears. Nevertheless, the ever-hopeful, enthusiastically optimistic mother fell victim to the cruel reality of the game. It was a twist of the knife for the viewer after Stephanie had opened up to the audience about her family, her resolve in the wake of leaving behind one past life to start anew and her hope that she could still live out her big Survivor dream. It’s not fun to see a cheerful underdog be crushed by a heartless game – and even the music underscored the tragedy of her departure – but that’s part of what makes Survivor so compelling. The highs and the lows, the victories and the defeats, the full spectrum: the dream and the reality.
A GOOD REASON
To take a moment to talk strategy and to go back to Desiree’s eloquent Tribal answer, was the reason to vote out Stephanie the right one? With the numbers locked in their favour, Naviti had complete control of the vote but had the challenging task of weighing up the choice: which turkeys would get the pardon and which would be served up on the platter? It was clearly a divided and complicated decision.
On the one hand, Chelsea and Kellyn pushed for Jenna – arguably the weakest of the three Malolos and the most straightforward target. On another, Desiree (for the second week in a row!) tabled the ultimate target, naming Stephanie as the biggest strategic threat. Sebastian backed her up, eager to keep his braiding buddy Jenna around. Meanwhile, Michael’s name was thrown out by Bradley as a smart and untrustworthy wildcard, and then the whole cycle started again. Jenna, Stephanie, Michael, Jenna, Stephanie, Michael… As Kellyn pointed out, the final decision changed from moment to moment, and it may have been just one single sentence that was the deciding factor. We may not have seen that moment on our screens, and even though we saw the outcome, it’s hard to discern whether the alliance ultimately made the smartest play.
I do think that keeping Jenna was a good decision on the Naviti Alliance’s part. Jenna is not just a follower as Bradley inferred, but he hit close to the mark in identifying her relationship with Sebastian as a potential advantage, as it gives her a reason to stick with the New Malolos come a future swap or merge. Differentiating between Michael and Stephanie is a more challenging game – both are strong, strategic and social and both are dangerous adversaries, no matter how much they assert their loyalty. However, with Desiree’s bag search suggesting that she had not come home from Ghost Island with a secret advantage, it may have tipped the scale to vote for the person who likely didn’t have an advantage over the guy who had already found and played one Idol. It was a toss-up, but ultimately a win-win either way for the Naviti alliance. To put it plainly, voting out any Malolo minority was good reason enough, and being able to eliminate a triple threat was simply the bonus.
CHATS OVER COFFEE
Meanwhile, the New Naviti tribe took a break from the cold war between the model and the construction supervisor, instead focusing on human relationships and social empathy. With a blowout Reward Challenge victory earning pastries and coffee for the tribe, the sights, smells and tastes of the reward triggered memories of home for Donathan. As caretaker to his mother and grandmother, the young man grappled with homesickness as he was reminded of his family’s love for something as simple as coffee, and his vulnerability led him to open up to his ally Laurel. Chris, too, saw Donathan’s emotional state and took the opportunity to forge a stronger bond, sharing his own experiences taking care of an ailing parent. It was an unexpected, raw and real moment of human connection between two very different people, harkening back to the oft-expressed sentiment of Survivor as a grand social experiment. In an episode full of self-reflection and human emotion, it stood out as a moving moment that not only informed the character of Donathan but added to the complexity of Chris.
It’s also worth noting the strategic implications of a social bond in a game founded on social politics. While I don’t doubt that Chris honestly wanted to connect with Donathan on a human level (there’s an earnestness to Chris, even in his bluster and verse-spitting mic drops), it’s clear that he also saw it as an advantageous game move, noting that of all the Malolos, Donathan was the one he’d bonded with least. Naturally, the real bond led to Donathan questioning his game future – stick with Laurel and her plan to flip with Domenick and Wendell, or stay closer to Chris and the apparent alliance with Angela, James, and Libby? Donathan’s choice is hypothetical for now, but the fact that he’s tabled his options is an unambiguous reminder that the social game is king in Survivor.
With the departure of an early favourite, it seems Ghost Island will be charging forward into a new chapter as buffs are dropped once more. Fifteen castaways remain in the battle for the title of Sole Survivor, and fifteen dreams are still alive. Which ones will make it through the next upending of the order, and which ones will face the devastating reality of their fire going out?
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