Tribal swaps always mark turning points in the game – moments when a new buff can mean a stroke of luck or a doomed fate. As the players of Ghost Island were once again gathered up like a soothsayer’s bones and tossed out to tell a new fortune, Survivor took the opportunity to draw attention to a much bigger turning point in this difficult game – when do you turn from the attitude of the tribe mentality to individual pursuit?
In the early days of the game, tribe identity is easily defined and the colour of your buff becomes a part of your identity. But as the game progresses, the castaways must discern when to shift their loyalty from their tribe to their hand-picked allies in order to benefit their own game. It’s the mid-way point between stark tribal warfare at the marooning and the selfish race for the million in the endgame. Some players keep to their starting tribe until the bitter end; some build new tribal identities in the wake of swaps, some fabricate new alliances out of the scraps. With Survivor embracing the chaos that follows tribal swaps, injecting them into the game with increasing regularity, the question of tribal allegiance becomes even more and more blurred. And with the jumbled mix ‘n’ match of a second swap, each castaway must consider: do I bleed orange? Or purple? Or do I embrace a muddy brown?
The Survivor Gods must truly despise Malolo – for the second time the original Malolos found themselves outnumbered by the original Navitis on each tribe. The random fate was an ominous sign for many – most significantly for the two men trapped at the apparent hellmouth of Malolo Beach. After a slog through the unfavourable first swap, Michael’s fate was once more grim as he found himself outnumbered, with only James to bolster numbers against the easy Naviti majority of Desiree, Kellyn and Angela. On paper it seemed like the same done deal that had doomed Brendan and Stephanie – Naviti would keep purple once more. Yet there was hope – a sympathiser across enemy lines, as James’ actions at the Morgan vote had directly saved Angela and now she could be a defector.
Angela has been an unusual iteration of her archetype but a great wildcard for this diverse cast. While she appeared as the calculated veteran at first glance, she has instead emerged as one of the more emotionally-driven players of the season. As she elaborated tonight, her upended life on the home front appears to have informed her desire for loyalty, friendship and a sense of belonging in the game. She rebelled against the Naviti in-fighting at her first Tribal, and when swapped onto her new tribe, she found herself simultaneously torn between her loyalties to Old Naviti and her relationship with James, as well as her paranoia of being the bottom rung in whichever alliance she supported. While Kellyn and Des had the straightforward benefit of drawing clear tribal lines, Angela’s cross-tribal bonds left her as an uneasy swing vote. In the end, she followed both her head and her heart, staying true to the numbers and the family she’d first found on the island, joining the unanimous vote against James to send another unlucky Malolo home.
Wait, unanimous? Yes, for the second week in a row, Michael quietly sided with the majority to take out another Malolo number. With his luck whittled down, Michael has not had the luxury of resting on a comfortable Tribal majority and has smartly decided to play a colour-blind game for now, merely striving to make it through one Tribal at a time at any cost. In this case, cutting the other Malolo was a far better option than blindly staying orange-strong in a doomed vote and putting a bigger target on his back. Although he remains vulnerable, he has more room to move now and perhaps he hopes to work in the palette of browns, drawing on his time spent with Kellyn and Desiree on Malolo 2.0 to throw Angela under the bus should Malolo’s losing streak continue.
James’ elimination certainly leaves that option open for Desiree and Kellyn. Although the two women were firmly devoted to their Naviti allegiance, the decision to target the loose thread James over Michael, with whom they have at least some social connection, was an intelligent choice. I don’t expect they’d choose Michael over Angela moving forward, but it’s always better to have options. After all, Kellyn and Desiree are not in an ideal position. They’ve been forced to do the dirty work of clearing out the Malolos while their original Naviti allies enjoy the luxury of building connections with the Malolos that will make the merge, but they’re playing well with the cards they’ve been dealt. They’ve kept their allies in line while directing the votes by keeping the topic of original tribal divisions on the table. As Tribal Council veered towards Desiree’s disastrous performance at the Immunity Challenge and the hunger for Malolo to eke out a win, Kellyn pushed the conversation back to the 3-to-2 divide. It’s a symptom of their dominant gameplay, controlling the narrative to suit their ends – and right now, that’s purple and orange. The question is whether they need to consider their paints before the Jackson Pollock that is the merge.
So what of this week’s victim of the Curse of the Malolo Low? Was there anything James could have done to save himself? As always, it’s a shame to see promising players fall victim to the random chance of a tribe swap. A shrewd player with a clear understanding of the demands of a good strategic and social game, he knew what he needed to do, and he made the plays available to him. He tried to restore goodwill with Michael who had voted against him the last time they shared a beach, but Michael’s narrow escape from the previous Tribals had left him focused solely on his personal survival. He tried to cash in on his relationship with Angela built on Naviti 2.0 and his actions that saved her from going home, but she was looking for wider acceptance and family, and she’d shown she was willing to draw rocks for Naviti before. He was granted a reasonable (if ironic) alternate target after Desiree’s challenge performance cost them a lead and a win, but she and Kellyn controlled a different narrative. Perhaps James needed to push those avenues further, possibly appealing to Kellyn or pledging more concrete allegiance to Michael and Angela. But I get the sense that James was backed into a corner on a tribe that wasn’t ready to abandon the old tribal lines – he was doomed from the minute he drew the orange buff.
TIES THAT BIND
The divide of old colours wasn’t only felt on Malolo, it was prominent on the newest version of Naviti too. With purple-strong advocates Bradley and Chelsea returning to the luxurious, coffee-scented resort of Naviti beach to be reunited with their old ally Domenick, the trio held a secure majority. Meanwhile, Donathan and Libby were caught in the precarious minority, and it seemed that their fate rested with Domenick, calling the shots in the absence of his adversary Chris. In light of his apparent allegiance with Donathan through Laurel, it seemed that Domenick had his sights set on Libby. Pegging her as a wily cut-throat seductress in the mold of Parvati Shallow, he gathered support to target her and seemed to be cut-and-dry. It’s hard to know the true state of the dynamics on the newest Naviti without getting the perspectives of Donatan and Libby, but the forecast is ominous to say the least.
Yet in contrast to the intrigue of choosing sides on the newest Malolo and the cookie cutter majority on Naviti 3.0, the freshly minted Yanuya instead embraced the melting pot of their blended tribes. Drawing on the web of bonds forged across the two previous tribal iterations, easy connections brewed against a solitary target. Despite the same 3-2 original Naviti majority present on their rival tribes, the tight cross-tribal bonds between Laurel & Wendell and Jenna & Sebastian promised a group more willing to align with their chosen allies than the original luck of the buff draw. Even Sebastian – formerly an acolyte of Chris – found himself rejoicing in his relationship with Wendell, an ally of the enemy Domenick, when Wendell thoughtfully brought him his precious (if pungent) shell.
With this web of interpersonal connections, the oblivious Chris was left on the outside. Chris should have been in a good position based on tribal lines as both his past tribes held a numerical majority, but his arrogance and bluster were turning any potential numbers against him. Even Jenna, having barely met Chris, was already wary of his intense personality. To Chris’ credit, he tried to be flexible in building numbers, seeking out Wendell to smooth over their feud and opening up to Laurel about being a model, but the problem is that Chris made it all about himself and his tribemates were seeing straight through it and growing weary of it quickly. To paraphrase Tony Vlachos, Yanuya is a tribe poised for the development of a new alliance built on comfort – relationships and chosen allies – than an alliance built on the convenient numbers of tribal lines, and in such a situation, Chris’ tiring self-proclaimed charisma is dangerous for his game. It’s a good thing for him, then, that the tribe is a formidable force in challenges, with physical and mental strength that was clearly demonstrated in the tribe’s first Immunity win. However, I get the sense that the numbers will marshal against him as the merge approaches – and I wouldn’t be surprised to see these cross-tribal bonds exemplified as Yanuya become the kingmakers over the next few weeks.
THE RACE FOR THE MERGE
With another Malolo sent packing, the original Naviti is guaranteed a decisive majority when the merge hits. As the game shifts into the middle gear and the players are forced to select their ideal allies from the myriad of tribal bonds they’ve formed, it’s going to be an important week ahead. Will the firm tribal lines drawn on Malolo and Naviti hold strong? Or will the melting pot of personal relationships on Yanuya set the tone for the next stage of the game? And what do the gods of Ghost Island have in store?
Colour me excited – I’ve been loving this season and I can’t wait to see what lies ahead.
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