For weeks, I’ve been lauding Survivor’s slow-played storytelling that has focused on laying narrative foundations and developing long-term characters over flash-in-the-pan hype. While it hasn’t been perfect (particularly as minor characters were reduced to complete footnotes), the measured narrative has appealed to my more literary inclinations, and I’m relieved and thrilled to see the season deliver on its just-you-wait promises. In the preview for tonight’s double episode, Mike vowed that things were about to get interesting – and they most certainly did.
In what was easily the most exciting two hours of the season yet, all of the carefully-laid groundwork paid off as some of the most masterful Survivor moves were executed to perfection. There were flips, blindsides, power shifts, complex strategy, plurality votes and the most impressive Survivor acting jobs we’ve seen in a while. It seems fitting that the slow-burn of this season culminated with an in-game long con.
Throughout the season, Lauren, Devon, and Ashley have been shown to be observant players, but they had yet to see their subtle play manifest into an aggressive move. Tonight was their breakout night. When Lauren won her second consecutive challenge, she chose to bring her ideal alliance on the reward. There, she pulled back the curtain to reveal her strategic game sense and confidently put her plan on the table. She correctly assessed that Chrissy, Ryan, and JP wanted to see the alliance out to seven, at which point she could be in danger (indeed, Ryan and Chrissy discussed their intention to knock out Ben at 7, then Lauren at 6). But if Lauren could get the jump on them, she could control her path moving forward. Her crack team – Ben, Devon, and Ashley – responded with great enthusiasm, impressed by Lauren’s scheme but not intimidated by her sudden upping of the gameplay. Indeed, it seemed to spur them all towards taking their games up a notch, with Ashley and Devon both coming into their own over the days that followed.
They sealed their commitment to each other with an exchange of information regarding Ryan’s idol and Lauren’s extra vote, where communal truth permitted the new alliance of four to operate together to formulate their plan. Their alliance, furthermore strengthened by shared emotion when they discovered letters from home under the bread plate, seemed solid and with 4 against an opposing 3 and 2, they could easily seize the simple opportunity. But the agreement was only the beginning. The true schemes yet remained.
Blindsiding your own alliance can be a very dangerous move, and if not managed correctly, it can quickly blow back onto the move-maker. To mitigate the disaster, Devon pitched his first of two complex cons for the night. He proposed that Ben go undercover as a spy, sticking to the Seven’s plan to split the vote on Mike and Joe, whilst he, Ashley and Lauren recruited Mike and Joe as unknowing pawns to gain a majority of 5. By having Ben appear to stick with the seven, it would allow him to gather information and manage the fallout of the blindside from within, while also keeping the Healers from knowing too much information and thus preventing them from making any counter-moves of their own. It was a devious scheme, but the Four pulled it off with aplomb, voting JP out 5-3-1, lulling Mike and Joe into believing they were in a new alliance and also tricking Ryan and Chrissy into thinking they still had the loyalty of Ben. With so many moving parts, it was a tricky plan to pull off, but it’s testament to how you cannot underestimate anyone in Survivor. Even the straight-shooting mother and the easy-going surfers can have a dark side.
Over the days that followed, it became clear that the JP boot was just the beginning of the con. With the numbers now at 8, the Four were positioned between a betrayed Chrissy and Ryan and a duped Joe and Mike, but they didn’t have a safe majority yet. Thus, the next three days became a remarkable long con as Ben played up the dethroned king, maintaining animosity with Joe and allegiance with the remnants of the Round Table, whilst Ashley, Devon, and Lauren portrayed traitors and strung the “Coco-Nuts” along down the garden path. In a game where lies and deception are so often found out, it’s a miracle that the Four kept up the act 24/7 for three whole days until it was time for part two of the plan.
With Chrissy winning Immunity in an inventive wheelbarrow challenge, the target swung back to the Healers, with the Four planning to put their votes onto Joe while the Round Table and Coco-Nuts were diverted in different directions. In a risky gambit, Devon concocted a plan that verged on being too tricky, proposing to tell Mike and Joe about Lauren’s extra vote and formulating a fake plan to split the votes between Ryan and Ben. While there was never any intention to use Lauren’s extra vote, the recklessness in using legitimate information as a distraction seems like playing with fire. It could easily come back to bite them if, for instance, the betrayed Mike shared the info with Chrissy and Ryan in future. The Four could play it off as a straight-up fabrication (extra votes have become common enough that it’s not out of the realm of possibility to suggest they made up Lauren’s advantage), but it still seems like an unnecessary risk.
Nevertheless, the Four pulled off another brilliant strategic move that once again duped the rest of the tribe who were put on the back foot heading into the Final 7. The only question is whether they’ll be able to keep playing nice with each other.
Ben’s performance as a secret agent is one of the most impressive acting jobs in Survivor history, and it put him in an incredibly powerful position. Now that he’s shown his hand by voting out Joe, it could unravel his options (particularly with Chrissy and Ryan who seem unlikely to accept that they were so thoroughly played), but it also served to put the spotlight on his gameplay.
In a fascinating turn of events, the invigorated Ashley, amping up a more aggressive game, observed how well Ben was playing. She proposed an alternate idea to Devon and Lauren to actually follow through on the fake plan with Mike and Joe to blindside Ben when he would never see it coming. It would have been a huge move to cut out a big target, but I was glad to see them ultimately temper the urgency and stick to the Joe plan. Between the King Arthur analogies, his backstory and now his Academy Award-worthy performance, Ben will continue to be a huge target moving forward that can deflect attention away from them until they can rally support to boot him before the Final 3. Additionally, keeping Ben ensures that they have a trustworthy majority at the Final 7, whereas there would be nothing to stop the Coco-Nuts or Ryan & Chrissy from teaming up, voting bloc style, against the “Disloyal Knights.” It was a juicy opportunity, but sometimes the long con is better than the flashy show.
Nevertheless, Ben’s stunning performance was not the only game-changer. After Mike’s bizarre idol play last week, Ben managed to find and secure the re-hidden idol (perhaps with a little emotional help from his loved ones back home). Wisely keeping his advantage a total secret, he now has more ammunition to play his own game. His mission is to win, and that objective is Ben’s single-minded focus. Playing double agent had put him in an equally powerful and precarious position, but with a secret idol, he’ll be able to gain the upper hand is he keeps his wits about him and doesn’t let himself get caught in a trap.
On the other hand, the new alliance of Four played their tribemates like fiddles. As the over-confident Ryan and Chrissy were humbled and the Coco-Nuts comedy club celebrated (false) security, the schadenfreude was real. Survivor thrives on lies and manipulation, but it’s rare that so many players are simultaneously led astray.
For the last two Healers, desperate for any chance to stay in the game, it was no surprise that they fell hook, line, and sinker for the scam. It’s the power of perceived narrative: they had been hoping – and predicting – that the seven would fracture, so when they were presented with a story that fit their narrative, there was no reason to doubt it. The irony of their confidence was highlighted throughout the episode, culminating in the ultimate stinger of Joe’s elimination. But it’s difficult to put any blame on them for their actions – I’m sure if I was in their shoes, I would have fallen for it too. Joe and Mike had no reason to be skeptical about the truth of their circumstance, particularly given the Four had added the extra layer of Ben playing the part of the dethroned king (again, playing into Joe’s perceived narrative of Ben as the oblivious leader). However, it once again shows that you can’t underestimate anything in Survivor, and you can’t get confident. There’s no certainty that what seems like reality is the truth.
For Ryan and Chrissy (and poor editor’s afterthought JP), their false reality was similarly understandable. They had no reason to doubt that Ben was a double agent, and their reactions in the immediate aftermath of JP’s blindside and through the next few days were honest, and largely appropriate responses. Naturally, they attempted to appeal to potential swing votes, with Ryan trying to unsuccessfully repair his trust with Devon or hoping to foster solidarity with Mike and with Chrissy approaching Lauren about working towards the Final 3. However, in both cases, they were shot down. In the latter case, Lauren wasn’t going to jeopardise the long con, but in both scenarios, it highlighted how blind Ryan and Chrissy had become to the actual reality of the game. Ryan had openly and repeatedly rebuffed working with Mike when Mike was on the bottom, and it came back to bite him now that the tables had (seemingly) turned, while Chrissy had never talked strategy with Lauren. With no numbers in their favour, they had to turn to the only tool they had left: an idol.
With urging from Ben, Ryan played the idol on himself at Tribal Council, which would have been the right play – if his perception of reality had actually been reality. Instead, it was all a bluff, and once again, the Four schooled their tribemates with a remarkable play – but now that Ryan, Chrissy, and Mike have all been cast asunder and left out of another vote, maybe the wool will be lifted from their eyes.
THE NEXT JOB
Ashley, Ben, Chrissy, Devon, Lauren, Mike and Ryan. One of the most diverse Final 7s we’ve seen wherein every castaway left is an intelligent, intentional and driven game-player. Tonight re-set the playing field as shadow-players like Lauren, Devon and Ashley leapt into the thick of it, mighty shot-callers like Chrissy and Ryan were brought low, outsiders like Mike were turned about, and big threats like Ben gained both momentum and attention.
Even with the Four holding their coveted majority, there is no clear path to the end, and with this many strong players, nobody is going to roll over and give up their game. It’s going to be a fight to the finish, and like any good caper, I reckon we’ll be in for a few more cockamamie schemes, well-laid traps, double-crosses and dramatic reveals before all is said and done.
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