It’s fascinating that the complex web of relationships forged in the pre-merge of Heroes v Healers v Hustlers has led to a seven-strong alliance capable of conducting a Pagonging. With the advent of voting blocs and big moves, the last few seasons have trended towards regular shake-ups, and we have to go all the way back to the time the No Collars were decimated in Worlds Apart to see a single alliance take the numbers at the merge and stay strong through consecutive votes.
Does the threat of a Pagonging make for a less surprising outcome each week? Sure, but we’ve come a long way from the mindless alliance genocides of the Survivor dark ages. On one side, the Healer minority of Cole, Joe and Dr. Mike were unwilling to roll over and accept their impending fate, and each of the men battled for survival in their own way. Meanwhile, the dominant Knights of the Round Table had easy pickings with a 7-3 majority, and yet tonight’s episode highlighted numerous divisions within the alliance that suggest an inevitable fracturing of the coalition. Fittingly, everybody at the Round Table has their own voice and their own agenda – and it’s only a matter of time before the convenient formality of the Hero-Hustler alliance falls by the wayside.
Part of what makes the Round Table an unusual steadfast alliance is that there is no clear pecking order. There is no core group, no Mariano or Spradlin leading the charge. With the web of relationships from the starting tribes through the swap and now into the merge, the seven could break any which way. As some of the players began to prepare themselves for the bloodbath, however, the fissures started to deepen.
Ryan has been playing a fairly strong and consistent game, where he’s managed to instil trust easily using humour, charm, and strategy to build bonds with Devon and Chrissy in particular. With an idol in his possession (or, as he excitedly emphasises, in his pants), he found himself well-situated to move forward – but to get the upper-hand at seven he’d need four. He had Chrissy’s trust, particularly after they’d worked together to dig up the idol and bury the evidence, and Ryan made a smart decision to bring his Day One ally Devon into the loop. However, he made a crucial misstep when he assured Devon that he was the only one to know about Ryan’s idol. Not only was it a blatant lie at that point (as Chrissy already knew), but Ryan’s subsequent decision to tell Ben – a fourth for his sub-alliance – was dangerous and foolish. Ryan reasoned that “truth is power,” but truth is only reliable if it actually is the full truth. Here, his half-truths came around to bite him.
When Ben sat down with Devon to talk strategy and to pledge a Final Three deal, Ben’s pointed reveal that he knew about Ryan’s idol served to immediately fracture the long-built trust between Devon and Ryan. For Ben’s part, he would have assumed that this would be new information that would put a target on Ryan’s back, but it ended up being a much more critical hit as Devon learned that Ryan had betrayed his trust. Devon played the revelation well, masking that he already knew about the idol, and instead agreeing with Ben’s assertion that they’d need to keep an eye on the weasel in case he tried to make a move. Devon held his cards close, which will give him more manoeuvrability in the future – and Ben also made sure not to show his whole hand, keeping his knowledge about Lauren’s advantage hush-hush.
It could be argued, then, that Devon and Ben also used half-truths, but the difference between their plays, and Ryan’s mistake, is that Devon and Ben concealed information. Devon already knew about the idol and Ben knew a second secret, whereas Ryan revealed false information (telling Devon that he was the only one to know about the idol). It’s blatant lies versus deception by omission, and in Ryan’s case, getting caught in a lie could drive a wedge between him and his closest allies and draw a target to his back.
Ryan wasn’t the only member of the Round Table to draw ire from his tribemates, however, as Ben continued to be a lightning rod for malcontent. After getting caught in overt feuds with Cole and Joe, his own allies began to grow disgruntled when Ben refused to listen to them. After another excellent and original Immunity Challenge in which Lauren dethroned the biggest physical threat in Cole, the Round Table found themselves in disagreement over who to vote out. Ben wanted to split the votes between Cole – the primary target – and Mike – the back-up.
The decision to leave Joe, the most troublesome and agitating of the three, off the chopping block irked Ashley and Chrissy. Both took opportunities to confront Ben about the call – why the innocuous Mike over the threat in Joe? However, in both instances, Ben brushed past their objections even going so far as when Chrissy warned that some felt as though he was steamrolling them, Ben disregarded it with a blunt, “No, they don’t.” Ben had legitimate reasons for wanting to keep Joe around in that he would always be an easy target due to his abrasive personality (an interesting turn of events after their heated conversation last week!), but in denying his allies’ opinions, he ran the risk of becoming an enemy within.
Nobody wants to work with a dictator, and at a Round Table, all voices should be equal. Ben has a lot going for him right now in that he has strong ties to most of his allies – Chrissy, Lauren, Devon, and Ryan chief among them. Nevertheless, inflexibility is an anchor in this game, and if Ben’s rigidity persists, it could worsen the fractures already forming in the majority alliance, and he could be the first to fall through.
STUCK IN THE MUD
On the other side of the divide, the remaining Healers faced an ominous fate. They were caught in the trap and it was going to take a miracle to get out of it. For Cole, his physicality had made him a prominent target and his habits around camp had fractured any social capital he might have been able to fall back on. The only thing that would keep Cole in the game would be an Immunity run – something he came incredibly close to sustaining. Without security, Cole tried his best to blend into the background, keeping his mouth shut and hoping that the majority would turn their sights towards the louder agitators instead. It was worth a shot, but the alliance that took out the challenge threat in Desi over the chaotic force in Joe stuck to their modus operandi, and there was little the wilderness guide could do.
Yet his two Healer allies took a far more overt tact to freeing themselves from the quagmire of the minority alliance. For Joe, it meant doubling down on being Joe. He has approached the game with intensity from the beginning, stirring up conflict with Dr. Mike on the very first day. As time has gone on, that fervour has only increased. Sometimes, Joe can get away with his flashing-neon “I’m playing hard” approach, such as cutting up the cake on the Reward to joke that the plate says an idol is hidden under the yacht. The other 99% of the time, though, the fact that Joe is always ‘on’ rubs his tribemates the wrong way – whether he’s casually searching for the idol at any spare moment or actively causing trouble.
Joe’s strategy to use agitation of his tribemates to stir up the game is a novel concept, and against all the odds, the gamble paid off tonight as Ben pushed the target away because of the fact that Joe was so annoying. Nevertheless, I doubt it could ever be a winning strategy. Joe is so aggressively confrontational that his adversaries do not see his antics as being “strangely entertaining.” When he’s concocting lies about Ben and the Marines or unleashing a barrage of insults at Ashley and Chrissy, it crosses the line from gameplay into disrespect. This is a game that ultimately comes down to social relationships that are built on trust and respect and with Joe literally telling Chrissy and Ashley that he doesn’t respect them, they’re not going to turn around and give him respect if he makes it to the end. Joe’s strategy paid off tonight and could continue to see him evade elimination, but ultimately it’s just delaying the inevitable: he’s stuck in the mud, and he’s not getting out.
BLIND MAN’S BLUFF
However, Joe was not the only Healer to employ a questionable strategy tonight, with Dr. Mike going way out on a limb to turn a promising underdog rebellion into one of the most baffling sequences of moves we’ve seen in a while. The good doc was understandably miffed by being used at the last vote, with the Hero-Hustler alliance deflecting him towards Joe while ultimately taking out Desi. He was right to distrust the players who had left him out to dry once already – even up to questioning Ben’s ultimately truthful hint that Cole was on the block – and he initially planned to throw his compatriots under the bus by joining the chorus on complaining about Cole’s behaviour.
With an idol in his pocket, and Joe also drawing disdain, Mike was in a solid position to skate by to the next round at which point he could utilise his idol to make a power play to tip the balance. However, he decided to make his move a round earlier, and while it was exciting to see the superfan attempt his first big move, it ultimately fell flat in the most baffling way. At Tribal, Mike made a big to-do about justifiable morals and ethical codes by accusing the majority alliance of painting Joe as a pariah only to keep him around to continue to belittle him. It was a stretch of an argument at best (as Lauren pointed out, his argument would be valid if they weren’t playing Survivor), but it seemed like a calculated ploy by Mike to emulate Joe’s disruptive Tribal demeanour and either draw votes onto himself or deflect them away. It already seemed to be a bizarre turn for the mild-mannered doctor to cause a ruckus and proclaim himself to be Lady Liberty, but it only got more bizarre.
Mike chose to use his idol for himself. It would have been the right call if his intention was to draw votes onto himself, and he did end up cancelling the back-up votes against him, although the Round Table’s split vote would have sent Cole home regardless. And yet even if the Round Table had piled their votes on Mike, Cole still would have gone home because Joe and Mike also voted for Cole. So why on earth did Mike waste his idol only to vote out a Healer anyway? There is clearly something we didn’t see, and I hope we get some clarity on his mindset going forward because, at this minute, Mike’s move is unfathomably obscure.
On the topic of unfathomably obscure, this marks the second week where the Round Table almost botches a split vote, with their votes ending up 5-2 between Cole and Mike. If the Healers had stuck together and Mike had used his idol on Cole, their three votes could have upset the balance. It’s bizarrely sloppy gameplay from the Heroes and Hustlers who boast superfans and math whizzes in their ranks. So either people aren’t sticking to the plan and are jeopardising their own alliance, or nobody is taking the time to count. Maybe Devon was right and they’re all slowly turning into zombies after all.
On paper, the season could be labelled a bore with Healer numbers dwindling and the Hero-Hustler alliance picking them off one by one by one. But to reduce this season to a numbers game is to do it a disservice. As Ashley observed at Tribal, “You cannot calculate relationships, emotions, […] deception. The game happens in every conversation you have.” The complex personalities and web of relationships continue to provide ample intrigue. Furthermore, these castaways are actively playing the game albeit with a sloppy helping of poor decisions. With a number of questionable moves playing out on Solewa beach, a fairly rote episode eliminating the obvious challenge beast became an unexpected and exciting mess of strategic bungles, interpersonal dynamics and character moments.
Even if next week’s double episode sees the Round Table play eeny-meeny between the last two Healers, I trust that there’s enough meat on the bones to sustain fun television that will only get better as the alliance of seven is ultimately forced to eat itself alive. Red rover, red rover, this game isn’t over.
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