Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“Vote from your heart. Just feel good about who you vote for.” –Chris Daugherty, winner, Survivor: Vanuatu
Is Tai the Darth Vader of Survivor?
All season long we’ve been watching Tai’s moral journey. From the blithe, tree-hugging gardener of the first episode we’ve seen him perverted by the cruel necessities of the game. He turned towards the Dark Side with Jason and Scot, and last week descended so far that he actually dumped water on the camp fire. We watched one of the most good-hearted contestants in the show’s history engaged in one of the show’s most despicable acts. How far he’d fallen from those first few blissful weeks where he was stealing kisses from Caleb!
This episode, he redeemed it all. He found his moral footing and turned towards the Light. In one simple act of denying Scot his idol, Tai found redemption. This is some Star Wars level stuff, Anakin Skywalker descending into Darth Vader then finding last minute redemption by saving Luke.
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Yes, that does mean that Caleb is Padmé. He was Tai’s first love whose death, while giving “birth” to the twin condiments of salt and pepper, turned Tai towards evil.
The role of Luke Skywalker is played by Aubry Bracco. (Aubry Brackwater sounds like she could be a Game of Thrones character too, if you want to make some mixed-genre mashups) At the episode’s start, Emperor Scot tempted Aubry to join him in dominion over the game. “Your hate has made you powerful,” he sneered. “Fulfill your destiny and take Cydney’s place at my side!”
But Aubry denied the temptation, believing there was still good in Darth Tai. She could feel it. She realized that Tai was morally conflicted and believed, hope against new hope, that she could redeem him.
First she approached Tai to commiserate over the moral difficulties of the game. “It’s the heart and the brain constantly fighting all day long,” she said. “And sometimes it’s hard to know when to trust the brain, when to trust the heart, and when to stop thinking.”
This conversation is a perfect example of how Survivor can surpass even scripted drama. You literally couldn’t write that dialogue unless you were scripting a 1970s space opera. Compare and contrast from Return of the Jedi: “Search your feelings. You can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you! Let go of your hate!”
Later on, Aubry offered Tai one of the best pitches for flipping in the history of the game. “I want you to be comfortable,” she said. “This is your game. You’re making a big move. And I’m telling you – you have three people behind you. I’m positive.”
You couldn’t ask for a better pitch, and to see why, I want to break it down:
• I want you to be comfortable: Everybody on Survivor just wants to feel safe. The best strategists play towards people’s feelings even more than towards their intellects. Aubry gets that Tai, like everybody, operates as much emotionally as he does strategically.
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• This is your game: Aubry communicates that she understands the stakes from his perspective. She suggests that her pitch is improving his game. This isn’t just someone begging for a vote. This is someone with a compelling offer.
• You’re making a big move: This reinforces the idea that Aubry understands the difficulty from Tai’s perspective – no bullying here. Perhaps more importantly, it subtly communicates that Tai should make this move for his own resume, because everyone in modern day Survivor knows it’s a game of “big moves.”
• You have three people behind you: Unlike Scot and Jason, who just tell Tai what to do, Aubry offers him support for what he wants. “I have three votes to do whatever you want with” has to be one of the most compelling arguments of anybody in the show’s history trying to induce someone to flip.
• I’m positive: This line is the clincher. There is so much ambiguity on Survivor, so many lies and so much uncertainty. It’s rare for anybody to be positive about anything.
Aubry of course wins the Fishy for bringing Tai back to the path of the Light. All episode long, Aubry had been trying to “prove that she deserved to be there” by winning a challenge. She narrowly lost the Reward to Tai, and narrowly lost the Immunity to Jason. But like Luke Skywalker, Aubry Brackwater learned that proving yourself on Survivor is not about winning the challenge. You must use the Strategic Force.
Finally, at episode’s end, as Aubry turned to gaze into the darkness, she saw the ghostly figures of Neal, Nick, and Debbie waving to her from the night.
Sure, you can argue that Tai’s decision was not strategically sound. Staying with Scot, Jason, and Julia, he would have strong numbers with solid jury goats. The Jason/Scot Empire was a much more united army than the disparate Rebel militias of Cydney and Michele and Joe. Plus Tai is now a giant target, having both an idol and an advantage in his pocket. Remember – the past two seasons, both holders of the advantage (Dan Foley and [gulp] myself) played the advantage on the tribal council they went home.
You can argue, too, that Darth Vader’s decision to betray Emperor Palpatine wasn’t strategically sound. Yet who in the audience wasn’t cheering when that happened?
Survivor: Kaoh Rong airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.