"Winning the loved ones reward can be disastrous"
Stephen Fishbach has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. He is the host of the podcast Paraphrase, where he interviews writers about the openings to their novels. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenfishbach.
“It’s not as easy to remain a solid alliance in the midst of a lot of flux, with so few people.” -Richard Hatch, winner, Survivor: Borneo
Survivor players of the future take note: Beware the Loved Ones reward!
After a month spent starving and conniving, the thought of spending an afternoon with someone who truly loves you with no ulterior motive can seem priceless. And on top of that, a picnic! Who doesn’t love a picnic?
But winning the loved ones reward can be disastrous. Nothing antagonizes people more than watching you send their loved ones back into the jungle. And as Gavin showed tonight, the gratitude of the people you do pick won’t actually determine their strategic planning.
But when you’re out there competing, for food and love – how hard it is not to try to win. So I totally understand how devious mastermind Ron has a human moment. He wins the Loved Ones reward and strategically brings Gavin and Julie.
(While some may criticize his choice of his ally Julie, not taking your ally on a Loved Ones reward is a good way to ensure they’re no longer your ally.)
But that leaves a very salty Lauren and Victoria back at camp.
“If there’s ever a reward where picking someone is crucial, it’s the loved one’s visit,” Victoria says. “Who you pick can make or break your game.”
So maybe it’s no surprise that it’s Ron who goes home. While Devens is once again the primary target, when the tribe is planning their safety boot, Ron suggests Victoria. After all, she’s been the safety boot every other time – why not this week?
But Victoria wins the Fishy for coming up with a plan of her own. She brings Lauren, Gavin, and Aurora together to blindside Ron. While Aurora and Victoria will vote for Devens, Lauren and Gavin (using Aurora’s extra vote) will vote for Ron. That way, Devens goes home if he doesn’t have an idol. Ron goes home if he does.
Even though Victoria comes up with this scheme, note how she puts herself as one of the Devens votes. Smart move! If Rick doesn’t have an idol, then she’s both voted with Ron and Julie, and masterminded the plan to vote against them – as always, perfectly playing the middle.
Meanwhile, the unstoppable Rick Devens saves himself once again, this time with an idol he has to find in the crook of a tree at camp. Rick may be one of my favorite Survivor characters of all time. He’s hilarious in a way that doesn’t feel like he’s trying hard, always ready with a quip. He’s pushed himself to immunity wins and idol finds you’d never think possible. And he’s emotionally vulnerable.
That last quality means that sometimes he’s not the best player. We saw his frustration with Wardog, and last week he totally missed that the women were plotting his downfall. But his occasional volatility makes him even more fun to watch.
In Defense of Alliances
Ron’s exit means that basically nobody left in the game has an enduring alliance. The closest thing left to longstanding allies are Gavin and Victoria – and even they voted on opposite sides during the Kelley boot. Lauren, Julie, Devens, and Aurora have all seen their allies sent to the Edge. Now, everybody’s an independent operator.
If this Survivor season is remembered for anything, it should be that it showed how disastrous it is to turn on your alliance too soon. The entire post merge has been players getting restless, voting out their allies, and immediately being hoisted out of the game themselves. Eric turned on Joe, and was gone the next week. Julia turned on Eric, then she was out. Wardog turned on Wentworth, then he was immediately gone.
It’s a reminder that the fundamental unit of Survivor strength is still – and will always be – the alliance. Upend it at your peril. The players of season 38 are reacting to season 36, Ghost Island, whose central storyline was that nobody would turn on Dom and Wendell, who waltzed their way to the finals.
But Dom and Wendell were two of the most dominant players in the show’s history, who also were playing in one of the most advantage-heavy seasons ever. It seems bad to make general rules based on their surpassing game excellence during an outlier season.
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Of course, waiting too long can be disastrous. But my point is simply that making your move too soon is also disastrous. As John Cochran said in his classic Survivor final tribal performance, his fundamental Survivor skill was timing – waiting until just the last possible moment to strike.
I think the issue may be that people’s perception of the game Survivor has become more complicated than the game actually is. Ultimately, Survivor is a pretty straightforward numbers game. You want your alliance to have more numbers than the other alliance. You want your sub-alliance to be bigger than the other sub-alliances. Yes, of course there are permutations – advantages and idols add complication, and the power structures within alliances make people uneasy. But this sense that the game is endlessly complicated provides justification for endless wild and erratic play. The true Survivor skill is control.
That said, making smart, safe decisions makes for incredibly boring TV. So I guess I should thank the Survivor gods that people are making their wild and erratic choices.
It sure is fun to watch.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.