Survivor: The Gamer's Perspective

By Thorin N. Tatge

Week 11

What can I say this week?  The last episode was another one of those emotional, gut-jerking numbers.  We didn't get to see much of... well, we didn't see much of anything other than relatives and boiled invertibrates.  It's a sad fact of Survivor that the last two or three episodes before the finale are pretty dull and feature more than their share of challenge footage.  It's not that the challenges are especially interesting, even if they do happen to be; it's that the contestants are so drained by this time that there presumably isn't much to show outside of challenges.  It was interesting seeing how tired everyone was in the first season, but it's now become old.  They even like to give the contestants extra things to do late in the game--to give perspective after a long journey, sure, but also to keep them from boring the viewers out of their skulls.  This season has unfortunately held true to pattern, and the big news is that next week the remaining five castaways will get a mirror to play with.  What fun.

We do have a bit of endgame strategy to discuss, however.  Brian remains in the best position, although I don't find it as airtight as all that.  Everyone likes Brian, but they also seem to realize that he's the favorite to win, and that may lead to his downfall at any of the three remaining pre-jury tribal councils.  Clay seems to be sticking with Brian, especially since his "unique" personality seems to have burned most of his other bridges.  As for Ted, it's not clear whether he's still friendly with Brian.  It's more like he believes Brian is his best vehicle for getting into the final two.  What needs to happen is for the women to tell him otherwise, and mean it.  This is Jan's best chance, and possibly Ted and Helen's as well: the three of them would be well-advised to make an alliance.  If they don't, it's probably Jan's turn to go next week.  Even then, however, it will still be anyone's game.

So what about Helen?  What should she be planning?  Should she have done anything differently over the last two episodes?  Many think that she should have, and that her door of opportunity is closed now that Sook Jai is no more and she can no longer form an alliance against the Chuay Guy trio.  Yet, when one door closes another opens.  Helen had a viable option in trying to get Jake, Penny and Jan into an alliance together.  However, I think she was wise not to press this possibility.  What with Penny snubbing Jake and Jake obviously having something against Jan (or he wouldn't have voted for her twice), Helen would have felt like an overburdened chaperone at a teenage party trying to keep her alliance together--all the worse if Jan got hold of anything with alcohol in it.  Rather, she decided to wait and try for a later three-person alliance.  I think this was a good move.  But in either case, while voting out Penny may not have been the best decision, voting for Jake was a gimme.  Here's a pearl of Survivor strategy wisdom: if you're going to topple the existing hierarchy of power, do it when there are an odd number of people left.  This holds especially true when you don't know what the tie-breaking system is yet.  If you can get enough people on your side to hold a majority (and you do want a majority, for security's sake) with an even number left in the game (say, 4-2) then you can still do so after one person is gone (and inded, Helen may be able to get a 3-2 majority going).  If Helen has any chance of getting a winning alliance, it wasn't necessary to include Jake, who would have been a monkeywrench anyway given that he's from the former enemy tribe.

So Helen did the right thing.  She's been playing a good game.  Her one mistake may be that she trusts Brian too much.  From her discussion in the boat with Jim, we learned that she is grateful to Brian for coming so far, and that she thinks he will play honestly and with integrity.  She does not believe that Brian would play her for a dupe.  Now the thing is, I believe that Brian may deserve Helen's gratitude, and I may even believe that he's playing with integrity, but I don't believe that he's being honest, not even with Helen.  Brian has made bonds with Ted and Clay as well.  His chances of victory are best if Clay is his competition in the Final Two.  While Brian clearly likes Helen, he doesn't have any real reason to favor her in upcoming votes.  It looks like she simply heard "I want to take you with me" and went "Whooaa!" like she said to her husband, believing it all.

Why doesn't Helen think Brian would dupe her?  Does he not seem capable of it?  I have to admit, Brian has been acting a little blank and unfocused, as if he's not really paying attention to what anyone says, only his "big plan."  He may be deliberately perpetrating this image so that he seems incapable of deception, when he really is.  However, I think that's not it.  I think Helen and Brian have a bond that's different from anyone else on the show: the bond of intelligence.  Now, I'm not saying, for example, that Clay isn't shrewd or Jed isn't quick-witted...  But Brian and Helen's form of intelligence is a more visible kind that seems to be similar in the two.  They have a blend of articulation and restraint that none of the other contestants shared except perhaps for Shii Ann.  Plus, they've both been hard workers, and that's brought them closer together.  And maybe Helen sees this bond as more important than Brian does, and that's why she doesn't worry about him betraying her.  On the other hand, maybe Brian doesn't intend to.  I have to wonder what he was talking about in his confessional just before Tribal Council about "switching gears."  If there's one thing Brian loves to do, it's rationalize his decisions, so I have no doubt he was hard at work rationalizing some change of plan at that point.  What was it?  Was it to vote out Clay next after Jake, instead of Jan, like Helen wanted him to?  Is he so hungry that he's as easy to sway with a few choice words as everyone else is?  If so, this endgame is really a dance of children, knocking each other down more by the whimsy of chance in motion than by the true strategy of adults.  Um, well, that was a silly thought, but it may be true.  Still, when one door closes another opens, and the path may be clear for Brian to use Clay's ouster as a way to get more votes from the jury.

I wonder what the big plan was that Brian reassured his wife he had.  How "big" can a plan really be in this game?  It can't be much more complex than a pecking order, a chopping queue, a hierarchical totem pole.  Clay was trying some sort of strategy outside this paradigm when he netted three votes for Ted.  I'm still wondering what he was thinking, but it was cool nonetheless to see some strategy aside from trying to convince other people to be on your side.  Where are the Survivors deliberately punching holes in the boat and trying to make it look like someone else's fault?  Where are the rumors of nasty scandals being spread like viruses while adeptly concealing their sources?  Well okay, there have been a few examples of this in seasons past (like the story of Jerri, Kel and the beef jerky), and in this season Ghandia blew up an issue to no avail, and Penny was apparently doing something... manipulative.  I guess.  But my point is these big plans are never as impressive as I'd like them to be.


Treemail!  Helen and Jan take a sneak peek at the reward to come, see the word "Feast" and go haywire, an hysteria that soon engulfs the whole tribe.  What an irony and a cruel injustice that this is one of the few rewards that does -not- involve food for the castaways at all.  I wonder how many of the castaways wished it was them and not their loved ones eating the creepy-crawlies just because they were hungry.  I wonder if those grubs made anyone's mouth water.  I wonder how much the baked grubs would have fetched at the auction back on Episode 5 if they hadn't been a mystery item.  But anyway, out comes the parade of "loved ones" to provoke reactions in the Survivors.  Helen gibbers, Ted shouts, Jan cries... Jake sits there and smiles.  Jeff wants a bigger reaction.  "This is your soulmate, Jake!"  Jake shifts his position and smiles again.  Well, whatever.  I don't think we can accurately judge the characters of the remaining castaways by their behavior at this point anyway.  Hunger and fatigue have transformed them all, each in their own different way.  Deprived of nourishment, Jan becomes overly sentimental.  Brian becomes self-absorbed to the point where it's funny.  Clay becomes surly.  Ted withdraws.  Helen becomes hysterical.  Jake just gets tired.  Jake was the only person left behaving more or less normally, so naturally they voted him out.  I mean, wouldn't you?

But anyway, the six relatives need to compete to see who can stay with the tribe for a day to keep their spouse, mother or brother company.  This is the same premise as the reward that happened at this time last season.  (Actually, the reward challenge in the third-to-last episode has involved the contestants' families in every season except the first, but in Seasons II and III they participated via the internet and videotapes respectively.)  I guess the current lot of contestants didn't have time to see the end of Season IV and so Mr. Burnett wanted to use this idea again while it was still a surprise to the participants.  For the viewers it was a bit dull, though.  Five excruciating courses later, Helen's husband Jim wins.  Note that there was a minor flaw in the pacing of this challenge: in the first two rounds only one contestant was eliminated, and then three were eliminated in one round.  I'm betting they thought the ants and water roach would squelch more than one loved one and provide a smoother curve.  It might have been better to simply have all five courses be timed and simply eliminate one person on each round.  That's how I would have done it.

The losers go away, never to be seen again--that is, until two days later, where they come back for the immunity.  I commend Mr. Burnett for this idea.  While seeing the family of contestants complete for a change is fun, it's even more fun to have them join forces with the Survivors.  Too bad the challenge they chose to do this with was so visually confused and disorganized that it was hard to see who was doing what.  If they're going to do a trivia quiz each season, this might have been the challenge to save it for.

Instead, they go with a three-dimensional puzzle.  This challenge is close to being a classic puzzle as so many have been, but it's not quite.  It resembles the Soma cube, a three by three by three cube of cubes made of seven unique pieces that you can buy here and learn about here, but has a couple of differences.  The version they used has eight pieces, not seven, which makes things significantly easier--a good thing, given that they have limited time and that there's always the chance somebody knows how to assemble the traditional Soma cube.  For another thing, the pieces were all painted on the sides that were to end up facing outward--this is both a helpful clue and a nuisance, as it reduces the number of ways to assemble the cube from around ten to one (excluding rotations and reflections of the whole or of individual pieces).

The third thing that made this challenge different from a pure assembly competition was that the pieces were all bunched in a jumble to begin with and no one was assigned a color.  They've never done anything like that before.  Potentially, it could have resulted in some really tricky interactions.  As it was, Brian and Cici called "We've got blue!" right off the bat, and then Helen and Jim took a blue piece.  When Brian kept saying "H, we've got blue," Helen eventually got the message and said "They've got blue--damn it! and switched to another color somebody else had, until Jeff guided them to take yellow, the only color still open.  This cost Helen and Jim precious time and kept them from having a real shot.  So, as with the reward from last week in which a snap decision (choosing a partner) was key, it was important in this week's immunity to decide right away on what color one wanted, and to make sure everyone else got the message.  Thus, in addition to cooperation within a team, cooperation between teams was important in a way that wasn't immediately visible.

Wouldn't it have been interesting if it had gone like this...  suppose that Jake desperately needs immunity and everyone knows it.  Moreover, suppose that at the previous Tribal Council Jake had boasted "I can build cubes out of other cubes as fast as anyone in this tribe, and even faster than some."  Clay takes this personally because Monrovians take especial pride in their cube-building ability, but the fact stands that Jake and Jenny are the best pair.  Since Jake is going to be voted out that night, it doesn't much matter who has immunity, as long as he doesn't get it.  Therefore, when he and Jenny choose green, Brian and Cici also go for green.  "We've got green!" they tell Jake.  "We had green before you!" Jake retorts.  "Go for something else!"  "No, we've got green!" Brian yells.  Jake and Jenny could fight over the green pieces, but there's no way a cube could be built in the middle of a squabble, so they're forced to switch to purple.  "I've got purple!" yells Clay, while his wife picks up a blue piece for good measure to lock Jake and Jenny out.  Meanwhile, Ted and Alwan are busily building a red cube.  Jake and Jenny are left without any color to collect, so they have to bargain.  "Look," says Jake, if you give us the blue pieces, I'll be your vote slave from here to forevermore.  "No deal," says Clay.  "Your comment at Tribal Council the other day was a slap in the face to all of us."  "You can have yellow!" shouts Helen.  "Just promise to vote for Clay from here on out!"  "You've got a deal," replies Jake.  And fun ensues.

Or not.  Too bad.  In fact the challenge was confusing, but it looks like Jake and Jenny were in second place.  Brian and Cici seemed to be doing well at first, but it was an illusion.  Ted and Alwan did a fine job and earned their victory.  "That's what I'm talking about" said Ted when Jeff told them their loved ones would be partners in the challenge, and it sounds like he knew what he was talking about, too.

So what's the best way to approach a puzzle like this?  If the faces weren't colored, it would be much trickier.  You'd want to place the funny-shaped pieces first and save the smaller pieces for last.  Beyond that it would be mainly just spatial skills and trial-and-error.  But since the faces were colored, the puzzle becomes sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.  In jigsaw puzzles, it makes sense to start with the edges because you can see that they're edges.  Likewise here, it makes sense to place the pieces with coloring on three sides first, because there's only one way they can be positioned within the cube.  Get all of those pieces together and just fiddle with them until you see how to fit them all in.  At that point the remaining pieces just should fall right into place.  Of course, it's harder to follow this procedure when the cubes are each bigger than your head.  It looked like the teams followed the theoretically slightly inferior strategy of just looking for the right piece to fit the existing structure at every given moment.  Since the challenge was so brief, I don't really blame them.

Now it comes time to rate the Survivors.  Unfortunately, we didn't see a lot of strategy or much at all of some contestants, so I don't have a lot to go on.  Still...


Best Gamer: Helen.  Her one mistake is putting too much trust in Brian, but Brian may not end up betraying her after all, so it may not be an actual mistake.  But on the plus side, Helen was the only castaway to actually take part in the reward challenge by playing the role of demented cheerleader.  Her goggle-eyed gestures and recitation of the word "Please" to her husband really seemed to have an effect on his victory: she showed him how much she really needed him.  Helen also gets credit for going on the water run with Jim.  She got to talk strategy with him and also got to wash herself in fresh water without anyone knowing!  Finally, Helen gets credit for making a point of touching base with Brian about Clay.  Just because she trusts Brian doesn't mean she's going to let him make all the decisions, and that's smart.

2nd Best Gamer: In the absence of anything else to go on, this goes to Ted for working well with his brother to win immunity.  He may not have improved his position this week, but it doesn't seem to be any worse, either.

2nd Worst Gamer: Again, in the absence of anything to go on, this goes to Jan, for not doing very well in the challenge, for again not strategizing in any visible way, and for being (in my opinion) the most likely next castaway to go.

Worst Gamer: Clay, for failing to keep in his feelings and thereby irritating everyone.  This isn't exactly an aspect of gaming so until now I haven't docked Clay for this, but there comes a time when you just have to keep mum for the purpose of winning friends and keeping alliances together.  Being confrontational with Jake was a bad move, and it looks like he's gotten on Helen and Brian's bad side too.  I'm hoping Clay gets voted out next, although at this rate he may find himself in the Final Two just to increase someone else's chances of winning.

Send feedback to