By Thorin N. Tatge
The episode we've all been waiting for has come at last. The disappointing thing about Survivor is that strategically so much of it is about building up to where the dominant tribe has to turn on itself, and then it's over in two episodes. Jeff keeps promising that things are about to get really interesting, but they always seem to take too long in getting there. But this week's episode was the bomb--interesting, compelling, and as the title promised, surprising. I loved it.
Early in the season, it looked like in the case of a Chuay Gahn victory, the men would vote out the women and Brian and Ted would vote out Clay, leaving Brian as the probable winner, with Ted a close second. In episodes 9 and 10, Brian and Ted began to drift apart, while Brian came closer to Clay. In episodes 10 and 11, Helen came to have a visible role in the game at last. Two new winning trios arose as possibilities: Brian/Ted/Helen and Helen/Jan/Ted. In a proper tribute to these speculations, all three possibilities arose in the course of Episode 12. I was expecting the last of these to have the best chance, although my general impression was that it was Jan's turn to go. But what they all have in common is that Ted sticks around, at least for one more week. By any gameplan the audience could reasonably have deduced, Ted was safe this episode. Yet Tribal Council came and there he went! What happened?
I'm still figuring this out, myself. Other columnists have their own theories, but I think the truth is very complex. On the episode in question, we also saw hints of a Brian/Clay/Jan alliance and a Helen/Clay/Brian alliance. Everyone agreed that everyone, including themselves, was playing two sides (or more). And upon watching the episode a second time, I was surprised by how many clues there were that Ted would be the next to go, and wondered how I could have missed so many of them.
It all seems to center around the fact that Clay and Brian are so close. While Brian has tried to keep his relationship with this "favorite uncle" low-key, the fact that Brian chose Clay instead of Ted to go on the elephant ride two episodes back has festered and led Ted to make this couple more visible than they otherwise would be. Ted quite possibly went to Helen before they had their reward together and suggested allying to get rid of Brian and Clay. Helen, in her effort to keep every possibility open, latched onto the idea. From then on, Helen worked on Jan. We saw them talking about Clay as a target, and Jan seemed reluctant. My mother jumped to the heart of the issue when she pointed out that Jan had promised Helen to tell her of her choice before they went to the next Tribal Council, and Helen seemed okay with this. We can presume that Helen was thinking this: "I want to be rid of Clay because he didn't deserve to get this far, but I pretty much need Jan in my court to do it. So if Jan gives me the green light before the vote, Clay is gone. If not, I'll pretend to join up with him and Brian like I've promised them. They want to boot Ted, so I'll go ahead and boot Ted in order not to make any waves. But then I'll go right back and join Jan in voting for Clay at the next council, assuming he doesn't get immunity."
Well, I actually hadn't thought quite that far ahead when I started that paragraph, but now it seems to make sense. Helen and Jan really do seem close, and I think they're browsing a common page from the days when Chuay Gahn was divided into men and women. After Ghandia was ejected, Helen and Jan had a lot to talk about and no one else to talk about it with. I think they're both hungry for a woman to win.
What's more, I think they both have a Final Two foil in mind. Helen actually is thinking of Jan, and that's the oddity that will keep them together (in my view). Helen wants to go up against Jan in the jury vote in part because she respects Jan and in part because she doesn't think anyone else does. She expects to win that way. Jan, contrawise, is hoping to go up against Clay. At least, this is one explanation for why Jan would say no to an offer like the one Helen made her. It seems that she ought to have jumped at the chance to ally with Helen and Ted for a final threesome. So I'm guessing that the realization that she couldn't beat either of them in a final vote kept her from doing so. If Brian hadn't won immunity, I wonder if she would have pressed Helen and Ted to vote for him. Probably not, since she still doesn't seem to be that into the game. In response to Helen saying "I'm offering you a number 3 finish, and possibly number 1 or 2" Jan said "I haven't won immunity yet." Was she saying that she thought her chance of being taken into the final two by an immunity winner were better with Clay or Brian than with Helen or Ted? I doubt it, since one the one hand this seems unlikely to be the case, and on the other, Helen then pressed "It doesn't have to -be- immunity!" which suggests that Jan was just saying that she didn't think she had much of a chance in any case.
Indeed, according to Jake's webchat, Jan was never striving to do better than getting onto the jury. She was lucky to manage that, and hasn't been showing doing much planning since then. A second hypothesis is that Jan simply doesn't want to annoy anyone. In this case, Brian and Clay had made it clear to her that Ted was the next to go, and so she decided not to question their judgement when Helen rebelled. When Jan made the mistake of siding with Ghandia in a vote against Clay and was thus marginalized, perhaps she decided to adopt the maxim of voting with the powerful majority every time, even if she disagrees with their decision. Since Brian still seems to be the leader, Jan went with his decision, and since Helen couldn't beat the majority, she joined them. given the way Jan felt, it was probably a wise move. Judging from Ted's interviews, he doesn't even seem to hold a grudge.
The final reward challenge, for the fourth time, offered a vehicle as its prize. It also featured a long multipart challenge, as three challenges late in the show have done in previous seasons. Unlike those, however, it didn't integrate pieces of other challenges; it just offered up a confusing obstacle course and a word unscramble at the end. Remembering the other challenge in which the final step is to unscramble a word, the final reward in Africa (which was won by Lex), I immediately thought of Brian as the probable winner. Brian reminds me of Lex. He's highly competitive, takes a leadership role, is cool in an obsessive way, has plenty of energy left even late in the game, and has a good mind for symbolic problems. There is a subtle difference between them, though. Lex was obsessed with winning, while Brian is obsessed with himself. Lex would have won this challenge. Brian would have won as well if he hadn't been smug enough to finish unscrambling the words RAOD TRIP and walk casually away with an "I've got it right here, Jeff." When Jeff pointed out that he'd made a mistake, it took a few seconds for Brian to get the message and get back to his board. Jeff probably shouldn't have asked Brian "What are you spelling?" He should have just said "This isn't right." But Brian shouldn't have answered, anyway, knowing that Ted was at the next easel, and he certainly shouldn't have walked away after finishing. I give him credit, however, for being a good sport about it afterwards.
The immunity challenge was also dull to watch. I predicted Clay would win, and he did come in second, but Brian was faster. Jeff made a point of there being two strategies to this game: either gather all the pieces first and then fit them together, or gather them one at a time to fit the steps. Brian chose the first of these strategies, and in this I think he was wise. It makes little sense to waste time searching for the right piece when you're away from the staircase, especially when you aren't used to the puzzle yet. You might choose a piece that looks kind of right and find that the difference are more subtle than you thought. Or you might spend time making absolutely sure you had the right piece only to later regret lost time and wonder why you had any doubt. Another reason why it's better to bring all the pieces before starting on the staircase is that it gives you time to think about what piece goes where while still making progress. Brian might have glanced at the first step and seen that it had a large notch in some position, and then watched the pieces he was picking up until he found the right one. Even if he didn't, choosing his strategy gave him the option to do so if the differences were obvious enough. The only advantage to choosing the other strategy is that you don't need to drop the pieces and pick them up again. If you aren't so good at bending over quickly, it makes a bit of sense to do as Jan did and work through the pieces gradually.
Best Gamer: Brian. For winning one challenge and nearly winning the other but for a spot of dyslexia, for graciously congratulating Ted on his victory and saving his sore loser moment for the camera, and for keeping charge of the whole game while still maintaining enough respect that no one talked about voting him out even before he won immunity. His big plan is obviously on course, and disposable Granny Jan is next if he gets his way. He has a very good chance of victory.
2nd Best Gamer: Helen. Despite doing somewhat poorly in the challenges, she put in an excellent episode. She stayed close enough to Big Ted that he actually remembered his "debt" to her and chose her to go on the reward. While on the reward, she practiced gamer's etiquette and let him enjoy his drunken victory, while still getting in a full day's allotment of plotting. She got into all sorts of different and alluringly contradictory alliances while not making too many commitments. (Helen is a really good liar, maybe the best Survivor has known, and that's because she actually believes what she tells people when she tells them.) And finally, when things weren't quite going her way, she smartly swung back to the safe side in order to vote out Ted, who may even still give her his vote in the end. I can't decide whether Helen or Brian has the better chance of victory.
2nd Worst Gamer: Clay. While he didn't do anything particularly bad in this episode, he remains the least liked player in the game and didn't show much sign of doing anything about it, let alone do some chores. His only alliance for a while has been with Brian, who is playing him like a fiddle. He may well make it to the Final Two as a straw man, but Ted has become yet another juror who would rather vote for Magilla than Clay to win.
Worst Gamer: Jan. She was a distant last in the reward challenge and second to last in the immunity. I feel bad about penalizing her for this given her age, but Gamer Scores are age-blind. She showed a bit of cunning this week, but I think she would have been better off joining with Helen and Ted. Finally, if Brian's plan continues apace, Jan is the next to go. She may yet stand a chance of making the Final Two if she sticks with Helen and wins a tie-breaker (for the record, in case it matters, Clay and Jan both have three votes against them), but she just hasn't done enough to deserve the jury's vote in the end.
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