By Thorin N. Tatge
When it comes to Survivor, Episode 7 is the one you can always count on to be great. It's the merge episode, the one so packed with new relationships, changes of plan and bursts of creativity and freshness that they only schedule one challenge for it. This one fully lived up to the tradition even while it bucked tradition: it wasn't technically a merge episode at all! In case you didn't see the episode, the two tribes were brought together and opted to live on the Chuay Gahn beach, but unbeknownst to them, they were still to compete as separate tribes. There was a tribal immunity challenge which they came expecting to be an individual one, and when Sook Jai lost, they went alone to Tribal Council, leaving Ted to utter those hackneyed words which will serve as the title of the next episode: Sleeping with the Enemy.
Just as Robb was the central figure of last episode, Shii Ann was the central figure of this one. We saw quite a lot of her at every stage. Because her experiences following the demi-merge were the most passionate and interesting of those of any contestant, it was basically her story that was told this week. I expect there will be a feeling of something missing without her and her struggle.
While this episode contained the amusing and heartwarming events that always follow a meeting of the tribes, it also contained a fair bit of new information regarding the strategic lay of the field. In particular, we learned that Penny is really a manipulative gossip, the sort of person her tribemates hated in high school. Is she really? Have we seen a single shot of anything like this for the whole duration of the show? Are Ken and Shii Ann embellishing or have the editors been remiss enough to leave out this whole aspect of her personality? We saw a tiny hint last week where Penny was accused of telling Ken that she was thinking of voting for Robb and then telling Robb that the thought never crossed her mind, presumably to make him angry at Ken. But that seemed altogether far-fetched, especially when it could so easily have been an honest misunderstanding. I still think it was, in fact. But there definitely does seem to be something about Penny that we haven't seen, which just underscores the fact that we haven't had enough information this whole season. We get drama about the people who get voted out, but not the people in it for the long haul. Ted and Brian apparently made an alliance on Day 1 and we heard about it on Day 13. Shii Ann had a few minor complaints here and there, but we didn't learn how much trouble she was having with her tribe until she voiced how tempting it was to switch to Chuay Gahn at the auction. We hear everything there is to hear about Ted versus Ghandia and the lazybone coalition of Sook Jai, but see next to nothing about how Jake or Ken fit into it all. And now Penny's personality is suspect, and we viewers don't know whether there's anything to it or not. No fair!
But to get back to Shii Ann, and gaming...Shii Ann was caught in a trap. She believed that she was free to switch sides and join the Chauy Gahn family, when really she was still a Sook Jai. So when it comes to analyzing Shii Ann's game, there are two things to consider: should she have known the merge was false, and was it a good idea to jump ship even if it hadn't been?
The false merge. "This time we're going to try something a little different." "Two tribes living on one beach." No new buffs. No new official tribe name. I admit I wasn't expecting the twist myself, but I had noticed that the normal merge ceremony had not taken place and was just waiting for it happen the next day. Everyone assumes that Burnett and Probst played a nasty trick on the contestants by deliberately misleading them, but I'm not so sure. Judging by Jeff's comments both at the meeting ceremony and at the immunity challenge, such as the casual way he took the tribal immunity idol back and said "Immunity, back up for grabs," I actually think Jeff was surprised at the misunderstanding. Surprised and pleased. Most viewers may have surmised that it was all a ploy from Jeff's questions at tribal council about the castaways' reaction to the surprise, but I think Jeff had simply adapted to the fact that it had been a surprise, albeit an unintentional one. In any case, there were a lot of clues that it was incomplete, and at the very least someone should have asked Jeff whether they were getting new buffs or a new tribe name. Even if he had refused to answer, it would have aroused suspicion. So I do blame the survivors in general and Shii Ann in particular for not realizing what was going on.
Let's talk briefly about the meeting ceremony. It was a spiffy idea to have the pairs of contestants who would go and get to know each other select themselves through what color of paint they chose. I liked the whole event. What I wonder about is what they would have done if the tribes had not been 5-5 at this point. Have two people from one tribe go with one from the other? Would they have distributed the paint differently? Or would they have just had some other method of getting the contestants to know each other? Even more remarkable was the fact that every pair turned out to be a man and a woman. Even given that the tribes were equal in number, and even given that one tribe had three women and two men while the other was the opposite, the chance of that happening is only one in ten. But I can't see any plausible conspiracy theory about how it was all planned, so I guess we have to rack that up to coincidence. Incidentally, I think Shii Ann did the best job with her body paint. Too bad it didn't get her a reward.
Shii Ann did get her reward, though, in being able to see the Chuay Gahn camp and thus make an important decision that would affect the rest of the game. If Shii Ann had said "No, we can't go to the camp where the waterhole is a mile away; I didn't like it there at all," they very likely wouldn't have gone there. I can't see how choosing Sook Jai would have affected her eventual fate, though. The more important thing Shii Ann got was a chance to share her plight to a sympathetic ear. If there's anything Clay is good for, it's listening and offering sympathy, so it's no surprise that Shii Ann let it all out. Ted seems to be the same way. She may have been a little indiscreet, but after enduring for twenty days what Shii Ann said she had endured, I can't blame her for telling everything to Clay. It cleansed her so that she could think about her future more clearly.
I also can't blame her for deciding to switch alliegence in the end. It was a close decision, in my opinion. Would Shii Ann have been wiser to stick with Sook Jai, assuming that they would win a tiebreaker against Chuay Gahn and wipe Chuay Gahn out, and then that she, Ken and Jake would take out Penny and Erin? That's asking for quite a lot to go right. In her interviews Shii Ann said that she felt her position with Sook Jai was precarious. I can easily believe it. But then, is it any better to vote with Chauy Gahn until Sook Jai is gone and then try to stay above water without a plan? At least with Ken and Jake she had a game plan which in theory might have gone right. What would she have done in Chuay Gahn?
Maybe it wouldn't matter too much. She would have had twelve days to think about it, after all. And while Chuay Gahn might have stuck steadfastly together and ejected Shii Ann once her job was done, they might on the other hand have been sincere in welcoming her to their family. I could imagine Shii Ann teaming up with Helen to first eliminate Jan and Clay and then to compete with Ted and Brian in the Final Four. Or any number of other combinations. Her decision to jump ship was a feasible one. She let her emotions swing the balance and that's fine. Sometimes the best move in gaming is the one that makes you feel best about your position, even if it's slightly less strategically sound.
But where Shii Ann did poorly was how she waffled about her decision. We saw her prepare to tell Ken what she had decided and then flip-flop again at the last second. Ken knew what was up. He could count to nine and knew there was no way Shii Ann could both be loyal to him and Jake and vote for Penny in the upcoming tribal council. So he named the trouble for what it appeared to be: "Don't sink everyone, including yourself, just because you're angry at one person." It was quite a reasonable line of argument, but Shii Ann attributed it to Ken's "interrogation mode" and decided she simply wouldn't talk to him about it any more. That probably would have been a good idea in the first place. At the least, she should have absolutely decided what she was going to tell Ken before talking to him at all. Shii Ann's sense of decency told her to be square with Ken about her decision to turn coat, but her instincts told her she shouldn't burn her bridges, just in case. Her instincts were right. If they'd been a bit stronger, Shii Ann might have stayed in the game.
The problem is that Shii Ann didn't seem to fully realize that by voting out Penny as she wanted to, she was acting directly against the interests of her friends, Jake and Ken. She did realize it to an extent, because she told Brian that she didn't want to betray her friends. But she later expected them to understand, as if they weren't the victims but she was. What she really needed was a way to make an alliance that included Ken and Jake. Now, putting them together with all of Chuay Gahn would leave out only two people, and that would be too unstable an agreement. But she might have managed to arrange an alliance between the three of them and the three Chuay Gahn men, for example. She would be the only woman in the final six and thus increase her chances of making it to the end. A long shot? Probably. But consider what Clay told Shii Ann on their visit. He said they were thinking of recruiting Jake and one of his friends. Who is "they"? Was it all of Chuay Gahn? Then they wouldn't need one of Jake's friends. So Clay must have been referring to just the three men, or possibly the men plus Helen. So it's evident that Clay, and by extension Brian and Ted, were open to the idea of a cross-tribal alliance. Perhaps Shii Ann should have pursued that idea a bit.
When the true nature of the faux-merge became evident, there was little Shii Ann could do but prepare an argument against Penny. She did a decent job, but it could have been better. Because she had made it clear that she had been prepared to change sides, she was put in a very difficult position at tribal council. She argued several points, but none of them very convincingly: that Chuay Gahn would look poorly on Sook Jai voting her out; that she knew Chuay Ghan best and could figure them out; that she had been loyal to Ken and Jake for the whole game and would show her gratitude by continuing to be; that Penny was manipulative and deserved to be voted out. She made a few mistakes, and one was that she even tried to bring Erin over to her side. She should have stuck to Ken and Jake and added to the above list the perk that they would be able to vote out Erin without danger at the following council. Now if Sook Jai goes to another tribal council before the tribes merge, it will likely be a split between the men and the women, with everyone in danger.
Despite all this, in my opinion Sook Jai was right to vote Shii Ann out. They had absolutely no real assurance that she would not simply go back to Chuay Gahn after the council and heighten the odds against them. Furthermore, Penny is now an obvious target for Chuay Gahn to vote for if there is a merge. Besides that, it seems that Ken, Jake, Penny and Erin have been close since the beginning and don't want to splinter that unity. Finally, if the tribes merge when each has four members, and if ties are broken in the old-fashioned way of counting previous votes, then Sook Jai was right not to keep the person who had received six already. (Shii Ann, who received a total of ten votes, is tied with Lex for receiving the third most votes of any Survivor contestant. Ranking above her are Sarah, with eleven, and Clarence, with twelve.)
So Shii Ann did some things right and she did some things wrong. She followed her heart because she needed to. It didn't pay off...but it could have if things had been different. So Shii Ann ended in the middle of the road, as gamers go, and will not be receiving any awards this week, good or bad.
The immunity challenge was really creative and really cool! Escape from a prison by tying sticks together to get keys off of posts! It was a good test of teamwork, speed and resourcefulness. If I had designed it, however, I would have made it less obvious what to do. I would have made the keys harder to get and supplied more random debris to work with. Kudos to Jake for suggesting the use of shoelaces as extra tying material. A more creative challenge along these lines was included in ABC's reality game show The Mole 2, where contestants had to escape from a prison block by breaking a light bulb to release a key, catch it in a bucket, and find a way to get the bucket back to their cells. Something like that would realy give individuals a chance to shine.
Best Gamer: Ken. While Shii Ann was going through her awakening and subsequent dilemma, Ken was right there keeping tabs on her. He supported Shii Ann as a friend, but wisely demanded to know her decision, one way or the other. When she defected in the end, he was quick to report it to the rest of Sook Jai. Ken was judicious in what he told Helen on their trip to Sook Jai camp. He excelled in the immunity challenge, getting more keys than anyone except possibly Shii Ann. And he made the right decision in the end, even though it must have been a tough one.
2nd Best Gamer: Another tie between Ted and Brian. The eternal friends continued to stay on top of the game throughout this unusual meeting of tribes. They gained Shii Ann's trust and lobbied to gain her vote, eventually succeeding were it not for the twist which kept them out of tribal council. Ted supported Brian when he got drunk, and Brian took everything in stride. Ted has become a teddy-bear, and the hunger-induced megalomania Brian displays for the cameras is just damn funny. The two also worked as an effective team in the immunity challenge.
2nd Worst Gamer: Erin, Clay, and Penny. There really weren't any bad players in this episode--everyone was keeping an eye out for danger while enjoying the freshness of living on a single beach, and no one slipped up too badly. Therefore, 2nd Worst Gamer this week is a three-way tie. It goes to Erin and Clay for being weak in the challenge, and Penny for letting herself get slandered without apparent resistance (although she wasn't voted out, so the "manipulative" stigma must not have been that bad).
Worst Gamer: Jan. She let the "lush" side of her personality get to her and acted out during the tribes' first night together. She won the least respect from Shii Ann and Sook Jai in general. And she didn't make any positional strides. But this isn't that awful, and she did decently in the challenge, so she only loses 2 points instead of 3.
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