Survivor: The Gamer's Perspective

By Thorin N. Tatge

Week 9

This episode was the first in that unfortunately uncircumventable series of predictable episodes which plague the end of each Survivor season.  They are predictable because one group of people, usually all from a single original tribe, has control of the game and does not relenquish it, and also because the contestants are more tired and hungry and homesick than before, and are therefore less likely to do anything unexpected and interesting.  In this season the producers had one last chance for an episode where they wouldn't have to scramble to make the outcome suspenseful, but when Sook Jai lost immunity last episode the tribes were bound to be uneven from here on in.  Sure enough, despite a bit of deceptive editing regarding Ted, it was a former Sook Jai voted out.  It will take an impressive upset in the natural order for either Penny or Jake to make it to the Final Four now.

I, for one, am happy to see Ken go.  He was at the top of my scoreboard, but I didn't like him much at all.  His pride in being a policeman and in being physically fit quickly became tiresome.  He was dull to watch.  He seemed to be impatient with the whole game, as if he just wanted to iron out any troubles that came along and get it all over with.  My mother thinks that he was never a challenge threat to begin with, and everyone just assumed he was because of his appearance and occupation.  It's fitting that his strength failed him in his final days, just as Erin forewarned.  Ever since Sook Jai lost the jail break challenge and Ken was no longer in the default spot for victory, he seemed to lose hope.

Jake, on the other hand, has taken Jeff's warning not to lose hope to heart.  He has been trying very hard, perhaps even too hard, to break into the Chuay Gahn club.  Last week he was building a friendship with Brian, which was a good move even if everyone is doing it these days.  This week, he took a more general approach by telling stories and trying to show that he fits in.  Even leaving aside the unenthusiastic reception he got, that isn't such a good idea.  Fitting in will only get him so far: he'll be the last Sook Jai in the game and that's it.  If he wanted to make it to the Final Four, he should have tried to win over only part of Chuay Gahn, not all of it.  What good will winning the hearts of the entire opposing team do when your sole objective should be to break the opposing team apart?  Jake needed to decide whose confidence he wanted to win and start making solid proposals.  The time had more than come, and he decided.

He might have tried going to Jan and Helen and convincing them that they were last on the totem pole in Chuay Gahn.  Jan trusts him very much and Helen seems to be aware that her position is awkward.  At least, I hope she is.  They might have formed a voting bloc with Ken and/or Penny that would benefit all of them.  Instead, Jake chose Clay as his cohort.  They exchanged vague words regarding voting for Ted which came to nothing.  Jake needed to be faster and bolder; he needed to get a promise out of Clay to vote for Ted as well if there was to be any negotiating.  Or better, he should have tried to get someone else on his side in addition to Clay.  The ideal thing to do when your tribe is outnumbered 3-5, 3-6, or 2-5 is figure out which two members of the other tribe are in the minority faction and know it.  Clay seems to know it, but who would he join with to turn coat against Brian and Ted?  Helen?  Possibly he tried, but we have seen very little of Helen and Clay together.  In any case, Jake should have worked on more than just Clay.  Getting just one person on your side when outnumbered 3-5 is a bad idea not only because it gives you nothing better than a 4-4 tie, but also because that one person will be reluctant to join you if they have to join alone.  (Note: Due to recording problems, I initially missed the section where Jake told Clay "you have to work on one of the ladies," but read about it later.  Looks like I didn't give Jake enough credit.)

I expect Penny to be voted out next week.  If not her, Jake.  Getting Helen and Jan on their side is the best bet and still a possibility for Penny and Jake, especially if the Chuay Guys have a "coconut challenge" moment and make it clear they expect to "just march on in" to victory.  Penny just may decide to shine next episode and use her mad snarking skillz to broker a deal.  But what I've seen so far makes me somewhat doubt that they're up to it.

I just have to add my appreciation for one of the most creative games we've seen the castaways playing yet: Tribal Council Theater!  Starring Helen Glover as Penny Ramsey, Brian Heidek as Ken Stafford, Jan Gentry as Erin Collins, Clay Jordan as Jake Billingsley, and Ted Rogers, Jr. as Jeff Probst.  What a tension-relieving game that must have been for Chuay Gahn.  I don't blame them for making fun of Sook Jai; they'd earned the right.


The challenges this week were very cool.  They were big and elaborate and expensive and used up a lot of airtime, and the tragedy of them is that they were so poorly timed in the context of the series.

The reward challenge combined the reward from Season I's Archery challenge with the paired-up obstacle course from Seasons II and III.  The obstacle course itself, as always, was bad-ass cool.  The second part of the challenge was overkill in my opinion: they should have let both Brian and Helen win the reward, as they have in the past.  Of the three previous challenges in which pairs competed (all reward challenges with eight contestants remaining), all three pairs were unlikely and funny to watch: Colby and Jerri, Frank and Brandon, and Paschal and Sean.  This pair, Brian and Helen, was far from unlikely: their excellent performance confirned what I've suspected all along--that Brian and Helen make a killer team.  I actually kind of suspect that, like both Ted and Clay, Helen has made a deal with Brian for how things will fall in the Final Four.  It would have been fine and decently entertaining to give them both some reward trip together, such as the elephant ride someone will apparently win next week.  Instead, they had to compete and only one got to watch his video.  And for all that work, watching a video from home is not such a huge reward, especially when they all got to see a teaser for their video before the challenge (which used up yet more airtime), and double-especially when everyone got to watch it with them, leaving Brian to wonder whether he really benefitted from his reward at all.  Helen was concerned in the first episode that Clay was somewhat wealthy and didn't need that million; now she has that same concern about Brian.

Remember the Archery challenge from Season I?  That was back when a challenge could consist of a single shot with bow and arrow.  They were wise to couple the lengthy (on TV) video reward with a very short challenge.  Likewise, it was wise to assign the only reward which did not involve food to a challenge that expended very few calories.  In the actual circumstance, Brian has every right to feel cheated and depleted.  Moreover, remember the video-quiz challenge in Africa?  That was an ingeneous use of videos from home in that the actual challenge related to them.  The contestants had to answer questions in the same way their loved ones did, a fresh and new required skill from the traditional dichotomy of physical and mental.  It would have been ever cooler if the reward had been some communication with a loved one instead of the huge safari reward it actually was.  The challenges have grown more complex and tiring than they have been in past seasons, and this may be a mistake.  Tired contestants aren't as interesting when they get back to camp.

Then there's the immunity challenge.  It also had two parts.  It also closely resembled a challenge from a past season--the memory search in Episode 8 of Survivor: Africa.  That challenge was excellent.  It combined a memory game with a scavenger hunt that made ingenous use of indigenous objects.  The final round of that challenge involved four contestants, and the one who retrieved the most won immunity.  This episode's challenge wasn't quite as well designed.

The first part with Thai numbers was good, although I get the feeling Jeff was disappointed that everyone did so poorly.  The first number he named for them was 9; he may have felt it would be the easiest choice, being the last number they had presumably looked at.  1 was presumably the second easiest choice.  The odd thing with memory challenges is that if you try too hard to memorize everything, you forget everything.  Memorizing a list in a limited amount of time is not just a test of memory, but also of how well you judge your own ability.  I expected Brian to do well, but he may have failed on the first round because he thinks highly of himself and tried too hard to memorize every single number.  Why did Ethan win the similar challenge in Africa?  Possibly, in part, because he was more humble and knew his limitations better than his competitors: Lex, Big Tom, and Brandon.

While that part of the challenge was well designed, the hunt for buried plates didn't feel right.  For one thing, the numbers were on full display, rendering moot the memory portion of the challenge.  Moreover, it was an awful lot of trouble to go to for just two finalists.  They should have used the same field for four competitors.  It wouldn't have been much harder than burying two sets of plates, and there would have been more interaction.  Imagine if it had been Clay versus Brian.  Who would care about the winner, given that neither player needed immunity?

It was interesting that so many people were cheering on Clay.  Usually you don't cheer on another player to win in Survivor, but here it made sense, because Clay was the champion needed to stop Ken, the intended and eventually target at Tribal Council, from winning immunity.  One interesting thing about immunities is that they tend to be won more than is proportional by the people who need them; this is, obviously, because those people work harder for them.  But if no one who doesn't need immunity works to win it, then the people who do need it get it, and others become targets.  Thus, occasionally a popular person can actually win brownie points with their allies instead of inspiring jealousy by winning an immunity.  For this reason, Clay may have improved his position overall by winning that challenge.

It would have been interesting if Clay and Ken had beaten Brian and Helen in the last heat of the obstacle course.  Then we would have seen Ken and Clay compete against each other twice.  Who knows--if Clay had beaten Ken in the pyramid-building phase of the obstacle course, Ken might have had the motivation of revenge to really compete against Clay in the treasure search.  As it was, his will completely failed him.  Ken seemed to let his confusion and sense of defeat get to him and keep him from having any chance.

Speaking of the pyramid-building game, would anyone like to try it out for themselves?  There are many, many variants on this puzzle available on the market, such as the Perplexing Pyramid or the Pyramystery.  Or you can check out this informative page on how to make your own.

Can you arrange these 20 balls into a pyramid?
The version given to Brian and Helen was of course much simpler than any version you can buy from a game company.  I watched the tape carefully so that I could reconstruct the exact puzzle for faithful readers.  For those keeping score, Jeff actually misspoke when he said the puzzle had seven pieces; it actually only had six.  One of these pieces was the single ball that the teams brought through the obstacle course.  Neither Brian nor Helen seemed to realize that this meant it must go on top.  There was one cluster of seven balls, as shown, and four rows of three balls each.  If you have a bunch of ping-pong balls lying around, try gluing them together as in the illustration, add paint if you like, put them on the coffee table, and have your family race to complete the puzzle to decide who gets to watch their favorite TV show.  An authentic Survivor moment in your living room.


Best Gamer: Clay.  The man's day was due.  I suspected from the beginning that he had some talents somewhere we weren't seeing--maybe it was his "diamond in the rough" comment.  One of his talents proved to be memory--a handy trait in a restaurant man.  Another useful skill he should and does seem to have is following instructions, as he cruised right over Ken in the second round.  In addition, he and Ken made it to the second heat of the reward challenge and put in a good effort against Brian and Helen.  In the strategy department, I commend Clay for taking initiative.  His machinations against Ted may backfire, but they may be just what he needs to separate Brian from Ted and clear his way to the Final Two.

2nd Best Gamer: Brian.  Not only did he prove his facility with team obstacle courses and spatial puzzles, he stayed on top of the pack by quietly winning Clay's confidence the same way he won Ted's at the beginning of the game.  Everyone wants Brian's friendship.  His status flagged a little this week with the revelation of how well off he is and Jake's attempt to turn Clay against him, but he seems to have a handle on it all regardless.

2nd Worst Gamer: A tie between Ken and Penny, for sitting back and letting Jake do all the work.  What work?  The scheming and plotting, of course, which Sook Jai so desperately needs.  Erin getting voted out is one thing, but I expected a better effort from these two to keep the show interesting.  Ken got to the second round of both challenges, but his cruddy performance in the second part of the immunity evens out that achievement.

Worst Gamer: Ted.  He took his precious "me time" and while I know how he feels and don't blame him, he paid the price.  He should at least have told people where he was going.  Now no one thinks he fits in and his tribemates are plotting against him.  He seemed to be oblivious to it all until he got his three votes at tribal council.  He tried too hard to win the obstacle course challenge--i.e. wielding his machete as if the log were a raging wolverine--and ended up not coming close.  He failed on the immunity challenge as well.  In general, his participation this week seemed... disingeneous.

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