Wow, what a cuckoo episode! It's usually a few more episodes into the merge before we see huge changes in the game and alliances happen, but this is what happens when the newly-formed alliances don't have the chance to solidify their bonds with an official vote until we're a full six days into the merge before voting. Again, I'll start with a summary and then go through a few people who were central figures in the episode.
Orchestrating the Perfect Blindside.
With Neal’s evacuation, the brawn/beauty alliance appears to be stronger than ever. While they didn’t get the chance to seal their alliance with a legitimate vote, brains are down in numbers and are very clear that they are stuck at the bottom of the pack. Aubry suffers another mini emotional breakdown, as she continues to make poor choices. This included the reward challenge, when Aubry and Julia were captains for a schoolyard pick which resulted in a completely embarrassing blowout win for Julia and her team. The winning team (Julia, Scot, Nick, Tai, and Debbie) feast on ice cream, while Scot shares that he financially cares for his entire family. This was a real episode for heartfelt shares, as Jason also revealed his softer side by sharing about his two daughters (one of whom has autism), helping flesh out his personality. Sydney sees this as a bit of an awakening because while SHE knew that Scot and Jason have softer sides, she sees them sharing this side of themselves with the full tribe as a potential threat down the line.
The girls all go off on a completely innocent canoe ride, leaving Nick, Jason and Scot to talk about the potential concern of an all-girls alliance. When the girls get back, Nick decides to take Julia aside to ask her about it, who shares with him that there absolutely isn’t one…yet. Because Cydney sees this happening and decides to blow up on Nick who she sees as shifty. She calls him out in front of Jason and Nick, leaving Jason to take her aside and try to calm her down.
In the immunity challenge, we get to see our first test of individual’s determination, stamina, and meditation—each contestant must balance on a small beam with their arms above their head for as long as possible. Jeff tempts contestants early with a feast for those willing to step down: Joe, Michele, Scot and Jason all partake. Nick and Tai remain in the game, largely to keep a brain from winning. As soon as the remaining brains fall out of the challenge, Nick jumps down. This leaves Tai and Cydney battling it out for the win. Eventually, despite Cydney looking as solid as a rock, Tai manages to pull out a win.
Back at camp, the plan is to split the votes between Debbie and Aubry. Nick decides it’s a good idea to go up to Aubry and tell her the whole plan, insinuating that she should throw her vote Debbie’s way. Cydney leaps to work, getting the two outsiders (Aubry and Debbie) into the idea of an all girls alliance, then roping in Julia and Michele. We enter tribal and, while the girls put on a big show of how desperate and on the bottom they are, the girls alliance holds strong—Scot, Jason, and Nick split their Aubry/Debbie votes, Tai alone votes for Jason, and the girls plus Joe vote Nick. So what happened here? Let's break it down.
Cydney: MVP Making MOVES.
When I did my cast assessment after we had our tribal swap, back in episode 5, I put Cydney at the top of my list for who I felt was best prepared to both get to the end also pull votes to win. She’s been playing a pretty under the radar game so far, and so it was really satisfying to see her realize it was time to start making the big moves that would give her something to talk about at that final tribal. The reason she decided to pull a big move is one of her greatest strengths in the game—she’s highly adaptive and always weighing both the short term and long term. Many people would feel so locked into their early alliance that they wouldn’t even consider making bigger moves. Cydney seemed to be pretty well set up. She was a part of the majority alliance and had strong bonds with Jason and Scot; however, as soon as she notices Nick getting in closer with the guys, she senses danger. I don’t really agree with her blowing up at Nick in public, but her instincts were spot on. The boys would be fearing an all-girls alliance (and not asking Cydney about it) if they were sensitive about the possibility of the girls flipping…the reason they might be sensitive about that is because they fear the girls are realizing that the boys are bonding strongly. The problem with large majority alliances is that there are people at the top and people at the bottom. Cydney seemed to correctly realize that her initial strong alliance of Jason/Scot were edging her out, getting closer with Tai and Nick. Cydney realized she needed to make a move now, even if it felt a bit early, because the gender divides were 5 to 5 and the majority alliance were planning to off Debbie or Aubry. This would be the girls’ only chance to get one of the boys out and create their own majority alliance.
Here are my concerns—she’s clearly a very strong physical threat. Even in this more passive immunity challenge, she outlasted everyone except Tai. If she starts showcasing her wit and mental strength too soon, she might put a huge target on her back within her own alliance, who might blindside her when they feel they no longer need her. Something that could work to her strength or become a disadvantage is being a swing vote. She’s nestled herself into a position as the only person in the game without a strong one-to-one tie. Tai has Scot. Jason ALSO has Scot. Debbie has Aubry. Michele has Julia. Swing votes can hold lots of power (think of Nick and Michele at the first post-merge vote), but can also be something that makes you stick out like a sore thumb as an easy target (like Nick this episode). It’s likely that Cydney could be well-positioned for another vote or two, then get clipped. If the boys can forgive her, I could see her swinging back if it makes sense. If they hold grudges, she’ll stick with the women and try to get rid of the boys. Cydney’s position in the game right now is perhaps hardest to predict out of anyone; however, I feel pretty positive about her decision to change up the game as she did it for a logical, sound reason and not simply for the sake of making a big move.
Tai: Too Honest For His Own Good.
Before this episode, it sure seemed like Tai could do no wrong. He made fast friends with Caleb and Scot. He entertained everyone. He cooked food, made the chickens, happy, and allowed his natural and much-needed jovial spirit to infuse the tribe with glimmers of joy. Everything crumbled for him this episode, leaving me to wonder where he could possibly stand going into the next episode. First, Tai decided to put his everything into winning an immunity challenge when he was in no way in danger of going home. This is a horrible plan for so many reasons. First, Tai already poses a huge social threat. Trying so hard to win only the second individual immunity challenge (and SUCCEEDING, no less) shows he poses a challenge threat, too. Between that his idol, he’s already wandered into hot water. But the bad moves don’t end there.
He proceeds to accidentally reveal the information about the special idols this season at tribal, thinking that everyone knows about them by now. When Julia and others show genuine shock at this new information, Tai scrambles before launching into one of the most cringe-worthy backpedals ever captured on Survivor. This tells everyone two crucial pieces of information he won’t be able to recover from—he most likely has an idol and he’s a horrible liar. The former is a dangerous piece of information in the hands of those not in his alliance; however, the latter is yet another reason for his alliance to consider clipping him out. Tai showed this episode that he’s not the kind of person you want in your alliance. He poses a social threat, could win immunity challenges, and has a truly horrendous poker face. If all of this wasn’t enough, Tai makes the unforgivable blunder of being the only person to vote for Jason. Seeing what happened on the brawn beach and how Scot treated Aubry and Joe after they voted for Julia instead of Peter, this has me thinking that Tai is in deep, deep trouble moving forward.
Nick: The Bond Villain’s Hard Fall
Our overconfident pretty boy enjoyed a pretty satisfying (and textbook) blindside at his very first tribal council. Nick had quite a rollercoaster. He went from practically invisible while his tribes avoided tribal council week after week to basically running things as the swing vote with Michele to getting such a big head about his position in the tribe that he stepped down from the immunity challenge even without the promise of a good meal.
Stephen Fishbach made a great comparison in his blog, implying that Nick was basically playing the role of Bond villain. He got so overconfident on his alliance staying strong that he told Aubry enough details about the majority alliance’s voting plans that he completely invalidated their plan to split the votes in the first place. If Aubry OR Debbie had an idol, Nick basically spelled out how they could strategically use it to completely ruin the plan even if the majority alliance HAD held strong.
It’s really too bad, because Nick could have killed this game with a little more social finesse. He was forming a really solid bond with Michele (to the point where she seemed strongly conflicted about voting him out so soon). He had the right instincts with talking to Aubry and befriending someone who was likely to end up voted out soon and on the jury as a vote to win (or being seen in her eyes as her savior if she'd survived, much like Julia looks up to Scot). He seemed to understand how to appeal to Debbie, ingratiated himself quickly and strongly with Jason and Scot, and the list goes on and on. Nick’s downfall wasn’t due to his arrogance; that was merely a symptom. No, Nick was brought down by having huge walls up which kept him from forming real connections. His overconfidence didn’t come from a place of real confidence, but was rather a coping mechanism for his inability to build real, solid relationships with tribunates founded on vulnerability and true trust. It showed in the way in which he seemed to be talking down to people like Michele a few episodes back and Aubry this episode, the way in which he spoke about Scot and Jason during his confessionals last episode. It was even more pronounced within the context of this episode’s narrative when we see both Scot AND Jason, the two other alpha male personalities in the game, open up to the tribe about the very real struggles they handle on a day-to-day basis back home. The fact that they have these strong ties in this life outside of the game AND that they feel comfortable enough to share this side of their lives with their tribemates show that they have much more opportunity for a social game than most people had probably suspected up to this point.
This perfectly illustrates one of the things I most love about this game: while your first instinct is to assume this game exists in its own little bubble, that being great at playing this game in no way reflects their ability to live their life successfully outside of the game and vice versa, that point of view is clearly wrong. This game brings up very deep psychological issues in people's relationship to themselves. It forces lots of deep introspection to separate people from everything they know about their life back at home and force them to start over with a group of strangers in a new circumstance. If they're comfortable with themselves, they form relationships and succeed. If they don't know themselves, they make crucial mistakes in their game which get them voted out.
So where do we go from here? I'm so curious to see what happens in this next episode. So much dust got stirred up here that it's impossible to predict what will happen long term until this dust begins to settle. Is Julia going to stick with the women or return to Scot (and try to bring Michele with her)? Will Jason and Scot forgive Cydney? Will they also forgive Tai for voting for him? Will Cydney look to rebuild her relationship with Scot/Jason to continue playing both sides or will she fully commit to working with the women from here on out?