It's rare that an episode of Survivor can feel almost like a scripted show. This episode was definitely a character-driven narrative about Tai struggling to choose between the devil on one shoulder (Scot) and the angel on the other (Aubry). It was a pure delight to watch and seems to have drawn alliances which will offer a ripple effect through the remaining episodes of the season. I feel like now that we're 2/3 of the way through the season it's time for another full cast assessment, so look for that in the next couple of days (or early next week at the latest). In the meantime, I can't wait to dig into this deliciously strategic-packed episode.
The Battle of Good vs. Evil.
Back at camp post-tribal, Scot and Jason feel quite pleased with themselves—their scare tactics and bullying seemed to work and they didn’t even have to waste one of their idols in the process. Tai hands Jason’s idol back to him. Tai’s interested in restoring camp life back to normal, as siding with the guys when he feels more mentally aligned with the girls is weighing heavily on him. Scot approaches Aubry and tries to intimidate her into working with them, but she’s not buying it. At the reward challenge, Jeff reveals a compelling new style of “choose your own adventure” reward: each contestant can choose to compete for one of three things: food, letters from home, or an advantage. They will be choosing blindly and then competing against the others in their category. Michele, Jason and Scot choose food (Michele wins), Joe and Julia choose letters (Julia easily wins), and Tai, Cydney and Aubry choose advantage (Tai narrowly beats Aubry). Tai’s advantage is that he has an extra vote he can cast at any tribal council down to the final five.
Julia talks to Michele about her idea to eliminate Tai, flushing his idol and advantage while still kind of playing both sides (since she wouldn’t vote Scot or Jason), but Aubry has other ideas. She approaches Tai and we see them have a nice bonding moment, two kindred spirits. Aubry says to Tai: “It’s the heart and the brain constantly fighting all day long in this game and sometimes it’s hard to know when to trust the brain and when to trust the heart and when to stop thinking.” Aubry shares that some of the girls are gunning to vote him out but that she wants to work with him and figure out a plan. Tai dumbly walks back over to Scot and Jason and tells them about his conversation with Aubry, saying that she’s a free agent and willing to work with them (which definitely wasn’t what she said). Scot decides to suggest that instead, they take Aubry out at the next tribal. Scot and Jason make all the decisions and Tai feels like an outsider in his three person alliance.
For immunity, we have another endurance challenge. Joe quickly falls out of it, followed by Scot, then Julia and Tai. Cydney, Jason, and Aubry all reached the 45 minute mark before Cydney fell out it. After getting past 75 minutes, Aubry finally fell out and Jason won immunity. Julia tells Scot they’re planning to vote Tai. Scot’s unconcerned, knowing they can just play the super idol and vote out Aubry. Aubry gets Cydney on board with blindsiding Scot and—knowing they have Joe in the bag—they only need to get Tai on board for this to work. Aubry displays social skills unparalleled so far in this season (more on this below) and gets Tai on their side. Before tribal, Jason gives Scot his immunity idol.
During Tribal, Jeff notes that Tai seems more quiet than normal. Knowing Tai’s a horrible liar, this seems like a pretty clear indication (to the audience, at least) that he’s planning to jump ship and doesn’t want to talk in order to not give away the plan. When the votes are all cast, Julia quietly urges Tai to play his idol, while Scot does the opposite. He doesn’t play it and the votes are read. Julia and Michele voted Tai. Scot and Jason voted Aubry. Aubry, Joe, Cydney and Tai voted Scot. Scot turns to Tai to try and get him to hand over the idol, but Tai simply shakes his head and says no, sorry. Scot goes home with Jason’s idol in his pocket.
MVP Aubry: Channeling Cochran
Prepare yourself--this is a pretty long-winded Aubry gush. Aubry’s social game is so freaking strong in this episode, and displays her skills in three distinctly different ways. On the more passive strategy side, Aubry shows us that she’s great at reading people while quietly observing (Scot’s big downfall). She sees right through Scot’s proposal to her as being framed as an offer when in actuality it is simply a threat coated in sugar. She goes on to show she has a perfect read on who Tai is and sharing with the audience the crack she’s planning to use to turn him to work with the girls when she says this in a confessional.
Aubry knows that if she were in Tai’s shoes, she would absolutely stick with the guys. It’s clearly the better move for Tai gameplay wise, which is why it’s all the more impressive that she manages to pull him away from the smart move and go with the girls knowing how important being a good person is to Tai perhaps too important for him to put it aside for the chance to win the game. Furthermore, she shows off her more active social skills with the specific way she phrases her proposal to Tai. After she makes sure that Joe and Cydney are both on board with the plan (much as Cydney did when she got Debbie and Aubry on board with voting against the guys before approaching Julia and Michele), she makes her pitch to Tai.
Stephen Fishbach had great analysis breaking down the specifics of why each sentence in this proposal is so perfectly crafted, which you can read here. But to summarize, Aubry gives Tai full support while still making him feel that the decision is his to make, but being sure to communicate that Aubry has rallied a group ready to vote with him. What she doesn't know is that this must be particularly appealing to Tai after the conversation he had in the water with Scot and Jason where it was clear that he felt like a bit of an outsider and that Scot and Jason were making all of the decisions without asking his thoughts.
Her final social win of the night pulled a page straight out of her idol Cochran’s book. Pre-season, Aubry described herself as a hybrid of Cochran and Sophie Clarke and I’ve been seeing it more and more in these recent episodes. Similar to Sophie, she has a killer strategic mind and has the ability to orchestrate moves from the sidelines (such as her huge play this episode while still keeping it technically Tai's move to make), but she also hides it a bit behind her self-deprecating personality in true Cochran fashion. She’s great at sneaking in self-deprecation while also offering up complements to others. One perfect example is her effort at the immunity challenge. Like Cochran did in his season, she surprised everyone by being such a strong force at the challenge. When it was down to just her and Jason, he spit on the ground. In direct response, Aubry also endearingly spit in emulation, drawing a smile from Jason. When Jeff asked about her performance at the challenge during the tribal council, Aubry mentioned how she was never again going to have the chance to go up against an NBA player and a kick-ass army veteran (offering complements), before then mentioning how Jason had been staring her down and spitting so she decided to spit back like a “deranged llama.” Aubry’s doing exactly what Cochran did, which is downplaying her threat level by being a bit goofy and lovable, while beginning to butter up people who she expects will land on the jury soon in the process. It’s straight up brilliant and after this episode I’m rooting for her hard.
Tai's Choice: Brilliant or Stupid?
Even though Aubry gets much of the credit in my book for orchestrating the big move in this episode, it’s still Tai who has to decide to pull the trigger. I’m pretty conflicted about whether this move is actually a good one or not. On the one hand, staying with the guys is great because they’re the kinds of people who are great to sit next to at the end, except it does seem like the guys would be more interested in bringing Julia with them into the final three than Tai which means he would've likely had to win the final immunity challenge to secure his spot (which isn’t out of the question); however, flopping does offer him more flexibility and a chance to make a big move (important thing to bring up in the final tribal council speech) but does it improve his chances of making it to the final tribal? We know Julia is at the bottom of the girls alliance. It seems likely that she’ll be the next target, since Jason lost both a close ally and his idol and therefore doesn’t pose much of a threat. Tai has both an idol and an extra vote and while having an advantage definitely puts a target on his back, many might be thinking that his advantage is a second idol which could lead the girls to think Tai has his own super idol (which would be very powerful now that it seems likely he’d only play it on himself). I think Tai has a harder fight into the final tribal council from here than he would've with the guys, but more chances to build up his resume in the process. I see it all coming down to his advantage and more specifically, the answer to these two questions: "how big of a target does it put on his back?" and "will he be able to time it right and avoid the advantage curse which befell Stephen Fishbach and Dan Foley where he goes home on the vote where he plays his advantage?"
Scot: Too Stubborn in His Judgements
I think I’ve finally put my finger on Scot’s biggest problem as a survivor player and it comes down to blind spots. Scot makes up his mind quickly about others and then isn’t open to changing his opinion. I listened to a few post game interviews with Scot and they offered a lot of clarity and context. First off, he mentioned not trusting Cydney from day one. He wanted to work with Jen because he saw her age as a sign of maturity and saw Cydney as a 23 year old who would cut them at the first chance she could get. Scot jokes that he keeps telling Jason post-game “I told you so” as if his assumptions were correct, without taking responsibility for HIS role in bringing out this side in Cydney. He quickly decided Cydney was untrustworthy, so he probably subconsciously wasn’t bringing her into the alliance as much as he should have. Cydney undoubtedly picked up on his body language and signs and thought that SCOT wasn’t trustworthy, causing her to flip out of necessity. If he’d worked harder to make her feel included, I doubt he would’ve be in this mess in the first place. Another interesting point is that when separated from Jason, Scot’s social game was much stronger. He formed solid bonds on Gondol with both Tai and Julia and was seen as a nice, supportive guy. When they made the merge, Scot continued this good-natured side of himself and made it a point to show off his alliance with Tai. Look at the body language of the group around their merge feast for proof.
However in the last few episodes, Scot shows that in his eagerness to reunite with Jason, he’s been pushing Tai away and returning to his evil antics with Jason as his wingman. It’s almost like what happens to childhood best friends when one of them gets a girlfriend/boyfriend. Tai felt close to Scot when it was just the two of them forming bonds on the Gondol beach, but when Scot and Jason came together (and made their alliance all about being mischief makers and bullies) Tai all of a sudden felt like a third wheel. Scot’s biggest problem is that he and Jason are too obvious with their two person sub-alliance and they can’t seem to make others feel like a part of the decision-making. Opposite of his initial judgement of Cydney, Scot had an initial judgement of Tai that Tai would be fully loyal to Scot. He saw Tai as indebted to him because Scot had talked Tai out of using his idol to save Anna, so in Scot’s mind Tai owed Tai his idol. This blinded him to considering the possibility of Tai flipping, which is ridiculous because nothing in Survivor is ever fool-proof and moves made in a pre-merge is decidedly different than moves made in a post-merge. Furthermore, as evidenced by the full on skit Jason, Tai, and Scot orchestrated at the last tribal council, Scot was clearly really excited about the idea of playing the super idol, whether because it would make good TV or simply would be a cool move that’s never been done before in a season of Survivor. If Scot had realized the danger in this tribal council beforehand, he could have urged Tai that they both play their idols on themselves before the votes were read. While a definitively less cool move, it seemed likely anyway that they’d have to use the super idol after the votes, and playing the two idols preemptively would’ve been the only way to guarantee that all three of them were safe (since Jason has the necklace and playing the super idol could force a revote which would send the person who didn’t play the idol home). Basically, I’ve been surprised this whole time that Scot has scraped by with such poor game play and finally his inability to consider all outcomes caught up with him and bit him in the ass, taking down Jason’s idol in the process.
In some ways, I see Scot leaving the game (and with his idol) could be the best thing that could have happened for Scot. Heck, look what a world of good it did for Aubry a few weeks back! Jason has been crippled and--since everyone seems unconcerned with him as a jury threat--I think he's actually going to be able to hang in there for a least another few weeks. Long term Aubry and Cydney are probably going to have to duke it out to see who will flip on the other first, but short term it seems straightforward enough that they'll use Jason's desperation to their advantage as a number and try and get Julia out first and then Michele. Julia seems like an obvious first choice, since she's been playing both sides and has a number of friends on the jury. Michele doesn't pose a strategic threat, but also has been playing an under-the-radar game and therefore hasn't pissed people off and might be interested in keeping Jason around for a jury goat. Joe seems like a shoo-in for the end since he's a loyal vote and is the only person left who has zero argument for winning at the end. Jason might sneak his way into the finals and win it all, since everyone seems to have made assumptions that he's too despicable to win even though I'm entirely unconvinced on this point (more on this later). The biggest question marks I have in my head are about Tai, Aubry and Cydney, who all seem to have a chance of getting to the end but are also going to be the three with the biggest targets on them for different reasons.