Thursday, October 1, 2015

Survivor: Cambodia, Ep. 2 - People Aren't Chess Pieces After All

Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. - George Santayana 

The twenty castaways voted back to get a second chance at the title of Sole Survivor were well aware of the mistakes they made the first time out. As anyone whose mistake cost them a million dollars, it is not likely they will forget it. As many have already told us in their original campaigns and later in their pre-show interviews, they have been haunted by the errors of their first time out since their dreams went up in smoke.  They returned older and wiser and determined to get it right this time. 

But, with apologies to Mr. Santayana, remembering the past does not make you immune from making the exact same mistake over again.  Nor does it keep you from making new ones that parallel mistakes you were a party to.  And so it was that superfan/super-strategists like Shirin Oskool and Spencer Bledsoe found themselves traveling down a well-worn path that led them to trouble their last time on Survivor. 

We've got it locked down, what could possibly go wrong?
Shirin's first time out, she came to Survivor as the wide-eyed Survivor fanatic who was in disbelief that she was in a tribe, wearing a buff, talking to Jeff Probst, carrying a torch, reading tree mail.   Her unbridled enthusiasm and desire to drink in the experience with gusto brought her closer to fellow ├╝ber fan Max Dawson and farther away from every other person on her tribe.  So this season, she joins up with fellow superfan Spencer.  But they did not isolate themselves. They approached others - Kelley Wentworth, Jeff Varner, Abi-Maria Gomes - about voting together.  She created a "new school" alliance and targeted one of the old school players and successfully orchestrated his departure.  Three days in, things were looking up for Shirin.

Spencer's first time out, he was a young, cocky superfan, ready to steamroll over the competition with his smarts.  He was in the majority alliance for the first boot and by day 6, when they had a return trip to tribal council, he was feeling pretty confident about his position in the game and how it would all play out.  He was a chess master, after all, and he saw many moves down the line.  Except, he did not see that one of his pieces - Kass McQuillen - had a mind of her own and was not going to play the game the way he wanted.  She flipped the vote and he went from in the driver's seat to alone on the side of the road. So this time out, he found a like-minded ally, someone equally if not more smart, and worked together to build trust and a rock steady alliance,   Three days in, things were looking good for Spencer.

All Shirin needed to do - as she told us in the season premier - was lock down the alliance.  But, she failed to realize that an alliance is a living thing and it needs to be tended to.  All Spencer needed to do was not be complacent, to remember that an ally today can be a Chaos-Kass-like enemy tomorrow.  But while Survivor is a numbers game and the two did a good job to get the numbers on their side, Survivor is also a people game and one of the people in their majority alliance was the hot-headed, unpredictable Abi-Maria.

Abi-Maria's second-chance story this season is whether she can tame her inner beast and get along with her fellow castaways or whether her Brazilian temper will get the better of her.  She very quickly showed that she is not capable of following the "live and let live" mantra that most successful Survivors (not Natalie, though) abide by.  She was upset at Peih-Gee Law for taking her bag and she was going to continue to be upset no matter what was going on.  Abi-Maria, want some mango?  That bitch stole my bag.  Abi-Maria, want to go get tree mail?  How dare that bitch steal my bag.  She would not let it go.

So Peih-Gee did what anyone would do, she confided in one of her allies, Shirin, about how Abi-Maria was getting on her last nerve and that as god is her witness she would not rest until that Brazilian firecracker was snuffed out.  Only problem was, she had this heart-to-heart with Shirin within Abi-Maria's earshot.  Now, the normal thing would be for Abi-Maria to get mad at Peih-Gee since that's been her default thus far this season.  But Abi-Maria was more upset with Shirin, who she considered a friend, than the person she'd already considered her mortal enemy.

Shirin then doubled-down on the insult by going back to the shelter and engaging the remaining members of the Ta Keo tribe in schoolyard laughing at Abi-Maria.  Not behind her back, mind you.  But just a few yards away.  Shirin, who had been an outcast her season, been under verbal attack by two of her fellow tribemates, and who had been brought to tears by their verbal attacks and ostracizing her, she was in the middle of a group who were laughing and ridiculing an outcast.

Even villains have feelings

Alone, crying on the beach, it wasn't one of her allies that came to comfort Abi-Maria.   It was Terry Deitz.  Terry, in his first season, was not the touchy-feely, build good relationships, make friends with everyone kind of player.  Terry was a comp beast and nothing more.  But Terry has taken the concept of the second chance to heart and become a better version of himself.  Seeing someone in obvious distress, he came and comforted her.  And not merely as strategy.  He apparently spent hours with Abi-Maria, the only person to show genuine concern over her feelings.  Shirin, who had (under much different circumstances) likewise found herself alone in her season, was comforted back then also by the alpha-male no one expected to have a soft side.  Shirin missed the chance to show Abi-Maria the same compassion and, to be cold and calculated about it, failed to shore up her alliance by reaching out to her.

Seeing the fracture in the alliance, Jeff Varner saw an opportunity.  Jeff Varner has been playing the game of his life so far and one hopes that he's not going to be like a 60's era rock star who burns brightly but for only a brief time.  Because right now he is on fire. After joining the "new schoolers" in voting out Vytas, he went back to his original "old schoolers" alliance and explained how what he did was great for them.  It was a wake up call and got their heads in the game.  And then he sold them sand and ocean water for a tidy profit.  Jeff Varner is so smooth he can talk a Kardashian out of eyeliner and with his cute accent and affability, he can convince you of about anything.  Heck, he convinced us that Abi-Maria was turning him on!

So he had already been working with Terry, Woo Hwang and Kelly Wiglesworth not to panic and to look for opportunities to get back in the majority.  Then Abi-Maria falls in their lap.  Terry took Jeff Varner's words to heart and started thinking about how they could use Abi-Maria's disconnection from her alliance for themselves.  If the main theme of the episode was not learning from the past, the Terry was an example of someone who is using his second chance to right some wrongs of his old game play.  If he ignored the social aspect last time, he's going to be more aware of the interpersonal dynamics this time and try and build relationships that can carry him far.

But let's not underestimate Jeff Varner's brilliance in making sure that the door Terry opened the night before was flung wide open the next morning.  He talks to Abi-Maria about her conversation with Jeff.  Look at his word choice:  "You and Terry have a good talk?  Isn't he a nice man?  I'm thinking about aligning with him."   That is a mini-master class on how you reel someone in.   Don't be aggressive, make it think it's their idea.  Look how he strings along questions for her, the first two designed to get a yes, so that when he makes the third statement, she's ready to agree with that one too. 

With Abi-Maria officially turning her back on Shirin, that gives the old-schoolers five votes.  They can take out whoever they want from the other side, but the attention focuses on the masterminds/ringleaders - Shirin and Spencer.  The over-playing superfans are in the crosshairs.  This is where Jeff Varner (and yes I will nearly always refer to him by his full name because he deserves the special treatment) takes a risk that pays off.  Rather than blind-siding Spencer and Shirin's allies, he brings them in on the plan.  

His conversation with Kelley is not aggressive or abrasive, the "we have the numbers" approach.  No, he goes at it diplomatically.   Get her to admit the tribe is in trouble, get her to see how large and strong the group could be and how there are just two on the outside causing all the problems.  Who wants to be on the outside?  Not Kelley.  And not Kelly Wentworth or Peih-Gee either.  Once he had the five, it was not too hard getting the others wanting to be in the majority and not put targets on their backs.  Really well done. 

I know I gave Tony $1M, but how gullible do you think I am?
What could have been a problem, proved not to be.  Abi-Maria could not wait to let Shirin know she was on the outs and revealed the plan ahead of time.  But neither Shirin nor Spencer could not use this advance knowledge to turn things around.  They had alienated their alliance and had failed to form a bond with those on the other side.  They tried to work on getting Woo, not the most savvy player Survivor has ever seen, possibly the only person who would lose tic-tac-toe, over on their side.  But even Woo saw through their last minute scrambling.  They never talked to him until their asses were on the line, how could he trust anything they said now.

Going to tribal council, there was nothing either could do other than make the strongest case for why they should be the one to stay over the other.  Shirin was faced with being seen as a hypocrite - whether that was a fair assessment or not - for forgetting what it's like to be ostracized and made fun of and forgetting how much someone alone needs a friend.  Spencer saw his episode one words come back to bite him and had to figuratively get on his knees and beg for forgiveness.  He did forget that these are people and not pieces on a chess board to move around and if given a second chance he would try and fix that. In the end, whether it was his plea or whether Shirin seemed like a bigger threat, he was given his "three more days" and Shirin Oskool was sent home.*

We spent very little time this episode at the other camp and what little time we had was almost as ugly.  Andrew Savage revealed some deep-seated animosity towards Stephen Fishbach that to me crossed the line and had me wonder if there was more to it.  I won't pull the anti-Semitic card (though as a Jew I may be more sensitive to it and see it lurking behind certain attitudes) but I can't deny that was my first reaction when Savage so sanctimoniously attacked Fishbach's character as a human being. 

Here's what happened.  Savage had just performed the ultimate humble brag as he told the story of how he met his supermodel wife and teared up during the retelling of what he thought was a terribly moving story about two extremely good looking people meeting over a bunch of Playboy magazines
.  Jeremy Collins, whose former teammate and forever wife Val is pregnant, got a little choked up himself and so went off to collect himself.

Anytime someone leaves the camp, suspicions immediately arise that the person is looking for the hidden immunity idol.  Stephen himself went off looking for it last episode and many of his tribemates noticed his absence and speculated as to what he was doing.  And so, when those at camp noticed that Jeremy was missing, Stephen used the opportunity to deflect attention from his own idol-seeking escapades and asked if they thought he might be looking for the idol.  That led Savage to say this about Stephen:  "The thing about Stephen. His first reaction is, Jeremy is looking for an idol.  As opposed to Jeremy has a wonderful wife and kids, maybe my story affected him and he needed some private time."  Okay, good, fair enough.  Savage was perceptive and that was what was going on with Jeremy.  But Savage wasn't done with his analysis of Stephen.

He then adds:  "[That] just tells me that Fishbach is playing the game 24/7.  All he cares about is that idol and it's all about the game.  No emotion."  Again, not too bad.  He's identifying what the other camp noticed about Shirin and Spencer.  There are people who are in full-blown game mode and there are others who are there to form bonds and share in the experience.  Had he dropped it here, there'd be no problem.  But then he says:  "Fishbach is kinda lacking in some of the things that really mean everything to me and my tribe.  Morals, values, loyalty, dignity, courage."

This is my sanctimonious face
HUH???  How do we get from being suspicious when someone wanders off from camp to lacking morals, values, loyalty, DIGNITY AND COURAGE??  If this were day 37, I'd cut him some slack.  But he's still relatively well-fed and in his right mind and his statement could not have been more condescending and smug had he channeled Donald Trump.  There must be something else going on with Savage that we don't yet know about because you don't attack someone's basic humanness on national TV for no reason.

If Jeff Varner is the old schooler who we all love and are rooting for - and of course he is - and if Abi-Maria is now defanged - have the Survivor given us the designated villain in Savage?  Especially in an episode where Kass of all people shows herself to be an old softy, with a heart and feelings and everything, just like a real person, we now have our official bad guy.  And to use his words against him, I hope his time here is going to be limited.  So he can run back to his supermodel wife, of course. 

Unfortunately for Shirin, her second chance came and went too soon.  She learned that it's hard to change who you are and it's also hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes.  Instead of coming in with strategies and plans and alliances, she should have focused on building - and as importantly maintaining - relationships.  Spencer now has that chance and, as the upcoming scene showed us, he'll also get the chance for a fresh start with a new tribe.  Heck, he may even get put on the same tribe as Fishbach and they can strategize together to their heart's content.  

*In post-eviction interviews Shirin said that she tried to flip the vote and target Jeff Varner which made his decision to go after her rather than Spencer very easy. 

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