Thailand Strategy #10: Brian's Lost Sheep
Written by Mario Lanza on 11.22.02
Crowd: The Messiah! The Messiah! Show us the Messiah!
Brian's Mother: The who?
Crowd: Brian! Brian! Show us the Messiah!
Brian's Mother: Now, you listen here! He's NOT the Messiah! He's a very naughty boy! Now go away!
-Monty Python's Life of Brian
It took ten episodes, but we are finally to the point where the players actually have to start thinking.
This season has been unique in many ways. The challenges are all brand new. The music, or about 75% of it, is brand new too. One of the camp locations is in a cave. We have had way more challenges that require strategy and intelligence, as opposed to athleticism and brute strength. And the one change that is most troubling to a lot of viewers is in the editing. CBS is trying so hard to be mysterious and suspenseful this season, that it is cutting out a lot of the character development, the strategic conversations, and the voting comments. We just don't seem to know these people very well at all, which is a HUGE change from past seasons. Remember how sad it was when Gretchen Cordy went, or Jeff Varner went? Remember Lindsey Richter's emotional departure? Well, CBS is trying so hard to hide things from us that they have really created a lack of empathy for the players this season. We just don't really know them, or who is friends with whom, or what people's strategies are. In fact, as viewers at home, I don't think we have ever known what is really going on out there. But those are just quibbles with CBS editorial decisions, and that is a column for another time. This column is supposed to be about strategy.
The most important strategic change this season has come in the overall gameplay. For one, the smart players have really never been challenged. There has been very little standing in the way of Brian, or Helen, or Clay, to get where they are. Do you think that Brian Heidik even feels he has been challenged yet? No way, he hasn't broken a sweat since day one. And the same has been true for the members of Sook Jai. It seems pretty clear now that Jake, Penny and Ken were the three brightest members of the tribe, and sure enough, they were the final three standing. The votes have gone almost exactly as planned every single Tribal Council, and this season has been almost laughably predictable in the way it has played out. No one has really been surprised by anything. Jeff Probst said before the season that this was the smartest cast of all time. Now he may be right, but the problem is that all the smart ones have stuck together. No one has really squared off against any of the other smart ones. They have created a very safe game for themselves, and only now has the moment of truth finally come for most of them. By casting so many "smart" players this season, the problem from a TV perspective may have been that they were too smart, and too safe, and too subtle. Everyone is playing it safe, which is why the desperate actions of Jake and Penny this week stood out so much.
One defining moment of every season is the "Oh my God, I can't believe that just happened!" episode. That is the episode each season where the strategy kicks up a notch, the emotion starts to come out, and we start to see some plain nastiness. In Pulau Tiga it was easy to identify, it was the episode where Gretchen was voted out. In Australia, it happened really early on, when Jerri and her minions railroaded Kel and took control of Ogakor in episode two. In Africa, you could say it started with Clarence and the beans. Or maybe it happened later, with Lex's witch hunt of Kelly. And in the Marquesas, the big episode was probably when John ousted Gabe for no reason and he took control of Rotu. And this season... nothing. Ted and Ghandia was played up a lot, but I don't think it really affected anything in the game. Sook Jai was divided on day one, and the 5 "cool people" systematically voted out the 3 "outsiders" in time, as smoothly and without emotion as you can possibly get. Same with Chuay Gahn. Brian, Helen, Clay, Ted and Jan have really been together all along, and nothing has ever caused anyone to stray.
Long story short, this season is getting a lot of flak from fans because it is "boring." Part of that can be attributed to CBS and their editing choices, of course, but I think more blame can be placed on the players themselves. They are too smart, too seasoned, too wise to be flying off the handle and making spontaneous decisions. Shii Ann tried, but that was only because she was completely out of options at the time. And the same with Penny and Jake this week, and probably Jake again next week. In five seasons of the show, we have learned the proper way to succeed at this game. The way to do well on Survivor is to lay low, to not make waves, to just go with the flow, and never to attract attention to yourself. Don't do anything rash or impulsive until your back is up against the wall, instead just stay the course until your alliance is forced to cannibalize itself. Yes, this makes for a more boring Survivor, but it is by far the wisest strategy to be playing. It you are a strategist, or if you are a fan of the game of chess, you will enjoy this type of show more than if you just wanted to see "good TV." And now the patience that people have had this season will finally pay off, because the masterminds are about to turn on one another in the final three episodes.
I don't mean all this as a slam on CBS or a slam on this season at all. I don't think this has been a bad season in the slightest. It is just... different. And it is different because everyone out there (the ones who made the merge anyway) knows how to play this game. No newbie Survivor novice will ever get this far again, in the future I imagine all seasons will probably play out very similarly to Thailand. Because you now have a viewer and an applicant base who know this show inside and out. They know what works on Survivor, and what doesn't. So get used to the Jakes and the Brians and the Teds and the Helens of the world, because we will see a lot of them in the future. They aren't the most exciting people in the world, but they ALL know what they are doing out there.
On to this week. As expected, a predictable vote that was tainted only slightly by the frantic last-ditch machinations of Penny and Jake. They were toast and they knew it. As Jake himself pointed out, "I have nothing to lose." It has always been my belief that nothing is off limits in this game, so I don't hold anything against Jake or, especially, Penny. They are just trying to win. Penny, go ahead and stab Jake in the back all you want, that's just the game. I thought it was great that we finally saw some frantic scrambling by SOMEBODY, but it was pretty clear that either Penny or Jake was going home. And Jake is probably gone next week, of course, although the previews are starting to spook me a little about that vote. So I hold nothing against Penny. She was definitely a player. And best of all, she played to WIN instead of just being out there for the experience. I'm actually kind of tired of so many people saying they were just here for the experience. For Pete's sake, play the game to win. Make enemies! Break hearts! Lose friends! Penny, you came close. I salute you.
The immunity challenge was fun because it was a thinly disguised rehash of last year's "Chop the Coconuts!" challenge. But, as expected, no one fell for the trap of revealing the pecking order this time around. Sure, Penny showed that she was against Jake, but that was intentional. See, it goes right back to the fact that the players are just smarter this time around. No one in Thailand is going to fall for such an obvious trap anymore. Helen won the coveted Immunity Eye-Poker-Outer and that was that. Nice try, Burnett, but the trap only works once.
With six people left, it is really anybody's game right now. The Power Rankings are getting incredibly complicated. My brain tells me that Jake is going home next week, exactly as planned. But my gut is also a little worried at all the attention that Clay and Brian are getting right now. Brian should know better than to win every reward. Picking Clay to go along with him was a little questionable too, but in retrospect it was the correct decision. Clay DID help him get to the finals. Look at it this way, if Brian picked anyone but Clay, it would have looked weird. If Brian pointed and said "Hey Helen, come with me," then people would have wondered, why Helen? Are they an alliance? So it looked bad at first for Brian to pick Clay, but I think he really didn't have a choice. The selection had ramifications, sure, but they would have been worse had he picked someone else.
The one who was REALLY put in a bad spot this week was poor Clay. Not only did he have to choose between Brian and Ted during the challenge, but the two of them almost yanked him back down off the wall. I wonder if Brian intentionally hoisted Clay up there with that reason in mind. Surely Brian realized that HE didn't want to make that choice. He probably also realized that Clay is too small to lift Ted. So in the end it was obviously in Brian's best interest that Clay was up there on that wall. Because if Clay has to choose, just from physics alone he is going to have to pick Brian. So Brian wins the reward without actually looking like the bad guy. Smart guy, that used car salesman.
Think back to Richard Hatch forfeiting the last challenge in Pulau Tiga, so that he wouldn't be the one to vote off Rudy. There are a lot of parallels between Rich and Brian. Now if only that darn C.C. hadn't sabotaged his entire strategy last week. Brian is still in a pretty good position to win, but his video from home was more damaging than anything he would ever voluntarily do himself.
Brian's personality is fascinating to watch the more we see of it. He is incredibly controlled, and it is almost pathological in how rigid he is. He won't allow any glimmer of emotion or weakness to ever show through. Ever. He won't ever let himself smile or relax around others. And of course then there was that famous scene where he wouldn't even let himself enjoy being drunk. Even when he was intoxicated, all he was thinking about was his image and how to stay under control. You KNOW that watching C.C.'s video must have killed him a little inside, because it violated every rule of excess and emotion and spontaneity that he has been setting for himself in this game. He is trying so hard to ALWAYS be in control, and ALWAYS stay on top of things, and ALWAYS be best friends with everyone. If you noticed, he didn't really even smile or laugh at his video from home, because he was trying so hard to keep his guard up. And then later he didn't appear to have any fun on the helicopter or the elephant. I think it is safe to say that Brian Heidik has never really kicked back and just enjoyed the Survivor experience. To back that up even more, listen to his confessionals. Listen to the way he talks. Listen how forced and recited he is. When he said "I enjoyed it immensely," it didn't sound like what a normal person would say about a once in a lifetime trip. No one says "immensely" in casual conversation. He can't really even let loose and relax when he is talking to the viewers at home! And then of course most of his "sexist" comments seem to be him just being mischievous and playing to the cameras. I don't think anyone has a clue who Brian really is in real life. I don't think we watching at home have any idea who he is in real life either. He is fun to watch, and he is masterful player, no doubt about it. He could be the best strategist to ever play the game. But I just hope the guy is a little more relaxed and human sounding in real life. You know?
So next week the vote should be Jake. I say "should", but I'm not one hundred percent sure about that. There are rumblings, and previews, and hints the past couple of weeks that something may be amiss with the Chuay Gahns. I am a little worried for Brian. I am a little worried for Ted. I am a LOT worried for Clay. In fact, Clay has really grown on me the past couple of weeks, he will truly go down as a unique fun little character in the annals of Survivor. His scheming and lying was fun to watch this week, and for whatever reason everyone seems to believe what he says. The big question, of course, is why did Clay vote differently from the rest of his tribe? They all voted for Penny. Except for Clay. He voted for Jake. No one knows exactly why this happened, but there have been a few theories thrown out as to what was really going on here:
1. "Clay wasn't told they were voting for Jake. He was intentionally left out of the loop." Now this would certainly shed some light on what may happen in the future, IF it were the case. I know the most excellent columnist CJ Blake has proposed this, she feels that Clay is dead meat now. I tend to disagree with this viewpoint, though, if simply for the reason that it doesn't make any sense. Why would the Chuay Gahns screw Clay over now, and not tell him something? This is really not the time to flat out tell him that he isn't in the power core. And Clay himself has said that you have to be observant. I think he knows darn well how his alliance is going to vote every week. If Clay wasn't actually in with the power group, I think he would have weaseled his way into it anyway. He is just sneaky like that.
2. "They were using hand signals to pick their choice and Clay got confused." Okay, I think this one makes more sense. It's funny, in our All-Star: Hawaii story this summer, we had the contestants using hand signals to pick their voting choice on the way to Tribal Council. I thought it was a pretty clever idea, and lo and behold, we find out that the Survivors actually DO use this method in Thailand. It's fun when you predict something correctly. But they were flashing hand signs the night of Tribal Council, either 1 (Penny) or 2 (Jake). They all appeared to be holding up one finger, but it is possible in the dark that maybe Clay got confused and just saw the wrong thing. Who knows, his glasses do look pretty thick. Maybe he just saw it wrong.
3. "Clay was annoyed by Jake's comments and he threw a vote at him just for spite." I think that this is the most likely choice, if for no other reason than the fact that Clay so much as admitted it. "I didn't like what you just said." But the troubling aspect of this is that it serves no purpose. Sure, Chuay Gahn had a 5-2 majority, so they could afford to throw away a vote, and it wouldn't hurt them. But what good can come of Clay voting for Jake? Why? If Jake is going home next anyway, all you are doing is tossing a petty vote at him just because he said something you didn't like (and Jake DID make a pretty good point about Chuay Gahn's hypocrisy, when you come right down to it.) I mean, I can see Clay throwing a spite vote at Jake, if only because he's impulsive and a bit vindictive. It doesn't make perfect sense, but I think this is more than likely what happened this week. I think Clay will be back with the Chuay Gahns again next week and all will be well. And if not, as Clay might argue, there will be Holy Hay-ull to pay.
As a side note, it will be interesting to see what fellow columnist Coachocd will say about Clay's vote this week, since he and I tend to reach similar conclusions on almost EVERY strategic decision. It's kind of eerie. If you haven't read his column yet, I suggest you check it out. It is a lot like my column.
As a final comment on this week's episode, watch the last moments, when Penny found out she was going. She got a disgusted look on her face, then she walked up to Probst and she SLAMMED her torch down into the torch holder. I think it's safe to say she was not particularly pleased with the voting results.
SURVIVOR: TEXAS POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK TENHey, guess what? It looks like a person from Texas might not win Survivor: Texas after all! But the "big four" are all capable of winning this game at this point. Brian's stock keeps going up and down, Clay is all over the map, Ted is as gullible as the day is long, but he's a nice guy, and Helen is crafty but has yet to make her move or show all her cards. Jan is there too, of course, and word on the street is that she may do well in the end, but I just don't see how that can happen. The logical side of me, the strategist, the COMMON SENSE side of me says that Jan can't possibly win, but you never know. In any case, I am expecting a really good finish.