Sunday, November 13, 2011

Survivor South Pacific E9: The Self vs The Tribe

"Treason, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder," Elim Garak, Star Trek Deep Space Nine, Second Skin

Sometimes simplicity is the best technique for a single episodes. These are the good guys. These are the bad guys. Here's how the vote went down. This was the merge episode. Just as Redemption Island built to Matt's epic second blindside, this season built to Cochran's flip. Upolu had been sufficiently set up as the more cohesive tribe. Savaii had been established as the unstable physical-emotional tribe. Cochran's insecurities and quest for self-respect compromised one of the season's most predominant story arcs. That's why about halfway through the episode the only outcome that made sense was the "bully" Savaii getting their comeuppance from the burgeoning hero.

The problem with falling back on simplicity in a story, especially in the middle of a story, is that nothing actually is that simple--especially in "nonfiction television." People are rarely cardboard cutouts of villains and heroes. No one completely likable or completely unlikable. When you fall back on such black and white good and evil storytelling, you have to under described every character and even involved. In Survivor this means under editing the characters and strategy. In this instance, it didn't matter why Upolu was sticking together. No attention was paid to any of their long term plans. It didn't matter what the perspectives of each of the Savaii were. All that mattered was 11 people were voting along tribal lines and one wasn't. Cochran flipped because he was bullied.

Being "bullied" isn't an acceptable why though. Just as we didn't know the motivations of any of the other eleven players, we didn't know what it really meant to "bully" someone. Sure, Savaii wasn't too nice to Cochran, but was it really fair to label their behavior as bullying? And Cochran did flip on his tribe, but was it really fair to label his behavior as cowardly? This complexity is what the most recent episode of Survivor South Pacific sought to sort out--and the key, as it has been all season, was the Ozzy and Coach dichotomy.

The first half of this episode transitioned Coach and Ozzy from two players heading in different directions in this game (one up and one down), to two characters headed to the endgame. The foreshadowing of Ozzy running the gauntlet at Redemption Island was so obvious it's barely worth addressing, especially because if there's one person the twist was designed for it was him. What's much more interesting is Ozzy's conversation with Cochran at the beginning of the episode and Coach's reference back to it at tribal council.

In the post-flip fall out, Ozzy was the first Savaii shown to confront Cochran. That conversation contained more philosophical complexity than the entirety of the merge episode. First, Ozzy brushed off Brandon's attempt to protect Cochran by declaring they weren't gangsters in this game. It's imagery, though only a fortuitous coincidence for the editors, reminded us of last season's merge episode and the Mariano Mafioso--especially when Jim told Albert and Sophie later in the episode that they were the only two not drinking the Kool-Aid and not in the cult. To defend himself, Cochran appealed to notions of self interest and self preservation. In a confessional, Ozzy explained what the non-gangster perspective was, "Cochran said that it was all about self preservation, and sure, that's the easy way out. That's how a wiener plays." A wiener, really, Ozzy? What's interesting here is he's shown saying this and he's the one on the way out of the tribe because of his continued instance to be selfless. All season Ozzy has been about the tribe's success and not his own, even going so far as saying that if he didn't win, he wanted a Savaii to. He echoed the sentiment here, telling Cochran that he hope he'd go far. Combined with the foreshadowing of Ozzy's Redemption Island success, it's clear that he's not made for this game and his tribe went down because of it.

Not willing to accept to his fate like Ozzy, Jim hatched a plan to use the ideas his leader had taught him, At tribal council he appealed to Upolu on the basis of selflessness, declaring that they could send a message to future players about how to play the game and what happens when turn on your tribe. Essentially he was saying the game would be better if you were loyal to tribe even if it was detrimental to your individual success. Like I said, it's an argument based on selflessness. For you philosophy nerds out there, it's also an argument based upon a disembodied Platonic ideal. The game is not some thing disconnected from reality. Every iteration of the game is unique based the players and events that occur in it. No message sent by one vote carries any validity because it improperly attempts to extrapolate a general rule from a specific situation. That is sort of what Cochran was trying to tell Ozzy when he said his move was about self interest and self preservation. He even said it at this tribal council, "It's about taking control of my own fate and making decisions that I can be happy with." More importantly storywise, Coach echoed these words.

In response to Jim's idea about a message being sent, Coch put forward a different message he believed would be sent if they voted out Cochran, "I think that it would send a message to everybody that if you stick up for yourself, you're gonna get screwed--and I'm not gonna see that happen." The statement referred back to Coach's conversation with Cochran in the merge episode, Coach's entire story arc in Survivor, and the basic (seeming) paradox in the game of Survivor. To get to the end, you need to take selfish actions. At the end, you're most often held accountable by players who expected you to act selflessly and villainize you for not doing--while they act villainous in berating and badmouthing you in long winded self indulgent speeches. Brandon and Whitney argued these two opposing sides at the second tribal council. Whitney felt like she was being unfairly villainized even thought she told Cochran he disgusted her and refused to see things from his perspective. As she cried, Brandon said that Upolu were the villains all of a sudden because they were in control now. Likewise, the Hantz blew up at Dawn, critiquing her for acting selfless at the challenge and then pointing out how Upolu wasn't selfless by eating at the challenge. Which is it, Dawn, Brandon asked. Are you selfless or selfish? Were you competing to Upolu could eat or are you upset because they did eat? Those ideas contradict. reconcile them.

The first tribal council reconciled the ideas for us. Coach's comment contrasted starkly with Ozzy's selfless comments earlier in the episode. Whose tribe is going to come out on top in this game? Even if Cochran wins, it's by embracing the mentality of Upolu. And to make it even clearer, the editors embarassed Jim. Before tribal council, Jim promised a selfless move, saying he'd give the immunity necklace to Ozzy. At tribal council after presenting his argument based on selflessness, Jim didn't hand over immunity as promised. Why not? Because he was afraid and acting selfishly because of it. Yes, that's right, after declaring Cochran a coward and asserting the correctness of selflessness, Jim couldn't play in line with either ideal because he was worried about his longevity in the game--and then was voted out next anyway. That, fellow Survivor fans, is called a villain edit.

Before he left though, Jim participated in on other key scene. In an attempt to save himself, he outlined the tribe dynamics to Albert and Sophie, "We've got Coach with Cochran, Edna, and Brandon underneath him and Rick who's given his word to Coach and Rick's the kind of guy that would never go back on his word. We've got you two, you're the only two people that aren't drinking the Koolaid and aren't in the cult. And then we've got Dawn, Whitney, and me over here." What's most interesting about this description is it seemingly leaves Albert and Sophie out in the cold and sets up Upolu as Coach's Ometepe. And that's been Coach's storyline all season. Is he playing a Rob Mariano-esque game or is he the almost-Rob? All the storylines turn on that comparison.

Albert is getting an edit similar to Grant's. He isn't really doing much wrong strategically, but little scenes are seeded that foreshadowed his losing so we'll accept it when he does. This week he was shown trying to convince Coach and others to vote out Dawn because she's more dangerous than Jim. Was this foreshadowing Dawn helping to vote out Coach or was it just a single episode edit because Dawn was the only other possible target? It's safe to say Dawn will be the last remaining Savaii so this likely setups lots of teasing of people flipping at F8. I doubt this all saved her. It more hurt Albert, especially as his partner in crime Sophie disagreed with him.

Sophie is getting an edit similar to Grant's. She's going along with the tribe and plan, but little hints of her possibly switching the game up and going against the returning player are sprinkled through out. This week her curious comment was her confessional about Albert's strategizing, "Albert, he's getting nervous. He's thinking a lot right now about switching up the game, and I think those are important things to think about in general Survivor strategy, but I'd like to stay pretty rigid with the plan." What's the plan? We're led to believe it's Coach's plan, but is it something else? Andrea's curious edit was explained by her being the second Redemption Island returnee. With that seemingly being Ozzy's victory this season, why Sophie is getting such an intricate edit remains an open question. Is she the winner or just Coach's final strategic hurdle a la Ashley and Rob last season?

The biggest boon to Coach's chances of winning is that the season's theme directly relates to him much more than Sophie. You can't let your demons hurt you in this game. You have to play based on the game, not them. What has always hurt Coach is "Coach things." His antics have alienated people. His instance on blind loyalty to promises has gotten him into harmful alliances. This season the same questions remain. Will he stay loyal to Brandon and will it cost him the game? What's interesting is that Cochran's failure and success in this game both perfectly fit the Coach story. Cochran is destined to finish no higher than third because of "Cochran things." His insecurities and quirks hurt his social game early on which necessitated his flip. However, it's also likely Cochran will get third (whereas he wouldn't have before) because he didn't simply stick with loyalty and promises. He made the best move for his game.

Besides the premiere episode, this was the best episode for Coach this season--though it's hard to tell if it was just because this was his victory over Ozzy. He's in control and it's hard to see the tribe falling out from under his control. The themes fit with him. His best F3 was even foreshadowed in the Previously On segment as he told Cochran, "You're sleeping right between me and Edna." Yes, all the ducks are lined up for the Coach victory. Let's not get ahead of ourselves though. Besides Sophie's curious edit, Coach's edit has two other causes for concern. First this episode once again showed him doing traditional Coach things. He meditated in the sun, misquoted a historical figure, laughed about not actually wanting to compete in the second challenge, and meanly waved by to Jim after his torch was smuffed. Are these negative inclusions though or are we, as fans of the show, supposed to appreciate them as quirks of his character? Second is the way the choice between Edna and Mikayla was built up. So much was made of it that we're either going to look back at it as the moment Coach won the game by keeping a F3 goat and cutting off Sophie and Albert's possible future power base or the moment Coach lost the game by keeping the disingenuous Edna around who eventually turns on him.

Thus, the only question left is if Coach wins or Sophie wins. I'm even willing to say whoever it is will be sitting at the final tribal council with Cochran and Edna. Maybe I'm just in denial for a myriad of reasons, but I still see Sophie winning. I can't deny, however, that Coach has looked awfully good this season. It's just hard for me to believe that playing this game multiple times really gives you that much of an advantage over new players. Ometepe didn't seem to talk to each other and thought they were all going to the end with Rob. With the combined intelligence of Sophie, Albert, Cochran, and Edna can the same result really be reached? They seem to at least be being edited as a lot smarter and more game aware. Then again, this is Coach 3.0 and he came to win...


George N. said...

A fine analysis as always. I can totally see it unfolding that way. Good season so far.

Ste said...

You always point out great things about the episode that make me think back on certain things. I'm hoping for an Albert/Sophie coup but I'm not sure I'm going to get it. ><