Monday, December 19, 2011

How to Slay Your Dragon

In hindsight, foreshadowing is obvious.

"Into every generation she is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the dragons, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer." She is Sophie Clarke. Survivor South Pacific is the story of her rise. Oh, who am I kidding. Her rise is in there and is certainly the payoff to the season long arc, but the story is really about the fall of returning players Coach and Ozzy and their tag-alongs Brandon and Cochran. Yes, that means one thing.

South Pacific is a tragedy. Beloved characters new and old were unable to get their hands on the million, falling victim to their tragic flaws. In essence, they were unprepared to deal with the game because they didn't know how to deal with themselves. It was a theme that began in episode one, as Rick told us that if you aren't prepared, you might as well be spitting in the wind. The assortment of characters then proceeded to tell us all about their pasts and how that would affect them in the game. Most notably, Coach and Ozzy recounted their past mistakes--Coach's inability to be humble and get over doing "Coach Things" and Ozzy's inability to break that final barrier and grasp the million. Then there was Brandon and Cochran, both youthful and tormented trying to make a name for themselves. Brandon wanted to resist the Russell inside and restore his family name. Cochran needed to overcome his inner insecure nerd to use his knowledge of the game to not experience prolonged failure. As we now know, none of them succeeded, and Sophie watched and laughed as it all happened.

Let's start from the earliest boot. Cochran's story is a prime example of how manipulated some of the stories can be. In reality, he was never bullied in the game. However, as the nerd, bullying became the crux of his story. We were meant to feel for Cochran. He was a nice, innocent guy just trying to survive. Unable to escape his past, he turned on his tormentors, leading to their Pagonging and him actually finishing worse than he would have had he stuck with them. The problem was though, he wasn't the only one thinking (I just want to emphasize here: story wise) in these terms. Jim was the one who brought up the cool kids table metaphor in episode two, and he saw himself as barely sitting at it. It was that baggage that caused him to blindside Elyse, which kept Cochran around, which led to the end of Savaii's game.

Then there was Brandon, a character we were supposed to be a bit more conflicted about, but still feel for. We've all (vicariously) experienced the terror of Russell Hantz. We can only imagine what it must be like to grow up under it. This season we got to see the effects of it first hand. Here was a married kid, and yes he was just a kid, with a history of gangs who is just trying to control every urge he has. His method of choice was religion. It was the concretization of everything wrong about him (and, not so coincidentally, Coach) that eventually led to his demise. Per Christian ethics, he forgave his friend Albert and as a gesture gave him the immunity necklace. He was promptly voted out. You see, his inner struggle between good and evil was too much for him and ultimately made the game unimportant to him. There was no redemption for the Hantz family as another name bearer lost the game embarrassingly.

Ozzy and Coach didn't fare too well in their quest for redemption either. Both were undone in the endgame by Sophie and what's surprising is how. Ozzy, in a huge epic storyline, dominated Redemption Island and swayed the jury. This is what he was cast for. It was the perfect storyline, when reality, editing, and how the producers imagined Ozzy all combined into to one runaway fan favorite train. He dominated challenges. He fished better than he ever had. He could let his laid-back likability shine through without any social politics to worry about. He could win his way back into the game and all the way to the end. Then the jury would finally vote for him to win. And he was on pace to do just that until the final immunity challenge when, like in the beginning (of his Survivor career and this season), he was done in by cold hard rationality. Sophie is perhaps the most rational character we've seen since Yul, and what sealed her final victory? It was a puzzle (clearly included to favor Rob Mariano). Despite his large lead, the weakness in Ozzy's game came charging back. Call it arrogance, call it entitlement, call it a lack of poise. Ozzy crumbled under the pressure and was slain by Sophie's poise, grace, and logical mind.

Never one to be outdone, Coach met a similar fate at the hands of his alliance mate. No matter how hard the would-be Dragon Slayer tried, he couldn't remain humble. He had to fall back upon "Coach Things." You know how Coach always has to one up people? You know how he has to put on a big show and be a larger than life character? Well, previously it was only about being some amplified version of himself. This time, like last season's story, it was about the game itself. You see, Coach's new thing was to try to be Rob Mariano. Now I'm not saying it was some sort of intentional homage on his part (though I certainly think some of it was). I'm talking story wise. Here's a guy who came into the game and seemingly took control. He built a cult-like alliance. He made a big move involving an emotionalist young player at the merge. It all sounds the same, right? The only problem was it wasn't. Like every other Coach Thing probably is, it was all just a facade, and at the final Tribal Council Sophie let us know just that. She pulled the rug out from Coach, calling herself the strategist, agreeing with Albert that they carried Coach to the end, and, worst of all, labeling Coach and Albert as her two young girls she brought to the end. It was as tragic as a fall for a character as I can imagine in Survivor. Coach went from thinking he was Rob Mariano going into the final Tribal Council to feeling like he was Russell Hantz coming out if it. And it was all because he couldn't get over his Coach Things, making a big show of honor, integrity, religion, and being the Dragon Slayer.

The truth is Coach has never been the Dragon Slayer. What Dragons has he slayed? None. In the words of Mario Lanza, "Coach never slayed shit. He never even slayed the girl who smiled evilly." In fact, there's an editing pattern here: Coach calls himself the Dragon Slayer, Coach doesn't slay Dragon, Coach is mocked by young girl no one took seriously. In Tocantins, it was JT, Stephen, and Taj's move that slayed Brendan. Later Sierra mocked Coach, calling herself the Dragon Slayer. In Heroes vs Villains, Parvati domesticated Russell and mocked Coach by using the dragon terminology at the final Tribal Council. This season, there was Sophie.

Survivor South Pacific may have been about the fall of many, but it was also about the rise of the first and only true Dragon Slayer. While Coach joked around and prayed loudly, Sophie stalked around and preyed silently. She was the opposite of his over the top antics. While he was the center of attention, she observed from the back, taking her time and gathering all the details needed to make her moves--the ones that were always made over everyone else's. Did Cochran and Edna stay even though it was better for Coach that they did? Nope. When Sophie was in danger at the second final five, did Coach turn on her? Nope. And it was at that Tribal Council Sophie showed how to truly deal with your demons. As Ozzy barraged her with insults, pointing out her (possibly tragic) flaw and driving her to tears, she acknowledged it, put it in proper perspective, and regained her poise. Like with all the other information she had gathered, she turned around and used it in the final Tribal Council to argue her case. Most important of all, she actually slayed the dragon: after beating Ozzy in the final immunity challenge, she was knighted by Coach and then declared herself the new Dragon Slayer as she voted out Ozzy. Her victory in the storyline was sealed up at that point because it all comes down to two things:

"It's not how you start, it's how you finish." (Right, Ozzy? Sophie won that last challenge despite all your success beforehand. Don't worry, you can commiserate with Brady and Belichick over it. :/)
"Sometimes it's easier to believe a lie than to accept the truth." (Right, Coach? The more you pretended to be the Dragon Slayer, the less you realized what was actually going on around you.)

And just in case you needed some more evidence that this story of Sophie being crowned the true Dragon Slayer was very intentional, check out this clever inclusion by the editors that Mario Lanza points out here.

The only question left then is what the editors were trying to tell us. If Nicaragua was about why you shouldn't overplay and Redemption Island was about how to play, what was this season about? If you want to beat your opponents, be the Dragon Slayer. Be calm. Be cool. Be collected. Be Sophie. You see, Ozzy's attack against her is simultaneously her weakness and her strength. All season she was shown keeping herself at a distance, subtly and deftly pointing out everyone else's flaws and how they related to the overall picture. It's like she talked about in a post-game interview:

"Dalton Ross: Sophie, there were a lot of comments made about your character in the finale. Would you describe yourself as warm or fuzzy?

Sophie: Wait, are you seriously asking me that question? That is so funny because when I was in college I overheard this girl talking about me and her friend said to her, 'Who is this girl you’re talking about?' and the girl said, 'Her name’s Sophie and she’s not warm or fuzzy or anything!' No, I am neither warm nor fuzzy. I don’t want to be either. Would you ever want to be described as warm or fuzzy?"

Coach says, "I do." And that's why he's not the Dragon Slayer. He tried to be warm and fuzzy, preaching honor and integrity, and offering hugs to the recently voted out all season. What did Sophie do? Nothing except acknowledge that they deserved to go. Because that's how you have to play this game. You have to think about why people deserve to be where they are and what that means to the overall picture.

It's also important for me to be careful here. It could sound like I'm describing Albert, a player whose flaw was simply seeing the game as a board and the players as pieces (and not people). It was concretized visually in his checkers game with Cochran. Understanding that visual metaphor is important to understanding the difference between Albert and Sophie. She talked about it post-game:

"I think Albert seems to be a great guy. He’s attractive, he’s well-spoken, but then you realize that Albert has a superficial take on the world as well. His logic was, 'I gave Cochran a massage, there’s a jury vote.' Everything was black and white. He didn’t think about what does Cochran really want? Does Cochran really want to be sent out with a massage? I think that’s very telling about who Albert is. He’s too smooth."

Survivor is a selfish game. You have to get yourself to the end. But that also means recognizing that other people are selfish too. They also want to get to the end using their own ideas of how and why the game should play out. The key is figuring out what all the different hows and whys are and where they overlap and diverge. That is what Sophie did. When you only see one perspective--your own--you simplify every player down to a chess player and reduce your interactions with them to formulas. That is what Albert did. Why would Cochran want a massage, Albert? How would he respond to being given one? If Albert had heard Cochran's confessional after receiving the gift, maybe he would have changed his approach sooner.

The difficulty of Sophie's approach, however, is being able to vote people out once you learn all about them. This is where her hard exterior and perceived condescension come into play. She is confident in herself. She is there for herself and no one else. She's going to take care of her business. She assumes you're going to take care of yours as well. In Survivor, as well as life, it is the right perspective to have. It just gets difficult sometimes when Ozzy and Whitney bitch at you, fans get annoyed because you don't accept Facebook friend requests from them, and fans get on your case because you just want to spend the day in Hollywood with your family. With a million dollar check in your pocket though it's a lot easier to say, "It's your own life. Live it for yourself."

The truth is Sophie Clarke doesn't care about you. And why should she? It's the reason she won Survivor.


That Guy said...

A fantastic read (it says a lot about your skills as a writer in that your blog convinced me to give RI a second chance, and I ended up liking it in the end). I do have a few questions for you, though:

Firstly, do you intend to make a post that ranks the seasons (in your opinion), and if not, what are your top 10?

Second, do you think it's a fair assessment that in both of his appearances, Lex's story has been that of a Greek Tragedy?

Finally, have you considered the possibility that, on a meta level, Nicaragua is all about the consequences of power vacuums?

Jayemel said...

That Guy, here are my answers to your three questions:

1. If I ever make such a post, it will be after the show is over. However, my favorite seasons are (in no particular order): Redemption Island, South Pacific, All-Stars, Palau, Cook Islands, Fiji, and China.

2. I think if you're looking at it from the perspective that Lex has a "tragic flaw" (being his "gut"), then I understand where your perspective comes from. However, I don't think the editors were intentionally crafting a Greek Tragedy specifically (though it's been a looong time since I've watched Africa).

3. Nicaragua is about the errors of "over-playing," not the vacuum of power. Several players stepped up to be a leader--Shannon, Jimmy Johnson, Brenda, Marty--and tried to be too tactical when they were in charge, leading to followers being in the endgame.