Friday, December 23, 2011

To Fill the Requirements You Must Know the Requirements

"Ok, so I'm just gonna cut to the chase. It's on our buffs. It's about outwitting, outlasting, and outplaying. And when it comes to outplaying I felt like I held my own in challenges. When it came to individual immunity, I won three individual immunities. When it came to outwitting, I definitely felt like there were two parts to it. And one part was the strategic part. And I felt like I did that well. I made a five person alliance from the beginning and I wanted to keep that five person alliance to the end. And it wasn't necessarily the easiest thing to do, but I made sure that my strategy revolved around it. And then the other half of outwitting I think was the social game. And I think it became more clear to me a couple tribals ago that maybe I wasn't so good at the social game. I felt like I made some genuine friendships back at Upolu, but, you know, I’m not a used car salesman. I came out here and I was myself. And I do think I was as honest as possible, so I think I filled the requirements.” - Sophie Clarke

If a player wants to win the game, he has to convince the jury that he is more deserving than the other two people he is sitting in the final three with (or other person, in the case of a final two). The sticking point here is "deserving." What does it mean to be "deserving" of winning the game? Aren't you just the person who played the game the best? And isn't the person who won the game the person who played the best? Well, yes, but when the game is still being played--which is true while the final tribal council is going on--it's impossible to say who is most deserving based on the criteria of "the person who won the game deserved to win." This is the challenge faced by the players arguing to the jury, and it's what makes Sophie's opening statement so incredible. For the first time in Survivor history--both externally and internally to the game--someone attempted to explain what the requirements are for being deserving of winning the game.

Sophie Clarke delivered the best final Tribal Council performance in Survivor South Pacific because she knew what she wanted to say. She broke her game and the game of Survivor down to their most basic level--what their defining characteristic or characteristics are--beyond the generally given "Survivor is Survivor." That statement is certainly true. A thing is what it is. However, it is not sufficient. In order for Sophie to know what she wanted to say, she had to know what she was talking about--the game of Survivor in general and her game specifically. Why? Because every argument is based upon a foundation, some fact or set of facts in reality that the points (and ultimately the claim) in the argument refer to. To better demonstrate what I mean, I'm going to quote Erik Caronda's jury comments from Survivor Samoa:

"If there's one thing that I've learned in this game it is that perception is not reality. Reality is reality, and you (Natalie) are sitting there and that makes you just as dangerous as any one of those guys there. You would say that you are probably the least deserving of the title of Sole Survivor, but maybe, just maybe, in an enviroment filled with arrogance, delusional entitlement, maybe the person who thinks she is least deserving is probably the most."

What Erik is doing here is explaining how his beliefs about the game changed because of what happened in reality. He does this through two steps. First he says that what happens in the game is what happens in the game. The people sitting in the final three are the people sitting in the final three. This statement is the same as the one I already made about who deserves to win the game, just taken back one round of the game to the final three. Second he defines what he thinks are characteristics that a deserving winner would NOT have--arrogance and entitlement. Since Natalie had neither, he deemed her most deserving and voted for her---and because of this content, Erik's speech is the logical predecessor of Sophie's.

What makes Sophie's speech more impressive than Erik's is its two major difference from it. The first is the level of detail. Erik only claimed that someone is, in reality, more deserving of winning the game. He then said that, in the specific instance of Survivor Samoa, Natalie was that person. It's great that he was able to figure it out for his purposes, but not going into detail about what it means to be deserving leaves a player like Sophie in the dark. She is forced to either argue that she deserves to win because she is like Natalie or figure out why Natalie deserved to win beyond the simple statement that she won the game. Sophie tackled that foreboding task with seeming ease.

Just as Erik stated why Mick and Russell didn't deserve to win, Sophie could have easily argued why Albert and Coach didn't deserve to win. Don't misunderstand me. Sophie certainly talked about why Albert and Coach (ok, mainly Albert) shouldn't win at some points, but the primary thrust of her arguments were positive--why she deserved to win. This perspective can clearly be seen in her opening statements. She stated a condition of what it meant to be deserving and then provided a concrete example of how she filled that requirement. She then stated another condition and then another relevant example. It was an approach that let the jury know where she stood and what they would be voting for if they wrote her name down. It was something that Albert and Coach did not do and perhaps the power that pushed her to the final victory.

Being able to argue for herself increased the value Sophie took from the game. She earned the title and the money. She is now a million dollars richer (well, pre-taxes anyway) and is in an elite group of 22 people. The title of Sole Survivor can never be taken away from her for the rest of her life. No matter what happens to her (barring NCAA investigations), she can always look back on her accomplishment and be proud. In other words, in order to be the most deserving, she first had to know what it meant to be most deserving. Only then could she go about checking the boxes and explaining how she did.

Unless we're one of the lucky few who get to play the game, we'll never have a chance to be able to check those boxes. However it is still to our advantage to figure out what they are exactly. Why? Because, like Sophie, the more we know about them, the more value we get out of Survivor. It is impossible to talk about what it means to deserve to win Survivor if you don't know what it means to be deserving. Yes, you can always say a player deserved to win if he won, but that only points back to the question of what does it mean to be deserving. Imagine if Sophie had argued that she deserved to win because she deserved to win. No one would have taken her seriously, and she might not have won at all.

The title of Sole Survivor is an achievement and people deserve to be praised for it. However, they're not the only players who deserved to be praised. Many players check many of the boxes but fail at the most important ones. Knowing what it means for a player to be deserving, allows us as fans to praise players for checking any assortment of boxes--and that is what being a fan is about. You appreciate the thing you're a fan of. I don't know about you, but I'm a fan of Survivor so I appreciate it and those who excel at it.

Erik taught us that Survivor is Survivor (reality is reality). Sophie taught us that there are requirements to fill to win the game. She also provided us with a good start as to what those requirements are. Now it's up to us to define them on a detailed enough level to know who the players we appreciate the most are and argue for them. Otherwise we're just doing Coach Things. I suppose that's good enough for three votes. I just prefer to win.

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.