When a Survivor contestant has an inflated sense of his own strategic acumen, as we saw tonight on the premiere of Survivor: Philippines, there will inevitably come a point where that castaway will attempt what is known, colloquially, as a Batman Gambit. With this tactic, a would-be manipulator uses all the information he knows about the person(s) he plans to manipulate, and puts together a plot that relies upon his victims’ own predictability to work. However, a Batman Gambit is notoriously difficult to pull off. Why? Because it has a very obvious failure condition. A failure condition so obvious that it makes the would-be manipulator look like a moron for even attempting the gambit. And therein lies the risk in performing one: do it right, and you’re a genius; fail, and you’re held up as a model of unambiguous idiocy.
Such is the tale of Zane Knight, the first person voted off of Survivor: Philippines, who got it into his head to vote out returning contestant Russell Swan by offering his own head for the chopping block, relying upon his fellow tribemates’ disdain for Russell to keep them from following through on his offer. Of course, he failed to see the very obvious potential flaw in his plan: the likelihood that his tribemates would take him up on the offer.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Survivor: Philippines introduced fifteen new castaways (including former National League MVP Jeff Kent and former The Facts of Life star Lisa Welchel) and brought back three former castaways who’d previously had to be evacuated from the game due to medical emergencies. Those returnees are Russell Swan (Survivor: Samoa, the season that gave us the other Russell), Jonathan Penner (one of my all-time favorite castaways and, truly, a man for all seasons), and Michael Skupin, who fell into the fire in Survivor: The Australian Outback in one of the series’ most gruesome moments. Right off the bat, this season is made of victory for not bringing back Colton Cumbie. That said, I could do without another season of returnees being mixed among new players. It isn’t an issue if the entire cast is made up of returnees (hell, it’d probably be pretty exciting, though I’m not sure I ever need to see Phil Sheppard play again). But it’s always seemed a bit unfair to bring back veterans of the game, who are essentially celebrities to the players who’ve actually watched the show (and it’s truly alarming how many people get cast each season that haven’t), leading to starstruck lemmings following their benevolent leader to the end, and then cutting their own throats to happily give the million to a person who probably should have been out on day one. Boston Rob really did play an all-time top five game on Redemption Island, but how much of that was his game-savvy and how much was simply the luck of the draw, ending up on a tribe of pushovers and certified lunatics who no right-minded jury would ever vote for?
Thankfully, these returnees are less recognizable, so I imagine the returnees will largely rise or fall by how they play the game this time, and not how popular or well-known they were as a result of previous appearances. Penner is the most recognizable face, and his tribe (Kalabaw – which translates to “water buffalo”) already seems primed to push him out at the first opportunity. As much as I adore the guy, they’d be morons not to have him in their crosshairs. And as one of Survivor’s most accomplished pragmatists (except for one outrageously stupid move on his first playthrough), Penner knows this, and sets about searching for the hidden immunity idol, finding the clue in his tribe’s bag of rice (a clue he had to discover through painstaking detective work; the same clue Russell later finds in his own tribe’s bag of rice completely by accident. Pfft…Survivor, indeed). But, again, getting ahead of myself…
As the game starts, everyone has to take what provisions they can off the boat in a mad dash and get out onto their rafts, paddling for shore, where they’ll then comb the wild to find their camp. It starts out well enough, until aforementioned National League MVP Jeff Kent twists his knee, possibly tearing his MCL. He proceeds to spend the rest of the episode disguising the severity of the injury from the rest of the tribe, while simultaneously leading the charge against Penner with the rest of his tribemates. Dawson, a 28 year-old insurance rep, is the only person who recognizes Jeff for who he is, having dated a baseball fanatic. However, she cleverly keeps the info to herself, judging that Jeff probably doesn’t want it out. A savvy strategist pays attention to what people say, but also gleans information from what they withhold. Not saying she’s going to go all the way, but Dawson seems like my kind of gal.
From the “lie by omission” front to the “lie by lying” approach, we move to Michael Skupin’s tribe (Tandang – which translates to “rooster”) where we meet RC, a buxom 27 year-old “executive assistant” who lies about her true profession (investment banker) in order to cultivate a less devious image. She seems to be one of the few people playing the game from the get-go, and she exercises admirable tact in allying with Brazilian national Abi-Maria (32, business student), and the easily-seduced Pete (24, engineering grad). She rounds out her coup by approaching the big man himself, winning Skupin to their cause. The game is hardly an hour old and we have our first alliance. That said, the six-person division of the three tribes will make it difficult to form a winning alliance pre-merge, since an optimal alliance is comprised of five people (and not simply a “strong four” like RC posits). You need the power couple at the head, a middleman third, and two stragglers who can be used to bolster numbers, but can easily be dumped for whatever reason (unreliable, found better replacement, etc.). This 2+1+2 dynamic is hard to form on a tribe with just six people. One can only hope the merge comes sooner rather than later.
But that’s not all that’s going on over at the Tandang tribe, as Michael immediately recognizes Lisa as Blair Warner from The Facts of Life, and actually appears kind of starstruck throughout parts of the episode. When he finally gets a chance to confront her about this, positing that perhaps the other tribemates will be as starstruck as he is, Lisa kindly shoots it down, preferring to keep her past secret. This is another smart move, given that even though Lisa has lost all the money she made in the 80s through bad investments, nobody in her tribe is likely going to believe that she’s now just a regular American like them. Michael, for his part, wants to bring Lisa into the fold, but he knows his youthful alliance likely won’t have it, as he’s heard them bandying her name around as a possible first elimination. Michael is, smartly, adopting a laid-back strategy, allowing his alliance to dictate the pace and shoulder the early strategic burden while he weighs his own possibilities. As a self-professed Survivor superfan, you’d think Lisa would adopt this approach as well. Of course, to do so would mean taking an active role in forming alliances. Her motherly, person-to-person approach likely isn’t going to cut it.
But even if that’s all Lisa does, she’d still be better off than Russell Swan over at the Matsing (which translates to “monkey”) tribe. Russell, having learned from his last playthrough that the person who serves as leader is ultimately doomed to fail, tells his tribe to keep him out of the leadership conversation. However, his actions immediately conflict with his own wishes, as he sets about dictating what everyone should do, pissing off 25 year-old bartender Malcolm. Meanwhile, Zane is busy laying the foundation for his Batman Gambit by forming alliances with the young women of the tribe, Angie (20, student, also former Miss Utah Teen USA 2010) and Roxy (28, seminary student), while also charming the resident sex therapist of the tribe, Denise (who immediately puts her sex therapy skills to work, psychoanalyzing Zane based off his many tattoos, the best of which is a giant Frankenstein face on his right bicep). In one of the dumber moves of the episode, which is really saying something, Zane immediately reveals to Russell and Malcolm that he’s formed alliances with everyone on the tribe. Head, meet chopping block.
We move on to the immunity challenge, a race split into three legs: a brief obstacle course at the start, a canoe/swimming portion in which each team must dive to collect their puzzle pieces, and, finally, the aforementioned puzzle. Each tribe is split into three pairs, with each pair running a different leg of the race for their tribe. In assigning tasks, a challenge can often be won or lost. Such was the case of the Matsing tribe, as Russell again took the role of leader, assigning Angie the task of completing the puzzle, over her own protests of being lousy at puzzles. This leads to Matsing coming in dead last, while Kalabaw pulls off the come-from-behind upset over the dominant Tandang. Matsing gets a date with tribal council, while Kalabaw gets immunity and a fire-making kit, and Tandang gets flint and an immunity idol of their own.
And thus, we’re back to the self-buggering of Zane Knight. Instead of just going along with the desire of at least half the tribe and voting for Russell, Zane tries to perform inception on his tribemates by planting the idea of voting out Russell by suggesting they vote himself out. I’m actually still pretty confused as to what, exactly, Zane’s plan was. He didn’t explain it all that well, nor did he execute it much better, really, because you can’t plant an idea in someone’s head when it’s already there. Either way, the group arrives at tribal and it’s back-and-forth scapegoating, with the editing teasing that perhaps Russell will be voted out after all, before the boom is lowered on Zane once and for all. Zane is sent packing, having failed to see the obvious failure condition for his Batman Gambit: don’t give your enemies a knife, then offer your throat and expect them not to cut it.
All in all, an excellent start to the new season, as the extended 90-minute runtime gave us more of the contestants, allowing us to get moments with nearly everyone in the game right now, save maybe one or two people. I don’t think I could ever have said this about any of the other seasons, where we’re sometimes deep into merge territory before some of the castaways even speak word one. I’m already primed for next week, feeling that all the pieces are in place for the players to actually start playing, and not simply dance around the notion of making moves. These smaller tribes almost necessitate movement. It should make for a pretty dynamic game.