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‘Survivor’ has new tribes, but old cliques

Stephenie, one of the two “Survivor Palau” cast members given a second shot at $1 million on “Survivor Guatemala,” asked a simple question last week. “Why, just once, can’t I be on a great tribe?”

When, on day nine, host Jeff Probst unexpectedly mixed up the tribes, Stephenie almost had that chance.

Except she ended up on the losing team yet again. Her new tribe consists mostly of women, whereas the other tribe has so much testosterone (or “maletosterone,” as Judd called it) that the trees in their campsite are starting to grow hair in strange places. Even though Stephanie’s tribe still managed to stay competitive in the immunity challenge, they still lost, and she once again returned to Tribal Council.

The switch-up came early in the game, arriving as part of a disarming reward challenge. But calling it a challenge does disservice to the word “challenge,” because it wasn’t one.

Instead, Jeff Probst said the cast members had “earned a little relief” and “a break from the challenges.” Apparently, he forgot he was hosting a show called “Survivor,” not “Takeabreaker.”

Jeff quizzed each tribe, asking them to vote for the person they thought was, for example, the most famished or the smelliest. Those who received the most votes won a reward: the hungry were treated to a single green apple, while the smelly (Gary and Bobby Jon) stripped and showered while their fellow castaways watched them. After four tribe members were voted to receive a pyramid-top picnic, Jeff then asked the tribes to vote for the person with the most “tribe pride.”

Brian and Cindy each won, and the twist began. They remained members of their original tribes, as did those who were picnicking (Gary and Amy, and Margaret and Judd). Everyone else switched tribes. Well, almost everyone: Since the Nakum tribe had one additional member, those tribe members picked buffs at random to see who would stay with their original tribe.

Thus, for a moment, it became possible that Bobby Jon and Stephenie could end up on the same tribe. Alas, they did not, and they joined their new tribes, on their way to victory (Bobby Jon) and loss (Steph, again).

Stephenie: Born under a bad signAt Tribal Council, Jeff Probst, who’d apparently grown tired of seeing Stephenie there, informed Steph that her “Survivor Guatemala” win/loss record was now 1 and 7, while her overall “Survivor” win/loss record was 4 and 21. And just in case her tribe members couldn’t do the math on their fingers, Jeff completed the equation for them: “Maybe Steph is the bad luck,” he said.

Instead of running over and stomping on his toes really hard, Stephenie tried to laugh off Jeff’s analysis. “Do I just have this black cloud that follows me in the game of ‘Survivor’ wherever I go? I’d like to think I’m not bad luck, because that’d suck, but for some reason I end up on the short end of the stick,” Stephenie said.

Despite the black cloud and its rain of misfortune, her new tribe spared her at Tribal Council. Instead, they voted for the two weakest players: Lydia and Brooke. Since the newly reformed Nakum tribe had exactly four members from each of the two old tribes, a tie was a very real possibility: each group of four would vote for the weaker player from the other group of four.

And that’s exactly what happened, except Judd switched sides and joined his new tribemates Stephenie, Lydia, Rafe, and Jamie.

Because this season of “Survivor” has been particularly grueling physically, the tribe needed to eliminate its weaker players.

Thus, it made sense for the new tribe to target either Lydia (who works hard around camp but is nearly useless in challenges) or Brooke (who didn’t appear to be athletic to her new tribemates, but then again, Margaret and Cindy don’t appear to be triathletes).

After two tribes merge together on “Survivor,” sticking with those you merged with makes strategic sense: it’s an automatic alliance with people you know and trust. And after a merge, every player is playing for him- or herself, and thus alliances are critically important.

But this wasn’t a merge. Instead, the two tribes will continue to compete against one another, and each new tribe needs to bond fast so they can work together as a team. And that’s why they likely made a mistake voting for Brooke instead of Lydia, and most definitely made a mistake by letting old tribal loyalties dictate their actions.

Stephenie was the only person who offered an explanation for this particular move. She decided it’d make more sense to keep the old Yaxha tribe members together, even if Lydia was a liability. “We could try to start with her if we had to, then they’re down in numbers, and we can keep us four tight if we really need to,” Steph said.

The question is, did they really need to?

“We’re decimated here, decimated, gone!” Amy cried when she returned from the picnic and realized what happened. On the other tribe, Margaret concurred. “With this switch-up today, I don’t feel safe at all. Not at all.”  Like Stephenie, Margaret insisted that her original four tribemates should stay together. “We have to decide where Judd stands, how much loyalty he has to the old Nakum tribe,” she said. Judd, however, admitted to Jaime and Steph that he hadn’t bonded much with his old tribe and felt no real attachment toward Margaret, Brooke, or Cindy.

Why stick with your old clique?This obsession with original-tribe cliques makes little sense in the context of the game. Staying loyal to people just because you already know them is a potentially stupid move. As he cast his vote, Rafe said, “Brooke, you’re an awesome person, but this vote is for strategy tonight. If you go, I have a chance to go a lot further.” Others cited the same reason as they voted.

Even Jeff Probst perpetuated that idea, lecturing the tribe before they left Tribal Council. “Tribal lines and personal loyalties are going to shift throughout this game. Just remember, every time you shift, you make it harder to trust,” he said.

But if his new tribe loses again and again, they’re not going to have any chance to go further, and trust won’t matter, because they’ll keep losing challenges. Then, they’ll either have to start picking off their friends, or they’ll eventually merge with another tribe that’s a lot stronger and that will pick them off one by one.

During some “Survivor” seasons, the weak have banded together to eliminate the strong; other times, the weaker tribe members have taken the walk of shame one after another. Either way, their decisions weren’t arbitrary, but were based upon an understanding about how to move their tribe forward.

Even though this newly reconstituted “Survivor Guatemala” tribe doesn’t know one another, they must start functioning as a single unit, focusing unflinchingly on the goal of winning challenges.

As alliances form within the new group, which they inevitably will, those alliances need to act strategically, not emotionally.

Stephenie’s decision to stick with a weaker challenge player, Lydia, was based solely on the fact that she already knew Lydia, and ignored the fact that her new tribemates might be better allies. And it’s that sort of decision that may keep Steph from knowing what it’s like to win.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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