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Survivor’s paranoia is self-fulfilling prophecy

Jeff Probst often tells “Survivor” contenders their current odds of winning the game. This week, he informed everyone, the person who won immunity would have a one-in-seven shot at a million dollars.

Mathematically and statistically, Probst is correct. But in reality, winning the game is nowhere near as simple as reaching into a bag and drawing one marble from a group of seven.

That’s because there are a number of factors that stand in the way of winning, and most of those involve your fellow players. On “Survivor,” a player can’t just show up having decided to play a certain way. Contestants must be flexible and prepared to deal with anything and anyone, anytime. The composition of the cast is the most important factor.

Perhaps even more important, though, is a player’s emotional stability and ability to be at peace inside his or her head.  Surprisingly, few people have self-destructed in the history of “Survivor.” There have been quitters (Pearl Islands’ Osten), and people who’ve essentially given up (Palau’s Ian).

But “Survivor Guatemala” has brought us perhaps the first game-related emotional meltdown, brought on by a severe case of paranoia and self-doubt. The infected: Jamie.

Torch-snuffing was a mercy killingJamie seemed guaranteed a place in the final six, because his alliance was so strong. After the merge, his group — which included Stephenie, Rafe, Lydia, Judd, and Cindy — held together, voting off members of the other tribe. Their plan would likely have continued this week, as Gary, protected at the last Tribal Council by his discovery of the hidden immunity idol, was the next to go, and he knew it.

Gary was spared, however, because every member of Jamie’s alliance except Judd eventually turned on Jamie, and he was voted out. “Blindsided! Now that’s how you vote somebody out!” he exclaimed after Jeff Probst extinguished his torch.

Considering the behavior that preceded his elimination, that was perhaps the most rational response possible; I half-expected him to take his torch and run around screaming, lighting things like small shrubs and Jeff Probst on fire.

Jamie may have been surprised by the outcome, but his tribe didn’t blindside or backstab him by targeting him. Instead, they performed a mercy killing, because Jamie was going crazy.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched as Jamie’s behavior has become more and more erratic. He’s questioned his tribemates’ behavior, and even his friends have noted that he has been growing increasingly paranoid and confrontational. After he and Bobby Jon clashed at a challenge, he picked pointless hyper-masculine fights with Bobby Jon (thankfully, they’ve since made up, probably since they’re both members of the jury).

With Bobby Jon voted out at last week’s Tribal Council, Jamie came back to camp with no one to direct his insecurity toward.  So, he worked to manifest the problems that he’d convinced himself existed, first by instigating a pointless conflict with Cindy, and then by jumping on Gary. Both times, he manufactured problems, as if to validate his paranoia by creating conflict.  Even his friend Judd couldn’t understand what his problem was and told him to shut up. “Come on, Jamie, forget about it,” he said.

“Emotionally, I guess this game might be taking a toll on him.  And really, psychologically, he’s losing it,” Judd told us in an interview. Later, Rafe said nearly the same thing: “I think that Jamie is just kind of losing it almost, in terms of paranoia.  Like, he’s just letting the game really, really get to him, and he’s constantly freaked out.”

They were right. At the reward challenge, the remaining eight were split into two teams, and Jamie’s team lost. Back at camp, he talked to Rafe, suggesting a final-three alliance between them and Judd. When Rafe said he’d consider it, Jamie became visibly upset because Rafe didn’t say yes immediately. So he broadened his proposal. “Will you swear to the top six?” Jamie asked. “I already have,” a baffled Rafe said.

“I’m so scared that you’ll change your mind, though, Rafe,” Jamie said. “I just don’t want to get suckered, dude. Don’t sucker me.”

Later, he expressed the same sort of paranoia to another member of his alliance. “Are we good? We solid?” Jamie asked Judd, the one person who ultimately didn’t vote against him. “There’s nothing to freak out about,” he promised Jamie. Judd’s loyalty to the person who was questioning everyone else’s loyalty ultimately hurt him, as he was kept out of the decision-making process. As his face suggested after Jeff Probst read the votes, Judd was just as blindsided as Jamie.

Ultimately, Jamie admitted that he was worried that, as a strong male, he’d be targeted. “Eventually they’re going to catch on that I’m a serious threat, so I’m trying to work it where they keep the six that got here together,” Jamie told us. “I’m working that card a lot.” But his work was unnecessary, as his alliance was happy to keep him around, at least until he started second-guessing everyone.

Playing the game involves predicting other player’s actions; like a game of chess, it’s impossible to play “Survivor” well without at least thinking of possible moves your opponents will make.  Even in a solid alliance, the day will come when that alliance will be forced to turn on itself, and lack of planning for that moment will lead only to the “Survivor” walk of shame.

The same sort of second-guessing occurs in everyday life. When you drive on the interstate, amid hundreds of other cars going 60 or 70 or 80 miles per hour, you have to be able to predict what other cars might do to keep yourself safe. (As my dad says, you have to essentially drive everyone else’s car for them.) But if you’re so completely focused on every other car that you stop driving your own, you’ll end up in a ditch with a deflated airbag.

That’s what happened to Jamie: In his alliance, he was metaphorically sitting in the driver’s seat of a Hummer that was chained to a car carrier. Even if he’d slammed on the brakes and jerked the wheel to the side, he would have been okay. But he was so completely insecure that he felt like he was atop a remote-controlled toy car tooling down the middle of a 10-lane highway, surrounded by 18-wheelers.

That’s the way he behaved, and he so baffled his fellow alliance members that they retracted his membership in the alliance and gave him the second seat on the jury.

It’s certainly possible that Jamie would have been ultimately stabbed in the back by his team; nearly every season, we’ve seen multiple examples of duplicity. For many players, lying is part of the game, and that often involves lying to people who are their friends or with whom they have an alliance.

Thus, Jamie’s skepticism was warranted. But he signed his own “Survivor” death warrant by making sure everyone knew just how skeptical and paranoid he was.

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

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