Survivor Tie-Breakers: How the Purple Rock Has Changed Players' Strategyby Evan Meikleham -- 03/16/2003
Ties and tie-breakers have always been one of the imperfections of the game of Survivor. There has never been a way of resolving ties that really makes people happy.
On the most recent episode of Survivor: The Amazon, we saw Heidi sell out her old tribemates. It was not because she was trying to save herself like Kelly Goldsmith or because she felt excluded and thus more willing to switch sides, like Shii Ann; but it was a purely strategic move, probably just to avoid a tie. And as a fan of the show, all I could say when I saw it happen was, "It's about time." Every single season slips into the same cycle of predictability after a while, and it is at the very least more enjoyable to watch the show when you don't know what's going to happen next. Smart or not, Heidi's vote is exactly what Mark Burnett has been trying to get people to do. And the origins of her vote go back a long way. In fact, the chain of events that led up to Heidi's defection strategy started back when there was a fat naked guy prancing around the beaches of Pulau Tiga.
Think back two and a half years to the dog days of summer 2000. Yeah, I know, I can't remember too much either. But I can remember one thing: eagerly waiting to see if Richard Hatch could actually pull it off. He did, and will go down in the record books as one of the greatest players ever. The debate will go on forever whether or not he was the greatest; I personally don't think so, but I'll save that for another time. But one thing that not even the great Richard Hatch knew until almost a year later was how close he actually was to a fourth place swansong. For those of you who don't remember, after Kelly averted doom for the third straight time by winning immunity, there was a 2-2 tie between Rich and Sue Hawk. The tie-breaking protocol was not known at this point, and Kelly decided to switch her vote from Rich to Sue and sent Sue packing. Had she voted for Rich again, we'll never know if she would have been able to win, but we know Rich would not. We would have discovered that Rich's four past votes would have come back to haunt him, because Sue only had three.
So, the next season comes along, and Mitchell becomes the first victim of the past vote rule. I don't think anyone had any beefs with the rule at this point. Things got iffy when the Kucha and Ogakor tribes merged and Jeff Varner, one of the most popular castaways ever, got screwed by Kimmi's big mouth. Whether you loved or hated Jeff, the season went downhill from here. Now, I'm not saying that Mark Burnett should have stepped in and stopped Jeff from getting ousted, but it hardly seemed fair that Jeff lost because Kimmi either didn't know or didn't care about the tie-breaker rule.
Then the show went to Africa and the tie-breaking rules had implications several times in the game. First, we had the infamous Samburu tribe. The tribe of eight split into two factions of four, both of which were content with pushing a tie. Although immunity saved them for a while, by the time they finally had to go to tribal council, irreconcilable damages had already been done. Carl and Lindsey, neither of whom had any prior votes, went to a Q&A session which ended with Carl leaving. Carl was a good sport about it, but I don't think it was that interesting to see the tie resolved that way.
Then we had the twist that sent Lex, Kelly, and Tom to Samburu. None of those three had any past votes, but Lindsey had four. As unpopular as Lindsey was, it was really not that fair to her that there was no way she could protect herself.
After Lindsey was given her walking papers, we had the merge. Although the tribe had agreed to vote Clarence off unanimously, Jeff Probst revealed two ballots with Lex's name written on them. If past votes didn't matter, this probably would not have been such a big deal, but it led to Kelly Goldsmith's downfall.
So, we had seen two sides to the past votes rule. We saw how past votes can give leverage to people in minority factions, which is a good thing because unpredictability is the key to entertainment in reality television. But we also saw how past votes can make the show incredibly predictable, as was the case with Jeff Varner and Lindsey. But one thing was certain: we would NEVER see another Kelly Wiglesworth-like vote switch.
But then Survivor went to the South Pacific and Mark Burnett decided to get rid of the past votes all together. He said he got rid of the previous votes because it made the game "too mathematical." From the point of view of someone who likes to dissect strategy, I don't think he needed to go so far as to abolish the rule altogether. Maybe it could have been tweaked a bit, for example you get a clean slate every time tribes are changed. But to Joe Blow who just watches for the heck of it, I can see how this could get boring, so I won't fault Mark on that one.
So, Survivor: Marquesas came along and totally refreshed the franchise. Worrying about a tie was never a big deal mostly because the initial part of the game was so one-sided in favor of Rotu. Twelve votes passed and the only time there might have potentially been a tie was the night Gabe Cade lost. Then came one of the show's most infamous moments ever.
In an almost exact repeat of what happened in Pulau Tiga, Vecepia was minutes away from being voted off when she won immunity and forced a 2-2 tie between Kathy and Neleh. But unlike Kelly, she was not willing to change her vote. Jeff told everybody that they had two minutes to decide who to vote off, or else the boot would be determined by lot. Vecepia had no motivation to change her vote because she was safe. Kathy and Neleh were not going to change their votes because that would entail voting for themselves. Paschal had to make the decision between playing the game and having integrity. He took the integrity path and drew the purple rock, becoming the only person ever voted off without receiving a single vote. The response to this tie-breaker ranged from cheers to complaints. But now, two seasons after Paschal's demise, the echo of the purple rock can still be heard.
As I said before, part of the appeal of Survivor is unpredictability. And this unpredictability is fueled by seeing people stab each other in the back. The people who use the I-word can be nice people, but I think we can all agree that we do not want to see clueless people like Kim Johnson decide to screw over themselves and two or three others just because they are not willing to play the game. They have the right to do it, but it just makes the show boring. And even though Mark Burnett does not have the right to influence the outcome of the game because he favors a certain contestant, I don't see anything wrong with changing the rules after each season for the sake of making the show interesting.
As a person, Paschal was probably the nicest one next to Kathy of everyone present at the final Tribal Council. But he was also one the least deserving of the win. He certainly wasn't as bad as some of the others such as Robert, whose strategy consisted of rolling over and playing dead; but Paschal was not willing to play the game to win. Yes, he switched alliances along with everyone else when the Rotu 4 broadcast their strategy, but when it came right down to it, he would have voted against himself if Neleh told him to.
So back to when the tie between Neleh and Kathy came up. At this point, we had seen three ways of resolving a tie: the Q&A round, which was pretty anticlimactic and went against the political nature of the game; the previous votes, which were "too mathematical;" and someone switching votes. Kelly's vote switch in the first series was obviously the most interesting, so Mark Burnett was looking for a way to duplicate it. There was only one way of providing people incentive to do this. Instead of putting pressure on the people receiving votes, the pressure has to be put on the people who can swing the vote, even if it means jamming a knife into your ally's back. Paschal ended up getting his torch snuffed because he was not willing to suck it up and play the game. I can't think of a better way for Mark Burnett to send the message, "If you want to play with integrity, you can play with integrity from the jury box."
The purple rock may have seemed a little anticlimatic at the time, but it worked perfectly. There are echoes throughout S5 and now into S6. We saw Jan say on the finale that she did not vote with Helen because she did not want to draw rocks. After the Ghandia incident, fear of a tie was what prompted Helen to vote with the men. Shii Ann's defection may also have been spurred in part by fear of the purple rock. The only problem was that Mark Burnett flushed most of the season's potential down the toilet with his fake merge. Instead of seeing some intertribal alliances, we got to watch the Sook Jais get picked off one by one. But I digress. Once the Sook Jais were gone, Brian, Clay, Helen, and Ted were all playing to win. And if you only caught the last two episodes of S5, you would not have had any idea that the first 11 were so inane. The reason being that Mark Burnett finally found a way to scare people into playing to win instead of playing to have the winner come from their alliance.
Now just this week, we saw Heidi sell out Jeanne. Yes, I know the jury is still out on how smart of a move Heidi's vote was. Actually, I think that in this case, Heidi would have been better off sticking with her tribe and taking her chances. It would have definitely been smart for Christy or Jeanne to defect, but I'm not sure about Heidi. We'll just have to see. But whether it was a smart move or not doesn't matter. The point is that it was an interesting move. Even if Heidi falls flat on her face, we'll keep watching.
Case in point, after Kelly Goldsmith was taken out by Brandon, everybody wanted to know what would happen next. Nobody knew who had allegiance to whom. There was a huge debate over whether or not Brandon made a smart move. In fact, that debate is still going on today. But after Brandon lost, not a single interesting thing happened for the rest of the series. Survivor: Africa is often called the worst season, I think at least in part because of Brandon's absence. Love them or hate them, the Brandons and the Shii Anns are what the show needs to stay interesting. The Ethans and Paschals are not. And the purple rock has forced people to be at least a little bit more conniving.
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