Survivor’s fifth season, Survivor: Thailand, originally aired in the fall of 2002, and featured an eclectic cast of sixteen new castaways sent to an island in the southeast of Asia. While Jeff Probst and other Survivors critics have expressed their dislike of this season and its cast in retrospect, I really enjoyed the season as a whole. The season had a solid, if not spectacular cast, with a mix of excellent gamers and interesting characters. From a production standpoint, I really feel like this was the first season of Survivor that the producers molded and shaped definitively through intense challenges, and constant and dramatic twists, leading to a fun shaking out that saw the underdog tribe reign supreme. In the end, while many Survivor fans may find the final four unlikeable, and the season uninteresting, I celebrate the fact that it was brilliantly played by the winner from a strategic standpoint, and the fact that it also stayed intriguing from start to finish. Without any further ado, here are my complete thoughts on Survivor: Thailand:
- From the moment the group set foot on the beach, there were a few, clear divisive thoughts put into the castaways’ heads that would end up molding the events to come in certain ways. The group was divided by a school yard pick, with the two oldest members of the sixteen picked as captains. I thought it was interesting that the producers put a lot of emphasis on dividing the cast by gender and singling them out by age on day one, as if to put divisive thoughts in everyone’s’ mind before they even had a chance to make first impressions. It’s become a staple of Survivor to pin people against one another based upon any number of different disseminating factors, and I think this may have been the first time Survivor tried to feel out ways to get the game strategy in peoples’ heads from day one. The two tribes were picked in very different ways by the cast elders, Jake and Jan. Jake decided to pick a group that looked ready for challenges and hungry to compete in challenges, which ended up as a group with no one else over the age of 30. Jan, on the other hand, seemed to pick with less definitive rationale, generally taking much older players like Clay, John, Helen, and Ted who were all over 35 years old. It seemed ridiculous to think this season would be any competition after the picking was settled, as the younger Sook Jai tribe looked faster, stronger and poised to steam roll the much older Chuay Gahn, and the early resulted went about as planned. Chuay Gahn lost three of the first four immunity challenges and fell to a fast 5-7 deficit, but in doing so solidified a steady, poised tribe who used their age to their advantage, while the younger Sook Jai tribe, still intact, fractured with dissent, selfishness, and youthful arrogance. It was as if the narrative Survivor was looking for worked out ideally, as the concept that wisdom and experience pays off in the long run proved true on the season, as one by one the original Sook Jai team fell between 11th and 5th I think this season played out fantastically because of this narrative, and it was extremely fun to watch because I just kind of knew the Sook Jai team was doomed in the long run. Players like Robb, Shii-Ann, Jed, and Stephanie all showed to be in one way or another selfish and egotistic, traits that tend to doom players in this game, and even while they won, the egos of the teammates proved to be too much for the tribe. I’m not sure it’s as simple as to say that wisdom and experience beats youthful enthusiasm on Survivor, as seasons since have shown otherwise, but it was nice to see a narrative play out like a storybook for the first time in Survivor history.
- I know I usually break down the game play of a season as it unfolded, but for Thailand that just doesn’t seem necessary. What I feel like discussing is how the narratives played out; I think I did a decent job touching on how the age disparity and continuity of the two tribes ended up being decisive in the results of the season, but there’s much more to why Chuay Gahn’s final five was able to outlast seven straight votes. I really feel like Sook Jai as a whole got a really bad feel for the game together, and ended up playing an inadequate game through and through. The members of Sook Jai didn’t seem to have any feel for the strategy of the game, and they simply just survived and competed without much talk of the end game or who was going to support who within the tribe. There didn’t seem to be any pecking order within the tribe, and it was so weird to see a tribe on Survivor where the members didn’t seem to be trying to get on the right side of the numbers, or aligning with the right people for a final two or three. Players like Robb and Shii-Ann proved to have way too large of egos to gel with the tribe, and their attitudes proved to be divisive within the tribe, as the members of the tribe as a whole had to tiptoe around large personalities and forgot about playing the game. But, I think most importantly Sook Jai lacked vocal leadership, and that really was why they never got going any traction in the game. In looking at the final four members of that tribe, Ken, Jake, Penny, and Erin, none of them really showed any strong leadership qualities, at least on camera. Ken was a very strong, young, athletic guy who would have naturally fit into a leadership role, yet he never was shown as a decision maker within his tribe. Penny and Erin are almost interchangeable to me since neither of them was shown much at all throughout the season, despite lasting through the merge, which again goes to show how much of a non-factor both of them were. The only person on the tribe I would give any credit to was Jake, since he at least attempted to play strategically with the other alliance, and successfully lasted to the final 6 doing so. Even though Jake was the lone older member of his tribe, he seemed to have the most energy of any of them to put into the game, which was definitely not what expected from day one. I think one of the reasons people dislike this season to some extent is the harsh, but honest fact that one tribe really didn’t play the game of Survivor, which can be irritating as a viewer to see. I enjoyed the season immensely despite the lack of interesting moments from Sook Jai, but I think it needs to be noted that this season was entirely one sided from a game perspective. One tribe understood the game and played it; the other just laid down and died.
- The main reason why I really am quite enamored with Survivor: Thailand is because the winner, Brian Heidik, played a brilliantly controlled game from start to finish. Brian, a used car salesman from Califronia, came into the game with a business-like approach, saying in a confessional that he came to Thailand with one job to do, win the million. The one word that always came to mind as I watched him play, and calmly approach all game scenarios he faced along the way was ‘cerebral.’ Brian played with an unbelievable amount of care, especially when considering how careless many of the others on the island played. He carefully gained the trust of his teammates like Clay, Helen, and Ted through hard work, determination, and strength in the challenges, and he parlayed this trust into a tight five person alliance that proved to be completely impenetrable. It was fun to watch Brian play Survivor, sure he may have been fairly calculated and business-like in the way he approached others in the game, but he was a dominating force from Day 1 to Day 39, a feat not many players can ever accomplish. The only points in the game where Brian ever faltered were when he had the chances to let Ted and Helen know they were going to be voted out and he instead chose to lie right to their faces. It was a tough position he was put into with his allies when he had to pick who he would go to the end with, and he undoubtedly did both of them wrong by lying to them unnecessarily, but even those two were able to respect the way he played the game, inevitably helping him to a 4-3 win over Clay Jordan for the title of Sole Survivor. Unlike Marquesas before it, Thailand had a brilliant winning performance, and Brian’s play went a long way towards making the season enjoyable.
- While I feel like Brian was a much deserved winner of the title of Sole Survivor, it was not a very easy win for him in the end. For the first time in Survivor history, Thailand had an angry jury, something that we’ve seen every once in a while in Survivor history since, but hadn’t seen prior to Thailand to any real extent. For whatever reason, the group of jurors had bones to pick with Clay and Brian, and made them really work for their million dollar votes in a tense Final Tribal Council. Erin had one of the fairest questions of the groups, asking both of them why they felt like the other didn’t deserve the title of Sole Survivor. Both of them made their most obvious arguments, Brian saying that Clay didn’t try hard enough around camp, and Clay making the argument that Brian didn’t politic enough with the jury, instead choosing to let others do all of the social strategizing for their alliance. This was a very interesting argument from Clay, and one I didn’t really think about, because even though we didn’t get to see Brian socializing and strategizing outside his alliance on camera, we, the viewers, could have easily assumed it happened at points. If Brian was indeed as cold and calculating as it appeared he was, there was a chance that the jury would be less inclined to vote for him, solely based on personal experiences. Later on, Penny really stuck this point to Brian, outright quizzing him on personal details of others’ lives. Brian failed spectacularly when trying to discern the details of his fellow jurors’ personal lives, further solidifying the argument that he didn’t take the time to get to know others. Sure, social strategy is a very important aspect to the game of Survivor, but I found it really disappointing that the Sook Jai alliance held Brian’s distant behavior against him when he clearly outworked and outplayed Clay for the entirety of the game. It goes back to my theory that the Sook Jai players didn’t understand the true essence of the game of Survivor, and chose to play and reward a lackluster game, in mockery of what an amazing challenge Survivor is supposed to be, and has been for thirty years. The three votes for Clay, from Ken, Erin, and Penny, were personal, bitter votes from people who just didn’t respect the game enough to see what was right before their eyes, turning what should have been a great crowning of a champion into something of a sham. But, moving on from that topic before I get frustrated, the most interesting of the jury speeches came from the first two Chuay Gahn members voted out post merge, Ted and Helen, whose secret pecking order talk got them axed quickly at final five. Ted began by ripping into Brian for being the consummate used car salesman, selling his understanding, his friendship and loyalty even though none of them meant a thing in the end. Afterwards, Ted turned to Clay, and basically accused him of being a bigoted, racist, redneck. I found extremely bitter and unnecessary for Ted to throw accusations out there about Clay, especially when he was accused earlier in the game of being sexually forceful with another castaway. Ted’s game was almost destroyed when he was accused of being something he swore he wasn’t, and yet once he was out of the game, he turned around and did the same thing to Clay that Ghandia did to him. This was fairly disappointing to see from Ted, but in the end at least he decided to respect Brian’s game over Clay’s, making it clear that his vote was about who outperformed who. The big fireworks at Final Tribal Council came when Helen approached the final two, still very angry and upset about their recent betrayal. Helen called out Clay and Brian, telling them they weren’t man enough to be straight with her, calling out Clay for being a snake, and Brian for being a used car salesman with no guts. It was clear that she had no interest in hearing Clay out because she thought his game was classless from the get-go, but she really dug into Brian and forced him to explain his betrayal. Brian felt that her schemes with Ted were to get rid of him, something she denied vehemently, and he reiterated over and over again while she interrupted him that he felt betrayed and had to get rid of her before she stuck a knife in his back. The questioning was personal and vitriolic from Helen, and sort of lost focus at points, but Brian ended up standing really firm to his reasons for voting her out. I’m not certain anything he could have said would have made her feel ok, but Brian did apologize in the end, and I think that was probably just enough to gain her vote in the end. The jury was bitter and riled up, but ultimately I feel like they got the decision right. Brian provided for his tribe from day one, carried them through challenges, and played his alliances so successfully that he never received one single vote against him during the game. In my opinion, Brian put on one of the finer Survivor winning performances I’ve seen, and I’m glad he managed to get enough votes to be crowned sole Survivor.
Survivor: Thailand was a really fun installment of the Survivor series to watch, as it constantly twisted and turned, challenging the contestants in ways that seemed pretty cruel at times, and tested their mental fortitude to decide who was truly most equipped to last 39 days. From the mutiny offer Jeff made pre-merge, to the misleading false merger that did Shii-Ann in, this season of Survivor had all the kinds of drama that I’ve come to love from this show, and even if the cast wasn’t the best they ever found from 1 to 16, the show played out true to its potential, and for that I’m happy. Thailand was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be from what I read online from critics and show insiders like Jeff Probst, it’s definitely worth a watch for any pure fans of the series. Brian had a masterful performance on his way to being crowned the fifth Sole Survivor in the young history of the series, and I think most fans of the show would definitely be able to really appreciate the way he controlled the game, and dominated it physically, and strategically, even if his fellow castaways couldn’t all respect the game enough to see how brilliantly he played it. To wrap this up, I really enjoyed watching and reviewing Survivor: Thailand, it kept me entertained throughout, and had some really good characters and performances. This was just one of those seasons that you either get into or don’t, and luckily for me, I got into and was on the edge of my seat through the trials and turns, often being surprised by how the cast acted or voted as the game unwound. I really recommend viewing this season if you haven’t already, and even if you hate the cast like Jeff Probst did, you can at least stop watching at any point (but I don’t think you will, it really was great!)