We’re winding down the offseason series Fan Friction, our series of essays where one of our columnists writes an ode to one of their favorite Survivor players while defending them against any potential naysayers (both real and imagined). Luckily, Sharculese got this one in under the wire.
Why He’s Elite
I thought about writing one of these for Sophie, but unfortunately I got snaked on it. But then I remembered that there are like ten of us who stan for Sophie, and only the one of me who stans for Todd Herzog. I don’t think I have to convince anyone here that Todd did impressive things, but discussion of his game tends to begin and end with his Final Tribal performance. I’m here to argue that Todd played one of the top five social games in the history of Survivor, and he started on day one.
I have a fascination with Survivors’ professional backgrounds and which skillsets actually correlate with game success. Of all the people from the Different Walks of Life who have been on the show, I have to say, flight attendant might rank near the top. Todd was getting paid to deal with people in uncomfortable, inconvenient situations long before he hit the beach swamp. When you’ve had your head chewed off by the lady in 28B because her 4th G&T didn’t have enough ice in it, gritting your teeth through Jean-Robert’s latest sexist anecdote probably feels a little easier.
The moment the game begins, Todd is working people, moving them where he needs them to be. He harnesses Jean-Robert. He pushes Aaron into a leadership role they both know he shouldn’t want. He makes a solid two with Amanda, but not so solid that anyone worries.
Todd is everyone’s friend, always.
I’m going to spin something that borders on fan fiction, but watch this scene and tell me there’s not some truth to what I’m saying. In episode 3, Fei Long finally go to tribal council. The obvious target is Leslie, the bubbly Christian radio host who just does not fit in with her snarky, cynical tribe. And then Leslie gets kidnapped by Zhan Hu and comes back gushing about how much nicer everyone is over there. So yeah, Leslie kind of has to go and it’s her fault.
As the votes come in for her, there’s one that always caught my eye but it took me my third viewing of China to notice it. One of the votes for Leslie is appended “mom.” The first two times I assumed it was someone, probably Jean-Robert, being a dick. The third time I noticed that right after that vote, Leslie looks over at Todd, grins and pats him on the knee. That grin says everything. Todd’s game has one rule – no relationship is beneath cultivating.
Todd’s gift for bond building doesn’t end at the borders of his tribe. Thanks to the kidnapping/shanghai twists, members of the other side are constantly rotating through camp, and he makes the most of this as well. It’s not for no reason that successive Zhan Hus see him as the person to give the idol clue. He greets Sherea with a smile and a “welcome to your new home”, turning a thorn in Zhan Hu’s side into someone who at least can be dealt with. Most impressively, when Frosti catches him and Amanda finding the idol, he doesn’t panic, he turns it into an opportunity to create an adjunct member of his alliance.
This is Todd’s game. It’s not flashy or exciting. There are no big moves. It plays out in the slow, boring moments between all the big things. And we probably missed most of it, because what for us is a ten minute montage between challenges is for the players the grinding monotony of day-to-day life, and it’s within the cracks of that monotony that Todd worked his magic.
Hater’s Gonna Make It All About that Final Tribal
He Gave Away an Idol to James
He did. That was stupid. I am not going to try to defend it.
He Only Won with Amanda’s Help
I’m going to loop back to the Amanda of it all because that was part of my inspiration for writing about Todd, but, for now, I’ll concede that she’s a better strategist than he is. My question is: how much does it really matter?
Fei Long came into the merge with an impenetrable core of five (I’m not counting Jean-Robert, who is a crazy person) plus Frosti. There was not a lot of strategy to execute beyond “which order do we Pagong these stragglers in?” People who don’t care much for China generally point to the lack of dynamism in the post-merge. I see their point, but there’s a reason it played out like that, and it’s because there was no reason for that core group to rock the boat. If anything, their biggest problems were when they got creative and ended up doing dumb things like voting out Frosti when they should have just appeased Courtney and gotten rid of Jean-Robert.
There’s one situation where I’ll allow that Todd really needed Amanda’s help: the James dilemma (which again, was his own fault.) Without her to finesse things, I’m not sure Todd successfully threads that needle. But it’s one vote.
It’s Really All About that Final Tribal Performance, Though
If I haven’t convinced you yet that this isn’t true, I’m not sure I can. But to dive a little deeper, to the extent that Todd won with his FTC performance, it’s due to the arcs that he and Amanda had been traveling all season.
Everything Todd is as a player, Amanda isn’t. Across three seasons, we’ve seen the same basic story play out. She makes strong connections with one or two players and is tightly linked to them, but has trouble making connections outside that core group. People not in her core see her as cold and aloof, even when they’re nominally her allies. The only outlier is Erik Reichenbach, and that can be chalked to the fact that he was the most susceptible of the Fans to falling for the fan/favorite status imbalance. (Also, he got to see her boobs that one time. That probably helped).
As amazing as Todd’s final performance is, it’s greased by the fact that he had the bonds ready to make people want to buy into it. Amanda did not. He was working a warm room. She was working a cold one.
You Know You Haven’t Said a Lot that Couldn’t be Said About Michele Fitzgerald, Right?
Yeah. I know. I’ve kind of come around on Michele as a winner. We’re not in the Big Moves Era of Survivor; we’re in the Bodhisattva Era. If you trace one through line between the last four winners – Jeremy, Michele, Adam, Sarah – it’s that to one degree or another they all operated within the Earl/Todd paradigm of being the presence everyone else finds most comforting.
I want to make clear that no part of this post is an attack on Amanda. She’s a very good, maybe great strategic and physical player. But there’s a trend I see sometimes on the internet where pointing out what Amanda did right bleeds into eliding what the people she lost to did more right. Parvati has enough defenders, so I’d rather talk about Todd.
Todd’s game is admittedly hard to pay attention to. It’s a quiet, subtle game in a season that a lot of people find boring. But the way he played embodies one of the fundamental principles of Survivor: you win the game by being the person everyone else is okay losing to. Todd made sure he was that person, and he started making sure of it way earlier than he’s given credit for.