30 from 30: #10 – The Purple Rock

The Moment:

A brilliant new tie-breaker is unveiled, and it goes terribly wrong.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.


Why It Matters:

In the earliest days of Survivor, tie-breakers were fairly simple affairs. Let’s say there are six of us on a tribe: me, you, Andy, Emma, Mark, and Matt. Now obviously me, you, and Matt are tight. We team! And because we can no longer tolerate him, we’re going to vote out Andy. But Andy, Emma, and Mark have decided to vote me out because I’m a handsome, athletic, personable jury threat. And this being the earliest days of Survivor, there are no immunity idols for me to play to take out Andy.

Probst reads the votes. It’s a 3-3 tie. So what happens? We’re voting again, only this time Andy and I aren’t voting. Well, of course you and Matt are loyal and desperately want the $100,000 that comes with finishing second place to me. But Emma and Mark are equally loyal to Andy, because they want a goat to drag to the end. So it’s another tie, this time 2-2.

The old-school tie-breaker had two levels: previous votes against and, if there was still a tie after that, a trivia contest. On the surface, this seems pretty fair; if you’ve been targeted by fewer players, you get to stick around. But what you’d quickly discover, as Survivor did, is that this rewards under-the-radar gameplay. If you’re trying to make an entertaining TV show, you do not want to encourage people to be boring lumps of inoffensive, pleasant, but ultimately bland-ass vanilla.

Not until season 29, at least.
Not until season 29, at least.

Let’s go back to our hypothetical vote, where Andy and I are tied, 2-2. In the very first tribal of our hypothetical season, we all voted out Ralph unanimously. But since Ralph couldn’t vote for himself, he gave me a throwaway vote.

Ralph cannot spell Stephanie
Or at least he tried his best to do so. Spelling is not his forte.

Suddenly, a vote from a completely inconsequential player has come back to haunt me. Now do you see why this particularly tie-breaker is completely insane? No reasonable Survivor viewer would possibly be ok with me going home before Andy. Just think of how devastated Probst would be! We’d have to bro-hug on my way out.

The producers of Survivor understood this, so after Africa they revised the tie-breaker and came up with something that was incredibly simple, utterly brilliant, and the perfect name for a podcast: the purple rock.

It didn’t take long for the show to deploy that tie-breaker. The final four of Marquesas– Kathy, Neleh, Paschal, and Kathy- resulted in a deadlocked tie between Neleh and Kathy, with Vecepia immune. Suddenly, Probst walks out with a bag. In that bag are three rocks: two yellow and one purple. Draw the purple rock, and you’re out of the game. (“But wait,” you’re saying, “why aren’t they building fires?” Don’t worry, we’ll get to that.)

Everyone reaches into the bag- except Vecepia, protected by her immunity- and Paschal jokingly says that his rock feels purple.

Paschal Kathy Neleh purple rock draw Marquesas
It also feels like irony, in the Alanis Morissette sense

Everyone opens their hands, and the purple rock is indeed in Paschal’s hand. Paschal leaves that tribal council, 37 days into the game, without a single vote against him.

The Impact:

Before getting to the impact, let’s clarify one thing here: the purple rock draw should have never happened in Marquesas. In a final four, fire-making is the tie-breaker, as we saw in Cook IslandsPalau, and Worlds Apart. Survivor was so excited to implement their clever new tie-breaker that they did it at the wrong time. If you only have four people, the two receiving votes (in this case, Neleh and Kathy) and the immunity holder (Vecepia) would be immune from the rock draw, so drawing rocks would make no sense.

Still, the introduction of the purple rock turned ties into a terrifying affair. Who wants to be eliminated from the game just for being loyal to an ally that got votes at tribal council? Well, we can determine the answer to that based on the 26 seasons since Marquesas. And the answer is: pretty much no one. And that is the beauty of the purple rock.

Even the possibility of drawing rocks is enough to scare people into breaking from a solid alliance. In Palau, two factions formed at the final six. When Ian approached Katie about switching sides, she refused. But Ian and Tom were doomed if they didn’t win that vote, so they decided that they were willing to take the risk of drawing rocks rather than willingly concede an advantage in numbers to the other side. Katie, realizing that the threat was very real and not wanting to leave her game up to chance, changed her mind and voted with Ian, Tom, and Caryn.

Ian Palau beach weird facial hair
Even Ian’s fascinatingly odd facial hair couldn’t convince Katie.

Years later, in the absolute shitshow that was South Pacific, the two tribes went into the merge with even numbers. Cochran, Dawn, some asshole, two forgettable people (who were maybe dating or something?), and all-time douchebag Ozzy were a solid six, and they were so loyal to each other that they were willing to draw rocks to prove it. Except that they weren’t.

As it turns out, when you constantly belittle someone and treat him like an outcast, that may not inspire loyalty. Here’s how bad the pre-merge situation had been for Cochran: he looked over at a tribe with Coach and Brandon Hantz and said, “Yes! That’s where I want to be!” and it actually made sense. Cochran flipped rather than risking a rock draw.

Cochran Coach weird South Pacific tai chi
And then this happened.

Finally, twenty-three seasons after it first appeared (and in the same season that the best Survivor podcast ever began), the rock draw made a return appearance in Blood vs. Water. After missing the opportunity to flip the game one vote earlier, Ciera quickly realized that she was not a part of Tyson’s final three alliance. She aligned with Hayden and Katie, knowing that if they didn’t force a rock draw they were all doomed. But Tyson, not the type to be timid, was ready and willing to leave his fate to chance.

Blood vs Water- final 6 about to draw rocks
Tyson did try to avoid drawing rocks by staring daggers into the side of Ciera’s face, though.

Katie ended up drawing the purple rock that was somehow not purple (inexplicably, Blood vs Water used white and black rocks), and Ciera’s last-ditch effort failed. And Tyson, just a few seasons removed from essentially voting himself out of the game, won a season of Survivor.

On the podcast, we have often said that you need luck to win Survivor. The rock draw is perhaps the most concrete example of luck in action. Only random chance separates us from a world where Katie Collins is a trash-talking Survivor winner and Tyson is a hilarious sideshow that could never win. And that’s what makes the purple rock tie-breaker so great- to do it, you have to acknowledge that you’d rather be lucky than good.

What Else Made the List?

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