Sandra’s win in Pearl Islands is one of the least
impressive in the show’s history. That sounds like a hot take, but by every measure it comes up lacking; she made almost no strategic decisions and most of the ones she did make were bad, socially isolated herself from everyone except Rupert and Christa, and while it’s not very important to me, her physical game was abysmal.
Sandra has a strong instinct for certain aspects of the game, and in future seasons will get much better, but her first showing simply does not stand up to any extended analysis or scrutiny. The Pre-Merge
Her pre-merge game is a bit of a mixed bag.
Starting with the strengths, her first day is probably her best of the whole game. She gets lucky being the only Spanish speaker in Panama, which makes bartering infinitely easier for Drake; but beyond her language skills she does a great job showcasing how good she can be with people. Christa specifically takes a shining to Sandra because of how respectful she is of the locals when bartering (especially in comparison to the members of Morgan, who were basically just harassing the venders), which is the start of Sandra’s tightest alliance. Even Fairplay is impressed with her.
But she fails to capitalize on the goodwill the bartering earns her. According to both Fairplay2
*, she barely spoke with anyone in the first 3 days and would have been voted off first if Drake had to go to Tribal Council. Considering Sandra is clearly a liability in challenges, it is a huge blunder for her not to actively seek alliances and relationships as soon as she hits the beach.
In the next 3 days, she did a good job course-correcting and aligning herself strongly with Rupert and Christa. That group also had Trish and Fairplay as tertiary members, giving them a solid majority heading into the first Drake vote-off. (Take this next bit of information with a huge grain of salt, because I couldn’t quite confirm many of the details, but there is potential that Sandra agreeing to throw that challenge was a huge mistake. Fairplay has mentioned that he believes Production included the twist of Morgan stealing Rupert because they thought he would have been voted off3
. On first glance, this sounds conspiratorial, but Rupert himself said on Survivor Oz4
that he believes this to be true, and that Production wanted to save him. So, it seems as if there was a pretty decent chance Fairplay and Trish would have sided with Burton’s alliance at this vote, if not for Rupert being stolen.)
Sandra’s only strategic decision of the pre-merge is voting off Trish, which is probably her best move of the whole season (which is pretty damning of things to come…). The way the dynamics were set up, Sandra/Rupert/Christa was a tight alliance and JFP/Trish were a tight pair. JFP and Trish wanted to use Shawn, who was on the outside, as a vote and then turn Sandra to their side and vote Rupert off 4-2. If Sandra had agreed to this, it would’ve been a huge mistake; JFP and Trish were very tight, and Shawn hated Sandra, so she would’ve been the outsider. Instead of agreeing to this, Sandra immediately told Christa and Rupert; the three of them were able to swing Shawn against JFP/Trish, and send Trish home. Long-term, I think it would have been smarter for that trio to have voted JFP off instead of Trish, but I don’t fault Sandra for that too much because it was Trish who approached her with the idea, and at this point nobody knew how much of a cutthroat schemer Fairplay was. (And while I do think this was a strong play by Sandra, it is indicative of her game that her best/only strategic play is to uphold the status quo. That was the right thing to do in this instance, but down the road she will make similar plays that are disastrous for her, which makes me question if she made this move because she thought it through, or out of some loyalty to Rupert/Christa.)
An over-looked aspect of her early game this season is her many social blunders (which is the aspect of her game people try to hold up as evidence of greatness). I already mentioned her not reaching out in the first several days; and once she connected with Rupert and Christa, she did nothing to sway anyone else. JFP and Trish were only loosely connected to that trio early on, which made it very easy for them to flip and target Rupert; and once Sandra/Rupert/Christa voted Trish out they isolated JFP, leaving them with little options since Shawn was already on the outs. They had the majority on a 5-person tribe, but were headed for rough times at the merge, laying the groundwork for Rupert’s eventual blindside.
And Sandra did a poor job connecting with the Morgan’s in the one chance she had to do so. It was always going to be an uphill battle, since she was sent to their camp to “plunder” (worth noting that Trish was able to plunder in a way that made the Morgans respect her), but she did herself no favors in destroying their shelter. JFP has said Drake specifically sent Sandra to Morgan because they knew she wouldn’t be able to make social connections over there5
, which was absolutely true; as I’ll get into more later, Sandra got extremely
lucky to sit next to Lil, who was the only person the Morgans collectively disliked more than Sandra. Andrew Savage was barely on a tribe with her, and experienced her avoiding work at camp and blowing up on people7
I try to stress this in all of my posts, because so many people often overlook this, but every single
Survivor winner had to get lucky to win. But Sandra had to get so extremely lucky, above and beyond the normal turns of fate, for these mistakes not to come back and bite her later. Which leads me to her first windfall of luck… The Outcasts
Every aspect of this unprecedented twist worked for Sandra in every single way.
If not for this twist, the tribes would have merged with even numbers, 5-5. The five Morgans - Savage, Ryan O, Darrah, Tijuana, Osten - were tight and had no incentive to flip. The five Drakes – Sandra, Rupert, Christa, JFP, Shawn – were the opposite. Shawn would have absolutely flipped, giving the Morgans the majority. (The edit makes this pretty clear, as well as the fact that there was an unaired mutiny offer3,6
that Burton, Michelle, and Shawn almost took – and this was before they had been screwed over.) As far as Sandra knew heading into the merge, her pre-merge game should have stymied any chance she had going forward. But the Outcasts twist delayed the merge by (effectively) two votes, giving Drake renewed life in the game.
Then Sandra got incredibly lucky again when Burton and Lil were both sent back to their original tribes. Because he’s a pompous ass, Savage couldn’t even pretend that Morgan wanted to work with Lil, which left her feeling extremely isolated, especially since she never liked them much to begin with. Burton was the opposite of Lil, coming into the game willing to work with anyone he could, and getting sent back to Drake left him little choice; he confirmed on Survivor Oz1
that he would have worked with the Morgans if he had been sent there instead, and would have persuaded Lil to come with him, again leaving Drake in the minority.
Only because of the Outcasts did Drake end up with the majority at the merge, sending Savage home. And even then, with all the luck in the world, Sandra almost throws the game away… The Rupert Blindside
“Swimming with Sharks” is in contention for the worst ever episode by a Survivor winner (Chris’ vote-off and Jenna wanting to quit are the only ones I think are worse). In every possible way, Sandra screws up so, so badly.
Her first in a long series of mistakes is being too tight with Rupert and Christa. Almost every player left in the game is annoyed at how tight the three of them are, with the clear understanding that they plan on going to Final 3 together. In an 8-person tribe, this is reckless behavior. Especially considering Sandra should have known their alliance with Burton, Lil, and JFP was on thin ice.
Her second mistake is relying too much on Rupert. I think the phrase “riding coattails” is thrown around too liberally, especially to dismiss female players, but in this instance, it is absolutely true. Heading into the merge, Rupert viewed himself as the leader of Drake – assuming loyalty from JFP and Burton – and took it as his responsibility to flip Lil to their side. While I’m sure he played some role in getting her vote, Burton had by far the closest relationship with Lil and that’s where her loyalties were. Because Rupert is Rupert and can’t imagine anyone else being better than him, he completely missed this and assumed Lil was loyal to him first. And Sandra, disinterested in making moves herself, laid back and trusted Rupert’s judgement.
Her third mistake is neglecting social bonds with Morgan. Because the trio of Sandra/Rupert/Christa felt so confident in Drake going strong to Final 5, Sandra didn’t even bother reaching out to Darrah or Tijuana. This left them as free agents who knew they would go home next, making it very easy for JFP and Burton to get their votes. This error is more evidence that Sandra was riding Rupert’s coattails, not even trying to do alliance-building of her own. I think this mistake is pretty glaring on its own, but it’s even more unbelievable to me when you factor in that Drake had voted Burton out
; assuming she had complete loyalty from a player she had already betrayed is the epitome of overconfidence. It somehow gets even worse when you add Fairplay into the equation – another player Sandra had blindsided before the merge, who had no reason to trust her. Burton or JFP alone should have been worrying to Sandra, but the two of them as a pair was a red flag she never should have missed.
With everything I’ve laid out above, Sandra being blindsided by Rupert’s vote-off is already bad enough. But this is not even a round where Burton and JFP were playing particularly close to the vest; they gave plenty of overt signals they were going to flip. At the Reward challenge, Burton and Lil won; instead of going, Burton gave it to Fairplay. This alone should have been a clear signal to Sandra/Rupert/Christa that JFP and Burton had teamed up and were planning something; especially because Burton had agreed to give Reward to Rupert – him not following through on that commitment is a major red flag. Burton giving Fairplay his Reward also meant that Fairplay got to spend the whole day with Lil, fortifying their alliance even further. To add insult to injury here, Burton intentionally knocks Rupert out of the Immunity Challenge, if it wasn’t already clear enough where his loyalties lied.
All of this behavior from Burton was enough to make Rupert suspicious. In confessional, he lays out that he thinks JFP and Burton could be flipping, but in that case, he would still have Lil, Sandra, and Christa, which would be a 4-4 tie. I think it’s a huge blind spot that Rupert doesn’t consider the possibility of Lil flipping, but at least he’s smart enough to realize JFP and Burton are jumping ship (he should’ve seriously considered why
those two would jump ship without a majority, but…). I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Rupert had mentioned these concerns to Christa and Sandra, if he’s mentioning them in confessional; especially because Sandra mentions in a confessional that JFP and Lil could be talking about flipping while they’re on Reward.
And that’s what makes Sandra’s vote so utterly baffling. Heading into a vote that has a high likelihood of being 4-4, and that’s being optimistic
, everyone should be solid in their vote and prepared to go to rocks. Instead, Sandra decides that this would be a great time to throw her vote away on Fairplay, making the final vote 5-2-1. Even if Rupert had been right to trust Lil, Sandra would have ruined their games (4-3-1) in the name of being petty.
Of course, Rupert was wrong to trust Lil, and Sandra’s vote ends up not mattering because they were going to lose anyway. But Sandra was still completely blindsided by Rupert going home, and makes it very clear in the next episode that she expected Lil, Fairplay, and Burton to vote with her, Rupert, and Christa. I can’t stress enough how completely out of touch
she had to be at this point, to have such blind faith in JFP and Burton that she would throw her vote away – on Fairplay no less! (Showing they were not getting along, meaning there was visible cracks in that alliance, making it completely insane that she trusted him so much.) And even if we pretend for a moment that JFP, Burton, and Lil didn’t flip this vote; that would leave Sandra/Rupert/Christa as a minority in a tribe of 7, and I doubt JFP would be interested in staying loyal after Sandra cast a vote for him. If that vote didn’t come back to bite her here, it would’ve screwed her the next time. Her actions here are a perfect microcosm of how she played her first two seasons – personal grudges deciding votes that she later pretends was strategy.
Everything about the way Sandra plays this round shows she doesn’t understand the current dynamic of the game, and it doesn’t get any better from here. Sabotage
Sandra does not take Rupert’s blindside well, to say the least.
Instead of trying to do some damage control, her first instinct is to curse out JFP and then throw the tribe’s fish away. It’s hard to overstate how much of a social blunder this is; throwing out all the food in a temper tantrum (her reasoning was that they shouldn’t get to eat the food Rupert caught) is bad enough to end someone’s game. Lucky for Sandra, that person ended up being Christa, who took the blame. I think it’s probably evidence that Sandra was in better social standing with the tribe that they blamed Christa instead – from exit interviews it sounds like Christa treated the Morgans badly which made them predisposed to assume her guilt – but that does not change the fact that Sandra was lucky no one saw her take the fish. In her defense, JFP has said he would not have changed his vote3
and would have pushed to keep everyone else’s vote on Christa because she was the bigger challenge threat; so, this mistake may not have gotten her voted out if everyone knew. But it definitely made it easier for Sandra to convince Lil at Final 5 and Final 3 that she was a better person than Burton/JFP.
It doesn’t get talked about nearly as much, but I think Sandra’s second round of sabotage is more of an indictment on her game than the fish. After Christa is voted out at Final 6, Sandra is sure she’s going home next, and decides to start hiding stuff just to piss people off before she goes. The only reason she doesn’t follow through with this is because Lil starts endlessly complaining about Burton and Fairplay while they’re gone on Reward. This may not sound too bad on the surface, but if you really think about the implications, it’s pretty bad. Sandra was basically laying down to die, and planned on making everyone as angry as possible while she did it. Most people try to spin Lil flipping on Burton/Fairplay as a “move” Sandra made but in reality she had given up, and only took advantage of the situation when Lil practically dumped the opportunity in her lap. The Endgame
Sandra’s endgame, much like her early game, is a mixed bag. She makes two more bad votes before rebounding in the last 3 days.
As much as the Rupert vote was a blunder for Sandra, her voting off Tijuana is somehow almost as bad. Once Rupert was gone, there was three separate factions: Lil/Burton/JFP, Darrah/Tijuana, and Sandra/Christa. Darrah and Tijuana had voted with Lil/Burton/JFP, but didn’t have any firm loyalties and were easy to flip – which would put Sandra and Christa back in the majority. Sandra realizes this at the start of the episode, and finally goes to work building a relationship with Tijuana; she takes her to spy on Burton and Fairplay, who are discussing their Final 3 plans. Tijuana overhearing their plans to take Lil to the end is enough to make her and Darrah flip to Sandra and Christa, who plan on voting out Burton. In isolation, that sounds like some really impressive social maneuvering on Sandra’s part; and if she had followed through with it, it would’ve been. Instead, Sandra and Christa sell out their new allies and vote with Burton and JFP to send Tijuana home. I think this is one of the worst moves a winner has ever made, and I’ll lay out why…
Like I said above, there was three different factions and two different potential outcomes – either Burton or Tijuana was going home (Darrah had immunity). For Sandra, there was a ton of pros to voting Burton out. Darrah and Tijuana had been reliable so far – they hadn’t turned on their tribe and didn’t lie about their votes for Rupert – compared to Burton and JFP, who had blindsided them on the last vote. Tijuana and Darrah were also followers, not leaders; it was JFP and Burton’s idea to flip on Rupert, and Sandra had to give them definitive proof of treachery for them to want Burton out. Compared to the endless schemes of Fairplay and Burton, Tijuana and Darrah were the much safer alliance partners. Further, Tijuana and Darrah were a pair, whereas Fairplay and Burton were in a trio with Lil; if Sandra and Christa went to Final 4 with Tijuana/Darrah, they’d have a 50/50 chance of making it to F2. But going with JFP and Burton basically gives them no chance, because they would be in a 3/2 minority at the F5.
The only explanation for why Sandra sides with JFP and Burton at this vote is that she got outplayed. Anticipating Tijuana and Darrah to flip, JFP and Burton immediately pitched to Sandra and Christa a F4 agreement to secure their loyalty. They had no intention of following through – always having planned on taking Lil to the Final 3 – but they managed to pull the wool over Sandra’s eyes. It’s really unbelievable to me that Sandra was still
willing to let her game rest in JFP and Burton’s hands. She had voted against both of them before the merge, and they had just voted Rupert out, and yet she believed their F4 offer.
The consequences of Sandra’s poor choice are pretty immediate. When they get back to camp after voting Tijuana out, Sandra can tell something is wrong; in her view, Burton should be grateful because her vote saved him, but that’s not how he views it. She was banking on some feeling of personal responsibility from Burton, not realizing she had handed him all the power and he had no reason to follow through on his end.
Once it’s clear JFP and Burton are targeting Christa, Sandra tries to get Darrah on their side to make it a 3-3 tie; the problem with this, of course, is that she just hung Darrah out to dry on the last vote.
As I already mentioned, Sandra had given up after Christa’s vote-off, and didn’t do anything to save herself until Lil went out of her way to signal she was going to flip. Some people may think this is an overly harsh interpretation, but I think it’s pretty clear just from the edit; even more proof comes from JFP. According to him, and this is backed up by what we see in the edit, the original plan was to vote Sandra off at F5, but right before Burton and JFP left for their Reward, they changed the plan to voting off Darrah3
. This last-minute switch without explanation made Lil mad because Darrah was her favorite person left1
. That’s why Lil started complaining about Burton/JFP to Sandra and Darrah, who then realized they had a golden opportunity.
This is the point where Sandra’s endgame starts to get better. Once she realizes there’s a chance Lil could flip, she does a great job of convincing her to commit. Then when Burton and JFP get back and notice Lil is acting strange, they try to get Sandra to flip to their side; instead of falling for it like she did on the Tijuana vote, Sandra holds her ground. Voting Burton off swung the power closer to her direction.
After that, the Darrah vote goes by on auto-pilot. Though it is worth mentioning that it was kind of a weird setup, with the jury winning immunity. The F4 challenges in prior seasons had been sprawling obstacle courses, which Darrah would’ve been the odds-on favorite to win; and if she did win, Sandra would have gone home. Not entirely relevant, but another bit of luck that went her way.
It is definitely to Sandra’s credit that Lil takes her to the Final 2. Lil knew she wasn’t going to win3
, and felt Sandra was a better person and deserved the money more than JFP did. This is consistently one of Sandra’s strengths as a player; even though she plays with the morals of a mercenary, people tend to view her as a fundamentally good person. I think this is part of why she’s done so well in front of the jury. The Jury
Much like Jenna’s blowout win the season before, I don’t think Sandra’s decisive victory speaks to the quality of her game; it speaks to how much everyone absolutely hated
Ryan O. has said the jury was absolutely brutal6
; JFP goes into more detail, saying everyone took turns trying to make Lil cry as much as possible5.
Even though Fairplay had no respect for Sandra, he actively campaigned for her the whole last day at Ponderosa, just because he hated Lil so much3
Understanding how much everyone hated Lil is essential to understanding how Sandra won, because almost no one on the jury has any respect for her as a player. Andrew Savage (not on the jury, but close friends with many who were) said he has no respect for her game7
, Ryan O. said she’s the most undeserving winner in Survivor history6
, Burton said she was an undeserving winner who rode Rupert’s coattails1
, Fairplay said her and Lil are the two most useless players in Survivor history5
, and Darrah didn’t respect her game either8
, though she used less vivid language. In their interviews, Ryan O. and Savage both make sure to state that they’re good friends with Sandra outside the game, so their feelings about her Survivor skills don’t reflect some personal distaste6,7
Only Christa and Rupert voted for her out of some sense that she had played a good game. While Christa has not done any interviews, I think it’s worth interrogating the reasons Rupert lists for voting for Sandra. He says she always knew what was going on and kept him informed4
; this is partly true, because she informed him of Trish’s plan to flip, but Rupert’s own vote-off proves how uninformed she was, because she threw a vote at JFP even though it could have cost them the game. I think it’s abundantly clear that Rupert just likes Sandra and that’s why he votes for her – which is a perfectly valid
reason to cast a jury vote. I don’t particularly care what metrics jurors use to decide their votes; I only bring it up because Sandra is supposedly one of the greatest players of all time, yet no one who played with her can give a reason why that’s true.
Tijuana is the lone vote for Lil, and while it sounds like they had a lot of disagreements throughout the season9
, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Tijuana didn’t vote for Sandra after Sandra’s disastrous Final 7 play.
Overall, Sandra’s gameplay this season is thoroughly unimpressive. While her pre-merge was fairly good, she made key mistakes in neglecting bonds with Shawn, JFP, and Trish that left her in a numbers-bind heading to the merge, if not for the last-minute bailout of the Outcasts twist. After Drake got the majority, she played poorly from the top; leading to two of the worst votes ever cast by a winner (Final 7 & 8). Those poor choices backed her into a corner, losing her closest ally at Final 6; at which point she decided to give up, until Lil handed her an opportunity on a silver platter.
Between the episodes and exit interviews, there is more than enough evidence to prove Sandra did not have any grand plan; she made several bad reads, and by sheer luck managed to survive until Final 3, at which point her impressive social skills carried her through.
And not to spoil things to come, but I don’t think she played much better in Heroes vs. Villains…
- Burton on Survivor Oz
- Fairplay on Survivor Oz
- If you buy a shirt from NSFW, JFP gives you a call. He was kind enough to let me interview him for a couple hours.
- Rupert on Survivor Oz
- Survivor NSFW Pearl Islands Watch-along (patrons only)
- Ryan Opray on Survivor Oz
- Andrew Savage on Survivor Oz
- Darrah on Survivor Oz
- Tijuana on Survivor Oz
*A note on sources because I got a couple questions on my DvG post. Obviously, the Survivor Edit is limited at best and intentionally misleading at worst, so that doesn't give a full understanding. Exit Interviews are also influenced by bias and whatnot, so you can't take them at face value either. For me to include information that was not made explicitly clear by the edit, I have to be 100% confident; that means I cross-reference it with several different sources on the list. If I can't get it confirmed by multiples citations, I'll either leave it out or say "X claims...", to differentiate it from my more concrete sources. To write these posts, I listen to every available piece of content - every single player on a season, every single interview they've done related to the season. The only people who know more about these seasons than me are the people who competed on them; and even then, I think I may have a couple beat ;)
JFP is a good example to illustrate how I double check sources. He's made it clear plenty of times he does not respect Sandra's game; so going into interviews with him, I'll assume he's biased against her. Any claim he makes, I'm extra careful to get sources backing it up. Surprising to some, he was right every time. I was shocked when Rupert himself felt something suspicious went down when Drake threw the challenge. But I still included that info with a bunch of disclaimers, because I can't verify it.