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Survivor Alum Hai Giang on What Season 44's First Boot Could Have Done Differently

He also weighs in on the powerful new advantages, the pressure to make big moves, and how much we're living for Carolyn.
  • Hai Giang, Maddy Pomilla, Brandon Cottom on Survivor (photo: CBS)
    Hai Giang, Maddy Pomilla, Brandon Cottom on Survivor (photo: CBS)

    Survivor's 44th season premiered on Wednesday night with a two-hour episode that was barely able to contain all the new advantages — many of which were then deployed at the very first Tribal Council of the season. Brooklyn twentysomething Maddy Pomilla was the first player to have their torch snuffed this season, in a Tribal Council where only one vote was ultimately tallied. What, if anything, could she have done to change her fate?

    To answer that question and a few others about the Season 44 premiere, we reached out to Season 42's Hai Giang. His strategy-forward game positioned him as a huge favorite, until he became too big of a target and was eliminated in 8th place. He certainly has experience on both sides of the Big Moves era of Survivor, which has players looking to make bold, often risky strategic decisions earlier and earlier in the game.

    The Season 44 premiere certainly seemed to lean in the direction of Big Moves as it administered a trio of advantages, including one immunity idol, one Inheritance Advantage (allowing a player to collect all the advantages played at the Tribal Council of their choice), and one Bank Your Vote advantage (which Lauren deployed immediately, sacrificing her vote this week for an extra vote to use later on).

    In addition to big advantages and big moves, there were also some big characters introduced, like 35-year-old Minnesotan Carolyn Wiger, who kicked off the season being prodded by production to put her Survivor feelings into words (she couldn't) and who spent the rest of the episode showing off her wild-eyed, uninhibited personality.

    In other words, there were plenty of things for Giang to weigh in on when we got him on the phone Thursday morning.

    I do want to start off talking about Maddy, because I felt terrible for how that turned out. With everything that went on at Tribal — three people giving up their votes, an idol getting played — I'm not sure what Maddy could have done differently to avoid what happened.

    I'm not sure what Maddy could have done either, and I will liken it to the Jenny vote-off [in Season 42]. Seeing last night's tribal and the outcome was the first time I understood why fans were so upset at the Jenny vote-off, because it was one of those circumstances where the person who got voted off couldn't have done anything else to protect themselves in that circumstance.

    [Maddy] was actually on the right side of the votes, but because one of her alliance members played their Shot in the Dark, it triggered an entire chain of events where the opposing alliance was suspicious and sniffed out the play, and the person holding the idol, who was also the target was able to say “Um, okay, I'm actually going to protect myself because of everyone else's reaction.” And as a result Maddy went home. And it wasn't a poor play on her part to target Brandon, I don't think, but the issue was her alliance members were a little bit unreliable, and as a result she was the collateral and got voted off.

    Watching Jamie react to making the plan [to vote off Brandon] as she did, I almost would have advocated getting rid of Jaime for being too flaky to work with.

    I think part of the game that people have to consider is not just how you play but how do your alliance members play? Because if you do align with someone who is more erratic and neurotic, it could have implications on your game if you keep them around long enough. And unfortunately for Maddy, I think choosing her alliance members incorrectly was part of her downfall.

    A good move by Brandon, though, to catch on to Jaime's word choice at Tribal [Jamie said she was playing her Shot in the Dark because she felt her side had a sufficient numbers surplus]. That's keeping your head about you at Tribal. When you're at Tribal Council, do you have to listen to things as minute as word choice and tone to make sure that things are going the way you think they're going to?

    Reading subtext at Tribal Council is a key part of the game, and I don't think everyone is able to do that effectively. But yes, reading through people's answers to try to understand whether or not they are telling the truth, or whether or not they are just playing up to the camera is really a great skill that certain players have. And if Brandon was able to read through people's answers to identify the fact that he was probably the target, kudos to him because that actually is a display of him being more astute than I would think I would have given him credit for, just based on first impressions.

    One of the things I wrote about in my recap about last night's episode was Kane's quote, "I came here to play the game," which we hear from a ton of people, obviously. This seems like the mantra of latter-day Survivor, where you have to make your "big moves" almost immediately. And Kane made his move, he voted with Maddy, and now he's kind of the odd man out going back to camp after that vote. What kind of pressure do you feel , especially in the newer, shorter seasons, to make big moves and play the game hard rather than take a more conservative approach?

    I think the pressure to make big moves out there is definitely a season-by-season thing, in terms of the culture of the cast. I would say for my season, there was immense pressure to stand out pretty much immediately and to claim credit and to build your resume from the very beginning. We understood that that's what you had to do in order to be perceived as worthy. However, you saw an overcorrection of that in [Season] 43, where nobody wanted to stand out and have any attention on them, because that is also potentially your downfall if you are being perceived too much. So I think there is a lot of pressure to make big moves and to build a resume in a shorter season, but smarter players are able to wait a little bit before they strike, especially against a player like Brandon who is very physical. So I think, unfortunately for Kane, he probably did make the right move with the information that he had. t was just the circumstance of his alliance falling apart at Tribal that did not help him.

    I wanted to ask you about the the two advantages that were introduced last night: the Inheritance Advantage, which Sarah earned, which allows you to collect all the advantages played a single Tribal; and the Bank Your Vote advantage that Lauren earned, where you cannot vote at Tribal, and you instead pocket that extra vote for later. What are your thoughts on these, and which would you rather have?

    I think the Bank Your Vote advantage is not that powerful; it's a watered-down version of the extra vote. As we've seen in the new era, it's never a good idea to skip a vote or to lose your vote, because that's the only thing that you have in this game. As for the Inheritance Advantage, I think this is a very overpowered advantage. I'm really curious to see how Sarah uses it later on in the game, but the ramifications are huge. If she is able to collect every advantage played at a single Tribal Council, and it's at a TC where someone plays an idol in combination with some other advantage — let's say Knowledge Is Power — then she is all of a sudden the most powerfully equipped player in the game.

    So, I think it's a very overpowered advantage, but I'm really curious to see if she is able to play it correctly. One thing I will say about this new era is that there is an overabundance of advantages, but none of the contestants know how to play them correctly, because all of it is brand new to us. We're all so nervous about making the right move that a lot of the times we make the wrong move.

    We talked briefly about being impressed by Brandon. Was there anybody else in this premiere episode who you were impressed by, in some way or another?

    I was impressed by a few people. I was actually really impressed by Max B on [Soka tribe]. I thought he showed a lot of astuteness, especially when it came to the summit and him being able to identify that losing his vote was pretty detrimental to this game. But I think he recovered pretty nicely with this tribe by being honest with them. His strategy of showing them the "hey, you lost your vote" scroll was a great way to validate him telling the truth, even though it was half the truth. I also was really impressed by his performance at the immunity challenge as the puzzle caller. So I think it was a really great night for Matt overall, especially for his social game in making a connection immediately with Franny. That, to me, was a highlight and a key relationship that was shown in the episode.

    And then on [Tika], I was very impressed with both Carson and Helen and their ability to solve that "Savvy or Sweat?" puzzle. I thought that was a great night for them, too. The one person I will say that showed a lot of social intelligence was Carson. I think he identified pretty quickly his strength as someone who would be perceived as intelligent, he was able to say I'm actually going to not highlight those parts. Until it came to the puzzle that he had to solve to win something for his team; I don't think he necessarily had a choice there. He showed me a lot of astuteness and decision-making ability by identifying his strengths and saying "this is something that I'm going to hide." So I'm really excited to see where Carson goes this season.

    One last question, because I just have to know, what did you make of Carolyn, and how would you have reacted to having Carolyn on your tribe?

    This is where I need to rewatch the episode outside of a bar setting. But I had such a fun time watching Carolyn, and every time she was on screen, everyone in the bar that I was with enjoyed watching her so much. Everyone was smiling, because you can tell she is having such a good time. I think the best part of Survivor is seeing people enjoying themselves and having a positive experience, because as fans of the show we like to imagine ourselves out there in a positive manner. With Carolyn, it's just such fun energy, and seeing her being so authentically herself immediately was really refreshing. I need more Carolyn!

    It definitely seems like she's going to be the capital "C" Character of this season, for sure.

    Which is impressive, right because like this entire cast is already standing out for their personalities. So for Carolyn to be the personality of the season is really amazing.

    Survivor airs Wednesday nights at 8:00 PM ET on CBS. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Survivor, Hai Giang, Jeff Probst