Like many people, over the last two years the fruitful hobbies and hangouts of my regular life were sacrificed to a new pastime: consuming about a dozen seasons of Survivor in sporadic binges. I'm not yet a true connoisseur of the show, and given steady progress in epidemiology, I will not become one, but by now I'm familiar with its ins and outs. I know the overall sweep of the show's evolution, as it changed from a naive, physically punishing proto-reality show to the wised-up, metagame-heavy modern iteration. I know some amount of the new tricks they devised with idols and exile, I know a little about Edgic—the weirdly systematic technique by which fans analyze editing to divine the winner of the game—and I know and cherish the last word of "Chicken." And so I wound up following a season of Survivor, in real time, for the first time since the year 2000.
That's how I got to know a new favorite contestant: Ricard Foyé, a silver-haired, lip-reading legend who saw the stakes and strategy at every turn of this gimmicky season more lucidly than the rest of the players. The people making the show knew it too, and his last Tribal Council was edited like an elegy. With minutes left in Ricard's run, Jeff Probst, who makes a healthy living by saying uninteresting things in leafy places, made a slightly interesting claim: that Ricard was one of the greats to ever play. Is this true? I defer to the Survivor scholars of our commentariat on this question. But I did find his pre-merge play entrancing, as he and his co-conspirator Shan sliced their way through their struggling tribe, and Ricard, somehow, kept his hands clean of blood. Eventually he cast Shan aside—too early, some might argue, but with goodwill intact—and his mastery of puzzles and physical challenges steadied him through the mid-game.
That also caused him to peak slightly too early as a brazen threat, locking him into a win-or-die situation for the season's second-to-last immunity challenge, which came down to his specialty: a jigsaw, which he lost by a margin much slimmer than the advantage that eventual winner Erika had found in the trees. As he himself saw all too clearly, Ricard was a couple of pieces away from a guaranteed million. By the final episodes he had emerged as a deserving and gratifying winner, and yet by the logic of the game, that's why he wasn't going to pull it off. Too dangerous for the other contestants to keep around, greatness was punished once again, just as always is in our participation-trophy society—am I right, folks? Chalk it up to how the remaining character arcs were edited over the season, but once Ricard got the boot, the finale reduced to a question of who'd played the least-bad.
Survivor is a much deeper game than I'd realized, and in its present version it selects for a whole range of traits, but high among them is the ability to play people without their awareness that it's even happening, and without their resentment after the fact. (Because their jury votes are too precious to risk.) No one in the seasons I've watched has pulled off this particular high-wire act better than Ricard. All his relationships with other players seemed both unshakably sincere and completely instrumental. He's doing it again, I'd mutter to myself, as another unwitting player hunkered down on a log, only to be led to their eventual demise by his attentive smile and placid words of advice, but his trap was already set. High-level emotional manipulation is a horrifying skill to see someone wield in everyday life, but within the fake reality of this show, it's the stuff of greatness. R.I.P. to a real player, who will almost certainly be back.