Johnny Mac does not like Vanessa. Johnny Mac has not tried particularly hard to hide this fact from Vanessa. “You and I might be the biggest enemies in the house,” said Johnny Mac to Vanessa. He was not trying to attack her. He was trying to work with her.
“I’ve lost friend after friend after friend,” said Johnny. “I feel like everyone wants to keep Steve. I’m probably going home. I’m alone at this point.” Johnny Mac has been riding the block all summer. It’s no fun, life on the block. But it teaches you some important lessons. Gives you a sixth sense for things. Maybe Johnny Mac can smell when the votes aren’t going his way. Or maybe he’s a smart enough player to know when he’s out of other options. So he hit the red button: He reached out to his worst enemy and offered himself as a willing ally.
“You’ve never been my enemy,” said Vanessa. This is a hilarious line and a brilliant line. You will never catch Vanessa calling someone an enemy to his or her face. She will tell you, with withering disdain and passionate fury, how much you have disappointed her. Austin got that speech; so did Johnny Mac; and now Steve, on Wednesday’s episode. Vanessa will declare a blood feud, but she will also call off that blood feud, when she needs to. “I just think it’s so stupid,” she told Johnny Mac, “to keep going at each other. And to let everyone else in the house keep building their numbers, and meanwhile we’re dwindling down in the middle.”
Vanessa has an alliance with AUSTWIN. So did Johnny Mac, recently. Talking about “numbers” sounds crazy in that context. But Vanessa decided early on to play a lonely, paranoid game. If you’re the kind of person who watches Big Brother for the game theory, then Vanessa is your half-crazy kamikaze surrogate: She can think 10 steps ahead, and yet she can also self-destruct at the drop of a colorful hat.
“Sometimes, you gotta make a deal with the devil,” said Johnny Mac. “I have nowhere else to go.”
“I don’t want you to go,” said Vanessa. Her worst enemy was—for the moment—her close ally.
Vanessa could win this game. Vanessa should win this game, not that “should” really matters. Do you think she’s annoying? That’s fair. Do you think she’s a crybaby? Zingbot said so. Do you think she’s a selfish lying Judas goat, overflowing with undeserved feelings of self-righteous betrayal? A hypocrite? A loose cannon?
Of course you do. Her own housemates would agree. AUSTWIN almost booted her out, partially because she almost backdoored Austin, partially because one of the twins just got bored of her freakouts. The James-Meg Coalition of the Nice named her Public Enemy #1 weeks ago. Johnny Mac’s whole narrative this past fortnight has become The Plot Against Vanessa.
And yet, she endures. The twins started to steer Austin away from his plan to get Vanessa, because the twins don’t trust Johnny Mac. Vanessa Jedi-mind-tricked Austin, apologizing to him for her near-betrayal by way of reminding him that she was only betraying him because he let her down so badly. On Wednesday’s episode, Steve announced that his new plan was to rebuild his relationship with Vanessa. “I want to start being nice to her again,” he said.
Of course, by the end of the episode, Vanessa gave Steve the Michael-Fredo speech. (“I know what you did. You broke my heart.”) Of course, doing so was a totally bizarre move, which apparently accomplished nothing besides making Vanessa look crazy (again) and scotching whatever plan she had in mind for building a bridge across the AUSTWIN era. Unless: Was it all a mad plan? When Vanessa realized that she couldn’t safely use the veto on Johnny Mac, did she decide to throw a pebble rolling down the mountain toward Steve? Is this part of her plan? Does she have a plan? Or rather: How many plans does she have, and does she know the difference between them?
I don’t watch the Big Brother feeds. I can’t do it: I would spend three and a half months like the humans in Wall-E, laying Jabba-style in front of half a dozen live-feed surveillance screens. (Watching three hours of Big Brother on CBS per week is the methadone clinic for my Big Brother addiction.) But I have considered paying for the feeds this year, just because I want to spend an entire day studying Vanessa. She is a strategic puppetmaster until she is a petulant brat; she is a no-bull gameplay until she flies off the handle. (Figuring her out has clearly bedeviled the Big Brother editors: They’ve given her the Hero Edit, the Villain Edit, and the Wackadoo Edit, sometimes all in one week.)
The only fundamental read I have on Vanessa is this: She treats every conversation as an negotiation, if not an outright interrogation. The Platonic Ideal of a Vanessa Interaction is:
1. Player A tells Vanessa something Player B said about Vanessa.
2. Vanessa confronts Player B about this information immediately.
3. Player B tries white-lying to Vanessa, maybe saying something like “That’s so crazy” and “No way.”
4. Vanessa says, exact quote: “Oh, so you don’t know about it? That’s interesting.”
5. Vanessa stares at Player B.
6. Player B admits the truth, and Vanessa screams betrayal…
1. OR, Player B tells Vanessa something Player C said about Vanessa, and the cycle repeats.
This will make sense to maybe the 10 other people who watch both shows, but the joy of watching Vanessa this season is equivalent to the joy of watching Hannibal. Like Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter, Vanessa loves to think 10 steps ahead of her quarry; like Hannibal, Vanessa’s quarry is everyone. But also like Hannibal, Vanessa is very occasionally prone to shocking outbursts—not as violent, thankfully, but much louder. And like Hannibal, Vanessa’s whole life is constructed as a series of one-on-one psychological inquiries.
Like, for my money, the high point of this whole season so far came on Wednesday, when Vanessa heard about AUSTWIN’s plot against her from Johnny Mac. She went straight to one of the twins—doesn’t matter who—and told her what she knew. Liz lied, and lied, and lied, and then finally told some kind of half-truth.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
NEXT: Zingle and Ready to Swindle[pagebreak]
Choosing players for the Veto Competition went all according to plan, if we’re talking about the plan formulated by the mutated Finnish time-traveling cyborg hivemind that produces Big Brother. Johnny Mac picked Meg again, and Austin picked potential backdoor target Vanessa, and Steve picked Julia, chosen at last for something.
The electioneering had already started. Liz told Austin she was worried about playing all sides of the house. This seems to be the central problem for AUSTWIN this week—if you’re everyone’s friend, you will wind up making someone an enemy—but in truth, this is only really a problem for Austin, because his role as HoH gives the twins plausible deniability. Liz had some thoughts on Vanessa: “I think she’s out of the loop.” But she also had a clear plan for the week: “I want Johnny Mac to go home this week.”
Liz wants to keep Vanessa; she has always been on AUSTWIN’s side. “But but but, she almost evicted me!” squealed Austin. Liz said “That was a long time ago” out loud; in her head, she had to remind herself that Austin is a person, and not a recurring nightmare she has been having.
Cue Zingbot, a welcome presence anytime but especially in this very strange season. Zingbot’s gotten an upgrade, we learned—Zingbot 9000, now, FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER OR LES MOONVES WILL FORCE YOU TO WATCH TWO MINUTES OF EXTANT—and he’s apparently newly single. There was no mention of what happened to the Bride of Zingbot, nor did Zingbot seem too concerned about Baby Zingbot (presumably Toddler Zingbot now.) But Zingbot’s doing pretty well for himself with the whole Don-Draper-in-Season-4 bachelor life. He’s got a sweet pad; and, free from the crushing responsibilities of married life, his had the time to sharpen this memorable all-time jab:
“LIZ. I’m confused. Suddenly, you’re less attractive? Less intelligent? And less charming? Oh wait. That’s…just…JULIA. ZZZIIIIIIIING.”
AND NOW, A HELPFUL DEMONSTRATION OF THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “NOT HAVING IT” AND “HAVING IT”
For the most part, Zingbot was bringing his B-game this year. Steve likes his mom; Austin stinks; Meg is a nice person who is utterly terrible at playing Big Brother; Vanessa cries. Soft targets all. But then he circled back around to the twins for another classic:
“LIZ. You’ve become such an important part of Austin’s life. Are you more excited to meet his mom…his dad…or his GIRLFRIEND? ZIIIIIIIING. ZING ZING ZING ZING ZING.”
WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT?
“I knew he had a girlfriend,” said Liz. “How do I feel about it? It’s not my problem. I’m single.”
“The zing that Liz got about my ex could not have come at a worse time,” said Austin, who tried very hard to regain control of the situation. “Regain control” in this context means telling Liz a line about only dating her for 18 months, or something. “You stink,” said Liz. “And I am hooking up with a guy who has a girlfriend.”
The veto competition forced the contestants to help Zingbot understand the brave new world of internet dating. Using the Zinder app, Zingbot was getting matched up with horrifying, beautiful Frankenstein robots made out of other houseguests. Everyone totally Meg’d this competition, besides Vanessa, who took the veto—and, unbeknownst to her, ended whatever backdoor plan Austin might have had for her, eventually.
BRIEF PAUSE FOR A BRAINTEASER: Which twin is which?
Got your guess?
Have you closely examined the ratio of Having It-to-Not Having It?
Answer: I think Julia is on the left and Liz is on the right. But I don’t know for sure. No one can ever know for sure. The truth is a victim of uncertainty. But of course, in life, victims, aren’t we all?
NEXT: The Plot for Vanessa[pagebreak]
So we’re back to where we started: Vanessa, holding real power; Johnny Mac, at the end of his rope. Vanessa told John that she would make a play for him. She talked to Austin, suggested targeting Meg and James. Austin wasn’t interested; in the confessional, he said that Vanessa was being “selfish.” To Vanessa, he said, bluntly: “If you use the veto, I’m really f—ed.”
(If you want to understand the absolute waste of Austin’s Head of Household reign, you should pause on that moment for a second. A few days ago, Austin was the new Head of Household, allied to every corner of the house. He could have done anything. He thought about putting up the Great Nemesis of the House: Vanessa, the one player who everyone in the house would happily send home. And now here he was, post-veto, begging that one single person not to ruin his game.)
Vanessa apologized to Johnny Mac. On his kamikaze run now, John told her about last week’s Plot Against Vanessa: The five-person alliance to take her down. Don’t underestimate the importance of this revelation. Vanessa is a paranoiac, but she has always seemed to fundamentally trust AUSTWIN more than her other allies. (She was crucial to getting Julia into the game as her own player; she probably thinks that ties them together.)
Liz told her that it was all Steve’s plan. At this point, if Vanessa was playing an obviously smart game—if she was playing the same game she was playing earlier that same day, when she made a deal with longtime thorn-in-side Johnny Mac—she would have done anything besides what she did next. She got passive aggressive with Steve. She openly swore at him. She took him into the have-not room and demanded to know his role in the backdoor plan. No matter how much Steve swore to her that it wasn’t his plan, she refused to believe him. “I’d be breathing heavy, too, if I were you,” she said.
Steve was not prepared for this conversation, not even remotely. I’m a bit mixed on Steve at this point. He’s emerged out of six weeks of floating haze to become a real player. He’s a fan of Big Brother, and I think he tries to view this less as a game than as a meta-game: He tries to tease out the hidden resonance of every move made by other players. The problem is, he always seems to have the complete opposite read of what is actually happening in the meta-game. (Consider: While everyone else was declaring Vanessa the house supervillain, Steve considered her a close friend but thought vanilla-tough Becky was a Hellbeast.)
Steve didn’t bother trying to give a good veto speech. Johnny Mac entered a final nihilistic phase of his impossible existence. His speech ended with the immortal words: “Don’t use the power of veto on me.” Vanessa did not use the power of veto on anyone. Instead, she gave a remarkably weird speech, declaring that she had learned about a plot against her—indirectly calling out more than half the house—before descending into a score-settling declaration of arms against Steve the Liar.
Yesterday, I received an email from Sensei Skilby, who taught me everything I know about Big Brother. It was a group email, sent to a squad of obsessives. He asked us a hypothetical question, which requires a few variables, but which nevertheless illuminates the road ahead Big Brother 17. We know that, on Thursday, someone from Jury will come back into the house. This is an event that could be transformative or inessential: It’s entirely possible that Johnny Mac gets evicted, wins re-entry, doesn’t win HoH, and goes to jury again next Thursday.
But, hypothetically, let’s say one of the current jury members comes back into the house: Becky, Jackie, or Shelli. And imagine that they win Head of Household. The Skilby Question: Which houseguest (or houseguests) are they most likely to nominate?
Who would you target, if you were Shelli or Jackie or Becky? The obvious answer is Vanessa: She had a hand in all their fates, directly or indirectly or butterfly-flapping-its-wings-ly. But you have to remember: They have been in the jury house for long days now, nothing to do but bask in the sun and slurp red wine sangria and compares notes.
Quoth Skilby: “These three women are just sitting around all day by the pool talking about what they’d do if they came back into the Big Brother house, and they probably just said the phrase ‘We have to break up Austin and the Twins’ for the one thousandth time this morning.”
Austin and the twins. AUSTWIN. “The Austwins.” Whatever you want to call them. They loom small over the season thus far. They were the quietest members of the most powerful alliance—essentially just a strong voting bloc for the interests of Clay, Shelli, and Vanessa. There was never any true mobility in the plan to get them out when they were still playing as one person; and since they have both joined the house, they’ve either been in power or they’ve been secondary threats to the other side of the house.
And yet, here we are, approaching the final act of this season—and they are dominant. Liz and Julia have gotten this far with barely any blood on their hands. Neither of them, by themselves, seem like a top-level player. Liz comes closest. She’s got the statistical edge: A failed HoH during the Battle of the Block period; a Battle of the Block win, notable because her partner James was struggling to throw it; and a dominant HoH-plus-Veto round last week. If you’re feeling cynical, you could also credit her with a brilliantly devious showmance strategy. It’s hard to tell how much she actually likes Austin—let’s trust her and say its 93 percent, which is considerably less than his 200 percent—but it’s clear that she has built him into a handy meatshield, an attractive target who can pull the glare away from her and her implicit final-two deal with Julia.
AUSTWIN hasn’t won this game yet, but the numbers keep tipping in their direction.
This is Vanessa’s path to Victory.
I’ll grant you: Vanessa is in a strange place right now. On a pure social level, most of the house finds her variously annoying or outright hostile. This doesn’t instantly lead to eviction—note how the twins have changed their mind on her since last week—but it makes a compelling argument. (Austin made most of his key decisions this week purely because he didn’t want to act against the extremely likable James-Meg coalition.)
If Jackie comes back into the house, that could be bad news for Vanessa. Alongside James and Meg, Jackie was one of the first people to declare (quiet) hostility toward Vanessa. Along with AUSTWIN, that would make two three-person alliances gunning for Vanessa. That’s a tough road to hoe: It basically requires Vanessa to win every possible competition.
But that’s not the kind of player Vanessa is. At her best in this game, she’s the kind of player Steve wishes he could be: She plays the Big Brother meta-game. A player like Becky plays the competitions; a player like Vanessa plays players.
Which means that even if Jackie comes back into the house, Vanessa might be fine. The path to Victory for Vanessa isn’t too different from the path that got her here. She’s played a solo game: And now, thanks to the domination of the Twins, she can pitch herself as both an important swing vote and an obvious target, the kind of player you would want to work with because other players are targeting her.
But maybe that’s too elaborate. Maybe Vanessa needs to double down on this current track she’s on. Can she convince AUSTWIN that Steve is the bigger threat than Johnny Mac—that, in fact, Steve threw them under the bus, and he can’t be trusted? If Johnny Mac manages to stick around—if Vanessa can convince a resurrected Shelli to be on her side when AUSTWIN strikes, if Vanessa can convince Becky to initiate an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend alliance—then Vanessa will grow more powerful than ever. The path to Victory for Vanessa could be a lonely road. But Vanessa with a partner? A partner nobody expects—a partner nobody even thinks is her partner? That would make things easier for her.
And of course, if Vanessa had a partner, we would know—beyond a shadow of a doubt—which housemate she’s going to backstab last.