Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“I’ll do whatever I have to do to get what I want.” —Caleb Reynolds, Survivor: Kaoh Rong
Fish you, Brad Culpepper!
A Fishy for Culpepper? Who would have imagined it? This chilled-out, strategic guy – who loves antiquing! – is not at all the Culpepper I remember from Blood vs. Water. That Culpepper was practically bursting out of his own skin with pent up energy.
Culpepper 2.0 seems like he brought Xanax in his med kit. This new version is a low-key strategic player, who’s taking a backseat in tribe politics and using his relationships to subtly influence his allies.
Culpepper realizes that the best way to drive strategy is to be the central spoke around which everybody else revolves. “I’m trying to bring in Tai and Debbie closer to me than everybody else,” he says. That’s smart strategy. If you’re everybody’s primary ally, you can direct the flow of the game.
To that end, he wants to eliminate Caleb, who has a deep pre-existing bond with Tai. Perhaps Culpepper also has a simmering vendetta against people named Caleb, after having been betrayed by Caleb Bankston in Blood vs. Water.
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But Culpepper wants to correct more than his previous trust of Calebs. He’s changing his whole game.
In Blood vs. Water, he said, “It’s just natural for me to lead.”
This time out, Brad says, “I don’t want to be the chief. I would like Tai to make the decision.”
In the move of the episode, Brad incepts Tai into turning on Caleb. (I’m quoting the entire conversation because it’s so instructive in how to handle any strategic conversation.)
Tai: Hali’s going home.
Culpepper: Okay. (Pause) What if it came down to Hali or Caleb?
Tai: Don’t we need Caleb for challenges?
Culpepper: I guess. I think so. (Pause) Here’s the problem with Caleb. You going to the merge with Caleb around is going to hurt your game.
As Tai argues in favor of Caleb, Brad agrees with everything Tai says. He never even gets into the discussion of Hali or Caleb. He agrees to Tai’s points, and then completely reframes the argument. In fact, he suggests that if it were just up to him, he’d prefer to keep Caleb around for challenge strength. But he’s just looking out for his buddy, Tai!
Brad acts like he’ll do whatever Tai wants, and then convinces him to do exactly what Brad wants. That’s the mark of top-notch play.
Everyone on the Mana tribe deserves credit for realizing the danger of Tai and Caleb’s bond. And Tai’s over-eager defense of Caleb should trigger alarm bells.
As Debbie says, “past relationships absolutely matter, and you’re a fool to discount them.” It’s no coincidence that the final five in Cambodia all came from just two seasons (and sequential seasons at that). It’s reassuring to see these returning players learn from our mistakes.
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Eliminating Caleb may have been the big move of the night. But my favorite moments of the episode all happened on the Nuku tribe, as JT scrambled to find a footing.
I’m not sure which was more heartbreaking – the cries of that baby goat, or seeing JT surrounded by hostile forces after the swap. “I feel like the Survivor gods really let me down,” he says.
JT knows that there’s not that much that can save him outside of an idol. In an inspired bit of camp life lunacy, he takes the entire tribe out on a fishing trip, and ditches them to go idol hunting. I wonder how long the rest of the group sat there, bobbing in the middle of the ocean, marveling at his chutzpah.
It doesn’t really matter that they know what he’s up to. Of course everyone knows JT is looking for the idol. But getting an hour or two to search without anybody tailing him gives JT a huge head start in the hunt. Plus, as long as the tribe suspects he may have an idol, JT can sow fear in the rest of the group.
Meanwhile, on the Tavua tribe, Troyzan finds his idol clue. While the rest of the tribe is off talking about how important it is to keep their eyes on Troyzan, nobody is actually keeping their eyes on Troyzan. His challenge grab was another fantastic moment in an episode filled with them.
Goats, idols, a tribe lost at sea, and strategic mastermind Brad Culpepper. What else will this wild season bring us?
Tell us: Who is your pick to win? And would you have eaten the goats or set them free?
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesday (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.