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.
“We need to be subversive, we need to implement counterintelligence, we need to move with a purpose … and we need to do it now!” —Debbie Wanner, Survivor: Kaoh Rong
It’s a tale almost as old as Survivor itself. Two alliances face off against each other – with one person caught in the middle. If she stays with her current group, she risks floating to the end and getting no votes. If she flips to the other side, her old alliance could be furious.
What can you possibly do?
For swing vote Sarah Lacina, it’s a choice that has to be giving her Survivor flashbacks. Just six seasons ago in Survivor: Cagayan, Sarah was in the same spot, also at the final eleven.
She was the swing vote between Tony’s group and Tasha’s group. Sarah flipped on the Tony alliance, but demanded that Tasha’s group vote her way. Ultimately, her demands (she called herself the “President”) peeved off Chaos Kass – who herself flipped and voted Sarah out in one of the wildest tribals in the show’s history.
Which once again proves the ancient adage, you never want to peeve off Chaos Kass.
Sarah may be in the same position, but she’s playing a radically different game. She’s still as observant as ever: in Cagayan, she sniffed out that Tony was a cop; this time, she spies a hidden advantage clue across the ocean. But she’s much more diplomatic and humble.
Every person in the game seems to be her ally. “Me and Sarah are really close,” says Sierra. Zeke says he wants to make moves with her. Andrea wants to be her ally. Indeed, Sarah is even able to bridge the Andrea/Zeke rift.
What makes her so likable? Maybe it’s partly that she’s just a good person. When Sarah dives into the water to help Cirie, it seems to be a moment of genuine human kindness, divorced from the game.
What’s also interesting is the way that Sarah interacts with her tribe mates. We often see her stating her emotions in simple, declarative sentences.
“For me to not even be mad, that’s how proud I am of you,” she says to Cirie after the reward. “That really pisses me off,” Sarah tells Aubry about Debbie’s lies.
I’m not sure if those simple, declarative sentences are a deliberate strategy or just the way she processes the world. Either way, it works. In a game where everyone is lying to you, you naturally connect with someone who seems forthright and honest.
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Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Sarah asks a lot of questions and listens. And while Sierra or Cirie or Andrea spin out their plans, Sarah takes in the information and gives out very little.
Sarah is even able to convince her allies that it’s okay for her to play both sides. “Don’t you think that being with the enemy could be a good thing?” she asks Andrea, who wholeheartedly agrees.
Sarah’s decision to jump alliances is a risky one. Flippers are often the next people voted out, and Sarah risks earning the eternal animosity of her former tribe. But in a season that’s been filled with swaps, I don’t think the alliances are as monolithic as we might believe. I bet there’s a lot of mini-alliances and micro-relationships in the cracks. Sarah could tell her former allies that she had to vote out Debbie; after all, Debbie was spreading misinformation about her.
Survivor superfan Rob Cesternino often says that returning players play like the winner of their original season. Nobody played both sides like Tony Vlachos in Cagayan. I think Sarah has a good shot next week of following in his footsteps.
All that being said, it’s still a risky move for Sarah. I have to give the Fishy this week to the people who convinced her to flip: Cirie and Aubry.
Cirie lays the groundwork in the hammock with Sarah. She plants the seed in Sarah’s brain that she can’t win against her current alliance. “They’re going to say they carried you,” Cirie says about Sierra and Culpepper.
Aubry seals the deal when she tells Sarah that Debbe is lying about her.
“I hate liars,” says Sarah.
“She’s a grade-A liar,” responds Aubry.
You get the sense that Aubry would say anything that Sarah wanted to hear in that moment. If Sarah had said she hated chocolate, Aubry would say, “Yes, yes, and Debbie is made entirely from chocolate!”
“We have your back. I swear to you,” Aubry says.
That is how you flip someone to your side. You make them feel like they’re going to lose in their present position. You make them feel like they can’t trust their allies. And then you support their decision and tell them that they’re safe.
Sarah’s playing a strong game. But ultimately, this move benefits Cirie and Aubry almost more than anybody else (other than Andrea, of course). For that, they win the week’s Fishies.
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.