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Stephen Fishbach’s Survivor Blog: Rules Are Rules

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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.

Erik Reichenbach is a comic artist, illustrator and former Survivor Fan Favorite. See more of his artwork and commissions on Tumblr.com and follow him on Twitter!

“It’s a little hard to be living with people for 32 days and have these relationships and what you think is trust, and then find out they’ve been lying to you the entire time!” —Andrea Boehlke, Redemption Island and Caramoan

“You need to pull the bunny out of the hat. You can’t just walk in with the bunny.” —Michaela Bradshaw, Millennials vs. Gen X

English teachers, this one’s for you. The Fishy this week goes to close reading skills.

Never has a Survivor episode turned so fundamentally on the minutiae of the game’s rulebook. Rarely has a vote been quite so convoluted. In trying to save Sarah using Sarah’s own advantage, Cirie eliminates her ally and likely dooms herself.

Let this be a lesson: always read the fine print.

So how did this happen? The problem started, as it often does, with the whole concept of #BigMoves. Tai and Aubry are sitting on the beach, chatting about all the #BigMoves they need to make to win the game. Tai says that targeting Sarah would be a #BigMove. Aubry then decides that her #BigMove might be to eliminate Tai. So Aubry tells Cirie that Tai is out to get Sarah.

That’s confusing enough – and that’s just the beginning.

Cirie correctly believes Aubry (although based on how the votes came down, it’s not clear that Tai was actually going to put his plan into action). Sarah, meanwhile, thinks Aubry is trying to stir up trouble and says that she is so certain of Tai’s loyalty that she hands Cirie her vote steal advantage.

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Handing Off the Advantage
Sarah’s decision to give Cirie the advantage seems like a pretty clear parallel to what Sierra did last week. What if Cirie did the EXACT SAME THING that Sarah did – and plotted to vote her out in order to have the advantage for herself? The move is exceedingly dangerous.

That said, the difference between good play and bad play is being able to make the same move, but have it work. Survivor hinges on reading the motivations of your allies. Are they with you or are they against you? Sierra’s move was bad because she misread her alliance with Sarah. Sarah, on the other hand, correctly read that Cirie was on her side.

So what does handing her the advantage actually accomplish? There are very few ways to prove trust on Survivor. You can vote together. You can share information about an idol or an advantage. Sarah goes one step further – she actually hands the advantage over to Cirie…all while never really being in danger of losing it herself.

Erik Reichenbach

Cirie’s Mistake
The major wrinkle in the episode comes when Cirie decides to use Sarah’s vote steal … in order to save Sarah. Cirie tells Michaela that she’s trying to save Sarah from herself. But I bet Cirie is also setting up her jury argument. It looks like Cirie’s ideal final 3 was Michaela and Sarah. Michaela already gets on everybody’s nerves, but Officer Sarah has a compelling argument to make. If Cirie can publicly show herself saving Sarah, using Sarah’s own advantage, then she neuters Sarah’s final tribal chances.

But I think this move is too clever by half. Even in a best case scenario, where Cirie is allowed to use the advantage, there’s a very real chance that Sarah gets angry at Tribal Council and tries to flip the vote around. Furthermore, in order to stop Tai from playing an idol, Cirie tells Tai that he’s in danger, but that she’s saving him. If I were Tai and I knew that people were targeting me and my entire game were dependent on Cirie’s use of the advantage, that might actually induce me to play my idol. Furthermore, it’s not even clear that Tai was going to target Sarah. There’s a high chance for Cirie’s plan to backfire entirely, for her to waste the advantage, lose Sarah and anger Tai.

Of course, what actually happens is a worst-case scenario for Cirie. Sarah notes that the advantage can’t be transferred, takes it back and votes out Cirie’s ally Michaela. Sarah – understandably, but incorrectly – thinks that Cirie has turned on her. And the cursed advantage – the DISadvantage – takes another victim.

Sarah, of course, gets a Fishy herself. She used the rules of the game against one of the game’s greatest players.

FROM PEN: Former Survivor Contestants Share Their Favorite Rewards From Their Time as Castaways

For Whom the Boehlke Tolls (Part 3)
Andrea’s vote-off seems almost like an afterthought in the episode, though because it came first, I guess it’s a forethought. Andrea’s been a target almost every week and is such a combination of physical and strategic threat that she had to be eliminated.

Andrea went home at about the same point in both her previous seasons. She was fifth place in Redemption Island and seventh in Caramoan, both times making it deep into the merge but coming up just shy of the end game. I think her consistent placing speaks to some of her fundamental qualities. She’s physical and strategic, able to build alliances and win immunities, but she just hasn’t been able to completely integrate into that core group that makes it all the way to the end.

I bet if Andrea plays six more times, she’ll find herself in a similar spot, though maybe on Survivor 114: Where Have Our Lives Gone? a 68-year-old Grandma Andrea will leverage a lifetime of Survivor wisdom to finally eke out that victory.

That said, I was so impressed with Andrea this episode. She’s come such a long way from that 21-year old kid who was weeping at the end of Redemption Island about how her friends betrayed her. This episode, she noticed all the tell-tale signs that suggested something was amiss. She couldn’t get over Sarah’s look to Sierra, and she thought it was odd that nobody from the opposition alliance was scrambling.

“You start to feel uneasy. Why are these people not trying harder?” she said.

Ultimately, you can notice every funny detail in the world, but if your alliance has turned on you and you don’t have an idol, there’s simply nothing you can do.

With this elimination, Andrea edges out Ozzy by two votes for most votes against her in the course of her career. (Hat tip to Jeff Pitman for the stats) She also becomes one of only two contestants to be voted out four or more times from the game. (Ozzy’s been eliminated five).

However, if Cirie Fields doesn’t make it into the final tribal – and after the insanity of this episode, it looks like she might not – the woman who betrayed Andrea will join her in that particular statistical honor.

Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.