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 former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.
“I know y’all wanna go to the merge with numbers, but if you go to the merge with numbers that aren’t on your side, it doesn’t matter.” – Colton Cumbie, Survivor: One World
Sometimes in life, it all comes down to cinnamon sticks.
The Survivor merge can jumpstart even the most sluggish season. While Heroes vs. Healers. vs Hustlers has been criticized for ho-hum gameplay and forgettable characters, this episode proved that the season has a deep roster of strategic operators who know the game well. Joe, Chrissy, Lauren, Devon, Jessica, Cole, Ben, Mike and Ryan (with cameos from Desi, Ashley and even JP) struggled to navigate the vote and each other. It was strategic chaos for 44 min. – or 1,320 Ryans.
Dr. Mike spoke for everybody when he expressed his surprise at the quality of the gameplay. “I imagined that I’m the only person playing this game. But it ends up that everybody’s playing the game,” he says. “That makes my life so much more difficult.”
The twelve players broke neatly into two sides. On both the Soko and Levu tribes, the Hustlers had teamed up with the Heroes. When the merge came, it made sense for a Hero/Hustler alliance to target the 5-strong Healers.
Opposing them, the Healers on the Yawa tribe had bonded with Hustler Lauren and Hero Ben. That created two key swing votes. But when Ben saw Cole thieving the tribe’s leftover cinnamon sticks, even the memories of an Outback Steakhouse ribeye couldn’t calm him.
The question became: could Ben look past Cole’s unstoppable snack thievery?
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Blowback from the Snack Attack
Ben had been seething for days about Cole’s irrepressible appetite. On Yawa, Cole bogarted the fish, and now at the merge, just as alliances were solidifying, he was dipping into the condiments.
Watching the show, it can seem so trivial. So what if Cole snarfs some spare spices? You’re playing a game for a million dollars! But when someone is eating shared food on Survivor, it’s not just rude. It directly hurts your gameplay, as it feeds their bodies and minds at the expense of your own.
Moreover, you have to develop a certain camaraderie in order to get through the whole grueling experience of Survivor. That’s especially true on a new player season, where you’re stepping into this grand adventure filled with wide-eyed wonder. When someone goes behind your back and eats your food, they’re betraying that shared experience.
Dr. Mike and Lauren tried to talk Ben down from his food-deprived fury. “Everything we’ve worked on the past nine days goes out the window if we vote him out,” Mike said.
Cole himself offered a mea culpa, pulling Ben aside for a heartfelt conversation where he admitted his behavior was inexcusable.
“I’ve gotta think tactically and not emotionally,” Ben reminded himself. Nevertheless, he decided to vote with the Hero/Hustler alliance – not even eliminating Cole, but taking out his best ally Jessica.
Beyond Food and Evil
The episode presented Ben’s decision as being largely food motivated, but it still has strategic merit. If Ben and Lauren simply cosign the Yawa/Healer alliance, they’re likely at the bottom of that seven. We’ve already seen that Joe doesn’t trust Ben. Conversely, there’s a lot more room for both of them to play in the Hero/Hustler group.
Moreover, the Healers pick Ben’s long-term ally Chrissy as their target. While Ben is choosing between two alliances, he’s also choosing between two people. Does he want to eliminate Chrissy, who immediately (and somewhat indiscreetly) came to him at the merge? Or would he rather vote out Jessica, who consistently spent her time on Yawa making googly eyes at that bandit Cole?
Voting out Jessica doesn’t suddenly terminate Ben and Lauren’s relationship with Dr. Mike. It may even strengthen it, as the Healer alliance loses its power.
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The Fishy this week goes to Chrissy and Devon. They seemed to be the key people pulling the different Heroes and Hustlers together. Chrissy was also first to suggest Jessica’s name.
Jessica going home is a perfect example of how haphazard a Survivor decision can be. The tribe can spin for hours on whether to vote Cole or Joe, Cole or Joe. Joe’s got the idol – but does Cole have the idol? Could Joe play the idol for Cole? Then 15 minutes before tribal council, someone says the name Jessica, and the tribe settles on her simply because they’re tired of talking and it’s new.
(In Cambodia, I tried to use that to my advantage, waiting until my alliance had chased its tail for a couple hours before joining the conversation and proposing my target.)
Yes, there’s strategy behind voting for Jessica. She’s a core Healer and she’s a smart game player. She’s unlikely to have an idol, and it’s unlikely that someone will play an idol for her, because she’s a counterintuitive target.
But Lauren uttered one of my favorite quotes in the history of the show that explains the vote as much as anything. “There’s just so much to try to figure out in your head and make a great decision. It’s very hard.”
As sleep and food-deprived contestants struggle to make the right decision, the Survivor wheel of fate spins in circles. It can stop on anybody. This episode it stopped on Jessica.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.