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Stephen Fishbach's Survivor Blog: Threat Level Midnight

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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!

“There were just no pawns here. Everyone was the master of the chessboard, and they were all playing a different game.” —Courtney Yates, Heroes vs. Villains

Was this one of the best Survivor episodes of all time? In a double-stuffed Thanksgiving episode, David and Zeke team up to blindside their erstwhile ally Chris, then immediately turn on each other in a strategic showdown. With trust clusters like these, who needs enemies?

Monty Brinton/CBS via Getty; Inset: Getty

Dave the Giant Slayer

For the past few weeks, a massive alliance of Gen X-ers and Misfit Millennials knocked out tri-forcers Michelle and Taylor. But an alliance of nine is bigger than most tribes, so it’s no surprise it fell prey to in-fighting. Chris decided to settle old Gen X business by turning on Jessica. But David – after some tear-streaked introspection – realized that most fundamental fairy tale rule: to prove yourself, you must slay the Giant.

Voting out Chris is clearly a good move for David; Chris was targeting his allies and the two never had an easy relationship. But I’m not sure how smart it was for swing vote Zeke. Zeke and Chris had a solid alliance, and with two weeks still to go in the game, you need to keep your allies close, not send them to the jury bench. By eliminating Chris, now Zeke becomes the island’s scariest Sooner, an obvious target because of his many connections.

I often think about Survivor in terms of managing your “threat level.” You want to be able to make big moves in the game without becoming the most threatening player. By voting out Chris, Zeke’s threat level spikes.

Erik Reichenbach
Erik Reichenbach

Clash of the Chess Masters

The flip side of that is that Zeke gains a direct connection with Bret and Sunday by cutting out the middle man. Like Jeremy in Cambodia, Zeke has relationships with everybody.

Zeke’s superpower is his skill is at finding ways to bond with people. He had a nerd-liance with Hannah and Adam; he connected with Chris over their Oklahoma pride; he bonded with David because they’re superfans; now he and Bret are connecting because they’re gay. Zeke is a master at burrowing into someone’s core and saying, “Hey, I’m just like you.”

David is the opposite. Where Zeke is all things to all people, David is completely himself. He’s like the literal embodiment of human anxiety, which naturally puts people at ease because they don’t feel threatened. Like Cochran, David is good at making people trust him by making them feel safe; he brings out his allies’ inner geek and embraces it. It’s like the big triumphant finale in Revenge of the Nerds, where the entire campus stands up and declares that they, too, are nerds.

Both David and Zeke know the importance of information. “Everything in Survivor is about relationships,” Zeke says. “There’s no better way to build trust with an ally than revealing the location of a hidden immunity idol.” Zeke parcels out information about Jay’s and David’s idols to build trust with his allies and create paranoia about his enemies.

Meanwhile, when Hannah asks David about his idol, David immediately says the idol is for the two of them alone. By sharing the idol with Hannah, David deepens their relationship – inspiring Hannah to stick with David over Zeke.

I loved David and Zeke as a pair, but it was also so fun to watch their alliance spiral into antagonism through a series of missteps. David mistakenly told Bret that he thought Zeke was a threat. Zeke mistakenly made the exact same mistake when he told Hannah that David was a threat. Both players were forced into targeting each other sooner than either would have liked, and both quickly pulled in favors to marshal their troops.

For Those About to Rock

While it was fun to watch David and Zeke square off, it was a mistake for their allies to go to rocks this early in the game.

I used to think that being willing to go to rocks was the true test of a Survivor alliance. If you weren’t willing to put everything on the line, you deserved to be picked off and pagonged.

But over the past few seasons, the game has changed. Where strong alliances used to eliminate their enemies one by one, now voting blocs form, dissolve and reform from week to week. Does anybody really believe that Zeke, Will, Bret, Sunday and Jay will hang tough to the finale? I’d be surprised if they’re all voting together next week.

Given that mutability, the risk of going to rocks may no longer make sense. Jessica didn’t just get unlucky doing the right thing. She and Bret and Will and Sunday and all the vulnerable players should have switched their votes.

Microfishies

Both the big players this episode, David and Zeke, messed up enough that I just don’t feel right giving them Fishies. So I’m giving out some mini fishies for smaller, but nevertheless great moves and moments.

Jay’s decision to hold his idol at the first tribal council was nothing short of inspired. He knew he was a likely target, but he was so skilled at reading the room that he realized nobody was voting for him. It’s easy to misread signals in the heightened paranoia of tribal council, with your entire game on the line. But as Jay notes, if people aren’t talking about you, you’re likely not the real target.

A Fishy for the conversation between Bret and Zeke where they discuss their different perspectives as LGBT people from two different generations. If this were a scripted series, that discussion alone would justify an Emmy nod and a write-up in the New Yorker.

And Sunday gets a Fishy for her little trick at the second tribal council. Sunday audibly tells Will to “stick to the plan,” and when Hannah asks what the plan is, she says “Ken.”

The little misdirection didn’t have any real game impact. David was going to play the idol for himself, but instead played it for Ken. Neither of them was the actual target. But it was a reminder that the best players play at a level above the actual game itself, constantly aware of the information they’re relaying with every word or gesture, and how their opponents are interpreting that information.

“Tribal council is theater,” Zeke says, winkingly, which made me wonder if Sunday’s remarks had been planned in advance. So many of this season’s players are masters of Survivor stagecraft.

Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.