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.
“My alliance was really my family at home. There was never a day I wasn’t loyal to my family.” — Dawn Meehan, Survivor: Caramoan
The Survivor family visit is one of the most emotional moments of the season. You get to see weepy loved ones reuniting after hard weeks apart. You get to watch Jeff Probst try to decipher why humans feel love.
And perhaps most of all, the family visit spurs people out of their complacency and into the endgame. “I was out here and playing Survivor, and [thinking] ‘this is my home,” Kellyn says. “To see something that is actually home was just a huge shakeup.”
When the men go on reward, and Wendell heads to Ghost Island, the four women are left to take stock and plot a potential blindside against the power players.
“The whole happy Naviti family has come to an end,” says Kellyn, breaking with months of her Naviti-strong mantra.
But once again, the plan hinges on swing votes Laurel and Donathan. One of the season’s major storylines is whether the pair – and Laurel especially – will be willing to flip sides and make a move. And once again, they take the cautious route, sending Chelsea to the jury bench.
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Laurel & Donathan
I’ve been hemming and hawing myself about whether Laurel is making smart, cautious decisions or squandering her chance at victory. But now I’m willing to take a stand. This episode, by sticking with dominant players Wendell and Domenick, I believe that Laurel and Donathan missed their last, best shot at winning.
I’m going to just assume that, given how smart she is, Laurel has some endgame scenario where she sees a route to victory. But what that may be is not apparent to me.
Laurel knows that both Wendell and Domenick can beat her at the final tribal, so she has to vote them out in order to win. She also knows they both have idols , which are playable to the final five. Let’s assume you can safely predict they will both play their idols at the last minute (which is a very big assumption). Because the final four is fire-making – and therefore not a vote elimination – that means Laurel now has only two tribal councils to vote out both Wendell and Domenick. Add in the chance of an immunity win or an idol played early, and Laurel may have backed herself into a corner.
Of course, as Laurel notes, the danger of voting out Dom and Wendell is that then she’s stuck with Kellyn, Chelsea, and Angela. “On the one hand I have the guys, who I feel like I can trust, but I know I can’t beat,” she says. “And on the other hand, I have the ladies, who I feel like I could beat if I got to the end, but I don’t know if I can trust them to get me there.”
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Assuming she does vote out her allies, are Kellyn and Chelsea really going to take her to the end? Definitely not.
Now let me state right here that I was in exactly Laurel’s position in Survivor Cambodia, caught between people I trusted that I couldn’t beat, and people I could beat who I didn’t trust. I chose to make a game-destabilizing move to go for the win. And two weeks later I was voted out.
Still, I believe there’s a third choice. It’s easy to diagnose the perfect decision from this side of the TV screen. But I think the play here was to eliminate Wendell – along with his idol. Then next week, flip back with Dom and Sebastian and vote out Kellyn, encouraging Dom to burn his idol. Maybe even load up votes on Dom so that he has to. Bouncing between alliances is dangerous for most of the game, but at the end, when it’s big threat hunting season, it’s almost necessary.
Maybe this is my fan-fiction version of how things could play out. But Laurel and Donathan have to do something not only to make it to the end, but to justify a win.
The Laurel and Donathan alliance has been fascinating all season, because the two of them so perfectly embody the eternal Survivor question – do you make a move or do you wait? On the one hand, you have “go big or go home” Donathan. On the other, it’s “who can I really, really trust?” Laurel. It’s a classic writing technique – you script two characters, each of whom represents a distinct and opposing viewpoint, and then have them debate. The fact that these people exist in real life is another one of the miracles that makes Survivor such an incredible show.
While throughout the season, I’ve thought Laurel made the correct call with her caution, tonight I’m with Donathan. “My biggest regret will be not doing it when we had the chance,” he says. It is still possible that somehow one of these two ekes out a victory. But I’m guessing that, watching this moment play back, they’re both feeling that regret.
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Of course, you can’t just blame Laurel and Donathan for not trusting the Naviti women. Some of the blame has to fall on Kellyn and the Naviti women themselves.
“Laurel and Donathan are the hottest commodity at Lavita,” Kellyn says. “Now everyone needs their vote.”
But this is exactly the moment that Wendell and Domenick were counting on. The two guys have spent all season building a deep alliance with Laurel and Donathan. To be fair, Kellyn hasn’t exactly sidelined them. Whenever we have seen them interact, Kellyn has treated them with respect and consideration. But it’s been clear they’ve been out of the core alliance, so it’s no surprise that they balk when she needs them most.
So a Fishy this week to Domenick and Wendell both. The two guys have succeeded in building such a strong bond with Laurel and Donathan, and establishing such a strong relationship of trust, that the Malolo pair doesn’t risk fracturing that alliance, even when it seems overwhelmingly in their interest to do so.
They also correctly target Chelsea. While Kellyn may seem like the bigger threat to viewers, it’s smart to pick your enemies off in order of the likelihood they’ll win immunity.
Extra credit to Wendell, who read the room correctly at tribal council and didn’t use his idol. I also liked Wendell’s play of sacrificing his reward for an advantage on Ghost Island. You can only imagine how difficult it was to say goodbye not just to his father, but to the prospect of feasting.
But as Wendell says, “The end is in sight. We all know it. And that means, grab, scratch, claw at every single advantage you can ever find.”
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.