Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesday (8 p.m. ET) on CBS
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.
“I want as many variables in my control as possible.” —Malcolm Freberg, Survivor: Philippines and Survivor: Caramoan
Is your head spinning too?
Talk about game changing. A huge twist led to one of the wildest tribal councils in Survivor history.
For the first time ever, two tribes went to the same tribal. The six strong Nuku outnumbered the five on Mana. But the big question on everybody’s lips was: would J.T. flip to his old ally Brad?
Tribal Council started with J.T. and Brad feeling each other out.
“People are expecting me to do something to completely put myself at risk, when it would be a shot in the dark for me to land in the right place,” says J.T., hinting to Culpepper that he needs some direction.
“You got Malcolm and you got a two-time winner over there,” hints back Culpepper.
But Culpepper wasn’t being clear, and it looked like a relatively tense tribal council would lead to a predictable boot.
That was when J.T. stood up and walked across the room.
Speedos to a Wedding
Nobody has ever stood up and left their seat to confer with an ally at Tribal Council before.
Tribal Council has always had a strange decorum. Maybe it’s simply the presence of Jeff Probst. You sit on your stool, exchange winks with your allies, and vote the way you planned.
But when J.T. stood up, it was like showing up to a black-tie wedding wearing speedos and a Viking hat. If Probst were wearing a monocle, it would have popped off.
Over the last few years, we’ve see more and more last-minute whispering and frantic strategizing at tribal. But nobody has ever actually left their seat. If future contestants follow J.T.’s lead, this may change the way Tribal Council is played.
Of course, what happened next was a catastrophe for J.T.
J.T. told the Mana tribe that Sierra was their target, and they should vote out Sandra. But when the Mana tribe played its idol for Sierra, they voted out Malcolm instead. And so J.T. lost his best ally, and we the viewers lost one of the most compelling characters in the game.
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Why J.T.’s Move Was Actually Not a Bad Idea
If you’re looking for J.T. bashing, you’ve come to the wrong blog. Yes, I’m biased. But I also think J.T. made a bold, interesting play that just had disastrous results. And you should never analyze the value of a move by its results.
J.T. was in a terrible position going into tribal. He had swapped down in numbers, five to one. He had one close ally, Malcolm, but that’s still 4-2 – and is Malcolm really going to vote against his entire alliance? With Sandra controlling the rest of the tribe, J.T. is a sitting duck if Nuku goes to tribal.
Then J.T. is given a tremendous opportunity: a dual tribal council, with many of his old allies. J.T. has a chance to use his old friends against his current enemy. By voting out Queen Sandra, J.T. can destabilize his current tribe. Suddenly, that 5-1 could be 3-2, maybe even in J.T.’s favor.
J.T. knew that, this week at least, nobody was targeting him. He had room to maneuver. Why not make a big play?
He tells Culpepper and the Mana tribe that the votes are coming to Sierra, but they should vote Sandra. If Mana doesn’t have an idol, then Sierra goes home, and J.T. has voted with his tribe against the opposing tribe. But if they do have an idol, they can save Sierra and send home his biggest enemy.
The problem is that things went as badly as they possibly could. They had the idol, and while J.T. trusted Culpepper to vote out Sandra, they voted out his best ally instead.
Why NOT Sandra?
If I were J.T., I’d think voting out Sandra is Culpepper’s best move. Why wouldn’t Culpepper target the queen? He’d be saving his ally on the other tribe, and eliminating a huge threat.
Voting out Malcolm this early is a bad move for Culpepper. Remember Jeremy and his meat shields? Malcolm is a big, fat, giant target at the merge, whereas Sandra is a specialist at slipping through the cracks. Furthermore, the last two votes have been Tony and Caleb, two other muscley men. By sending Malcolm home now, Culpepper moves himself one step closer to the chopping block.
Sure, Malcolm is a beast at challenges, and maybe Culpepper wants to weaken the mighty Nuku tribe. But Culpepper shouldn’t mind losing. Hali is basically in open rebellion against Mana. Why not take her out now, before she can cause more problems later?
The Russell in the Room
Of course, we can’t discuss tonight’s play without talking about J.T.’s last big-play-gone-wrong, when he handed his immunity idol to Russell Hantz in Heroes vs. Villains.
That time, too, J.T. was making a big move that he thought could change the course of the game, but it blew up in his face.
As a friend of mine put it, “He trusted that good ol’ boy from the South once again.”
But this time is different. J.T. knew Culpepper well. “The most trustworthy relationship I have on the Mana tribe is Brad Culpepper,” J.T. says.
Indeed, we see this episode that J.T. is totally in his sync with his old friends on the Mana tribe. “If I was a betting man, Brad’s over there now saying, all our votes are going to Sandra,” says J.T. Cut to Culpepper, telling his tribe, “I think J.T.’s gonna go Sandra.”
So J.T. trusted his ally to make what he thought was the best move, and his ally betrayed him. That’s not some massive screw-up, that’s simple duplicity. Take it from someone else who has made a spectacular misplay by trusting the wrong guy at a contentious tribal council.
You have to play your edges hard on Survivor. Sometimes you get lucky and you look like a genius. Other times you get unlucky and look like … not a genius. I’d rather see a contestant playing big for the chance to put himself in a better spot, than sitting on his hands and waiting for the axe to fall.
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The Fishy this week goes to Tai, who not only had the initiative to go looking for the idol, but the wisdom to share it with his entire tribe.
Playing the idol for Sierra was absolutely the right move. At this stage in the game, keeping a core group of allies together is more important than holding onto your secret superpower. Moreover, it is incredibly rare to know for certain that you or your ally is the target of the votes. That’s why so many people play idols at the wrong time, or don’t play them at all when they need to.
Tai gets firsthand intel from J.T. that Sierra is the target — and he uses that intel to play the idol perfectly. That action alone could bond these four (and maybe Hali?) together deep into the game.
And yes, I know there are arguments out there about how Culpepper, Sierra, Debbie and Tai are so smart for making the play they did, eliminating Malcolm and saving Sierra. So I’ll give the rest of the Mana tribe another Fishy they can split among themselves.
But I don’t have to like it!
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.