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.
“The last thing you want to do is piss me off.” —Sarah Lacina, Survivor: Cagayan
Tonight, during the finale of Survivor: Game Changers, Iowa cop Sarah Lacina won the million bucks, the title of Sole Survivor – and most importantly, the Final Fishy.
Sarah came into the season vowing to play more like a criminal rather than a cop. Over the ensuing 39 days, she played one of the strongest games in the history of the show. While she was largely a quiet presence before the merge, Sarah was the decisive force in almost every post-merge vote.
“Sarah always voted the right way, because Sarah always knew the right way to vote, because Sarah was always directing the right way to vote,” Zeke said at Final Tribal. She convinced Sierra to will her the legacy advantage, and then orchestrated her blindside. She snagged the vote steal advantage almost literally out from under Michaela’s feet – and then used that same advantage to vote Michaela out.
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Most impressively, Sarah was able to do the virtually impossible task of flipping back and forth between two alliances without alienating either side.
Many people have tried and failed to play the middle ground, myself among them. The only real predecessor Sarah has is the winner of her original season, Tony, whose scorched-earth flips in Cagayan oscillated week to week. But I’m not sure even Tony flipped as many times as Sarah. And Tony seemed more like a magician who could do the impossible, a freak-of-nature exception to Dan Foley’s Survivor maxim that “Flippers never win.”
Sarah’s greatest weakness – which will probably be her reputation’s biggest stumbling block – is that she was never the best narrator of her own game. Sarah doesn’t exactly light up the confessional booth, and it could be hard to get excited about her in the way that watching Tony polarized viewers.
But her win validates an entire style of playing Survivor, and I expect many future contestants will try to emulate her. Be warned: it’s a tough road to travel. Flipping on an alliance typically infuriates people far more than just voting against them. Nothing stings so much as betrayal. Many flippers find themselves quickly voted out– Cochran in South Pacific, Candice in Heroes vs. Villains, Fincher in Samoa. Spencer – Tony’s other protégé – made it to the end of Cambodia by playing the middle, but came up with a goose egg at the final tribal.
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Sarah’s secret sauce was the deep emotional bonds she built with the other players. There is a moment in the first part of the finale where Sarah is talking on the beach with Tai. “Out of anyone in this entire game, you’re the one person I’ve cared about the entire time,” she tells him. Of course, how could we forget that she had also told Sierra that she loved her, and that she was her “it girl,” just a few weeks before – and just a few hours before blindsiding her. I imagine Sarah offered many supreme declarations of love on that beach.
Those deep, personal bonds almost came back to haunt her.
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Final Tribal Council
The show dramatically changed the format for Final Tribal this season. In the past, we’ve watched the eliminated jurors reel into the spotlight to bask in their final grandstanding moment. This time, the jury functioned more like the Supreme Court, asking pointed questions from the bench along the themes of Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast.
It was often confusing trying to track who was making which points, and which theme they related to – but overall I loved this jury refresh. The show didn’t need to waste airtime having three invisible contestants ramble through the same awkward question. The new format allows players to act as passionate advocates – and even more interestingly, fostered a real debate about what values the jury should even consider important.
That’s always been one of the most exciting parts of the Survivor metagame – the jury gets to arbitrarily decide what matters to them. Is it more important to be a challenge beast, or should you know the names of your tribemates’ siblings? Here for the first time, we got to see that debate unfold on-air.
Ozzy and Debbie argued that Brad’s physical game and more straightforward and loyal strategic game deserved the victory. They felt wounded by Sarah’s deep personal betrayals. “There is a way to play this game without going as low as you had to go,” Ozzy said. In a sense, they were arguing for Old School Survivor values against Millennials Michaela and Zeke, who were giddy at Sarah’s #BigMoves and thought that her transactional use of human relationships was masterful gameplay, rather than vicious deception.
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Sarah had a superb final tribal performance. While the jury was deeply hurt by her – Andrea to the point of tears – she argued that “when you’re undercover, you have to shut off who you are.” She decided to be whomever she needed to, and do whatever she needed to, to get to the end.
Survivor’s second most renowned burn victim, John Cochran, has said that the best way to win the final tribal is to highlight a feature of yours that nobody will find threatening. Don’t say you’re the smartest or the strongest. Say – in Cochran’s case – you have the best timing.
Sarah executed a fantastic version of that strategy with her emphasis on details. “Paying attention to detail is how my playing the game got me right here,” she said, specifically referring to her grab of the advantage.
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If Sarah was criticized for being too close to the players, Brad was castigated for not being close enough. The jury, led by Tai, also came after him for the brusque way he sometimes treated them.
“Do you realize how you talk to people?” Tai asked him.
You can easily see a different, past season, where the athletic leader who betrayed fewer people beats the manipulative schemer. That seemed to be what Brad was counting on, and why at the final four he barely considered whom to eliminate, as though Sarah and Tai were equally irrelevant.
“It comes down to who’s done me wrong the most,” he said. “And that would be Tai.”
That is a terrible criterion for a crucial game decision and it may have cost him the million (and the Final Fishy). Tai had a reputation in the game as wishy-washy and non-strategic, and anybody who remembers his mystifying “water hyacinth” speech in Kaoh Rong knows he’s not exactly eloquent in front of the jury. He could have been an easy opponent in the final tribal – but on the jury bench, his complaints about Brad’s bullying poisoned the jurors against him.
So Brad – whose journey through much of this season seemed to be retracing his wife Monica’s footsteps – ends up exactly where Monica did, in second place.
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Troyzan, for his part, knew that the jury wasn’t voting for him. Resigned to his fate, he chose to close the night, and close the season, by speaking from the heart. “I want to tell you how much I appreciate all of you for this adventure. You’re a part of my dream. I’ve watched from season 1, when Richard Hatch was running around naked and people were eating rats, and I thought – whatever that is, I’ve gotta be a part of it.”
It’s a sentiment that any fan can appreciate. And no voting urn can take that adventure away.