Monty Brinton/CBS(2)
December 17, 2015 03:30 AM

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. This season, he blogged about his experiences in Cambodia as a competitor on Survivor: Second Chance. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

“Everybody’s on my side, and I’m the popular guy. Everybody wants to date the prom king, so this is perfect. This will work out.” –Jeremy Collins, Survivor: San Juan Del Sur

All you future contestants: get to humping. In the season finale of Survivor: Second Chance, Jeremy Collins debuted the greatest move the game has ever seen. His “I’m having a son” speech moved the jury to tears, and put a capstone on the craziest, fastest-moving season of Survivor ever.

Jeremy’s win came off a dominant strategic game, in which the firefighter from Foxboro managed to position himself at the center of a Venn diagram of alliances – er, voting blocs. He was the season’s central figure, to whom Abi referred as “the Big Apple,” in her delightful cross-cultural mangle of “The Big Cheese.” He was the hero who raced to Joe’s side before even the CBS medics.

Somehow Jeremy made allies of people who were sworn enemies. While Savage and Joe and Spencer and Ciera and I targeted each other, Jeremy received no (valid) votes until the jury crowned a victor. Everybody knew Jeremy was the biggest threat to win. Somehow, nobody ever did anything about it.

Jeremy benefited from being neither the biggest challenge beast nor the schemiest strategist. He was a well-rounded utility player who excelled most at building social bonds. Jeremy didn’t just make you believe he had your back. He actually had it. He convinced Savage to stop targeting me and me to stop targeting Savage. In perhaps his flashiest move of the game, when he played his idol for me, Jeremy both bailed out a friend and rescued an ally. He combined the personal and the strategic. When he whispered to Spencer, “I’d do the same for you,” he made it clear that all of his allies should feel reassured.

In a season that never let up, with voting blocs shifting on a daily basis, Jeremy never got lazy. Survivor is as mentally taxing as it is physically exhausting. But whether he was hunting for idols or building relationships, Jeremy didn’t let the game wear him down. On day two, when Jeremy and I founded our own partnership, I moved to shake his hand. He took a step back and admonished me. Never shake hands, he said. Anybody can see. I had been careless with my body language. Jeremy was never careless.

Perhaps he had such incredible focus because he was not just playing for himself. As he stated in confessionals again and again, Jeremy’s game was all about Val and his two girls at home and his unborn son on the way. He never worried about eating or winning rewards. He sacrificed himself for his family, and wore that emotion on his sleeve – just one small part of what made him so damn likable.

In Wednesday night’s wild finale, the tension between the personal and the strategic quickly came to a head when Jeremy’s long-term ally Kimmi betrayed him. Kimmi and Jeremy had been together the longest of any two people in the game – they had an unbroken five-week relationship founded on Bayon Beach, which they never left. Jeremy was never able to believe that Kimmi was out to get him, yet Kimmi had been waiting for weeks to take a shot at the kingpin. She later told me that she never forgave Jeremy for making light of my sickness or for so quickly reconciling with Spencer after he voted me out. The overprotective mom to the end!

But Kimmi may have waited one week too long. Spencer and Tasha sniffed a rat and decided to vote together rather than split. The ensuing chaos led to both Jeremy and Wentworth playing their idols for an invalidated first vote, followed by another tie vote, where it looked like Keith would essentially vote himself out of the game.

I was going insane from the jury bench at that tribal council. For one thing, it was a historic moment in the history of the show – the first time ever there had been no votes at a Tribal Council. For another, I knew that a second tie would mean Keith would be automatically ejected as the only non-immune person left. I could see that Spencer realized that as well, but Keith himself hadn’t yet registered that fact until Jeff made it explicit. I felt like shouting at the screen when Keith almost quit. Shuffling off at the final six would be a brutal disservice to the 36 days he had endured up to that point. I just had to shut myself up, remind myself there was no actual screen mediating between me and the action. Ultimately, Keith switched his vote and sent Kimmi to Ponderosa.

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As the game wound to its close, Jeremy’s closest competition came from Wentworth, the sly underdog who just couldn’t pull an alliance together. In Tribal after Tribal, she was always one vote short of making her big move. Wentworth had loyal allies in Keith and Abi, and working relationships with Kimmi and Spencer and Joe. She just never had Jeremy’s magnetism to pull all the threads together.

Had Wentworth made the final tribal council, however, she could have beaten anybody – maybe even Jeremy. She had a résumé with two big idol plays and two immunity wins. Even more importantly, she had played from the bottom. The jury always loves an underdog. And, not for nothing, Wentworth was just nice to people. Kindness and decency can’t be overvalued in any part of life – and they certainly count for a lot in a game as brutal as Survivor. Counting the votes now, my guess is Wentworth would have won Kass, Ciera, Abi, Kimmi, Joe and Keith. Jeremy would likely have taken Savage, Wigles, me, and Spencer – in spite of what Spencer claimed at the final elimination. Who knows how the jury would have reacted to Jeremy’s big news in that matchup. Jeremy made the right move in choosing to vote her out.

Spencer for his part played a fantastic strategic game, bouncing between alliances. His downfall, however, may have been what he perceived as his strength. His Second Chance story, he reiterated again and again, was about building the personal bonds he needed to make big moves. But that was exactly the problem – the friendships served strategic ends. Spencer would win players to his side with intimate conversations where he showed his humanity and vulnerability … and then stab them in the back. He was too personal.

Ultimately, Spencer just flipped too much. He played the middle when he very well could have picked a side. By being allies with everybody, he ensured that almost everyone on the jury felt betrayed by him. His argument that he was a lone wolf who had to scavenge for numbers was partially undone by Tasha, who claimed they had been working together from the start. Perhaps it seems obvious in retrospect, that the two Brains from Cagayan were so in-sync, but pre-game alliances were a major taboo for the jury.

Spencer’s greatest mistake may have been the fact that he didn’t make a move on the game’s biggest jury threats. After the midgame threatpocalypse ended with Joe’s ouster, Spencer stopped targeting the game’s strategic menaces. In a confounding series of votes, he sent home Abi then Kimmi then Keith – leaving his two biggest enemies, Wentworth and Jeremy, untouched. I’m still not sure why Spencer would vote out Keith at the final five and not Jeremy. He thereby guaranteed that he would have to go to the end with at least one of the two people who could beat him, Wentworth or Jeremy. But many players who have never made the final Tribal Council are more fixated on getting to the end than setting up the win. Perhaps Jeremy offered a safer path to the endgame, if not a clearer chance at victory.

Nevertheless, Spencer had a stellar performance at the Final Tribal. He displayed genuine humility in response to Savage’s question and spoke convincingly about why he was forced to play an aggressive game and betray people close to him. Meanwhile, Jeremy struggled to apologize for his perceived arrogance or answer Keith’s question about why Spencer might deserve a victory. Spencer is incredibly well-spoken, and I actually thought he was going to run away with the game right there.

Tasha, for her part, suffered for being in Jeremy’s shadow. The few people who might have voted for her – Savage, perhaps, or me – were more loyal to Jeremy. The jury perceived her as Jeremy’s henchman, and her biggest résumé points were for her work at Angkor, which had happened weeks before. They were only hearsay for most jurors. While she gave strong answers at Final Tribal, it was an uphill battle for her to take ownership of her own game. Many people on the jury had some personal animosity towards her, too, or felt she had acted dismissively towards them in the game.

Stephen Fishbach on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance
Timothy Kuratek/CBS

With my own jury questions, I wanted to give Tasha and Spencer a chance to explain their greatest weaknesses. Standing up and asking a jury question is weirdly nerve-racking. Even after weeks answering Jeff’s questions at tribal council, it’s still strange to step into the spotlight. You want to be sure to remember everything you have to say. You want to appear thoughtful and not bitter, even as you still nurse some resentments from the game.

I’m honestly not sure how locked-in the jury vote was before the Final Tribal, how much chance Spencer or Tasha really had. The jury was a mix of old-school players who were likelier to vote for the firefighter/family man and new-school players who valued Jeremy’s solid strategy and felt betrayed by Spencer. I, of course, was always going to vote for Jeremy, who had given me three extra days in the game when he played his idol. Three days on Survivor is literally a priceless gift. I thought it merited at least a million dollars.

While Spencer performed spectacularly at Final Tribal, any ground he might have won was obliterated when Jeremy broke out his haymaker closer. Watching the episode, you can see the loss register on Spencer’s face. It’s heartbreaking. In retrospect, it’s unbelievable that Jeremy’s speech actually came as the final answer to the final question of the final tribal council. Jeremy had waited 39 days to share this incredible news. He brought the house down at the perfect moment. The magic of Survivor can be a little uncanny.

So congratulations to Jeremy. He wins the million dollars, the title of Sole Survivor and most importantly of all, the Final Fishy.

And if you have plans to go on Survivor in the future, remember: Before you leave home, learn to make fire, practice untying knots and impregnate a loved one.

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