Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. This season, he will blog about his experiences in Cambodia as a competitor on Survivor: Second Chance. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
"Maybe I’m not in the driver’s seat right away. But I’m in the passenger’s seat, backseat driving." –Shirin Oskooi, Survivor: Worlds Apart
What’s daily life actually like on Survivor?
People ask me all the time. On television you see the strategy and the blindsides. You see the exhausting challenges, the bitter fights and the fraught tribal councils.
But, like an iceberg, 99 percent of Survivor is beneath the surface. There are long hours baking in the hot sun. We made stupid jokes and bonded over our families. We spent interminable nights tossing and turning on the bamboo, trying to find a comfortable spot between the beams, watching the moon cross the sky as Keith snored softly beside us.
On the first night, as we were lying under the open roof of our shelter, Jeremy speculated – what if there’s a coconut tree right above us and a coconut falls? We couldn’t sleep all night as we waited to be brained by falling coconuts.
(In the morning, we happily noticed that there were in fact no coconut trees above our shelter.)
I loved this episode because you saw a sampling of Survivor life. And nobody was better suited to island living than our Survivor MacGyver, Joe Anglim.
Joe was always inventing crab traps or building island implements. By day two, not only did we have a shelter and a fire, but Joe had built a shelter for our fire.
“I want to be someone that people need and want around,” he said on Wednesday’s episode. I doubt Joe really was acting purely from strategy, however. He’s a smart player and a superfan – he realizes that the more he fishes, the bigger his target. Joe simply couldn’t contain himself from living out his island fantasy.
One day Joe got up and decided to make a hammock from our fishing net. Hammock fever swept the camp. Within an hour, we had seven. We called our camp Survivor Shangri-La. One of my favorite memories from Cambodia is rocking to sleep on the beach, a Fishbach wrapped in his net.
But, like the sci-fi epic Piranhas: 3D!, beneath the placid surface there was a vicious sea of biting monsters.
I had already been branded with the scarlet I: Idol Hunter. I wanted to pass the buck and throw some paranoia around. And I – incorrectly – thought Jeremy was using the excuse of our tribe’s emotional moment to go off idol hunting.
I made the mistake of talking to Savage. And he expertly used it against me.
I give Savage massive credit for the casual way he disparaged me to Jeremy. He shook his head in disapproval. Can you believe that Fishbach? Wondering about immunity idols on Survivor? The best way to undermine an opponent is to cast them as a villain.
Savage said that I have no “morals, values, dignity, courage.” I guess I shouldn’t expect a Christmas card? It’s not just the idol talk; I also think chopping wood is important in Savage’s world. And as you all witnessed, I am no great chopper of wood.
For what it’s worth, I don’t mind Savage’s sweeping condemnations. You sign up for smack talk when you agree to go on reality television.
While I may have been in danger, I was saved by Ta Keo’s decision to vote out Vytas.
Personally, I felt the shadow of Jeff Probst‘s snuffer pass over my heart. Vytas was like me – a mid-sized guy with a reputation for deviousness. Eliminating Vytas also ended any argument I could make that I would contribute to the tribe’s raw strength if there was any argument there to begin with.
But as a tribe, we were shocked and delighted when we saw they eliminated their strongest male. Ta Keo had a slim lead in the race over the A-frames, but our guys smoked them on the chest pull.
It was a testament to Savage‘s courage that he truly gave his all in that challenge. He obliterated his hands pulling the rope. When the challenge was over, his fingertips and the pads of his hands were torn to shreds.
Joe mastered the puzzle. While Ta Keo was positioning the dancing figures in the same direction, Joe saw that they needed to face each other so the final image would be balanced.
It is one of the most fascinating facets of Survivor that enemies compete as allies – and for one moment at least, awkwardly hugging in victory, can become the best of friends.
On Ta Keo, you see how quickly allies and enemies can flip. Last week, Shirin and Spencer were in the driver’s sea. This week, they were road kill.
The Fishy goes, of course, to Varner. Varner is like Survivor‘s own version of Varys from Game of Thrones, with his hand in every alliance. He sees past the simple binary of New School vs. Old School alliances – even the very idea of such neat teams is archaic. Instead, Varner is actually playing New School Survivor, eliminating strategic threats. First Vytas. Next: Shirin or Spencer.
What I love about watching this season – and what I loved about playing it! – is that so many people are playing such excellent games.
Wentworth seamlessly flipped from one side of the numbers to the other. Woo shut down Spencer and Shirin for their transparent attempt to switch his vote. Spencer made a compelling plea for why he deserved to stay in the game.
Terry, especially, deserves high Fishy honors for being both a good man and a savvy strategist. He saw Abi sitting alone, ridiculed by her tribe, and extended a little bit of human generosity. He sat down with her. He paid attention. Sometimes that’s all it takes to win a vote and flip the game.
I loved the way that Terry played up his reputation to cement Abi’s trust. “Maybe it’s just me and the old school thing,” he said, channeling John Wayne, “but if we move on together, I got your back.” You half expected him to mount up his horse and ride into the sunset.
At tribal council, though, it was Shirin who walked off into the dark. Varner found her too strategic. Abi found her too disloyal.
Shirin left the game looking like a hypocrite for treating Abi the way that Will treated her in Worlds Apart. Personally I don’t think the parallel is apt. Will berated Shirin in the middle of camp. But Abi was the one seeking out and instigating conflicts on Ta Keo.
I don’t think it’s fair to say Shirin abandoned a victim. She did, however, fail to support an ally.
On Survivor, that is sin enough.
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Survivor: Second Chance airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.