Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS

By Stephen Fishbach
March 27, 2019 09:00 PM

Stephen Fishbach has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. He is the host of the podcast Paraphrase, where he interviews writers about the openings to their novels. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenfishbach.

“Every step is an opportunity to regroup and turn things around.” — Denise Stapley, winner, Survivor: Philippines

One of the big problems with Survivor’s season 22 and 23 twist of Redemption Island was that there was a high incentive to immediately vote out the contestant who came back. On season 22, Matt Elrod and Andrea Boehlke both fought their way back into the game – only to get bounced right out again the same episode they returned. On season 23, Ozzy won individual immunity both times he came back. However, he was also voted out both times at the second tribal council after his return. This giant, season-defining twist was created – only to have zero impact on the actual game.

So how could Survivor producers make sure the same thing wouldn’t happen with the Edge of Extinction returnee?

The idea of giving Devens an idol in two halves that he had to share was absolutely brilliant. Giving him an intact idol would be too powerful – not to mention, a little unfair to the rest of the contestants.

But the half-idol gives Devens a negotiating tool. Survivor is at its best when it creates tools and opportunities for the players to leverage power and information to build relationships. With the half-idol, Devens has something to parlay, an opportunity to build an alliance and keep himself in the game.

Edge of Extinction
Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images

Of course, Devens undermines the intent of the half-idol by sharing it with David, who was already his loyal BFF. The advantage was intended for Devens to create new bonds and new allegiances. But if Devens is right to trust Julie, then he’s also right to share the idol with David. Why not keep this new power within his circle of trust? Devens deserves a ton of credit for surviving his first tribal council, and keeping his secret.

But Julie wins the Fishy for a spectacular overall episode, including an individual immunity win. Julie’s best move of the episode was immediately recruiting Devens. Right after the merge feast, she approaches him and asks where his loyalties lie. “There’s no way in hell I would ever send you back there,” she assures him. Later, she sows dissension between the former Lesus, letting Rick know that Kelley, Wentworth and Wardog are targeting him.

Erik Reichenbach

Julie is recruiting Devens to the Kama group – but she’s also recruiting him personally. By being the one to act as the bridge between the Kama 6 and the Devens/David duo, Julie sets herself up in a power position on the tribe.

I also think Julie is right to target Wentworth over Joe. Now clearly, I’m very sympathetic to Ron’s idea that “If you’re playing Survivor and you have a chance to take out Joe – every time is the right time.” There is a very real threat that Joe could win out on immunities. And I have to give Ron credit for accomplishing what I could not.

But the problem with voting out Joe now is that the Kama 6 are still just six on a 12 person tribe. Eliminating Joe radicalizes Aurora, while keeping all five former Lesu intact. As Joe says, “They just left the door wide open.” Taking out Kelley, conversely, cuts the Lesus off at the knees, and keeps Joe and Aurora on board for at least another vote.

Julie Rosenberg
Timothy Kuratek/CBS via Getty Images

In fairness to Ron, Joe makes a classic Survivor mistake by being vague. When Ron asks him who to vote for, Joe hems and haws. “I don’t know, man,” he says. “This game moves fast.” If I were Ron, I’d be worried too.

I think I understand what Joe is doing here. He realizes that he’s an enormous physical threat. If he goes scrambling up and down the beach masterminding plans, he’ll just become an even bigger target. The safest path for him is to step out of the strategic game. Make a big show of painting the tribe flag in the middle of the camp, as if to say, See? I’m barely playing the game!

He just may have simply stepped out too far.

Regardless of where their votes ultimately fell, you have to give credit to the Kama 6 for how the tribal played. David and Devens voted for Wentworth, while Wentworth, Lauren, and Wardog voted for David. Aurora and Joe voted for Devens. There’s no greater way to alienate people than to trick them into voting against each other.

Rick Devens
Robert Voets/CBS via Getty Images

Ultimately, as Julie said, “It can go a million different ways, but at some point the six of us have to come to a consensus.” You can make any number of arguments for any number of moves, but the most important thing is voting together. So for now, the Kama 6 are succeeding at the game’s most crucial and most difficult strategic challenge.

But a six-person alliance can be tough to manage.

Oh, and at the Edge of Extinction, Keith and Wendy hoist the white flag. I don’t judge them for it. They likely have three weeks of suffering before they’re given another shot to reenter the game, with little chance that they’ll actually win.

But I’m inspired by Reem, who just keeps fighting. She was the season’s first boot, and now she’s made the jury.

Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.