Why the 'Survivor' Experience Is 'Having Your Dream Snatched Away From You Before You Were Ready'

Survivor airs Wednesdays (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.

Erik Reichenbach is a former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.

“I didn’t realize how much of your heart and your soul and your spirit and your body are involved in this game. Your head is just a little bitty part of it.” — Lisa Whelchel, Survivor: The Philippines

Survivor is a game of strategy. But it’s also a life experience that scours contestants clean like a brillo pad down their throats. You isolate yourself from everybody you love and trust. You live for a month in the extreme elements without remotely adequate gear or rations. And all the while, you have to break the hearts of the people you rely on for body heat in the night, all in pursuit of your own ambition.

The challenge of the strategic part of Survivor is fairly straightforward. How do you get your group to have more votes than the other group? The actual test of Survivor is more fundamental.

When we talk about Survivor, it’s easy to focus on the big blindsides and betrayals. Often, the contestants’ emotional experience gets obscured by the number-counting and idol paranoia.

That’s what made this episode so powerful. The strategy was as simple as Survivor gets. The 5-strong Naviti alliance voted out one of the 3-strong Malolo alliance. They chose the person who was weaker in challenges, more social around camp, and might prove a bigger threat at the merge. There were no idols played and no advantages. Strategically speaking, it was an episode that would have been at home in any of the show’s first 10 seasons.

Survivor comicCredit: Erik Reichenbach
Erik Reichenbach

But a Fishy Award to the producers who edited this episode and turned that straightforward, down-the-line vote into a profound meditation on what the show means to the people who play it. The narrative of most Survivor episodes is – which of these alliances will win? This episode changed that. The story became – which of these three people will have their dreams snuffed out before they were ready?

I can’t think of another Survivor episode where five separate contestants gave deeply felt emotional confessionals about what they have left behind, and how much the game means to them.

On the Naviti tribe, a simple reward of coffee and crullers brings Donathan back to the family he left at home.

“I take care of my grandmother. She had two strokes,” Donathan says. “I feel kind of guilty sometimes that I’m out here, because I know it’s more on my mom.”

Donathan bonds with Chris over shared memories of the loved ones they’ve left behind. Chris talks about caring for his mother in an assisted living home. “You have to sacrifice certain things to take care of the loved ones that took care of you,” he says.

The unexpected emotional connection makes Donathan’s strategic decision-making more complicated. Just last episode, Donathan had been plotting with his ally Laurel on how to vote Chris out. The shared moment changes things. Does a personal bond make somebody a better ally?

So often on Survivor, it’s hard to separate the decisions you make with your heart from those you make with your head.

WATCH: Jeff Probst On ‘Survivor’ Spin-Offs & Why He’ll Never Compete: ‘My Mouth Would Get Me Voted Out’

If the emotional moments on the Naviti tribe remind us of the loved ones that the players leave behind, the confessionals from the Malolo tribe are a powerful testament to the reasons that the contestants come to play. Each of the three vulnerable Malolo members has a chance to speak about how much the Survivor experience means to them.

Stephanie is looking to Survivor as a test of her personal strength – and an opportunity to provide for her children.

“Getting to the end in this game is everything to me,” she says. “I have two children I’m supporting. I have been envisioning getting that million dollar check at the reunion show and just running down and picking my kids up. … It blows my mind thinking about that moment. … I’m so close and I want it so bad for all of us,” she says.

Jenna is using Survivor to try to push herself to be more open. “It’s hard for me to switch off the defensive bitchy look. That’s just where I go,” she says. And then later: “I know this game is going to force me to come out of my shell.”

For Michael, the game is a culmination of his “lifelong fandom” – and a test of his ability to achieve his goals at a young age. “This game is the best experience in my life so far,” he says. “I’ve always been an independent person and somebody who wanted more for myself. … I want to accomplish things as young as I can, and I really want it.”

“I want it so bad.” “I really want it.” The words just don’t do justice to how deeply the contestants feel. And doesn’t everybody have that inexpressible need – that impossible want – for something?

Yet when the Navitis make their decision, their choice about which of those dreams gets extinguished is almost arbitrary. They run through the merits of Michael vs. Jenna vs. Stephanie, shifting their target with every conversation. Kellyn perfectly summarizes so much of Survivor decision-making: “It may have been one sentence that one of us said that changed our collective. And that’s going to make all the difference tonight.”

“I want to be here because this is my dream and I’ve been wanting to live this out for so many years,” Stephanie says.

Unfortunately for most players, living out the Survivor experience means seeing your torch extinguished, and having your dream snatched away from you before you were ready.

Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.

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