"So much of Survivor really comes down to just 20 freezing, starving people, suffering through the elements and each other"

By Stephen Fishbach
October 24, 2018 09:00 PM
Credit: Robert Voets/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.

Survivor represents society. We have to play with justifiable moral and ethical codes of conduct here. Saying [someone] offends us and painting him as a pariah but then not voting him out is not playing this game with high moral character.” — Mike Zahalsky, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers

Jackets and eggs.

We like to think Survivor is purely strategic — that the game could just as well be played by 20 brains in a jar.

But this episode was a reminder that so much of Survivor really comes down to just 20 freezing, starving people, suffering through the elements and each other.

It’s what makes Survivor such riveting television. Some people in recent years have complained that the game has become too strategic, too focused on abstract advantages. This episode — this season — is Survivor showing us all what elevates it above other TV game shows. It’s a reminder that the human drama of a cold person manipulating those around her for a jacket is more elementally fascinating than which parchment superpower gets played when.

The episode starts with a message from the Goliath upstairs. A tropical storm forces production to evacuate the contestants. This is the second time in three years that Survivor has had to clear the beaches — an event that never happened before Millennials vs. Gen X.

Evacuation doesn’t have the two tribes snacking it up at the local hotel buffet. The tribes stay separated and sleep in basic units with no comfort. Players are not allowed to talk to each other. The game hits “pause,” and then picks up when it’s safe to return to the beach.

Afterwards, the camps are in ruins. The Purple tribe’s shelter has been obliterated. “Had any of us been inside of that, it would have been game over,” Angelina says.

Credit: Erik Reichenbach

The miserable conditions make small survival choices seem much more urgent. It’s easy to be magnanimous in sunny times. But when the Purple tribe wins a dozen eggs, the question of how to cook them boils over — figuratively, but almost literally. While most of the tribe wants to cook a few now and eat them later, Natalie argues that they should boil them all.

In our daily lives, it would be a meaningless decision. But on Survivor, every small argument is a microcosm of everything else. “Whenever the tribe is trying to make an important decision, Natalie’s voice is the loudest and the least intractable, and it just starts to wear on your nerves,” says Mike.

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Tribe Members Only

The politics of comfort end up playing an even bigger role when Purple loses immunity. Angelina considers voting off Lyrsa — in order to get her jacket. “I’m at this pivot point where I need to look at who can I trust, who do I want at the merge — can I get this jacket?”

The great strategic questions of our time.

We all become scavengers on Survivor. When you have four pieces of clothing for a month of brutal island weather, any scrap of fabric is a treasure.

After Savage was voted out of Cambodia, Kimmi took his pants, Abi took his jacket, and close-eyed viewers could see Keith Nale swaggering around in his underwear. (Don’t worry. Savage didn’t trek to Ponderosa in the nude. He was wearing his swim trunks.)

Being warm can make a strategic difference. As Angelina says, “I know it sounds silly, but the elements do have an impact on you. It’s so cold out here. Having a jacket could be a huge benefit.” If you can get warmer, if you’re shivering less, if you can sleep better, you have that slight mental and physical edge in a game that often comes down to five-second differences in the challenges and misspoken words at camp.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody try to use clothes as leverage for votes. After Angelina promotes Natalie to CJO — chief jacket officer — the experienced executive goes into hard sell tactics to negotiate for Lyrsa’s clothes.

“I want that Members Only jacket,” Natalie tells Nick. “You’d better get it now or you’re out of time.” When Nick refuses to steal Lyrsa’s jacket, Natalie tries to argue for his jacket. “So the jacket is worth a million?”

I was really impressed with Nick’s ability to stand up for his principles and get his way. “Some things are just crossing a line,” he says. “if somebody’s in a position of power and they use that power to coerce or threaten someone, that’s bullying.”

(“I saw it as a negotiation, not a bullying,” Natalie explains at Tribal Council. “I was leveraging.”)

Nick wins the Fishy for channeling discontent with Natalie into a vote. To be fair, as in all Survivor boots, many people play a role in the ouster, including Natalie herself, but Nick seemed to do the most strategic heavy lifting. Ever since the tribes swapped, he’s been making little remarks to Mike about Natalie’s bossiness. That wasn’t just complaining — that was laying the groundwork.

Now, with Lyrsa’s neck on the line, Nick reminds Mike that it’s their alliance — the rock star alliance — that’s in the power position. “I don’t want to push you or bring it up too early, but me and you can pick who goes,” Nick tells Mike. He’s telling Mike that it’s one thing to be a Goliath, but it’s another to have a close ally. And he’s doing it respectfully — in a way that Mike doesn’t feel he’s being pressured.

Mike doesn’t want to alienate the Goliaths, but he does want to go along with Nick. After all, what does it serve him if the Goliaths are dominant at the merge? He was one of the group’s first targets, and when Jeremy got eliminated, his best ally went home. It makes sense for Mike to stick to his rock star friend over the old tribal ties. Do they have a sweet air guitar gesture? They do not.

But unlike Alec — who went completely rogue last week — Mike wants to eliminate Natalie without taking the blame. “I want to figure out how I can [get rid of Natalie] with the Goliaths feeling good about me,” he says.

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If he’s seen to be lobbying for Natalie’s ouster, Angelina might suspect him of playing too hard, and word could get back to the Goliaths that he’s a tribal traitor. Instead, Mike positions himself as going along with someone else’s plan, and encourages Nick from the sidelines.

Nick — with Lyrsa — makes the point to Angelina that Davids and Goliaths will have to play together. “All I want to do is go far with people I like,” Nick says. At Tribal Council, Lyrsa argues, “They keep saying Goliath strong. Natalia went home. You guys don’t know what’s going on on the other side.”

It’s a crucial point to remember, and one of the reasons I love the three tribe split. With a two tribe swap, you can usually stick tight with a band of your allies. But on three tribes, you have no idea what bonds are being formed and broken, simply because each group has fewer people.

While Angelina still votes for Lyrsa, my strong bet is that she gave her tacit approval to Natalie’s ouster. I also suspect that she voted for Lyrsa as a ploy to get Natalie’s jacket.

“Natalie, is there any way I could have your jacket? Natalie? Natalie? Natalie?” she says, as Natalie carries her torch to Jeff. (Is this how she gets discounts at restaurants?)

I’m truly sad to see Natalie go. It’s easy to caricature her as the classic bossy archetype, but she was so much more. She never threw Angelina under the bus about the jackets, even though she was acting to help her friend. She was encouraging to Nick after his challenge loss. When she took a dramatic fall in the immunity challenge, we see her actually laughing.

Natalie seemed to genuinely enjoy her Survivor experience. Even during the storm, she was philosophical.

“I’m just happy to be here, and I’m talking about living. When you’re living, and you have another opportunity to experience it however it comes — this is a beautiful thing.”

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