The Survivor: Tocantins and Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance is blogging all season for PEOPLE

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Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on

Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging aboutSurvivorstrategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

“The merge is where you make or break if you’re going to have the numbers for the rest of this game” – Josh Canfield Survivor: San Juan Del Sur

Well that may have been the grossest episode of Survivor ever. In a merge that promised an epic battle of brains, brawn, and beauty, the real victor was bacteria.

The Fishy this week goes to the tiny Staphylococcus germ. It may seem small, but like the best Survivor strategists, it’s buried its microscopic hooks into everybody. This week, it outplayed even Neal’s idol to evict him from the game.

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People claim there’s no worse fate on Survivor than being medically evacuated. But wouldn’t you rather be pulled as an undefeated hero than blindsided and humbled? Just when it looked like Neal’s alliance was about to be picked apart by Nick and the Brawn (also a great death metal cover band name, if you’re looking), Neal gets airlifted out by Rupert – the doctor, not the pirate, though that would have been pretty sweet too.

It’s too bad. The ice cream guy getting beaten by the personal trainer would have been a great parable for the Crossfit era.

Merge Time!

The merge episode always makes great TV. The game accelerates. All the different relationships we’ve been watching develop for the past six weeks collide. Players like Aubry, who were the bottom of their tribe’s pecking order, have the chance to be at the bottom of an even bigger tribe’s pecking order.

On a themed season, like Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty, the merge also means a major metaphor alert. Prepare to be beaten over the head with Theme.

“Beauty always go with the jock,” claimed Brawny Jason. “We’re just shoving geeks in lockers right now.”

“It’s fun being the pretty girl,” said Nick.

They’re talking about the episode’s big conflict. Both Brains and Brawn went a’courting to woo the Beauties and gain a tribe majority. Beauty actually lucked out by losing Caleb and Anna. They’re no longer seen as the big threat.

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On the Brains side, Debbie aggressively power-politicked for swing votes. She sat Tai down, with Joe, Neal, and Aubry all looming in the background: “I really like you. I want to get in an alliance,” she said, sounding like an adolescent boy at a junior high dance asking a girl to go steady. Tai sheepishly agreed, though only to escape the awkward conversation.

There’s nothing wrong with what Debbie’s saying. It’s just where she’s saying it. Merge alliances are best made in secret along the back paths deep in the woods. Instead, Debbie’s tackling people in camp and giving them noogies ’til they name five cereals and agree to vote with her.

Debbie’s problem may be that she doesn’t respect her competition. “I seem to be one of the few people here who plays offense,” she said. Meanwhile we know that everybody else is out politicking too, just not so visibly. Back at Brains Beach, Debbie played a more diplomatic game, but now at the merge her military metaphors have caught up with her. Hasn’t she learned anything from her study of army tactics? She needs to win some hearts and minds before she pulls out the big guns.

Scot, conversely, built trust with Nick by sharing information in private. I was a little surprised that Scot so quickly revealed Tai’s idol to a guy he’s known for about fifteen minutes. But in the post-merge scramble, it actually could be a really smart move. There are very few ways to prove trust on Survivor, and telling someone about an idol is one of them. Nick seemed a little shocked too – but he did decide to vote with Brawn.

Nick wins a Fishy this week for perfectly playing both sides of the merge. He didn’t just shuttle between Brains and Brawn, he also locked up the Beauty votes he needed. Last week we saw him mansplaining to Michelle. This week, though, he played their interaction perfectly.

“What do you want to do?” he asked her, then listened as she talked through her thoughts.

Nick operated even better with burly men Scot and Jason. He sat and listened while they overshared, then went and gloated about their recklessness in his confessionals. That’s exactly where you should be gloating.

Nick is clearly a smart guy who knows all the right things to say. The problem is, sometimes he says them in the wrong way. On Survivor, the way you say things is even more important than what you’re saying. People judge you based on your tone, on your facial expressions, on the respect you show them, on the nebulous sense of trust they get more than they judge you from any one strategic move.

I say this as someone who suffered greatly last season for my constant grimace of paranoia.

So the fact that Nick is smiling broadly and speculates, “I think he’s out” when Neal is with the medics can’t help his position with the tribe. He needs to look bereft, gutted to see a competitor so cruelly pulled from the game.

Losing Neal right now really could be disastrous for Nick. Beauty and Brawn needed to secure their new alliance by voting together. Sharing the deep intimacy of a vote is the best way to prove trust on Survivor. With Neal and his idol now out of the game, I wonder if everything will change up next week.

“You make your own path,” said Aubry. But sometimes on Survivor, the path that was about to lead you straight to Loser Lodge takes a surprise turn thanks to the hand of fate. Who knows how far it goes.

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