April 25, 2018 09:00 PM

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.

“My gut told me nobody’s going to vote me off. My gut failed me.” — James Miller, Survivor: Palau

It’s a classic Survivor conundrum. When two people are telling you opposite stories, how do you know who to trust?

This episode, Naviti lieutenant Desiree decides it’s her time to make a big move. “I didn’t come out to Fiji to be told what to do. I came out here to make big moves,” she says. “And I have this feeling in my gut this is the right moment.” Her gut leads her to attempt to recruit the Malolos, with a big plan to blindside the big players.

But when Malolo Laurel decides to report the plan back to Domenick, suddenly the entire tribe is caught in a massive game of telephone. The Malolos insist that Desiree tried to betray her allies. But Desiree claims that of course the Malolos would say that. They just want to stir things up.

We the viewers know what really happened. But when you’re on the island, and everybody is deceiving you to some degree, how do you know which of these lying liars is lying less?

Courtesy Erik Reichenbach

Domenick trusts Laurel. “I believe strongly that the goats are coming together to form an alliance,” he says. “I have to trust my instincts.” He wants to eliminate Desiree before she has the chance to betray them all.

But Kellyn has been with Desiree the entire game, and can’t believe her right-hand-lady would ever betray her. “I’ve gotten this far in this game by trusting my gut instead of listening to everyone else around me,” she says.

Domenick trusts his “instincts.” Kellyn follows her “gut.” So often, Survivor strategy just comes down to a nebulous feeling. Either your reads are right, and you win the game; or your reads are wrong, and Jeff snuffs your torch. It can be as simple as that.

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Desiree’s Attempt

Hats off to Desiree for trying to make a move. One of the most infuriating parts of Survivor is watching people at the bottom of the tribe blindly advance the interests of the top dogs. Desiree recognizes her position and wants to do something about it.

“The plan is for everybody to stay Naviti strong and to cut off the rest of Malolo. But that’s not going to work for me, because I’m at the bottom of Naviti,” she says. She offers that she, Chelsea, and Angela would work with the Malolos to take out Kellyn.

I thought Desiree made her play pretty well. Often when people approach a minority alliance, they do so with an aura of command or disdain. Remember Lucy barking orders to David and Ken in Millennials vs. Gen X? Desiree approaches the Naviti group respectfully. “This might sound like a crazy move to y’all, but I’m ready to take out Naviti,” she tells them.

It’s also not like she’s making a bad offer to the Malolos, either. Saying three Navitis will work with four Malolos is a pretty great deal. Indeed, I thought Desiree could have waited a few rounds to make this play. She might have been in a more stable position at the final nine.

You can see now why these moves so seldom come together. Somebody else at the bottom is going to sell you out to advance themselves. Desiree is taking a huge risk here – and the risk doesn’t pay off.

I think Desiree’s real problem is that she overreacts when she learns she’s been burned. After she hears that Laurel has betrayed her, she confronts the Malolos, and then scrambles up and down the island insisting she didn’t do anything, popping up in every conversation and then scurrying away to the next one.

It makes her seem untrustworthy, like she has something to hide. If Desiree could have played it cool, dismissed Laurel’s accusations, and moved on, maybe the entire incident could have been forgotten or ignored.

Instead, the Navitis turn on her, and Desiree is sent to the jury.

Should Laurel Have Done It?

So should Laurel have taken Des up on her offer and made this move?

From a viewer’s perspective, this seems like a perfect moment for Laurel to strike. A seven-strong alliance of the four Malolos plus Desiree, Chelsea, and Angela would give the Malolos the power position in the new group. Moreover, Laurel and Donathan have the leverage within the Malolos. Donathan, Laurel, and Jenna has to be a fantasy final three scenario for Laurel.

Yes, Wendell and Domenick would be upset at the betrayal – but the Navitis would likely be far more furious at Desiree and Chelsea. Tribe traitors typically have short lifespans on Survivor, especially in a season as fixated on tribal loyalty as this one. Laurel could make the move, knowing that most of the blowback would go towards other people. And if Kellyn were voted out, Domenick and Wendell would likely be so busy scrambling to maintain their place in the game, they wouldn’t have time for recrimination.

Conversely, what is Laurel’s plan for the finals, if she keeps voting with her current allies? Let’s say she makes it to the endgame with Wendell and Domenick and Donathan and Kellyn. Are there two people in that group she can beat? And getting down to the nitty gritty with someone as athletic as Wendell seems transparently dangerous. Wendell may not be great in the ball-balancing challenges of the early merge, but the endgame rewards athleticism. Wendell could easily go on an immunity run.

Of course, it’s easy for a viewer to rearrange the players as though they’re chess pieces. With 11 people and two weeks still left in the game, you have to rely on your relationships of trust to navigate the tricky waters of the late merge. “I just feel safer with Dom and Wendell,” says Laurel. That may be reason enough for her to stay the course.

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Plus, just because Desiree is offering to make this move, doesn’t mean she’s actually going to go through with it. Sure, we’re seeing Desiree in confessional, assuring us she plans to take her shot. But if you’re Laurel on that beach, how do you trust her? One proposal in a conversation is hardly a binding contract. Laurel and the Malolos can’t know for sure that Des is really with them, or is luring them into some other trap. And even if she is with them for one vote, what happens in three days?

With so much uncertainty, I can understand why Laurel stuck with a safe position in a secret alliance, rather than completely upending the apple cart. We’ve seen so many players ruin their positions in the game by turning on their alliances too soon. Look at Zeke betraying Chris in Millennials vs. Gen X. Two weeks later, he was gone.

In Big Movez Survivor, we want people to totally reconfigure the tribal dynamics every week. Laurel doesn’t do that. But by telling Domenick about Des’ betrayal, Laurel ends up focusing the ire of the Naviti tribe on itself and sparing Michael. Even if she’s not completely redefining the game in her image, Laurel weakens the Naviti majority, keeps a pocket ally, and spreads dissension among the Navitis who are left. Not bad.

That said, I’m hesitant to give Laurel the Fishy this week, because I can’t get past the nagging doubt that she may have missed her moment. The big question remains – is Laurel more like Sophie, the winner of South Pacific, who correctly understood that maintaining a stable tribe hierarchy would keep her in a position to win? Or is she more like Albert, Sophie’s closest ally who got zero votes, who knew he needed to make a move to define his resume, but waited forever for that perfect opportunity? Time will tell.

Domenick is the obvious other choice for a Fishy. He correctly reads the situation and eliminates Desiree over Kellyn’s objections. But given how Laurel’s game of whispers defined the episode, it seems wrong-headed to award him over her.

Who do you think should get the Fishy this week? Should it be Laurel, for switching the vote from an obvious Michael boot to Desiree? Should it be Domenick, for mustering the Navitis to Laurel’s side? Donathan for finding the idol? Somebody else who I’m just completely missing?

Tweet me your thoughts @stephenfishbach!

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

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