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.
“The game is one third physical, it’s one third strategic and social, and it’s one third luck. A lot of luck comes into it.” — Tom Westman, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains
When you’re on the island playing Survivor, the last thing you want is for your carefully-plotted game to be totally screwed by a random twist. But as a viewer, chance can be a godsend. It can become boring watching the same group of people dominate every vote. A little bad luck can flip the whole thing upside down.
That seemed like it might be the story of this episode, as the contestants were divided randomly into two tribes for two separate tribal councils. With six Navitis and four Malolos left in the game, this might finally be the chance to truly change the power dynamics.
But it was not to be. Random chance once again favored the status quo, and two Malolos went to the jury.
The story of the season, as Domenick says at Tribal Council, has been the way that every single swap or random event has worked out to privilege the majority Naviti alliance. “We’ve literally had the numbers since day one,” says Sebastian, making a roughly accurate point, though misunderstanding the word “literally.” Two Malolos were voted out in the show’s first week, and since then the Navitis have never lost their game dominance. When the tribes swapped, both groups had a 5-4 Naviti majority. And this episode, when the groups split for dual tribal councils, both groups have a 3-2 Naviti majority.
It’s like the 20-sided-die headed god of randomness himself wants the Malolos to lose.
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In the Orange group – which included almost every player we’ve gotten to know this season – Michael is the obvious target. Not only is he the one outside the dominant alliance, but he’s a major threat to win the game.
You have to give Michael credit for his last-ditch attempt to pretend that he has an idol. He’s got no other options. And incredibly, the plan almost works. He gets inside Kellyn’s head, causing her to cast two votes for Laurel. If Michael himself had voted for Laurel instead of Wendell, Laurel would have gone home.
It’s easy for us, as viewers, to laugh at Kellyn’s paranoia. After all, we know that Michael’s lying! But look how many idols have been played over the past few seasons. What’s more, the people who have already found idols are far more likely to find future idols. Look at Ben last season, who played 42 idols himself, three in every episode. Michael’s already found two – so there is a high probability he could find a third. It makes sense to be paranoid.
And yes, maybe Kellyn takes the paranoid thing too far. She’s convinced Michael is targeting her, even though Michael tells her about this secret idol. If she were the target, why would Michael tell her? Kellyn’s been in the enviable position all game of never being in the crosshairs. Last episode, for the first time, she was almost blindsided. Playing with a cool head when you know that people are actively gunning for you is one of the hardest things to do on Survivor.
While I can understand Kellyn’s paranoia, you really have to credit the people who read the situation correctly. A Fishy for Dom for his accurate call, and his insistence that Michael is the correct vote.
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(I wonder if Donathan had lent Michael his idol, if it could have been enough to truly stir up Naviti paranoia. But I probably would have made the same decision as Donathan, and kept the idol to myself. Michael might not give it back!)
Right now, it looks like Dom is playing the season’s strongest game. He is in every alliance; he’s found the most advantages; and every time there’s a contentious vote, his opinion wins out. It seemed in the early game that he was playing hard as much as he was playing smart. But ever since his longtime adversary Chris was eliminated, Dom has made a series of savvy plays and great reads that continually reinforce his position. As with Joe Mena last season, the Tony Vlachos comparisons came easy at the beginning. But Dom is clearly his own guy, who is charming and funny socially and able to dial down the energy levels when required. The scene from last episode where he patiently sipped his coffee and listened to Kellyn is one of my favorites. And this episode, he finds yet another advantage – this time a pre-fab fake idol.
What’s more, in a little bit of Fishy housekeeping, in my last blog I asked for viewer votes over who deserved to win last week’s award. Dom was the overwhelming choice.
Laurel has to be pretty upset after this vote. Not only did Kellyn vote for her (twice), but when she asked her allies Dom and Wendell to come to her defense and vote out Kellyn, neither did so. You’re not really in a secret alliance if your allies never agree to your plans. That’s called just being a number.
“I feel like I have just locked in protection from Kellyn, from Domenick and Wendell because I saved them tonight,” Laurel said at the start of the episode. But as listeners to the 49 Laws of Survivor Power know, expecting gratitude can be a dangerous game.
Hopefully this episode was a wakeup call for Laurel. But with Jenna and Michael both on the jury bench, Laurel and Donathan now have very little room to play.
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In the boring group – er, the purple group – Jenna is another obvious vote, as the Navitis finish their housecleaning. The tribal council is slightly complicated by Jenna’s clown car machinations to deceive Donathan. She’s so convinced that Donathan is going home, that when Donathan offers to play his idol for her, she thinks she’s viciously deceiving him even as he is truly prepared to help.
“He’s an idiot,” Jenna says. “And I’m willing to vote him out. I have to act surprised when he gets sent to the jury.”
It’s a story so filled with treachery on the one side and self-sacrifice on the other that it seems almost Biblical. If Donathan had played his idol for Jenna, then the votes would have been tied one for Sebastian (coming from Donathan) and one for Donathan (coming from Jenna). The revote would have sent Donathan home.
But this is Survivor, not the Bible. Donathan plays his idol for himself, and Jenna is sent to the jury.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.