Stephen Fishbach admires how Freberg separates "human excitement from strategic decision-making"
Credit: Monty Brinton/CBS (2)

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach

“They’re so busy trying to get their own tribe members out right now. We’re like, ‘Okay, do what you gotta do, and we’ll come in later.’ ”
– Taj George, Survivor: Tocantins

Survivor wears you down. It’s day 11, and the contestants are totally spent. Their fat reserves are gone; they’re listless and starving; they’re beset by horrifying flies from beyond the gates of Hell. And the worst part is, the game’s not even one third over.

Wednesday’s episode was all about armor. Each of us, in our lives, puts on a brave face as we do battle with the world. When we’re weak, we turn to our loved ones. When we’re tired, we retreat into ourselves. But those aren’t luxuries you’re allowed in the ceaseless game-playing of Survivor. One of the major differences between good and bad players is who can keep their armor on even under that extreme duress.

“I’ve been so tough for a week and a half,” says Malcolm, who finally cracked a smile last night when he found the immunity idol. Malcolm’s the perfect example of a player who can endure the game’s highs and lows, and still keep himself in check. Witness how he finesses possession of the idol. Malcolm suspects it might be on the rice bin. But rather than alert his ally, he pries it off for himself, and only then shows Denise. He and Denise may be besties, but it’s an individual game.

That caution keeps Malcolm cool when he joins Tandang, and everyone rushes to greet him. Malcolm high-fives Pete, hugs RC, and lets the Tandang nuthouse work out its issues on its own.

Tandang’s like a crème brûée: beneath its tough exterior, it’s a gooey mess. For all their bristling abs, Tandang’s got problems. Malcolm’s arrival in camp brings everybody’s neuroses to the surface.

RC is transported back to childhood bullying. “The minute I saw [Malcolm] talking to Peter, I knew it was over,” she says. Feeling excluded, she goes off by herself to splash in the waves, reverting to infantile past-times. But has she actually even been rejected? “I need time … to flirt,” she says. What about time to talk? Time to reason and strategize? RC doesn’t give Malcolm – or herself – enough credit.

For Pete, Malcolm’s arrival is his chance to finally be cool. Doesn’t Pete remind you of your tagalong kid brother? He can’t wait to share all his super-keen secrets with Mr. Awesome Malcolm. “I’m like the stud football player from the rival school,” Malcolm says. He wears it so naturally. I bet he’s played that role before.

Malcolm’s an unknown threat with loyalty to Denise, who herself is right now building bonds on Kalabaw. Pete should be setting up Malcolm’s eviction, instead of setting up his fan club.

It’s such a classic Survivor screw-up. And hey, I understand. You get so sick of your existing tribe-mates and their boring stories that you can’t wait to meet someone new. But separating that human excitement from strategic decision-making is what earns Malcolm this week’s Fishy.

Kalabaw may be making a similar mistake with Denise, but they’re faced with a harder triage. Down two members because of Dana’s medevac and a photo-finish immunity challenge, Kalabaw has to win to stay competitive. So keeping Denise, The Little Engine That Could, makes sense over Dawson, The Bigger Engine That Can’t.

And anyway, Dawson was getting too close to exposing super-villain Jeff Kent’s secret identity. “If Dawson knows my history as an athlete, the best scenario might be just to vote her out,” he says, cackling to himself.

Poor Dawson. It’s always sad to see such a huge fan go so early. At least she’ll always have that dreamy kiss with Probst under the Filipino stars.