'Survivor' Recap: A 4-4 Showdown — and the Perfect Advantage

Elaine goes to the Island of the Idols, comes back with an advantage, and it's Jason who gets snuffed

Stephen Fishbach has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. He is the host of the podcast Paraphrase, where he interviews writers about the openings to their novels. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenfishbach.

“In this game you have to be confident about your choices.” — The Amanda Kimmel, Survivor: China

It’s rare for a Survivor advantage to play out perfectly.

Most advantages in Survivor are incredibly situational. An extra vote, which seems so powerful, really only matters if the numbers line up. Even an immunity idol is useless if you don’t know just when to play it – as Vince can attest.

So the fact that the Block-a-Vote went to a person on a 4-4 tribe split is just shy of miraculous. Not only that, it went to the supposed target! If there are Survivor gods, they were surely watching over this moment.

(It made me think of when Sarah Lacina tricked Sierra Dawn Thomas into gifting her the Legacy advantage, which then saved her at the final six – another extremely rare case where an advantage plays out just perfectly as designed.)

Elaine wins the Fishy for completely reversing the dynamics on her tribe. The former Lairos were tripping over themselves to turn on each other. Elaine goes to the Island of the Idols, comes back with an advantage, and it’s Jason who gets snuffed.

Elaine Stott
Elaine Stott. Robert Voets/CBS

Of course, it has to be said that Elaine had literally no idea what was happening with her alliance. “If we lose and go to tribal council, I don’t think anybody’s going to flip,” she says confidently. Then cut to Missy trying to flip. It sure seems likely that if Elaine hadn’t found the block-a-vote advantage, she would have been eliminated.

But the thing is, she did get the Block-a-Vote advantage. How many people who went on to win Survivor got extremely lucky – narrowly skated by a key vote, barely won the crucial immunity challenge?

And really, you can never truly know everyone’s schemes and counter-schemes. Everyone’s always scheming against everyone else! Who cares if they were plotting against you yesterday, so long as they never wrote your name down at Tribal Council. The important thing is to convince other people to enact your plan when it matters – whether through use of your strategic savvy, or simply by having a spare advantage.

Indeed, Elaine unveiled her advantage perfectly. She didn’t overplay it, she didn’t keep it a secret. She revealed it to her allies as the special power that was going to save them all. “I’m going to play the hero and ride in on my stallion and jump off and save the day for my peeps,” she said.

Sometimes the force of someone’s enthusiasm carries its own strategic weight. While Missy and Aaron and even Elizabeth were scrambling across the island looking to betray each other, Elaine is charging straight ahead at the enemy – and it’s the into the jaws of death, into the mouth of Vokai.

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

There’s just one small quibble – and that’s with Elaine’s choice to block Jason’s vote. It’s somewhat careless to block the vote of the same person who’s going home. If there is an idol in play – if Jason by some chance did have one in his pocket, or one of his allies was feeling generous – they’d be likelier to play it on him than anyone else. It just slightly increases the likelihood that your plan will blow up.

And what of Aaron? All episode long, he made it clear he was going to flip. “I just think it makes more sense for my game to roll with you guys,” he tells Vokai. “I don’t think tribal council to tribal council. I think three votes from now,” he says later.

Survivor comic
Erik Reichenbach / www.dabudoodles.com

I usually advocate loyalty as a strategic rule – in general, I think that by bouncing back and forth between alliances, you end up infuriating everyone, and severing any bonds you may have had. People are much more forgiving of a blindside from their enemies than a betrayal by a friend. We often see flippers get voted out immediately after their flip. Their old allies hate them, and their new alliance doesn’t trust them.

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But maybe there was some rationale for Aaron to flip in his specific situation. Elaine was the first person he wanted gone from the game anyway. Elizabeth and Missy were both flip-friendly. And if tribal loyalty is going to be a factor at the merge, why not stick with the Vokais? Even with the Jason boot, they still have an 8-6 advantage. Getting protected for a few key merge votes, then playing the swing vote between the Vokais could be an interesting strategic path.

You can see an argument for either course – but Aaron managed to somehow take the worst tack by doing both and neither. He insisted to everyone on Vokai that he was flipping, then stayed with Lairo. He gets none of the advantages of being a loyal Lairo soldier, and none of the advantages of flipping.

There is a way to thread the needle, however. The new Lairo should absolutely throw the next challenge to vote off a Vokai. They can assume that no Vokai has an idol (surely they would have played it tonight). And by voting off a Vokai, they can get close to evening up the tribes.

From a Vokai blowout, it really could be anybody’s game.

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

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