On Survivor, every word from every other contestant is viewed through a lens of fear and paranoia

By Stephen Fishbach
October 17, 2018 09:00 PM
Robert Voets/CBS

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.

“Trust is going to get you to the end of the game. You have to trust two or three other people. That’s a fact. But finding trust in a game that has so much distrust? That’s the hard part.” — Ben Driebergen, winner, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers

In our real lives, we can afford to be generous with each other. If your friend tells you she’s feeling bad or she’s afraid, you offer her consolation, give her a hug, and try to get to the root of her problems.

But on Survivor, every word from every other contestant is viewed through a lens of fear and paranoia. No matter what your tribemates say, you wonder — what does that mean about me? How does this affect my game? That’s why, when Natalia tries to tell her tribemates that she’s feeling insecure after the tribe swap, it ends up sparking a downward spiral of paranoia that costs her place in the game.

After the swap, the Goliaths on all three tribes seem to be set up pretty sweet. They have the majority 3-2 advantage on every single tribe. Somehow, a David — Carl — also draws the “no tribe” bundle, which otherwise would have balanced out at least one of the groups.

The Orange tribe is particularly well-positioned, with five fit members and no weak links. On the one hand, they’re facing off against the Green tribe, which has to build shelter from scratch. That’s historically been disastrous. And then there’s the misfit Purple tribe, which is “the David of the Davids of the Davids,” according to Mike White.

Still, when Orange goes back to camp, Natalia doesn’t love the connection that’s springing up between her BFF Kara and Elizabeth.

“I used to have horses and train horses,” says Elizabeth.

“I used to compete saddle seat!” says Kara.

“I wish I had a horse,” adds Natalia.

“I was raised like really Christian,” says Kara. “I think faith is so important to have out here.”

“I was quoting scripture in my head the whole boat ride!” says Elizabeth.

[crickets] says Natalia.

Watching Natalia shuffle awkwardly in the background while Kara and Elizabeth bond over god and horse is one of the funniest moments of the episode. Not only is Natalia tragically horseless, she’s also a Muslim. (I believe the show’s second-ever ever Ibrehem from Palau.) So it’s only natural that she starts to feel excluded when the conversation turns to faith.

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When Natalia gets a private moment with Kara, she tries to explain how she’s feeling. “I’m not going to lie. I’m scared because you guys have a lot in common. I don’t want you guys to flip on me.”

Wow, isn’t that mature? To be cognizant of your own feelings and able to lucidly express them? In any other life situation, we’d be applauding Natalia’s emotional awareness. Too bad for her she’s on Survivor. So while she’s saying I’m afraid, what Kara hears is, I don’t trust you and I’m worried about you flipping. Kara runs to save herself and tells Alec that Natalia is being paranoid.

Natalia’s problem is compounded after the immunity challenge, where the Orange tribe loses narrowly to the Purple underdogs. When Natalia hears that Elizabeth is now targeting her, she becomes fixated on eliminating her rival. As the three Goliaths discuss strategy, and Alec raises the possibility of voting out Davie, Natalia shuts him down.

“We have each others’ trust, right?” Natalia asks.

“Yes. Yes,” Alec reassures.

“Do you think? Or no.” Natalia says.

“I agree,” responds Alec.

“I need confirmation, Alec! I just freak out if I don’t hear it!” Natalia says.

Once again, Natalia is expressing her own fear and insecurity. She’s saying I feel unsafe. Reassure me. But on Survivor, everybody’s paranoia is clanging at an eleven. So what Alec hears is You don’t trust me. And you don’t trust me leads to I can’t trust you.

“I get the feeling that Natalia doesn’t really trust me, which makes working with her difficult,” Alec says.

When Natalia’s fear leads to her bossing others around camp, it rubs Alec the wrong way. “If you don’t vote with us,” Natalia threatens Davie, “Then you have no future in this game.” Then she commands him to go to sleep and orders him to stay quiet. Survivor is a tough game, and even as you plot against each other, it’s important to treat each other with kindness. Not just for moral reasons, either. After a swap, you really don’t know what’s happening in the other two groups. You have to build bonds with your new tribemates.

Elizabeth and Davie notice the friction and do their best to stoke Alec’s fears.

“You totally trust these girls, right?” Davie asks. Alec can only respond, “No.”

Erik Reichenbach

Elizabeth leans into the hoary Survivor talking point about building a resume. “In order to win this game, you’re going to have to have a resume,” she tells him. “If you were to vote out one of the Goliaths, that could be you saying, ‘Hey I lead that charge, I had the balls enough to jump ship.’”

The gambit works. At tribal council, Alec votes with the Davids and sends Natalia home in a shocking blindside.

In case it’s not clear, this whole blog has been an attempt to figure out why Alec made what on the surface looks like a terrible game decision. Because from this side of the screen, it looked catastrophically bad. Alec votes out an ally. He betrays all the Goliaths on all the tribes. With very few exceptions throughout the history of the show, people loathe flippers. And with Carl joining the group (an idol-nullifier in his pocket), he gives the Davids their only tribe majority.

And as for Alec’s Survivor resume? Here’s a heads-up to all future players. Nobody cares on Day 39 what moves you made pre-merge. They’re lost in the ancient mists of history. Your “resume” is almost exclusively what you did after that merge feast. Referring to your pre-merge moves is like listing your elementary school accomplishments on your CV. Maybe it’s impressive that you built that tower of blocks by yourself, but if you have to mention it, what does that say about the rest of your achievements?

Alec wins a Rotten Fishy for his self-destructive action. But I really am curious to hear how he justifies himself. Watching the show, we miss many of the subtleties that go into every Survivor play. We see a neat division of three Goliaths against two Davids. But Alec, on that beach in real time, sees a much more complex web of bonds. He has his individual relationships with Natalia and Kara, as well as the other Goliaths, and whatever developing connection he’s building with Elizabeth and Davie. Alec is working from a much more complicated set of data than we are.

And he knows how bad the move looks. “If I were to make a move and flip, that says a lot to the people on the other tribes,” he says. And later: “If I flip, Carl’s going to come back, and the Davids would have the numbers.” Alec is making this move even realizing its consequences.

It’s hard to see how this can possibly work out well for Alec. He’s sacrificed a secure position on his tribe, as well as implicitly betrayed every other Goliath on the season. But I’m eager to hear his explanations in his exit interviews.

That may not be too long a wait.

Survivor: David vs. Goliath airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.