'Survivor' Recap: Idols Fly at Wild Tribal Council

"One of the biggest challenges of an idol or an advantage is knowing when to play it. You never can be sure you're getting it right"

Appearances Are Deceiving
Photo: David M. Russell/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.

“The idol’s in my pocket, unwrapped and ready to go. And if anyone blinks at me the wrong way, I’m going to pull that thing out and pull the trigger.” – Wendell Holland, winner, Survivor: Ghost Island

It’s going to be a predictable vote, I thought.

No way will Davie play his idol, I was sure.

Christian’s definitely going home, I wept.

Then in a wild tribal council, Davie plays his idol to save Christian. Dan plays an idol to save Angelina. And in a brilliant tactical move, the Davids split the votes, and John goes home. And in a tribal council that was meant to take out the Davidest David, it was really the Goliath of the Goliaths who fell.

How perfectly Biblical.

So what exactly happened here? The Davids had to know by Tribal Council that Davie had an idol and that Christian would be saved. (Otherwise they wouldn’t split the votes.) They also knew that Dan had an idol. So it was reasonable to think that, if Davie played his idol for Christian, there was a good chance that Dan would play his to save Angelina. On a revote, a David would go home; the Goliath advantage would be preserved; and all the cross-tribal bonds would be broken.

So kudos first and foremost to the entire group of Davids for splitting the vote. Like the best guerilla warriors, they know they can’t win in a straight-up shoot out. So they have to rely on subterfuge. Look at them all tribal council long, rubbing their faces like they’re about to be picked off.

And for those counting vote totals, they actually gave John more votes than Angelina. Angelina was never in danger at all.

While all the Davids deserve praise, Davie wins the Fishy for his generous idol play.

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One of the biggest challenges of an idol or an advantage is knowing when to play it. You never can be sure you’re getting it right. How many contestants have been blindsided while daydreaming about their future big move? As Nick says, “I was hoping to save it ’til we were in the final six or seven.” That dream of playing your power at the perfect moment, weeks away, can make you lose sight of the game in front of you.

Most contestants want to save the idol for themselves. But unless you’re like Ben in season 35, a target at every tribal council, it’s rare you’ll see the votes coming when it’s your turn. The only way to actually protect yourself is to have allies who will lobby for you, and let you know when you’re in danger.

Davie’s move builds deeper alliances, and solidifies trust among the Davids.

It was a great episode for Davie in general. He took one for the team by flailing around on the rock, making a spectacle of himself to distract the Goliaths while Nick and Carl found the vote steal advantage.

Erik Reichenbach

That vote steal makes Davie’s idol play even better. After this vote, the Davids are still down 5-6. Saving Christian would have been quixotic if the Davids were just going to get picked off anyway. But the vote-steal gives them the chance to even things up next week.

Davie wins the Fishy, but this episode – like so many episodes this season – is really a testament to an entire island full of strong players. Everybody is jockeying for themselves, trying to edge their way forward – from Angelina double-checking to make sure Dan told Jeff her name, to Mike realizing that Christian needs to go.

“Anyone watching this season, either they’re rooting for Christian or they’re wondering why aren’t they taking out that guy,” says Mike.

That guy sure knows narrative. He should write his own show!


I actually really liked Dan’s choice to play his idol for Angelina. I imagine many disagree. We already know Dan and Angelia dislike each other. And he sacrifices an idol to save someone who he wants gone? And she wasn’t even the main target anyway?

Dan’s head-in-his-hand agony was one of the most interesting moments of a high stakes episode. I don’t think he had any other choice. If Dan lets Angelina go, he’s betrayed a promise to his entire alliance, not just to Angelina. He lets the Davids inch their way forward (At this point, he has to assume that there will be a revote – which will eliminate one of the Davids). And he’ll have a committed enemy on the jury, who would poison every person who stepped into Ponderosa. His game could be over before it’s begun.

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Moreover, Dan is a giant threat right now, and is one of the de facto targets of the Davids. I imagine that he might have been the one voted out if he hadn’t won immunity. As Christian says, “You want to manage your threat level in Survivor.” Playing an idol lowers Dan’s threat. While everybody knows Dan has one idol, Kara’s the only person who knows he has two. By playing this idol, Dan shows his alliance he’ll go to the mat for them, and also makes himself less dangerous moving forward.

A tough decision – but I think the right one.


Alec gets credit too, for ferrying information to Nick, and ultimately saving his ally Christian. Alec knows that if he betrays the Davids, they’ll never trust him again. By whispering to Nick, he is able to keep trust with both sides.

The question is – why is this different from what Angelina did last week? Last week, when Angelina told Elizabeth that she was going home, I said it was a terrible decision.

Some of that may just be from what we’ve seen on our TV screens. We know that Alec has a relationship with Nick, and he had a confessional last week that he’s concerned about betraying the Davids and squandering his social capital. We hadn’t seen anything similar from Angelina. So when Alec approaches Nick, it seems sensible; when Angelina approaches Elizabeth, it seems rash.

The most obvious distinction is that Alec’s move works. Alec manages to save Christian. Angelina gets her own game blown-up at tribal council. But that’s results oriented thinking, and we actually don’t know the full consequences of Alec’s move. The decision to keep Christian may one day prove catastrophic for Alec.

I think the bigger difference is that Angelina told the person being eliminated, while Alec told a mutual ally. When someone knows they’re going home, they have no reason not to throw firebombs at everybody around them. But Nick isn’t going to destroy his own game to save Christian’s. So Alec gives the Mason-Dixon boys a chance to save themselves, but minimizes the risk that it will rebound onto him.

You Get What You Give
John Hennigan. CBS


I’m heartbroken that John was eliminated. As I wrote last episode, it seemed he was doing a fantastic job of staying under the radar. I’ve been waiting all season for his big end-game emergence as a power player. If Angelina didn’t have an idol, and Dan didn’t have a necklace, John would still be there.

But that’s what part of makes Survivor such compelling television. Everything can be going according to plan – until the idols come flying and your favorites go home.

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

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