The only thing worse than not trying at all on Survivor is trying too hard
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.
“There’s a hundred different variables that go through your head. You have to weigh which person you can trust the most, which person you think is the most dangerous, and who’s the least threat to my own game.” — Bradley Kleihege, Survivor: Ghost Island
The only thing worse than not trying at all on Survivor is trying too hard.
Jeremy and Natalie personify the two opposite ways to blow up your Survivor game.
On the one side you have Jeremy, the superfan. He’s been watching the show for years. Now he wants the complete Survivor experience. He wants to spear every fish, to put his hand in every pocket, to mastermind every strategic conversation. To milk his own milk.
The problem is, everybody else sees that, too. When Jeremy sits the entire tribe down and tells them to stop strategizing, it comes off as aggressive gamesmanship. “Only someone who’s been running around scheming is going to be paranoid enough to tell everyone, ‘Hey hey. Let’s not have any side conversations,’” observes John.
It’s a great point. The most schemey people are often the most suspicious. They know how devious they are. They assume the same is true of everybody else.
And then there’s Natalie. If Jeremy is the Survivor super-fan who can’t stop himself from playing, Natalie is the Survivor neophyte who doesn’t know how to start. She lazes under the trees barking orders, then calls it bonding.
Like all the best Survivor characters, neither of these two can stop being themselves. They are hoist by their own petards.
When the Goliath tribe loses immunity, they settle on Natalie as the default boot. “She’s a demoralizer around camp. She’s terrible at the challenges. That’s never going to change,” says Mike.
But Angelina has a different idea. She feels like Jeremy is the bigger threat down the road. And honestly, it seems like she’s more interested in changing the vote just to flex her own rhetorical muscles.
“Everyone is dead set on Natalie,” she says. “If I can whip these votes to completely shift over from Natalie to Jeremy, then to me that’s my shining moment.”
She’s a Goliath, she says, because she can talk her way out of speeding tickets and get discounts at restaurants. Discounts at restaurants? Does Angelina bicker her waiter down on the price of her filet mignon? Does she claim to have seen a fly in her soup and use it as leverage for a free meal?
Maybe the fact that I’m so confused by this is why I’m not a Goliath.
Angelina lobbies, individually and in groups, that Jeremy is more threatening than Natalie. “I’m happy with either,” she says, the classic prelude from someone who has a strong opinion. But Jeremy is “a talker.” “He’s a manipulator.”
It’s an interesting question. Who is more dangerous at a swap? The player who doesn’t gel with your group, who alienates the people around her? Or the player who is too devious, who you can’t trust because he may be off making other plans?
As with everything in Survivor, it all depends on relationships. If Jeremy is your close ally, you want him scheming by your side. But for Angelina, who seems to be teaming up with the Goliath girls, Jeremy could be a problem. Natalie may not be able to recruit new friends. But you don’t have to worry about her assembling an opposing alliance.
Angelina convinces the tribe to vote out Jeremy. Credit goes to Natalie herself too. Even last episode she was making the case that voting out the tribe’s oldest and least-threatening player made no sense. Natalie hustled to save herself. Maybe she’s not such a neophyte after all.
Still, Angelina gets the Fishy for whipping the votes behind the scenes. But I worry for Angelina’s long-term health. She gets her way, but she also outs herself as a big player. On day 9, at the tribe’s first tribal council, it may be too much too soon.
It’s remarkable that as the biggest, most famous person in the game, nobody seems to be worried about John. And that’s because he’s focused on using the good vibes from the tribe’s winning streak to build personal bonds.
“It feels to me like I’m getting better at old school human skills,” he says. “Conversations, laughing with friends. It’s not just about scheming, figuring out who’s got to get voted out next. It is about growing as a person and connecting with people.”
If Natalie and Jeremy are two extremes, John is playing the perfect middle.
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On the David tribe, Carl, Davie, and Bi are furious about being blindsided at the last vote. “It’s a little bit personal, but also — it’s a lot personal,” says Bi.
The Mason-Dixon alliance has a very clear strategic for how to deal with all the bad blood. It’s a strategy called, “Throw Gabby under the bus.”
“I totally understand that you feel betrayed,” Christian tells Davie. “Gabby made a move.”
“You know what really scared me?” Nick says to Bi. “Was how quick Gabby got Jessica voted out.”
Pinning the blame on Gabby is a great strategy for Nick. It gets him off the hook. And as he notes, Gabby is Christian’s other major ally in the game, and he wants Christian’s undivided loyalty.
But I’m not so sure that it’s a good move for Christian. It puts a big target on one of his closest allies. That could create problems down the road.
My favorite way to play a betrayal is to put all the blame on the person who’s been voted out. Say that Jessica was playing the game too hard, too fast. Say she was making alliances with everybody, off in the woods, scheming. The tribe had to vote her out, for everybody’s good. You can heap any amount of calumny on them, and they’re not there to defend themselves.
People may not believe it entirely. But they will accept it, and the game will move on. By pinning the blame on Gabby, who’s still there, Mason-Dixon creates a focal point for all those frustrated feelings.
Survivor: David vs. Goliath airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.