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.
“Seems like every time people promise top 6 it doesn’t work out.” — Spencer Bledsoe, Survivor: Cagayan
The Survivor merge is always the season’s best episode. We finally get to see who are the biggest players, which are the best alliances, and whose facts are the real facts.
The Goliaths start off with a 7-6 advantage. There was a time when a slight edge like that might mean the Davids were doomed. But in 2018, cross-tribal alliances can take control of the game.
The Fishy goes to Alec, who works with Mike and Alison to pull together a group of six – with Christian, Gabby, and Nick.
“You’re naïve to think going into a merge that things are going to stay David and Goliath,” Alec says. “So, it’s like ‘Keep doing your thing and think you’re Goliath strong.’ I’ll jump on board with the Davids. I’ll forge those connections.”
You could criticize Alec for being too proactive here – for running up and down the beach befriending Christian, making plans with Gabby. But I think there’s a huge benefit to being the guy who pulls together the big merge alliance. If you’re seen as the person behind the power group, you’ve got a great speech for the final tribal. If you’re viewed as a foot soldier, it’s harder to make the case you deserve the win.
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There’s no question that Alec gets the credit. “I’d call it a first strike, because Alec is ready to move,” says Christian. “A lot of people talk about David and Goliath being over. But Alec walked the walk.”
Alec is a stellar strategist all episode. When Elizabeth comes to him and suggests backstabbing Dan, Alec does a fantastic job of both hearing her out and turning her down. “I would just be the oddball out with a bunch of Davids,” he says. “It’s hard with so many people right now.”
The general rule on Survivor is that you’re supposed to say yes to every plan. But consider Alec’s position. If he agrees to Elizabeth’s scheme, then maybe she goes back to Gabby and Christian and tells them that she’s got Alec on her side. Then they start to worry about their relationship. Is Alec just making alliances with everyone? And what will the Dan think, if word gets back to him?
When there are a lot of players left, you have to hedge what you say. People have loose lips.
Indeed, witness how Alec himself then immediately turns around and takes Elizabeth’s plan to Dan and Kara. It sets Dan off on a warpath. It also has the ancillary benefit, later, of putting Dan and Angelina at odds. Alec couldn’t have predicted that conflict – but the whole point of making people paranoid is to get them to act erratically. You skew their judgment and wait for the explosion.
When Angelina momentarily switches the vote to Christian, Alec does a superb job of turning it back. As he notes, if he blindsides Christian, he loses a lot of credibility with his new David allies. How could the Davids ever trust him again?
But Alec doesn’t try to shove his idea down the Goliath’s throats. He just casually brings up how dangerous Elizabeth is. “I’m going to stick with you guys,” he tells John, Dan, and Alison. “It just makes me nervous. The unpredictable nature of Elizabeth.”
Future Survivor players take note. This is a surefire strategy. Talk about how scared you are by what a big, irrational player your target is. Then let fear and paranoia do their work.
While Alec does a great job of making a name for himself, John excels at fading into the background.
Survivor strategy is always situational. While it’s a good idea for Alec to stand out, John was the biggest, most recognizable person walking into the show. So how does he avoid being a huge target?
First, he’s never the one proposing names – always the one agreeing. When the Goliaths target Elizabeth, he says, “I’m with you 100% on that one.” When Angelina switches it up for Christian, he says, “In the context of this game, it makes sense.” He’s up for anything.
He’s also the tribe peacemaker. When the group needs somebody to talk to Angelina and make things okay, John is the guy who walks her down the beach. Nobody’s worried that John is going off to scheme and strategize. They trust him.
Of course, stealth can only work for so long. At some point, John has to strike. But I suspect that given his profession, he’s aware of that.
Angelina may be the first truly great Survivor villain of our current era. She’s like a press release. She says all the right things – rah rah team spirit – and yet can’t hide what she really wants.
“Tonight I’m really depending on six other Goliaths to execute my vision,” she says, and then catches herself – “our vision.”
She even has her own ‘alternative facts’ moment, when says to Elizabeth, “Her facts and my facts are different facts.”
Angelina is right, by the way. Christian is the better target – assuming the Goliaths want to stick together. Elizabeth is isolated with no allies. Christian is everybody’s friend, and scarily good at puzzles.
I know firsthand how frustrating it is on Survivor when you know the right move, yet can’t convince people to act on it. One of my (many) tears confessionals in Cambodia was about literally that thing – feeling like the game was going to pass me by, because my allies were making horrible choices.
(“Horrible” of course means that they were making choices that benefited themselves, not me.)
Angelina’s problem is reading the room. She gets too fixated on her plan. Watch that first scene, when she’s pitching Christian as the vote. Nobody meets her eyes. She needs to pick up on that body language, rather than be so focused on using the right military jargon to motivate people in the right way. Then, when the plan changes, rather than just roll with the group, she vents, “Now I don’t even feel safe in my own home!”
I was genuinely shocked when Angelina told Elizabeth about the tribe’s plan. It’s one of the most dangerous things you can do. It gives the person an opportunity to scramble, maybe to play an idol. It also risks exactly what happened – word circling back, and then suddenly you’re a target.
Was Angelina’s moment with Elizabeth a genuine human moment? Was she sabotaging her allies? Was it grubbing for jury votes? Was it giving someone who she respected a chance to save herself?
It was likely a combination of all those things. That’s what makes Angelina such a fantastic character. She’s a schemer and she’s vulnerable. How touching was that scene when she was teary-eyed by the trees, psyching herself up. “I got this.”
At Tribal Council, when Elizabeth calls her out, I thought Angelina’s argument was stellar. “They’re just trying to fracture us,” she says. She doesn’t debate the specifics. She undermines the motivation.
Angelina will be in hot water next week. And I’m looking forward to seeing her scramble out of it.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.