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.
“You can have all the numbers on your hands and do all the counting you want, but you cannot calculate relationships, emotions. You cannot calculate deception. The game happens in every conversation that’s had. You can’t calculate those things.” — Ashley Nolan, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
When the final story of David vs. Goliath is written, how much will come down to a jacket?
This episode of Survivor, Angelina revealed that she voted for Lyrsa last week not to send her home — but as a ploy to trick Natalie into handing over her coat. That plan, of course, was a hilarious, spectacular failure. And it also left the rest of Angelina’s tribe feeling suspicious.
“If Angelina’ll do that for a jacket, then imagine what she’ll do for a million dollars,” ponders Nick.
Lyrsa feels especially aggrieved. People hate it when you write their name down at tribal council, no matter how good your intentions. Your name coming up on parchment is like the Grim Reaper laying his icy finger across your spine. It’s an experience you don’t forget.
As I wrote last week, a jacket really does have strategic value. But the optics around Angelina’s vote are terrible. “I’m willing to risk sacrificing your dreams for a piece of fabric” is not the best way to build a long-term alliance.
Angelina’s vote for Lyrsa was a common act of hubris from those in the dominant position. When tribes split, the people in the minority group hustle to save their butts. They work harder around camp. They promise strategic fealty. They’ll do anything and say anything.
As a result, people in the majority start to believe their own hype. It’s like the Stanford Prison Experiment. People who perceive that they have power will invariably abuse it.
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Last episode, when Alec was reassuring Kara about working with the Davids, he said, “I don’t look at them as strategically real players. I look at them as an extra vote.” To Alec, the Davids aren’t even real. If that’s not a testament to the depersonalizing effects of power, I don’t know what is.
Angelina’s jacket shenanigans were in the same vein. How disposable must Lyrsa have felt in that moment?
That’s why, season after season, we see big tribes get picked apart. They don’t take their competition seriously.
Nevertheless, this week at least, Angelina stays safe.
When Purple inevitably loses the immunity challenge, Nick wants to vote her out. He worries that she’s too strategic, too untrustworthy. “It’s a free shot to take out a big threat,” says Nick.
But Mike is concerned about what the other Goliaths will think if he sides twice with the Davids. He noted their shocked reactions when the tribe showed up to Reward, with another Goliath gone. “By voting her out, am I also screwing every Goliath left in the game?”
As Mike notes, this vote also has repercussions for the entire season. The Davids and Goliaths are split now at 7-7. This one vote, from this decimated tribe, will determine who has the numbers at the merge.
“It’s not just somebody going home,” says Mike. “Whatever happens today is going to impact everybody’s game for the rest of the game.”
Voting out Angelina is so transparently the right choice for the group as a whole. She’s definitely a more devious player than Lyrsa. She’s obviously a skilled talker, which makes her a threat at every vote — and again at the finals. Meanwhile, Lyrsa can’t even be bothered to pretend to ally with Angelina, when Angelina comes to her.
But what’s good for the tribe is not always good for the individual. Mike wins the Fishy for putting his own game needs ahead of Nick’s. He gets his way, and is able to show the Goliaths that he hasn’t completely betrayed them.
(It also seems like Nick is honoring a promise, that if they voted out Natalie, the next vote would be Lyrsa. But how much do promises matter on Survivor?)
While the Fishy goes to Mike, ultimately this is a combined win for the Rockstar alliance. Mike gets his way in this decision, but the crucial thing is that Nick and Mike solve the problem as a negotiation between just them. There’s no better way to establish long-term loyalty than working together and voting together.
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And is it really so bad for the Davids to enter the merge down numbers?
When was the last time a majority pre-merge alliance actually stuck together and picked off the smaller group? Season 22? Stealth R Us in season 26? I’m sure this is a topic that can be debated, given how hard it is to define “pre-merge alliance” and “sticking together.” Still, the idea that having the numbers at the merge means instant success is almost quaint.
It may actually be better for the Davids to keep their underdog spot. It will keep Alec and Angelina feeling superior. And that means they’ll be surprised when those Davids turn out to be strategically real players after all.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.