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.
“It would be stupid if we made an alliance, gave it a name, bandied the name about, talked about ourselves being warriors, and then chickened out at the last second.” — Benjamin “Coach” Wade, Survivor: Tocantins
This week on Survivor, the David tribe loses the immunity challenge, and is offered a classic Survivor conundrum. With Pat pulled from the game, the tribe feels like it needs to stay strong. The loudest voices quickly settle on Lyrsa as the weakest link.
But what’s allegedly good for the tribe isn’t always good for each tribe member.
“When you hear your best buddy’s name thrown out, you’re not going to just sit idly and do nothing. You’ve gotta get into gear,” says Elizabeth. Elizabeth wins the Fishy this week for shifting the vote off her ally Lyrsa and eliminating Jessica instead.
When Elizabeth hears that Lyrsa is the target, her first instinct is to try to vote out Carl. But she realizes that the tribe will never vote out a strong male, and suggests Jessica instead. The first step to having your plan adopted is knowing who the tribe will actually vote for.
And as Lyrsa notes, Jessica is the link between Carl and Bi. I’m a big fan of targeting the social connectors. Loyalty on Survivor is typically to individuals rather than to groups. With one key person gone, an alliance can fall apart.
Elizabeth recruits Gabby, who’s paranoid that she’s being targeted and is just happy to vote for anybody who’s not her. When Christian comes to join their conversation, Elizabeth gives him a big hug and pitches the idea. “We just changed things big time,” she says.
Do I think Elizabeth is being self-consciously manipulative when she gives Christian a giant embrace immediately before telling him she’s upended the strategy? I do not. She seems like a genuinely caring person. But as Guatemala’s Rafe Judkins once said, “Your character is your strategy.” Elizabeth’s caring nature helps sell the plan.
I also like how Elizabeth makes her pitch. It’s not “What do you think about getting out Jessica?” or “How would you feel if we changed things.” She leads with “We just changed things.” The change is already done. You can get on board or you can be left behind.
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Christian loops in Nick, and then from being the obvious boot, Lyrsa suddenly controls a five vote majority. That’s how fast Survivor can change.
While Elizabeth wins the Fishy for being the prime mover, this episode also shows how decisions never really come down to one person. It’s always a network of alliances, a push-and-pull between every person on the beach exerting their influence. It’s a mixture of strategy, paranoia, and random chance.
Each person has their own web of reasons for agreeing to the plan, and recruiting others.
Gabby goes along with the shift because she’s convinced that Bi and Jessica are secretly targeting her. They were so abrupt on the beach! Gabby’s suffering from a case of early game paranoia. It’s a common affliction among Survivor players. Before you adapt to the rhythms of the game, before you learn to decouple your feeling of anxiety from the reality of who’s actually plotting against you, you naturally assume everybody is out to get you all the time. Some people never recover. But as an unlicensed Survivor physician, my prognosis for Gabby is positive. I believe she’ll get through this bout, and go on to great things.
Christian goes along with the shift because of his loyalty to Gabby. How hilarious and touching was that scene on the beach, when Gabby asked him, “Do you want to play with me?”
“Play with you?” Christian asks. “Oh, in the sand?” Then he offers his hand for her sand game.
“No, play this game with me,” Gabby says. “Do you feel comfortable protecting me? More than Jess? Do you bond with Jess?”
“No, I don’t bond with Jess at all!”
I could watch this scene a thousand times. It’s one of those Survivor moments that is so pure that you could never script it. It would seem cliché: the nerdy character completely misunderstanding the girl’s subtext. And yet there’s Christian, asking Gabby if she wants to play in the sand.
Christian seems like a nice guy. (Such a David). And he also manages to let his kindness and awkwardness serve as a mask for his brilliant strategic brain. “I am surprised how fast things change,” he says. “But I’m encouraged that things move so fast, that I feel like a hyper-frenetic person like me is the ideal person to handle it all.”
Christian pulls Nick along with him as part of the Mason-Dixon alliance. Nick deserves a ton of credit this episode. When we left him last week, he was the tribe’s de facto boot. But adaptability is the most important Survivor skill. If you can recognize how people perceive you and change accordingly, you’re set up to do very well.
This week, Nick cements his alliance with Christian by naming it. Naming alliances may seem corny, but it’s smart strategy. Alliances can feel very ephemeral, especially in Survivor’s early days. Naming them makes them feel more substantive, more reliable.
At Tribal Council, Jessica is practically giggling about her big move. “I think the way of the game isn’t — wait until tribal council to start playing,” she tells Lyrsa.
But that’s the thing about Survivor. Everybody’s hustling from the moment they hit the shore. If you don’t know what somebody else’s game plan is, then you very well may be their target.
At the Goliath tribe, Dan is making himself a target by his fixation on Kara. Angelina, Alison, and Kara create a Goliath alliance. Jeremy and Mike find Dan’s idol.
But how can you pay attention to any of that when we have Natalie? As great as the scene between Christian and Gabby was, it was rivaled by the brilliant exchange between Natalie and Jeremy.
Jeremy: “Here’s the issue. I’m not a psychologist, and I’m not getting paid for this. There’s a lack of self-awareness.”
Natalie: “Okay, so let me stop you there. I feel like I get along with everybody.”
Jeremy: “Why do you feel you get along with everybody?”
Natalie: “Because I do.”
Jeremy: “Lack of self-awareness would be …”
Natalie: “You don’t have to define that for me. Is that all?”
Survivor is at its best when people are completely themselves, and Natalie Cole is 100 percent herself. As Jeremy says, “She’s been married 24 years. That means somebody loves her as she is. That means she’s not making any changes.”
I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Natalie. She’s 57 years old, which in Survivor is like being 107. It can’t possibly be easy to be the oldest person on the season by a decade. (Although the Goliath tribe is geriatric by Survivor standards, with three contestants over the age of 40.)
But Natalie also doesn’t do herself any favors. People are trying to help her out, but she refuses to let them. That’s true with Jeremy. And it’s also true with John, who wants to work with her. John tries to protect Natalie by telling her she can’t trust Dan. But don’t say anything, he instructs her. Five seconds later, there’s Natalie confronting Dan. “So I understand you’ve abandoned me.”
“How is the oldest person in the damn tribe the biggest threat?” Natalie asks. “You guys are playing like a bunch of amateurs and a bunch of Davids.”
A bunch of Davids. The ultimate burn.
Natalie is actually making a strong argument. She’s using her age as a virtue, pitching herself as somebody who isn’t threatening and therefore isn’t worth eliminating. And why should Natalie wait for John to give her the go-ahead to save herself? Make the case now and let it marinate. If Natalie just waited to scramble before tribal council, it could be too late.
It’s a reasonable case. Nevertheless, by shutting down Jeremy, and going behind John’s back, Natalie is alienating the few people who want to work with her.
David vs. Goliath
I want to take a moment to once again praise the storytelling of this season. It’s only episode two, and I can already name a key alliance for literally every character on the show. Tell me a recent season where that’s been true. If the show can keep up this balanced, engaging editing, David vs. Goliath could be a heavy-hitter.
Survivor: David vs. Goliath airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.