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

By Stephen Fishbach
October 16, 2019 09:00 PM

Stephen Fishbach has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. He is the host of the podcast Paraphrase, where he interviews writers about the openings to their novels. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenfishbach

“I didn’t come out to Fiji to be told what to do. I came out here to make big moves. And I have this feeling in my gut this is the right moment.” – Desiree Afuye, Survivor: Ghost Island

It’s day 11 on Lairo tribe, and Elaine is absolutely scandalized.

Aaron wants to vote out Dean, and Elaine can’t believe it. “If Aaron’s willing to cut the throat of his friend, then what’s he going to do to me?” she gasps.

Elaine doesn’t want to take such a huge swing. So Missy proposes another option. If the goal is to split up the Chelsea/Dean power couple, what about Chelsea?

Elaine’s monocle pops right off. “Missy is something else,” she huffs. “Literally within ten minutes, she flipped the target onto Chelsea. And her ability to just drop names like that on a dime – it scares me.”

Is there any name out there that doesn’t terrify Elaine? Can people propose voting someone out on a show that’s about voting people out, without rustling her feathers?

The only name that isn’t a scandal, apparently, is Karishma’s. Karishma is at the bottom of the Lairo hierarchy. For that reason alone, she needs to go.

Elaine may seem hopelessly out of step with these fast-moving Survivor times, but the contrast between her strategy and Missy and Aaron’s is at the core of a fundamental Survivor question. How fast should the game go at the pre-merge? How focused should you be on tribal cohesion, and how much should you be making Big Moves?

Erik Reichenbach

Elaine’s wants to build a tribe that sticks together. “Karishma going to a swap, she’s going to jump ship every chance she gets,” Elaine warns. (Cut to Karishma in the preview for next week: “I need to flip on old Lairo.”) It’s a crucially important issue! Across Survivor history, the most successful alliances have been the most cohesive ones. Tribes that have had disaffected members at the merge have frequently been undone by those flippers. Look at the damage Erinn Lobdell did to Timbira, Candice Cody did to the Heroes, and John Cochran did to Savaii.

But Survivor is a much more fluid game now. When was the last time a tribe of 7 people stuck together through bonds of loyalty? By focusing on tribal unity at the expense of the micro-dynamics within that group, Elaine misses the trees for the forest.

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Aaron represents the opposite extreme.

“It seems like I’m the only one on this tribe that wants to play this game,” Aaron complains. “Everybody else – they’re trying to play, ‘everybody’s together and no hurt feelings.’ But at some point in time, this game’s got to get bloody.”

We don’t hear much more depth from Aaron than that he wants to play just to play. It’s a common feeling in the early weeks on Survivor. The days are long, and a decision as obvious as Karishma just feels boring. You haven’t gotten to the chaos of the merge yet, so you feel like you’re missing out on your Survivor experience. The game is passing us by! Let’s play, folks!

It’s true, at some point the game needs to get bloody. But don’t you want to assemble the best army before then? And weren’t the three beefy guys working together just last week?

Dean is a terrible target for Aaron. A big guy like Aaron should want other big targets around – especially one who’s in a showmance, who draws attention to himself from his challenge pratfalls and general clumsiness. Aaron’s biggest real threats are the Karishmas of the game, who are huge targets before the merge but gain tremendous leverage afterward.

Aaron’s reasons for wanting out Dean seem pretty thin – like he’s making up reasons to justify a Big Move. “He’s underperforming in challenges, he’s got Chelsea in his back pocket, and he’s playing a ‘smile at you, make you feel good’ kind of game.”

Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

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(I always wonder in situations like this, where a handsome, strapping guy like Aaron turns on another handsome, strapping guy who’s in a flirtmance – could there be a hint of jealousy? Not conscious, necessarily, but some subconscious sense that that should be his role?)

Missy offers a pragmatic middle ground. She’s focused not on who she can eliminate – but on who she can save. She wants to keep Karishma around as a pocket vote. “If I cast two votes instead of one, that’s a dope day,” she says. And her interest in taking out Chelsea is one based on thinking of the overall tribe dynamics.

“I need a name that no one’s completely attached to,” she says. Voting out Chelsea keeps the tribe in a beneficial state. “Girls keep the majority, we keep three big guys as protection for us, and Karishma’s still another vote to go later.”

Missy wants to keep the tribe strong – but more specifically, she wants to keep her own position in the tribe strong. Missy wins the Fishy for offering a way to think about pre-merge moves that are more than just Big Movez. Placate everyone, but most of all, strengthen yourself.

That said, it’s not a bloodless move. Missy alienates Dean, and scandalizes Elaine. While she keeps her pocket vote Karishma, the question remains, how long can she keep Karishma in that pocket? Today may be a dope day, but how dope will tomorrow be?

Of course, one of the biggest strategic factors is simply the chaos of Survivor itself. As Elizabeth notes, “Sometimes just the last plan you talked about, that’s the one you go with.” It’s a reminder that in a game that seems so deliberate and strategic, time and randomness are often more decisive factors than individual gameplay.

“That’s unnerving,” Elaine says, forever unnerved. “That plan Z could be the one if that’s you.”

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