Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS

By Stephen Fishbach
April 10, 2019 09:13 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.

“If you have a strong five, you can go so far, even if you’re down numbers at the merge. I guarantee you this. If you have a strong five that have good vibes with each other, trust each other, that’s an almost impossible nut to crack in this game.” — Benjamin “Coach” Wade, Survivor: South Pacific

Forget the immunity challenge! Forget the awkward strategizing back at camp! Let’s talk about one of the most haywire Survivor tribals ever.

The evening starts like it always does. Jeff sets the scene with one of his wise Survivor aphorisms, and opens tribal for discussion. “What’s it like to be on the wrong side of a blindside?” he asks Julie.

Just last week, Julie had thought she was part of the core Kama alliance. Now, she’s coming undone because she feels betrayed, and is unsure of her position in this volatile game. She’s seen the glances exchanged back at camp. Nobody’s talking strategy with her.

“I don’t trust anyone at this point!” she says.

The question of blindsides cracks open the shell of paranoia that’s been festering at camp. After Julia, Gavin, and Victoria’s big move last week, everyone is worried about the Kama 4 (four because we’re counting Aurora, as the contestants seem to be). Their old allies don’t trust them. And their new allies don’t trust them either! After all, look what they did to their old allies!

“I was trying to establish trust with a group of people,” Wentworth says. “However, the Kama group may have gotten back together. So I’m not completely certain what is going to happen.”

Making your allies feel safe and secure is one of the most important things you can do on Survivor – and that’s especially true after a big shift in the game. Everyone’s naturally going to be a little raw, a little insecure.

Julia and Aurora try to placate the different factions – but they just end up stirring up more paranoia. When Jeff asks Julia why she’s chuckling during Julie’s teary speech, Julia says, “Wentworth look[ed] over at me, asking if we’re still good. And I was like, yes.” By admitting her alliance with Wentworth, Julia makes it clear to Devens and David that they’re the targets. Then Aurora starts speaking so elliptically, that people get even more confused.

Devens of course wins the Fishy for blowing open the tribal, and suggesting that all the groups at the bottom work together. “There’s a really strong Kama group that doesn’t want us messing with them,” he says. “Then we have five Lesu, and two Kamas that have been left out. That’s seven people, and we can do whatever we wanted.”

Erik Reichenbach/CBS

Devens is helped by Julia’s terrible attempt to play defense. Julia has an opportunity to speak up and reassure her allies that she’s on their side. Instead, she uses her time to be dismissive of Devens. “You’re such a passenger,” she tells Rick, waving her hand. It’s exactly the wrong emotional cue. Rather than be an encouraging ally to her friends, she displays the kind of arrogance that her other allies are already worried about.

She also gives Devens a perfect opening. “I can see why Julia would not want that, but for the seven of us – we could get through this vote and take the power from Kama, who’s clearly messing with all of us.”

Again Julia has an opportunity to reassure her core group and build trust. And again she turns it into an attack on Rick. “You’re paranoid, because you’re not part of the many plans,” she says. That phrase, many plans, is disastrous. It tells every single person she’s allied with that she’s double dealing.

That’s when total chaos breaks out. Groups get out of their seats, start whispering. Julie shouts, “I’m ready to jump ship!” David’s Cheshire grin looks ready to eat his face. The jury explains the action like a Greek chorus. Victoria seems to be the only person in the Kama 4 actually attempting damage control. The Production team is high-fiving each other behind the scenes.

Let’s give credit to JT, who was the first person in Survivor to get out of his seat and walk across the tribal council. Yes, that ended up being disastrous for him! But his move in Game Changers lays the groundwork for this wonderful chaos tonight.

The Tribal Council was a 20-minute set piece that perfectly illustrated the point I was making last week. By flipping on their alliance at the merge, Julia and Gavin gave themselves an almost impossible task. They were just three people – four counting Aurora – somehow trying to control a game when there were other voting blocs just as big as their own. And now, because of that big move, none of them trust you at all.

Your former allies obviously don’t trust you – and they want their revenge! Look at Julie, shouting “I’m ready to jump ship! I’m ready to jump ship!” This isn’t just one person acting erratically. It’s the crystallized emotional response of what every person in that position feels. Betrayed. Afraid. And angry.

Then, your new allies – the ones who flipped with you last vote – don’t need your help anymore, and now they know you’re untrustworthy. Take Wentworth, reading into every missed glance and side-eye. Is she right, that Julia’s over-enthusiasm and Gavin’s awkwardness are signs that she’s being set up? Or is the paranoia getting to her?

I’m not sure we know what the former Kamas were going to do. It looks like they were planning to stick with Wentworth and vote out David. (David would likely have played his idol. Would Kelley have then played hers? Who knows who would have gone home.)

It almost doesn’t matter what their original plan was. By breaking faith last week, Gavin and Julia have inherently put themselves into the position where nobody trusts them.

You can’t totally blame Gavin and Julia, however. It’s the same fate that befalls almost every tribe that’s supremely dominant before the merge. Look at Timbira, Galu, Tandang … the list of self-destructing tribes goes on. Because they didn’t have a chance to go to tribal council before the merge, these groups never had the opportunity to build trust, to solidify alliances, or to vote out malcontents. It’s the rationale for the famed “Intentional Matsing” strategy, that argues that it’s so valuable to go to tribal pre-merge, it might even be worth throwing challenges to do it.

(Worth it for everyone but the person who goes home, of course!)

Three votes into the merge, and it’s three Kamas that have gone home. Now the numbers are 5-5, and the Kamas all hate each other. Through paranoia, mistrust, and the quixotic quest for the Survivor resume, the Kamas have given the Lesus the upper hand, and the underdogs have become the top dogs.

“I was criticized for bringing up the idea,” Devens says. “But I think I’m glad that I did.”

Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.