'Survivor' : A Struggle to Balance Friendship and Strategy Leads to a Game-Losing Misplay

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

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’re gonna have friendships. You gotta cut off those friendships. You gotta string people along and bam! Throw them a nice slider. Mr. Freeze is in the house. Even though it’s about 110 out here, I’ve got my skates on.” — Brian Heidik, winner, Survivor: Thailand

It can be difficult on Survivor to know when to make your perfect move. But Laurel Johnson knows for certain the time for her to turn on Domenick and Wendell is right now.

“This is probably the last shot of getting them out without them playing their idols,” she says. “Seven is the last chance to get these guys … and get myself to where I need to be in the end.”

She has a group of people around her eager to make the move. And she’s got a perfect situation to do it. With Chelsea out of the game, voting with Donathan, Kellyn, and Angela wouldn’t put her at the bottom of a new alliance. That foursome could seize control.

But Laurel doesn’t spend this episode figuring out how to make her move. Laurel spends it figuring how not to make her move.

“They’re two of my best friends out here,” she tells herself.

“I’m going with the smart move rather than the big move,” she says later.

After the confusion around her immunity win, she argues that, “I’ve been thinking I want to get Wendell out of here. But I want to do it the right way.”

Laurel is offering every excuse she can to justify not doing what she doesn’t want to do.

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Maybe it is considered bad manners to vote someone out in an impolite way. But this is Survivor, a game for a million dollars, where lots of rude things happen, and I think Laurel knows that.

Survivor can surprise you with the deep bonds you make. Everybody watching the show insists that they’d play a ruthlessly cold and calculating game. Then when you show up on the island, suddenly you’re huddled together in the rain, relying on the body heat of the people around you just to stay warm.

And yet Laurel’s case is so particularly frustrating, because she is such a fan, and she does know better. And because she has Donathan in her ear, begging her to make a move.

“I feel like if we just keep playing it too safe, that we’re just going to be in a bigger pickle at the end,” Donathan says, for what feels like the hundredth time, and what probably really was the thousandth time.

I felt for Donathan this episode, as he slowly lost his mind to paranoia. I was going a little crazy myself, watching people trip over themselves to hand either Wendell or Domenick the victory. Donathan is totally correct that, if Wendell and Domenick really are in an alliance with him, they shouldn’t be passing secret notes right in front of him. If my allies did that, and then tried to gaslight me into believing that I was the crazy one, I might start to question my sanity too.

Survivor comicCredit: Courtesy Erik Reichenbach
Courtesy Erik Reichenbach

Wendell and Domenick excluded him from the reward, didn’t send him to Ghost Island, and then came back to camp and told him they were still 100 percent allies. Who wouldn’t start to wonder about the nature of reality?

Of course, Donathan’s paranoid vision that Wendell is going to play an idol to save Kellyn and eliminate him is a little farfetched. But imagine if, after a month of struggle on Survivor, you had one last shot to take control of the game, but nobody would take it? With Laurel drawing hearts in the sand around Wendell and Domenick’s names, all Donathan can do is throw out bombs and hope something blows up.

Of course, the Fishy this week goes to the combined super-pair of Wendell and Domenic. As much as we fault the other players for their inability to make a move, we have to credit this duo for keeping the camp under control.

After they win the reward, Wendell and Domenick make two great decisions. First, they wisely pick Laurel to bring with them, reinforcing the friendship that keeps her loyal. “We picked Laurel to go with us to shore up our alliance, to reward her for her loyalty to us, to show her how much we do care for her, and to give her this special moment,” Wendell says.

And they send Sebastian to Ghost Island. That places trust in him, it keeps him from being swayed by Kellyn, and it puts any potential advantage in the hands of the person least equipped to wield it.

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All Wendell and Domenick need to move past this vote is four people. By isolating two of their chief allies, they make it that much harder for strategic Kellyn or Donathan to rally forces against them. One of the most important laws of Survivor is that people can’t ally against you if they never have time to do so.

It’s possible their little bit of theater with Wendell’s fake idol also helps. Any time the whiff of an idol enters the game, people are much more cautious about where they place their votes.

And of course, once again they make the correct decision of whom to eliminate. Kellyn was the last big strategic and challenge threat left, the only person with a chance of rallying Angela and Donathan. By eliminating her from the game, the pair essentially cements that one of them will win.

The split vote opened the door for Donathan, Angela, and Kellyn to make a move on Domenick – but it’s not clear about who knew what, when.

This really was Laurel’s last shot, and while it’s still technically possible that both Domenick and Wendell could be eliminated, it’s extremely unlikely. If even one of them wins one immunity, he’s guaranteed to at least make the fire-making challenge.

As we head into the finale, the only question is: Who will take it all? My money’s on Wendell, just because I pegged him as the winner in the first episode, and it seems crazy to abandon that call now. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see his wonder-twin Domenick take home that check.

Tweet me your predictions @stephenfishbach!

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

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