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.
Erik Reichenbach is a former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.
“Everyone has a plan, and everyone’s trying to win a million dollars. So there’s no rules.” -Taj George, Survivor: Tocantins
There comes a point in every season of Survivor when even great players start making careless mistakes. After three weeks in the game, the constant paranoia and calorie deficit lead to frayed nerves and strategic slipups. Viewers are left slapping our heads and shouting at the screen. Contestants are left with a lifetime of trying to justify themselves on Twitter.
This episode, there’s very little drama around the vote. The Hero/Hustler alliance holds together, and the only question is whether to eliminate idol-magnet Joe or challenge threat Desi. The episode’s big spectacle comes with an unusual reward, where the players eat in turns and an idol clue lurks beneath a plate of spaghetti. Every player but one make critically careless mistakes that could cost them their game.
When Jeff says the reward has a twist and that people will be taking turns eating, I’m sure every Survivor fan was thinking the same thing. Six people with their own private feasts? Jeff might as well hold up a flashing neon sign that says “IDOLS HERE.” And when idolatrous Joe gets to order the eaters, I assumed he would naturally put himself first to get first dibs on any idol clues.
WATCH: Andrea Boehlke’s Brutally Honest Advice About Pooping in the Jungle on ‘Survivor’
So why on earth does Joe put himself last? He says it’s to win friendship points. “This is a great opportunity to establish better relationships and stronger alliances,” he says.
Watching at home, it’s easy to dismiss that rationale out of hand. To those of us on our couches, Survivor is a straightforward game of alliances and betrayals. But when you’re on the beach, Survivor is a web of personal relationships. It’s easy to forget how personal the game becomes, especially for first time players. Joe doesn’t know for certain if there is an idol at the reward. But he does know for a fact that if he puts himself first, he will increase his target.
That said, we should have retired the idea that generosity on a reward will help your status in the game during the great gift-off of San Juan Del Sur. At best, giving up a reward gains you nothing. More likely, it earns you suspicion and resentment. At worst, you lose the chance to find your third idol and tie the record.
Devon and JP are the first to eat, and of course they miss the idol clue. Devon is focusing on recharging his bright and beautiful light, and JP is – well, I have a soft spot in my heart for the JPs of Survivor, the stoic strongmen who have a sure hand with the slingshot and comically banal commentary in the confessional booth. Mike Jefferson on One World is one of my all-time favorites for his generic reactions to everything. And to be fair, that clue is under a very full plate of spaghetti.
WATCH: Shaun T & Andrea Boehlke’s Survivor-Inspired Workout!
Cole is the first to find the clue, and he hides it under a napkin, which Chrissy quickly uncovers – and then hides it under the same napkin which did a terrible job of concealing the clue from her.
Why doesn’t either of them toss the plate into the woods or bury it in the sand? It’s the question of the episode. If Cole had simply dug a pit and dumped in the plate, he’d be sitting pretty with an immunity idol and an immunity necklace.
My guess is that Cole and Chrissy don’t know if they’re allowed to dispose of the plate. I know it sounds crazy. Survivor is a game with almost no rules. Why wouldn’t you be allowed to bury something you find?
But think about it from the contestant’s perspective. When you go on reward, you’re entering a very contrived environment. You’re stepping out of raw nature and into an Italian feast. There’s an idol clue as part of the tableware. Is it within the bounds of the game for them to destroy or bury it? The contestants can feel constrained by the formality of the moment. They use the tools at hand – the napkin to cover the clue –rather than thinking outside the box and discarding the plate entirely.
You’d be surprised at how frequently contestants feel constrained by rules that don’t exist. I remember one challenge in Cambodia where each tribe had to solve a puzzle in the shape of their tribe flag. Jeff chided us for not picking up our actual flags from our mats and bringing them over as a guide. But in our minds, the flags “belonged” where we had left them. Or another example – why was JT in Game Changers the first ever player to simply stand up out of his seat at Tribal Council and walk across the room to share information? I bet most players would say the same thing – they didn’t know they were allowed to.
But Ryan gets it. Everything that’s not expressly against the rules is within the rules. Ryan wins the Fishy for being the only player to do the thing that they all should have done. He hides the plate in the underbrush, stopping Joe from seeing the clue.
WATCH: Duck Dynasty’s Korie And Sadie Robertson Would Love A Chance To Be On Survivor
At camp, Cole compounds his error by going to the bathroom, even though he suspects that Ryan and Chrissy were talking about the immunity idol on reward. (Side note – does Chrissy think she’s invisible? She keep openly talking about strategy right in front of her opponents.)
Cole is so close to being a decent player that it’s infuriating when he’s not. We expect nothing when people are doing nothing. (See JP.) But we expect a lot when they start doing a little. Cole’s had good reads all season about idols and social dynamics. But he keeps flubbing with carelessness – eating the wrong things, flirting with the wrong people, or peeing at the wrong time. His biological needs keep interfering with his strategic needs.
Ryan again is the one to discard the niceties and just make a grab for the idol. He winds up with an idol down his shorts. Cole and Chrissy end up with their faces full of sand.
At Tribal Council, the vote split is slightly complicated by Lauren’s new advantage, where she can sacrifice her vote to bank a spare piece of parchment for a future Tribal. The show ekes a little drama out of the question, “Will the Hero/Hustler alliance actually be stupid enough to do a 3-3 vote split with a 4 person minority?” But they are not. The alliance puts 4 of their reliable votes on Desi, and lets turncoat Healers Mike and Cole fill in the extra votes for Joe.
The vote split does have some interesting fallout. Because the votes were evenly divided, Jeff reads all of them. That raises a big question for next week. Who will have noticed that on an 11 person tribe, there were only 10 votes?
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.