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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Two Survivor episodes are better than one, at least during this great season

Illustration for article titled Two Survivor episodes are better than one, at least during this great season

For anyone worried CBS was burning off two sub-par episodes the night before Thanksgiving, fear not: This season’s quality streak continues apace, with two great episodes that end with either an epic blindside or an epic mistake (or maybe a little bit of both). If the two episodes have anything in common, it’s that both send one of the season’s big, vocal strategists home. The difference? That the first episode emphasizes how important voting blocs have been to this season, while the strategy in the second is far more aligned with the entrenched idea of long-term alliances.

Take the first hour, which immediately reinforces the voting bloc ideology by having Jeremy walk back his voting alliance with Ciera immediately in order to get Tasha back on their side. This is quickly juxtaposed by Ciera’s desire to go after Stephen, despite them voting together the week before. These weekly shifts must be maddening as a player, but as a viewer they are absolutely thrilling because they make every episode distinct from each other and entirely unpredictable. There is no big majority alliance tramping over a smaller one; there are simply incremental shifts every week that hinge on that specific episode’s strategizing.

The episode essentially comes down to Ciera versus Stephen, with the biggest advocate for Stephen’s ouster coming from Spencer, and the biggest detractor coming from Jeremy. It looks like Stephen is done for, right up until the moment Jeremy pulls out one of his Immunity idols and plays it for Stephen, nullifying all of his votes and sending Ciera home instead. It’s a great, exciting play, not only because it’s insanely fun to watch but because it’s almost as if this one moment shifts the gameplay for the entire game. Immediately everyone forgets about voting blocs and goes back to the alliance way of thinking, simply because what Jeremy did isn’t something you do for someone in your fickle voting bloc. It’s what you do for a solid alliance member.

Which transitions really nicely into the second hour, which is all about figuring out who you can trust and actually align with, not just vote with for one week and then abandon forever. Stephen essentially declares his own alliance when he wins a reward and takes Jeremy and Tasha along for the ride, and while he’s gone gives everyone a time to band together against that alliance and work to get one of them out. It’s incredible how quickly the game shifts back into something so easily recognizable as it was here, and the shift makes the whole two-episode block feel like it was meant to be together to succinctly tell the story of Stephen’s greatest triumph in this season, followed quickly by his greatest downfall. The ironic thing is that both happened not because of the voting bloc strategy he pushed for so long, but because of good, old-fashioned, alliance-based Survivor.

Jeremy declaring he was so aligned with Stephen he was willing to play an idol in order to keep him in the game was one nail in Stephen’s coffin. The other? Stephen’s advantage, which made him an easy target due to the level of uncertainty that surrounded it, combined with Stephen’s reputation as a good strategic player. Both of these things signaled to Spencer that it was time to take Stephen out, and the first big mistake Stephen makes is trusting Spencer was on his side enough to reveal the advantage. The Survivor producers get a lot of great mileage out of the fact that the vote somewhat hinges on Abi, and any vote that hinges on Abi is going to be completely uncertain. But the second Stephen trusted Spencer, it was pretty much over for him.

Stephen’s biggest mistake, though, was splitting the votes between Abi and Joe instead of just voting Joe across the board. It’s hard to fault the split vote decision—especially in a season where not splitting the votes sent someone home—but watching Stephen vote for Abi with his vote, then use his advantage to steal Joe’s vote and vote for Joe, was painful because it was fairly clear what was coming next. Stephen gets blindsided, one episode after his life in the game was spared at the last minute. In a season of the new-fangled voting blocs he so enthusiastically praised at Tribal, Stephen is voted out by nothing else but reaction to the threat of his very old-fashioned alliance, and the entire season comes full circle. But with a season that changes so much, the idea of traditional alliances could be gone by next week, replaced by something completely different. And that’s what makes it so fun to watch.


Stray observations

  • The Survivor Folklore challenge is fantastic and I want that in the challenge rotation way more often. Stephen sabotaging Abi was also a nice little horrible piece of business that I greatly enjoyed.
  • Between Keith and Stephen’s feet, and then the all-feet Immunity Challenge, this was definitely the episode of feet. If you’re into that sort of thing.
  • Speaking of Keith, he remains consistently entertaining. From his “to hell with Joe” after donning Joe’s shirt to his insistence that he stayed in the Immunity Challenge to “kill the golden boy,” he was full of great zingers tonight.
  • So much misery in this episode. When was the last time the players were so miserable that production essentially stepped in to make their living environment more comfortable so they didn’t all quit and/or die?
  • Anyone acting like Joe was wrong to want to compete in the Immunity Challenge is crazy. They all know they want him out, and they know he knows.
  • Spencer: “It’s like a new game every time we get back from Tribal. It’s a new game of Survivor. A new tribe of Survivor.”
  • Stephen: “With Joe’s vote, Joe will be voting for Joe.”