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.
“An alliance you got with somebody, or trust, it doesn’t mean a whole lot right now. It’s about making that Final 2 and getting a chance to win.” – Chris Daugherty, winner, Survivor: Vanuatu
The loved ones visit is always the most emotional episode of the season. We see contestants who have been plotting and scheming for a month straight finally have a brief moment of love and trust.
Kara says it as well as anybody. “I’m surrounded by people I want to consider my friends, but I don’t know what their intentions are. So when I see you it’s just – I know that you love me and that there’s nothing beyond that.”
The loved ones visit is often one of the most strategic episodes of the season, too. Seeing your loved ones reminds you of the stakes. It’s easy to get lost in the deep relationships you form on Survivor – in the shared suffering of the show. But when your mom or your boyfriend comes running around that shrub, suddenly your perspective zooms out.
This episode, when Gabby sees Christian interacting with his girlfriend, she realizes that she’s been lulled into a false sense of safety. “I can’t let myself get lured into that sense of security, like ‘Oh, Christian’s looking out for me. Christian’s got my back.’ I need to play for me.”
Gabby decides that in order for her to ever get credit for her own strategic moves, she needs to eliminate her friend. “I want respect in this game,” she says. “What better way than to slay my number one ally?”
Now granted, things don’t exactly work out for Gabby. Christian plays his idol, and it’s Gabby who ends up walking the torch-lit path. But regardless of the results, the question of the episode is – was this the right move for Gabby to make? And was this the right time to make it?
The Right Move
From my perspective, turning on Christian is the move that Gabby had to make.
One of the hardest challenges on Survivor is recognizing how other people perceive you. Most players get caught in their own narrative. They see all the sacrifices they’re making, the struggles they’re enduring, the clever little plays they’re masterminding – and they think everybody else will recognize their accomplishment. They’re the heroes of their own stories!
But Gabby realizes that she’s not the hero of the story that’s playing out. Last episode, she understood that the Goliaths perceived Carl as the Godfather. This episode, she recognizes that brainy Christian with his glasses and his nerdy aphorisms will be considered the mastermind. She’ll be relegated to the sidekick in the jury’s eyes.
This isn’t paranoia. Gabby’s perspective is 100% correct. How many seasons have we seen someone make it to the end as part of a strong strategic pair, only to get no credit for that pair’s big moves. There was Gervase in Blood vs. Water, Chelsea in One World, Becky in Cook Islands …. I feel like I’m missing one, but I’m sure it will come to me.
So it’s tremendously impressive that Gabby realizes how the rest of the tribe sees her, and then takes action to fix it. Gabby has to eliminate Christian if she has any hope of winning the game.
At The Right Time
The real question is: does Gabby make her play too soon? Christian is always going to be seen as a massive threat. Should Gabby have waited a few votes and tried to eliminate Christian closer to the end? If Gabby does take out Christian now – if she makes herself the threat she wants to become – would she even be able to make the final tribal?
It’s a tough question, complicated by the fact that the fire-making challenge removes one of the possible votes. That means Gabby only has four chances in which she has to eliminate Christian or she loses all chance of winning the game. And she also has to calculate Christian’s idol – meaning Gabby only really has three shots. And what if Christian wins immunity again? We already knew he was a puzzle boss. But he’s also an endurance champ.
The challenge on Survivor is that the game shifts so rapidly. Tribe attention can coalesce around a player, for who knows what reason. We saw it last week. Somehow everyone thought Alec was the biggest threat and needed to go! Then everyone thought it was Carl! So if Gabby sees an opportunity to open up her game – I think she has to go for it.
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Fans may be furious at Gabby for her attempt at blindsiding our beloved Christian. But that’s exactly why it needed to be done. Gabby couldn’t beat him at the end. So she had to try to beat him in the middle. It’s better to make your move too soon than too late.
The Fishy, of course, goes to Christian this episode, for correctly gauging that Gabby had turned. He plays his idol, saves himself, and takes out his former best ally. He knew it was you, Gabby.
But what was fantastic about this episode was that everyone was making their best play. Mike White had the brilliant idea to switch his and Angelina’s votes on to Gabby. That way, when Christian did play his idol, the Davids still lost leverage – because Gabby got eliminated, rather than Goliath Alison going home.
And Davie made the correct move in telling Christian about the plots. “I’ve shielded myself so far by hiding behind people seen as a big threat,” he says. “But who’s going to be my shield if I get Christian out?” If Christian goes home, who would be the next likely target? Davie would certainly be up there.
Part of what makes this season so fun is seeing so many players make consistently smart decisions. Indeed, every single one of the David advantages has had game-changing significance. First there was Davie’s idol play, which saved Christian and sent John home. Then there was Carl’s nullifier and Nick’s vote steal, which saved Christian and took out Dan. Now Christian’s idol saves Christian, too.
Christian has dodged a lot of bullets this season. With three votes left, and no idols, can he keep dodging?
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.