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.
“I think you underestimate how paranoid people start to get, and then they run around, and then other people get paranoid.” — Kim Spradlin, winner, Survivor: One World
This episode, Survivor hit a season high as all seven remaining players scrambled to betray each other. Secrets were revealed, alliances were scuttled, and Ben played an idol at a clutch moment to save himself and evict fan favorite Lauren Rimmer from the game.
But before all that – the family visit! Yes, the family visit, when foul-smelling contestants make kissy-face with their loved-ones. When family members marvel at how skinny the castaways have become. And when contestants make weepy pledges about how they’re going to devote the rest of their lives to their families.
Of course, watching it back on TV, six months after filming, they barely remember these pledges. By now they’ve decided to devote their lives to attending post-show reality TV charity events!
I’m a sentimental old fool, so the family visit always makes me tear up. But the real thrill of the episode is watching Jeff Probst in his eternal quest to understand human relationships.
“One thing that always strikes me is the way a daughter falls into the arms of her dad,” he says, clearly betraying that he’s from an alien civilization and has taken on human form to study our mysterious ways. Tell me, hoo-man. What is love? What is family?
What makes the family visit particularly exciting is how fiercely the contestants will compete to spend a few extra moments with their loved ones. Get ready to watch these sleep-starved Survivors push themselves past their limits as they — just kidding! The challenge this week is a marble draw!
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A Marble-ous Good Time
I hate to ever say anything bad about a Survivor challenge. Every week for 18 years, the challenge team has created devious Rube Goldberg contraptions that corkscrew the contestants’ minds and push their bodies to the breaking point.
But if you’re going to praise the highs, you also have to acknowledge the lows, and “pick a marble out of a bag” may be the single worst challenge in the history of the show – and I mean even worse than “who can fly the best kite” from the Marquesas.
In what may actually be a Survivor first, the challenge requires absolutely zero player effort or skill. Indeed, for the first half of the challenge, I was positive the contestants were being punked – that after all the marbles failed to match, Jeff would surprise the group by telling them they all got to have the family visit.
As Dalton Ross notes in his recap, the challenge is almost certainly a last-minute replacement. You have to give Probst credit for doing his best to make it compelling. “We have a showdown!” Jeff exclaims, as we watch Chrissy and Ben face off in an epic marble pick ‘em.
Water Well Whispers
The sub-par challenge was just prelude for a spectacular episode. This may be the most competitive final seven in the history of the show. Every single player is working every angle to get ahead in the game.
The drama is set in motion at the reward, when Chrissy makes a compelling pitch to Ashley to flip alliances, from the terribly named “Core Four” to the “Socially Awkward Three” of herself, Ryan, and Dr. Mike.
“You’re in a four person alliance right now with three people that will take your million dollars,” Chrissy tells Ashley. “Give some thought to if the three of us can help get rid of your competition.”
This was not a great episode for Chrissy, but this is a fantastic pitch. She doesn’t beg Ashley to flip. She doesn’t say What if we all work together? Instead, she tells Ashley – use us to serve your ends.
The moment inspires Ashley to do something she wanted to do anyway – try to eliminate Ben. At the water well with Lauren and Devon, Ashley makes her pitch. It’s a terrible idea, of course. Eliminating Ben would skew the tribe’s numbers, and as Devon notes, Chrissy is a bigger threat in the challenges.
But before Devon can work his silver tongued magic, Ben walks up on the group in mid-scheme.
This is a moment that every Survivor player knows well. You approach a group of people in heated conversation – often at the water well – and the chatter stops. Everybody looks around awkwardly. Somebody asks your opinion. “Uh, so, uh, who do you think it should be tonight?” It’s obvious that they were talking about you, and not to admire how lustrous your hair looks in the island sun.
The difficulty in these moments is trying to decipher how much to read into it. Is this just normal Survivor background noise, where everybody is always targeting everybody else? Or is it a real plot to get you out? A month into the game, when you can practically smell the pancakes cooking on the day 39 breakfast, it’s hard not to get paranoid.
So you can understand why Ben takes the extreme perspective. He abandons his alliance and tries to target Lauren with Dr. Mike, Chrissy, and Ryan.
Is Ben overreacting? What Ben actually walks in on is Devon convincing Ashley not to vote him out. On the one hand, these conversations constantly swirl around the game, and if you freak out just because your name came out of someone’s mouth, you can make your position worse. On the other hand, if you don’t pay attention to the early warning signs of betrayal, you could easily find yourself taking the torch snuff shuffle.
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Therein lies the difficulty of Survivor.
While Dr. Mike and Ryan are on board with Ben’s plot, Chrissy is still too furious to trust him. Chrissy comes off as petty and vengeful – every Survivor fan knows that you’re supposed to just brush off betrayals, say “good job,” and move forward. But I also understand her perspective. Ben just spent six days gaslighting her. While we the viewers know that now Ben is being honest – after all, we can see his confessionals – how can Chrissy possibly believe him? Trust is a fragile thing on Survivor; I mean, Ben is destroying the Core Four because of an awkward pause by the water well. Chrissy must be worried that not only will Ben betray her – but she’ll look like a total dope on national television.
Dr. Mike, seeing Chrissy’s hesitation, recognizes a perfect opportunity. He tells Ashley, Lauren, and Devon that Ben is planning to betray them. As proof, he presents all the information that Ben has just revealed.
A Fishy Award for Dr. Mike, the last Healer left, who plays the two sides against each other and leverages the confusion around camp to keep himself safe.
Lauren, realizing she’s a target, decides that it’s more important to cement her numbers than to ensure her safety. To prove trust to Dr. Mike, she gives him half her idol. It’s a game-losing mistake, one I’m sure she made in the heat of the moment, and that she’ll relive for many years. After a chaotic tribal council, where Devon follows JT’s inspiration from Game Changers and walks across the room, both sides decide to come together and vote out Ben – but Ben plays his idol and sends Lauren home.
Ben wins a Fishy for reading the early signs of an alliance betrayal and playing his idol when he needed it most.
The only question now is: how long do we have to wait until we can get Lauren Rimmer back on our TV screens? I hope she’s brought back next season and possibly every season. I hope Lauren is the ghost on next season’s Survivor: Ghost Island.
I think one reason that Lauren has resonated with so many fans is that she is the no-nonsense antidote to the Big Movez era of Survivor. One of my favorite moments of the episode came when Lauren reacted to Ben’s fake idol. “Ben’s got this fake idol, but what is it gonna do?” she asks. “Who is it gonna benefit?”
Lauren wasn’t trying to create GIFable moments or TV-friendly antics. She was just playing the game as hard as she could.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.