It’s seems strange to say that this season of Survivor desperately needed a shakeup only five episodes into its run, but after last week’s stressful outing, that was definitely the case. Luckily “The Devils We Know” was more than happy to deliver, serendipitously using a well-timed tribal shuffle to get rid of most of the bad vibes still reverberating from the previous episode. The result is an episode that’s full of strategizing and new alliances, all of which hint of the possibility that this season has a lot left to offer after all.

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While the biggest upside of the tribal shuffle is that the Brawn tribe was finally put out of its misery, in actuality the resulting shuffled tribes seem far more interesting as a whole than the original three ever were. Because of Caleb’s unexpected departure, the show is forced to think on its feet and shuffle the remaining 13 players into two tribes instead of the three smaller ones they planned, which has the bonus of leaving one person as the odd person out. That person ends up being Julia, who gets the advantage of not having to play Immunity or chance getting voted off, but the disadvantage of having to spend the next three days alone and not forming new alliances, only getting to join a tribe after someone else is voted out. It’s a fun twist, and it’s fun to see Survivor thinking on its feet like this, especially because it affects alliance making and gameplay of the two tribes, since they know Julia will be joining whoever ends up losing the Immunity challenge.

The two tribes that are ultimately created—Chan Lo and Gondol—end up about as good of a random buff draw can get. The best part of the episode is just how much time it spends focusing on these new tribes and the alliances they form, watching as players feel each other out to see who they can trust. On Chan Lo, Debbie continues her streak of being one of the most social and strategic players, looking to take her fellow Brain Neal and align them with the two Brawn on the tribe, Cydney and Jason. Debbie might be getting the most interesting edit right now, considering she started as almost an object of mockery by the editing due to what could diplomatically be called her exuberant self-confidence, and is now positioned as one of the more savvy people playing the game. No matter what she ultimately ends up being, she’s emerged as a great character and an interesting person to watch play, which is something this season desperately needed.

Over on the Chan Lo tribe, things are a bit less rosy but no less interesting. The good of the tribe is Tai and his immediate ability to win over his new tribemates, which is nothing less than endearing to watch. He has the incredible ability to make everyone around him seem good by association, which is some kind of social superpower. He even manages to win over Scot and make him seem likeable again, which is impressive considering what Scot did last week. Not everyone on Chan Lo is a charmer, though, and Peter is the worst offender. Even though Peter got completely played in the one Tribal council he attended, he still has this incredibly unshakeable confidence that he has everything in the game under control, and it’s obnoxious to watch, albeit in a fascinating, anthropological sort of way.

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When Chan Lo loses the Immunity challenge, everything this episode’s weird little “solo Survivor” twist starts going into motion, as the Brains tribe decides they need to make sure a Beauty is voted out so when fellow Beauty Julia joins them from exile they won’t lose their numbers advantage. Peter is so confident about everything that he almost sabotages his own game, telling Tai and Anna that one of them will definitely be voted out by the Brains. This raises Tai’s hackles—and shows a strategy backbone from Tai that is interesting, if he can pull it together—and causes him to reveal his idol to Scot and Anna and ask them to work with him to use his idol and flip the votes to get out Peter instead. It’s a fun and intriguing idea, which blows up in their faces when it’s revealed that Anna is the target and Tai probably won’t need to use his idol at all. In an extra wrinkle that might come into play later, Scot realizes that he know knows of two idols that players he wants to work with have in their possession—both Tai and Jason—and if he can get to the merge and work with them and have possession of the super idol, they can do some damage.

When Tribal rolls around, the only big question is whether or not Tai will use his idol; once he make that decision it will be known whether or not the votes really were swinging his or Anna’s way. When he leaves it in his pocket it’s clear Anna is going to be voted out, and although it’s not the most surprising outcome, it feels pleasantly earned. This isn’t an episode full of misdirection, or twists and turns. It’s an episode that shows alliances forming and bending and people strategizing, and the ultimate result of all that strategizing makes sense. It feels clean in a way the season needed, and it make me excited to see what these two new tribes will do next. You can’t really ask for much more.

Stray observations

  • There were a lot of ants really close to Julia at all times. I was waiting for the shot where she woke up screaming with them crawling all over her body. (You’re welcome for the nightmares.)
  • Joe has decided there are no idols this season, because Joe is crazy. Which makes me wonder – would Survivor ever do a season again without idols? Would we want them to?
  • I didn’t really get Peter’s weird reluctance to just help someone with a hurt finger because they have a hurt finger and he’s a doctor. Was he implying that he would just not help them if it didn’t help his game?
  • Neal has an idol. Tai has an idol. Jason has an idol. We better get a super idol, dammit.
  • “We can do what we want right now, and we’re going to.” Peter is not good at Tribal.

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