Last week’s tribal reshuffle felt like it reignited this season of Survivor, and that feeling continues with “Play Or Go Home,” an episode that works not because it’s flashy or dramatic, but because it’s solid in both strategic and character moments. The result is the kind of episode that shows why Survivor has stayed such a viable format for so long. The basics just work, which makes the little unexpected twist at the end all that much more successful.

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One of the most satisfying things about the episode is how it manages to explore the dynamics of both tribes in depth while still leaving time for both a Reward and an Immunity Challenge. Both tribes have intriguing strategic dynamics happening, so getting equal time at each camp to flesh those out is more than welcome—especially because those dynamics are more game motivated than personal, making them far more engaging to watch. At Chan Loh, the main focus is on Nick and his different dynamics with Debbie and Michele. Debbie’s light fluffing of Nick’s ego is mostly played for laughs (especially when Debbie calls out her modeling experience and the producers helpfully identify her as “part-time model” in her onscreen job title), but it also cleverly ties into Nick’s interactions with Michele.

The emergence of Michele in this episode is an interesting note, because it’s obviously a moment that’s either setting her up to be a bigger presence in the game, or setting Nick up to take a big fall. It’s really the most we’ve seen of Michele since the very beginning of the season, and she acquits herself really nicely. If Chan Loh went to Tribal Council in this episode, her interactions with Nick would most certainly be setting up one of them to go home in this episode. As it stands, the show is laying out a narrative that Nick thinks he can manipulate Michele, and Michele clearly sees through him and lets him think he’s manipulating her all while distrusting him behind his back, and it feels like more than an amusing moment used for color in this episode. It feels like deliberate storytelling, and in giving Michele a great parting confessional line in “I don’t need to be carried, bro,” this storytelling looks to be going somewhere.

Over at Gondol, Peter is still struggling with his former Brain allies and whether or not he should work with them. It’s an interesting mix of him not trusting them and them not trusting him, while what’s best in almost all of their interests is to work together until they can safely break up. It could be a great opportunity for Peter to do something to help his (admittedly awful) standing within the allies of his former tribe, but Peter is far too sure of his ability to play the game and not nearly good enough at it to make up for this failing. The easy play is to lay low and vote off new arrival Julia, maintain their majority for one more week, then break up to do as they please. Peter wisely realizes he’s not wanted within his old alliance, though, and goes out searching other possibilities. It’s here where he gets in a bit over his head, latching on to the idea of getting rid of Aubry and Joe, and talking to Julia about it in the same way he talked to Tai about strategy when Tai was in danger last week. It’s not a great play, and Julia ultimately makes him pay for it by telling Aubry Peter was not only talking about getting rid of Joe, but also mentioning Aubry’s name as well.

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This scene leads to one of the more interesting plays in the game this season, when Aubry goes to Joe and tells him they might need to get rid of Peter instead of Julia, and Joe refuses to change the plan. Aubry and Joe have been strategizing pretty well together to this point, but seeing Joe’s refusal to make any sort of adjustments seems to spark something in Aubry. We go into Tribal Council not knowing what Aubry is thinking, and the Tribal itself is one of the more straightforward ones in recent memory. That is, right until Scot calls an audible play to his alliance members about which “plan” they are going with, right before the votes are cast.

Whatever this means, it seems to spark something in Aubry, and instead of voting Julia as planned she writes down Julia’s name and then crosses it out and changes it to Peter, ultimately casting the vote that sends him home. It’s a surprising move, and one done in a way that you don’t really see all that often, so the vote itself is exciting and surprising. What’s most exciting and surprising is not knowing how this will affect Aubry’s game—a game that’s been pretty darn solid so far. Getting someone out who started naming you as a target is a good thing. Getting them out when the rest of your alliance wasn’t on board? Potentially something entirely different altogether.

Stray observations

  • Giving a basketball-themed challenge to a basketball player feels so much like cheating, until you see Scot’s career PPG average.
  • Whose idea was it to give tuna salad as a reward for the reward challenge? That is not heat-appropriate food.
  • The stacking challenge was creative, and a nice relief from the endless puzzles. (It’s weird to call stacking things creative, but I’m grading on a curve here.)

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