One of the most interesting aspects of Survivor is how the people playing the game become a conscious part of creating and sustaining the season’s overall narrative. Reality shows are by nature stoked and shaped by the producers, who take the footage they’re given and use it to create the story beats that will propel the entire season. Survivor is unique in that it gives its participants an unparalleled look into what those main storylines might be shaping up to be by virtue of the fact that each episode ends with a Tribal Council that discusses everything that’s going on in the game. The things discussed at Tribal then filter into the psyche of the players, subtly (and maybe not-so-subtly) affecting their thought processes and game moves, creating a sort of self-fulfilling cycle of game narratives and strategy.

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This is obviously a simplistic view on the craft involved in making the show and playing the game of Survivor; for example, Tribal Councils are way longer than the five minutes they get distilled to in the episode, and contain so much information that the effects described above might be exaggerated. But this episode certainly makes the case that there’s some sort of symbiosis happening between the concepts discussed at Tribal and how people play the game after considering them. Take for example the idea that gameplay styles have significantly changed since the beginning of the game. This is something that started as mostly a player observation with Jeff Varner, then became something talked about at almost every Tribal Council, practically becoming show canon during “Play To Win.” Since then, Stephen has taken up for the idea of new gameplay almost like it’s his personal mantra, and it becomes the driving force behind this entire episode.

The impetus for Stephen to attempt a big move seems to come from Kelley Wentworth’s big move in the previous episode, which left everyone in shock and scrambling. Savage’s ouster has the alpha males—especially Jeremy—in a bit of a tizzy, because a shot at a fellow alpha male is like an oblique shot at them, and now they’re in the crosshairs. Stephen isn’t in a tizzy, but he is ready to go from what looks like a bottom position in the majority alliance to a much better position in a different alliance. His strategy to align with the three women at the bottom (Ciera, Abi, and Kelley Wentworth, not-so-affectionately dubbed by Kimmi as the “witches’ coven”) to take out a threat in the majority alliance instead. The tricky part of all of this is that he has to convince two people from the majority alliance to take the risk with him, and both Spencer and Jeremy seem more than skeptical.

The interesting part of Stephen’s strategy here is that, at last from his confessionals and what he talks about at Tribal, it feels as much about making a good game move as it does choosing his own narrative in the game this time around. He’s the one who keeps bringing up having accomplishments to bolster his position in the final jury questioning, and he’s the one who has embraced the idea that this season has a new kind of gameplay based around voting blocs rather than traditional, ride-or-die alliances. It’s his self-awareness about what he’s doing that feels different, as well as his willingness to analyze the methodology of what he’s doing in real time. I’m not quite sure why his idea to flip works on Spencer and Jeremy—that’s somewhere in a confessional on the proverbial editing room floor—but the idea that players are so willing to adapt to this idea of obviously shifting alliances and voting blocs is certainly intriguing.

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Other than Stephen’s big move, the biggest story of the episode has to be Jeremy and what is shaping up to be his very favorable, potentially-telling edit. Jeremy has been a fairly low-key presence throughout the season, hanging out in the background and not getting too many confessionals. That trend basically implodes here, as Jeremy gets a stellar episode edit full of confessionals, a joyful idol hunt, and even a tearful “I’m doing this for Val” monologue to tug on the heartstrings. Calling something a winner’s edit feels a bit presumptive and facile, but between Jeremy’s edit in this episode and his impressive willingness to adapt to Stephen’s strategy shift without much hand wringing, I’m increasingly impressed with his game this season. He might just go all the way.

Stray observations:

  • Stephen’s advantage to steal someone’s Tribal vote is an interesting one. Looking forward to how that is going to play out.
  • Joe won Immunity again. Yawn.
  • The camerawork during the Immunity Challenge was really fantastic. It made a fairly boring challenge look interesting and great.
  • Abi’s strategy of foiling Joe’s idol hunt by telling him she needs to poop is admirable. Everyone should use this strategy for everything in the game, all the time. Even if it makes no sense.
  • Kelly Wiglesworth got literally maybe three confessionals this entire season, and was definitely a goner as soon as she got an “I’m pretty confident” quote at Tribal. She was a total snooze of a player.
  • Stephen, on Joe and Kelly Wiglesworth: “They have a sort of shared arrogance about how awesome they are.”
  • Tasha: “It’s pretty much play or get played at this point.”

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