Survivor is a narrative of choices. When a million dollars is at stake, whether you can claim it comes down to the decisions you make along the way. Tonight, the Goliaths led the familiar Survivor story of decision-making, weighing up trust and their own path to victory as they chose between making a bold move and sticking to the safe majority.
Meanwhile, the Davids found themselves in the far more unique predicament of choosing how to employ their well-stocked arsenal of advantages to pull out a win – and in doing so, executed a second consecutive blindside to near perfection. Once again, David vs. Goliath delivered with a “bing!” and even more than in previous weeks, the game ahead is open and the choices abundant.
FLIRTATION AND RESERVATION
For the past few weeks, Alison and Alec have ridden the line of working with the Davids. Alec made a bold play himself in the pre-merge to demonstrate his willingness to play big, but as the merge hit, the pair’s approach grew more conservative. After building the cross-tribal Strike Force, they smartly played it safe and voted out Elizabeth in order to bide their time for the opportune moment. But last week, Mike decimated the alliance by turning on Christian & Gabby and committing to the Goliaths, leaving Alec and Alison reluctantly in the lurch. After the Davids’ spectacular move to circumvent and outwit their opponents and snipe John, Alec and Alison had to decide whether to make the bold play or follow in Mike’s footsteps and commit to the Goliath majority.
Alison was the lens through which this choice was framed tonight – a welcome inclusion of her story and a refreshing editor’s decision not to merely spike her airtime in her boot episode. Concerned that she would be left behind if she didn’t accelerate her game, and worried that her repeated empty promises to the Davids would bite her, she sought to use her good relationship with Gabby to consolidate a new path ahead and one that could earn her some clout on her game resume. Gabby met the conversation warmly, encouraging Alison to “come to the good side” and make a big play in taking out a player like Dan, and Alison seemed eager – only to get cold feet as Tribal approached, rationalising the Davids’ eagerness to work with them as suspicious, and deciding to fall back in line with the herd of cats that were the Goliaths, instead turning the sights on Christian, a visible threat, once again.
Alec’s trajectory followed, perhaps more reluctantly but inarguably surprising for a player championed as a bold risk-taker and someone willing to leap over any high-step and work with whoever could improve his own chances.
I’ll admit that I was frustrated to see Alec and Alison slink back to the safe majority and “go with the flow,” but in reality, it really is a smart play for them. Not because flipping to the Davids would put them at the bottom as Dan condescendingly assumed (their specific relationships with certain Davids give them a leg up there), but because the ramifications of the theme run deep. A David who can make it to the Final Three is going to have one hell of an underdog story, so it behooves a Goliath to be sitting at the end with only Goliaths. Furthermore, as the pair articulated tonight, they’ve also got the numbers within the Goliath alliance, such as it is, presumably able to draw on Mike and Kara to gain the upper hand. Whilst working across Tribal lines makes for bolder play and more exciting viewing, it verges on over-complicating a sensible path ahead. The trouble was that by playing it safe again, Alec and Alison were left out of the loop and ultimately found their hands forced.
The interesting wrinkle to tonight’s episode was the new recruit in Kara. To this point, Kara has remained largely Goliath-strong, only flirting with working with the Davids when she was in hot water in the minority on Vuku. Yet tonight, she became the biggest voice urging a flip. Conversing with Alec and Alison in the aftermath of Tribal, Kara expressed her willingness to make a bold play and in a sudden but inevitable betrayal, her interest was taking out Dan.
Dan plays with his heart on his sleeve, but that’s a dangerous thing and forced Kara into a support role that was limiting her ability to play the game. As demonstrated on the beach after Tribal, a frustrated Dan sat alone and then blamed his tribemates for leaving him to sulk instead of including him in the conversation, when really it was Dan’s responsibility to take control of his actions and include himself. Kara recognised that Dan was becoming an emotional drain for her game, but by also being a major target among the Goliaths, continuing to associate with him could see her end up as collateral – it could have easily been her instead of John if the Davids wanted to take out someone close to Dan.
I was impressed by Kara’s commitment to making the move to cut free the anchor holding her down. Despite caring about Dan on a personal level, she focused on the game and made the tough decision. She used the secret information of his second Idol to consolidate her trust with Alison and Alec. She wholly committed to the Davids and pitched a smart contingency plan of splitting votes on Angelina, just in case Dan had an Idol – also being sure not to let the Davids in on too much. The only hiccup in Kara’s play was Alec and Alison’s choice to play it safe for another vote. At least, it was the only hiccup before the Davids took the wheel…
You couldn’t have planned it better. In a season built on the Biblical battle between the brash Goliath and the clever David, Survivor’s Davids have found themselves with ample ammunition for their sling. With Carl’s Idol Nullifier and Nick’s Vote Steal already in the bag, the group had options but still knew they were firmly on the outs. The Goliaths have taken no care to hide their tribal pow-wows over the past couple weeks, flagrantly assembling en masse before Tribal, and understandably, the Davids were growing frustrated by the callous us-and-them segregation. Furthermore, despite an onslaught of hollow promises from the Goliaths, the Davids had no one to rely on but themselves. Gabby worked to sway Alison tonight and agreed to Kara’s plan to split the vote, but ultimately, once again, she would have been left at the altar if she’d trusted them. Thus, the Davids had to devise their own counter-attack.
The dust had barely settled from the Rickenbacker Mayoral Upset of Slamtown before the Davids were right back to hustling, coordinating a pre-dawn Idol hunt to locate any rehidden advantage. In a playful montage that literally highlighted his “breadth-first search” strategy, Christian was able to scour the vast Island and find his very own Idol. Thus, the Davids were well-supplied to make their move – but the question was how best to use it.
The trick is that an Idol is largely a defensive tool and is inarguably the most versatile advantage on the board, so I was glad to see Christian save it for another day. However, the Vote Steal and the Nullifier are not only extremely circumstantial but mostly offensive. There’s a reason we’ve yet to see a vote advantage make a decisive difference since its introduction in Worlds Apart. And the Nullifier, while a new twist, is fraught with difficulty to be critically employed, as it requires not only certainty about who might have an Idol played on them but also the confidence that it will be played that night. They aren’t the type of advantage that you can successfully employ without forethought, and it showed in the way the Davids applied them tonight.
With the numbers lined up 6 to 5, the Vote Steal could perfectly sway the majority, and Nick’s use of it tonight ensured a David majority. The only question was whose vote to steal and who to target. Stealing a player’s vote immediately puts them on edge, so it is rational to avoid stealing the vote of a possible target – yet Nick’s decision to take Alison’s vote was unexpected but clever. Alison had promised the Davids before without coming good on the deal, so stealing her vote effectively forced her loyalty. Tired of waiting for her to choose between them and her Goliaths, Nick made the decision for her. It worked perfectly – though I do question whether it could fuel any animosity from Alison who may feel slighted by the Davids for their explicit admission of their lack of trust in her. However, Alison’s options are thin moving forward, and she may have no choice other than to belay any hurt feelings.
As it played out, Alison’s lost vote further prompted Alec and Kara – the Goliaths seemingly more willing to make a move against Dan – to commit to the plan and they threw their votes onto Angelina as had been the contingency split vote, further diluting the Goliath numbers. While it’s entirely possible that Alec, Alison and Kara had been intending to vote for Angelina anyway having ultimately come back around on the split vote plan, the episode suggested that it was the Vote Steal that pushed them to make the call in the moment. Either way, the Vote Steal mitigates their role in the blindside, allowing the Davids to claim the Dan blindside as their move, and not Alec’s or Alison’s or Kara’s. Intentional or not, it’s a great bonus feature of a great move.
The question of the target is the more interesting one. Dan was an obvious lightning rod – he was staunchly Goliath strong which made him expendable to the Davids, and his name had been discussed by Alec, Alison and Kara which made him a scapegoat that wouldn’t damage cross-tribal relationships moving forward. The wrinkle was that he had already played one Idol and could have another (which, unbeknownst to the Davids, he did). Without the Nullifier as a secondary safety net, the Davids’ plan wouldn’t have worked, so perhaps a smarter play – and one that could have saved the Nullifier for the future – could have been throwing the votes onto another Goliath loyalist and unsuspecting target like Mike. Nevertheless, by eliminating Dan, the Davids were able to double-down on their elimination of John, disintegrating the notion of “Goliath strong” and leaving a pool of Goliaths who were isolated from each other and/or had ties to the Davids.
Although the vote count doesn’t outright prove it, I think it’s safe to say that we just witnessed the first successful and outcome-changing use of the Vote Steal. Nick found his slingshot and used it well.
So let’s look at the Nullifier – the new twist in the game and one I was in two minds about. While the ability to block an Idol seems exciting – particularly when in recent seasons, Idols have had increasing regularity – I was worried about seeing scenarios play out like the Nullifier’s “Super Idol” predecessor in Australian Survivor 2017. In that season, the Nullifier cancelled a successful Idol play by a player in the minority, effectively maintaining the status quo and leading to a deflating Tribal. Although the US improved over that format by forcing it to be played during voting and before an Idols were played, allowing for it to be wasted, there was still the possibility that a majority alliance could use it to counter an insurrection.
While that was not the case tonight, and Carl’s use of it was effective and successful, allowing the minority alliance to pull a fast one, there were still traces of an anti-climax. Idol plays are inherently exciting events, and nullifying them doesn’t really raise those stakes. That said, now that the castaways know a Nullifier is a very real possibility, I’m excited to see how it impacts the use and execution of Idols in the game moving forward.
But enough big picture stuff – what about Carl’s Idol play tonight? Obviously, it was a successful move, and the Davids were able to – as Gabby suggested – lure Dan into playing his Idol by their vocal performance at Tribal followed by the very public move of Nick’s Vote Steal. Carl also made sure to claim the move as his, revealing the Nullifier note with a “bing” as Dan collected his torch – which was important to do, even if the timing may have been a bit insensitive. While I do think that the Davids could have saved their Nullifier by throwing their votes onto someone like Mike, I still think it was the right call to use it on Dan tonight. Even if he hadn’t had an Idol, or had not played it, the Nullifier assured them of a target – and getting rid of Dan completely opens up the game moving forward, which is just what the Davids need.
At this point, everything is up in the air. With the numbers even and with the staunch Goliath-strong players excised from the game, we’re in a position where Alec’s dream of being able to ignore the tribal lines and work with whoever you want is well and truly possible. After next week’s double episode, I have a feeling that the state of the game is going to be an altogether alien landscape compared even to what we see now.
We still have four weeks of David vs. Goliath left and there is ample time for an about-face, but I’ll go on record with my claim now – this is a Top 10 season, and if the quality of gameplay and storytelling continues, it’ll have a good shot at Top 5. 37 seasons in – and this is why I love Survivor.