It’s become a cornerstone of modern Survivor strategy. John Cochran famously cited it as his biggest asset in his winning game. Time and time again, it’s made the difference between victory and defeat. This game can pivot on one thing: timing.
When do you make your move? When do you stay your hand? It can be tough to make the call when every moment could be a million dollar decision. With the six remaining castaways fighting for the upper-hand in an unusually open field, time was rapidly running out for these players to make their moves this week. As they scrambled to pull together their end-game plans to ensure their seat at the Final Three, new alliances were forged, new threats emerged, and new tactics were realised. But one thing was clear: the time to act was now.
TIME TO PLAN
Naturally, Ben’s explosive idol play to negate a unanimous vote led to the expected scenario back at camp. He was public enemy number one – he was too big of a threat and too dangerous a player, and he had to go as soon as humanly possible. But what would happen after he was gone? For the majority five, it was time to put those plans in place.
On paper, it seemed possible that Mike would be the swing vote between the pairs of Chrissy & Ryan and Ashley & Devon, but throughout the episode, it was emphasised that Mike was actually the fifth wheel. The numbers ultimately aligned in a wholly new arrangement but throughout the episode, it was clear that Ashley and Mike, at least, were confident in their current position in the game. They seemed willing to ride out the simple plan to target Ben next; to wait to make their move. Although they ultimately proved to be oblivious to the true machinations of their allies, I can’t fault them for staying focused on the plan. Ben was too big a target to mess with, and they did well to remain cool after the reward challenge, not allowing Ben to get in their heads even though they were frustrated about being left behind. It’s not easy to show restraint in Survivor, where even the smallest disagreements can have disastrous repercussions when managed poorly, and anybody who can stick to the plan gets a gold star in my book. Unfortunately for them, though, not everybody was willing to sit on their hands.
Basking on their private island Reward, Chrissy, Devon and Ryan took advantage of their time alone to pave a new path to the end. For Ryan and Devon to come full circle and repair their relationship and for Chrissy to propose a Final Three was an unexpected turn of events – and a risky one for all parties. Chrissy and Ryan have been fighting from the bottom since the JP blindside, but now that they had reversed their fortune, they needed a new ally. They feared Mike was erratic and unpredictable and given Ashley had already turned down an offer to work with them at the Family Reward, it seemed Devon, by default, was their best choice. However, he has been cranking up his gameplay over the last several weeks, and it doesn’t seem as though Chrissy and Ryan fully realise how much of a threat he could become. If Devon is able to articulate his game as clearly as he promised at Tribal, he could easily catch them off guard as a surprisingly formidable adversary.
Devon, meanwhile, seemed surprisingly willing to jump ship. He is playing a ruthless game, and with his alliance shattered by Ben’s idol last week, he was looking for any opportune path to the end. I’m not convinced it was the best choice for him to make – based on their gameplay we’ve seen, Ashley was a loyal ally and a weaker opponent for the Final Tribal, and so Devon’s decision to side with more aggressively strategic players is concerning. By becoming the flipping third party, Devon has sacrificed much of his control in this final stretch, and that could transform into a blemish on his resume, particularly if Chrissy and Ryan are able to claim the end-game moves as their own.
Nevertheless, a Final Three is better than no Final Three. With Day 39 on the horizon and a highly competitive field, the players needed to be locking in plans that could get them to the end before it was too late – and this new agreement between Chrissy, Ryan & Devon may have been the deciding factor in the outcome of this vote. Perhaps figuring out how to beat each other is a problem to solve once they’ve actually made it to the end.
TIME TO PLOT
But there was one problem that needed to be solved right away, and that was the next Tribal Council. The obvious vote was to target Ben, but it seemed that the Five largely took this decision for granted – to the point where they made the crucial mistake of allowing Ben to spend hours alone searching for another idol. It’s incredibly complacent to assume that Ben wouldn’t find another idol – particularly as recent Survivor history has demonstrated that players who find an idol once are much more likely to find another. They should have been tailing him as much as they could, and as it played out, their dismissive approach turned around to bite them when Ben was able to find his second idol to foil their Plan A. But as Mike said last week, you’ve got to have a Plan B.
The natural safety precaution was suggested by Ashley, who proposed splitting the votes between Ben and Mike. It was a good plan, but unfortunately for her, there were other contingency plans in the works. Chrissy and Ryan were wary of trusting Ashley, especially after she reacted with disappointment after being left out of the reward. Thus, Chrissy led a campaign to turn the vote onto Ashley – seemingly not as a backup plan, but as an alternative to targeting Ben. There are two aspects to Chrissy’s plan to take into account. Firstly, her desire to get rid of Ashley is not a bad instinct. If she doesn’t believe she can trust her to the end, she’s got no reason to keep her around – and she is the only other player to have won Immunity, making her a threat as Immunities become more numerically significant. The red flag with her plan, though, is the timing.
The situation often arises in Survivor when a dangerous target is finally vulnerable, and the question is raised to zig instead of zag. However, this late in the game, you don’t have the time to waste opportunities to eliminate huge targets. Just last season, the Maku Maku tribe passed up a chance to vote out Brad to instead blindside Andrea, only for Brad to go on an Immunity run all the way to the end. Ben is a massive threat to win if he’s able to scrape through to the end. Surely this is not the time to give him a free pass. This sentiment was clearly shared by Chrissy’s allies as her suggestion was met with significant trepidation from Mike and Devon. While the logic to want to cut Ashley is sound, this did not seem like the time to do so.
Of course, all of that risk assessment became moot as soon as Tribal Council changed course.
TIME TO PLAY
And now we get to the most significant moment of the episode that will likely echo throughout seasons to come. It’s time to talk about Ben’s idol and the biggest example of the importance of timing yet.
For the first time since Micronesia, the US series did not show us somebody finding an idol that would come into play, stoking the mystery of whether Ben had retrieved the idol hidden under the shelter. The stage seemed ripe for mounting tension – only for Ben to make an innovative move, obliterate the uncertainty and turn the game on its head. For the first time in Survivor history, somebody played a standard Hidden Immunity Idol before the votes were cast, effectively transforming the idol into an Immunity Necklace (à la the Guatemala Hidden Immunity Idol).
Firstly, it would be remiss of me to gloss over the matter of validity. The idol rules state that they must be played after the votes are cast and before they’re read when Jeff gives his “…now is the time to do so” spiel. In seasons past, Jeff has refused to ‘validate’ the legitimacy of idols before the votes have been cast – but in those cases, the idols were not actually played. Ben relinquished his idol early, and he could not renege on his play after he’d given it to Jeff, so I see no reason why such a move should be disqualified. If anything, Ben’s creative thinking should be applauded because this kind of out-of-the-box strategy only adds to the reasons that make Survivor fascinating.
Perhaps, though, Jeff shouldn’t have been so quick to reveal the validity of the idol until after the votes were cast. There is an argument that this is ‘breaking’ the established rules of idols, but this was an unprecedented circumstance, and Probst made the call: if you play a valid idol before the votes are read, its power immediately comes into effect.
Is this a bad precedent to set? Does it give an idol holder too much power, allowing them to force their opponents to turn on each other? I don’t see why this is a bad thing, as playing an idol early can also weaken its power. Last week, Ben was able to use a secret idol to blindside whoever he wanted. By playing the idol early this week, he actually put the ball back in the majority’s court, allowing them to make the call on who to cut loose so as not to disrupt their own plans. Or does it weaken a castaway’s ability to bluff their idols, real or fake, if tribes begin to demand that anybody with an idol play it before the votes? Perhaps, but that should force players to evolve their gameplay to manage the risk of this new factor. There is no doubt that this new issue of timing will arise in future seasons and I’m sure we will revisit this debate, but I see no reason to decry this new development. The game of Survivor is an ever-changing beast, and that’s part of what makes it great.
But back to the episode: was Ben’s decision to play his idol early the right call? I would argue that Ben jumping the gun was the wrong move because it gave him less power. If he was determined to play the idol regardless, why not use it as normal? If the tribe was planning to vote him out, he would cancel their votes, as usual, giving him the power to eliminate a crucial threat – say, a Ryan or a Devon. Meanwhile, if the tribe had been planning to split the vote (e.g., with Mike) or go after a different target altogether (e.g., Ashley), his early play doesn’t change the outcome at all because they’ll just pile onto the alternative victim. In fact, Chrissy’s derision of Ben’s bravado, suggesting that his move was not as game-altering as he inferred, support the read that Ashley was on the chopping block regardless.
Ben has no allies and has to rely on chaos to move forward in the game. Turning his idol into an Immunity Necklace may have forced the majority to vote out Ashley, but it only served to solidify their control, as the true power structure in Chrissy, Devon, and Ryan, were able to trim the easy fat. Now Ben returns to camp facing the exact same situation he was in before: the lone wolf against the army. Nevertheless, if he keeps up the ferocity and the creativity he’s put to use thus far, I wouldn’t count him out just yet.
TIME TO FINISH
And now it is Finale Time – and it’s going to be a great one. Ben, Chrissy, Devon, Mike and Ryan all have strong cases to pull out the win, and every single one of them will fight tooth and nail to get it. Some might be running at the forefront of the race, but it’s not over until it’s over – this season more than most.
Next week, I’ll be back to review the dramatic culmination of this slow-build season, but if you can’t wait until then to read more of my ramblings on this intriguing season, you’re in luck! Next Monday, I’ll be representing Inside Survivor in the seasonal Jury Jeopardy, as I compete against Rob Has a Podcast, True Dork Times and A Tribe of One to predict which Hero, Healer or Hustler will earn the Juror’s votes.
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