Having a perceived authority in a particular area allows a person the ability to create their own narrative and have others follow that narrative. I had a science teacher in high school, an intelligent man with qualifications and vast knowledge in his chosen subject, yet wholeheartedly believed in conspiracy theories. He would talk at length to the class about how faked the Apollo 11 moon landing was. As a naive fourteen-year-old, of course, this sounded plausible and believable, especially when it was coming from the mouth of a respected science teacher. Conspiracy theories are of course ludicrous and full of flaws that quickly fall apart under scrutiny.
Stephen Fishbach is a well educated and highly intelligent man. He also writes and talks about Survivor for a living. He is self-labelled, even if jokingly, a Survivor “Know It All”; this provides Stephen with an air of authority when it comes to Survivor. It has been evident throughout Survivor: Second Chance that Stephen has been using his status to craft not only his own narrative but the narrative of the season itself. He wanted himself, and the season, to be remembered, even if it meant exaggerating, twisting the truth and speaking in hyperbole. He used his cache and background to gain credibility for false statements.
His greatest contribution to the season has been the “voting bloc” strategy. Stephen sold the idea of small groups flipping on their alliances as a brand new evolution in the game. He sold it so well that others, including host Jeff Probst, started speaking about “voting blocs” as if they were a unique concept to Survivor. Anyone that has watched enough Survivor, like Stephen has, knows that shifting voting blocs are not unique. Individuals have flipped from alliance to alliance many times, like in Survivor: The Amazon or Survivor: Cagayan and even small groups have flipped, like in Survivor: Pearl Islands, Survivor: Gabon or Survivor: Nicaragua. But none of that mattered because Stephen had respect and authority, so people were willing to go along with his new narrative.
Does that mean the voting bloc strategy didn’t actually exist this season? No. It existed from the start, just like it does almost every season. We saw Kelley Wentworth abandon her alliance of Shirin Oskooi and Spencer Bledsoe to save herself and join the majority in Episode 2. Abi-Maria Gomes did the same – albeit more recklessly – numerous times pre-merge. There wasn’t an emphasis on the uniqueness of these individual flips.
The Bayon Strong alliance, however, were playing an old school game. For all of Stephen’s talk of voting blocs, his alliance was happy to play the Pagonging game at the merge. They booted outsider Kass McQuillen and then tried to boot outsider Wentworth. It was at that tribal council Stephen first started talking about evolution in the game. But he was playing a very straight-forward game at that point. If it wasn’t for Wentworth’s idol play shaking things up, then we might have been heading for a straight Pagonging.
It was only then when Stephen started to put his voting bloc strategy into effect. He convinced everybody that this was the new way to play and even swayed his allies, Jeremy Collins and Spencer, to join him. But making everybody believe that this was the correct way to play (“This is a season of voting blocs; there are no alliances.”) ultimately gave everybody free reign and permission to flip on their allies. So when Stephen became the primary target in Episode 10, it was partly by his own design. Then Jeremy used his idol to save him, and suddenly, the voting bloc strategy came to a dreaded halt.
Jeremy’s bold idol play made everybody aware that this wasn’t just a game of constantly shifting voting blocs. His move to protect Stephen demonstrated trust and loyalty that you only find within the tightest of alliances. Alliances?! Yes, alliances exist, and as Jeremy re-gathered his Bayon troops, that became obvious to every other castaway in Cambodia.
What transpired after that tribal council was one of Survivor’s most thrilling hours of television. To see this fast-paced, free-moving game suddenly upheaved by one of the most old school Survivor inventions – the alliance – was glorious. At the reward challenge, the fantastic return of Survivor Folklore – which looked beautiful lit up at night in the middle of the jungle – Stephen’s win and subsequent choice to take Jeremy and Tasha Fox with him on reward further solidified the alliance.
While Stephen was away sharing chicken wings and his advantage rules with Jeremy and Tasha, his fellow tribemates started to plot his downfall. Stephen had tricked everyone into believing the game was an open field with no alliances, yet here he was living it up with his old Bayon buddies and getting saved with idols. Add on top of that his newly won mystery advantage and suddenly Stephen had become one of the biggest threats in the game.
Kelley Wentworth, unable to read Roman numerals but an expert in idol finding, was well aware of the threat Stephen posed. She was part of the plan to vote him out at the previous tribal council but was stopped by Jeremy’s idol play. Not to be outdone, Wentworth became the second person to find two idols this season. Two people only have held four idols and both of them from San Juan Del Sur. Crazy! But come on, share the love with Keith Nale. However, both of Wentworth’s idols have been much harder to retrieve than Jeremy’s. Wentworth had to literally crawl under the shelter in the middle of the camp and untie the thing.
Spencer Bledsoe, able to read Roman numerals but not so good at idol finding, was also well aware of Stephen’s threat level. Spencer is someone that has played from the bottom the majority of his Survivor “career”. He has had eight votes cast against him so far. He has been blindsided and left out of the loop on multiple occasions. And yet despite that he has survived because of the bonds and connections he has made. But Spencer has always been an outsider.
Thankfully, the voting bloc strategy has been something that has allowed both Spencer, and Wentworth, to flourish. They have been able to flip and jump ship with relative ease. But when suddenly a four person Bayon alliance looks to be together, that is cause for panic. Kimmi, Jeremy, and Stephen are the only players that have spent every single day of the game together. Tasha has been with them all but ten of those days, and even when she was on Angkor her mantra was Bayon, Bayon, Bayon. That is why Spencer and Wentworth’s plan to blindside Stephen was perhaps the biggest and best move of the season so far. There were lots of pieces to juggle to pull it off, and they managed to do it.
Firstly, it took great reserve. In the immunity challenge, made specifically for foot-fetishists, Joe, king of immunity, was finally beaten by Spencer. On paper, Joe appears to be the biggest threat because he is so dominant in challenges. To vote him out as soon as he didn’t have immunity would seem to be the safest option. But here is the common mistake with Joe – he isn’t really that big of a threat.
For those of you that haven’t been reading our weekly Edgic posts (where we analyse the edit of the episodes), you might not have picked up on Joe’s comical edit. Joe keeps telling us that he’s a big threat and that everyone is after him, so it’s easy to jump on board with that story. I mean, he keeps winning challenges, right? But the truth is, other than Stephen nobody perceives Joe that way. These players are not grading challenge skill as a determining factor to win this game. He talks about his improved social game, yet he is consistently mocked and mimicked by Abi and Ciera and Wentworth. Hell, even Keith was poking fun at him. Keith!
So for Spencer and Wentworth to hold back on the Joe elimination and recognise the threat of a bigger alliance was commendable. Removing Joe would have only taken away a potential ally and made the Bayon 4 even stronger as a unit. Keeping Joe posed no immediate threat, he had voted with them against Stephen at the last tribal council, and plus Spencer had proven that he was beatable in challenges. Also, in an alliance made up of Abi, Joe, and Keith, Spencer and Wentworth stand a much better chance of not only winning but controlling the game. They’d only have each other to worry about as significant threats.
Secondly, controlling crazy pants herself, Abi-Maria, must have taken a lot of patience on the part of Spencer and Wentworth. Particularly Wentworth, who it looked like spent a lot of time talking Abi down from the ledge when she was about to go full Gomes.
And lastly, and most importantly, Spencer’s ability to regain the trust of Jeremy and Stephen, having voted against them at the previous tribal council, was a testament to his social game and the connections he has built throughout the game. Not only did he regain their trust but was able to retrieve vital information about how they were splitting the votes and what Stephen’s advantage was; this allowed him and Wentworth to enact their plan with perfection. They removed not only an advantage but one of the game’s most strategic players and dented a four person alliance.
We talked in the Episode 10 review about how Ciera’s rock related exit was poetic, but Stephen’s elimination was truly poetic. Not only because the one man he was obsessed with since Day 1 caused his elimination but because his own “this is a game of voting blocs not alliances” strategy came back to haunt him. He used his Survivor credibility to make people believe this was a game with no alliances, despite being in the tightest alliance of the season. In turn, he inadvertently created a new voting bloc against himself, spearheaded by the queen and king of swings, Wentworth and Spencer.