by Ian Walker
We’ve said a lot regarding the great advancement of the game throughout this countdown of the 50 best episodes and for good reason. Between the first real alliance power shift, the first discovery of multiple hidden idols without clues, the reintroduction of the rock draw tiebreaker into the modern game and much more, whenever something new and groundbreaking happened, it tended to make for exciting television.
Out of all of the great examples of game progression scattered throughout this list, however, this episode features the most significant piece of the evolution of strategy on Survivor, because it showed that sometimes all it takes is one person to flip the game in a new direction.
As an avid and astute watcher of Survivor, Rob came into this season as a different kind of player, somebody who was willing to embrace all that came before him, ready to use that knowledge in his quest to win the million dollars, and he got his opportunity here in episode 11.
It’s the final seven round of the game, and everything looks to be pretty good in Rob’s world. He’s in a four-way alliance between himself, Alex Bell, Heidi Strobel and Jenna Morasca, and they all believe they can ride it out until the end. They certainly don’t lack for confidence; the episode opens with the four of them sunbathing in the middle of camp while the other three members of the tribe do the daily chores. These other three members, Matthew von Ertfelda, Butch Lockley, and Christy Smith, are aware of their position and are put off by the dominant four’s behavior, but know that there’s nothing they can do about it as long as those four stay tight.
All of that is about to change during a nighttime chat between Alex and Rob. During this conversation, Alex floats out a hypothetical: when they reach the final four, Alex would probably cast his vote for Rob, considering the unbreakable bond the two girls have, thus suggesting Rob’s departure from the game. While this was a seemingly innocent idea from Alex, it got Rob’s gears turning in a major way.
“Alex’s decision to tell me that he was gonna vote me out at the final four is really kinda curious,” he says in a confessional. “I realize that I’ve been coming off as very sensitive with this group, talking about how much I love them and how much I’m gonna be friends with them after the game. But I have never stopped playing Survivor and over my dead body will I turn over and let somebody just pass me by.”
Side-note: This episode also features the Survivor Auction and the tense moment when Christy out-bids Jenna for a letter from home. Jenna had been hoping for an update on the health of her sick mother and is visibly upset thinking she has missed the opportunity until Probst eventually puts another letter up for auction.
Having obtained this new information, Rob is now on a mission to change his fate in the game, and he knows just the right people who can help him do it.
First, he goes to Matthew. Rob and Matthew have been together for the entire game, but for the last couple of rounds, Rob has been stringing Matthew along, feeding him false information about how all of the men were going to the end of the game together. Now, knowing that he needs to change the game, Rob sits Matthew down for “the most important conversation in the game,” and comes clean to him about all of the lies he had been spinning to him during the previous chunk of the game. During this entire exchange, Rob is calm and measured, believing that by coming clean to Matthew, he can further gain his trust, and it works.
Matthew comes away feeling better about his relationship with Rob, and is now totally amenable to what Rob suggests next: for the two of them to team up with Butch and Christy to vote out Alex. In a confessional, Matthew best sums up the dynamic between himself and Rob by saying “I do have a lot of survival skills, but I am very ignorant when it comes to the game and how it’s played. Rob has zero survival skills but knows the game inside and out.” It’s that knowledge that Matthew speaks of that is what’s allowing Rob to make this big move at this critical juncture of the game.
Rob’s plan only gets better when he wins individual immunity later in the episode. The challenge was the introduction of the Touchy Subjects quiz game into the Survivor world; a challenge that, in future seasons, would be combined with the coconut chop challenge first introduced in Survivor: Marquesas. In this version, players just had to answer questions asked about themselves, such as “Who would you trust with your life?” and “Who could never survive on their own?” (Side-note: The castaways answer Jenna who eventually becomes the Sole Survivor) It’s a challenge that relies on being in tune with and knowing the personalities of the other players in the game, something Rob is especially good at.
With the immunity necklace around his neck, Rob proceeds to put his plan into action. He knows the play he is about to make is a big one and lays the entire plan out in the thoughtful and well-spoken way:
“Tonight’s tribal council could signal one of the most important power swings in this game. I could vote with Alex, Heidi, and Jenna and assure myself a solid position in the final four of this game. Or, the more intriguing option, might be to vote with Christy, Matt, and Butch, but the downside to that would be to lose the trust of all the people I’ve come so far with. I’m turning my back on three people who potentially would be on the jury, three people that are definitely not going to vote for me in the final two.”
There’s no better summation of weighing out all of the pros and cons to making a big move than that quote right there. Rob has the game in his hands, unlike any other player that had come before him, knowing that whatever he will decide will dictate the course of the game. In the end, he goes for the big move, siding with Christy, Butch, and Matt to take out Alex. Rob’s move emphasizes, for the first time in Survivor history, the importance of developing interpersonal relationships with everybody in the game, because you never know when you’re going to need them.
While he didn’t win the game, Rob will go on to earn the moniker of “smartest player to never win” by the end of the season. A title that he’s helped used to build his current podcast empire, all of which has brought him a lot of praise and success and it’s all well deserved. Rob Cesternino changed the game of Survivor, and for that, he certainly doesn’t suck.