It seems ironic that this episode was living proof of how knowledge is power in the game of Survivor. Yet it was all in spite of the production efforts which deliberately obscured knowledge of the game mechanics, including the advantage literally entitled “Knowledge is Power.” In all of its complexity, this episode was undoubtedly thrilling, packed with complex strategic manoeuvring. And what was to thank for all of that strategizing? Player knowledge.
I’ll keep beating the drum, but this cast continues to shine as characters and as gameplayers, and Survivor really lucked out that this cast is elevating the bloated barrage of advantages and twists they’ve injected into this season. Sure enough, the hourglass twist was just as unsatisfying in its resolution as it promised to be last episode. It accomplished very little beyond undermining player and audience trust in production (with Danny accurately voicing that when Probst blatantly lies to the players, it feels like foul play).
However, even though the remainder of the episode was hyper-focused on advantages, it was a fascinating dance as information spilled rapidly through camp, revealing what was in play and allowing the players to actively manoeuvre around the known quantities on the board.
The tension building to Liana’s Knowledge is Power play was all the more satisfying because both her allies and opponents knew about it, allowing the pre-Tribal strategy to be informed and proactive. But a lot was going on in this episode leading up to the merge vote. And yes, I’m not going to bother giving Probst’s ridiculous semantics on what qualifies as the merge the time of day because this was absolutely a merge vote in all but name. So let’s lay out the facts and break down the myriad of decisions along the way.
The episode began with the predictable turnabout of the hourglass “twist,” as Erika elected to smash the hourglass. In doing so, she stripped the red buffers Danny, Deshawn, Evvie, Naseer, Ricard, & Sydney of their earned Immunity and instead bestowed it upon herself, Heather, Liana, Shan, Tiffany, & Xander. While I still detest the production principles that underscore this manipulation of the game (and appreciated that we got a glimpse of Danny’s justifiable anger at being outright lied to by Jeff), none of the blame falls on Erika. Yet I fear the other players could blame her for something that was really out of her control.
Basically, the entire framing of the “twist” was designed to make the choice of the hourglass into a non-choice. Being directly excluded by the group of Immunity winners and then given the opportunity for unilateral vengeance. Being isolated for an obscenely long two days and two nights at what is one of the most crucial points in the game and depriving the exiled player of the opportunity to forge bonds. And the cherry on top? Smashing the hourglass gave Erika Immunity, whereas leaving it as it was would leave her vulnerable. There is almost no incentive to leave the hourglass intact, and Erika ultimately made the right play for herself.
Based on the discussions at camp last week, we knew that Erika was in the firing line, with her own former Luvus marshalling an “easy” vote against her. Yet by saving herself and causing the chaos of the hourglass twist, Erika has obtained a day or two to re-establish herself in a new tribe. Based on how Tribal played out, it’s clear she’s still finding her footing as she ultimately sided with her old tribemates (even though they had been willing to send her home). And ultimately, I’m not sure if she’ll be able to recover from the Exile isolation to ingratiate herself into a new alliance, but at least she survived this first vote.
With the game upended by the hourglass, Ricard pushed through the frustration to earn a much-needed Immunity. Given the tension between himself and Shan, there is a very real possibility he could have been in the firing line without the safety of Immunity if she decided to cut bait, so this proved to be a crucial victory. It also allowed him to take a seat at the decision-making table with the core alliance growing at the centre of the new tribe and even call the first shot.
After the formation of the foursome of Danny, Deshawn, Shan, and Liana, it was imperative for them to protect their newfound alliance. So by keeping the vote off Danny and Deshawn, that left three choices: Naseer, Sydney, or Evvie. Sydney has been implied to be close to Danny and Deshawn all throughout the pre-merge, and they naturally sought to protect her. And Danny’s anxiety about an all-women alliance led to the natural desire to also shield Naseer. And that only left Evvie, the one non-Levu up for elimination.
To reiterate and underscore how stupid this hourglass twist was, Evvie was backed into a corner through no fault of their own. It would have been brutally unfair and unsatisfying to see them eliminated as the collateral of a twist. Sure, Evvie had been pinpointed as a strong and smart opponent, but we’d seen little to no discussion of targeting them previously. The target on their back was only there because of the restrictions of the hourglass twist. Thankfully, the cast’s incisive and proactive gameplay allowed them to work around the twist and play a round of Survivor that was truly thrilling.
For Ricard and Shan, it made sense; as the Ua two-some, it was critical for them to ingratiate themselves into a majority. Dismantling the brains of an opposing alliance that could threaten their growing bonds with some of the Luvus made sense. Even if eliminating a Luvu might have been better on paper, they couldn’t afford to rock the boat now, or else they could quickly find themselves walking the plank at the next Tribal. Their hand was forced, but by Ricard, especially, taking the lead to champion an Evvie vote, they were able to actively demonstrate their allegiance to a new alliance.
Likewise, for Danny, Deshawn, Naseer, and Sydney, going after Evvie also made perfect sense. They’d all been circling working together pre-merge, so turning on each other now, because of a twist, was reactionary and damaging to their power structure. Naseer—and ultimately Sydney—perhaps should have considered some alternatives, given they proved to be on the outside of the core of the merge tribe. But with Luvu being untested at Tribal, it’s understandable why they gravitated towards what they knew, and Danny and Deshawn had had both their backs up until now. Staying the course was the obvious call, but the right call.
But the most interesting factor in the decision to target Evvie was their long-term ally, Liana. The growing tension between them had become apparent in recent episodes, with Liana’s suspicions of Evvie’s true intentions growing and her own desire to play a powerful and impactful game beginning to boil over after the chaotic mess of the Voce vote. So, on the one hand, it was clear why Liana was willing to make the sacrifice to cut Evvie now. Her new alliance had limited options, and if she pushed back, could it make Danny, Deshawn, and Shan doubt her loyalty to their new coalition?
That said, Liana had the opportunity to play the middle and keep her options open. She still had the potential to keep her Yase tribemates in the loop, alerting them to the plan against Evvie and conspiring to use and burn Xander’s Idol to protect them and eliminate one of the Luvu majority. Maybe they could have even gone after Naseer to flush his Idol, or allowed the Yase Idol to blindside Sydney. If Liana played her cards right, she could have kept her hands clean in the whole debacle, allowing Yase to take the credit for the blindside and trust her for her accurate intel while also maintaining loyalty to her new core four.
Perhaps that’s too cute in its execution, especially given Yase was targeting Deshawn, and she would have needed to work to swing them to throw their votes onto Sydney or Naseer. But Liana had the chance to play the middle here, and she chose not to take it, to her detriment.
Yase had their suspicions of Liana’s loyalty already. In the wake of Tiffany learning about Liana’s advantage, word got around about the power to steal an Idol. An advantage of that magnitude is frightening enough, but Evvie & Xander were rightfully shaken that their fellow striving turtle had not shared that information with them—and had only shared it with Tiffany under duress of being outed by Shan. This may have been recoverable, but Liana’s social game reinforced Yase’s doubts. It’s difficult to hide a natural bond of friendship in the best of times, but Liana’s quick buddying up to Shan led Yase to grow suspicious.
So Liana made the choice to actively cut ties with Yase when she could have played both sides. And she failed to hide her new connections and allegiances. But the most egregious misstep of Liana’s game this episode was her hunger to utilise the Knowledge is Power advantage. Practically salivating at the ability to steal Xander’s Idol, she became tunnel-vision focused on the Big Move—and it ultimately blew up in her face.
Advantages have a funny way of bolstering players with misplaced confidence. And even though the Knowledge is Power is an unprecedented and powerful ability, it’s not infallible. Its true power lay in the knowledge being a one-way street. If Liana knew who had Idols and Advantages, then she held the trump card, but as soon as her opponents knew about it, it was liable to become a game of Go Fish.
Sure enough, Tiffany, Xander, and Evvie brilliantly conspired to combat Liana’s advantage—her behaviour telegraphing not only her defection but also her intention to use her advantage against them. In an elegant play that was superbly rendered as a flashback during Tribal to amplify the narrative suspense, the Yase trio decided to give Xander’s Idol and Advantage to Tiffany. If Xander were to hold them, he’d be the obvious target for Liana. But with Evvie on the chopping block, giving them the Idol could similarly backfire if Liana took the riskier gamble.
Tiffany was the obvious non-obvious choice. There was little chance Liana would anticipate Tiffany holding Xander’s advantages (especially given their own patchy history), and even if Liana was suspicious, would she risk her advantage on an outside chance?
It was an incredible example of outwitting an opponent and an unambiguous demonstration of how much more exciting the game is when the players know what they’re up against. Tiffany, Xander, & Evvie outflanking Liana’s advantage was infinitely more compelling than the cheap shock value of a surprise advantage (see the fizzling returns on the hourglass “big moment”). I fear that Survivor will overlook the subtlety of that distinction, but I hope they pay attention. Payers playing within transparent and known mechanics are not only more satisfying to player and viewer alike, but they foster more exciting gameplay.
And it’s not even like the player knowledge thwarted the theatrics! With Yase knowing about Liana’s advantage, it emboldened them to amplify their tactics to the point of Xander flaunting a fake Idol at Tribal. Up until the flashback revelation, his reveal of the Idol was a blood-pressure-spiking moment of panic that led to the instantly iconic exchange:
“Xander, do you have an Idol?” Liana asked as she confidently played her Knowledge is Power. “No, but you can have this fake,” Xander replied in his sonorous baritone. Using a fake to further bait Liana was risky and could have led her to call Xander’s bluff. But even then, Yase aimed to deflect Liana to targeting Evvie while they pulled off the double bluff with the Idol and Extra Vote safely in Tiffany’s pocket. A truly flawless move.
But an absolute disaster for Liana, publicly wasting her Advantage on the basis of over-confidence and assumed knowledge and openly betraying her original tribe. It’s especially unfortunate given Liana knew that Yase knew about her Advantage after Xander had leaked the info to Danny, who passed it back to her. Liana was so focused on pulling off her big move that she lost sight of the bigger picture. She was unable to discern the bluff; she was unable to see the advantage in letting Yase burn the Idol while also keeping options moving forward; and she also missed the logic in waiting to preserve her advantage for when she truly needed it.
Liana knows Naseer also carries an Idol, and he’d not been in her core alliances. Maybe he’d be a better target? Or an underdog threat going on an Idol streak a la Ben Driebergen or Rick Devens—and her advantage would be the perfect way to thwart it. However, her Big Move blew up in her face, and it’s a good thing she’s built herself a strong alliance to protect her as she reels from the blowback, especially in the chaos that followed.
MADNESS AT TRIBAL
With Liana’s plan backfiring, Tribal exploded into a mess of mostly chaotic whispering. But by the end of the chicanery, it became abundantly clear that despite their success in thwarting Liana, the Yase 3 were still on the outs, along with Sydney. The tribe split into two huddles, and the larger core used the opportunity to coordinate a split vote against Evvie and Sydney. Deshawn put in the hard work throughout Tribal coordinating the plan, which had begun to be considered on the beach with the fear of Evvie being protected by an Idol. And it’s worth noting Deshawn’s earlier attempts to sow discord by revealing Evvie’s betrayal of Xander’s secrets on their shared Journey back in Episode 2.
Nevertheless, even with all of this scheming (and the boon of the Yase 3 and Sydney permitting the majority time and space to privately organise a split, rather than barging in on their whispers), the resultant vote still became a mess of missteps.
Sydney found herself in a rough situation. As with anyone who was going to be voted out here, she was massively screwed over by the hourglass twist. But she also failed to effectively combat the new circumstances. Despite being the ostensible closest ally of Deshawn & Danny through the pre-merge, the two ultimately chose to cut her over Naseer. It may have been influenced by the gender concern Danny feared and/or Naseer’s Idol (especially as it is unclear how publicly it is known). Still, Sydney’s stock in her alliance plummeted after the tribes came together, and it appeared to happen without her realising it.
Doubting her desperation? Look no further than her begging the Yase 3 to use their Idol on her—an absurdly self-interested plea that is well within Sydney’s narcissistic outlook but a ludicrous request. But it didn’t stop there. Sydney was so caught off-guard by her sudden falling out of favour that she took her Shot in the Dark. As it turned out, Sydney sacrificing her vote may have cost her her red buff, for if she had stuck with her Luvu allies and put a vote on Evvie, the ultimate 5-4-3 vote would have led to a 5-5-3 revote and a likely Evvie elimination. Sydney has never stood out as the savviest of gamers, but the panic in the moment sent her packing.
To add to the pile of wasted advantages, Deshawn barely received his Extra Vote before he wasted it, voting twice for Evvie on the split. On the back of all the chaotic whispering, it’s difficult to discern the motivation behind Deshawn piling votes on Evvie, the ultimate secondary target. The extra vote would have made no difference even if Sydney had somehow been protected by an Idol or a Shot in the Dark. Without the Extra Vote, the vote would have shaken out 5-3-3, and again, Evvie would have gone out on a split vote.
My only explanation for Deshawn’s Extra Vote is that he anticipated something that didn’t happen, likely Sydney putting her vote on him, or Xander using his Extra Vote (making the vote 5 Sydney, 4 Deshawn and 3 Evvie, without Deshawn’s Extra Vote). And so, if Sydney got saved by an Idol, then Deshawn was on his way out.
It’s a lot of shifting and moving math. And while ultimately Deshawn wasted his vote, it seems he was using it defensively. With a vote with so many moving parts, it’s difficult to be too critical of him using everything in his arsenal, especially given he was in the firing line.
What I’m less forgiving of is Xander’s call to keep the Idol. When Tiffany moved to follow through on the plan to save Evvie with the Idol, Xander interjected to tell her to keep it and risk Evvie going home. Tiffany obliged, and ultimately Xander was proven right. But I’d argue it was the right call by chance, not by skill. A 5-4-3 vote is a knife’s edge vote. All it would have taken would have been for one of the Sydney votes to have fallen the other way, and Evvie is out of the game, and after his big bluff with Liana’s advantage, he gets egg on his face with the blowback.
Where Deshawn wasted his Extra Vote but was savvy in using it as a defensive tactic, Xander would have similarly been in the right to burn the Idol here and ensure his ally was protected. That said? If Xander felt like Evvie or Sydney going was an outcome with parity, and it was more important to preserve the Idol for himself, especially recognising he’ll be in the minority, I can understand the self-interest in the play. But given the Idol was already in a shared space, being tactically used by his alliance, flipping to self-interest at the last minute could damage those relationships. Aand it was those relationships that allowed him to keep his Idol safe from Liana.
There was so much happening in this vote that I’ve barely scratched the surface. And even the show struggled with the overwhelming quantity of information and decisions and counter-decisions. Exactly why Sydney took the fall was glossed over (perhaps in part to avoid criticism of her being screwed over by the hourglass lie). And once again, Erika and Heather were relegated to the background, even as they voted with the Luvu majority that has weighed up voting them out in the pre-merge.
Nevertheless, this proved to be a fascinating and heart-pounding episode. It was heavy on the twists and the advantages, but that’s not what made the episode great. What made this instalment so strong was the strength of the gameplay coming from a likable but intensely competitive cast. Seeing their relationships shift and change and seeing them be able to react to the advantages in play to work with and around them, that’s what made for some stellar Survivor.
I hope that from here on out, the season settles into the game we know and love and does away with the unnecessarily convoluted twists that detract from the elegance at the core of the game that’s kept us coming back for two decades. While I know better than to put too much stock in that hope, I’m still going to try. But even if there is more production madness on the horizon, there is at least one thing I know, and that is knowledge is power.
No matter what, at least this cast will continue to elevate the season, production fouls and all.