Most seasons of Survivor have a season-defining moment, the move, scene, or event that sticks with you for weeks, months, and years after the fact. For a while, it seemed like this season wasn’t going to have one of those moments. There weren’t incredible lows per se, but there wasn’t a super hyped moment that made you stand up and holler at your screen in shock, excitement, horror, or joy. And then this episode delivered one of the best blindsides of all time out of nowhere, setting the stage for a high-stakes finale.
The morning after Sami’s departure, the final six enjoy the sunset as the ramifications of tribal council take shape. Karla was meant to throw a vote on Cassidy and end up with egg on her face, but her last-minute switch to Sami ruined Jesse’s scheme. Owen sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between the women, however, spilling the details of Karla’s betrayal to a bewildered Cassidy, and off to confront Karla she goes.
Caught red-handed, Karla goes into telenovela mode, whipping out crocodile tears to keep Cassidy blind to her true intentions. It’s quite the heel turn for one of the season’s biggest heroes, but Karla once said there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to win, and now she’s ready to prove it. The problem? Karla is the one getting snowed here. Recommending that Cassidy ask Jesse to back up her story, Karla sets the wheels in motion for a doomsday situation as Jesse casually exposes her lies for what they are. The gloves are off, the fox is on the loose, and Cassidy’s ready to slay yet another enemy.
The strategic machinations are put on hold as the final six compete for a day at the Sanctuary, enjoying tea and pastries as their reward. Owen, Cody, and Karla pull out the win, sending Gabler, Jesse, and Cassidy back to camp. On the reward, Karla enters telenovela mode yet again, painting herself as a hopeless victim of lies and slander to keep the target off her back a bit longer. Owen and Cody don’t fall for it, though, instead forming a plan to get Karla or Cassidy out at the next vote and take all the guys to the top four.
Back at camp, Gabler proposes a final three with Cassidy and Jesse, planting a seed against Cody and Karla that actually sprouts. The Alli-Gabler is finally rising back to the surface, and he’s hungry for big players. Comparing his game to assassinating a king, he’s the one poisoning the king’s drink instead of running in guns blazing, and nobody sees him getting away with it.
But there’s Gabler’s biggest weakness heading into a potential final three: nobody actually sees his game. We, the audience, sure do, as he’s explained it in detail every step of the way, but he’s hardly been vocal in front of the jury and certainly isn’t calling the shots around camp. Despite his incredible recovery after the merge, Gabler might be setting himself up for a tragic fall, being so well camouflaged that none of his genuine arguments will hit home.
Cassidy reveals Karla’s idol to the guys, giving Jesse second thoughts about working with Cody in the event his idol becomes an issue. But Karla is still the biggest threat to his game, so he’ll keep the anti-Cody sentiment on the back burner until the time is right. Meanwhile, Gabler fills Cody in on the details, creating a plan to split the votes between the women as long as they can keep the immunity necklace out of their hands. Filled with fresh calories, Cody’s ready to dance his way to the final four with some new jewelry, but fate has other plans.
In a close shave, Cassidy squeaks out another immunity win by mere seconds, spoiling the men’s plans and forcing one or more of the guys to enter the firing line if the Karla boot is still a go. But the Karla plan just got way more complicated. Having failed the challenge due to her struggling body, Karla’s more than ready to play that idol should the situation seem sketchy, so a masterclass blindside will need to be in order.
As Gabler and Owen process that one of them could be at risk, Cody goes to Karla and throws them under the bus, promising her a spot in the final four with Jesse if his new plan works out. It’s quite simple: they make a big show about playing their idols to throw everyone off, bluff their way through tribal council with their idols secure for the final five, and boom, final four guaranteed. It’s a bold plan… but it’s not the real plan.
Karla has fallen right into Cody’s mist, unknowingly setting herself up for a massive downfall. As Cody relays to the rest of the men, the real plan is to keep Karla feeling safe enough to not use her idol, hitting her with a blindside for the ages with it still in her pocket and leaving Cassidy totally exposed as easy pickings at the final five. And just to sell the act, he builds a colorful walking stick for Karla just so he can see her take the walk of shame with it in hand.
But little does Cody know that his good pal Jesse is up to no good. Fearing that Cody’s plan would be a game-winning move for the surfer should they reach the end together as originally intended, Jesse devises a devious scheme to seize control and stuff his own resume to the brim. Cody’s great, but a million dollars and a secure future for his family would be even greater, so it’s time for Death of a Salesperson – Part II.
Though we don’t get a tacky checklist alongside Jesse’s plan this time, it’s equally as crafty. The first step is revealing the whereabouts of Cody’s idol, so potential Cody voters know he’s defenseless. Then, if Jesse plays Cody’s idol out of nowhere, Karla will be spooked into playing her own idol. Both idols will be flushed, leaving Jesse with the only idol left, which guarantees him a spot in the final four. Cody will be eliminated, Karla will be defenseless and physically weak going into the finale, and Jesse only needs to worry about forced fire-making.
But things will never be so simple, will they? Karla asks to see Cody’s idol just to prove he wasn’t lying, and he happily obliges. Having no choice but to go along with it and hope Cody trusts him enough to give it back before tribal, Jesse enters panic mode as his scheme is immediately in jeopardy. As news spreads, Owen and Gabler enter panic mode, too, fearing a potential sole vote elimination. But Cassidy’s safe, Karla’s none the wiser, and Cody (promising this vote will be the biggest blindside of the season) is confident in his move going through unopposed.
Come tribal, we finally get our season-defining move. Playing Cody’s idol for Owen, Jesse baits Karla into burning her own idol, knocking Cody out with four votes and earning a begrudging bromance handshake as he departs. Jesse exploited his number one’s trust, weaponized his idol against him, flushed another idol in the process, and impressed the jury in one move. Even if Jesse doesn’t win, this cements him as an elite player of the New Era, if not the entire franchise.
It’s a move so cutthroat and vicious that Jesse might have just killed the innovative advantage hot potato strategy we’ve seen since the Knowledge is Power reared its ugly head. Can you really trust an ally with your idol anymore? Because Jesse just opened the door for any player to follow in his footsteps and make an equally devious move should their ally feel a little too comfortable.
But what about the victim of such a terrifying play? Cody’s downfall was trust, plain and simple. Ironically, it came just as he found the resolve to proudly lie to others and play his own cutthroat game. He just got beaten to the punch, blindsided from an angle he never bothered to watch out for. Devoting himself to Jesse wasn’t a bad play. The jury might have been willing to favor Cody’s bold, likable personality over Jesse’s more impersonal strategy had they both gotten credited for the same moves, especially after claiming a hypothetical Karla boot for himself.
However, the salesman himself got sold on a big scam, and off to the jury he went. While Cody definitely faded into the background game-wise after the merge, he was still one of the season’s biggest, most entertaining characters, so it’s only fitting that he gets the biggest, most entertaining vote out of the season.
After 12 weeks of ups and downs, we’ve reached the finale with five totally different games. Jesse is the clear frontrunner with how dominant his game has been, but we all know he’s worried about that fire-making challenge. Karla played a strong game for most of the season, using her wealth of social connections to stay in the loop, but she’s fallen from grace in recent days and has a tough road ahead with all eyes on her as the next big threat. Cassidy has scraped by week after week, avoiding elimination while watching her enemies join the jury, but might need to win out to pitch her unconventional story to her old foes.
Finally returning to the fray to plant seeds and reap the fruits of his labor, Gabler’s building a somewhat strong case after a disastrous start but runs the risk of his impressive game being too quiet for its own good. And Owen, the self-appointed Charlie Brown of the season, has fought like hell to reach Day 24 but might not find an impressed jury waiting for him despite his sympathetic underdog story.
It took a while for this season to get going, and it never kept its momentum for long. Still, with this amazing penultimate episode paving the way for an understandable conclusion regardless of who takes the million dollars home, hopefully, we end this saga of messiness with a strong, satisfying final chapter.