"Edge of Extinction gives us the chance to see a fuller, more human side to people who might have otherwise been two dimensional cutouts."
Stephen Fishbach has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. He is the host of the podcast Paraphrase, where he interviews writers about the openings to their novels. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenfishbach.
“I thought that this would be easier to play with heart and head separate. I thought I could stay totally in the game, and stay totally in my head and strategize, and not focus on my emotions or my relationships or connections with people, or listen to their stories and hear about them. It becomes really hard to separate those two things.” — Kim Spradlin, winner, Survivor: One World
Every Survivor player wants to make the merge. Partially that’s because it’s a sign you’ve done “good enough” at the game. You can go home and invite your friends to your viewing parties with pride. You’re worthy of being dated.
But one of the main reasons not to be voted out pre-merge is that you really, really don’t want to get stuck with all the other people who were voted out pre-merge. On most seasons,* the contestants who go first are the ones who were annoying, who started fights, who were too irritating to live with. Now they’re cooling their heels at Ponderosa, stewing about their placement in the game.
So what would happen if those people were forced to live together? Edge of Extinction gives us the chance to see players who have had their torches snuffed too soon – and have to wrestle with the agony. It’s kind of beautiful to watch Chris come to terms with his early Survivor flameout, when he had daydreamed about a perfect game. And Reem – who any other season would have been a wacky over-the-top first boot – may be my legitimate favorite new player. She’s like the sassy barkeep from a movie or a videogame – snarky, sharp-elbowed, she’ll threaten to drop kick you. But she keeps an eye on Keith to make sure he doesn’t hoist the flag, and she celebrates Chris for his fishing. Edge of Extinction gives us the chance to see a fuller, more human side to people who might have otherwise been two dimensional cutouts.
Meanwhile, back in the game, the Survivor wheel of fortune keeps turning. A Survivor swap brings a surprise result. Except for Wendy, the tribes basically stay the same! Joe, Aurora, Ron, Julia, and Julie are on Kama. David, Devens, Lauren, Wentworth, and Wardog are on new tribe Lesu. Aubry, Gavin, Eric, Victoria, and Wendy are the new Manu.
It’s less than a 1 percent chance, according to Wardog math. The only time I can think of something similar is in Survivor All Stars, where Boston Rob’s Chapera and Lex’s Mogo Mogo basically just swapped buffs, except for Amber.
The tribe dynamics stay mostly the same, too.
On Kama, everybody’s still targeting Joe. Ron and Julia plot a little diversion. Ron makes an alliance with Joe by the water well while Julia goes through his belongings to see if he has an idol. He doesn’t! He might even be vulnerable to a vote, if he ever loses a challenge.
On Manu, Wendy’s still crusading for the chickens. Terrified that Eric is about to make chicken-kabobs, she frees the foul in the night! I’ve actually shared a tribe with a chicken saboteur. When you’re starving, it’s not a matter of jokes and laffos to lose food. If I were out there with Wendy, I’d be furious. But as a TV viewer, I hope that Wendy rides her lunacy all the way to the end.
And on Lesu – whose name evokes Less, Loss, Lose, Losers (“Sounds about right,” says David) – the tribe just can’t pull it together. They’re like the opposite of the little engine that could. They’re plucky, they have heart, but they’re still terrible. After losing yet another immunity challenge, David and Devens face off against Wentworth and Lauren, with Wardog in between.
David and Devens argue that Lauren is weak. She hasn’t been eating. She’s a liability. Lauren and Wentworth argue that Devens is sneaky. He’s much more likely to flip on the group at the merge.
The Fishy goes to Wardog, for making the right choice and voting out Devens. There’s no question that Devens is the more dangerous operator. He’s charming, he knows the game, his quick wit is a joy to watch. But he’s not so obviously threatening that he’d be a big target at the merge. Of course that’s the person you want to vote out at the swap.
The big question to me is: Why was David never mentioned? He’s such an obvious vote at this point in the game. For all the reasons that Devens is a threat, David is an even bigger threat. He’s incredibly smart. He’s charming and humble. His strategic game is nonpareil. I mean, you’ve actually seen him charm and scheme his way to the end on television.
The only rationale I can think of is that the tiny remnants of the Manu tribe are hoping to use the returnees’ connections to make inroads at the merge. Voting out David might be a red flag to Joe and Aubry.
And of course, we know that David’s incredibly loyal. How do we know that? Because he says so.
“No one’s brand is more loyalty than me. That’s my brand,” he tells Wardog.
It’s true that David has shown loyalty across his seasons. He faced down almost his entire tribe when he played his idol for Jessica in Millennials vs. Gen X. But if David can make it to the merge based purely on self-branding, it may go down as one of the best ad campaigns in history.
*special shout-out to the epic pre-merge cast of Ghost Island who deserved better.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.