SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
In a season that Jeff Probst has promoted for all its twists, turns, and new wrinkles to the game, the biggest shocker in this week's episode wasn't the elimination of the player whom most observers had penciled in for the finale at least, if not as the outright winner; no, the biggest shocker was that in this season full of Survivor gamers, students, and superfans, we got one of the most emotionally powerful episodes in recent Survivor history. How did this happen?? Gamebots aren't supposed to play this way. And if there's one thing that has united this diverse and entertaining cast of players, it's been that, to a person, they've been expert gamers. What was so phenomenal about Wednesday night's Thanksgiving eve spectacular was that this emotional episode didn't come at the expense of big strategy, it came in concert with it, resulting in an episode that was surprising, dramatic, strategy-packed, and feelings-forward.
I don't want to bury the lede any more than I already have, though, as Shan Smith, the player many suspected — and I was stone cold certain — would win this season, was voted out in 8th place. Voted out with an idol and an extra vote in her pocket. Voted out before Heather! How did this happen? It was, in fact, the end of a very intricate chain of strategic events, but it was also a decision made after several deeply personal decisions, with Shan, DeShawn, Liana, and Ricard all torn between conflicting demands to follow their heads or follow their hearts.
At first it seemed like this episode was going to center solely on the long-simmering clash between Shan and DeShawn. After weeks of incongruous communication styles and conflicting ideas on who their alliance (which includes Liana, Danny, and Ricard) ought to target, DeShawn seemed like he'd had enough and began entertaining offers from Erika to flip sides and target Shan. As has happened before, though, clearer heads prevailed and the next morning DeShawn and Shan had a rather fascinatingly real conversation about their senses of loyalty to "the culture" — i.e. the all-Black alliance they formed with Danny and Liana at the merge — and to their own personal games. It's a complicated tangle of impulses for both of them, and the show gave us illuminating interviews where they echoed each other's sentiments about how meaningful it would be to their community to make it to the end with their alliance intact. They both make reference to 2020 being an especially hard year, and while neither elaborates on it, clearly it's not just the pandemic but the murder of George Floyd and the reckoning and protests that followed that's on their minds. It's deep stuff, and DeShawn in particular breaks down when talking about how important it is, while also agonizing that for his own personal survival, he might need to snake Shan sooner.
After a reward challenge where Ricard wins (showing himself to be even more of a competition threat) and then rather politically chooses Shan, Heather, and Xander to accompany him, DeShawn and Danny start to see Ricard as not only a jury threat but also as an asset that gives Shan too much power within their alliance, so they approach Liana with a plan to backdoor Ricard without telling Shan about it, reasoning that Shan would have no choice but to stick with their alliance afterwards anyway. And here again is where these very savvy and intricate gamers end up being waylaid by their feelings, because Liana ends up blowing in this plan to Shan because she can't find it in her to betray the bond they've built together. Through tears, they both talk about their initial meeting on the mountaintop where they bonded over — among other things — the deaths of their mothers, a moment that's proving to be the most significant single interaction of the season. Liana isn't willing to break that bond, even if it means their alliance crumbling, which it will if they target DeShawn for elimination, which is now Shan's plan.
But THEN, Shan goes to Ricard to tell him about the now-foiled plan and the new vote-out-DeShawn plan, and Ricard's reaction is deeply fascinating. He's clearly shaken by the news that people he thought were his allies were going to snake him this week, but he's also thrown by the fact that Shan is choosing to save him. The unspoken follow-up sentiment — though Shan crucially doesn't seem to pick up on it, as far as we know — is that he doesn't think he'd do the same for her. This might seem cruel if we hadn't earlier, at the reward, seen Shan and Ricard share a deeply fascinating conversation that basically explains their whole weird combative friendship this whole season. Shan and Ricard are such hardcore gamers and so good at reading each other that neither one of them is bothering at this point to pretend that they're intending to take the other to the end, since neither is confident enough they could beat the other at jury. But rather than allow this to make them resent each other, it only bonds them closer. It also means that Ricard is very much aware of needing to be the one to strike first when the moment comes. So when he wins a ball-balancing immunity challenge, and Shan immediately downshifts from the plan to vote out DeShawn (since Ricard is safe, why mess with her own allies, uneasy as they are, she figures), Ricard decides to make that move and rallies first Xander and Erika to his side, and Danny and DeShawn are ultimately pulled in as well.
And so an episode that began with a battle of wills between DeShawn and Shan ends with the bittersweet end to the Shan and Ricard story. This was the first episode in a while where I wasn't left wondering why these two who were constantly butting heads were even aligned with one another. Their bond, it turned out, was deeper than I realized, rooted in friendship, yes, but also in their shared enthusiasm for playing Survivor at its most aggressive and cutthroat. That means they both knew that sooner or later they were going to go after one another. There are many reasons why Shan ended up on the crappy end of a Jeff Probst torch-snuffing, but the most significant one is that Shan wasn't ready to pull the ripcord on their alliance, and Ricard was. Her assurance to Ricard as the final votes were read that they were okay was maybe the most touching moment of a very touching episode.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Ricard. Truly so much strategy to sift through here leading up to the Shan vote, including DeShawn and Ricard striking up a deeply unsustainable deal (DeShawn outright lied about not targeting Ricard, and Ricard knows it) and Danny being so impressed by Erika devising a plan to split the votes between Shan and Liana and flush out Shan's idol that he immediately started talking about voting Erika out for being a threat. But this week belongs to Ricard. It may have painted a massive target on his back (and Shan didn't necessarily help by pledging him her jury vote), but Ricard slayed the biggest strategic giant of the season.
Honorable Mention(s): Xander. He didn't need to employ much strategy this week — and in fact, when we saw the votes revealed over the end credits, we saw him clearly register his astonishment at what was going down — but the fact remains that Xander made it through this week without anybody even discussing him as an option to vote out, beyond some talk about flushing his idol. That never happened, so Xander now finds himself in the top seven with an immunity idol, an extra vote, Ricard as the new #1 target, and the DeShawn/Danny/Liana alliance in chaos. Is Xander going to win this season??
Sketchy Strategy: Liana. Shan made her fair share of mistakes this week en route to elimination, but what's the wildest is that if Liana never told Shan about the Ricard plan, they probably would have just voted Erika out this week after Ricard won immunity, and both she and Shan would be looking at top 7 together.
Alliance Report: Oh who even knows at this point, beyond Danny and DeShawn's unbreakable bond. Ricard and Xander seem to be inching closer to becoming allies, which could have a big impact on the endgame. At this point, they're each other's best chance at making it to the end.
Coming Next Week: Only two more episodes until the December 15th finale, so the scrambling really is about to begin.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.