SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
When we talk about being able to read the Survivor edit, most of the time we're talking about figuring out whose story is being told in a given season. The fact is, throughout the course of a season, there are many stories that are being told. That season's winner will be the focus of one of those stories, often the most important one. But other stories emerge in smaller, more contained ways. Part of the fun of watching Survivor is trying to tell the short-term stories from the long-game ones. All of which is to say that this week's episode was a story in three parts, and the way it shook out could have a lot to say about how this season is going to end.
The first story happens at the reward challenge, a three-part affair involving a dizzying spin followed by a balance-beam walk followed by a bean-bag toss. Noelle, who is competing with one prosthetic leg, falls far behind during the balance-beam portion. We've seen her struggle earlier in the season, getting caught up in a net that the players had to crawl through. That time, Noelle's futility is played as a warm moment of camaraderie where her fellow competitors helped untangle her at challenge's end. This time, Noelle gets the warrior edit. Persistence pays off, and she’s able to get past the beam, and then she lands a bean-bag atop an impossibly high pole after her opponents had been trying in vain for many minutes. Jeff Probst has probably never been happier to call a victory as he is when he declares Noelle the victor, not only because it’s a massive comeback, but because it is exactly the kind of triumph-over-adversity narrative Probst loves to tell on Survivor. He practically levitates over to present her with the immunity necklace.
After winning, Noelle chooses Sami, Jesse, and Owen to go on the reward with her, where they are all able to read letters from their loved ones (COVID safety procedures are still keeping the in-person loved-ones visits at bay). At this point, Noelle begins to lay out her strategy to the audience in interview clips. She planned to target Karla and Cassidy, while keeping a wary eye on an untrustworthy Sami. Noelle powers the entire narrative of this episode, and for a player whose strategy has often been frustratingly opaque during this season, it feels like something might be shifting. The past two seasons have featured winners in Erika and Maryanne whose strategies didn't emerge until later in the game. Maybe Noelle will be yet another late-breaking champion? Certainly, hers would be a tremendously satisfying and TV-friendly winner's narrative.
Then comes Jesse, who kicked off the episode by saying "I feel great about my position in the game," the kind of quote that ought to come with a Jason Voorhees-style soundtrack rattle considering how often it's used as the kiss of death in the editing room. But as the episode goes on, his confidence grows. After agreeing to Noelle's plan to split the vote between Karla and Cassidy, Jesse instead begins to formulate a plan to get rid of Noelle, who has far too good a narrative to want to sit next to at final tribal.
Certainly the producers seem to be onboard with him. As Jesse lays out his step-by-step plan to placate Noelle and then amass votes against her, the show adds Jesse's task list as text to the screen. This kind of overzealousness on the part of the producers is admirable in its creativity but annoying for someone trying to go with the flow of an episode. Anyone with an ounce of critical thinking knows the show isn't going to invest this much into Jesse's plan if it's not going to work, which takes away a lot of the suspense from the rest of the episode. But it also serves as a massive tip of the hand that Jesse's narrative is building to something beyond just this episode. It felt like the show was preparing Jesse's résumé for the final tribal council, should he get there.
The biggest impediment to Jesse making it to the end becomes evident in the episode's third and most unexpected focal point: Gabler. After Jesse tells him about the plan to flip the vote onto Noelle, Gabler's wariness about Jesse and Cody as a power pair kicks into gear. We get a scene where Gabler shares his concerns with Karla and they make a (rather loose) agreement to target Jesse and Cody. Watching that scene closely, it's clear that this isn't a plan they're looking to execute now. The producers threw this in as a red herring to distract from the fact that they pretty much had Jesse's plan to vote Noelle out sewn up before the final commercial break. But it does look like Gabler's efforts to target the Jesse/Cody pair could come into play next week.
Gabler's become a fascinating player as we've gotten down to the final weeks. His narrative seemed to coincide with a classic early-game player who flames out early. He’s often been edited as a quasi-buffoon around camp, who blew up Elie's game at the merge out of spite, and doesn't seem to get a ton of respect as a player. But now he's the guy who's clocked Jesse's game at the most crucial moment. If Noelle's narrative prevailed in the challenge and Jesse's narrative prevailed in the episode as a whole, Gabler's narrative is now positioned to succeed in the future. If he doesn't screw it up.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Jesse. For as annoying as that on-screen checklist was, it really highlighted what a smart game Jesse is playing. He targeted Noelle, neutralized her by making her think her plan was the plan, got Karla (and thus Cassidy) onboard with him and Cody, and then secured Gabler's vote, even if he did arouse Gabler's suspicions. Noelle was voted out 5-2-1, and Jesse made a big move he can point to at the end of the game.
Honorable Mention(s): For the second straight week, Cassidy's achievements were overlooked, but she did win the tile-stacking immunity challenge at a moment when she was definitely being targeted, so kudos for that. In doing so, she became the fifth player to win individual immunity this season, after Owen, Gabler, Cody, and Karla. Of the final seven, only Sami and Jesse haven't won immunity yet.
Sketchy Strategy: It's seemingly through no fault of his own, but once again Owen finds himself blindsided at tribal council and voting with the minority. This guy truly cannot seem to find his way into any majority alliances.
Alliance Report: Jesse and Cody seem to be aligned with Karla and Cassidy, at least temporarily. Gabler is feigning an alliance with Jesse and Cody but is now looking to target them, seemingly to stick with Baka boys Sami and Owen.
Coming Next Week: Gabler tries to make his move.
Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.