SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
We're at the stage of the game in Survivor 43 where, especially in this modern era of the show, players start to bypass easy moves in order to make the kinds of splashy strategic flexes they can point to at the end of the game and say "I did that, I should win the million dollars." This week's episode was full of players who were quite cognizant of that fact. Sami — who's making a late play for Main Character status after Cody held that distinction early on and Karla has been holding it down the last few weeks — said outright he felt the need to make the kind of big move that he can hang his hat on at the end. "This is where good players survive and great players thrive," the 19-year-old pet cremator said in his confessional.
After the previous night's blindside of Dwight, the merged Gaia tribe stood at a fairly stark 7-4 split. The seven were made up of all four former Coco members (Karla, James, Cassidy, Ryan), plus Cody, Jesse, and Sami. That Sami vote was a surprise to his former Baka allies Owen, Gabler, and Jeanine, who, along with Noelle, found themselves on the lonely side of the island's power structure. Members of the seven talked about riding that alliance all the way to final seven, at which point they can "battle it out," something that almost never happens anymore in modern Survivor. You can see the appeal, though, especially since four of themn are sitting on either immunity idols or advantages: Cody, Karla, James, and… Jesse, it turns out. See, while everybody watching the show and on the island thought that Jeanine's idol exited the game in Dwight's pocket (the result of a mad scramble for people to hide their idols from James's Knowledge-Is-Power advantage), it turns out that before Tribal, Dwight gave Jeanine's idol to Jesse for security, and now nobody knows but Jesse. Not a bad weapon to have in one's holster.
But despite the security of a 7-4 numbers advantage, the idea of coasting along and picking off weaklings doesn't appeal to longtime Survivor fans who know that a jury at the end will respect big moves undertaken and big targets eliminated. Sami got started on the big talk about making a move. In that very Sami way he has of speaking like he's incredibly angry at all times, he gave a series of confessionals about wanting to disrupt the seven. And he had the weapons to do it, with Owen, Jeanine, and Gabler all still willing to keep their old Baka bond, as well as Vesi orphan Noelle. They just needed one more.
After the immunity challenge — won by Owen, who appeared to be the target of the seven, particularly if James got his way — Sami started making overtures to the power players in his alliance. His proposal was to target Ryan, a smart idea since Ryan's strategic bonds with the other Coco members are the weakest and he seems to spend all this time fishing rather than strategizing. Karla seemed to be onboard with Sami's pitch, and for similar reasons: wanting to make a big move. "You can't be subtle all the time," she reasoned. "How will people know what moves you're making?"
Cassidy had her own reasons for wanting to target Ryan: he'd pissed her off way back during the run-up to the Geo vote, for one thing. But Cassidy also is the first player we've seen verbalize what many Survivor fans have noticed: This season is eliminating all the women. Cassidy seemed to have built a decent bond with Jeanine, one she definitely didn't share with Ryan. Cassidy verbalized the decision between safely going along with the majority or making a move against the tide to vote out Ryan. The latter could give Cassidy a great line on her resumé if she makes it to the jury.
Alas, after a lot of high-minded talk at Jeff Probst's behest about the "social contract" that each Survivor cast makes with one another about how they play the game, the vote at Tribal came down to a deeply predictable 9-2 tally against Jeanine. (Cassidy did cast a vote against Ryan, to guard against an idol play, something she can easily blame on Gabler or Owen.) It's getting to be time to make that big move… just not yet.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: James got his way. Despite Karla, Cassidy, and Sami all agitating to make a bigger move and get rid of Ryan, James's proposal to take the path of least resistance and vote out Jeanine held sway. He somewhat hilariously tried to sell a Jeanine vote as a move against an athletic threat (as opposed to Ryan!) and wasn't laughed out of the room, so he must be doing something right.
Honorable Mention(s): Owen won immunity exactly when he needed to. And he saw through James's effort to convince him to opt out of the immunity challenge. Also, can we talk about Jeff Probst's attempts to brand the "Jeff offers the tribe a bag of rice in exchange for five players sitting out of the immunity challenge" moment into some kind of annual Survivor landmark? This is insane. It's reminiscent of the way Big Brother has calcified itself by making nearly every one of its recurring challenges a landmark that superfan contestants can anticipate and look forward to ("oooh, I made it to OTEV! Zingbot! BB Comics!"). I need Survivor to know that it is a better show than Big Brother and doesn't have to stoop to its tactics. Survivor has a merge episode and a family-visit episode as annual traditions, and THAT'S IT.
Sketchy Strategy: Noelle's steal-a-vote could have swung this vote against the seven-person majority if she'd gotten onboard with the former Bakas and played it right. It's really unclear what Noelle's strategy is at this point, but that steal-a-vote isn't going to be worth much if she keeps going down in numbers.
Alliance Report: James, Cody, and Jesse seem the most onboard with riding the seven as long as they can. That might end up threatening Karla and Cassidy. Sami's going to have to make a decision soon as to whether he's going to stick with the seven or defect to Owen and Gabler and make a move.
Coming Next Week: Sami says he wants to make a big move. Sounds familiar.
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.