SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
Two episodes into its 41st season, Survivor is coming in hot with new advantages, tons of strategy, and a pool of contestants who are clearly students of the game. For a show that's been on TV for over two decades, this shouldn't be surprising. But as players become ever more aware of not only the game mechanics (how idols work; when things like tribe swaps tend to happen) but also the meta narrative of how the game tends to be played, Survivor in this self-professed new era has become a show as much about itself as it is the game being played.
This showed up in a big way in episode 2, evidenced by the two types of Survivor super-fans who are playing the game. First, there are the people who are students of Survivor strategy, who know the language of the game and (perhaps more importantly) its nonverbal cues. Sometimes this can lead to overzealous play, as we saw tonight when Brad overreacted to the sight of J.D. and Ricard going to the water well and ran off to spy on them. But at their best, these students of the game have been playing out game scenarios in their heads for years, waiting for the moment when they can put their expert plans into motion. But we'll get back to Evvie shortly.
Then there are those who are experiencing their time on Survivor as a life event, the pinnacle of a certain journey on their life, or the next step on an even longer path. J.D. was among several contestants to talk about Survivor this way in the premiere, complete with gauzily-rendered footage from his home life. This week, Naseer talked about his upbringing in Sri Lanka and how it prepared him for this meager-supplies, faster-paced game; and Deshawn spoke with pride about studying to become a physician. For them, Survivor is a personal goal met and an experience not to be wasted.
This devotion to Survivor as an experience is why Xander, after discovering the "beware advantage" that we saw Jeff Probst hide in the season premiere, decided not to heed the warning that said that opening the advantage bound him to accept it. You only play Survivor once, after all (unless you're Rob Mariano or Rupert or Cirie or…). And so this is how Xander found himself subject to the single worst advantage in Survivor history. He earned an immunity idol … but one that's only activated if two other players from two other tribes find their hidden idols … and decide to similarly forego the "beware" warning … AND say a series of nonsensical phrases at the immunity challenge, in front of all the other players. And until all three idols are found, Xander can't vote at tribal council until the merge. This is a brutal turn for Xander, and that's even before the part at the immunity challenge where he blurts out his phrase, "I truly believe that butterflies are dead relatives saying hi," only to be met by stone silence because no one else has found their hidden advantage yet. Our secret theory that Jeff Probst got left stranded in Fiji for the duration of the production shutdown and dreamed up Season 41 as he was slowly going mad grows stronger.
Xander's poisoned chalice of an advantage really gets bad for him after his Yase tribe loses at the immunity challenge and must face tribal council. Of course, he doesn't think he's in that bad of a spot, because on a 5-person tribe, he's in a 3-person alliance with cute surgeon David Voce and strategic dynamo Evvie. But Evvie (who came out as non-binary between taping and airing and says she feels good with both she and they pronouns) is a student of the game within the game. As she explains in a talking-head, she's wary of entering into a strategic pact with two men because, time and again on Survivor, when a woman is in an alliance with men and they all make it to the end, the men get the credit, and the women get third place. Evvie's not here for third place, which is why she solidifies her alliance with Liana and Tiffany and, despite Tiffany's dead-weight performance at the challenge, chooses long-term strategy over short-term tribe strength at Tribal Council. Through two episodes, Evvie has been given the heaviest strategic edit of the season, which could mean good things in the long run for her. Both of Yase's voting decisions have been framed through Evvie's POV, even as Tiffany dug her heels in this week and insisted that they vote out Voce over Xander (in case Xander played his idol that he cannot play yet).
It's tough to say what Voce could have done to avoid his fate as the third person eliminated in the game. He made the classic Survivor error of thinking he was in a solid alliance only to find out that he was not. Voce got caught playing Survivor while Evvie was playing meta-Survivor, and the meta-game won.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: While Evvie is playing out her long-term strategy, we have to admit that Tiffany won the week by getting her way on the Voce vote. Tiffany's position wasn't exactly rational (no matter how many times Evvie tried to explain that Xander doesn't have an idol yet because his code phrase wasn't reciprocated, it didn't get through), and she likely has no idea how close she came to talking herself out of the game, but for now she's in a good spot.
Honorable Mention(s): Evvie, of course, although we can't shake the feeling that choosing Tiffany over Voce might end up biting her in the end. But she also made a great and possibly fruitful bond with Deshawn after their little mountain hike to the Risk Your Vote decision. In choosing to protect her vote and letting Deshawn know she was doing so, she made the necessary call for herself and possibly earned the loyalty of a player who now has an extra vote because of her.
Sketchy Strategy: Oh, Brad. Overreacting to J.D. and Ricard saying the word "he" was one thing. Sprinting off to a hidden spot by the water well to spy on them was another. (By the way, production is definitely placing the water wells near good hiding places to encourage Tony Vlachos-esque espionage, right?) But telling Shan all about it, and thus making her suspicious of him? That was strike three.
Alliance Report: Speaking of Shan, she and Ricard confirmed to each other that they were each other's top ally this week. And on Luvu — who's yet to go to Tribal and put their alliance cards on the table — Sydney says she's growing fonder of Naseer and no longer planning to steal all his survival knowledge and then boot him, as was apparently the plan. So that's nice!
Coming Next Week: Survivor's next-episode teases have taken a turn for the elliptical and Mad Men-esquely vague this season, but: Liana frets she made a million-dollar mistake, J.D. continues to act extra as hell, and Sydney is scared.
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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.