SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
This week's episode of Survivor: Winners at War had a ton going for it: a thrilling, closely contested immunity challenge, a nighttime raid for the Cops R Us alliance that was full of tension and antics (if you like that sort of thing), some shark-catching shenanigans. And in the episode's final 20 minutes, a flurry of strategy as some of the game's finest wheeler-dealers — Boston Rob, Parvati, and Adam, joined by unexpected power player Michele — criss-crossed the beach trying to get one over on everybody else. And yet in the end, while Michele's coalition ended up on the winning side, they did so by eliminating Ethan Zohn, winner of Survivor: Africa (season THREE) and, along with Parvati Shallow, one of Rob's only allies left. (And if we're being honest, the by-far less threatening one.)
The question many have on their minds is: why? Why has the alliance of "new-school" winners — Michele, Jeremy, Adam, Denise, and Ben — spent the last two weeks picking off the weakest members of Rob's alliance when they have the numbers to vote out Rob himself? Rob, who, as Adam pointed out at Tribal Council, is so good at playing Survivor that there is a giant bust of him elsewhere on the island. It seems insane that these savvy players have Rob with his neck exposed and no one is even discussing taking the shot!
A few possible explanations why.
They're afraid they might miss. This is the standard explanation for why strong players and huge threats aren't always targeted: "What if I miss?" I just don't see that being a factor on this all-winners season. Everybody is either fearless or faking fearlessness to keep up appearances. These players are smart enough to know that if you take a shot at Rob and miss, you're just as dead in the water as you are if you wait too long to get rid of him.
They're starstruck. This I could believe. Remember last week when Rob got everybody to dump out their purses to prove they didn't have an idol? Rob has a hold on these players, especially the ones who are big fans of the show. I think Adam's plan to oust Parvati and retain Rob and Ethan as allies after was ill-considered and very possibly motivated by Adam's desire for an alliance with the legend Boston Rob. Remember when he made that alliance with Denise on Day 1, saying he'd always dreamed of being her Malcolm? I think Adam probably has had dream alliances with a lot of these players.
They're worried he has an idol. This hasn't been expressed on the show thus far, but it has to be a conclusion the players have come to. At the very least, Jeremy knows that the Edge of Extinction players are sending advantages into the game, because Natalie already sent him one. With Rob's wife Amber on the Edge herself, there has to be a working assumption that she's sent Rob something to aid him. That she hasn't yet and Rob remains as vulnerable as a heavily-accented baby bird out there is a massive irony, but the Michele/Jeremy/Ben/Denise/Adam group is going to really regret not taking their chances while they could.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Winner of the Week: Michele Fitzgerald. While the battle at Sele initially seemed like it would be Adam vs. Rob, Adam's desire to oust Parvati and cozy up to Rob threw the whole Sele tribe into a much murkier (and more fun to watch) strategic situation. From that chaos arose Michele, perhaps the most underestimated of the entire Winners at War cast, a perception which she's clearly aware of. "I do feel pressure coming into this season," she interviewed as Sele was headed to Tribal Council. "People didn't feel I deserved my win. But I feel like I am proving that they were wrong."
If Michelle is going to experience a strategic glow-up this season, it certainly started tonight. Unhappy with Adam's brazen attempts to have his cake and eat it too, Michele (along with her tight ally Jeremy) cooked up a plan to smartly target the Rob/Parvati/Ethan alliance while also leaving Adam exposed. Michele and her allies (Jeremy, Ben, and Denise) voted for Ethan, leaving Adam as the lone vote for Parvati, awaiting what one imagines to be a long night back at camp. Michele managed to run the Ethan vote in a way where all the blowback will be on Adam. And having burned his bridges with Rob and Parvati, he'll have to come back and ally with Michele anyway. It was a good week.
Sub-Winner of the Week: Sandra Diaz-Twine. Sometimes the queen stays queen simply by sitting on her throne. Sandra's biggest accomplishment this week was setting out the fishing net and then leaving it there to go relax, assuring her tribemates this is how it's done. And it worked! The net caught a teeny little shark, and the tribe ate well. Otherwise, Sandra sat out the challenge and even managed to play it pretty chill upon Yul telling her that Tyson has been strategizing against her. Even though Sandra's reputation is to sow chaos when it comes to voting people out Yul sees the value in keeping her around: she catches fish and she keeps tribe morale high. So he rats out Tyson's plot to her. And the queen stays abreast of plots to unseat her.
War of the Week: What a fantastic immunity challenge, culminating in a photo-finish puzzle (or so the A+ editing would have us believe) where Sarah and Sophie nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when Sarah accidentally punched the winning piece clear to the floor. Rob and Michele worked furiously to come from behind and make it as close as they did. Keen observers can usually tell by editing choices and music cues which tribe will win immunity (Wendell saying "we have the time" to Sarah and Sophie ought to have had Hubris Alarm bells ringing), but this challenge was a true toss-up at the end. Great fun.
Alliance Report: Another strong edit for the Cops R Us alliance of Sarah and Tony. After Natalie sends Sarah an offer to buy an advantage (curious that Natalie didn't send this to Jeremy, who still has one fire token left to, ahem, burn, raising questions about whether there were restrictions on who Natalie could sell to and in turn why Sarah, with whom she's never had any alliance that we know of), Sarah spends one fire token and gets a clue to a Steal-a-Vote advantage hidden in the rival tribe's camp. So Sarah enlists Tony (her "backup," because, see, they are cops) to help her prepare for her nighttime raid. This mostly, because it is Tony, results in him attempting to "camouflage" Sarah with charcoal. All antics, all the time with that guy! He's lucky they weren't in daylight so we couldn't really see him applying what amounts to blackface onto his cop buddy. ANYway! Sarah is successful at procuring her advantage, and now the fuzz have a weapon they can play should they need to.
Dispatches from the Edge of Extinction: Natalie continues to run circles around the competition (Amber and now Danni) as she continues to find advantages and rack up fire tokens (three so far, making her the Warren Buffet of fire tokens). Amber continues to come very close to finding advantages, but she just hasn't had the right luck. Meanwhile, longtime fans of the show might've taken note of Danni getting to swim in the big, beautiful ocean, which is a marked change from her Survivor: Guatemala days, where they had no swimmable water at all. Remember the reward challenge where they got to "swim" in a little cage enclosure in a lagoon? Anyone? Anyway, good for Danni.
Advantage Report: Okay, let's see …
War of the Weeks Ahead: Tyson appears to be flipping to the Sarah/Tony/Sandra alliance to target Yul and Sophie's Nerd Shield group, but there's also a tease about someone on Edge of Extinction perhaps getting bit by a poisonous snake. The medical team can be heard in the preview. See you next week!
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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, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.