SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
After a season of waiting for fireworks, only to be met with haphazard strategy and vaguely edited justifications for voting decisions, Survivor 43 pulled it together in the final 6 with an episode that was thrilling, bold, and surprising. At nearly the last possible second, this season finally kicked into gear, and it resulted in the season's most dramatic elimination. We got fake tears, real tears, a neck-and-neck win in the immunity challenge, multiple strategic gambits back at the beach, and finally, the biggest tribal-council blindside we've had in a very long time. One great episode might not be enough to salvage a subpar season, but for this week, it was well worth savoring.
After Sami's implosion at the previous night's tribal council led to a unanimous vote — with Karla not voting for Cassidy like she said she was going to — Jesse set out to sow the seeds of discontent between Cassidy and Karla anyway. And while Karla does deliver a telenovela-worthy performance, tears and all, as she assures Cassidy that she would never turn on her, Jesse eagerly tells Cassidy in private that Karla is 100% lying to her. In a season that is rapidly coming down to a Jesse vs. Karla showdown, that's one point in Jesse's favor.
The plan is to pit Karla and Cassidy against each other, which, regrettably, does mean that a "boys' alliance" of Cody, Jesse, Gabler, and Owen is in play. Boys' alliances belong in the dustbin of Survivor history, so when Cassidy barely ekes out a win in the immunity challenge over Cody, it's a cause for celebration, as at least one of the two remaining women are safe.
Next, the three immunity idols that are still active in the game come into play. Cody knows that his idol is public knowledge. Karla doesn't think anybody knows she has an idol, but they do (especially once Cassidy tells everyone). And Jesse still has the immunity idol that everybody assumes exited the game in Jeanine's pocket. Cody hatches a plan for the three of them, where Cody and Karla will tell everybody that they intend to play their idols as an intimidation tactic. Frightened by the prospect of having their votes nullified, the rest of the players will fall in line with the plan to vote out Owen, and both Karla and Owen will get to keep their idols for one more week.
But! Cody is a liar. Instead of voting for Owen, Cody plans to rally Owen and Gabler to his and Jesse's side and vote out Karla (and her idol), putting Cody into the final five with what he thinks is the last remaining idol.
But! Jesse is also a liar. With an eye towards the jury, Jesse doesn't like the idea of riding Cody's coattails through what would end up looking like the game's biggest move in blindsiding Karla. Instead, Jesse's looking to make an even bigger move by blindsiding Cody. The plan is for Jesse to play Cody's immunity idol at tribal (my only gripe with what ends up being a tremendously put together episode is that there is no explanation as to why Jesse has Cody's idol in his possession), which will ideally freak out Karla enough to burn her idol. Meanwhile, the votes will go to Cody, eliminating Jesse's longtime ally. We get a Jesse interview where he tearfully talks about his determination to secure a future for his family with the Survivor million. He's not here for the thrill of the game. And if he has to make what he concedes is an "openly cutthroat" move to take out the player he's closest to, he's willing to do that.
After a tense cliffhanger where Cody asks for the idol back in order to show it to Karla, there's some doubt as to whether Jesse will get the idol back in time to play it at tribal. He does. Jesse plays Cody's idol for Owen (smart!), Karla plays hers for herself, and when the votes go to Cody, he is the most thunderstruck we've seen anyone at tribal in years. It seems for a few awful moments like he might never forgive Jesse this betrayal, but that passes and the two Vesi pals hug it out. It is by far the biggest and best move of the season so far, and it puts Jesse squarely in the driver's seat heading into next week's finale.
This makes for a rather intriguing setup heading into the finale. Clearly, Jesse and Karla are the two top contenders. In previous seasons, one would have been edited as the hero, one the villain. But this episode managed to present them both in a positive light: Karla fought through an injury at the immunity challenge and once again proved her toughness. Jesse made a huge strategic move and justified it with an interview about how much he loves his family. Only one of them can win, and they'll likely be looking to take each other out before the final three, but you could easily see either one triumph. Suddenly, this season is exciting again, and at exactly the right time.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Jesse. If you've been paying attention, that's three straight weeks that Jesse has earned this distinction. He masterminded the Noelle vote, he got his way on the Sami vote, and now in full view of the jury, he hoodwinked Cody. That is a formidable resume to take into the finals, if he makes it there.
Honorable Mention(s): Cassidy will probably not win this season, but she's really come through and pulled her feet out of the fire multiple times. This week, she scored her second individual immunity win, despite nearly getting the puzzle wrong.
Sketchy Strategy: If Karla does end up losing this game, her fatal flaw may have been putting too much trust in other players. She allowed Sami to turn her against Cassidy last week, even as he was lying. This week, she bought into Cody's plan even though he was planning to blindside her, and was only saved because of a Jesse plan which she wasn't even in on.
Alliance Report: Oh we're way past alliances at this point.
Coming Next Week: Five players, two tribals, one fire challenge, one jury, and the winner of Survivor 43!
The Season 43 finale of Survivor airs December 14 at 8:00 PM ET on CBS.
People are talking about Survivor in our forums. Join the conversation.
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.
TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst