SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
We've been saying it all season, and it's not like we were wrong on the facts. There have been a ton of newfangled advantages thrown into the game this season. They've often been confusing, they've taken a lot of screen time, and they've seemed to be at least trying to fundamentally change the nature of the game. Last week's episode introduced the nadir of all that, with Erika offered an advantage that would reverse the outcome of the immunity challenge, making the winners all eligible to be voted out and the losers all safe. It was a bridge too far for many fans, and it left many grumbling (including yours truly).
But this week's episode — in particular its wild, strategy-packed tribal council — was enough to make me eat my words (some of them, at least), delivering one of the greatest tribal council moments ever and paying off multiple advantages in a series of back-and-forth strategic gambits. This was very much not old-school Survivor, but it was new-school Survivor played at its highest level, and it was thrilling to watch.
The episode started frustratingly, though, for viewers and players alike. Erika emerged from exile to reveal whether or not she chose to smash that hourglass. Of course, since she'd already been exiled by her old tribe members, there was absolutely no downside to her playing the advantage, so she did, and the Time-Tuner Advantage (that's my name — Jeff Probst, you can pay me if you want to use it) suddenly made DeShawn, Danny, Sydney, Naseer, Ricard, and Evvie vulnerable for the vote. After Ricard won an immunity challenge that required the Screwed Six (also mine) to build a block structure with their feet, the bulk of the episode was given to the madcap scramble and strategizing that's always characterized the best merge episodes.
This was the Survivor we all love, and it didn't disappoint. Evvie was an early target, and she knew it, but Xander — an ally Evvie had managed to keep close despite her other tribemates having little use for him — declared he'd play his idol for her at tribal. Here's where the twist that only six players were eligible for the vote actually worked to Evvie's advantage: since Xander and Tiffany were safe, they could make a bold play on Evvie's behalf without worrying that they were leaving themselves open to get axed.
Meanwhile, the newly formed alliance of Shan, Liana, Danny, and DeShawn were planning to use Liana's Knowledge Is Power advantage to steal Xander's idol before he could play it on Evvie. This set up a reasonably tense tribal council showdown, where we'd all wonder whether it was Xander or Evvie who had the idol, and which one Liana would ask to produce it (since her advantage stipulated that she had to ask the person currently holding the idol or she wouldn't get it).
But then Xander started talking, and I'll fully admit that I thought he was screwing things up. Maybe it's the too-carefully-placed tuft of hair peeking out of his headband, or the surfer-doof manner of speaking he employs, but this episode saw me continue to assume Xander was an idiot, and he kept proving me wrong. First he told Danny of his plan to use his idol on Evvie, which seemed very dumb as it was allowing the other side to play around it. But Xander's plan to sow chaos on the other side actually worked, as Danny and his allies scrambled for backup targets, and since the only other targets were old Luvu members, it meant sacrificing one of their own. (I'm still kind of puzzled that Naseer wasn't made the sacrificial lamb; the only explanation I can come up with is that Danny and DeShawn are still really concerned about being outnumbered by the women, which remains very dumb.) Xander's play got the other side whispering Sydney's name, which allowed him and Evvie to pull Sydney into the Yase caucus.
But the big moment came at tribal council, where Xander, Evvie, and Tiffany — but Xander especially — pulled off no fewer than three huge moves. 1) They were smart enough to give Tiffany possession of the idol, meaning that if Liana asked Xander or Evvie for the idol, they wouldn't have to give it up. 2) They created a fake idol that Xander pulled out at tribal, seemingly cocky that he'd get to play it for Evvie. Neither Liana nor the viewers knew it was a fake until Liana played her Knowledge Is Power advantage and asked for it, at which point we were shown the creation of a fake idol in a flashback, a massive gag and one of the great tribal council moments of all time. And then, 3) after the votes were cast, Xander told Tiffany to hold on to the idol, since he thought the other players' assuming Evvie had the idol meant they wouldn't have voted for her. Here again I thought Xander had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but his gamble was correct. Barely. By a split 5-4-3 vote, Evvie was safe and Sydney was eliminated.
This was the payoff we weren't sure we were going to get, but it happened, and it was pretty fantastic, with a huge strategic play by someone we weren't sure had it in him (Xander), and a vote where a fan favorite (Evvie) was saved and a rather unpleasant person (Sydney) was the collateral damage. Three advantages were played — in addition to Liana's fizzled advantage, DeShawn used his extra vote (cast in vain against Evvie), and Sydney took her Shot in the Dark advantage, to no avail — and the payoff was the most exciting episode of the season. If we're going to get inundated with a dozen new bells and whistles, at least they're getting played by a cast of incredibly savvy players. This was a Survivor strategy geek's dream of an episode.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Xander, hands down. Fakes out Liana at tribal and gets to keep his idol. Which he and his allies are going to need, since they're still pretty heavily outnumbered.
Honorable Mention(s): For as much as I've griped about Tiffany being too impulsive and an unstable ally, she held her water quite well at tribal council, never giving away that she was holding the idol and holding onto Xander's idol despite her reservations.
Sketchy Strategy: Sydney lamented in her exit speech that she was eliminated by a one-vote margin and she threw her vote away on the Shot in the Dark. Of course, that's assuming she'd have voted for Evvie and not DeShawn.
Alliance Report: The Danny/DeShawn/Shan/Liana alliance seems quite strong, and the hangers-on — Erika, Heather, Naseer — all seem to have drifted their way as well. For now.
Coming Next Week: It's another pre-tribal council scramble, God help us all.
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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.