SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
The penultimate episode of any Survivor season is a twofold endeavor. The last person eliminated before the finale ends on an oh-so-close narrative, getting nipped juuuust before the endgame goes into full swing. Former NFL player Danny seemed like he was becoming a fan favorite last week, with a personal story about his father and an immunity challenge win. But after Liana got voted out, he found himself on the lean side of a numbers divide, and after failing to discover any hidden immunity idols, he fell victim to a vote-splitting strategy by everybody else except for his best ally DeShawn, who nearly burned his own game to the ground by going scorched Earth at tribal council for … reasons only he knows.
Sad for Danny, but intriguing for the rest of us as we start to place bets (metaphorical or literal) on which of the final five is going to win this season. As we enter the final stages — Jeff Probst laid out the structure of next week's two-hour finale as tribal was closing: two immunity challenges, one fire-making tiebreaker, and then the final three will plead their case to the jury — there are many factors to consider. Who can win the immunity challenges? Who might be good at making fire? Who's got friends on the jury? Whose game will look the most impressive when it comes time to vote on a winner? And, from a TV viewer's perspective, who's been edited to look like a winner?
Let's take a look at each remaining player, in alphabetical order:
DeShawn: Of all the five remaining players, DeShawn is the one the edit seems to be pushing the hardest. Tonight's episode was told mostly through DeShawn's point of view, and even when his game play was wildly screwy — there was no conceivable reason to think that blowing up Erika's spot re: Heather was going to help him a tribal — we saw his reasoning and followed the episode through his emotional beats. He enters next week's episode at a numbers disadvantage, having seemingly alienated Erika, perhaps his most important ally. But things may not be so dire. For one thing, at this stage of the game, betrayals tend to get shrugged off in favor of situational coalitions. Erika's not going to refuse to re-align with DeShawn if it'll get her to final three. And if he can get in front of the jury, DeShawn will almost certainly make that final tribal council his own. He might not be everybody's favorite, but he's the best positioned to explain his Survivor journey in a way that could make people want to vote for him.
Erika: Erika is coming on strong at exactly the right time, and if this were a live competition series like American Idol, that would be a good thing. But Erika's utter invisibility in the pre-jury phase of this season makes it hard to think she can win. Which is too bad because, as Erika reminded us this week, it's been a while since a woman has won Survivor. Sarah Lacina on Game Changers was the most recent, and women have only won three of the last fifteen (!) seasons. Erika's been doing a good job at making allies over these last few episodes, so our guess is either the jury won't appreciate the quieter game she's played, or she ends up getting cut in, say, the fire-making challenge.
Heather: This is the easiest call of the season: Heather will make it to the final three, get knocked around by the jurors for not having a very active game, and receive no votes to win. Lock it in. Despite the rare moments of self-reflection we got from Heather in this episode, her season-long narrative has been basically nonexistent, and the few times she's tried to make moves, it hasn't worked out.
Ricard: Ricard is an interesting case. If he makes it to final three and gets to plead his case to the jury, it's hard to see how he loses. People on the jury like him, he hasn't made any enemies the last couple weeks in Liana and Danny because they were targeting him as much as he targeted them, and the one person he betrayed most egregiously — Shan — has already said he's got her vote. The problem for Ricard lies entirely in getting there. If he doesn't win the first immunity challenge next week, he is gone. No questions about it. If he does win immunity, he's going to have to win the fire-making challenge after that. If he wins that fire-making challenge, he likely wins the game. Given Ricard's track record at challenges this season … this is very possible.
Xander: For what feels like the hundredth episode in a row, Xander has whistled past the graveyard with an immunity idol in his pocket, not even brought up as a possibility to target for elimination. This either means this season's players are unusually scared of the idol — a notion that proved untrue this week as they eager vote-split Danny to flush out any idol they thought he might have — or that Xander has some really strong social connections, which could be a winning case if he makes it to the jury. Do the jurors like him, though? All of his original tribe members — Tiffany, Liana, and even Evvie — have previously expressed annoyance with him. Is he someone they're going to want to hand a million dollars?
We'll know for sure in a week's time.
As for the rest of this week's happenings…
Player of the Week: Erika, for holding steady and not letting DeShawn's tribal council "truth bomb" — where he revealed to Heather that Erika wants to get rid of her before final three — affect her much. She reacted unemotionally, evenly, and never wavered from the plan to split votes and then eliminate Danny (the bigger challenge threat).
Honorable Mention(s): Xander. The kid's doing something right out there to not be targeted despite everyone knowing he's got an idol. We're not sure if this week's Chicken Dinner Alliance between him, DeShawn, and Erika exists anymore after what DeShawn did at tribal, but having even the whiff of a final three alliance at final five is a nice spot to be in.
Sketchy Strategy: DeShawn. If he really wanted to use Erika's disloyalty towards Heather in order to keep himself safe, he should have told Heather before they left the beach. He survived the vote, but he was going to survive the vote anyway. All his truth bomb did was put that outcome in jeopardy.
Alliance Report: Chicken! Dinner! Alliance! Come on, Erika and DeShawn, make up and make this happen.
Coming Next Week: It's the two-hour finale, followed by a one-hour reunion where Jeff Probst will certainly not be the most cheerfully aggressive human being you've ever seen in his support of the changes he made this season. Plus, you know, a winner!
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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.
TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst