Monday, November 30, 2015

Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance, Episodes 10 & 11: Playing the Game Isn't Winning the Game

In the past, a Survivor double episode meant there was a boring, predictable throwaway episode the producers were happy to bury in a bloated two-for-one show.  Not this time.  Instead, the pre-Thanksgiving two-hour extravaganza was one long goodbye to super strategist, former bridesmaid and famed "know-it-all" Stephen Fishbach.  It took two votes over two tribal councils but Ahab was finally sunk by the great white whale he had been obsessively chasing for weeks.

I asked last week the following questions concerning Fishbach's decision to join with the three amigas rather than sticking with his existing alliance: "Did he make the right choice?  That is the million dollar question that we are still weeks away from having answered.  Was siding with (as Kimmi christened them) the three witches the right move or one that will lead to his demise?"  It took just one week to have our answer.  Making "the big move" was what Fishbach thought he needed not just for his safety but, more importantly to him, for his résumé at the final tribal council.  He knew what it was like to go to the end and not have a compelling case to make to the jury.  He was not going to make that mistake again.

So Fishbach made a new mistake.  He trusted in someone who was not loyal like eventual Tocatins winner J.T. and that person turned on him the first (and second) chance he got.  Fishbach looked ahead through the prism of what was best for his game, ignoring that others were not there to play for him to win.  He failed to put himself in the shoes of the other players and especially missed that one of the people in whom he placed his trust was almost as big a Survivor nerd and almost as much a serious strategist as he is. His mistake was in mis-identifying who was his biggest threat in the game.  Hint: it wasn't Joe.  Spencer Bledsoe, RHAP's own Mr. Survivor, gave Stephen Fishbach his own blindside and a final opportunity to quote Shakespeare.  Et tu, Brute?

In some ways, one could say that Fishbach's loyalty was his downfall both times.  He failed to cut J.T. in Tocatins, sticking with his Butch and Sundance/Oscar and Felix/Harold and Kumar pairing to the bitter end.  Unfortunately, the jury thought their pairing was more Batman and Robin and the caped crusader walked away with the million dollar prize, the designated sidekick left with just a bitter taste in his mouth.  This time, he brought a third member into the dynamic duo bromance that he had with Jeremy, ignoring that there are famous dynamic duos, not dynamic trios.

It's Troy and Abed, not Troy, Abed and Jeff
Having one ride-or-die — especially when that one is loyal family man, firefighter and all-around good guy Jeremy Collins — is good planning.  Having two — especially when that other one is sneaky, conniving, flipflopping Spencer Bledsoe — is just plain dumb.   Spencer has loyalty to one person — Spencer.  He will do and say anything to guarantee himself one more day.  You can trust only that he will do whatever it takes to keep him in the game; you can't trust that he cares who he is there with.

But before that now clearly inevitable outcome, things seemed to be looking good for the duo of Stephen and Jeremy.  Going into Episode 10, they had built a voting bloc that joined with the three amigas — Kelley, Ciera and Abi-Maria — to chip away at Golden Boy Joe's ally Kelly Wiglesworth.  Jeremy and Stephen had kept their allies in the dark as they broke ranks — a la Tony Vlachos — to go vote with the three girls, but had worked to patch up any emotional wounds.  More importantly, they had the power.  Jeremy had not one but two hidden immunity idols and Stephen had an advantage that gave him a two-vote turnaround at tribal council.

The episode opens with Jeremy and Stephen going back to the shelter after voting off Wiglesworth and they start work on patching things up with their alliance.  Tasha takes a "one free blindside" approach which she tells us means that her allies can burn her once by keeping their plan private, but they best not try it again.  Elsewhere, Joe is showing a rare glimpse at another side to the smiling, mellow yoga god.  He's sitting by himself, still smiling, but beneath the veneer he is seething.  The CBS censors are pulled into action to bleep out Joe's curse-laden denunciation against those who dared vote off his closest ally and we all discover for the first time that Joe is not always the even-tempered, laid back bro'.  Mad Joe is scary.

The next day, the rain has come.  We're not talking Seattle mist or a late spring sprinkle.  This is beneath Niagara Falls pummeling, post-game Gatorade drenching, El Niño dumping, skies open up and send down 40 days and 40 nights worth in one fell swoop rain.  Never have ten people been wetter longer — not the extras filming the end of Titanic, not Bachelor contestants in a hot tub, not whoever was unfortunate enough to visit Cherrapunji in July 1861.  No, these are the wettest people currently on the planet.  If tough times reveal character, then Keith has enough character to go around.  While everyone else curses the weather gods and suffers, loudly, he's at peace.  It's only rain.  He can put up with two more weeks of misery for one million dollars.  heh-heh-heh.

This is not fun, but winning $1M sure is.  Golly!
The first reward challenge — won, naturally, by the team that had Joe on it — gave the drenched castaways a little time to dry off and feast.  And form a plan on who to target next.  A couple episodes ago, Fishbach decried that losing out on a reward challenge is not about losing out on a reward — it's more about losing the chance to bond and strategize.  He was right.  Ciera once again (because she is always on Joe's team and so always gets the reward) started working the group.  Two nights earlier, she had joined with Fishbach and Jeremy to target Wiglesworth, yet today she had zero problem suggesting to those she just voted against that they unite and target those she had just voted with.

Think of the chutzpah that took.  Some of you sitting here just voted against me.  Some of you are allied with Stephen and Jeremy.  But I'm going to throw out Stephen's name and see what happens.  And what happened?  Spencer jumped on her suggestion with the same enthusiasm I show if someone asks "who wants ice cream?"  Spencer knows that right now he is in no one's final two plans.  All around him he sees tight alliances — Stephen and Jeremy, Jeremy and Tasha, Stephen and Kimmi; he needs to chip away at those as quickly as he can.  But even more threatening to him is having a strategic player like Fishbach in the game out-witting him. That makes Stephen his number one target. 

While half the tribe plotted against Stephen, the five remaining castaways huddled in the leaky, rickety shelter agreed that Joe was the logical next target.  If he ever loses an immunity challenge (which was as likely as Keith not ending a confessional with a creepy-sounding heh-heh), Joe has to be taken out.  He wins everything, he's liked by the jury and manages to never have a bad hair day  — the guy has to go.

Stephen cannot believe his luck.  After waiting an eternity to get the rest of the survivors on board with Mission: Get Joe Out, finally, at long last, they're all in accord.  Finally, at long last, the Golden Boy is Public Enemy Number One.  Stephen knows better, but he can't stop himself from saying finally, at long last, he's about to finally capture Moby Dick.  "We're all on the same page." Fishbach can barely stifle a smile.  "It's time; he's had his story," he says of Joe.  Then he gives the confession that he knew he shouldn't give but he could not help himself from giving.  "I think I"m in a really great position right now."  Fishbach knows better.  "Never say that, because that's the death knell.  That's when you go home." Still, he really is in a great position.

I will not give the ironic "death knell" quote. Oh, damnit!
So unrelenting, so emotionally crushing is the torrential downpour that has been plaguing the castaways for days that Jeff Probst has an offer before they compete in the next immunity challenge.  If half of the tribe agrees to forgo playing for individual immunity, the entire camp will get a Extreme Makeover: Waterproof Edition of their shelter.  This offer put the castaways to the test.  If you were concerned about your own safety at the next tribal council  — and unless you're new to the game, you always should be  — were you willing to risk being voted off for the promise of comfort.  Conversely, do you want yours to be the vote that kept the rest of the tribe from having what they wanted?  Do you put your needs above the greater good?

The question was answered about as one would suspect following the previous tribal vote.  Joe was worried enough about his safety not to give up his chance for immunity.  Only Keith also voted to play for immunity; the other eight were either so comfortable with their position in the game or so uncomfortable with the monsoon-like conditions that they were willing to sit out the challenge.   In fairness, they knew in advance what the challenge would be and could probably figure out that their chance of beating Joe in a balance challenge was about equal to the chance of them drying off during the next rainstorm.

It was about as surprising as Stephen getting another crying confessional that Joe beat Keith, 25 years older and 3 inches shorter than him.  So Stephen's hope of finally, at long last, seeing Joe get his torch snuffed out was delayed for at least three more days.  But Stephen doesn't panic, he has an easy target in Ciera.  She was the target going into the last tribal council and would have been evicted had he not sided with her to blindside Kelly.  Ciera is playing hard, too hard, and is dangerous to keep around.  Poor Stephen doesn't know the half of it — while he assumes she is the next likely boot, Ciera has already put into motion a blindside of him.

Stephen is not alone in wanting to vote out Ciera. Tasha sees the danger that Ciera poses.  She calls her the Godfather and she's right to some extent — Ciera puts out a name and everyone immediately jumps on it.  But Ciera is not some great puppet-master; she just happened to pick the right name this time.  Not only is Stephen a strategic threat, not only is he the only person remaining to have made a final tribal council, but he has the unknown advantage that has everyone curious and nearly everyone worried.

As disappointed as everyone is that Joe has immunity, they are deliriously happy with their new shelter.  Still, it's clear that one of the eight who gave up their chance to play for immunity will be voted out tonight.  It's between Ciera and Stephen.  Joe — who has been Fishbach's target since Day One — can articulate good reasons for voting against each of them.  Not as confused is Spencer.  Despite Jeremy making a strong case why Stephen should stay, Spencer is 100000% (or more) committed to getting rid of Fishbach NOW.  Despite the fact that Ciera is a schemer, despite the fact that she is more closely allied with Wentworth and Abi-Maria, despite the fact that Stephen considers him an ally and confides in him, Spencer views Stephen as the bigger threat to his game.  As Kelley Wentworth said last week that there could only be one Kelly on the island, Spencer believes there can only be one brainy/nerdy survivor strategist on the island.

Fishbach has got to go, I'm Mr. Survivor.
So convinced that he is safe, Stephen does not even consider using his advantage to guarantee his extra votes.  This even though he tells Jeff that "there are so many clusters of power" that he claims he does not know how the vote is going to go.  But having been privy to the discussions to get rid of Fishbach, Jeremy does have an inkling how the vote is going to go.  And it's not good.  When asked if it's exciting that the voting is up in the air, Ciera tells Jeff that it is exciting to see how the votes go.  And she was right.  The votes went fine for her.  But, unfortunately for Ciera's story, there was more to it than just the votes.  And when Jeff asks, as he always does, if anyone has the hidden immunity idol, Jeremy tells him, "Yeah, Jeff."  And we go to commercial.

When we return, Jeremy stands, walks over to Jeff and hands him the immunity idol that he says he will be playing on the person "who [I] can [] trust more going forward.  Fishbach."  And with that, five votes for Fishbach do not count, and with just three votes against her (cast by Jeremy, Stephen and Kimmi) it is Ciera who is voted out of Survivor Second Chance.  For the record, there is no way Ciera would have won the immunity challenge against Joe, so there is no way this can be considered a "million dollar mistake" on her part.  If anything, she played a great game, played hard and smart, and was just outplayed when Jeremy had such an abundance of idols he could offer up one to his closest ally.

My plan, my brilliant plan!  
Coming back to camp after the vote, especially where you were the one who was supposed to go, must be a surreal experience.  Heart-pounding fear mixed with tentative relief followed up by deep concern over the future.  But the first feeling Stephen felt must have been gratitude.  Stephen must feel at that moment that he owes Jeremy a kidney or his first born or half the million dollar prize money for saving him from being blindsided and he makes sure that Jeremy knows that he appreciates what he did and will do whatever he can to make it up to him.  The next morning, Stephen comes face to face with the fact that the "know it all" knew nothing last night.  Survivor's answer to Jon Snow was completely blindsided and unprepared and for the first time in his Survivor life he had no clue what was going on.

From this low point, Fishbach went into the next reward challenge — the Survivor Folklore challenge, famous for Rudy's multiple "I don't know" responses — with his first chance to actually win.  With balance and strength not a factor, Joe was for once not the odd's on favorite.  While Stephen did it fact narrowly beat out Spencer to win this challenge (mirroring how he narrowly beat Spencer diving for the advantage last week), Kelley Wentworth turned out to be the big winner.  Hidden among the answers was a clue to the hidden immunity idol and Kelley was the one to find it.  The next day, while Fishbach was on his reward (which he used as a chance to rebuild his relationship with Tasha and thank Jeremy for his loyalty) Kelley used her time to find the idol.  And to improve her position in the game,  With the help of Abi-Maria.

Early this season, much was said about Abi-Maria Gomes.  She was an unpredictable spit-fire, she was the one person you should never cross, she was crazy, she was wild.  But Abi-Maria is two other things — smart and dangerous.  While Stephen was away from the camp, she took advantage of his poor decision to take Jeremy and Tasha and leave the rest of the camp behind.  The six people back at the shelter consisted of exactly one Fishbach ally and five others who, in a tribe of nine, constituted a voting majority.  Abi-Maria asked the million dollar question.  What does it mean for Stephen to have taken Jeremy and Tasha on the reward?  The answer was obvious — they're in a tight alliance, and the rest are on the outside.  Now, no one wants to be on the outside.  Worse, no one wants to be on the other side from someone who has a mysterious advantage.

Joe is in Abi-Maria's sights.  Duck, Joe!
Once Kimmi (Stephen's lone remaining ally) wandered away from camp, the other five got down to business.  We tried to get him out two days ago, what has changed?  And so the idea of once again targeting Fishbach was floated out there.  Abi-Maria had one request.  Why not let her win the next challenge, because if Fishbach played his advantage she was worried that she would go.   Golden Boy Joe was not on board with that idea, and his, "Um, No" was the second crack in his perfect armor this episode (following him losing his cool at the beginning).  The producers are finally showing a different side to Joe — an arrogant, prickly side that we had never seen before.  And Abi-Maria had a new target.  You don't say, "Um, no" to Abi-Maria, especially in an exasperated "what the hell are you thinking, girl" way.  Joe made an enemy.

About Fishbach's decision to (a) win the reward challenge and (b) pick Jeremy and Tasha to spend it with.  Would this episode had played out any differently had Stephen not won the reward challenge?  Had Spencer won, who would he have taken?  What could those left behind have done to turn that against him?  Probably nothing because, even having voted against Stephen the episode before for some reason Stephen still did not believe Spencer was against him.   Spencer was not his target.  But perhaps with Stephen at camp, the decision to once again target him would not have been so automatic.  Hindsight isn't always 20-20 but even as a fuzzy picture it's easy to wonder whether it was worth the momentary respite from suffering to leave six people alone to plot against you.

For some reason, Stephen remained unconcerned about his place in the tribe.  He thought that patching things up with Tasha was all he needed to get his ship righted.  He believed he had a solid alliance voting bloc with Jeremy, Tasha, Spencer, and Kimmi and that those four could move from one side to another to target whoever they wanted.  They would regroup with their old alliance and target one of the remaining "three witches."  Easy peasy.  And the minute Joe miraculously, unexpectedly, shockingly did not win an immunity challenge (losing to Spencer by a toe), Stephen thought it would be a no-brainer.  Everyone — including those on the jury — would vote against Joe.  Even Joe planned to vote out Joe once he went to tribal without an immunity necklace around his neck.

But despite this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to slay the golden boy, Kelley and Spencer were firm  — Stephen had to go.  Now, it's cute how Joe believes that his safety in the game would at all be due to his sterling social game.  If by sterling social game he means being lucky that Spencer has a hard-on for Fishbach, that Spencer is salivating at the opportunity to vote out the know-it-all, that Spencer cannot imagine a more glorious moment in life than seeing Fishbach's torch finally being snuffed out, then, yes, Joe, you're not just a challenge beast.

Fishbach is just as desperate, if not more so, to see Joe finally walk out of tribal council, vanquished.  He has dreamed of this moment since he saw Joe as one of the 32 names vying to return to Survivor Second Chance and his every waking moment as well has been devoted to plotting Joe's demise.  He tells Abi-Maria that Joe is the target and the paranoid Brazilian is not totally convinced and thinks that maybe Stephen is playing her.  Separately, Kelley and Spencer assure her that Fishbach is the target and she is not totally convinced and thinks that they are playing her.  Basically, Abi-Maria has no idea that there are two plans and neither involves her going out this week.

I am totally with you guys....
So confident is Stephen in the numbers, in the tribe's united desire to get rid of Joe, and in his alliance voting bloc that he and Jeremy take Spencer aside and Fishbach tells Spencer about the advantage, how he plans to use the advantage, his social security number, his credit card number, and all his passwords.  Spencer should get a special Emmy for his performance as he completely convinces Jeremy and Stephen that he is with them.

At tribal council, the jury is shocked to see that the immunity necklace is around Spencer's neck.  Joe is vulnerable for the first time this game.  But what everyone can see on his face is that Joe is not the least bit worried.  He hasn't been scurrying around since the immunity challenge, he hasn't broken a sweat.  Because of this, Stephen and to a lesser extent Jeremy believe that there is a decent chance that he has a hidden immunity idol.  They don't realize that Joe's chill is a combination of having expected to be voted out only to learn that he was not the target and is completely safe.  So they went into tribal with a plan to split the vote between Joe and She-Devil Abi-Maria and they think they easily have the numbers to make this happen.

Abi-Maria sees and hears Joe's confidence and says the vote will be a sign of trust.  But how does trust play in a game that is now supposedly all about voting blocs?  Stephen has been touting this evolution in the game, but is the evolution real?  Or is this still a game about alliances and trust?

Before the vote, Stephen announces his plan to use his advantage.  He will take Joe's vote and cast it himself.  Not only can he finally vote out Adonis, he can do it with his own vote.  The few people Stephen did not tell in advance are shocked by the advantage, but they "stick to the plan" and cast their votes for Stephen.  Stephen and his alliance voting bloc, worried that the calm, cool and collected (or "collective" as Survivor: Worlds Apart Rodney would say) Joe has a hidden immunity idol, split their votes between him and Abi-Maria.  This leaves Stephen, in one of the more unfortunate moments for him this season, giving his "goodbye" message to Joe as he seals his own fate by sending his second vote over to Abi-Maria.

As the votes are read, the only reaction comes from Stephen as you see him going from mild confused bemusement — a "that was unexpected" grin — to growing awareness that his plan had backfired spectacularly.  Remember a few episodes ago, when we all ridiculed Savage and his allies for not splitting the vote when they targeted Wentworth?  Well, Fishbach did not want to suffer the same fate so he made sure to split the vote and that decision worked out as well for him as the decision not to worked for Savage.  It just goes to show that there are no easy answers in Survivor and those who think they know it all still have something to learn.

So that's what this looks like close up.
It's a little frustrating seeing the people who were playing hard like Ciera and Stephen go out while those who don't seem to be making moves like Keith and Kimmi are still hanging around.  But there is no "right" way to play Survivor, no way that is more deserving of praise than others.  Ciera was done in by an idol, plain and simple.  She had successfully moved herself from the bottom to the top and her downfall was that Jeremy felt such strong loyalty to his ally.  Stephen was felled by a combination of misplaced loyalty and the inability to read people.  So focused was he on not making the same mistake he made the first time out that he didn't play the game that was in front of him.  He thought people saw what he saw and wanted what he wanted.  But while he saw Joe as the number one threat, he didn't realize that to others, the nerdy guy with the glasses was the biggest threat.

Want more from our dearly departed?  Now that the Thanksgiving holiday has passed, some of the interviews are now up and more are coming.

Exit interviews:
Ciera and Stephen with RHAP
Ciera and Stephen on Survivor Talk
Ciera with RealityTVWorld
Stephen with Hollywood Life
Stephen with SheKnows
Stephen with Gordon Holmes

Stephen's People Blog

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