updated 03/21/2013 AT 8:00 AM ET
•originally published 03/21/2013 AT 7:20 AM ET
Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“I listened and I observed.”
– Denise Stapley, winner, Survivor: Philippines
Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but I really believe there’s an undercurrent of good strategy this season on Survivor. It’s been drowned out by larger-than-life characters like Shamar, Brandon and Phillip bellowing their cris-de-coeur up and down the Philippine jungle.
Underneath that clamor, though, smart people are making good decisions. We finally saw a glimmer of it on Wednesday’s episode, when Corinne gave us a peek of what’s going on behind the scenes.
“Everyone thinks [Phillip’s] the ringleader because he does outrageous things and we all just keep quiet,” she says. It’s easy to see the big characters and psychotic meltdowns. It’s harder to gain an appreciation for the strategy of just shutting up.
Corinne, Cochran, Dawn and Malcolm have been overshadowed by their more vocal tribemates. On Wednesday, as the swap shuffled the players into new tribes, we got to see the subtle ways that good strategy can play out.
The Young, Good-Looking Tribe
By a twist of fate, all the hot young kids end up on one tribe. This delights Eddie and Reynold. Reynold is thrilled to have “a whole new chance.” Eddie is just happy he’s not around a bunch of uglies anymore.
The Fans stumble over themselves to reveal their plans to the Favorites. Sherri says she wants Reynold out; Reynold says he wants Sherri gone. The Favorites keep their traps closed – it’s the strategy of just shutting up.
Malcolm manages the swap best. He immediately forges a bond with the young dudes. (Conversely, Erik is turned off by Reynold’s smarminess.) Furthermore, with Corinne out of the picture, Andrea sidles up to him to make nice. With his long, flowing locks, Malcolm reminds her of her lost love, Matt from Redemption Island. She asks him about an idol; he lies to her face.
Malcolm excelled on Philippines by biding his time and making smart decisions at every juncture. Now he’s gone from fifth in a six-person alliance to running the Gota tribe. He has an idol in his pocket and a lot of options.
"People underestimate me because of my pink underwear"
On Bikal, Phillip recruits the Fans into his alliance. He tells Julia she’s “extraordinary.” He gives Matt and Michael provisional membership in Stealth R Us.
At this point, Phillip has offered just about everyone some position in his alliance. Isn’t that good strategy, though? By fostering bonds with everybody, Phillip creates opportunities for himself at a merge.
There’s a gamer lurking somewhere inside Phillip. He’s read deeply and lived broadly. Phillip might run the game, if he could just buy a pair of boxers.
When the old and unfit Bikal tribe predictably loses immunity to the Gattaca tribe, the Favorites plan to vote for Julia. She flubbed the challenge and has a nasally voice.
Cochran proposes they vote out Matt instead, because of his strong relationship with Michael. “Leaving … a power couple in this game doesn’t seem to make that much strategic sense,” he says. Moreover, he’s almost certain that Matt doesn’t have an idol.
The Favorites don’t really care whether it’s Julia or Matt they send home. But the secret to Survivor is to make the smarter decision at every turn, no matter how trivial it may seem. You further your own chances just that much more.
Cochran wins the Fishy this week for his proposal. But really all the Favorites deserve credit.
Has there ever been so large an alliance to show so much cohesion? Somehow, this insane, dysfunctional group is sticking together, keeping their mouths shut and making smart choices.
We’ll see how long that lasts.