updated 09/19/2013 AT 9:50 AM ET
•originally published 09/19/2013 AT 11:30 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. Erik Reichenbach is a Survivor fan-turned-favorite, a comic book author and artist. He placed fifth on both Survivor: Micronesia and Survivor: Caramoan. Follow him on Twitter @BloodyAmer1can
“You don’t have to trust someone to have an alliance with them. You just have to have the same interests. You could hate someone’s guts, but if you could help them get farther and they could help you go farther, hey, we’ve got an alliance.”
– Burton Roberts, Survivor: Pearl Islands
I told you Blood vs. Water would deliver! One episode in, and we’ve already seen two families destroyed. Will Candice ever forgive her husband John for not taking her place on Redemption Island? Will Marissa ever come to terms with being voted off first because of Uncle Gervase’s gloating? And will this season leave in its trail a waste of human wreckage and misery?
One thing that Survivor doesn’t want you to forget: this season is very different. Fully 80 percent of the episode is spent either explaining the twist or reacting to it. Some of that is hammy confessionals, like Laura Morett smack-talking her daughter Ciera. The new twist also brings with it real emotion – and game-changing strategy.
The Tie-Dyes that Bind
From the show’s first moments, family members are challenged to weigh their position in the game against the fate of their relatives. Candice Cody and Laura Boneham are voted onto Redemption Island. Husbands Rupert and John have the option to swap places.
But did Rupert have a choice? This was his wife; Jeff Probst had just challenged him, saying, “If you want, you can prove [you love her].” We’ve spent 26 seasons seeing Survivors feel irreparably betrayed by people they hardly know, feel heartbroken when their island cuddle buddies vote with a different alliance. How much worse would it be to have your spouse let you down?
Rupert may have made a poor game decision, but there was no other life decision – which I suspect John Cody has long since learned. Kudos to Rupert, too, for the hilarious way he handled Redemption Island, allowing Candice to wear herself out feeding him.
We didn’t learn very much about the Vets. Tyson makes fire; Colton is symptomatic for crybabyitis; Gervase can neither swim nor control his emotions. We did see one touching moment, when the Vets got a little verklempt after their challenge win.
At Camp Newbie, Brad Culpepper is channeling Marquesas’s John Carroll, complete with triumphant waterfall shower. Culpepper, as Jeff coquettishly calls him, has assembled an alliance of five guys – “four guys and a gay guy.” Through some highly abstract and confusing math, Culpepper’s concluded that five is more than four (though he’s not positive a gay guy counts for a full vote).
Guys’ alliances are precarious. They start strong, then quickly dissolve when the bros realize they can improve their odds against chicks. On Tadhana, the guys nod their heads and roll their eyes at Culpepper.
“I’ll agree to anything at this point,” says Caleb, “because it’s going to shut him up.” As Caleb notes, the loved ones twist adds another layer to early-game alliances, because Brad is also committed to Monica and her allies.
While Culpepper builds numbers, Vytas builds trust. He opens up about his troubled past with one eye on the voting booth. “If you really want somebody to trust you, you have to let them in a little bit,” he says. He bonds with the girls, and analyzes how his tribe’s vote will affect the Vets. Vytas wins the First Fishy for his intuitive understanding of Survivor’s emotional subtleties.
At Tribal Council, the Newbies keep Katie, who screwed up the challenge, and boot Marissa. Marissa performed well, but her uncle Gervase was a jerk. (Gervase’s challenge meltdown probably didn’t help; the Newbies could view him as an early boot.)
Did they make the wrong choice?