The "correct" time to make a move in Survivor is a constantly shifting standard, in large part because every few seasons new twists change the calculations involved in reaching the finals: final three instead of final two, 10-person juries instead of just seven, and now Final Four firemaking instead of an actual vote at F4. Not to mention all the idols, advantages, swaps, and everything else thrown in along the way.
Borneo's big move was simply the formation a majority four-person alliance at the merge. Marquesas saw the overthrow of a dominant four alliance at Final 9. In The Amazon, Rob Cesternino engineered a power shift at Final 7, which proved a popular point of the game for big moves for a while. But that was back when juries had just seven people, and there was a final two. That season, the Final 7 vote came when there were just two jurors already seated, and a whopping four vote-outs, three episodes, and nine days remaining.
Today on a 20-person season, the Final 7 vote is in the last episode before the finale, and takes place on Day 35! There are just two votes left, one in each of the following two days, then it's F4 firemaking, then it's Final Tribal Council. And if you *do* pull off a stunning blindside at F7, your reward will be six jurors sitting there, scratching their heads as to who was responsible. If you were under-the-radar while those jurors were in the game, they're not going to assume it was you. The newly arriving seventh juror may not be much help in figuring out what happened. So if it's not super obvious that you were responsible, good luck convincing them. Clearly, F7 is now far too late to make a big, game-changing move.
But the old rules also still apply in the early post-merge: If you play hard strategically at the merge, you're an obvious threat, and you have to go. If you're intimidatingly successful in challenges, same problem. But what if you lay low until about the midpoint — like, say ... Final 8? — then start flexing your strategic muscles? Then you'll have five jury members (half the jury) who never saw you playing the game, and they'll probably end up casting their vote for someone else.
This was the dilemma facing Gabby. She correctly sensed that everyone felt Christian was the dominant strategic threat, and would get all the credit for moves they made jointly. The longer she waits to alter that impression, the less chance it will pay off for her, let alone if a move will even be possible at a later date. Given that Christian had already won one immunity, had an idol in his pocket, and seemed convinced everyone was voting for Alison, she might never have another opportunity to make a move against him. It didn't work, obviously, but it's hard to fault Gabby for trying something bold.
This is also the first cast to play after seeing F4 firemaking play out on TV. The iteration they saw was HvHvH, where Ben Driebergen parlayed a series of idol finds into a Final 4 appearance, where he won at firemaking, then won the game, upending an otherwise bulletproof F3 alliance plan. What's the obvious lesson to take from that? Act as soon as feasible to take out threats, because you may not have another chance.
Never mind that, even with Ghost Island also under our belts, the Survivor audience at home still hasn't seen a season where the winner of the final immunity challenge navigated choosing the F4 firemaking participants well enough to win the game. If anything, the only "rule" for this new game structure would seem to be: screw immunity, just win at firemaking.
In short, it's too soon to know for sure whether Gabby's attempted move was too soon. Who's to say Christian won't pull a Ben, and be untouchable the rest of the way? Maybe Angelina was the one person who was right at the merge, when everyone else thought they had all the time in the world to target Christian, so why not take out Elizabeth instead?
("Maybe it's all gonna turn out all right, and I know that it's not, but I have to believe that it is.")
More likely, everyone simply tries again next round, and Christian falls at Final 7. But he might not. Survivor's a bit of a game of musical chairs; it's never clear when the music will stop. Both with respect to idols and immunities, and to when the last vote might actually take place.
Idols vs. immunities
A side note pertaining to all the idol and immunity talk: Christian and Davie have now both made flashy idol plays. Nick has successfully deployed a vote steal and is sitting on an as-yet-unplayed idol. These three are by far the most likely to win, due to the streak of every winner since Blood vs. Water playing an idol, saving herself with a Legacy Advantage (if you don't count that as an idol), or in the case of Michele Fitzgerald, playing an advantage that allowed her to personally remove a juror. All of these were impressive plays made AT Tribal Council, in front of the jury. In that same span, there have been many finalists who reached the end on the strength of repeated challenge wins: Ken McNickle, Brad Culpepper, Chrissy Hofbeck, Domenick Abbate. When the last 10 seasons' juries have been given a choice between immunities and idols, they've chosen the idol player every time. Probst's constant admonitions have become self-fulfilling prophecy: If you want to win, you have to make big moves (with idols).
There are now just three opportunities left to vote people out, and three idol players (or potential players, counting Nick, or possibly even four once Christian's idol is rehidden). So if the next three boots aren't Christian, Nick, and Davie in some order, whichever of them makes the finals is probably going to win. (It would be fascinating if all three did, but that seems like too big of an ask.)
This means if anyone who hasn't played an idol wants to win, they're probably going to need to pick those three off over the next three votes. Otherwise, they've missed the boat. Are any of these players aware of that? Alison might be. Mike? Maybe. Angelina and Kara? Probably not. We've heard on the show itself about the idol-finding gender disparity, but nothing about the jury vote disparity.
So chances are, there's your David vs. Goliath ending. With three idol-playing Davids left, one of their slingshots is going to end up being the ultimate Goliath killer/ David kingmaker. And since Nick is the one who specifically mentioned David becoming a king in the first episode, there's a good chance that could be Nick.
Emotion vs. strategy
"We used three advantages, and we just fricking GAVE it to 'em!" Nick fumes to Christian at the start of the episode, after the Carl blindside evened the original tribe numbers back up at 4-4.
So what does Nick do? He retaliates by giving the Goliaths the actual advantage, 3-4. Rather than accept Christian's repeated explanations and apologies, and try to move forward together to rebuild that hard-won David advantage, he throws a Nick fit.
"I'm pissed off! I've saved Christian's butt from going home twice! And what does he do? At the last Tribal Council he totally betrays me" in a later confessional, shown before Tribal Council. "At this point," he continues, "Christian's dead to me. And it's time that he gets a taste of his own medicine."
So Nick plots to vote out Christian, then when Mike starts to worry that Christian might play an idol, Nick makes Gabby the backup target. A foolproof plan, which guarantees the original Davids will now be down in the numbers. Also burning Christian's idol in the process, to increase the possibility that the next vote will bring those numbers down a notch further, to 2-4.
No wonder Davie started getting cold feet at the reward. Contrast Nick's approach to Davie's, who hears the plan, and privately says "That doesn't feel right for me. Even though Christian blindsided me twice (?!), I don't take it personal. That's part of the game, you know?" [Side note: Why do Davie's confessionals always feel like they were spliced in from a future episode?]
Certainly, Nick had good reason to feel burned by Christian and Gabby not telling him about the Carl blindside. (Even though, had he been told, Nick would 100% have told Carl it was coming and/or played his idol for him.) As he said, the Davids had plowed through their treasure trove of advantages, to save Christian twice. Then Christian turned on them, removing a fellow David (Carl). A David who, coincidentally, was one of Nick's closest allies, not to mention someone Nick thought he could beat in the Final Three.
Nick expressed no discernible remorse whatsoever about the Davids not telling Gabby about the planned Alison boot, despite that snub giving Gabby the green light to go ahead and target Carl. Alliances require both parties to participate. If information is flowing in only one direction, you're a number, not an alliance-mate. Despite all the warning signs, Christian followed through on his promise to vote Alison this round, which would have put the Davids back up, 4-3. Whereas Nick ... voted Christian.
To be fair, Gabby also voted for Christian, obviously. But as we saw, Gabby's was a power move, trying to build a case for herself with the jury. One that she had to set aside her emotional bond with Christian to make. In contrast, Nick appeared to vote Christian (and organized the Gabby Plan B) in a fit of pique. It could still work out just fine for him, as long as he can trust that his fellow Rock Star, Mike, is actually with him. (It's unclear from the preview that he actually is.)
It's interesting that up until this point, the show has spent an entire season promoting Nick as a clear-headed, calculating strategist, and Gabby as a smart but highly emotional young woman who weeps a lot. While it was fun that this episode completely flipped that equation, the narrative from the 11 episodes preceding it will probably be the depiction that sticks with people.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other David vs. Goliath Episode 12 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Gabby Pascuzzi