This was a gem of an episode, one that scattered fun, light-hearted moments—like Mike White throwing Jeff Probst's post-challenge prepared banter back at him—throughout the early acts, then flipped the script entirely, culminating in one of the most surprising, well-executed and potentially game-changing Tribal Councils in Survivor history, a power shift as satisfying as the very first overthrow of a dominant alliance way back in Survivor: Marquesas. An end so shocking that its unfortunate victim, good sport pro-wrestler John Hennigan, could only laugh it off in response.
This episode worked so well because the outcome was also surprising for the audience. The editing and storytelling were superb throughout, keeping the audience, like John, completely in the dark as to just how elaborate a plan the Davids were about to pull off. Things looked pretty dire for Christian, facing a 7-5 numbers disadvantage, with the dramatic oversell pumping up two underpowered advantages (Carl's idol nullifier, Nick's new vote steal), neither of which, even in combination, seemed likely to close the numbers gap. The only potential saving grace was Davie's idol, which as the Davids headed to Tribal, he was shown privately hoping not to have to use.
Clearly, much more must have transpired before Tribal Council than that. The idol play/split vote combination that Davie and and the Davids pulled off had so many layers, it can't have been a spur-of-the-moment decision (which we'll get into below). But it's great that the show hid enough of that planning from the audience that the surprise reveal had the impact it did. (A Johnny Impact, you might say.)
The giving season
Just five seasons ago, during Millennials vs. Gen X, it seemed as if idol play had truly evolved. David Wright kicked that season's idol plays off by playing his first one pre-merge, for his then-sort-of ally Jessica Lewis, a move that saved her, proved he and Ken were telling the truth (and had her back), and helped solidify their alliance. Winner Adam Klein later used his first idol to make a similar move, playing his (unnecessarily, it turned out) for Hannah Shapiro. She ended up sticking with him through to the Final Three. Because these plays followed so soon after Jeremy Collins had (temporarily) saved Stephen Fishbach in Cambodia, there was a sense that players had grown to understand that idols have even more power than as simple tools that can thwart a single, self-preserving vote: they're best used to build or reinforce an alliance.
But that didn't hold up, or at least not for long. True, Tai Trang saved Sierra Dawn Thomas (and later Aubry Bracco,very briefly) in Game Changers, but since then, through HvHvH and Ghost Island, almost every idol played has been used to protect its owner. Yes, Michael Yerger did try to use his first one to save Stephanie Johnson, but guessed wrong, as his other key ally Brendan Shapiro was voted out instead. And a case could be made that Wendell Holland's play of the Erik Reichenbach necklace for Laurel Johnson, wiping out the single throwaway vote against her at F5, might have been the play that secured him her final, tie-breaking jury vote, giving him the million. But those were just two idols (canceling out just one vote) out of sixteen total. Hardly a visible, permanent strategic shift.
Then, however, came this episode. Davie's idol play worked to perfection: It took out a powerful former Goliath, and in doing so it brought back together the disparate, seemingly hopelessly outnumbered Davids. That includes Christian, the very guy saved by the idol, and Nick and Gabby, all of whom had theoretically been part of the cross-tribal Strike Force alliance. Davie's play was then followed by Dan proving his own Goliath-strong loyalty, as Dan played his idol (one of them, anyway) for Angelina, someone he had already convinced himself (and the audience) he wouldn't bother saving. Never mind the outcome: Both of these plays should have reinforced longstanding alliances.
Will this be the Big Move that finally makes gift idol plays the norm, rather than the exception? That partly depends on what happens next: If the Davids now disperse to their previous post-merge factions, and don't hold together to turn the next vote into one where the Vote Steal can actually be useful (i.e. turning what seems like a still-strong Goliath 6-5 advantage into a 5-6 surprise flip), and the Strike Force reassembles to take out someone like Davie? Then this big play will probably just be another fairly memorable idol play.
Yes, it's painful to be rooting for original tribal lines to hold strong, especially post-Ghost Island, but the most interesting outcome going forward would be for the Davids to stick together for at least one more vote. And potentially most long-lasting, strategically. Think about the Evolution of Strategy, people!
The many moving parts that had to align for the idol play/split vote to work
Because the editors (rightly) hid the plotting that led to the actual payoff of the vote/idol play, it's unclear who among the Davids was responsible for it. We did, however, have the proxy plotting scene, where Carl, Nick, and Davie collaborated to find first the advantage clue, then the advantage itself. (A bit of storytelling sleight of hand, which featured actual visual misdirection via the Kappa cane twirling demonstration Davie brought to national TV.)
So we're going to assume that some subset of at least Nick, Davie, and Carl (the first two of whom were also shown plotting in the hammock), and possibly the other two Davids as well, were privy to what went down. Because when you look at the complexity of what happened, it really appears that it had to have been a collective group effort.
(1) Christian had to bait the Goliaths into casting all their votes against him. He had to make them think that he felt his charm and Brochacho loyalty had given him a leg up over Angelina, who had betrayed their confidence at the last vote. Thanks to Alec's playing both sides and telling Nick the plan, the Davids knew the votes were coming Christian's way.
(2) Davie had to then play his idol, which also had to stay top secret. Had the Goliaths sensed that the Davids had an idol, they could easily have split their votes between, say, Christian and Davie, or switched the vote away from Christian to someone like Gabby. Even a simple 4-3 split probably would have thwarted the plan.
(3) The entire David group had to pretend they all voted for Angelina (who was the decoy target the Goliaths had sold them), AND pretend to be surprised by Davie's idol play. See, for example Nick's acting in the shot above. This is because everyone knew Dan had an idol, and because of that, they also knew that as soon as Davie played his idol to save Christian, Dan would probably play his idol to protect the Goliath alliance. But to set the Davids up for future success, they really needed to flush Dan's idol here. A zero-zero vote tally would force a re-vote, in which the Goliaths would again have the numbers, so by the Davids keeping the "Oh gosh, we were voting Angelina" ruse alive, Dan had every reason to believe he could still save his alliance.
(4) The additional layer of complexity, where the Davids cast a majority of their votes for John (3) over Angelina (2), was also really well thought out. If Dan ends up not playing an idol, John (a much bigger physical and social threat) still gets voted out. But again, this had to be kept absolute secret. If Dan had any reason to suspect someone other than Angelina was receiving votes, he'd probably play his idol for someone else (and John would be the obvious choice). A bold and risky play, but they pulled it off perfectly. All in all, just a really impressive set of moves.
Since we referenced the toppling of the Rotu Four in Marquesas at the outset, it's interesting to compare and contrast the two plays. Both involved groups of five people grabbing power. In Marquesas, a hopelessly outnumbered duo from the minority original tribe came together with the three least-powerful people from the majority to turn a 7-2 numbers disadvantage into a shocking, alliance-busting 5-4 majority. Here, the minority group actually wrested power by sticking together, not by flipping people from the majority, and they even did so by splitting their own numbers in half. Idols really have turned the game upside-down.
Lip-syncing and back-talking for the win
There were a couple of fun contestant interactions with Probst this episode. Probst himself drew attention to the first one in the moment: Mike replying "We've got nothing for you, either" to Probst's rote "Got nothing for ya" dismissal of the reward-losing team. The second was more subtle: Alec lip-syncing along to Probst's also-predictable "Let's get to today's immunity challenge. First things first..." patter (pictured above, video in link).
These were mostly fun because they were new and different. Almost as surprising as the Tribal vote. But how often do things like this actually happen, but just get cut in the edit, because they lightly mock these now thoroughly well-worn Probst tropes? Were the editors under orders to excise past instances, lest the reaction encourages future players to talk back even more? Or was it really possible that two random guys in the middle of the 37th season, a mere one day apart from each other, just happened to independently do these somewhat-related things?
According to Probst himself in this week's Q&A with Dalton Ross, "Occasionally players will try to make a similar type of joke and it just doesn’t work. Mike White is obviously a hall-of-fame storyteller and that was a great moment."
That reads more like Mike had the gravitas and/or friendship with Probst that his comment was allowed, rather than the credulity-straining "every other time someone tried this, it didn't land." People like Jonathan Penner, or Courtney Yates, or Sandra Diaz-Twine never had a clever comeback to any of these lines? Or any of the other 600+ contestants, with 25+ chances per season, for 36 seasons? That seems ... unlikely.
The truth is out there. CBS's Survivor social media manager and/or interns should get cracking making a supercut of the best of these deleted scenes, rather than whatever it is they're trying to do with the cringe-inducing "Survivor Shade" video series.
Behind the numbers: Comparative threat levels
Let's compare and contrast the individual challenge performances of the two remaining (Tiva edition) Brochachos. On the one hand, Dan has now finished 1st and 3rd, for a stratospheric 92.3% Mean % finish (MPF) in individual challenges. It's still early, with just two challenges so far, but could Dan top Joey Amazing's single-season record for highest MPF? It's not out of the question with another couple of wins, then a narrow, second-place loss. (Then the blindside that's somehow tied to Kara ... sorry in advance, Dan.)
In contrast, Christian has now finished second-to-last in two straight challenges. That's 12th and 11th, for a horrific 16.0% MPF. Again, our sample size is obviously tiny, but it's worth asking: Could Christian break Bruce Kanegai's record for lowest MPF in a season? (Short answer: Probably not, because if he keeps up this torrid pace, if Christian sticks around long enough, he will undoubtedly get to compete in one or more contests where every non-winner ties for second, dramatically boosting his score. Alternatively, maybe he's been sandbagging so far, because that would be smart.)
Either way, it's hard to miss that, based on their performances so far, Dan is a much more significant threat than Christian at winning the next immunity challenge (or any particular one later in the game when you might need to vote him out). The early post-merge is the point in the game at which such calculations start becoming critical. Sure, as Dan said last week, Christian isn't going to win the next 11 challenges in a row. If you leave him in until final seven, though, could he sweep the last three? Again, probably not. But Dan might. As such, it makes total sense to target Dan as soon as possible, whereas Christian can safely be set aside for some later round.
(Which of course would undoubtedly backfire as the immunity challenges mysteriously close out the season on an unprecented streak of nothing but slide puzzles.)
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, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other David vs. Goliath Episode 8 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - John Hennigan