survivor-2015-s31-epi05-00-bayon1-480x279Minute for minute, was that the best episode of Survivor ever? In the last 5 years? At the very least, it was the best since Cagayan. At some point in this episode, every single one of my favourite players (except Jeremy, I guess) was either in serious danger or playing a major role in putting someone in danger. There were tears, there was triumph, there was a twist, there was engrossing human psychology, and there were multiple big moves ending in a very satisfying blindside of, perhaps not the most interesting player, but someone whose ousting will have major ripple effects on the power dynamics moving forward.

Second Chances thus far has been a pretty solid season. We’ve spent WAYYY too much time with Abi-Maria and not nearly enough with Ciera but, for the most part, things have been pretty great out there in Cambodia. This 80% completely fantastic cast has made the first part of the game thrilling (which it rarely is) and fantastic twists like hiding the idols at challenges and the 2-3-2 tribe swaps have really kept things fresh. I can’t wait for the “not all idols look alike” twist to come into play (Joe, this twist has you written all over it!).

You know this cast is fantastic because two of my favourites (Vytas and Shirin) were voted out back to back in the first two weeks and I STILL have a full roster of people to cheer for. I’m not sure I’ll ever forgive the editors for what they did to poor Vytas to justify his pre-game-based boot nor am I feeling all that good about the heavy-handed edits for Savage, Spencer and Fishbach (hero, redemption, dodo, respectively) but this cast is wildly worth watching regardless of the weird way production presents them. For the record, I’m more than a little convinced that Stephen Fishbach’s dodo edit is a red herring to cover up his winner’s edit. Just you wait.

We started this week with Terry Deitz being pulled from the game because his son was sick. Terry is kind of a terrible Survivor player (though the magic he worked on Abi a few weeks back was impressive) but it’s a pretty much universally acknowledged fact that Terry Deitz is a really good guy. So of course he’s the guy who gets woken up in the middle of the night by Probst because his son needs a heart transplant! Deitz barely blinks before he’s sprinting off the island to his son’s side and we get a remarkable series of interviews both in-the-moment and on-the-mat at the reward challenge where some of the game’s most stony-faced players tear their walls down on camera to incredibly moving effect. This was yet another great Kass moment (of which we’ve had quite a few already this season, topped perhaps by her birthday present for Wentworth), the first (and possibly only) good TV provided by Kelly Wigglesworth all season and, most notably, the first spotlight moment for Ciera.

We saw the Blood vs. Water alum briefly last week when she formed what I think could prove a decently killer alliance between herself, Kass, Keith, Wentworth and Joe (their success will depend on their ability to coordinate well enough that Keith is clear on the plan and how to stick to it without giving themselves away as unlikely allies) but she’s been largely absent this season as we wasted episode after episode on Abi-Maria. This week, with Abi all but completely silent, we got some real strategic meat. And Ciera was right at the centre of it, but I’ll get back to her.

So we get to the reward challenge, Probst prompts Joe to give a nice segue from “we all love Terry and parents all love their kids” to “let’s get back to the game” (paraphrased) and the buffs hit the ground. The new tribe formations are mostly interesting to me because, with the exception of Spencer, all of my favourite players ended up on the same tribe. Ciera is on Spencer’s tribe Ta Keo and, based on this episode, she should be in my top 3 but I didn’t love her last time she played so she’ll have to keep up the incredible pace she set this week in order to make my already full list of people I’m actively rooting for. These tribes are mostly arbitrary because the merge is coming next week but, during the immunity challenge (the gross food one, always a hit because it allows the non-athletes an inroad), it was strange to so wholeheartedly get to root for one tribe, even if it meant putting Spencer in danger. In all fairness, Spencer is almost always in danger.

The trouble with having so many favourites- especially all staked up on one tribe- is that they occasionally target each other and that’s definitely happening over on Bayon. It’s pretty much impossible to root for both Stephen Fishbach and Joe Anglim at this point, but I’m doing it anyway. It’s especially tricky when you are also trying to root for Jeremy. Of my top 4 guys (including Spencer), three are massive individual challenge threats with good stories that no one wants to sit next to in the end. But they all know that, so they’re trying to keep each other around as meat shields, especially now that the merge is coming. Fishbach, meanwhile, is seen as one of if not the biggest strategic threat on the island (partly because of the game he played the first time around, placing higher than almost all of his competition this season by coming in 2nd, but mostly because, in the years since he first played, he’s become a well-known analyst of the game, dissecting it in podcasts and on his blog). If they weren’t all four actively keeping their eyes on the other three at all times, they wouldn’t be the sort of players I could ever call my favourites (my other favourite, actually my pre-season winner pick, is Kelley Wentworth but she’s not really doing a ton right now so we’ll keep her on the backburner with that idol safely in her pocket and that target gloriously not too big on her back, at least now that the early merge has saved her from Bayon isolation).

A word about rooting for Joe: I resent the general vibe that rooting for Joe makes you a) a “casual” who doesn’t care about the more nuanced parts of the game and/or b) a boy-crazy teenage girl. I liked Joe instantly in Worlds Apart and I still like him now while staunchly maintaining the following: a) I’m not easily impressed by challenge performance, though the guy’s mastery of puzzles is truly astounding and b) while his hair is a marvel (and, okay, that smile is really something), I don’t really get the “Joe is the most attractive man on the planet” narrative. I don’t even get the “Joe is the most attractive man on the island” narrative. His much-talked-about body has nothing on Jeremy’s (nor does anyone’s face compare with Jeremy’s if we’re talking pure standards of beauty like strong lines and symmetry and all that) and my taste skews far more heavily towards the Fishbach style of boys in glasses who are actually very mass-appeal good looking but the producers are hoping you won’t notice because it doesn’t jive with their narrative. Anyway, I think Joe’s social game is among one of the strongest the show has ever seen and I think his strategic game is both underrated and yet to be fully discovered. His fatal flaw is that he let his competitiveness get the better of him early last season and he showed his cards in the challenges pre-merge. Joey Amazing needed to pretend he’s less amazing. Alas, once that cat was out of the bag (literally challenge one of his first season), there was no getting it back in and, even if he does something drastic like fake an injury in the post-merge, he’s never going to get that target off of him so he has to play a flawless numbers game to survive. He knows that and we’ve already seen him starting to move things into place for the post-merge. Cut his hair, dim that smile, fatten him up, I don’t care, I like Joe because I’m pretty sure Joe is a better player than his millions of fans think he is, let alone what his detractors think.

The problems with rooting for Joe is that Joe is freaking Fishbach out and I’m definitely rooting for Fishbach. Stephen is too good a player to not want Joe gone as soon as humanly possible and he’s exactly the sort of player, arguably the only sort of player, that’s actively toxic to Joe’s game- someone immune to his social game who doesn’t care how many hammocks he hangs, fish he catches or fires he starts. And worse, an outsider with an axe to grind with the golden boy. Stephen was burned by JT his first time around and, if we’ve learned anything from Spencer and Kass’ hardcore redemption edits, it’s that the intellectual players would rather make a deal with the devil than make the same mistake twice. But here’s the thing- and there’s really no way of getting around this- there is no point in knowing exactly what to do strategically for your game if you don’t have the social game to get that thing done. The position Stephen is in is one of the most relatable, infuriating, psychologically tormenting ones available on Survivor– he can’t move the team. He knows exactly what to do and his plan will benefit literally everyone except that secret alliance of 5 (Joe, Kass, Wentworth, Keith and Ciera) and Jeremy (who needs Joe to stay around so he doesn’t become the next big target). Stephen is absolutely, 100% right that he needs to send Joe packing but everybody likes Joe and feels comfortable with Joe and the poor guy just can’t get the backup he needs. No one is budging.

This is why Boston Rob and Parvati are the greatest Survivor players of all time- they can get anyone to do anything they want them to. It boils down, in the end, to getting people to go along with your plan (see also: Ciera this week, Killing It) and Fishbach just doesn’t have the social capital right now. He’s not totally screwed (again, I have a secret suspicion he’s going all the way) but what he needs to do is convince Jeremy (or someone with comparable pull but Jeremy really seems like the guy) then cash in on what he has to offer that Stephen himself is lacking. Much as it clearly pains him, the reason omega Stephen worked so well with alpha JT was that JT had that magical convincing charisma that is Stephen’s biggest weakpoint (no, it’s not his challenge prowess; I also think he’s better in challenges than he seems right now). The problem this season is that Jeremy is not JT. Jeremy has it in him to out-wit, out-play and out-last all on his own. He doesn’t need Stephen’s analytical brain to keep him from giving Russell Hantz his idol. If it weren’t for that group of 5 Amazing is already loyal to, I would say that, ironically, Stephen would actually be better served teaming up with Joe (if he didn’t make him so damn insecure). He’s totally capable of being the Wizard of Oz but no one’s going to listen to a weaselly wizard; he needs the shiny green head as a mouthpiece. Unfortunately, this season there aren’t many charismatic simpletons who won’t be more strategic trouble than they’re worth. I’d like to see him team up with Spencer, but I’m not sure that will actually accomplish anything.

Ciera, on the other hand, delivered a masterclass this week in turning people to your side. Savage is basically a cult leader whom people follow with shockingly blind loyalty but the second she felt uncomfortable in his alliance (when he carelessly decided she’d be the decoy vote for a Spencer blindside; come on, Andrew, you know better than to let the person on the bottom know they’re on the bottom!) she swiftly flipped the numbers to take out one of Savage’s principal allies while also technically remaining more faithful to the original Bayon than he was being, thereby maintaining the moral highground for the inevitable backlash. It was a glorious turnaround that could have been more satisfying if Savage had been the one snuffed (both Woo and Abi have been on borrowed time for weeks) but Woo was the better call long-term for Ciera and smart moves are just plain cooler than flashy ones. Hell, the girl even convinced Kass to give up her opportunity to take out Spencer!

Way back around Big Brother All-Stars, I remember Jase Wirey giving an interview talking about Will Kirby. He said he knew not to trust Will going into the house but one conversation with the guy and he could convince you to kill  your puppy. In relation to BB‘s other greatest mastermind Dan Gheesling, this quality is referred to as “the mist” and it’s very real. Ciera, it seems, has the mist. I’m on the edge of my seat to see how she weaponizes it next.

The merge is coming, this is usually where it starts to get good, but with an emotional departure, a tribe swap, a great big-move plan with social psych insight and larger game theory ramifications, a compelling immunity challenge (complete with badass Tasha moment as she scores the winning point and a funny Jeremy coda), a brilliant numbers flip, an emerging big player, and a massive blindside all in one episode, I’d say the good has already started.