Survivor: Wow. What? Wait. Huh? Wow.

Wow. Survivor has delivered some incredible Tribal Councils, but that one stands out for its surprising and bizarre conclusion. It was especially odd because what ultimately happened was that the alliance of returnees (nearly) stuck together and made the easiest choice possible, yet getting there was insanely dramatic.

When Reynold stood up to play his idol, and Malcolm said “hold up,” I think I stopped breathing for a minute. Malcolm said, “they all voted for me” and asked for the idol. “I’m being dead serious right now,” he said. But was he? Was he turning on his alliance? Was he trying to flip the game? Or was he just playing the alleged fans? To paraphrase my reaction:

Jeff Probst concluded by referring to the contestants as “10 very savvy players.” I’m not convinced that they are. Here’s why:

1) Malcolm acted out of insecurity and/or disconnection from his alliance, and is screwed either way, in part because 2) Malcolm probably just also blew his alliance with Reynold by convincing him to give up his idol, which could easily be viewed as a creative way of flushing the idol; 3) Dawn was unable to convince her alliance to move forward with their plan to get rid of Malcolm, and her strategy of playing both sides may backfire; 4) although voting out Michael caused no harm, Andrea’s insecurity led to a missed opportunity; 5) Phillip’s still there; and 6) Erik spent Tribal picking bugs out of Andrea’s hair, because that is what savvy players do.

I cannot figure out whether they all acted rationally or not–and that’s really interesting. Also interesting: the evolution of everyone’s strategy, which we got to watch as things unfolded–especially as Andrea went from thinking she was orchestrating a blindside to thinking she might be the target of a blindside.

At least, all of that is a lot more interesting than what we have been getting most of this season, though we did get more of the same-old, same-old this episode. Seven minutes in to the episode, when Phillip recruited Sherri to his alliance of nicknames, I literally almost deleted the episode. And then, despite the amazing strategizing, almost deleted it again when Phillip started going off at Tribal Council. I cannot underestimate how sick and tired I am of hearing the same thing.

I’m glad I didn’t stop watching, of course, not only for Tribal, but for the strategizing and two strong challenges. The immunity challenge is one of my all-time favorites, mostly because it seems terrifying and just watching it freaks me out. Also, Brenda magically appeared and disappeared before and after the challenge.

As a bonus, there was the fun of watching Probst stay dry: He had Cochran swim him the immunity necklace, and then, after a nearly submerged Brenda won immunity, told the rest of the cast, “somebody let her know.”

Let’s not forget Reynold and company’s increasingly obnoxious “masculine tomfoolery,” as Cochran so perfectly put it. Reynold pitched Cochran on an alliance with this stunningly terrible argument: “Let’s bro-down. Let’s get these scheming, crazy girls who keep flirting with all of us out of here, and let’s take the strong guys to the end.”

The irony is that the guy most likely to be here at the end is Phillip. That’s the power of crazy. But maybe something even crazier will happen and the foregone conclusion will just be gone.

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.