Camouflage is essential in Survivor. I’m not talking about Ozzy’s shirt or Tony’s Spy Bunker. I’m talking about the ability to blend into a crowd, to sit back and roll with the punches or to mutter along with the “groupthink” – all the while maintaining a mind of your own.
If the ominous opening to the 34th season has shown us anything, it’s that Game Changers will belong to players who can balance blending into the scenery with covert manoeuvring. As the biggest threats draw attention to themselves by turning their guns on each other, they step out of the bushes and into the line of fire, only to be shot down.
For many viewers, the loss of big characters so early in the season will be devastating. It was always the concern heading into a season populated with some of Survivor’s most notorious players – that their reputation would precede them and pave the pathway to the snuffing of their torch. However, it was not reputation alone that killed these players: it was their inability to read the room and adjust accordingly.
It may be a colloquialism, but Jeff Varner’s invocation of the “square peg in the round hole” rings very true in this game. The square pegs – the hard-edged, abrasive and sharpened players – are always going to stand out, particularly in seasons with returning players all hungry to right their past wrongs. Square pegs will be discarded as readily as they can be. It’s the round pegs – the smooth and easy-going players – that fit the hole in the early days. The players that fit in – that camouflage – are the ones who hold the power right now.
I am always delighted by a nautical marooning. There is something so cinematic in the idea of salvaging supplies and leaping from a boat – the adrenaline, the intensity, the excitement of an adventure about to begin. In the case of Game Changers’ stunning shipwreck theme (surely one of art production’s most jaw-dropping aesthetics in recent memory), the marooning seems particularly appropriate. Even better, the scrambles provide opportunities for character to shine through.
Between Ozzy’s first display of his aquatic superiority in retrieving the toolkit for his Nuku tribe, Tai risking himself for his chickens, Varner sneakily stealing his opponent’s supplies and quiet player Sierra slyly acquiring the Legacy Advantage, the marooning set the stage for a competitive and surprising season to come.
THE NAME GAME
The Mana tribe was the focal point of the blockbuster premiere, earning a double pass to Tribal Council over the course of the episode. It could be argued that the episode primarily served as a tribute to Tony’s short arc in the game, but the happenings on the orange beach served as a clear signal that this season will be built upon subtle, social play.
Ciera and Tony are iconic castaways of the modern Survivor era, and they hit the beach with reputations as aggressive and relentless game-players. Ciera is a loud player, willing to play vocally and “fearlessly” but rarely delicately. Tony is a reckless bull in a china shop, but someone savvy and unpredictable enough to orchestrate the unexpected. Neither player managed to shake their reputation. In fact, through their actions, they only enhanced the paranoia surrounding their public perception. They more they try to change, the more things stay the same.
Ciera’s name may have arisen in response to concerns about keeping the tribe strong, but it was ultimately the fact that she was perceived as being “game-y” that sealed her fate. Confident in her own gameplay, particularly her experience playing alongside previous winners in her first season, Ciera seemed eager to take control. Her crucial mistake was being the first player to actively target others, raising her concerns about Tony to the rest of the tribe and presenting two options: split a vote against Tony, or just eliminate his right-hand man Caleb. It was clear she was not the only person concerned about Tony, but being the first person to step forward and put names (and plans!) on the table backfired spectacularly.
Ciera’s vocal strategizing put her on a number of players’ radars, including Malcolm who recognised that she was putting herself out on the block and utilised it to his advantage. Malcolm, particularly, positioned himself well in the tribe as someone everybody wanted to talk to (a challenging feat for someone with a target on their back). After Ciera had begun to float names, Malcolm stated that if she’s the one pushing the tribe out of “Zen mode,” it made her an easy scapegoat. It’s hard to imagine a tribe including Tony to ever be “zen,” but Malcolm’s observation demonstrates how important it is to read the room in these early days. If the tribe is hanging back, hang back with them – don’t lead the charge. In this episode, Malcolm demonstrated the power of that approach to a tee, enabling him to be in the know and have a say without becoming the face of the plan.
When Mana lost the first challenge (the first of two epic centrepieces to kick off the season!), Caleb and Tony proposed the need to eliminate “the weakest threat” – taking out a known target while not sacrificing challenge strength. Ciera was an obvious fit for the bill, and Aubry utilised Ciera’s voice against her: she was “the only person that’s throwing names out. Literally the only person.” Hyperbole or not, Ciera, poster child of the #BigMovez era, had fed the fears that she was an aggressive player by being too blatant and overeager in her strategic planning.
On the flip side of the vote, Michaela also failed to blend in. I can’t blame her for being concerned about being the decoy vote, but as she admitted herself, “I reacted in a way I shouldn’t have.” Michaela has always acknowledged that she has little to no poker face, and her combustible response clearly rattled her tribemates (who don’t know her from a stranger – Game Changers was filmed a mere two weeks after Millennials vs. Gen-X, so nobody on the cast had seen her play). Aubry tried to assuage Michaela’s concerns, but Michaela persisted in her visible frustration. Her “hot streak” set her apart from the crowd – a dangerous situation to be in.
As JT would later observe (regarding Tai’s growing menagerie, of all things), “In this level of competition in this game, everything you do is critiqued. Anything can be a reason for someone to get rid of you.” In the first three days, Ciera fuelled her reputation as a ruthless and aggressive strategist, while Michaela ignited concerns about her reliability as an ally. They both gave their tribe enough of a reason to be on the block, and as we saw with Tony’s imminent demise, once a heat-seeking missile locks on, it’s hard to get out of harm’s way.
A BUNKER, SIX FEET UNDERGROUND
There is no doubt that Tony makes for great television. He’s a ball of electricity. He’s a kid hopped up on sugar. He’s a mad scientist. He’s equal parts preposterous and perceptive; brash and brilliant. He is a one of a kind Survivor character and one of the show’s most unlikely winners, but lightning didn’t strike twice.
Tony approached Game Changers with the same intensity as he brought into his first season, which proved to be his critical error. He knew he was a massive, blinking target and yet within five minutes of landing on the beach he’s running off into the jungle shouting about looking for idols (at first a joke, but then an actuality). The next morning, he’s sneaking away to dig himself his “spy bunker,” again worrying his tribemates about a furious search for idols. From day dot, Tony fed the paranoia surrounding his perceived persona and ultimately, it got the better of him. I should clarify: it was not because his own actions made him a target; it was his reactions that sent him out the door.
The unanimous elimination of Ciera was not Tony’s style, and he bemoaned, “I’m bored. I’m tired of just sitting back. I want to get into gear already.” It’s concerning that Tony could not take the hint that the tribe wasn’t looking to mobilise yet: “I have so much energy bottled up inside of me, and it just burns me up to sit down and just let everything be quiet.” Tony stirred the pot when he had no need to do so. Despite this red flag, he managed to quietly assemble a solid plan to bring the threats together for a five-strong majority, bringing Aubry, Malcolm, Caleb and Sandra into the fold. It’s was a smart strategy, but one good play is never enough for Tony.
When he later snuck off to work on his bunker in the middle of the night, he had to literally crawl to safety as Troyzan and Sandra approached for a quiet conversation of their own. Tony’s paranoia that they were coming after him led him to blow up their conversation. It’s important to note that the only snippet of their conversation we heard was Troyzan saying he didn’t even consider Tony to be too much of an immediate threat! Tony’s confrontation was a rash response that cost him a crucial ally in Sandra and may have been the impetus for his demise. Restlessly, he continued to push the boundary of the tribe vibe, and it made him stand out like a sore thumb.
Tony’s only hope was that he ended up positioned against Sandra, the only two-time winner, who herself was a prime candidate for an early boot. It could have even worked for him given that Sandra, who made her millions by sticking to the camouflaged strategy, responded to Tony’s paranoia by coming out guns blazing. It was a risky move for her and cast her as yet another square peg in the tribe. She quickly assembled Hali, Troyzan, Michaela and Varner for battle, confidently stating that Survivor is “so natural to me. I don’t feel like I’m having to put too much effort.” It was efficient and ultimately effective (in Tony’s own words, “You don’t win twice by a fluke”), but Sandra has never been the figurehead of an alliance. She’s always played the loyal soldier until she’s needed to strike. She already had a target on her back from her perfect track record, and it’s understandable that she felt she needed to be more proactive in her third run at the game, but playing so visibly intense could cost her in the long-run.
The title bout between Sandra and Tony was a spectacular fireworks display. Both are aggressive players in their own right, who aren’t afraid to call a spade a spade, or sometimes call a club a spade if it so suits them. There wasn’t room for both of them, and as their rivalry escalated over the course of the episode (continuing even after Tony’s torch had been snuffed), it opened the door for the round pegs to take control.
Ultimately, power lay with the quieter players. Hali, Caleb, Malcolm, Troyzan, Jeff, and Michaela were all highlighted as surreptitiously playing the middle ground, stumping for their preferred plan of attack without bringing the heat onto themselves. Most of them seemed happy to go whichever way the wind was blowing – at the end of the day, a previous winner would be going home no matter what. While such a laid back approach is not always the answer, it’s usually the best call in the early stages of the game. Malcolm outlined it perfectly, “It’s more important for me to get a foothold with alliances and making relationships and not be pulling a Tony.”
The early days of Survivor are about finding that foothold in the landscape of the tribe. It’s rare that carving out a foothold with brute force will propel a player down the most successful path. Tony’s bold actions and intensely paranoid reactions to the relaxed pace of the first six days saw his torch snuffed early, and Sandra’s loud counter-attack may spell a similar fate in the future. But as viewers, we should make sure we’re looking at the scenery: the players to watch are still lurking in the shadows.
A WAR’S GONNA START ANYWAY
Speaking of the scenery, the Nuku tribe was also in this episode. Without a visit to Tribal Council to distil the social dynamics, the stories of the dominant tribe primarily centred on Cirie and her struggle to find an in-road on her tribe.
Mirroring the battle of the greats fought on Mana between Sandra and Tony, Nuku’s battle lines also seemed to be drawn between the two most legendary players: Cirie and Ozzy. It’s no surprise, unfortunately. Ozzy and Cirie have such opposing strategies when it comes to playing Survivor. Ozzy is all about challenges and providing for his tribe. Cirie is about social strategy. There was little chance that their history in Micronesia would not exacerbate this dichotomy, despite their attempts to make peace. It’s little surprise Ozzy is wary of her and wanted to gain the upper hand as the “master of blindsides” this season. As a significant challenge asset, he was able to float his concerns about Cirie without backlash.
Cirie was left in a pickle, necessitating the need to work hard to build an army: “I have to get in with somebody. I can’t play by myself.” But everywhere she looked, she came up short. Both Sarah and Zeke happily told her they’d have her back, while privately admitting to the contrary. Sarah discussed her intention to play like an assassin and a criminal, not worrying about going back on her word and knowing she needed to play under-the-radar. Zeke (fanboy of the “g.oddess” Cirie) admitted that he felt it was too early to rock the boat or stick his neck out for someone everybody else was targeting. Even Debbie, the kookiest of them all, had Cirie’s number. Although her grandiose self-assessment may be grating (or hilarious, if you’re a fan of giant squid related metaphors), Debbie can be a perceptive player, and she knows that Cirie’s tactics are risky, born from desperation.
Cirie might not have been able to catch a break, but her scene with Tai was one of the standout moments of the premiere and demonstrated that the wily Cirie we saw back in Panama and Micronesia is still there. Of course, Tai is not the slickest of players, but her effortless interrogation of him and her accurate assessment of his body language and “that pause” were impressive to watch. She might not be able to read the rest of her castmates as readily as she could read Tai, but Cirie has still got the tools needed to succeed. If she can find a way to shake the target on her back (an opportunity possibly afforded by a swap next week), she might still have a chance.
Elsewhere on Nuku, the characterisation is thin. Sierra Dawn-Thomas is the unlikely player to scoop up the retooled Legacy Advantage (it’s explicitly identified as a free Immunity, but offers the choice of whether to play it at Final Thirteen or Final Six – an excellent modification). Just as she aligned with abrasive masculinity in her first season, she first approached Brad Culpepper and later Ozzy for a working partnership. Brad was painted as a player eager to rewrite his Survivor history as he shirked leadership and tried to let others come to him first. Some things never change, though, and whether it’s naming the chickens or preaching the WWMD gospel, his wife Monica was still his motivation in the game.
Meanwhile, Tai’s allegiance to his chickens is fowl play according to JT – who, understandably, is not overly keen on sharing his corn with the feathered friends. Tai’s love of all living creatures may be endearing to the Sias of the audience, but the impracticalities of bonding with critters who can’t cast a vote may put him in hot water, particularly given he’s already in over his head with the calibre of player on the cast.
The pieces are only being set up on the Nuku tribe, but such peace will not last long, as Cirie warned, “Listen, a war’s gonna start anyway. What difference does it make if the war starts tonight or tomorrow? There will be blood either way.”
IT MIGHT BE A BLOODBATH LATER…
So who will be caught up in the slaughter? It’s Russian roulette as the tribes are switched up next week. So much of a player’s game can hinge on whether their lucky stars are looking down on them as they drop their buffs. Players who found themselves in the crosshairs like Sandra, Cirie, and Michaela might get the chance to duck and cover in a new group. Players like Malcolm, Zeke or Sarah, carefully playing in the background might have their hands forced by the draw.
Game Changers might have cut loose two of its biggest players in its super-sized premiere, but from here on out, it really is anybody’s game. Who knows? Maybe the square pegs will find themselves a square hole.