You know those User Agreements that you mindlessly accept when installing a new app or program or creating an online account? As it turns out, you can’t even escape them on Survivor.
If I’m honest, my initial reaction to the episode was that of confusion and frustration. I found myself bemoaning that the sky was falling: the fine print of a myriad of advantages is actually getting in the way of compelling gameplay! Tribal Council, once an open forum, has become a black box that blindsides the audience as much as the players! Boo! Hiss!
I’m sure I was not alone in this initial reaction. I didn’t want to just click “I accept” on this baffling episode and move on – at least, not until I could make sense of it all. Thankfully, when you read between the lines of the episode, it gets a little easier to digest. So for the benefit of us all, let’s squint and try to make sense of the fine print that was Game Changers penultimate episode.
Ex post facto, in the aftermath of tonight’s second Tribal Council, we were left with Michaela eliminated from the game in a baffling 4-2-1 vote, and the Final Six headed back to camp after a Tribal that was somehow even more chaotic than the stump-jumping high-octane action of the Two Tribe Tribal back in Episode 4.
The result of the vote appeared to catch the players by surprise, but even the audience was left dumbfounded. Unfortunately, Survivor has been developing the bad habit of concealing critical information from the viewer in order to preserve suspense, and in the case of tonight’s vote, we can only really speculate about how we got to the end point. So to even stand a chance of understanding the result, we need to get our timeline straight.
After Andrea’s blindside (a bit more on that later), Aubry was devastated at losing her closest ally, and Tai was the one to console her – which raised the suspicions of Cirie, Sarah and Michaela, fearing the Kaoh Rong Two could spell trouble. Following Brad’s win at the Immunity Challenge, Tai, drunk on the #BigMove Kool-Aid, tried to rope Aubry in to blindside Sarah. However, Aubry saw that it would not be in her best interest to keep Tai in the game, and shared Tai’s targeting of Sarah with Cirie. Cirie then relayed this to Sarah, though the cop didn’t buy it, believing she could trust Tai over Aubry.
As a sign of trust and a show of confidence, Sarah gave her Vote Steal to Cirie to hold onto through Tribal. Cirie, however, was frustrated that Sarah wanted to stick to a plan to execute Aubry, and instead schemed to use the Vote Steal to commandeer Sarah’s vote and ensure that Tai gets knocked out. To foolproof the plan and prevent Tai from getting spooked into playing an idol, Cirie told him about the advantage, but lied to him that she would use it to save him. So the plan in place seemed to be: Cirie would steal Sarah’s vote, and she, Aubry and Michaela would blindside Tai – and theoretically save Sarah’s life in the game.
However, when Cirie went to play the Vote Steal, her expertly crafted scheme came crashing down because of one simple thing: complicated legalese. Cirie failed to register the fine print of the Advantage – that it was non-transferrable. That is, Sarah could pass the physical object to someone else, but she was incapable of giving the power of the advantage to anybody else, preventing Cirie from being able to play it. In the fallout, Sarah initiated a flurry of whispered conversations and ultimately played the advantage to steal Tai’s vote.
In the voting booth, Aubry and Michaela stuck to the plan and voted for Tai, while Cirie threw a hinky vote at Aubry. Yet Brad, Troyzan, Sarah and Tai’s stolen vote got the upper hand, sending Michaela home.
That’s what happened, but what was going on?
EXCHANGE OF GOODS AND SERVICES
Let’s start with the Vote Steal, the catalyst for all of this episode’s drama – and not for the best reasons.
To get it out of the way, I deplore the non-transferrable clause of the Vote Steal. Some of Survivor’s best moments have occurred because idols and Advantages have been given away. JT giving the idol to Russell in Heroes vs. Villains. Jason giving Scot his idol only for him to go out of the game with it in Kaoh Rong. Adam giving his Reward Steal to Jay last season – not to mention Erik infamously giving away Individual Immunity in Micronesia!
The transferrable nature of advantages in Survivor has left the door open for emergent strategies and fascinating, opportunistic gameplay. So why on earth did the producers limit the Vote Steal as a non-transferrable item? Not only is it inconsistent, but as we saw tonight, it actively limited the ability of the castaways to utilise it in unexpected ways.
If Cirie’s attempted play had been legal, it would have been a thrilling and powerful play. Instead, it was an anti-climax, as the rug was pulled out from under Cirie – and the audience – who did not realise that the Vote Steal could never have been transferred in the first place.
Cirie has always been a player in search of exploiting loopholes and opportunities that others might let pass them by. She never tries to conjure big moves out of thin air, but rather waits for the perfect moment to twist the rules to her advantage. In Panama, she manipulated the numbers for a 3-2-1 vote at the Final Six. In Micronesia, she manipulated people in the aforementioned Erik/Immunity incident. Tonight, her play would have been the best of both.
Though not explicitly revealed, the episode suggests that the vote was tracking towards a 3-3-1 tied vote: Brad, Troyzan and Tai voting Sarah; Cirie, Aubry and Michaela voting Tai; Sarah off doing her own thing, believing she could trust Tai, and instead voting Aubry. Cirie’s plan to steal Sarah’s vote would have manipulated the numbers back in her – and Sarah’s – favour: 4-3 against Tai. She saw a numbers loophole, and she seized it.
Cirie’s forethought and careful interpersonal manipulation of Tai was the true kicker. It’s common knowledge that Tai is both an Idol Whisperer and can be a nervous player capable of making impulsive decisions. Knowing she was trying to blindside him, and knowing that her Vote Steal could be a red flag for him if he had an idol in play, she sought to assure him he was safe. Her revelation of the Advantage and her lie that it was an act to save him was brilliantly executed, right down to her pulling on his heartstrings by showing vulnerability: “If I tell you this and you tell people and get me voted out, I’m never going to be able to live with myself.” Cirie is a stone-cold Survivor player, but even for her, this was an incredibly risky play.
She mused, “Damn, could I pull this off?” and we were right there with her. We saw Cirie agonise over bringing this convoluted and delicate plan together. Every moment of it was enthralling, making the Shyamalanian plot twist so much worse. She was literally at the threshold of making her big play only for it to be ripped from her grasp. In the fell swoop of a technicality, her game ground to a halt and it may not recover. She’s broken Tai’s trust and also betrayed Sarah without being able to back up her honest intentions. It was a devastating blow to cap off what had been an episode of otherwise fascinating gameplay from Cirie.
It might seem as though I’m simply paraphrasing the great Robb Zbacnik of Survivor: Thailand: Cirie got beat by bunch of rules. Let’s not be hasty, because Cirie undoubtedly made a huge mistake. The fine print was right there on the Advantage and she didn’t catch the devil in the detail. For such an astute and observant player to have their plans foiled by an oversight is a mind-blowing turn of events. It’s a harsh reminder that Survivor is played with live ammo. Nothing can be taken for granted, and even the tiniest error can wreak havoc.
Sarah has been playing a very aggressive and visible game. It’s not always sharp – her blatant pandering to Sierra last week certainly earned the ire of Andrea and Aubry in the aftermath – but she’s not apologetic about the moves she makes. There was a lot of talk at tonight’s first Tribal regarding what the Jury will value come Final Tribal Council: gameplay or relationships? Although the answer generally lies somewhere in between, it certainly seems feasible that, in a season titled Game Changers, the Jury will skew towards the players making a splash. Sarah has positioned herself as a central player in the game, having been at the core of the main blindsides and in the possession of key advantages. Tonight was no different, as she participated in the Andrea blindside and then twisted Cirie’s Vote Steal snafu into her own move – but the cracks in her game are beginning to show.
Sarah’s misplaced trust in Tai could have been her downfall, yet her move to temporarily give the Advantage to Cirie as a sign of loyalty was a very smart decision to foster trust. However, with the Advantage being non-transferrable, it rendered the action meaningless. Frustratingly, it allowed Sarah to have her cake and eat it too: she could “build trust” by giving the Advantage to Cirie without having to risk any repercussions. It ended up as a safe move, and sharing something as game-changing as an advantage should never be a safe move. Of course, if Sarah was aware of this particular loophole and was actively exploiting it in her deal with Cirie, then she deserves a lot of praise for a clever, calculated play. But given we never saw her acknowledge this, it seems she was only able to reclaim her Advantage on a convenient technicality.
The irony is that if Cirie had been able to play the Vote Steal or if she had believed Cirie in the first place, Sarah might have come out of this Tribal better off. Tai might have gone out of the game with two idols in his pocket. She might have even been able to get through with her Vote Steal still in her back pocket. Instead, she instigated panic and confusion by getting out of her seat to whisper to ally and enemy alike, and burnt her advantage to steal Tai’s vote, only to use it against an innocent bystander in Michaela.
Michaela’s exit was, simply put, a shocker. It’s difficult to eulogise her departure from the game without knowing how she ended up being the target at the chaotic Tribal, but her presence throughout this season has been a fascinating journey. Her abrasive attitude often put her at odds with her tribemates, making it difficult for her to build goodwill. Even her handling of Brad tonight – instructing him to go out fishing for the tribe instead of scrambling before the vote – proved to be another exhibit of evidence demonstrating why she had consistently been deemed a “quality of life problem.”
However, her short temper, hyper-competitive nature and overt facial reactions should not define her, and she had some moments of brilliance this season that should not be ignored. Amongst them, her bond with Cirie at the merge was a highlight amongst the season’s personal stories, and Michaela also showed flashes of the intelligent gameplay, particularly in forging her secret alliance with Tai last week and her ability to put her emotional conflicts on hold to execute logical strategic plays throughout the game. Her Game Changers experience might be remembered most for her props at Tribal, but she has been an incredibly compelling character on a very gamey season.
But to go back to the game… Why Michaela? It’s hard to figure it out, given we never heard her name before Tribal and we didn’t get to hear any of the whispered conversations occurring in secret in the arena of Tribal Council. My best guess? Brad had certainly shown disdain for Michaela, and Sarah may have felt that instead of risking flipping the vote on Cirie, she should take out her wing-woman. With Michaela out of the game, Cirie is unmoored, and that either makes her an easy target for a vote or perhaps, with a very visible mistake made before the Jury, it might even seem to Sarah that she could be – dare I even suggest it – a goat…
CHANGES TO YOUR AGREEMENT
The Final Seven Tribal Council undoubtedly hogged the spotlight, and the verbose ramblings above are proof of that! But the first half of this episode should not be forgotten, as Andrea finally succumbed to the blindside we all knew would come for her eventually.
Andrea had played a strong game in every department – physically, socially, strategically. She was a triple threat and on her way out, Andrea was still making smart decisions – her suspicion of Sarah’s pandering to the Jury was on point, though she was willing to put a pin in that gut instinct to take out a big threat like Brad. Even her observation that how you send people to the Jury can mean more than the strategic move was a notable insight.
But in the end, she played a little too aggressively and became too big of a target. Regardless, Andrea is always an enjoyable presence on Survivor. Her passion and excitement to play – and play hard – seems to grow with every appearance, and for her to be the seventh player – and first post Heroes vs Villains castaway – to crack 100 Days on Survivor is no small feat. Well played, Ms. Boehlke.
But did her allies Cirie, Michaela, and Sarah make the right play to flip on Andrea at the Final 8? Andrea had been absorbing a lot of the heat, and both Sarah and Cirie ended up far more vulnerable without their shield in place. Given Brad also escaped the vote the next round with an Immunity Challenge win could also imply that they should have taken a shot at him when they had the chance.
However, there was no guarantee that they’d have another opportunity to take Andrea out. She was playing a strong and highly visible game and has the kind of charm that can win over a Jury. If she were to get deep enough or go on an Immunity run, she would be a much tougher challenge at the Final Three, even for players with a long resume like Cirie or Sarah – and that assumes she wouldn’t turn on them first. Theoretically, it might have been better to try to keep Andrea around as a meat shield, but when the opportunity presented itself, it would have been just as risky to pass it up.
SUBJECT TO THE THIRD PARTY
This episode, as has been the trend of the Season 34 post-merge, primarily centred on Sarah and Cirie. Yet with a Final Six heading into next week’s big finale, there are still four other contenders in the race.
Aubry finally emerged into the spotlight tonight. From the high of her first ever Immunity win (be still, Cochran’s beating heart!) to the low of losing her closest ally Andrea in a bewildering blindside, she ran the gamut of emotion in the first cycle of the episode and ran with that energy into the second half as the swing vote between Tai and Cirie. Aubry has fought a tough game, perpetually on the bottom of the totem pole and constantly losing her closest allies at every turn. It’s disappointing that we haven’t been privy to more of her struggle, particularly given that she can walk the fine line balancing strategic insight and engaging character, but the fact that she’s now made it to two finales is an impressive feat.
Also sliding into their second finale is Tai, whose nerves of steel were something to behold as, even with the chaos of Tribal and his vote being stolen away, he sat on his two idols. Theoretically, this should ensure him the Final Four, as he could idol his way through the next two votes, but Tai is not always the most straight-forward character. This is what makes him so compelling: he is willing and able to play aggressively (as seen tonight, he attempted to spearhead blindsiding Sarah), but his emotions and paranoia can often lead him to make spontaneous or irrational decisions. He’s an unpredictable player and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him throw a spanner in the works of at least one player’s game next week – maybe even his own.
After such a blockbuster start to the season, Brad’s story has faded into the background. He keeps on keepin’ on, though, and his battle from the bottom was a surprise this week. By all rights, he should have gone home at the last three votes, were it not for two hard-earned Immunity wins and a lucky break with the Andrea blindside. However, it seems as though Brad’s fight to stay alive has left him playing a short-term game, only able to plan one day at a time. It’s understandable, but without making a play to turn the tables back in his favour, he’ll have a hard time reaching a victorious end to his redemption story.
Last, but not least (unless you talk to the editors) is Troyzan. Troyzan may not be my favourite player, but it’s devastating that he’s managed to get to the Final Six with an idol in his pocket and the only time he got any significant story was all the way back in Episode 3. He’s managed to survive being out-numbered on his first swap tribe, but since then, he managed to skate through the game as a foot soldier shielded by Brad and Sierra. I’m sure he’s been playing his own game with enthusiasm and he deserved much more than the complete lack of story he’s gotten this season. My only hope is that he’ll finally get a moment to shine in next week’s big finale.
As I’ve taken the time to assess the facts of the case, I think I’ve come to terms with the events of this episode. I’m still not a fan of some of the production choices – I hope that all advantages become transferrable in the years ahead, and I hope too that Survivor’s editors give us more coherent story-telling and don’t rush the endgame of seasons to come. But this episode is a brutal reminder that Survivor is a ruthless game and that nothing can be taken for granted – most of all, the fine print.
So as I check the box to accept and continue, let’s turn our sights to next week’s big finale. There will be tears and triumph, and hopefully more delight than disappointment. Sarah and Cirie might be the front runners to win if they can make it to the Final Three, but their competition in Aubry, Brad, Tai, and Troyzan – with challenge prowess and three iIdols between them – is no slouch.
If you’re curious to hear me ramble some more about how this season will ultimately pan out, keep an eye out for Jury Jeopardy coming next week where I will represent Inside Survivor, going head-to-head with the good folks of Reality Blurred, Rob Has a Podcast, and True Dork Times to predict the votes at Final Tribal Council.
Game Changers may not go down as one of the best seasons of the series, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for an exciting, cathartic and satisfying conclusion to one of the most hectic games of Survivor we’ve ever seen.