What do you do when you’re dealt a bad hand? How do you escape an inevitable fate? This week’s Survivor episode was all about making the most out of a bad situation – and it wasn’t a storybook ending of triumph in the face of overwhelming odds.
If anything, it was the antithesis of the scrappy underdog story: the people who tried to make their own fate couldn’t change their future, and the people who survived misfortune did so through dumb luck or in spite of their own disastrous actions. Survivor adores its underdog stories, but real life – and real games – are rarely as uplifting as trite colloquialisms suggest. Sometimes when life gives you lemons, the lemonade will still be sour.
London Bridge has fallen. The Queen has passed.
For a largely innocuous episode of television, this week marked one of the biggest milestones in Survivor history, as Sandra saw her torch snuffed for the first time in a record 94 consecutive and undefeated days.
It felt inevitable that the two-time winner would be doomed for an early exit. It was thrilling to see her dodge bullet after bullet with some incredibly effective gameplay. She proved her mettle and defended her legacy. It’s a shame that the fatal blow was spurred by an unlucky numbers deficit in the wake of yet another swap.
The New New Nuku tribe was an unfortunate draw for the pair of Sandra and Jeff Varner, outnumbered 5-2 by original Nuku; four of which had also bonded over an Immunity streak at Tavua. To their credit, Sandra and Jeff didn’t lay down and die. Sandra, particularly, knew that this could be the end for her, and she accepted that outcome as a very real possibility but never resigned herself to that fate. There was not a lot of room to work, but all they needed was an opportunity.
The Tai decoy was an excellent plot for the majority, and it was a believable distraction for Jeff and Sandra. They both seemed wary of it – it seemed too easy that such a vast majority would bypass the two-time winner or an easy boot in favour of targeting one of their own. But without options, they had to play the cards they were dealt. Jeff seemed willing to lay low, crossing his fingers and toes that the majority had been honest with him. It was a luxury perhaps afforded by knowing he was unlikely to be their first target. But Sandra had a different plan.
“I can’t just hope for the best,” she asserted, “I need to assess the situation and work my magic.” Rather than taking the majority at their word, or trying to flip the script on an unsuspecting third party, Sandra doubled down on the plan she’d been fed. She presented legitimate arguments for why Tai should go home: not only was he unpredictable, but he had ready-made allies from his first season in Aubry and Debbie – the latter of whom would be joining the tribe after the vote. She presented herself as a non-threatening tool for the majority to put in their belt: “If you need someone to help you, to protect you, I’ll keep my eyes and ears open and let you know.”
It was a solid tactic, but as the game has gone on, the players have grown wiser to Sandra’s effortless play. Sarah summarized it succinctly: “She’s grooming us. She doesn’t pressure you. Her voice never raises. It’s calm – and she just starts to suck you in.” Aubry may have come out of the last Tribal vowing to learn a thing or two from Sandra’s game, but the Nuku majority wasn’t looking for lessons. Even though they found her arguments about Tai and the Kaoh Rong Three compelling, they knew they couldn’t let Sandra get a hold. “People always say you can get Sandra out of this game anytime,” warned Zeke, “but you know what’s happened to everyone who said that? They’ve lost a million dollars to Sandra Diaz-Twine.”
Sandra drew a bad hand, going from top dog to minority target in one fell swoop. Even as her tribe set their sights on her, and she learned that her name was on the docket, she kept swinging for the fences until her torch was snuffed – even as it was being put out, she begged Jeff not to do it! Her stoking of the fire burning under Tai was a calculated last ditch effort: she egged him on to orchestrate a surprise flip, but after he whispered Ozzy’s name, she immediately shared the information with the rest of the tribe.
It would be hard to argue that Sandra didn’t play with everything she had this season. If you need proof, think of this: two other winners came gunning for her, but not only did she get to them first, but she managed to redirect their target onto someone else. She used every trick in her arsenal, from pot-stirring to sugar-stealing; she soft-spoke when she schemed, but she got loud too. The fire might be gone, but the Queen stays Queen.
So what of the coalition who dethroned Survivor royalty? Andrea, Ozzy, Sarah and Zeke all executed the coup soundly. It was the right move for them to target Sandra – even with Tai growing more erratic by the hour. Andrea’s argument for putting the decoy vote on Tai was accurate: he was not only an unreliable ally, but also had a knack for getting his hands on Idols and Advantages, and such power in such slippery hands was a recipe for disaster. Even so, Sandra’s reputation – and even the masterful way she tried to scramble – was too much of a threat.
Zeke was the face of the revolution, mustering support for the plan from his Tavua buddies. He roped in Tai while trying to contain his paranoia by keeping him out of the loop of the decoy plan. And he was the mouthpiece that misdirected Varner. It’s this last piece of the puzzle that makes the Sandra vote a bonus for the Brooklynite. Jeff and Zeke both sought to bond with the other – their shared experiences as gay men and kids moving to the Big Apple were a natural link, but they both seemed willing to forge a new working relationship. And with Sandra gone, Zeke came out on top: “I see Jeff Varner as a potentially desperate person I can trust and save going forward in this game.” The question will be whether Jeff is happy to keep playing the pawn for someone else, or if he tries to take his fate into his own hands going forward.
Andrea and Sarah were mostly relegated to soldiers in the uprising, though were notably savvy in their observations and contributions to the plan. Ozzy, meanwhile, was the lieutenant infuriated by his motley crew. Ozzy has never suffered fools gladly, and his growing frustration with Tai over the course of the episode does not suggest that they’ll remain aligned in the long run. This is only exacerbated by Tai’s attempts to throw votes at Ozzy in a dramatic moment of chaos at Tribal may have been a distraction.
For now, the Tavua core is in a stable position: they’ll hold a comfortable majority over Varner if they loop in Tai and Debbie. They’re also in a convenient position to swing the other direction and take a wild card out of the deck. If they can stick together, at least. Getting rid of Sandra was mutually beneficial to all of them, but now that they’ve survived their first Tribal of the season, they may be more interested in securing their personal games as the merge looms. It could be a scramble for new allies, and it doesn’t help that an erratic Tai is in the mix.
With a player like Tai, there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction he’ll be going. This makes him an extremely challenging player with whom to align. An exasperated Zeke challenged Tai at Tribal, “Who do you trust in this game? You keep telling me that you trust me, you trust Sarah, you trust Andrea, you trust Ozzy. Maybe I want to vote with you, but how can I trust you if I don’t know who else you trust in this game?” Trust is such a key component of Survivor, and the only sure thing is that you know that you can trust yourself. The trouble is when you become your own worst enemy.
Tai seems like a delightful person in the real world, but the cesspool of festering paranoia that is the Survivor island transforms Tai into a skittish, nervous ball of confusion. He is a dangerous player: not because he’s a strategic powerhouse, but because he’s willing to play aggressively and recklessly. Juxtaposed beside Sandra at Tribal Council, it’s clear that Tai’s driving motivation is “anybody but me,” but he lacks the finesse to make that strategy work. He’s willing to openly flirt with the enemy and inject unvarnished chaos into the already tense arena of Tribal Council, and it makes him an ominous threat.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Tai’s character through his two seasons has been his role as a literal Catch-22. In full force, Tai tried to ensure some security in his game by tracking down the Idol at Mana (side note: the “invisible ink” clue is a fun concept, and I would love to think what might have happened if someone stumbled upon it on a rainy day!). He then parlayed his knowledge of the Idol’s location after his swap to Nuku to locate a second Idol immediately. It was a smart play, and Tai’s eagerness to amass tools of power only rivals Tony’s Bag of Tricks.
The sad thing is that with great power comes great responsibility. Tai lamented, “With two Idols, I am actually more paranoid. All the different layers, the complexity, the options. I am really really nervous. What do I do with it?” He seeks to gain these Advantages for peace of mind, but in a cruel twist of fate, they only end up enhancing his paranoia. Of course, in this circumstance, Tai was right to be paranoid. His alliance was throwing him under the bus as a decoy, and they were playing in their best interest by trying to negate Tai’s unpredictability. However, they left him so far out of the loop that he began to – rightfully – question what was going on under his nose.
By his own admission, Tai is not the smartest player – but he’s smarter than he’s given credit for. Tai has some good strategic instincts and some intelligent reads on situations. His fatal flaw is that he struggles to execute an effective response because he doesn’t think well on his feet and is prone to going rogue. Tai is not in a good position going forward, but if he can restrain his panic and paranoia, he has enough in his arsenal that he could truly change the game.
A NEW MATH PROBLEM
The division of New New Mana is a compelling melting point, and it was disappointing to see so little of the developing dynamics. On paper, the tribe is a complete grab bag. Original Mana (Aubry, Hali, Michaela, Troyzan) outnumbers Original Nuku (Brad, Cirie & Sierra), and the tribe is evenly split between the three swapped tribes. However, there is little that we’ve seen to suggest any pre-existing working relationships between any of these players. Aubry and Michaela may have some bad blood from last week, and Cirie and Troyzan were pitted against each other based on numbers alone at Tavua, but the tribe is full of tenuous allegiances and adversaries at best.
The only significant alliance that made it to Mana 3.0 together is the power couple of Brad and Sierra, and the little time devoted to the tribe in this episode detailed Brad’s never-ending war with mathematics. The numbers were stacked against him: outnumbered 4-3 by Original Mana, outnumbered 4-3 based on swap tribes, outnumbered 5-2 along gender lines. Brad had to find an in, and he sought to rally allies. His first point of call made all the sense in the world. Besides a hit of testosterone and shared Survivor history with Monica Culpepper, Brad’s decision to approach Troyzan also adeptly pulled in an otherwise isolated number. Troy has been an island on the Tavua tribe, and it would be a mutually beneficial allegiance for the two men. With Sierra on board, it’s a growing coalition, but three into four is still out.
Unless Troyzan is willing to part with his Idol to pull off an upset, the trio needs a fourth. The good news for them is that the field is ripe for the picking. Hali has a bond, albeit tenuous, with Brad and Sierra from her time at Mana. Aubry and Cirie were both outcasts on their starting tribes, and need to secure allies going forward. Michaela is also a loose end after losing her closest ally in Sandra. They might be in the minority, but Brad, Sierra, and Troyzan have a lot of room to take a sad song and make it better.
One last fun fact for the Mana tribe: as of this episode, Cirie has the longest Immunity streak of any player on this season. That’s right, Cirie is the only person left who has not attended a Tribal Council this season winning six Immunities in a row. Who’d have thunk it?
DEBBIE’S AMAZING ADVANTAGE OVERLOAD!!
Who knew that Debbie’s resume listed a stint as a Professional Leprechaun? Her luck turned faster than a glass of milk on a hot summer day. It looked pretty grim when Debbie unwrapped an empty parcel – I’m sure she was fearing it might have been a black spot, throwing her out of the game. Exile was preferable, but still a grim prospect. In the end, there may not have been a pony awaiting her, but a trifecta of advantages was a lucky break.
Firstly, the Exile Ship was a great twist in and of itself. Reminiscent of the Sugar Shack in Gabon, the ability to relax in comfort and with a full belly would have been saving grace alone. Debbie’s happy dancing spoke volumes, and it also presented her with an interesting informational advantage: “Everybody’s going to feel sorry for me because I toughed it out and I froze. Nobody is expecting I got treated like the queen.” If Debbie can re-enter the game and sell a lie that Exile was a hell-hole, it gives her an upper hand. It gives her room to play a sympathy card, should she wish.
Disappointingly, however, Survivor went full kid-in-a-candy-store, throwing in a free consultation with a past winner and a choice of three literal game advantages. In my opinion, it was overkill: a gluttonous smorgasbord of excess.
I do like Cochran as a player and a character, but he added nothing to the episode. Although I see the value for a player being able to talk with a third party (heck, we’ve seen this plenty of times on Loved Ones visits), Cochran’s insight was ineffectual. He hasn’t been on the island with these people, and so his advice was based solely on his preconceived notions derived from watching past seasons – which is irrelevant. He might have accurately pegged Debbie as overconfident, but we the viewer already knew that, and Debbie’s not going to have an epiphany any time soon. But he also framed Brad as a hot-head macho man based on his Blood vs. Water game – yet this season, we’ve been presented a very different picture of Brad. In fact, last week went out of its way to paint Brad as the saner figure in the dispute with Debbie. All in all, the whole sequence added nothing and changed nothing. In a season full of big characters and big gameplay, we didn’t need filler like this.
I’m tempted to say Cochran’s guest appearance on Game Changers was vanilla, but I feel like that would be doing a great disservice to the flavor of vanilla. Children clamour to get a vanilla ice cream cone, but nobody was clamouring for this unnecessary diversion. I sincerely hope Survivor never does this again.
The final part of Debbie’s Advantage Overload was the choice between an Extra Vote – a sure thing that gives her legitimate control going forward – and two weak-sauce alternatives. An advantage at Tribal Immunity could have been beneficial in the short term, but without knowing what tribe she’d be returning to, there’s little incentive for Debbie to blindly benefit a whole tribe over scoring a secret benefit for herself. Meanwhile, the Fake Idol Construction Kit is a great concept for an Advantage, but it was misplaced in this circumstance. Fake Idols take a lot of work to utilise effectively – an Extra Vote is a reliable certainty by comparison.
The embarrassment of riches on S.S. Exile was an interesting experiment and a reminder that luck is a double-edged sword. Just as bad luck in the game turned Malcolm into an early boot only a mere two episodes ago, so can good luck change everything for a player who hours earlier had been on the brink of an emotional breakdown. Debbie recognised her opportunity for a rebirth: can she make the most of it and be able to add resurrection to her CV’s special skills?
Tonight’s episode might have been the weakest television hour of the season thus far, but Game Changers is still shaking out to be an interesting season. As we charge into what we might expect will be the final vote before the merge, the game could turn on a dime.
The New Mana tribe is as divided as they come, and as Debbie rolls into Nuku, there’s a lot of room for a fiasco to unfold. Everybody is scrambling to make the most of their situation, but as seen tonight, there’s no foolproof path to success.
Sometimes you can make sweet lemonade. Sometimes you can even make a lemon cake. But sometimes lemons will just stay lemons. Do with that, what you may.