We’re in the home stretch now – not quite the endgame, but we’re rounding the corner into the final sprint. Rightly, everybody on the island is focusing on that finish line and beginning to evaluate how far their “we” game can take them before they have to turn that W upside-dizzity and concentrate on their “me” game.
That shift in perspective has been slowly happening over the past few weeks with varied success. Zeke made an independent play too early, Sarah chose an opportune moment to flip the game in her favour. But this week, it seems as though everyone is getting on the same page. By which, I mean getting on their own pages.
Whether it was Michaela and Tai weighing up their options, Sierra having words with friends or Sarah conning her way to the top, the stable alliances in an already fluid post-merge are beginning to yield to self-interest. This week, it’s all about flipping that W to take home the Dubs.
THE CURIOSITY DOOR
Tai and Michaela are two of the biggest “characters” left on the beach, recognised more for their personality than their strategy. Michaela seems to vacillate wildly between measured thoughtfulness and pent-up emotion – the ego and the id – sometimes within the span of a sentence. Meanwhile, Tai is this pure, giving soul standing on the edge of the abyss of the inherently selfish Survivor gameplay that threatens to corrupt him at every turn.
However, both players are far savvier than they are given credit for: Michaela was blindsided in Millennials vs. Gen-X for showing too much game awareness, and in Kaoh Rong, Tai demonstrated that he was willing to play aggressively. Until this point in Game Changers, though, these players have been following the lead of others, be it Michaela with Sandra and Cirie or Tai under Brad’s wing. However, with the days remaining down to single digits, their strategic sense kicked in, and they recognised that they could each use each other to make a push for the end.
Both Michaela and Tai found themselves ostracised by their purported alliances. Tai grew wary of Brad, Sierra, and Troyzan after they all threw him under the bus at the last Tribal. Although he had voted for Sierra himself, the trust had been decisively broken. Meanwhile, Andrea’s decision to target Zeke so early was a red flag that concerned Michaela: “For some reason, we decided to acquiesce to Andrea. The majority turning on each other after one vote just means there’s nothing solid in a big group.” When she was also excluded from the family visit and the BBQ feast (as of this episode, Michaela is the only player to have not participated in a post-merge reward), it seemed to be a nail in the coffin.
Tai and Michaela knew they were in no position of power, and recognised that same quality in each other. It’s talked of often, but it rarely arises in practice, that the bottom-feeders of each alliance come together to form a new coalition, so to see these two characters arrive at this conclusion was a pleasant surprise – and one that promises to yield fruit for them going forward. Both players are underestimated, and their agreement to work together seems to have avoided recognition by the rest of Maku Maku, lending them the ability to work together covertly. “They’re all trying to outsmart us,” said Michaela to her new ally, “but when we work together, we’re smart enough to win.”
As a pair, Michaela and Tai forged the best of both worlds between the “we” and the “me.” They found power as swing votes between the Andrea contingent and the Sierra contingent, and it afforded them the opportunity to gather information and make the best decision for their own interests. It certainly seemed as though their guts led them both to want to eliminate Andrea, but it could help them to have such a visible and threatening target still in the game moving forward. Sierra – with her advantage – was a much more subtle threat and one that could escape the target if she made it through this vote, whereas it’s a near certainty that Andrea will still be under fire at every Tribal to come.
For players perceived to be highly emotional, Michaela and Tai made a strategic decision to bide their time, and by opening the door too early, they’ve given themselves a lot to work with in the weeks to come.
FRIENDS DON’T LIE
Sierra, on the other hand, had some good instincts but managed to shut the door in her face. As she lamented, losing control in Survivor is a terrifying experience. For a brief time, she’d been the sheriff calling the shots, but in quick succession, Sierra’s alliance had been picked apart with the Debbie blindside and then fractured again by the Tai red herring. The only things she had left were Hail Marys, but with an advantage in her pocket that couldn’t save her until the final six, she had to rely on her friends. And unfortunately for her, she trusted those friends – new and old – a little too much.
Since losing her deputy in Debbie, Sierra had taken a good approach. She’d adopted an “anybody but me” mentality and offered herself up as a free vote to whoever wanted it. She reiterated her allegiance to Sarah, but she promised a ride-or-die bond with Brad and Troy, and she worked with them to court Michaela and Tai for a new five-strong majority. Losing her closest “we” forced her to turn to a “me” game that nearly worked out for her – she would likely have survived the vote had it not been for a timely immunity win by Brad!
However, the death blow came down Sierra bungling the Legacy Advantage. Her instinct to share the knowledge of her assets with the cop, her “closest friend,” was a smart play. The truth is a hot commodity in Survivor and revealing a secret such as that engenders trust, and it can be an incredibly effective weapon if deployed correctly. She was on the right track, too, as we saw Sarah immediately contemplating keeping her around in the game.
But Sierra made a critical error in trusting Sarah too far. Despite the warning from her father – “No matter how hard you try to play anything in life, there’s always going to be somebody trying to take you down” – and despite having witnessed Sarah’s deceptive plays first-hand, Sierra told too much of the truth. Telling Sarah that she had an Idol or an advantage that could only be played at six was good. Telling her that she could pass the advantage on if she was voted out – and promising to will the Legacy to Sarah – only incentivised Sarah to turn on her. Trust is important in Survivor, but as always, there’s a balance to be struck. This time, the barrel tipped over as Sierra put a little too much “we” in her “me” game.
On Day One, Sarah vowed to play like a criminal, and her rap sheet is getting longer with every vote. Her play tonight has to be one of the coldest moves in recent memory, yes? Et tu, Brute. A Judas kiss. It was straight-up Lando Calrissian.
The Legacy Advantage hasn’t given us much thrilling television over its two-season tenure – partly because the best way to play it is to keep it a secret held close to the vest. The scenario that played out tonight, however, gave us the drama we’d been hoping for. The conundrum is fascinating: how do you get someone voted out, but in a way that they think you were innocent? It’s certainly not an easy task, and the ease with which Sarah pulled it off is astounding.
Sarah has been looking out for number one for a few weeks now and has shown herself to be willing to write down an ally’s name if she sees it having a long-term impact on her game. She was the last person to whom Sierra should have promised her Legacy, and rightly, Sarah pounced upon the opportunity to secure herself more back-up for the endgame. After Sierra had revealed her secret under the banner of friendship (“You still have me, girl!”), Sarah initially considered pairing up.
When push came to shove, however, it was far better for her to have complete control over a powerful advantage. So, knowing she would betray her friend, she calmly lied to Sierra, assuring her that she was her “It Girl,” and managed to obtain a reassurance that she was the benefactor of Sierra’s will as well as learning that Michaela and Tai had been turning against Andrea.
Sarah’s play, then, was to sell a half-truth to Michaela: Sierra had an advantage, and they needed to flush it out now. It was calculated, efficient and effective – and most importantly, Sarah kept the inheritance of the Legacy a secret. In doing so, she managed to use Sierra’s own weapon against her, but evade any suspicion of her ulterior motives.
Well, almost. Sarah’s long con to blindside Sierra and still score her Advantage continued after the votes had been read. Her feigned shock once the votes were read certainly helped to sell the lie to Sierra, but both Aubry and Andrea appeared visibly perplexed by Sarah’s scenery-chewing. Whether or not that will have consequences for the cop remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: Sarah managed to stab her friend in the back, and she thanked her for it.
Now, at Final 8, Sarah is dual wielding advantages and is positioned at the centre of the action. So will her deception catch up to her before Day 39? If she gets that far, is she going to be able to defend her case at trial? Or is she going to get off scot-free and with a million dollars in her pocket?
Of course, this episode wasn’t just about strategy and self-serving moves. In a week where the player began focusing on the ‘Me,’ they got one last reminder of the ‘We’ that really matters: their family back home – or in this episode, right here on the beach. I’m an unashamed fan of the family visits, even with Probst hyperbolically marvelling at human relationships. It’s a reminder that these characters playing a ruthless game are real people with real lives, real struggles, and real victories – and this season was no exception.
The raw emotion of the family reunions was palpable. Sarah’s gratitude for her husband Wyatt’s support. The powerful love between Tai and his partner Mark. Michaela’s delight in being able to thank her mother Candy for her hard work., Aubry and Troyzan basking in the warmth of sibling hugs with Carrie and Todd. Sierra’s father Dan’s encouraging words and Andrea drawing strength through her mother Linda as she recounted how from the Survivor experience has helped her connect with the loss of her sister.
Meanwhile, Cirie’s joyful reunion with her son Jared was a delight. A chip off the old block, city kid Jared gawked at the reality of living on an island in the episode’s most gif-able moment, but what really hit home was the bond between mother and son. Cirie has often talked of her children this season, and seeing her celebrate her son’s high school graduation on a beach in Fiji was a fitting entry in her story as their touching reunion seemed to fuel her fight for Sole Survivor.
Last but not least, Brad’s reunion with wife and neat lady Monica was also a blast. One of the unexpected bonuses of Blood vs. Water seasons is getting to see former players pop in on their loved ones down the line. The chance to reconnect with someone who loves you unconditionally is already a huge boon, but the ability to debrief with someone who actually understands how hard the game can be is a significant advantage. As the Culpeppers gossiped over the barbecue like they were at a suburban backyard party, Brad visibly drew resolve from talking through his options with his wife, who he idolises as a “stud Survivor player.” Brad and Monica may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I will always enjoy their enthusiasm for the game – and more importantly, for each other.
TURN IT UP TO ELEVEN
With eight players left on the beach, and seven thousand advantages and Idols still in play, the season is racing towards a dramatic finish. The castaways are each shifting gear, trying to jostle their way into a Final Three they can win. As Aubry posited: “Each of us has to decide “What kind of threat is most threatening to me?””
So as the castaways switch the ‘”we” into “me,” they just have to ask themselves: are they ready to turn their game upside down?