Game Changers has had its ups and downs, its highs and lows, excitement and disappointment. Between the wacky character moments that dominated the early weeks, the emotional intensity of Episode 7 and the cold strategy of the post-merge, the season’s story has been a mixed bag. Each episode in isolation has generally made for entertaining or thought-provoking television, but as the weeks went by, the season suffered from a lack of focus. Game Changers, through some trick of #CulpepperMath, has ended up as a whole worth less than the sum of its parts.
Yet at the end of the day, Survivor still managed to cobble together an engaging finale that felt very fitting for such an eclectic season. We had it all: entertaining character moments and vague relationship dynamics, intriguing strategic dilemmas coupled with frustrating game technicalities and, despite the season’s lacklustre narrative, ultimately a satisfying Sole Survivor.
IT’S NEVER A SIMPLE VOTE, JEFF
Last week’s Vote Steal fiasco was a series of unfortunate events for everybody involved yet it opened the field for anybody to take control. With their trust shattered, Sarah, Cirie, and Tai were all forced to scramble to forge a new path to the end, while Aubry and Brad & Troyzan tried to seize the opportunity to right their own flagging ships. Fascinatingly, everybody managed to succeed – for a time.
Tai was at the centre of much of the action, finding himself in the firing line of a scrambling Cirie and an irate Sarah. With his social goodwill falling, he tried to leverage his only tangible power in the game – his heretofore unknown dual Idols. His initial instinct to share the information with Brad to rebuild trust might have been a good one, but it was shortlived. Brad, emboldened by Immunity, tried to assert his power over Tai with overbearing aggression, ordering Tai to burn one of his Idols and give the other to Brad as “collateral.”
It was a strange play from Brad, who had come into his second season with a clearer focus on building a social game. We saw plenty of success in that approach too, as he bonded with many of his tribemates. Whether it was the exhaustion of the game or the desperation of knowing he was surviving challenge by challenge (“I gotta win to get in”), all of that hard work fell by the wayside. The rise of a condescending and cocksure Brad was a sharp turn – and may have ultimately been what lost him the game.
For Tai, however, the patronisation pushed him back towards the people who had just tried to vote him out. Vulnerable, he shared his secret with his Kaoh Rong partner, Aubry, who comforted him and astutely gave him the control he was seeking, asking him what move he wanted to make. Ultimately, even Cirie and Tai managed to put aside their differences and work together.
Aubry, Cirie, and Tai would go on to vote Sarah, a rising power player and move maker. Brad, Sarah, and Troyzan – a new alliance formed over key lime pie – would go after one of Tai or Aubry. It could have been a stalemate. By the words on the voting parchment, it would have been Sarah going home, 3-2-1.
And yet there were rumours in the east; whispers of a nameless fear… We’d heard the prophecies and seen the red comet in the night sky. It was time. Advantage-geddon was upon us. Brad wore the Necklace. Tai played an Idol for himself, and another for Aubry. Sarah played her Legacy Advantage. Troyzan hopped on the Immunity Train, playing his own Idol. Five players immune in a six-person tribe.
GOING OUT IN GRAND STYLE
It seemed strangely fitting that it took four advantages to take down one of the most iconic Survivor legends. It’s as though every time Cirie plays, she gets eliminated under increasingly weirder circumstances: from a fire-making tiebreaker in Panama to the victim of a surprise Final Two in Micronesia, to an unlikely pre-merge Idol-playing/vote-split/alliance-flipping fiasco in Heroes vs. Villains, and now this. Eliminated by default with no votes cast against her – at any point during the season.
As a huge Cirie fan from day dot, it’s difficult not to feel as though Cirie’s fate was more of the game’s fault than her own. The producers should have never thrown so many advantages in the mix, Cirie was robbed. Grab the pitchforks! While I do hope Survivor eases up on the advantages in future seasons (advantages and twists are the spice of Survivor; add too much and you spoil the broth), at least Cirie was able to walk out of the game with her head held high. No one could have predicted this, and the game she was playing could have gotten her to the million had it not been for extraordinary bad luck. She said it herself, “I’m goin’ out in grand style.”
To Probst’s credit, he took a moment to highlight Cirie’s Survivor legacy, and as she became the first player to get to speak those immortal words – the Tribe has Spoken – she walked away from Tribal to a standing ovation.
Cirie had her work cut out for her this season, yet she made it all the way to her third finale with another incredible performance under her belt. She played a masterful social game and orchestrated pivotal strategic moves. Her game was not without its errors, but she kept fighting and were it not for an impenetrable wall of Immunities, she would have seen the Final Five, at least. “I’ve seen people in worse holes than this and somehow make it to the end. So I never say never.”
Well played Cirie Fields.
WHAT COULD KAOH RONG?
In the wake of Cirie’s automatic ejection, it seemed as though the next couple votes were poised to be paint-by-numbers. The trio of Brad, Sarah and Troyzan had won the numbers; Aubry and Tai were going home, one after the other. The inevitability may have sapped away some of the dramatic tension, but Aubry and Tai have always been scramblers. They each fought for their place in the game throughout this season, and their parting moves still made for compelling conclusions to their games.
Aubry knew she was the likely vote at five. With Brad immune, she had to make something out of nothing, and her pitch to Sarah and Tai was a strong one. Brad & Troyzan were an unbreakable pair, and if they’re in the Final Four, they’re not going to be the ones going home: it’ll be Tai or Sarah who takes the bullet. It could have been a convincing argument, particularly as Brad continued to alienate Tai from the comfort of the Sherriff’s Hammock, but it was simply not to be.
Aubry is a savvy player who continued to bluff her way through bad hands this season. She lost one close ally after another – Tony, Malcolm, Andrea, Cirie – but she managed to scrounge her way to Day 37. “That’s Survivor,” she lamented, “Sometimes it’s with you. Sometimes it’s not.” However, her peace with her inevitable departure allowed her to exit with a smile on her face, goofing with Probst as he snuffed her torch and buzzing as she anticipated taking a spectator seat to the “psychopaths” remaining.
Tai’s literary tragedy of a Survivor narrative has long been compelling, and it was a truly pleasant surprise to see his story emerge as such a focal point in the final chapter of Game Changers. Sarah may have been the driving force for the overall trajectory of the season, but much of the final three votes hinged on Tai stepping up his game to try to wrestle control of his destiny.
His relationship with Brad, which had not been revisited since their days on New Mana, became the crux of this story. Brad grew more and more domineering – “I control who goes to Final Four. I do… It’s not complicated. Do you understand that?” Tai grew increasingly frustrated – “You’re treating me like a little child, like a simpleton.” After his breakdown before Cirie’s elimination, he seemed to be strengthened in his resolve to stand up for himself and control his own game, “I decide on my own terms how my destination is.” With English as a second language, Tai’s inability to clearly articulate his thoughts has often hindered his ability to play assertively, but as he stared down the barrel of the endgame, it was thrilling to see him own his voice.
Tai is an underestimated player, and even knowing he was in a bad spot after Brad won his fifth Immunity Challenge, he proposed a logical argument to Sarah: force fire. Many seasons end with a discussion of forcing the tie-breaker, but more often than not it ends the way it did tonight. Sarah took a risk that she could trust her relationship with Brad and Troyzan, but ultimately, it made complete sense for her to go to the end with someone who wasn’t respected in Troy, rather than an underdog like Tai.
OUTWIT, OUTPLAY, OUTLAST
The Final Tribal Council is the culmination of the season, but what had once been a blockbuster event has become increasingly rote. It’s the same combination of repetitive and aimless questions, stump speeches and vitriolic monologues that just kill time until the Jury casts the landslide vote that was locked in stone before the Final Three even walked in.
Every now and then, though, Final Tribal can come alive – in fact, last year’s Australian Survivor boasted one of the most exciting finishes to a Survivor season in recent memory all thanks to a dynamic Final Tribal Council. But such occurrences are few and far between, and it often feels like the fun and fascination is gone, and we’re left with just a formality.
Probst and Survivor production have come under fire for throwing too many ideas at the wall this season to see which twists stick, but if there’s one thing I hope they keep going forward, it’s the revised Final Tribal format. This was the most engaging and enjoyable Final Tribal in years, as the free-wheeling open forum, more akin to the discussions of every other Tribal than the stilted structure of Final Tribals past, allowed the Jury to get to the bottom of what really mattered to them. “If you fell short anywhere,” warned Cirie, “we have to bring it up.”
It gave the Jurors the ability to not only interact with the Final Three but also allowed them to freely debate with each other over the merits of the Finalists. Rather than having to try to draw information from the finalists by phrasing a perfect question, it emboldened the Jurors to evenly acknowledge and discuss both the good, bad and ugly sides of their games. It allowed the Final Three to present their narrative more freely, instead of being a slave to answering singular, specific questions. Finally, it gave the Jurors and the Final Three, together, the opportunity to collaboratively craft the narrative of the season that would culminate in the final vote.
Despite Probst’s attempt to categorise discussion under the Outwit, Outplay, Outlast slogan, the conversation abandoned the structure, careening wildly in a rapid-fire debate about loyalty and betrayal, social bonds and strategic decisions, challenge dominance and control of the game.
For all of his confidence that he could beat anybody, Troyzan almost seemed to be an afterthought. He wasn’t even addressed until halfway through the Tribal. When Michaela asked him what he’d done in the game, he waffled through an answer about talking to people, being ready for alliances if he needed it and going with the flow. Although Sierra defended Troyzan’s play as being a “subtle” game, Troy didn’t put up a fight. Much as he’d done throughout the game, he floated through Final Tribal as a passenger, never trying to take the wheel.
Maybe he’d realised he had no shot and was just trying to go out with some dignity. His closing remarks, thanking his fellow castaways for being a part of his adventure, certainly suggested this. For a guy known for his blustery “This is my Island!” talk in One World, it was a little disappointing to see so little fight in Troyzan throughout the entire season, but to be fair the edit showed us very little of Troyzan at all. Nevertheless, props to him for enjoying his Survivor experience.
So what of the two contenders? BRAD VS SARAH. LAW VS ORDER. LOYALTY VS STRATEGY.
Zeke was the first to speak when the Probst handed the reigns to the Jury, giving an abbreviated stump speech to frame Sarah’s gameplay. It was a recurring theme throughout Tribal as multiple players acknowledged – and marvelled – at the moves Sarah had made throughout the game. Her manipulation of Sierra to inherit the Legacy Advantage, her keen eye to literally snatch the Vote Steal out from under Michaela’s feet, her ability to finagle her way through multiple flips and to have been on the right side of the numbers for every single vote. “Hot damn!” Zeke explained, “That is bad-ass!”
When Sarah got her opportunities to discuss her game, she presented her strategic decisions honestly and artfully. She highlighted her adaptability as something that saves her life in her work as a police officer and also helped save her life in the game. She pointed to her attention to detail as a core advantage that helped her get to the end. She owned her lies, but assured the Jurors that her “personal relationships were 100% real from the bottom of my heart.”
But this was the Jury’s biggest sticking point with Sarah. Every Juror had felt personally betrayed by the Iowa cop at some stage of the game and even partway through Tribal, Tai balked as he learned that he was not the only person with whom Sarah had been “real.” Ozzy and Debbie particularly dug in their heels, adamantly arguing against the deceitful way Sarah had burned real relationships. Others were more tentatively forgiving. “I have a dilemma here,” posed Andrea, “On one hand, I can respect ‘hey, she fooled us all,” but am I going to feel good about that vote?”
It’s always a challenge to assuage the pain of betrayal, but Sarah made a solid effort to assure the Jurors that she hadn’t sought to hurt them emotionally and that her betrayal of a game relationship was separate to their human relationship. When pressed on the specifics by Andrea and Aubry, Sarah related it to going undercover as a drug user or prostitute, switching from the real Sarah to a character that she had to inhabit fully for it to be effective. The killer blow came in her closing remarks as she emphasised that the reason she had turned on her friends and allies was that she knew they could have beaten her in the end. This is a difficult argument to make authentically, but Sarah genuinely owned it, capping off a brilliant Final Tribal performance.
Brad, on the other hand, was not the smoothest customer. His bravado in the later stages of the game had spilled over into the preceding Tribal Councils, and his arrogance and belittling of Tai, in particular, had soured him in the eyes of many members of the Jury. Where Sarah was criticised for breaking too many relationships, Brad was put on trial for not having enough. He was accused of never reaching out to anybody outside of his alliance, and when he did, it was in a patronising manner. Tai asked with genuine hurt, “Do you realise how you talk to people? Time after time after time, like ‘I control you.’”
To these accusations, Brad’s rebuttal was as coarse as his burlap sack shirt. His attempts to argue his case only seemed to dig a deeper grave. When asked by Michaela what he knew about her, he grew flustered and gave vague answers, submitting his own evidence against him. When he attempted to explain his aggression towards Tai as intentional manipulation to push him into giving away an Idol, Hali called him out on using condescension as a strategy.
However, despite his early social game, it was the challenges that got Brad to the end, allowing him to keep his word to the people he’d promised it. Debbie emphatically argued that Brad’s strength was what had gotten him – and Sarah and Troyzan – to the Finals. Ozzy, too, labelled himself as Brad’s champion, advocating for the old school loyal game that he values himself. Regularly, Ozzy turned the conversation back to Brad’s record-tying Immunity record (“He took a risk playing this way”) and his more loyal game. Compared to Sarah’s deceit, Ozzy argued, “There is a way to play this game without going so low.” And that was the game of Brad Culpepper.
Brad may have fallen short of the win, with his challenge prowess and honest gameplay not being able to make up for his faltering social game, but Brad came into this season with one mantra in mind: What Would Monica Do? How appropriate, then, that he finishes as the Runner-Up, just like his wife in Blood vs. Water. Maybe it was always destiny.
COP TO CRIMINAL TO CHAMPION
39 days after these 20 castaways leaped into Fijian waters, Sarah Lacina emerged as the Sole Survivor of Game Changers, in a clean 7-3-0 vote. She came into the game underestimated but proved herself to be an intuitive, confident and dominant force and emerged an incredibly deserving winner for Season 34.
Michaela referred to Sarah’s game as “flawless, own ” and I would whole-heartedly agree. Sarah’s game was masterful. She constructed a web of real relationships to give her options (remember her reaching out to outcast Troyzan back on Tavua?). She had a keen eye for timing and detail, seizing the right moments to grab advantages or flip a vote on its head. She even managed to pioneer challenging tactical manoeuvres, like voting out Sierra to claim Legacy Advantage. And that’s just what we saw.
Sarah may not be the most dynamic personality to have ever set foot on the Survivor beach, but she’s an everywoman with a head for the game and a hunger for the win that I have personally enjoyed watching these past twelve weeks. I have a feeling that Sarah’s win will be one that ages well, and will be respected more and more with every passing year. People may have questioned why she was here at the start of this season, but as we close the books on Season 34, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Sarah will go down as a Game Changer.
With that, we bid farewell to Survivor: Game Changers. Thank you for sharing the ups and downs of this tumultuous season with all of us here at Inside Survivor.
It’s only a summer away until we’ll be right back here for Season 35. See you next time, for Survivor: Heroes vs Healers vs Hustlers.