Big twists can make for “event television.” Survivor has the right to throw whatever it wants at its players to keep them on their toes. Sometimes it works spectacularly, and sometimes it ends miserably. Sometimes it’s fun and thrilling, but sometimes it’s frustrating and tragic. In the end, twists stir the pot and inspire adaptable gameplay, and when done right, they encourage and benefit flexible and opportunistic players.
With every twist, though, there’s collateral. So many players have fallen victim to an untimely or unexpected twist, whether it’s an unlucky draw at a swap or an unprecedented twist like the Outcasts or Fiji’s post-merge mix-up. Ever since Silas got voted out after the first tribe swap all the way back in Africa, “screwed by a twist” has become one of the biggest fears of a Survivor castaway. Game Changers’ two-tribe Tribal Council is arguably the greatest example of the phenomenon yet.
The events of Wednesday’s jaw-dropping Tribal Council were blockbuster TV. It was chaotic and dramatic but, ultimately, it rang a little hollow. The “big event” Tribals of recent years – the rock draws, the idol plays, the big flips and power shifts and emotional betrayals – arose organically from the interpersonal dynamics of the castaways. Each player trying to position themselves for a trajectory to the million dollars while managing the complex social bonds that would or wouldn’t get them there. The two-tribe Tribal this episode had none of the social strategies that make for the best episodes: it was purely manufactured mayhem, and the end result might have well have been a round of Russian Roulette.
If Tribal Council is theatre, the classic and memorable big events are like nuanced dramas, full of engaging characters and emotional pathos. Episode 4’s Tribal, however, is more like a gaudy big-budget extravaganza more interested in pyrotechnics than plot: spectacular to behold, but ultimately lacking in substance.
IT’S SIMPLE ON PAPER
When Jeff announced that the two tribes who lost the Immunity Challenge would go to Tribal Council together to collectively vote out one person, the castaways’ horror was palpable. For Mana and Nuku, all of their carefully laid plans had to be put on hold. The tables turned on Mana’s easy vote for Hali, and even her own attempts to turn Debbie against Tai mattered not. JT and Malcolm had been plotting their uprising against Sandra, but they couldn’t pull the trigger yet.
In the wake of the twist reveal, Aubry speculated that “any fracture in any relationship is a reason to send somebody home tonight,” but in this convoluted circumstance, interpersonal relationships didn’t matter much at all. It all came down to making a unanimous decision on who to target from the opposing tribe.
The most devastating aspect of the two-tribe Tribal was that there was no room for the players to actually play, and certainly no way for them to take the game into their own hands. In a world where Mana and Nuku returned to the same beach, one could envision Hali flipping to her old tribemates to vote out ringleader Brad or JT and Malcolm taking the opportunity to recruit the Mana crew to assassinate Sandra. If ifs and buts were candy and nuts… Instead, individual agendas had to wait as the tribes were left co-ordinating a cross-Tribal hit without any ability to gather intel and make an informed decision or devise a new scheme by working with their opponents.
Honestly, both tribes initially played the twist effectively. They realised it was an opportunity to eliminate the biggest threat on an opposing tribe. If the threat were a physical one, it would also serve to weaken an opponent for future challenges. The question was simply: which threat?
For Nuku, Sierra and Tai were the proposed targets. Sandra pushed for the “fan favourite,” arguing that Sierra was Mana’s strongest female competitor. Although not explicitly discussed at camp, speculation that she wouldn’t have an Idol clearly played a role in the decision (if Jeff Varner’s voting confessional is to be believed). Although JT suggested they shoot for a shifty adversary in Tai, he was almost unanimously shot down. A physical threat and strategic non-threat such as Sierra Dawn Thomas was the best target.
On Mana, the question also came down to which threat to target: Sandra or Malcolm. Sierra was particularly eager to go after Malcolm, reasoning that it would “be stupid for the long run” not to target the triple threat now. She had an excellent point: even excluding his social and strategic prowess, assassinating one of Nuku’s strongest challenge competitors would put the tribes on a more equal footing in future challenges and increase the likelihood of the weaker Mana winning Immunity.
Of course, the numbers were the issue. Even if Mana was able to keep the death-row sentenced Hali in line, the tribe was still outnumbered 5 to 6. And if they weren’t able to swing JT, the only way to gain the upper hand would be an Idol. Luckily, Tai seems to love Idols as if they were all living creatures, and he managed to locate one in the nick of time. He smartly shared his trump card with his tribe (sans Hali), allowing the group to work together to play it effectively. Of course, without being able to gather information from their opposing tribe, there was no way of knowing who to play the Idol for – it would be a total gamble.
On both sides of the division, the targets seemed to be circling the challenge threats – which was further underlined when Hali vocally pushed for Brad at Tribal. Although every player has their own agenda, everybody is still playing as a team, and working to actively weaken an opposing tribe was the smartest play. Yet Malcolm, whose final episode was littered with intelligent observations and dramatic irony, said it best: “It’s very simple on paper – but on paper is the only place it’s simple.”
The Mana/Nuku Tribal Council was unpredictable on the surface, as the players leaped from their seats to try to gather the information they so desperately needed: Who were the other tribe voting for? Who had an Idol? Would anyone flip sides? As Tribal Council has become more of a forum for active gameplay, it was only a matter of time before the players decided not to let their arbitrary seat by the fireplace limit their ability to turn the tide with a whisper.
Naturally, Tribal began as a cautious affair, as both tribes attempted to read the room. Brad’s apt analogy of a Mexican standoff – everyone pointing their guns at the other team – certainly held true, as the most likely turncoats JT and Hali weighed up their options, and both played proactively and recklessly.
Although Sandra made it clear that Nuku didn’t need her as a number and Sierra pounced on the comment (“Looks like they don’t need you.”), Hali wasn’t ready to be left out of the loop. She made a valiant effort to allude to her desire to get Brad out by stating that it would be “a stupid time in the game to be thinking about anything except physical threats.” Although Sandra picked up on Hali’s meaning and the whispers grew, it quickly became a “stick to the plan” situation. This particular Tribal was too precarious to switch things up – one wrong vote could be a catastrophe.
JT also seemed willing to make a move. Back at camp, he and Malcolm speculated that it could be an opportunity to oust Sandra, with help from Mana’s numbers. Yet JT couldn’t execute his plan with confidence. As he articulated at Tribal, it would be a gamble: “I feel like people are expecting me to completely put myself at risk when it would be a shot in the dark for me to land in the right place.” Without knowing who Mana was targeting, JT couldn’t risk accidentally voting for the wrong person, particularly given a 5-5-1 vote would likely lead, under new rules, to a rock draw. Just as Hali had inferred moments earlier, they all needed more information.
So why did JT decide to stand up, walk over to Brad and tell him Nuku’s plan to vote out Sierra? He didn’t instruct Brad to vote for Sandra up front – he merely gave up information without getting any in return. Was he just hoping to maintain trust with his Old Nuku alliance by tipping Brad off, or was he trying to gauge if Nuku would go after Sandra without needing to get his hands dirty? I’ve already talked about how important it is not to play too aggressively and avoid being seen as a troublemaker after Ciera and Tony got voted out for playing too visibly. JT made the same mistake here – he went all-in when everybody else was holding back. Ultimately, it may have been this very action that backfired when Brad ultimately directed Tai to save Sierra with his Idol. Remember Episode 1? “Loose lips sink ships.”
JT is a gutsy player, but he let his impulses get the better of him, and he threw an unnecessary spanner in the works. By going rogue and whispering his tribe’s secrets to Brad, he unleashed hell. He opened the door for Hali to cross Tribal lines and explicitly campaign for Brad to go home. As the tribes huddled about trying to exchange information in hushed tones, it also gave Mana the opportunity to share the information JT had given them, and consider how to play Tai’s Idol as a counter-measure effectively.
Through all of the madness and “carrier pigeons going back and forth,” the result didn’t seem to change. Despite Hali’s plea to the New Nuku tribe, JT was unwilling to switch the vote to Brad, as he’d just told him he was safe. Meanwhile, it was inferred that Sierra and Tai managed to subdue Hali even as she warned she was “trying to change everything.” By the time Hali tried to stall the vote by not consenting to the end of the public forum, what more could be done? With so many uncertainties floating around in the dazzling confusion, the only reliable option was the original plan. It’s no surprise that the vote ended up being an even 6-5 split along Tribal lines. Even Hali and JT stuck with their current tribes in the hopes that their cross-Tribal allies would prevail.
The Mexican stand-off ended the same way it began: Mana versus Nuku. Sierra or Malcolm. By the numbers, Sierra should have seen her torch snuffed. But a perceptive and/or lucky idol play was all that was needed to turn the tide against Malcolm.
KIND OF A BIG “BY THE WAY”
The most disappointing part of this twist was that it would have ended up eliminating someone through no fault of their own. Even if an idol had not saved Sierra, she would have been voted out by people with whom she had never had the opportunity to build relationships. Malcolm and Sierra were only on the block because they were strong competitors on opposing tribes – something they could not have done anything to mitigate. Even in a merge situation, where two opposing alliances square off, there’s opportunity on the beach to facilitate a counter-attack. The dynamics of this twist did not permit such play – it ultimately came down to a betting game on who to target and a guessing game with who to protect with the idol.
“When these twists happen, it’s part of the game,” Malcolm observed, “but if it sent me home, I’d be cussing my way down the ramp.” I’m sure he wasn’t the only one throwing out expletives when the votes were read.
Losing Malcolm – a strong player and an entertaining character and narrator – so early in the season is a huge disappointment. He was playing a great game – he was an obvious target, but he’d managed to insulate himself with good connections. He could have rested on his luck by sticking with his 5-1 majority on New Nuku, but he was also willing to forge a new alliance with JT. Malcolm had done everything in his power to ensure his longevity in the game, but also managed to stay out of the limelight, sitting back to let players like JT or Sandra take the heat. The game he was playing could have gotten him much deeper into Game Changers. Sadly, a twist of fate meant that it was not to be.
CHALLENGE CORNER & TAVUA TIDBITS
The centrepiece Tribal Council understandably took up the better part of the episode, but let’s not forget the first 20 minutes of the episode, crammed full with two challenges and an unilluminating check-in on Tavua.
I don’t understand the production logic behind putting a reward challenge in the same cycle as such a monumental Tribal, but the Hero Reward Challenge was still an entertaining diversion. Nuku cemented themselves as the tribe to beat with a stellar performance from JT and Malcolm, but Mana’s come-from-behind victory thanks to Brad was impressive. #CoffeeIsForClosers, indeed.
On the flip side of the hashtag diss, Troyzan choked at the final leg of the Reward Challenge. It was the last thing he needed given he remained the outsider on his new tribe. Ozzy continued to show himself to be half-dolphin, catching a whole school of fish and a stingray to boot. Andrea also brought the Immunity Challenge home for the tribe. But Cirie, Sarah, and Zeke barely showed up in the episode, and the social dynamics of Tavua are a total mystery. Unfortunately, it seems as though we’ll have to wait until Tavua visits Tribal Council to know what’s really happening on the beach.
The Immunity Challenge itself was a nail-biter, helped in large part by the fact that the stakes were so high. Nuku continued to dominate through the majority of the challenge, though their narrow loss was gut-wrenching – particularly evident in Varner’s reaction, knowing that even after scoring his tribe the lead in the blindfolded portion, he still was responsible for holding his tribe back. The guy can’t catch a break at these challenges!
IF THAT’S HOW WE’RE PLAYING IT…
Only last week, I was praising Survivor’s inclusion of real and organic character and survival scenes. This week, the artifice of the game itself was the star of the show. So here’s hoping a good balance is struck in the future. Survivor is all about the castaways and their efforts to play this thrilling game. Next time, let’s hope they’re the ones controlling the outcome of the vote.
So what is the ongoing fallout of the drama of the two-tribe Tribal? Hali and JT remain on the outs of their tribes, and their vocal part in this episode’s chaotic conclusion will likely paint a bigger target on their backs. Losing Malcolm to the twist will probably hurt Nuku in the challenges, but strategically, it’s hard to pinpoint the long-term effect given his bizarre exit is more akin to a random medical evacuation than the result of a dynamic power shift.
I don’t expect Survivor to revisit the two-tribe Tribal twist again, at least not without some significant retooling (I will say that I do think the idea does have a kernel of potential, and I could see v2.0 improving upon the original). I am glad that Survivor continues to experiment with the formula and keep its players from getting too comfortable. However, I hope that future twists give players a chance to intelligently adapt to play with the twist, rather than suffer at the game’s mercy because the twist plays them.