If you’re somebody who likes a healthy dose of drama in their Survivor, then this week’s episode was sugar and spice and everything nice. After a couple of weeks of tribe shuffles and manipulative twists dominating the screen, it was refreshing to let the interpersonal dynamics rear their ugly head.
And boy, was it ugly! Between petulant outbursts, pot-stirrers, and petty behaviour, this episode stands out in a sea of strategy-focused stories. That’s not to say that this episode lacked intelligent strategic play, but the high drama was the dominant force. For some viewers, it might have been over-the-top; a sickly feeling after eating too many sweets. Yet it’s a reminder that in the end, the personalities of the players and their relationships with each other are what truly govern the outcome of this fantastic game.
TAKING CANDY FROM A BABY
This week, it’s not twists or numbers or big moves that drive the central conflict of Tribal Council. It’s something that we all take for granted in our daily life – something as small and insignificant as a spoon of sugar.
After his colossal snafu at the Two-Tribe Tribal, JT was in double trouble on Nuku (or Nuka as Aubry calls it). Thankfully, JT clarified his intentions at the last Tribal that got a little lost amongst the chaos as it was happening. He’d told Brad the plan to vote Sierra and told them to play an Idol if they could, in the hopes of sneakily orchestrating a vote against Sandra. It’s a secret he realised he’d need to take to his grave, but it makes the events of the subsequent days all the more shocking. After being so intent on targeting the two-time winner that he was willing to stick his own neck out, how is it that he ends up so blindly focused on a personal feud that he ends up voted out with an Idol in his pocket?
Sandra, that’s how. In a perfectly executed ploy, Sandra managed to distract JT from his impending demise by exploiting a growing personal rift between JT and Michaela. It was sly, it was opportunistic, and it was super-effective. Sandra is at her best when she’s working in the shadows and letting misinformation and other players’ assumptions lead to their own downfall. Whether it’s allowing Christa to take the fall for throwing out fish in Pearl Islands or playing into Russell’s paranoia to turn the tides against Coach in Heroes vs. Villains, she continually plants small seeds of dissension and then sits back to watch them grow.
Tonight, she adds another brilliantly efficient example to her playbook. After recognising how infuriated JT was by the fact that Michaela hogged the hard-earned sugar with her extravagant order of “seven drops of coffee and a spoon of sugar,” Sandra decided to finish off the sugar jar herself, knowing that JT would blame Michaela. Sure enough, it didn’t take him long to point the finger, and Michaela got her hackles up in response. It was a shameless move by the queen, and one she cheekily shared with fellow pot-stirrer Jeff Varner (who, if we recall, was the catalyst for the big “I will always wave my finger in your face” conflict back in Australia).
Between their coordinated efforts, they turned desperate “I need an Idol to survive” JT into confident “I’ve never been so excited to be at Tribal Council” JT. After the challenge, the Tocantins winner proposed the benefits of booting the childish Michaela: “A lot less babysittin’. A lot less bitterness. A lot less bad energy. A lot less crybaby. A lot less sugar-stealin’.” To this, Sandra burst out laughing and explicitly assured JT that she was on board and he was safe. Even at Tribal, she bluntly stated that “We’re going to keep our strongest player in the game, and with him, we’re going to win challenges.”
Sandra’s tell-it-like-it-is attitude is one of her strongest assets – she can speak her mind freely, and everybody just accepts it as what it is. Even knowing he could be the target, JT doesn’t appear to consider that Sandra is lying to him. When she played into his frustration with Michaela and built up his security, she not only managed to divert JT’s attention away from her but she also disabled his own defences, such that the Idol he finally uncovered this episode went unplayed.
JT’s arc in Game Changers was a wild ride. His demise might have seemed inevitable following his bad luck at the tribe swap and his risky plays like the raft abandonment and Two-Tribe Tribal whispering, but somehow, I still found myself surprised to see JT bite the bullet. Between finding an Idol, finding an ally in Aubry and finding himself with an adversary that he could logically throw under the bus, there were moments of promise throughout the episode. JT is a charming guy and a gutsy player. That combination has yielded results for him before, but his gut instincts have often led him awry. It’s shocking that he was duped so completely into believing he was safe.
The big strategic play of this episode wasn’t about numbers loopholes. It was all about feuds and friendships and manipulating them effortlessly. Several times this season, players have pointed to Sandra’s actions and said ‘this is how she’s won twice.’ But it’s not dictating moves or leading alliances that have resulted in Sandra’s victories; it’s her subtle opportunistic manipulations like the sugar-stealin’. Sandra’s most effective weapon is planting seeds of doubt and letting the other players do the rest of the work to destroy each other.
JUST A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR
But what of the other faction in the Great Sugar War of Season 34? Michaela Bradshaw almost seems like a living, breathing meme – the gif-able facial reactions, her voting catchphrase “Bye Felicia,” drinking at the reading of the votes like she’s Kermit sipping Lipton. Despite all of the artifice this caricature conjures up, I would argue that Michaela is perhaps one of the most genuine people on the beach. Michaela IS larger than life, and her attitude is authentic.
From the very start of the season, and even factoring in her Millennials vs. Gen-X debut, Michaela’s story has always revolved around her frank attitude, her confrontational streak, and her immaturity. Her disregard for her selfish sugar consumption fits right into that narrative. It may be that she was exaggerating her brash attitude when it came to Tribal as part of the strategy to distract JT from the missile headed this direction, but I don’t think it was all an act. There was real emotion when she repeatedly dismissed JT, particularly as he came at her guns blazing (“Some of us aren’t quite Game Changers. Some of us are just, uh, fillin’ space,” is pretty harsh burn from the rancher).
The difficulty with Michaela’s position in this game is that she is completely aware of the repercussions of her attitude. She knows she has no poker face. She knows that “the more I try to hold something in, the worse it gets.” Time after time, however, she doesn’t do anything about it. She’s freaking out over being the decoy vote at the first Tribal or cussing up a storm with her shade-slinging tonight. She’s causing her tribemates to view her as a “quality of life” problem – and even if she makes the merge, it’s rare that people with such overtly grating attitudes make it deep – even as a Finals goat. Michaela’s only lifeline is that she’s lucky she’s got two other pot-stirrers as allies in Sandra and Varner. The trio are a natural alliance for each other – all have their sass, and seem mostly comfortable with managing the sass of others. But is there such a thing as critical sass?
Varner is playing the game he promised to play before the season started. He talked about wanting to be the easy-going calming influence, a measured player willing to be somebody else’s number. Finding himself as the swing vote between Sandra & Michaela and JT & Aubry is proof of that. The most important thing for Jeff’s game is that he has bigger personalities distracting the other players. To borrow a phrase coined by RHAP last week, he needs both meat-shields and beet-shields: people that are legitimate threats to win as well as challenge liabilities or dysfunctional personalities that others will be ready to cut before an inoffensive Varner. It’s this exact dichotomy Varner faces this week, and it’s no wonder he’d “like to go both ways at the same time, please!”
His ultimate decision to vote out JT makes sense. Michaela has very few friends in high places – she will always be a beet-shield for Varner. JT, meanwhile, has his own alliances from his early Nuku days, and come a swap or a merge, he might not always be the biggest threat on the table nor have Varner’s long-term interests at heart. Besides, there’s always vengeance. Jeff seemed to be mouthing “For Malcolm” when he voted for JT, and during the episode, he was also wearing his buff on his forearm as a tribute to his fallen castaway. Revenge is sweet.
Nuku wasn’t the only locus of intense drama this week, as out of nowhere, Cyclone Debbie tore through the Mana camp. It was devastating and petty, and I’m sure many viewers felt just as uncomfortable as her unsuspecting tribemates.
Debbie has always been high on her own supply. She does have moments of clarity where she makes strategically sound decisions, but most of the time, she seems to be living on a separate plane of existence where tact and humility simply don’t exist and where her interpretation of the facts aren’t quite the truth.
It’s rare that the viewers are privy to pre-Challenge strategizing, so seeing Debbie confidently assert that she was good at balancing was a red flag right from the start. It was no surprise when she subsequently botched the balancing portion of the reward challenge, but what was so baffling is that she didn’t take any responsibility for her failings. Instead, she pinned it all on Brad – calling him a dictator. Given Debbie had volunteered herself for the role and Brad had merely agreed with her, her argument doesn’t logically follow.
It’s one thing to have a disagreement, but Debbie’s petulant response back at camp – and carrying through to the Immunity Challenge – was so painfully childish. And this is in an episode where another player is repeatedly called out for needing babysitting. Debbie stormed out of camp, she shouted at Hali, Sierra and Tai who are just trying to talk to her, and she refused to forgive or forget. Her tribemates were visibly shaken by the outbursts and didn’t know how to respond. It disconcerted Tai so much that he ran off to find an Idol clue to give himself some modicum of security! Initially, the tribe wonder if Debbie was putting on an act, and when she ultimately divulged the root of her frustration – feeling as though Brad was disrespecting her and “Princess Hali” was getting special treatment – it didn’t ring true for the tribe. Hali performed well in the challenge, and Brad was a solid leader.
There may be a kernel of truth in Debbie’s frustrations, as even Tai made a comment to Debbie that he witnessed Brad disrespecting her a little (or, “Not a little! None!” according to Debbie). Brad seems to attract this ire over and over again. In his first season, he was called out for being an overbearing leader, and it seems as though Debbie has the same perception. Brad can give off the wrong impression – his phrasing or a comment meant in jest frequently gets misinterpreted as arrogance or ignorance – but I think it’s rarely his intention. There’s very little evidence to suggest that Brad is, or has ever been, a cruel dictator. The rest of the Mana tribe doesn’t see that evidence either.
Debbie prides herself on her ability to stay calm: “I don’t explode in anger. […] I don’t get pissed. This is it. I’m venting. It’ll be over. I’ll make a strategic, calm decision.” But she does explode. She literally shouts to the confessional camera that she’s pissed. And even with her venting and stress-workouts, it isn’t over. She carries her bitter attitude into the next challenge, repeatedly boasting about her capabilities, deriding Hali’s performance and refusing to work as a member of the team. It wouldn’t be a good look for a toddler, much less for a grown adult.
There’s really no way to put any other spin on it: Debbie lost her cool, and it may very well lose her the game.
SWEET AS, BRO
Again, Tavua gets the short end of the story stick. Given the tribes will be shuffling again, it’s understandable that we never spent much time learning about the inner workings of the group that never went to Tribal. However, it’s disappointing that that’s cost us the opportunity to know more about the characters on the tribe.
At least we get a glimpse of Sarah’s gameplan this week. At the start of the season, she talked about needing to play like a criminal instead of a cop, and that approach is clearly still on her mind. Her decision to reach out to Troyzan was a good idea – particularly because he said nobody else had approached him. Sarah wasn’t content on just sitting in a tight five of the Old Nuku (and her position in that five wasn’t clear either). It made sense to take her fate into her own hands. On Tavua, Troyzan is a pawn simply because he’s outnumbered, and if Sarah scooped him up, that’s an advantage in her pocket.
The concern with Sarah’s plan is that she didn’t appear to have any other numbers lined up. She warned Troyzan not to talk to anyone else (a fair point, as it could doom them both), but she also didn’t suggest who they might be able to swing to their side. Instead, her plan hinged on finding an Idol. Troyzan already has the Idol, so it’d be a fruitless search. Even so, Sarah’s plan relied on a stroke of luck, rather than any effective alliances, which is a risky way to play.
Troyzan’s response to Sarah’s plan was also a little concerning. An ally was much needed, and Troy also made the right decision to keep the knowledge of his Idol private. Yet it concerns me that Troyzan seemed to consider that he might not need to play his Idol just yet. It’s hard to know whether that’s the right call or not given we’ve seen so little of the dynamics of Tavua, but it’s ominous when it’s said in an episode where another player in the minority went out with an Idol in their pocket.
TRICK OR TREAT?
After a week where organic interpersonal drama was the driving force of the episode, it looks like next week it’ll be back to a game-induced mix-up as the tribes drop their buffs. It’s hard to know who will benefit and who will suffer from the swap without knowing how the new tribes break down. Each current tribe seems to be quite splintered: it’s Aubry against the Sandra/Varner/Michaela trio (aka Critical Sass); Brad, Sierra, and Tai caught between Debbie and Hali, and a potential fracture in Tavua. It could go any way.
But no matter how it shakes out, it will ultimately come down to the social relationships these players have formed – the very relationships that fuelled this episode’s drama. Who has buttered up their fellow castaways, and who has salted the earth? Who will be caught by bitter luck, and who will get sweet relief?
Sugar, it’s all going down next week.