'Survivor: Game Changers' Crowns Its Winner Amid Many 'Survivor' Firsts

The surplus of idols and advantages leads to one chaotic tribal, and a revised final tribal jury pits two deserving castaways against each other.
Courtesy of CBS
'Survivor: Game Changers'
[Warning: This recap contains spoilers for the Wednesday, May 24, season finale of Survivor: Game Changers.]
 
OK, game changed!
 
Now can we change it back?
 
I kid. A little.
 
You know "miracle fruit," those berries that magically make sour foods taste sweet? Every major event in a Survivor season is like a miracle fruit, swaying the overall flavor of a season in dramatic ways. Last season, for example, was pretty sluggish until the midpoint, then it was a great season from the merge until the final vote, and then, because I thought Hannah deserved to win, the vote left me a bit mixed on the season at large. The season before that, Kaoh Rong, was an all-time great season for the first half and an OK season until final tribal, and I remain ticked off about Aubry losing.
 
 
Just one of the many reasons why I've loved Survivor as much as I have, over 34 seasons, is that in addition to how the game can constantly change flavor for me, the flavor for you might be completely different if you thought Adam deserved to win unanimously last season or that Michelle deserved to win two seasons ago or if the arc of any given season validates what you value in the game. 
 
So Survivor: Game Changers was pretty good for me for a long time and then it started becoming increasingly confusing, both in terms of in-game momentum and the editing, which relied excessively on misdirection that actually left viewers unable to understand several big votes. Then 90 percent of Wednesday's season finale was infuriating for me, with one frustrating vote after another seemingly leading to a result that I was prepared to be irritated by.
 
I had an angry recap gestating in my head, but then the results came in at the live show and …
 
The correct person was victorious. And a Survivor season ending up with the "right" winner, or a winner whose path to victory I could see and endorse goes a long way toward me making my peace with a season.
 
What's nifty is that if you think Brad Culpepper deserved to win, then you probably loved the first 90 percent of the episode and hated the result, and while you and I probably wouldn't be friends because we value a lot of very different things, we can all still tune back in to Survivor next year and go on the roller-coaster again. Twice!
 
Sarah deserved to win this season, for my money. (Also, apparently, for Survivor's money.) She didn't come into the season as a player who I thought really deserved the title of "game changer," and she didn't need to do anything until the merge. But after the merge, in one vote after another, she made the key choices, and her agenda was the one being pushed. She stuck with alliances when she wanted to. She split with her old alliances and formed new ones when she wanted to. When people saw what she was doing, she targeted them and sent them home. She stayed alert in the game and found an advantage that she used reasonably well. She cajoled Sierra before stabbing her in the back and got a second advantage that she also used at least well enough. It's her post-merge streak of being on the right side of the vote that really put her over the top for me. The game went the way she wanted it to and that's how you win Survivor.
 
 
Look, if you want to tell me that Brad deserved to win, I'm not going to say you're entirely wrong. Going into final tribal, with no sense of the jury's emotions, I was figuring Brad had the advantage, and I was willing to accept that he was a worthy winner, if not the worthiest winner. 
 
The biggest swing in the entire game was when J.T. told Brad that Sierra was the target, and then Brad told Tai to give Sierra his idol, which sent Malcolm home. Nothing that followed came close. The question, though, was whether you honestly give Brad credit for J.T. being consistently dumb at Survivor or for a Big Brother-style game switch that, frankly, was undignified Survivor that I hope it never repeats. So Brad's biggest move was one he couldn't have made if J.T. wasn't gullible and if Tai hadn't given him his idol and if Survivor hadn't gotten antsy to modify and change the game this season of all seasons. 
 
Then there's the issue of immunities. Winning five immunities is a huge achievement. Of course it is. But can we at least try to be honest about that? Brad won all of those immunities in the second half of the post-merge phase. He won them in a strange season in which the alpha players were targeted exclusively in the early-going. Does Brad win five immunities if Tony, Caleb, Malcolm and J.T. aren't voted out in the first five votes? Brad won zero individual immunities before Ozzy was eliminated post-merge, and at the time Andrea was sent packing, she'd won two individual immunities to his one. You can say, "Getting out strong players is good strategy," and Brad did get Caleb and Malcolm out, but he was a major beneficiary of the moves Sarah was making post-merge. To me, if Sarah had won one or two immunities herself, there would have been no question. She would have dominated the game strategically, controlled it socially and made a big mark physically. Unfortunately, she didn't, and that left things open for Brad to get some final jury votes.
 
 
But look at the votes he got. 
 
Debbie? Come on. I don't need to say anything more than that. One week Debbie was shrieking at Brad like a banshee and accusing him of being sexist and marginalizing her and other charges which, at the time, really didn't appear to be true, and then she's saying that a win for him would be a validation for the good guys? Away with you, Debbie. 
 
Ozzy? Sorry, folks. If Ozzy is saying that a Brad win would be a validation of the way Ozzy tried to play for four seasons, then that's the best argument I can make that Brad didn't deserve to win. Greatest physical and fishing force in Survivor history though he may be, Ozzy's misunderstanding of the game's social and strategic forces are the reason he has lost four times and would probably lose every time you put him out there. Boston Rob kept losing until Survivor rigged a season that he couldn't lose, and he dominated that season. You couldn't rig a season of Survivor in Ozzy's favor unless you let him spend 39 days alone on his own island, making periodic visits to deliver cheeseburgers to the other castaways before returning to his shanty.
 
Sierra? Whether Sierra voted for Brad because they were allies or because everybody called her the brains behind his operation or because Sarah blindsided her, I'm fine with Sierra's vote for Brad. No complaints. 
 
Brad could have won. He would have been deserving enough. He also would have been, for me, the least likable winner since … possibly Brian in Survivor: Thailand? There's no way to interpret what he was doing to Tai other than dehumanizing cruelty from a position of power and that, kids, is what we call bullying. Tai was a wishy-washy player in his season. Tai was easily swayed to turn on his best buddy when Brad asked him to. Tai willingly handed over his idol to Brad when he demanded it to save Sierra. And then Brad gets shocked and belligerent because Tai got swayed by somebody else and let him down? Come on, Brad. You knew you were dealing with a spineless scorpion. It's his nature. If Brad steered Tai for half the game and then Tai got swayed by somebody else, there can be only one reason for that and that's because Brad's Tai maintenance sucked. There's just no excusing Brad's treatment of Tai, and if Survivor is a social game, treating a weak and vulnerable player in that manner is a social flaw. A key social flaw. You don't treat people like that and get to be called one of the good guys, unless you see the world through Debbie's eyes.
 
But if Brad had gone to the end with Tai and Troyzan? He'd have probably gotten all the votes, and I would have agreed he was the right winner. And the only reason Brad voted Tai out at final four was as additional punishment. I don't think he took Sarah seriously, and if you didn't take Sarah seriously out there, what game were you a part of?
 
There's more stuff to address, but this is long enough already, so I'll bundle it into my series of bottom lines.
 
Bottom Line, I. Fewer idols and advantages next season, Survivor. That first tribal council was basically nonsense. Tai play one idol for himself and one idol for Aubry. Sarah played her advantage for herself and Troyzan played his idol for himself and Brad was immune. Jeff Probst was so excited at all of the different Survivor firsts, which is a little bit like congratulating a potty training child for covering the bathroom in poop, but at least not doing it in their pants. Like, "Yay. You made a mess of everything, but at least you made the BIGGEST mess." Under what circumstance is it a point of pride when Cirie goes home without receiving a single vote just because she was the only person eligible to go home? It just shouldn't have been able to happen. At no point should the number of advantages or idols make it so that somebody can go home without receiving votes. How is that even complicated math? One idol fewer? We're safe. Or change the restrictions on the two advantages? Safe. Since the math really isn't that complicated, I have to believe the producers wanted a result like this. Well, you got it. Once. Never again?
 
Bottom Line, II. I'm all for revising the final tribal process, and I think there were elements of the new tribal that weren't bad, but Jeff Probst offering arbitrary interpretations of "outwit," "outplay" and "outlast" brings out the worst side of Probst, because he loves misclassifying things. But by all means make final tribal into more of a conversation and less of the usual thing where one disgruntled juror after another stands up and yells at the finalists, and then we realize that the votes were predetermined and nobody listened anyway.
 
 
Bottom Line, III. There were great and revelatory moments at final tribal. Best of all was Sarah telling everybody about how she found her advantage, and Michaela realizing she was taken out by the advantage she was too surly to find was a reminder of the Michaela I loved in her first season. Michaela put the entire situation together perfectly and also understood what was smart about it even though it had worked against her. It was exactly the reaction that you want most jurors to have. The contrast would be Debbie praising Brad for his surplus of testosterone and using that to condone bad behavior. Actually, Michaela challenging Brad on his social game by asking him to tell her anything about her — he knew where she went to college and something resembling her job — was also tremendous. Unlike Ozzy, I swear you could bring Michaela back to Survivor a couple more times and eventually she'd get it right. Zeke was also great a final tribal. And yes, I'm saying that the people who advocated for the person I was rooting for were great. Conversely, the person I was rooting for at tribal perhaps won because she had such great advocates.
 
Bottom Line, IV. I chose to write my recap instead of watching the reunion show, but the theme for next season already makes me wary. More false classifications! But we've learned enough times that even badly categorized Survivor seasons can get good after you ditch the themes.
 
Bottom Line, V. Lots of very ambitious challenge courses tonight that all yielded the same result, with Brad winning. Credit to him, again, for that.
 
Bottom Line, VI. Troyzan. Man. I'd say, "What a waste of a final three slot," but he recognized very early on that nobody wanted to talk to him and that he wasn't getting any votes, and he seemed grateful to have made it that far. And if Troyzan getting to live out his Survivor dream is the price we have to pay to see Cirie voted out without receiving any votes than it's worth it! Wait. Vice versa? Wait. Neither. Oh well. Troyzan didn't do anything really objectionable this season other than pretending he deserved to win, but since nobody agreed with him, we're all good.
 
See y'all next season!
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