'Survivor: Game Changers' Starts Strong With "The Stakes Have Been Raised"

The 34th 'Survivor' season kicks off with Tony and J.T. beginning their quest to become multiseason winners and Sandra trying to remain the queen.
Courtesy of CBS
'Survivor: Game Changers'
[This article contains spoilers for the Wednesday, March 8, episode of Survivor: Game Changers.]
 
I don't think that Survivor superfans have dismissed Sandra Diaz-Twine, at least since she became the only two-time winner in the show's history back in the Heroes vs. Villains season. Among casual viewers, though, I've always sensed a reticence to embrace Sandra, perhaps stemming from how haphazard her initial "Anybody but me" strategy felt in her first win. 
 
Leaving aside that her game was much more aggressive and compellingly manipulative when she won for the second time, there's been a tendency to undervalue Sandra's rope-a-dope style when crafting the game's pantheon, which by rights should feature Sandra all on her own, followed by everybody else. (And I say that as somebody who, going with his own passions, would rename the entire game Boston Rob's Survivor.)
 
My initial reaction to Sandra returning for her third season as part of Survivor: Game Changers was hesitation. What, I wondered, could she possibly gain? Nobody would give her the million bucks again, and her perfect two-for-two legacy would be spoiled by any defeat, even at final tribal. 
 
 
Watching Wednesday's premiere of the venerable reality franchise's 34th season, the show's 500th episode, I think I got my answer for what Sandra could gain, a win that could in some circles (not mine, but some) be seen as better than another million bucks. Sandra came out of nowhere to win the first time. She then won an all-star season in which she was, again, among the least respected participants. Sandra's never been in a Survivor situation in which everybody walked around valuing and respecting Sandra as much as Sandra, she of near-infinite confidence, has always valued and respected Sandra. 
 
Sure, Sandra could probably use another million bucks. Who among us could not? But even if she goes out next week, Sandra gets the satisfaction of weathering an episode in which an impressive percentage of the conversation, especially in the second of the two hours, was about how awesome Sandra Diaz-Twine is at Survivor. The Rodney Dangerfield of Survivor no longer, Sandra got to spend two hours calling herself the Queen of Survivor — and then she got to flawlessly execute the eviction of another well-regarded, blustery former winner in a vote that she conducted completely in plain sight. If you thought of Sandra as being a viper prone to expertly stabbing people in the back, her coordination of the vote against Tony was done in plain sight, so blatant and in-control that she could practically have been sitting on his chest, knife in the air yelling, "I'm stabbing you in the front." And then Tony, probably the only person in the game who could compete with Sandra when it comes to healthy ego, walked off announcing to everybody what Sandra had done as she smirked and called herself the queen some more. 
 
Sandra could go home next week, and I think her position on the game's Mount Rushmore would only be enhanced, though I'm sure she'd rather wait until after J.T. is voted out, guaranteeing this latest all-star season would crown the show's 32nd one-time winner, rather than a second two-time champ.
 
Wednesday's premiere represented a strong start to the new season, delivering one completely intuitive torch-snuffing and Sandra's smooth decapitation of her chief rival.
 
Both immunities went against the Mana tribe, featuring Hali, Caleb, Troyzan, Sandra, Aubry, Tony, Michaela, Varner, Ciera and Malcolm, but neither was the kind of rout that spoke to a toxic camp or general dysfunction, so the easy way to approach the votes would be to weed out weakness and take out Ciera and probably Sandra. 
 
 
The first vote went easily against Ciera, even if the editing tried to make it look like Michaela, never able to cover up her disappointment and annoyance, might shift the target onto herself. Ciera blew a puzzle challenge that she'd participated in before and, of the weaker contestants, she was the one who was most eager to start strategizing, which nobody was ready for yet. In a game like this, you want to take out weakness and you want to take out unpredictable wild cards. Also, Ciera is not a physical threat, and although she's best remembered for the audacity of voting out her mother, I mostly think of her as somebody prone to constantly being eager to upset the apple cart without necessarily knowing which way the apples might slide. That's not bad TV, but it's not good Survivor. Why wouldn't you vote her out first? 
 
But why wouldn't you vote Sandra out second? She's bad at challenges. She keeps calling herself the queen. She announced in the first tribal that her strategy was, "Take me to the end and you'll beat me," but nobody really believes that, or if they actually believe that then Sandra's about to win again. And Tony, Malcolm and Caleb probably had the numbers to take Sandra out, especially with Michaela's ultracompetitive streak pushing her to want a stronger tribe. Instead, Tony's exhausting gameplay was painted as the greater of two evils, and even knowing that they were weakening their tribe and following Sandra's lead, everybody went with the plan, including Caleb and Malcolm. Tony came out for his second season basically trolling everybody, running around talking about his desire to find idols, digging a secret bunker and aggressively confronting people for no good reason. I don't know what alternative he had, but this strategy wasn't effective. 
 
If we're talking horses, Sandra's always been a closer or a stalker. She's never been a frontrunner, and in an episode in which nearly everybody seemed bent on confirming the things we thought we already knew about them, no matter how hard they protested otherwise, Sandra was the one who did something unexpected. Instead of "Anybody but me," tonight she was all, "Come at me." I don't think she can possibly win playing like this, but every episode she continues like this burnishes her reputation.
 
With a two-hour premiere of an all-star season, I could probably do 50 of my normal Bottom Line observations, but I'll try to stick to fewer than that.
 
Some bottom lines ...
 
Bottom Line, Part I. Putting Tony and Sandra on the same tribe in the beginning was a masterstroke, whether it was done by luck or unspoken intent. I loved how they immediately gravitated toward each other, came to the probably correct conclusion that the only way a winner could win again would be if the finale were all winners and then immediately both began to work against their own self-interest. There was no way they could coexist, but watching them try was funny. It was also interesting that while Tony seemed to establish quick bonds with Aubry, Caleb and Malcolm, Sandra was floating much more on her own and still made her anti-Tony case more persuasively. Sandra is really good at this game, and tonight's editing was all about making sure that we knew it.
 
Bottom Line, Part II. The big inherent drama on the other side, again either by luck or by unspoken intent, was putting Cirie and Ozzy on the same tribe. Even though their grudge was eight years old and Ozzy's blindside wasn't at Cirie's instigation, there's still pain there, I guess. It happens that I'm not the biggest fan of either Ozzy or Cirie. His failings as a social and strategic player have always irked me, especially because it took him nearly three seasons of playing to realize he had those flaws. And when it comes to Cirie, I guess I've always been impressed with how much she'd gotten out of how little, but players have won seasons with far less and haven't been presented with her aura. For this episode, it was silly to watch Cirie go person to person to person trying to build relationships and having one person after another say, "I love Cirie, but … no." This is what happens when you've played as many times as Cirie has. And as for Ozzy, it's interesting how the mythologizing around his physical play has now become roughly as powerful as his actual physical play. 
 
 
Bottom Line, Part III. Ciera and Sierra were two different people, but I was always going to confuse their names in my notes, so I'm glad that has gotten cleared up. My next question? Who the heck was Sierra Dawn-Thomas? I had to go and look up my exit interview with her from her season, and even after reading up on how she came to finish fifth in World's Apart, I don't remember much that she did — and I definitely don't know how anybody came to think of her as a game-changer. This, of course, means that she's going to go a long way this season, especially after landing a revised game advantage in the opening scurry for supplies. Everybody thinks they know everything about everybody out there, which is where a lot of the conflict comes from in all-stars seasons, but you can't expect me to believe that anybody knows anything about Sierra or is even completely aware that she competed on Survivor previously. She's like Kelley Wentworth, only I completely remembered Kelley Wentworth's first time playing. I bet Sierra makes it to the jury and beyond this season.
 
Bottom Line, Part IV. The "game-changer" designation has been loosely applied in several cases here. Caleb didn't change any games, but the Survivor producers nearly killed him, so they owed him one. With Jeff Varner, are we blaming how useless he was in his second stint on the long layoff and pretending the potential from his first time is going to return? Hali changed no games. Brad Culpepper changed no games. Andrea, whom I've always liked a lot, made the jury twice without really changing any games. Debbie's just wacky. I remember Sarah completely, but mostly because she was really sure of herself and then got blindsided. Etc. There are enough players that I accept really were innovators or at least iconoclasts, by Survivor standards, that I wonder if the game is going to polarize as Actual Competitive Players against Third Tier All-Stars.
 
Bottom Line, Part V. It looks like it's going to be another season without monkeys, which saddens me. Instead, we're getting symbolically appropriate nature, including circling sharks and lots of cute little goats jumping along hillsides. The goats should be fun, provided somebody attempts to catch one in Tai's proximity. "To kill a goat, we'd have to kill Tai," Brad said astutely. Maybe Brad will turn out not to be obnoxious when he isn't constantly defending his wife's honor? That would be a surprise. 
 
Bottom Line, Part VI. I think Michaela is going to be ready to play Survivor by her third time. In her first season, she was smart and a physical beast, but she had no filter and it got her in trouble, as much as I loved her candor. So this time, she came in aware that she needed to do a better job of making sure that people couldn't read her every emotion, but then she promptly threw a hissy fit when she was thrown out as a pawn to keep Ciera from suspecting that votes were going against her. Maybe next time she plays she'll actually be able to make that "no reaction" face she showed us she was planning to make? Or not. I still like you, Michaela! 
 
Bottom Line, Part VII. I don't love everybody this season and I don't agree with the principle under which they were all brought back, but it's a good group of talking-head contestants. I'd say that only Andrea was really an entirely forgotten woman in this episode. And, as always, two-hour premieres are great and necessary for Survivor, even if we already know everybody. Everybody other than Sierra. Who the heck is Sierra?
 
Bottom Line, Part VIII. I'm OK with Survivor looking to steer players away from the predictable "Split votes for no reason because somebody might have an idol even though they probably don't" approach to tribal, one that blows up more often than it works. I'll be interested to see how this new twist of eliminating the revote impacts things. Now, splitting the vote brings an even greater risk of going to rocks, and while going to rocks is really entertaining if it happens every few seasons, I'm willing to bet that if it happens two or three times in a season, it'll get people ticked off.
 
Bottom Line, Part IX. I want the title of the season to be "Game-Changers" or "Gamechangers," but CBS seems to be insisting on two words.
 
I could go on forever, probably. But that's enough for my first recap of what looks to be another fine season.
 
And be sure to check Live Feed for exit interviews and regular Survivor coverage courtesy of the awesome Josh Wigler this season!
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