7:00pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Survivor: Game Changers' Tests Alliance Strength in 'A Line Drawn in Concrete'
[This recap contains spoilers for the Wednesday, April 26, episode of Survivor: Game Changers.]
In Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon's song, "That's Life," Frank Sinatra (and a bunch of people less memorably) sings, "I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king."
Perhaps the only person capable of competing, professional diversity-wise, is Survivor contestant Debbie, who has spent her two times as a castaway going through a professional and amateur resumé that includes gymnastics, modeling and various capacities in aviation. At times in her Survivor career Debbie has effectively played from behind, utilizing her skills as a pauper to help execute an ostensible ruler, as she did last week in orchestrating a blindside of veteran one-dimensional Survivor favorite Ozzy.
One thing Debbie has yet to master is playing well from a position of royalty, almost as if she skipped the "That's Life" verse that goes, "You're riding high in April/ Shot down in May."
For most of Wednesday's hour, the members of the six-person power alliance that emerged last week gloated about how unstoppable they were. This was peculiar, since before last week the six-person alliance didn't really exist in concrete form. How could you possibly have an alliance gestated in one week that you're so confident in that you're willing to give the cameras non-stop hubris fodder?
I'm talking Debbie's, "We have completely control of this game. There is not a line drawn in the sand. There is a land drawn in concrete."
I'm talking Sierra's, "As of now, I feel like I'm in the driver's seat and it feels great."
So basically, Wednesday's Survivor was going to go one of two ways:
Way one, the six-person majority was going to stay strong and Andrea would be going home. I was thinking it was strange that Andrea has been such a consistent target in recent weeks, but when you look at this season's voting order and the number of physically and strategically strong players who have been dispatched, she really may be one of the most threatening players around. She's great at the things Survivor tests in individual immunities, she's a reasonably smart player and she's a reasonably sturdy social player. Once you take the Ozzys and the Sandras and the Malcolms out of the game, I get turning your attention to Andrea. But if Andrea was being targeted from before the opening credits, either it was going to be a really going episode or …
The second way things could go was the traditional Survivor hubris narrative, in which any group of people with a modicum of power pays insufficient heed to the person at the bottom of their totem pole and, in taking that person for granted, loses track of what their majority is or isn't.
If you're that group of six, and the game is at 11, how do you possibly think you're untouchable? I absolutely refuse to go back and check the records from 34 seasons of Survivor, but what is the track record for alliances with a one-person majority fragmenting at this stage in the game and getting blindsided? I'm guessing flips occur more often than groups stick together. Or at least equally often.
Here, it becomes an issue of editing. To us, Sarah was the bottom person in that alliance and, as such, she had to be considered more a swing vote than a solid sixth. But is there a view of things from inside in which Sarah's dangling might not have felt so obvious? Yes, Sierra was telling Sarah she wanted to take her to the final three, but were other players also viewing Sarah as a middle-of-the-pack number? And if so, who did they think was the bottom player? Did they think it was Tai or Troyzan for some reason? Somebody's always at the bottom. If you believe you have an alliance in which nobody's at the bottom, well, you're as loopy as Debbie.
From our perspective, there was no doubt that Sarah was wedged between two alliances and given the editing, there was equally no doubt that she was being fluffed for an episode in which she made the big and heroic move, rather than the complacent "following" move. Even if the episode didn't really tell us who the minority group's protest vote would be, we were prepared for that person to probably go home.
So after being dominant and smart last week, focusing on Ozzy and stirring the insurrection to take out the tree-clinging legend, Debbie lost focus and spent an hour talking about how she was unstoppable, would never get her comeuppance and spent more time on airplanes than anybody else.
"Is perception reality? Well, it is. We have a six that has a very accurate perception of themselves," Debbie said of her alliance. Well, five out of six turns out to be a bad percentage in these cases. Debbie was blindsided, and I think you could tell it was coming when Michaela took out her handful of coconut and started noshing as the votes were read, just like when she brought her sipping cup to enjoy an earlier tribal council shocker.
I can now entertain the "Why Debbie?" question. If everybody agrees that Sierra and Brad are running the show, why pick on a player who is less of a threat on every level? It might be satisfying to vote Debbie out, but voting Sierra or Brad would have been the correct way to decimate the pre-existing alliance and force things to start from scratch next week. Debbie's just noisy. There's a reason the expression is "Cut the head off of the snake," not "Cut the rattle off of the snake." There's also a reason why people keep saying they want to vote Michaela out but keep not doing it, and that's because however annoying Michaela may be, voting her out improves quality of life, not quality of game. But for now, I'll just be satisfied to see Debbie go out in this manner. I don't like or dislike Debbie enough to root for her just to be eliminated on principle, but I enjoy a good deflated ego.
Oh and there's no excuse to quote twice from a song in a recap like this. One quote is random. Two quotes is half-baked. Three is structure.
Once you get past the six-pack hubris, the episode's other theme was evoked by Sinatra crooning, "I thought of quitting, baby/ But my heart just ain't gonna buy it."
Somehow this episode's tribal council began by celebrating Cirie and her stick-to-it-iveness for getting back on the floating balance beam and completing a reward challenge. Don't get me wrong. Please don't get me wrong. I got as teary-eyed as anybody when Sarah swam out to coach Cirie through the end of the challenge and then when Jeff Probst announced that even if her team lost that challenge, they could stay out on the water until Cirie finished if there was a point she wanted to make for herself and for her kids. But did it not feel odd to anybody else that we were dedicating five-plus minutes and using hyperbole like calling this one of the most dramatic moments in Survivor history when what really happened was Cirie struggled at the tail end of a challenge that her team had already lost? Nobody was making Tai's struggles heroic and he initially put his team behind, and nobody was making Zeke's struggles heroic when he got lapped. It was easy to celebrate Cirie because her performance in that reward was irrelevant.
Stop and imagine this scenario: Cirie's team is dominating and she just needs to coast through her leg and they'll win. Instead, Cirie can't get on the float. She just can't. One person after another passes her and it becomes a nightmare. Her team clearly loses because of Cirie. Does Probst still make it into a teachable moment? Or do we all just kinda pretend like it didn't happen and slink away?
To me, this felt like a good moment that Probst was determined to make great by any means necessary.
"We will stay here with you if you want to try to conquer this," Probst told Cirie at the end of the challenge, but by tribal council it had become Cirie who refused to leave until she was done.
And as it was happening Probst crowed, "That is what happens when you believe in yourself. Anything is possible!" which was both a wild overstatement and completely negated what was the most powerful part of what happened, specifically when Sarah and then everybody else joined Cirie and cheered her on. The lesson I was taking was that you can do anything when you have the support of your friends or something like that, but Probst had a narrative and he wanted to push it.
If Cirie wins this season, we'll be able to point to this episode as the edit that told us it was going to happen. On its own, it was emotional and a bit inspirational. As it was presented, maybe it was a little over-the-top?
Yeah, I know. You hate me now. I'm the worst. But that was not one of the most powerful moments in Survivor history.
Let's get to some Bottom Lines ...
Bottom Line, Part I. Sarah had better be careful, because she won't be able to get a better edit than she had this episode. She started off consoling Zeke and suggesting a strong push they could make together. She was very good on that reward challenge at which the rest of her team struggled. She proved her generosity of spirit by immediately diving back into the water and helping Cirie. Then she found the secret "Take one vote away" advantage that Michaela pouted through. Then she was the pivotal vote in the Debbie blindside. Just as this episode might point to an eventual Cirie win, it could do the same for Sarah, who is another player from that type that often wins or comes close to winning in all-star seasons. She came out under the radar, probably because she didn't deserve to be part of this season at all. She pretty much admitted in tonight's episode that she's determined to make a big move because she didn't make a big move the first time she played. In that respect, she's a lot like Sierra.
Bottom Line, Part II. Let's go back to Michaela's pouting. She's right that it was ridiculous to leave her unpicked in this kind of schoolyard pick situation. There's no way she's the woman or the person you want least in a physical competition. For her to go out to the flotilla swearing at everybody and to be so absorbed by her temper tantrum that she missed that the producers made a move to compensate the person who wasn't picked was pretty much vintage Michaela. During the challenge, she did root loudly for her friends and got visibly choked up watching Cirie. But missing that advantage scroll was bad. She's had a rough go of it this season, and I've found it hard to love her as much as I did in her first season. It's not too late!
Bottom Line, Part III. Let's go back to counting all the advantages currently out there. Debbie might have played her bonus vote last week, but Tai has two idols, Troyzan has one idol, Sierra has her advantage, and Sarah has her advantage. I don't think any of them can be used after top five, which means things could be pretty advantage-heavy for the next few tribals. Sarah vowing to get proper use out of her vote subtraction advantage was possibly more hubris.
Bottom Line, Part IV. I feel like we missed an Andrea/Zeke reconciliation or at least detente, and if such a thing happened, the show probably owed us that moment. I hope that if it happened this week and they left it out to retain the surprise, we see some of that peace in the future. I like them both. I don't want them fighting.
Bottom Line, Part V. Plucky underdog is the role Aubry plays best, and she's slowly beginning to get more screentime. She's so far below the radar, but I don't remember when her serious gameplay kicked in back in her season. There's plenty of time for people to start compiling a resumé. Even Michaela could compile a resumé built around, "Everybody was sick of me from the first day out there and I'm still here."
And that's life ...