7:00pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Survivor: Game Changer' Feuds Boil Over in 'Dirty Deed'
[This article contains spoilers for the Wednesday, March 29, episode of CBS' Survivor: Game Changers, titled "Dirty Deed."]
For at least the foreseeable future, the Greatest Player in Survivor History question is closed.
Sandra Diaz-Twine came into Survivor: Game Changers as the game's only two-time winner. This season also included, in Tony and J.T., a pair of winners who were reasonable well-regarded and could, had these 39 days in Fiji gone well, have joined Sandra in the exclusive club of Survivor multimillionaires.
We're only five hours and five eliminations into the Survivor: Game Changers season and Sandra has successfully and reasonably single-handedly gotten both Tony and J.T. voted out of the game. It no longer matters who wins this season — she'll remain unaccompanied at the pinnacle. Sandra could walk into the next tribal, shrug and drop her torch and walk away. How could Sandra have any remaining doubts after she, wearing the brightest of targets on her forehead, blindsided the other two winners left in the game. Unable to use secrecy as a weapon this season, she's been leading the parade, practically wearing a tiara and conducting a rendition of "God Save the Queen." At this point, Sandra is essentially doing what Boston Rob did when, after three previous failed attempts, he was put in a season designed so that he (or Russell) could win. Boston Rob strutted, preened and screwed around with people for no strategic reason. He did things that maybe made no sense as long-term gameplay, but the other castaways were so in his thrall that they let him and gladly gave him the money because they thought he deserved it. Nobody's going to be swayed by Sandra's charisma in the same way and nobody's going to vote for her at final tribal because she's due, and I still don't think she's going to win, but through five eliminations, she doesn't just have the season's strongest résumé, she has the season's only viable résumé.
Wednesday's episode found Sandra just goofing around. Nothing she did was even necessary. Last week, in a vote that made for great television but probably made for better Big Brother than Survivor, J.T. made a colossal goof and told Brad how the Nuku tribe was voting, allowing Brad to deploy an immunity idol to protect Sierra and send Malcolm home. Viewers should hate J.T. because Malcolm has always been one of the show's most entertaining players and J.T. cost us his presence for several extra weeks. More than that, though, Varner and Aubry and Michaela and Sandra should have hated J.T. because his gaffe produced a number swing that knocked them from six to five and left them without a strong player ahead of an episode of challenges that surely Malcolm would helped on. Yes, J.T. came back to camp and lied and said he only told Brad that the votes weren't against him, but J.T. is not a good liar. All Sandra had to do was tell Michaela and Varner that they were punishing J.T. for being an idiot and they would have gone along with him, because J.T. deserved to be punished. Heck, Aubry might even have gone along with that.
That would have been too easy.
Instead, Sandra fomented discord between J.T. and Michaela. This wasn't hard. Michaela rubs people the wrong way, even though I love her. We didn't see most of the build-up, did we? J.T. did a lot of talk about babysitting and Michaela's bad attitude, but all we saw as edited evidence was a reward challenge in which Michaela was wishy-washy about which part of the task she'd do, but then dominated in typical Michaela fashion. Then, as a joke, Michaela asked for seven drips of coffee and a scoop of sugar, which felt like a joke to me, but not to J.T. So Sandra saw the swelling animosity and stoked it by finishing off the sugar herself, knowing that J.T. would blame Michaela. The laughter and mockery of Michaela that Sandra helped stir up was mean, but it also lulled J.T. into thinking that everybody felt exactly like he felt about Michaela and that she'd be an easy vote. Any less complacency and J.T. remembers that he's the only member of his original tribe at Nuku and remembers that everybody distrusts him for accidentally stabbing Malcolm in the back and remembers that the reason he squealed to Brad was because the person he really wanted out of the game was Sandra and he brings his newly found hidden idol to tribal. Instead, Sandra made sure that J.T. was cocky.
That was easy. Allow me to suggest the harder part of what Sandra did tonight: She got Michaela to chill out and go with a plan. Michaela knew J.T. wanted her out. Michaela sat through an entire tribal council of people making jokes about her and calling her a baby. Michaela didn't freak. She didn't lash out. She played possum in a way that I never would have guessed she would be capable of and she did that because Sandra gave her the confidence that the vote was going the way she promised it would. Remember that Michaela nearly got herself sent home in the first vote of the season by refusing to willingly be a pawn. On tonight's episode, she was the pawniest of pawns.
In one series of events, Sandra made it so that J.T. had enough swagger not to play his idol and that Michaela had enough reassurance not to go all Michaela and tip J.T. off. That's impressive. I know that Sandra didn't know J.T. had an idol, but Varner suggested that possibility to her. Sandra was determined to take J.T. out immediately, so her only real play in this situation was setting J.T. up so that he never considered using that hypothetical idol.
We can debate if taking J.T. out was a good play. He is, after all, a strong physical player and Nuku has now become mighty, mighty weak, but you have to go into challenges at this point betting that a merge or consolidation is coming soon and you know J.T. is a rat, so he's at best a short-term asset and a long-term liability. Sandra taking J.T. out was a mixture of vengeance and winner-executing slickness, but it was OK game play in a bad situation, at least if you expect that J.T. and his hatred for Michaela were a J.T. problem, not a Nuku problem.
The J.T./Michaela feud was one of two feuds in this episode that are destined to be a Ryan Murphy-produced FX anthology series, but let's talk about the other one in my bottom lines...
Bottom Line, Part I. It takes a lot to get me to be Team Brad in a kerfuffle between Monica's husband and basically any female contestant, but Debbie's behavior in tonight's episode transitioned from silly and eccentric to disconnected and disturbing. Did the editors accentuate Hali's balance beam skills at the expense of Debbie's balance beam skills when cutting together the reward challenge in which Debbie practically demanded to do a balance beam leg? Perhaps. I don't know. The editors definitely had it out for Debbie in this episode, going so far as to replay Debbie's "I have a really good sense of balance" when she blamed Brad for being a dictator and not listening to her. That's Big Brother editing and not Survivor editing. Survivor normally trusts us to remember these things. I'm surprised that as Debbie claimed she rushed across the beam and Hali cost them peanut butter, the editors didn't show her falling dropping the ball over and over and over again. Debbie's yelling at Brad was close enough to scary and we saw several of her shouting fits — and that was before we saw her temper tantrum and passive-aggressive nastiness ("Well, I'm glad we didn't send the gymnast") during the immunity. So ... Team Brad, for a week.
Bottom Line, Part II. Can we briefly speculate on how much of what Debbie was doing was performative and intended to rattle Brad? Bits and pieces, like the shouting at Brad and shouting into the camera were either an act, or a sign of somebody who really shouldn't be out there. So actually, let's not speculate. At least Debbie isn't hurting anybody. For now, she's more Phillip Sheppard crazy than Brandon Hantz crazy.
Bottom Line, Part III. Sorry, but I have to go back to Sandra's awesomeness. She was mugging directly to the camera as J.T. fell into her sugar trap. It was hilarious. Then after J.T. was voted out, it was pretty much a desolation of smug, as she took credit for the sugar maneuver. Somehow, that still paled in comparison to Michaela bringing a white cup and water to tribal so that she could be basically reenacting the Kermit sipping ice tea meme as the votes were read, followed by a glorious hair-whip in her vanquished foe's direction as he left. I understand that if you hate Sandra and Michaela that all of this trash talk might have looked untoward. I do not. I loved it.
Bottom Line, Part IV. I mentioned this last week and so I need to return to it now. Survivor has started mixing with the formula on how idols are found and where they're hidden and what you have to do to get them, but the editors haven't fiddled with the format for depicting how a player who goes wandering in desperate need of an idol and pokes his hand in a few holes or under a few rocks will almost always find an idol. I can't imagine that even the most dedicated of J.T. fans could have found his idol discovery in this episode satisfying because it was so darned inevitable and drama-free. The same is true with Tai, who didn't find an idol, but found a clue that will eventually lead him to another idol. Perhaps the best misdirection and idol play in Survivor history came when Amanda used an idol that we knew she looked for, but that we didn't see her actually dig up. You can't do something like that often, but the Survivor editors have forgotten they can do it at all. I've watched Amanda play that idol dozens of times and it never stops being great and its greatness stems both from Amanda's reactions and the reactions of all around her, but also from how it was revealed in the episode.
Bottom Line, Part V. It bothers me that the editing has now begun to accentuate that Sierra is a challenge beast, even if she has no personality or social or strategic game. It all feels like it's intended so that when we get to the end of the season we'll have to remember this information as she prepares a jury case. Oh and she has that advantage thing that comes with restrictions I've already forgotten. Andrea is getting a comparable edit. I need Aubry to get things back in gear, because she's really disappointing me. And I have no interest in a Sarah-Troyzan partnership, but I'm impressed with how well Tavua has come together.
Bottom Line, Part VI. If you're Ozzy, are you giddy or terrified by how these early votes have gone? Tony, Caleb, Malcolm and now J.T. have gone out in four straight votes. Those are post-merge votes, not pre-merge votes. Nobody's paying any attention to the conventional "Keep your tribe strong, don't vote out the workhorses" wisdom. Suddenly, when it comes to young alphas, Ozzy stands alone. He and Zeke are the only remaining guys under 47, which is not the way Survivor usually goes. Eventually we're bound to merge. Ozzy had to believe that he'd have a few guys he could hide behind or throw under the bus, but he also had to believe that he'd have more remaining competition for the sort of individual challenges he's always thrived at.
Catch you next week, as we continue to wait for Sandra's inevitable tragic flameout.