7:00pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Survivor: Game Changers' Brings an Exile Island Twist to "Vote Early, Vote Often"
[This article contains spoilers for the Wednesday, April 5, episode of CBS' Survivor: Game Changers.]
There was an aura of sad inevitability hanging over Wednesday's Survivor if you're like me and you've been marveling at the scheming and machinations that allowed Sandra "The Queen" Diaz-Twine to take out both of the other former winners left in the game.
Sandra's gameplay has been a thing of beauty, working both behind the scenes, but also right out there in front of everybody. As I've said before, this season probably presented two goals for Sandra: Winning another million bucks and/or getting everybody to publicly acknowledge that she's the best the game has ever seen.
Unfortunately, Wednesday's episode left only one of those things as a viable possibility.
The episode began with a tribal shuffle, giving us a new Mana (Troyzan, Cirie, Sierra, Hali, Aubry, Michaela, Culpepper) and a new Nuku (Tai, Zeke, Varner, Andrea, Sandra, Sarah, Ozzy) and the writing was immediately and regretfully on the wall. Sandra and Varner went from a cocky position of power in their dwindling old tribe to down 5-2 facing a group of players who were both cohesive and entirely aware and in agreement that Sandra needed to go.
From there, Sandra's efforts were at best desultory. She went through the motions. She told Ozzy, Sarah and Andrea that they were all strong and would all be threats if Aubry, Debbie and Tai went into a merge together. I don't know if that's true. Personally, I wouldn't put any confidence behind any of those people successfully unifying together, much less being able to run the game, but Sandra had to try.
Then at tribal, Sandra made a different play to try to bring out paranoia from Tai and lead everybody to distrust the already notorious flip-flopper. All things considered, I guess she did well enough to stir up some drama at tribal, getting Tai to broach the idea of voting Ozzy out and then getting everybody else to at least whisper that they'd be willing to vote Tai out, but in watching did you ever actually think that Sandra and the anti-Tai faction had gotten traction? If, somehow, those votes had gone against Tai, allowing Sandra to remain in the game, it would have been her Houdini-est escape yet. It never felt real to me. It felt like somebody has gotten a memo that tribal council whispering is good TV, but this was the first time that whispering has ever felt purely perfunctory, no matter how much Jeff Probst pretended to be shocked by what was unfolding before his eyes.
For all of Sandra's doubt-planting and all of the brief confusion generated by Tai suggesting a vote against Ozzy would have followed with the season's theme of targeting strong male players, the vote wasn't presented for maximum tension. We've all watched enough tribal council vote-readings that we know the script. If you want to keep us guessing and if something truly unexpected happened in this scenario, Probst reads the votes back-and-forth between Sandra and Tai and then the fifth vote is the one where we're supposed to be stunned that it's Tai. Instead, we got the two votes we knew were going against Tai first and then the Sandra votes poured out. The instant that second Tai vote was read, I knew Sandra was dead and I bet she did as well.
Sandra was gracious and Probst made a big show of announcing that, "For the first time in 94 days of Survivor, the tribe has spoken" and snuffing out her torch. The applause from her Nuku tribemates was an appropriate reflection of their admiration, admiration she never got in her first two seasons. This was a win for Sandra, except for in the more obvious way in which it was a loss for Sandra. We won't see another two-time winner this season or probably not anytime soon, but I bet someday we'll see another. Survivor isn't going anywhere.
Of course, we know what Nuku did not know, which is that blindsiding Tai in this situation would have inadvertently been the correct move in this circumstance on every level other than anti-Sandra pique. Sure, you don't want to let Sandra worm her way into people's heads and potentially get to a merge and all of that, but why would anybody want to play with Tai at this point? He's paranoid. He's unpredictable. He's proudly playing without sentimentality this time, so he's willing to do anything. Why would you want Tai in your alliance? Why would you want to let Tai get to those Tai-centric post-merge individual immunities?
Oh, and Tai has two idols, bringing his total to three found this season alone, a figure that should fill the Survivor producers with a genuine sense of embarrassment.
After finding the clue last week, Tai found his camp's idol at the top of tonight's episode. Then he was swapped over to a different camp and he thought, "What if the other camp has an idol buried in EXACTLY the same location?" Approaching this from the outside, my reaction is pure incredulity. This would have been a new hiding of the idol that J.T. effectively went home with last week, right? If you know a shuffle is coming, why would you place the idol in the same place in two camps? Or, to make things simpler, even if you don't know or care that there's a shuffle coming, why would you place idols in the same place in two camps? How lazy are you? So lazy!
So as it stands now, Tai has two idols. Troyzan has one idol. Sierra has that weird only-usable-in-two-circumstances advantage from the beginning of the season. And Debbie has a bonus vote.
I guess there were two approaches to a season with this theme: First, you could assume that by casting players who are "game changers" that the players bring the fireworks with them and you take the chance to do as pure a game as possible. Second, you cast players who are "game changers," but you don't trust their abilities to change the game on their own and you make sure that there are trinkets and gewgaws and talismans aplenty so that they can go nutty with the game changing. One is an act of faith. The other is an act of insecurity. Survivor went with insecurity, so we've had one vote determined by idol, one idol leave the game unused and there are five more game augmentations floating around. That's crazy.
It is, as I've said and others have said, basically Big Brother. How much screwiness can you inject into the game before the game falls apart? So far, it hasn't.
The Debbie/Exile Island twist may be approaching a bridge too far for me. We started with the shuffle and everybody got a new buff except for Debbie, who was told she was going to Exile Island and this was awesome (or awful) because Debbie and sanity were already becoming estranged last week and the idea of Debbie spending a few days in isolation was tantalizing (or awful) even if she maintained, "As a youth I went off on my own a lot, with a pony."
With a pony.
Instead, Debbie discovered that "Exile Island" was actually a shipwreck stocked with food and drink and equipped with hammocks and pillows. Rather than being a penalty, it was perhaps the biggest comfort reward the show has ever given. Then the show gilded that lily by bringing out John Cochran to give Debbie a consultation and a pep talk and perhaps to recount unused plots from his time writing on The Millers. And as if that wasn't enough, Debbie was offered the choice between an extra vote, a fake idol construction kit and a tribal challenge advantage. Debbie picked the extra vote and I can't think of anybody who would have picked one of the other two. The fake idol kit was just a chaos prize, with no guarantee that the chaos would accomplish anything. The tribal advantage was a social prize, with no guarantee it would make anybody like Debbie. She chose the one you had to choose.
My fear: Somebody different will get sent to Exile each of the next two weeks and they'll be given the choice of the remaining items and then we'll get a merge with seven idols, advantages or twists available to render the gameplay incoherent.
I'm not saying it won't make for great TV, but it may be the most adulterated — as in "least pure" — Survivor season yet.
Some Bottom Lines...
Bottom Line, Part I. It was a bit hilarious the way Probst was treating Debbie's return as a second way of penalizing the team that lost immunity. "Not only will you have to vote a player out, but you'll get Debbie." Debbie's interactions with Cochran, or maybe Cochran's interactions with Debbie, were also really funny, from the way she predictably rejected the premise of every observation he made to the long, stinky, crying hug she gave him. Cochran is one of my favorite Survivor winners ever, and having him here made sense because his obsession with the game and game strategy was the backbone of his narrative, but it's only one step from here to somebody ending up on Exile Island and being visited by Brandon Hanz as a punishment, and from there it's only one step to Jesse's repeated annoying visits to Big Brother. Tread softly, Survivor!
Bottom Line, Part II. Strength-wise, Nuku is in real trouble. They got crushed in this week's immunity and they're pretty obviously the weaker tribe and that's with Ozzy in town. Even with Debbie's impeccable sense of balance, I see no reason not to expect that they're in jeopardy for the foreseeable future. This was a bad tribe for Sandra and Varner to find themselves in because of the numbers and the weakness. Almost any other permutation would have given Sandra more negotiating room and any other ally would also have helped her because I think it's probably time to admit that Varner is funny and probably nice enough and all of that, but he's not a useful Survivor player. Probably it wouldn't have helped Sandra if her only ally had been Michaela, but Michaela wouldn't have been as easily snowed by Zeke as Varner was.
Bottom Line, Part III. The swap and all the time with Debbie in faux exile made this a week of invisible people. Life over at new Mana was Troyzan and Culpepper forming a penis alliance against Troyzan's flashback nightmare of a solid female majority. Eventually I expect we'll see how horribly Culpepper and Michaela get along, because there's no way those two are anything other than a toxic combination, but for this episode, all of the women in Mana might as well have been elsewhere.
Bottom Line, Part IV. I'm still pissed off about Tai finding another idol so easily.
Bottom Line, Part V. I'm still sad about losing Sandra. I've been thinking for a while and I can't come up with the better place once she and Varner found themselves in the position they were in. Do you try stirring up Tai's paranoia earlier by telling him that Varner was told that the votes were against Tai? Maybe that causes Tai to use the idol at tribal, but even if he freaks and flips, it's still a 4-3 vote. Could you somehow win his trust sufficiently that he tells you about one or both of his idols? If you're Sandra, can you then somehow convince Tai to give up a second idol to protect you? Is that a better use of your pre-tribal plotting than what Sandra tried with Ozzy, Sarah and Andrea? Probably? If you're sure you're gone, you might as well try to burn down the camp behind you and provoking Tai's fears were a better way of doing that. I don't think there was real upside to her Ozzy/Sarah/Andrea strategy. A more in-depth Tai strategy would have been a long shot, but I can imagine how it might work. Maybe. Or maybe not. Sandra was just hosed. But in her brief time in the game this season, she couldn't have done more for herself and her reputation. Farewell, Queen.
Catch y'all next week!