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[This contains spoilers for the Wednesday, March 22 episode of Survivor: Game Changers titled “The Tables Have Turned.”]
Geez oh man.
The ongoing theme of Survivor: Game Changers has been and will continue to be observing which beloved former players learned from their earlier experiences in the game. Who got better? Who got worse? Already, we’ve had Tai announce that he’ll be playing with his head rather than his heart. And Sandra, under the radar for much of her first two seasons, has come out bossing everybody around and telling anybody who will listen that she’s the queen.
You know who apparently didn’t learn anything? Poor, blundering J.T.
Back in Heroes vs. Villains, if you’ll recall, J.T. became convinced that he could trust Russell and put all of his confidence in a guy he didn’t know and who, if memory serves, had been in a season that nobody had even seen at the time. Sandra, categorized as a villain in the game, tried to go against her best tribe’s interests and warned Rupert that Russell was grouped as a villain for a reason. Nobody listened to Sandra. J.T. got played. In that case, the all-time classic tribal council in which Parvati played a pair of idols on her friends, J.T. was sent packing.
History partially repeated itself on Wednesday’s Survivor: Game Changers in which an unprecedented Survivor twist yielded better returns than Jeff Probst and company ever could have hoped for.
The twist was that the three tribes went to the immunity challenge and Probst began by saying there was only one immunity idol up for grabs and each losing tribe would go to tribal council. As the challenge ended, he revealed that both tribes were going to the same tribal council together, but they were collectively voting out only one person.
Mana and Nuku lost the immunity and the obvious expectation was that Nuku had an advantage with six players (J.T., Sandra, Aubry, Varner, Michaela, Malcolm) to the five for Mana (Hali, Tai, Culpepper, Debbie, Sierra). In theory, that just meant that Nuku had to decide who to vote for, but also that J.T. and Hali, alone in a numbers minority in their respective tribes, had to stick with the program and not get wishy-washy. Well, J.T. is often wishy-washy, and I don’t pretend to know who Hali is well enough to call her unflappable in her resolve.
Tribal council started off normal. Sandra, who had proposed voting out Sierra, was needlessly cocky. J.T. and Hali were pointed out as swing votes. Brad, bringing back the bossy and condescending guy we saw in his first season, basically told Hali that if she split with them, she’d be a pariah back at camp, so Hali responded by saying this wasn’t the time to vote out anyone other than the biggest threat. Sandra interpreted this, correctly, as Hali telling the other tribe that she’d split off and vote against Brad. Then everything went crazy, with people walking back and forth. J.T. told Brad the target was Sierra. Hali walked over and said she’d go with them on Brad. Back and forth the craziness went, with people yelling and whispering and telling each other to stick with the plan, culminating with J.T. telling Brad to vote Sandra, which was what he and Malcolm had been contemplating as a swap.
I don’t think I’ve watched and rewatched five minutes of television so frequently since the best picture screw-up at the Oscars. Once players started meandering over and having side conversations, it became almost exactly like that Oscar footage. Who’s talking to who? Who’s watching which conversations are going on? Who’s whispering to who and in what order?
As tribal seemed to be over, Probst asked them to vote and Hali protested that she hadn’t consented. Did we know that there had to be unanimous consent to end a tribal council? Has that ever come into play before? Is this something Hali knows because she’s an aspiring lawyer and she read the fine print of her contract this time? But Sandra, contemptuously, told her that it was OK and Hali told her she might regret it, but … oh well.
In all the back-and-forth communication, Hali never thought to spill the beans that Tai had an idol and Sandra probably wouldn’t have believed her anyway and when Sierra had suggested earlier that she was the target, everybody reassured her she wasn’t and that might have continued to be true if J.T. hadn’t walked over and told Brad that Sierra was the target.
Tai pulled out his idol. Brad pointed at Sierra, who got and played the idol. All of Nuku’s votes went against Sierra. And all of Mana’s votes went against Malcolm.
“J.T.’s not getting a Christmas card. Stupid kid couldn’t keep his mouth shut,” a tearful Malcolm said in his confessional.
As I said earlier, I thought Malcolm was due for a Tyson-style redemption in his third season, and even if he pretended that it’s “nice to go out in the most ridiculous tribal council in the history of tribal councils,” we only believe him part-way.
Since J.T. and Malcolm voted for Sierra and since J.T. looked absolutely crushed as the votes were read, it’s pretty clear that this was not the way he planned things, even if he absolutely betrayed his tribe.
So do we blame J.T. here? Yes, of course we do. Trusting, for no reason at all, a player on a rival tribe blew up in his face for a second time. How much restraint would he have had to show to just not do what he did? Indeed. Presumably, J.T. wanted to keep his options with Brad open and also, at that moment, wanted to allow for the possibility that he and Malcolm could flip their votes to Sandra, but mostly he didn’t even consider the possibility of an idol on the other side and even if he had considered it, Sandra wasn’t listening to reason. Sandra read Hali correctly the first time, urged her tribe to swap votes in a way that would have been beneficial if all hell hadn’t broken loose. This wasn’t the same as Sandra’s Rupert warning, though, because Sandra failed to even take into consideration the possibility of an idol on the other side.
But what would it have mattered if Nuku had known about Tai’s idol? They never would have anticipated Sierra having it or somebody giving it to Sierra without the knowledge that J.T. had told the other side exactly what the vote was. If they’d known J.T. outed their plan and they had also know that Tai had an idol that he’d give to Sierra, then theoretically they could have switched their vote to Brad, but if they’d just known there was an idol on the other side and they hadn’t known that J.T. blew up their spot, they probably would have guessed that the other tribe would guess that Brad would be the target and Brad would have gotten the idol. Does that make sense? To anybody?
So the votes were going against Sierra regardless, unless Malcolm and J.T. had decided to go against Sandra, but if they’d done that Malcolm still would have gone home and J.T. would have been ostracized for that.
At the end of the day, no matter how insufferable you find Sandra, J.T. screwed everything up and there was no reasonable way to avoid a situation in which Malcolm went home and J.T. looked stupid. At least this way, Hali voted with her tribe and maybe Brad won’t be a dick to her back at camp, but Brad was probably going to target “Blue Eyes” and be a dick to her back at camp anyway.
Or, put a different way, the Survivor-imposed twist of combining tribes for a single vote produced exactly the madness the producers hoped for, but if Tai hadn’t found an idol, the vote would have split by tribal lines and Sierra would have gone home, which would have made for a fun tribal, but at least one level less fun. That would have been the predictable unpredictable result.
Or, put another different way, if Tai knew to freak out ahead of tribal and immediately go searching for an idol, why on earth did we not see anybody from Nuku doing the same thing? Troyzan has the idol from the Tavua camp, but unless I’m misremembering, there’s still an idol over at Nuku, isn’t there? And if somebody had found that idol, would somebody have been smart enough to read the alternative meaning of Hali’s warning about voting out the strongest player and given that idol to Malcolm? As memorable and now immortal as this tribal council was, it could have gotten one layer of nuttiness more if Malcolm and Sierra had both had the votes against them negated, forcing a scrambling revote, which presumably would have gone against Brad and Sandra? Maybe?
[Update: A couple people have mentioned to me that Hali wasn’t there when Tai said he had the idol and I definitely wasn’t paying enough attention to notice that, I guess. There was so much hugging. Even if that’s the case, I still don’t know why somebody wouldn’t have told her. Yes, she was a wild card, but she was still part of their tribe. I get, though, that telling her would have been a way of showing/securing loyalty and Brad Culpepper showing loyalty to somebody in a position of weakness doesn’t sound like Brad. Not telling her as a test to see if Nuku had one extra, wasted vote in their favor after the idol was played sounds much more like Brad. So, for the record, Hali voted for Malcolm.]
Great tribal. Shocking result. Sad result. Who would have been unhappy if Sierra had gone home? Nobody. Instead, now Sierra has been part of something utterly memorable and thus must be considered at least partially memorable herself and that ruins my whole narrative surrounding Sierra, which means that Sierra might as well just go off and win this thing. And Malcolm has now had one good Survivor season and two really disappointing Survivor seasons, a performance that doesn’t match up with his high popularity.
Also, with Malcolm gone, who will Probst turn to to explain why situations are weird or shocking? Whatever we think of Malcolm as a Survivor player, when all is said and done, he was a tremendous deliverer of Survivor expositional.
This week’s Bottom Lines…
Bottom Line, Part I. It’ll be very interesting to see if and how J.T. tries to play off what happened at tribal. I guess theoretically he can pretend that he didn’t tip Brad and then it’ll be up to his tribe to decide if they want to believe him, but since J.T. was already alone on his tribe, why would anybody trust him? Sandra is not going to be happy with this and with her memory, I’m betting she’ll be talking a lot about Russell for a couple days, whether we see it or not. In recent weeks I’ve said that both J.T. and Malcolm were in good positions. Well, Malcolm’s not in a good position, now is he? Neither’s J.T. I can’t speculate on whether Brad will, down the road, show gratitude to J.T. for what he did, but how pathetic would it be if former winner J.T. has to slouch along deep into the game as a goat, as the sniveling Renfield to Brad’s Dracula? Blech.
Bottom Line, Part II. It was a mixed week for Brad. He dominated the heck out of that episode-opening reward challenge, coming from way behind to give his tribe at least a thermos of iced coffee. But then we also saw some of that cold-eyed dismissiveness that made him one of my least favorite players in his first season. I would have happily seen him go rather than Malcolm. Darn you, J.T.! No Christmas card from me, either!
Bottom Line, Part III. OK, fine. Let’s talk about that first reward challenge, where the semi-twist was that only two players from each team were going to participate and the real twist was that it was a Jeff Probst special in which each team selected only two men to participate. Sorry, producers, but if you create a task where everybody assumes women need not apply, you’ve done something wrong. But let’s not leave the players out of the blame. Sierra or Hali couldn’t have done the opening balance segment as well (not very well) as Tai did it? Why do I suspect Culpepper just announced, “OK, I’m doing the second part and Tai’s doing the first part and you ladies can cheer for me”? Regardless, that’s bad game design. I’m also going to blame all of the strategic antsiness on the part of Nuku on their big coffee win. It’s like whenever they give the players a prize that’s all sugar. I’m not sure the rush is worth the crash.
Bottom Line, Part IV. I really thought this episode was coming down to a hubris showdown between Sandra and Ozzy, who celebrated failing to win a reward by saying it meant his tribe would have to depend on him and on his fish deliveries more. “I feel really confident that I’ve been doing an awesome job being the rock of this tribe,” said Ozzy, whose dream Survivor season has always been being sent to Exile Island for 39 days and then coming back to a jury eager to give him a million bucks for holding his breath underwater the longest.
Bottom Line, Part V. Because of the episode construction, with a reward, an immunity and then an extra-long tribal, there were more than the normal number of players who vanished completely this episode. Zeke yelled, “Oh, balls!” during one challenge, which I’m assuming Probst insisted would make the final cut. Sarah was basically invisible. Given the drama of the tribal council, Michaela was much quieter than I might have expected. Aubry was invisible before the tribal council, though she had a couple good lines expressing her perplexity at what was transpiring.
Another good week of Survivor! See you next week…
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