Survivor: Game Changers Recap
The Tables Have Turned
By David Mumpower and Kim Hollis
March 27, 2017

The game just got 85% less interesting.

Previously on Survivor, Tai once again gave Caleb the kiss of death. The two allies from Survivor: Kaôh Rong briefly reunited after a tribe shakeup last week. They bonded as old friends, one of whom is in love with the other. Then, their tribe lost an immunity challenge, and everyone turned on Caleb so emphatically that even Tai voted against him. Fittingly, this episode aired on March 15th, aka the Ides of March. So, it’s not the first friendly backstabbing to occur on the date.

Back at camp on night nine, Tai is feeling like a traitor due to his recent treachery. Sierra reassures him that he did exactly the right thing. What she doesn’t need to add is “for my game, not yours.” Tai tells the camera that he’s playing with his head rather than his heart this game. All evidence to the contrary, bud. You just betrayed the person most likely to remain loyal to you until the end.

The following morning is day 10 at Mana camp. Hali is feeling relieved that she somehow survived after a night with her head on the chopping block. She takes a run at Debbie, offering to build a voting block based on the elimination of Tai at the next Tribal Council. Debbie emphatically agrees then has a(nother) weird monologue where she points out that this is her second appearance on Survivor, not her first. Yes, Debbie, that’s the core concept of a season featuring returning players. Notice that we specifically didn’t say an All-Star season because, well, you’re there. Anyway, Debbie claims that she’s only telling Hali what the Knoxville native wants to hear. What novel Survivor gameplay.

Hali is in a lot of trouble right now, though. The other four members of her tribe are former Nuku allies, and they remain loyal, at least thus far. Caleb and Hali were outnumbered due to Survivor producers meddling, and Caleb never had a chance. If Mana loses again today, the same is likely true of Hali, although the way the episode spells this out is a strong hint that something else will unfold.

Debbie tells the camera that Hali has no options. Just last week, Zeke said the same thing of Troyzan, who immediately hunted for and found a hidden immunity idol. Survivor players really need to research what “no chance” means. Unjustified arrogance is the show’s most frequently recurring mistake.

In a bad sign about the quality of tonight’s episode, we skip straight to a reward challenge at the two-minute mark. It does have a novel premise, though. Only two players from each tribe will compete to win the reward. For the first place finisher, that’s iced tea, iced coffee, coffee beans, and sugar plus chocolate cookies. Second place wins iced coffee. Since we’re not coffee drinkers, we already see everyone as losers this week.

There are two jobs in this challenge. One player carries a ball, while the other throws sandbags. It quickly becomes an alpha male battle. JT and Malcolm play for Nuku, Ozzy and Troyzan carry the load for Tavua, and Mana seems screwed. With Caleb gone, their best options are Tai and Brad. Call us crazy if you disagree, but we think Brad and Caleb would look better on paper.

The first half of the challenge requires a delicate balance as a player carries a ball precariously sitting on a tall stick. As they keep it from falling, they must navigate an obstacle course. Each completed leg means that another piece gets added to the stick, making its balance that much trickier. After watching it in action for a moment, we wonder why more women didn’t participate.

Ozzy finishes first, of course. Whatever steroids he took prior to the season are really paying dividends. As expected, JT reaches his teammate second, with Tai way behind. The poor guy just cannot keep his stick straight. If only Caleb were still there. Ahem.

The second half of the challenge would be right in Brad Culpepper’s wheelhouse. He was an NFL player, after all. All he’d have to do is throw sandbags to knock down objects several feet away. Unfortunately for him, Tai leaves him at such a disadvantage that both of his opponents are literally 80 percent finished by the time he starts. What we learn from this is that Brad Culpepper throws an angry sandbag. As he furiously takes out his Tai-based frustration on thin air, Malcolm wins the challenge…but then something incredible happens.

Troyzan starts to miss, just as Culpepper shows why he played in the NFL for nine years. He simply doesn’t miss, negating Troyzan’s lead in the blink of an eye. Seriously, Culpepper closes the full gap in about 20 seconds. Troyzan starts to panic, making desperation throws. As the other Survivors look on in awe, Culpepper ties and then overtakes his opponent, eventually earning second place for his team.

Basically, Culpepper did the entirety of his part of the challenge so fast that Troyzan knocked over none of his remaining sticks during that timeframe. HE ONLY NEEDED TWO MORE! He’d already done eight. It was an insurmountable lead that Culpepper just surmounted. The only bright side to this humiliation for Tavua is that they’re only out iced coffee. Still, Cirie makes sure to remind everyone that he’s odd man out on the tribe. Little does she know that he’s the only person in the game with an immunity idol. That’s a lot better than iced coffee.

The next segment is Zen Ozzy. Survivor loves to show him fishing, and he loves to brag about what a great provider he is for his tribe. We wonder if Ozzy has put two and two together that this provision has never aided him in winning the show in three previous tries, but hey! Ozzy did appear on Playboy Channel’s Foursome; maybe four’s his lucky number. He certainly did get lucky on Foursome. Right on cue, Ozzy catches a stingray, which he presents to the tribe. Andrea is thrilled that…Ozzy exists.

At Nuku, they’re enjoying their coffee and cookies. Sandra again takes this opportunity to tell the camera that she’s still the queen. We’re torn about her bragging. On the one hand, she’s right. .On the other hand, what we just said about arrogance above applies to even her, the greatest player of all-time. Cut to…JT and Malcolm are talking about getting rid of Sandra. JT mentions that Sandra knows she’s in charge, which she does. The two alpha males have proven compatible in challenges, and they seem like great allies in the game. Alas, the simple fact that they just mentioned writing down Sandra’s name means that they’re probably screwed.

Probst Sighting: The Sequel!

Only 19 minutes into the episode, he’s already making his second appearance. The immunity challenge for the episode is appearing earlier than normal in the episode. That means it’s probably long, and something odd will happen after the challenge ends. Sure enough, Probst drops the bomb that we’d predicted last week. Only one team will win immunity tonight. The other two will head to Tribal Council. Oddly, Probst specifically doesn’t mention that both teams will eliminate someone. Color us intrigued.

We’ve seen this challenge many times before. One player calls out directions to their teammates, all of whom are wearing blindfolds. Inevitably, people wreck into hard objects at maximum velocity. The one caveat this time is that teams can go out all at once or some can stay behind, although everyone ignores the latter option. Since they’re tethered together, everyone going at once makes the most sense. As usual, one of the players has troubles in yelling out instructions. Surprisingly, boisterous loudmouth Brad Culpepper is the one who doesn’t shout loud enough. Cirie…doesn’t have that problem. That woman missed her calling as a Banshee.

Each team has to track down bags of clues, and it’s not that hard. The space is tight, and the obstacles aren’t as ominous as in past seasons. Nuku returns to their base in relatively short fashion, with what Probst describes as, “A giant lead!” Tavua is second to return, but since only one team is safe from Tribal Council, they’re still in trouble.

The final phase is the balancing puzzle. It’s the one where a player uses levers to manipulate a ball through a maze. It’s akin to manipulating a puppet. The first team to get three balls is safe from elimination. JT and Malcolm both sink their balls, leaving Varner to finish the challenge. As his teammates tell him that he has a giant lead, they fail to notice that Tavua is absolutely destroying the puzzle, akin to how Culpepper performed earlier. They quickly position two balls correctly, completely negating the “giant lead.”

Varner…isn’t very good at this challenge. He seems to be standing still as his opponent, Andrea, quickly catches up. He does have one remaining chance to sink his ball, but it falls through the final slot just outside the inner circle. Seconds away from victory, he chokes. Moments later, Andrea sinks her putt, giving Tavua the win after a huuuuuuge comeback. And we can assure you that avoiding Tribal Council is a much bigger deal than winning iced coffee.

After Tavua leaves, Probst drops the bombshell that we’d inferred. For the first time ever, two tribes will share one Tribal Council, and only one player will be voted out of the game. This dynamic is a brilliant deviation from the show’s usual pattern. Rather than the members of an alliance picking off the unaffiliated players, the door is open for someone to cut a deal with an opposing tribe. The person voted out tonight should come from the tribe that’s least loyal.

The only reason that might not happen is that Mana has only five players while Nuku has six. As long as Nuku players all stick together, a Mana player WILL go home tonight. Of course, what everyone should do is work together to take out Sandra before it’s too late.

We idly wonder whether we’ll even see Tavua the rest of the episode, which is just now halfway done.

Understandably, both tribes are confused by this turn of events. JT is cocky about it, pointing out that his tribe has numbers. We are BEGGING people to hear us about the arrogance thing. Anyway, JT reassures his tribe that he’s solid with them despite the fact that he’s ostensibly on the bottom. That’s because he believes that Malcolm is loyal to him; we agree with his assessment. It is a bit funny that the same two men who were just plotting against Sandra are now looking to her to solidify the group, but that’s Survivor for you. It’s also a reflection of how much respect Sandra commands from her opponents.

“If somebody messes this up, they’re getting their ass beaten when they come back to this camp.”

Almost immediately, a rift forms at Nuku. Sandra has correctly identified Sierra as the biggest female threat on Mana and wants her gone. For only the thinnest of reasons, JT picks Tai. His rationale? Tai is unlikely to have an idol. We know that he doesn’t have one, but since we’re only at the 33-minute mark and this is Survivor, he’ll probably find one in the next few minutes. Still, it’s a stupid reason.

The Mana players are in a panic. They can count, at least to six. They also know that they’ve treated Hali like garbage, which means they have to seduce her back to their team. Otherwise, they have no hope. Remember the part about arrogance, folks?

Debbie adds some lip service to our suggestion about everyone banding together to vote out Sandra. Realistically, that doesn’t make sense for Nuku, though. Since they have the numbers, they’re better served eliminating an opponent than one of their own. At the merge, having more trustworthy allies is the difference between making the final jury and answering questions at the final jury.

Watching Culpepper beg Hali for her loyalty is quite entertaining. He desperately tries to act like they have a special bond, calling her Blue Eyes. He asks Blue Eyes if she’ll be loyal. She’s rightfully a bit dodgy with her answer, gloating to the camera that the people who were treating her like garbage three days prior are now acting like her best friends.

An interesting parallel occurs at Mana. After Sandra targeted Sierra as the biggest threat, her counterpart doesn’t reciprocate. Sierra doesn’t believe that Sandra can win the game, but Malcolm can. She wants to get rid of the most dangerous opponent in terms of endgame challenges. While we’d argue that this is another example of a smart person underestimating Sandra, we still acknowledge she’s right that Malcolm would be a great person to eliminate. The same is true of JT, for that matter. Nuku has a lot of the best players in the game right now. Then again, Mana doesn’t have the numbers, so it shouldn’t matter.

Hey, guess what! Tai’s looking for a hidden immunity idol. You won’t believe what happens next…

Well, he finds a clue rather than the idol. It’s basically a treasure map. Since Tai doesn’t have to worry about his tribemates stopping him from finding the idol, he can search with abandon. While we can’t prove that a Survivor cameraperson throws an idol right in front of him to ramp up the drama, we strongly suspect it. Survivor’s production team has destroyed the show with their constant meddling, with tonight merely the latest example. Tai finds an idol, thereby becoming one of the titular Game Changers. The real question is, “Does JT have psychic powers???”

Tai becomes the hero of Mana when he reveals the existence of his idol. The remaining debate is which player on their tribe will need the idol. Should they guess wrong, they lose a player, and Tai loses his idol. During Tribal Council, their goal will be to intuit which of them seems like the most likely target.

Tribal Council starts at the 43-minute mark, which we mention simply to say that a lot of discussion ensues. Culpepper starts by describing the vote as a Mexican standoff. He notes that one of his guns might not be pointed the right way, and the same is true of his opponents. Sandra quickly counters, “Jeff, all our guns are pointed at them.” Culpepper does NOT like that answer.

Sidenote: Sandra is the most confident player in the history of the game. She might be the most confident person in all of existence. And she’s right to be.

Culpepper has a weird Tribal Council. He correctly points out that the other tribe has too many threats. They should consider internal sabotage for this reason. It’s a perfect opportunity for someone like Malcolm to get rid of Sandra. Then, Culpepper turns around berates Hali, threatening to make her “Public Enemy #1” if she flips. She shows poise but is clearly annoyed by this, pointing out that it’s a horrible way to ask for someone’s loyalty.

Hali then opens a discussion that shows a lot of savvy. Survivor is a game of self-interest. She notes that since drawing rocks is a distinct possibility, a transparent discussion is the best way for everyone to avoid risking their own fate for the betterment of their tribe. Such a conversation should ultimately lead to Sandra’s ouster, but that’s not what happens. Sandra might realize this, as she retorts, “No, we don’t have no concerns.” Sierra is a bit catty with her comment, “It sounds like they don’t need you, Hali.” Perhaps she recognizes this, as she quickly adds that her tribe does need its lone wolf.

As Probst asks another question, Hali and Sierra enter into a whispering campaign. Sierra wants to know who the target is within her own tribe. Hali says something, and then she decides to speak up. She tells both tribes that she thinks that they should be eliminating physical threats right now. Sandra deciphers this as her wanting Brad Culpepper gone.

Plenty of discussion ensues. Most of the Tribal Council participates ignore Probst and each other, whispering gameplay questions. Debbie, who is genuinely bad at the game, leaps to Brad to ask if Nuku is targeting him. Brad, after years in football huddles, knows panic when he sees it. He stresses that he thinks that his counterparts are sticking with the original plan. Sierra adds that she believes that she’s the target. Sierra’s really good at this game. We wouldn’t want to see her sitting across from us at a poker table, either.

At this moment, the entire conversation goes off the rails. JT and Malcolm decide that their Alpha Male Club isn’t complete without Brad Culpepper in it. Even though he’s on the opposing tribe, JT leaps up and walks over to talk with him. What he does next might rival The Letter that caused him so much humiliation during Heroes vs. Villains.

JT leans in and whispers to his former tribemate, “I love you brother, but they’re voting Sierra out.” Hali then rushes over to Sandra, stating, “If that’s how we’re going to be!” She then validates Sandra’s earlier thought process, indicating that they should vote out Brad. Sandra really doesn’t even care if Hali’s telling the truth. She infers from this that Brad is a better play than Sierra at this point. She tells her allies to change. JT resists, noting that he just gave Brad Culpepper his word that his bro was safe.

Probst finally gets tired of watching the negotiations and asks everyone to vote. Hali refuses, saying that she’s not ready yet. Sandra (!) tells her that she should go ahead. Hali comments that she can but that the other tribe (her allies?) may regret it. With 11 people at Tribal Council, we’re not sure any of them knew what Hali was going to do at that moment, including Hali.

Something important happens as Hali leaves. Michaela whispers to Sandra, “I wonder why she didn’t just tell us who had the idol.” Sandra’s reply demonstrates that even the greatest Survivor players can make huge mistakes. “Nobody got no idol over there. Girl, please.” Oops.

After everyone votes, Tai’s tribemates request that he play the idol. Tai does so, and then takes a moment to debate which of his allies is in most desperate need of the assist. Brad Culpepper selflessly points to Sierra, jeopardizing himself to make the best move for his tribe. Guys don’t survive for a decade in the NFL unless they’re team players.

Sandra’s huge gulp is the dead giveaway that Sierra was the target. The only question is which one of the threats on Nuku will go home due to the shocking appearance of this idol. To his complete and utter disgust, the answer is Malcolm, who was playing a wonderful game. Suffice to say that Malcolm is so ill over this turn of events that he looks like he might throw up. In fact, he comments that he’s going to vomit. We don’t think he’s exaggerating.

Two other notes about these frenzied final few seconds of the game:

For the first time we can ever recall in this game, Sandra looked worried for a moment that she was going home. It was weird to see genuine concern on her face.

Also, JT is a really good guy. While he could have easily been the target, he wasn’t just worried about himself. He took Malcolm’s elimination as hard as Malcolm did, eventually breaking into tears. JT’s made a couple of epic mistakes on Survivor, but he’s a really good guy and an even better friend to have.

Finally, we won’t be surprised if two-tribe single-eliminations become a thing on Survivor. The first one turned out better than Survivor’s always-meddling producers could have dreamt possible.