So maybe this one wasn't so terrible.
After lamenting (last week) the seemingly inescapable conclusion that this was all going to end with the least game-changing Game Changers blasting their way to the finals via a massive arsenal of idols, Sarah continued her actual Game Changing, and wrested one of the many advantages/idols away from the forces of stasis and blandness (Brad/Troyzan/Sierra). Not only that, but Michaela finally found a foothold in the game (no, not in the box she kicked at the RC), and lured Tai and his two idols away from that trio as well. Suddenly, a four-person alliance that had stockpiled four idols (counting the Legacy Advantage) is now left with just two people and one idol. Game changed.
That's a much more satisfying antepenultimate outcome than, say, the first of several Tribals in which Tai and Troyzan politely facilitate the exits of Cirie, Andrea, and Aubry by handing Brad an idol. This could still happen, sure. But at least it seems less overwhelmingly likely now. All we are asking for is a tiny sliver of hope.
Hero vs. Criminal
Despite the generally favorable outcome, this episode insisted that we shouldn't be rooting for it to happen. Instead, the editors gave us a stark contrast between how we're supposed to be viewing Brad's and Sarah's respective game-changing marches to the end: the Hero vs. the Criminal.
Obviously, because Probst refers to him exclusively by his last name, Brad was 100% hero this episode, speaking glowingly of his wife, breaking down in sobs as he praised her "kick-ass" grit, winning a reward to be with said wife, consulting her seasoned strategic mind as he masculinely tended the barbecuing of meat items, then winning immunity. Finally! After the eternity of those four excruciating prior failed attempts.
Generally, Brad was just a neat guy. Which is what Monica would do, except in lady version, in her case.
Meanwhile, Sarah continued her dark campaign of criminality, heartlessly betraying her best friend Sierra, a relationship so deep and meaningful that we first heard about it a few minutes into the 12th episode of the season. Not only that, but the villainous Sarah then stole poor, hammock-ridden Sierra's Legacy Advantage, a prize that Sierra had worked seconds to find. How dare she?
What are we to make of this massive conflagration of diametrically opposed, elemental forces? Are the pieces being moved into place for a Final Tribal in which Heroic Brad vanquishes Criminal Sarah? Is this all just a red-herring, intentional obfuscation, either to distract from a near-unanimous Sarah win, or one of these two falling just short of Final Tribal? Everyone else really did feel like ancillary characters, even in a breakout episode for Michaela (again, not the box), and one in which Cirie and her son Jared (re-) captured America's hearts, right before Mother's Day.
We're not sure which of these options is true. But if the final three did contain Brad and Sarah, and both received votes, this is the sort of narrative framing we'd expect to see for it.
Was the Legacy Advantage really Sierra's undoing?
It's sort of become an article of faith that the second Sierra mentioned the Legacy Advantage to Sarah, she doomed herself to being voted out, after incentivizing Sarah to do so. It's logical that Sarah would want to do that. In her exit interviews, Sierra gamely owned up to this moment as her biggest mistake. Fans immediately seized on it as the episode aired. But is it actually true?
Sort of... but not really? Ever since the merge, people have been talking about the need to break up the Brad/Sierra power couple. Sure, there have been missteps and detours along the way, but the majority alliance finally got around to crossing this off their to-do list this episode. Brad seemed almost certain to be the target, but then he won immunity. By then, Tai had already signed on with Michaela. So who else were they going to target? Troyzan? No, the obvious target was Sierra.
One could argue that Michaela and Tai were technically unaffiliated, and that Sarah really tipped the scales in Sierra's disfavor by convincing Michaela that they needed to rid the game of Sierra's Legacy Advantage. But had she not had this conversation, was Michaela really going to hurt Cirie (the one person left in the game who has shown her any compassion) by taking out Andrea? Right after being railroaded into voting out Zeke? When she could instead get rid of one of Brad/Sierra, who've hardly come across as Michaela fans?
Yes, Sarah's pitch almost certainly helped, and making that pitch was an impressive game move. But it's a bit of a stretch to think the Legacy Advantage was the main driving factor here.
Michaela and Tai: actually changing the game soon?
We're pointing this out, since the sage, well-rested, kick-ass outsider Monica Culpepper flagged it up: Michaela indeed flipped this episode, after blowing up at the end of the reward challenge. And by flipped, we mean continued voting with Cirie and Andrea. But she did so in concert with Tai. Who, if we're being completely accurate, was the person who actually flipped, in response to Sierra, Brad, and Troyzan all voting against him at the previous Tribal Council. But Monica was sort of right, because Michaela almost flipped. As far as we were shown, Brad never bothered to act on Monica's advice, and made no attempt to actively recruit Michaela. But we're pretty sure he still deserves the credit for pulling Michaela in to the opposing alliance.
As a duo, particularly one armed with Tai's two hidden idols, Michaela and Tai could actually do some significant damage over the remainder of the game. Next week's preview shows Tai discussing a plan with Cirie that Cirie finds shocking. (Targeting Andrea, maybe?) By moving together between the two alliances, they'll wield significantly more power than if either flipped alone. It's a bit worrisome that neither seems to be particularly respected by the jury. Hopefully they'll have change some minds on their way to the end, should they make it.
Sidebar: Ponderosa beef
In Sierra's Ponderosa video, Hali voices what appears to be the jury's consensus take on Tai: "Tai the traitor." This is ridiculously unfair to Tai. He was 100% loyal to Brad and Sierra (and Troyzan) until all three of them voted against him last week. Let's not forget that Sierra only made it this far in the game because Tai gave up his own idol to save her, way back on Day 11. In the aftermath of last episode's Tribal, we were even shown Tai asking the three of them if they voted for him, and their only response (shown) was: "Yeah." No attempt at damage control, just Brad saying resignedly that they'd probably lost Tai.
The reason that branding Tai as "the traitor" is problematic is that it echoes a racist stereotype: that Asian people are inherently "sneaky." Tai faced the same perception in Kaoh Rong, after very publicly declining to reward Scot's boorish behavior by sacrificing his own idol to create a Super Idol to save him. Again, a betrayal, but one that made sense in light of Tai's sense of morality (and the show's, for that matter, since fans near-universally praised this decision). But the reputation stuck: Tai was a flipper, Tai couldn't be trusted. (Never mind that he remained loyal to Aubry for the rest of the game.)
Coupled with everyone in Cagayan using the nickname "Weasel Woo," it's a continuing dark mark on the show. When Tony flips on people, it's aggressive gameplay. But his partner that makes the same moves alongside him? Untrustworthy. Sarah has (rightfully) been praised for abandoning Brad's alliance this season, after just a hint that she might have been at the bottom of Brad and Sierra's power structure. But when Tai does it in response to actually being blindsided himself (and almost voted out)? It's because he's a terrible person, apparently.
Thankfully, this stuff has existed only in the exit interview/secret scene periphery of the show, and not within the show itself, perhaps because the producers realized how unfair it was, and edited it out. But still... try to be better, Survivor, or at least Survivor players.
The worst-case scenario
So yes, despite all of our doom and gloom last week, there's still a chance all of our favorites could maintain their power and get to the end. But, just for the sake of argument (and further depression), what if... what if Sierra's exit interview answer to Rob Cesternino's question about why Cirie hasn't received any votes yet... is a spoiler?
Sierra explained that Cirie didn't seem like a threat out there, and that the thinking was that she could be targeted at any time, since she wasn't winning challenges (unlike Andrea). Back in Kaoh Rong, we tried to reconcile the compelling case the Michele Truthers were making with Aubry's obvious protagonist edit. Then, we worried that maybe Aubry could get Ciried - fall just short of the finals either by bad luck or some twist/medevac forcing a final two.
As it turned out, Aubry's actual downfall was even more difficult to take. So what if... Cirie is getting Aubryed here? What if Cirie finally reaches the Final Three, and due to some horrifically misguided jury choices, does not win?
Let's be perfectly clear here: Cirie has been quietly, methodically guiding the action since the merge this season. Hali going home instead of Michaela at the merge? Cirie's doing. Sarah leaving Brad's group to help boot Debbie? Heavily encouraged by Cirie. Michaela recruiting Tai this week? Instigated by Cirie. The only people left who might have a better case are Sarah and Andrea. Even then, it's partly because Sarah has two advantages which she has yet to (publicly, in front of the jury) play, and Andrea has won two immunities, which wil undoubtedly impress people like Brad and Troyzan.
Cirie, meanwhile, despite entering the game as one of the three players with the biggest reputations (alongside Tony and Sandra) has been wisely using Andrea as a vote shield. Cirie has no idols to play, no other flashy Tribal Council moves to point to, just solid, relentless social/strategic gameplay. She's been quietly guiding the game's outcome, and who doesn't like Cirie? She should be a shoo-in if she gets to the end, right?
But in a season where jurors abound who may not be familiar with Cirie's previous mastery of the game (Hali, Sierra), or who may still harbor lingering grudges against her (Ozzy), it's not out of the question that Cirie's spectacular social game could still fall short at the end. Especially when the other people have three idols and two advantages with which to dazzle the jurors. By making herself seem less threatening, Cirie may simultaneously be reducing her chances of winning. And by piling on the extra twists and voting-related tchotckes to previously unseen levels, production may have changed the game so much that Cirie could still get screwed at the end, even after doing everything right.
Modern Survivor. Go figure.
(It's still probably more likely that Cirie will be voted out at final four, just missing the finals yet again. But you have to agree the outcome above would be worse.)
Other Game Changers Episode 12 recaps and analysis
Episode 12 exit interviews: Sierra Dawn Thomas
Episode 12 podcasts