One of fans' key objections to the first returnee season, All-Stars, was that what had been a show that once mined regular people's authentic reactions to events in the game had now become an exercise in self-described "stars" mining their established schtick for more screen time. Richard Hatch is wearing a kilt! Now he's removing it! Now he's walking around naked any time the cameras point at him! Colby has hiked up his drawl an extra three or four notches! Sue Hawk hates everyone! This is great!
Except it wasn't. It was tepid, it was predictable, and worst of all, it was boring. Thankfully, most of that started to fall away by the merge, except for an occasional roar here or there. Even the host hated it, and swore he'd never do a returning player season again. And now, on Game Changers, the five-thousandth iteration of returning players and Survivor, with that same disgruntled host now running the show, a new (-ish) crop of returnees is chumming the same waters. Tony now has a #SpyBunker! Michaela is sipping tea, just like she does on YouTube! Hooray!
So, while there were a lot of Big Events in this episode, we were substantially less entertained by them than everyone else seemed to be. Mainly because several of them seemed to be events that were either irrelevant to the game (or even counter-productive), but instigated purely for the purposes of making the cut on the TV show. Those events could mostly be summed up with Brad's question to Sierra: "Is she acting?"
Is she acting?
The first, chronologically at least, was Debbie's roiling frustration with Brad. Now you could argue that, if Debbie really was on the bottom of the Mana pecking order, making moves to undermine Brad's authority and leadership could actually benefit her game. Based on everyone else's reactions, Debbie's tactics for doing so (yelling at Brad, criticizing Hali, extreme sarcasm during the IC) had the exact opposite effect. But the question remains: Was she acting? Nothing in her confessionals contradicted the straightforward narrative that she really was angry with Brad, although that doesn't rule out that she was erupting for strategic purposes. Still, her odd half-smile after screaming "You crushed my heart!" does leave that acting question open.
The second big dramatic move was Sandra's sugar-napping trick, instigating conflict between JT and Michaela, which both made sense in-game (as long as Varner didn't betray her confidence), and actually worked to its intended effect. No problems here. Sandra was indeed acting here, and at Tribal Council (as was Varner), and their performances were spectacular. Even with Sandra breaking the fourth wall and making faces directly to the camera.
So that brings us to Tribal Council. Just last season, Zeke (Remember him? Mustachioed, Hawaiian shirts? Big fan of the show? Wasn't he on this season at one point?) announced that "Tribal Council is theater." This is a true statement. For a good blindside to work, especially when idols may be in play, the majority group must make their target feel at ease, and pretend their decoy is actually in danger. Again, Sandra and Varner did this impeccably.
But in this same Tribal, Michaela took that performance to the next level, and played up her "tea" sipping purely for the audience at home. That was a bold move, to be sure. It was dramatic. But was it good?
Malcolm pulling out an idol and announcing he would play it (then not doing so) in Philippines was acting, but it also served a strategic purpose. Tony waving around his "bag of tricks" in Cagayan had a similar tactical intent: both moves discouraged people from voting against the actors, and instead shifted people's focus to easier targets. What purpose did Michaela's "tea" serve here? As far as we can tell, just showing up JT (perhaps deservedly) as he was booted, and making a Big TV Moment. If anything, it was counterproductive for Michaela's game, because she was showboating in the face of Aubry, who now has to go back to camp with the rest of the tribe.
Michaela seemed like a more thoughtful, polished player in MvGX, and her claim of being brought back for her challenge chops seemed reasonable. But maybe it was actually for her willingness to engage in conflict? Whatever the case, we didn't love it. We've seen a lot of praise for the tea, and to be sure, it was unprecedented and noteworthy. But shouldn't we be rooting more for good gameplay than for self-sabotaging stunts?
The battles not shown
Along the same lines, one of the frustrating things about this season thus far has been a lingering feeling that the story we're being shown only partially resembles what actually happened. Sure, the wins and losses and votes and boots are accurately represented, but the stories behind those victories, the conditions that preceded them, and the heroes and villains are... more malleable. And a lot of work seems to have been put into building some people up while tearing others down.
In their exit interviews, Malcolm and JT have both called Michaela a combustible presence in camp and at challenges (Malcolm compared her to Abi-Maria). Beyond her tea sipping, there's been very little on the show to support claims of Michaela's alleged bad attitude. Meanwhile, there are grumblings that maybe JT isn't quite as charming to everyone as the show has made him seem (Candice Cody called him "arrogant," prone to cavalierly attempting disastrous moves without consulting his allies, and reluctant to work with strong women, all in this week's RHAP recap show). What's confusing is that a lot of this has been mentioned in the show, such as at the last Tribal Council, but not shown. To be fair, if there's unnecessary personal conflict going on, maybe the show made the right call in burying it, rather than letting it drag the entire season into the abyss, like Worlds Apart. Oh, no, wait... there's still the Debbie stuff, which they happily built the entire episode around.
In this same episode, Debbie seemed apoplectic about Brad's dismissiveness towards her, a charge that sounds an awful lot like Ciera and Katie's complaints from Blood vs. Water, but one, again that was unsupported by the footage that's actually been shown. In fact, it stands in direct contrast to Game Changer Brad, the calm, smiling, polite interior decorator whose chief goal in life is festooning his camp(s) with balls. Still, you have to wonder, flashbacks or no: Is there something to Debbie's claim that we weren't shown? It's hard to know for sure, because again, the show went out of its way to show Brad in the opposite light here -- sincerely apologizing, asking for Debbie's input, and so forth -- and to make Debbie look irrational.
It helped Brad's case a bit when the show neatly switched the argument to Debbie being irate that Hali took so long on the balance beam at the reward challenge, which Debbie claims she "flew over" herself. Thanks to that flashback and the way the challenge was edited, Debbie's irritation appeared utterly detached from reality. And it's not just editing, clearly Debbie was wrong about her own performance: She was starting her balance beam stage while Nuku was still completing their previous one, and in the time it took Debbie to actually finish crossing the balance beam, Nuku had completed Debbie's entire task and finished the slide puzzle. She really did blow Mana's lead. But that's not the whole story... in his exit interviews, JT backed up Debbie's complaints about Hali also being slow, something that was not shown on TV.
Yes, Debbie overreacted (and continued to do so, repeatedly, at the next challenge). Her outburst was probably 80% her fault, 20% other people's. But given how much legitimate material they had to work with, the show's vigorous attempt to make it 100% Debbie, making all of her complaints seem completely baseless, seems like a step (or two) too far.
But even so, it's only a few steps. Survivor is free to tell the stories it chooses to tell. The contestants sign a waiver giving Survivor free license for their footage to be used in whatever way the show sees fit. Brad knows this only too well, as he received a buffoonish villain edit his first time out. But as an audience, can't we demand more nuance? Good people behave badly occasionally. This show is better when it explores the grays, rather than hewing to black-and-white.
Is Sandra's story complete? (Maybe not)
Ever since the opening sequence on the boat (and indeed, even from her pre-game interviews), Sandra's chief goal this season seemed to be eliminating the possibility of another two-time winner. Like Cersei rounding up and executing Robert Baratheon's illegitimate heirs in Game of Thrones, through the first five episodes Sandra has firmly established that the Queen Stays Queen. There will be no other two-time winners, at least not this season.
But what does Sandra do now, besides hanging out her oversized "Mission Accomplished" banner? Her alliance consists of Michaela and Varner, and maybe Troyzan. That's maybe four people out of the remaining 15. With another swap coming, she could again find herself on a new tribe, surrounded by people who see her as a two-time winner who's not that helpful in challenges, with the merge still off somewhere in the distance. Three of the five people who told Dalton Ross (pre-game) that they wanted to vote Sandra out first are still here, and two of them (Cirie and Sarah) haven't been on a tribe with her yet, while the other (Aubry) was blindsided by Sandra's alliance at the last vote. The throne could be toppled very quickly if the swap goes wrong.
On the other hand, as she demonstrated this episode, Sandra is really good at dodging the vote, while simultaneously turning other people into targets. She masterfully instigated the JT-Michaela sugar conflict. She (and Varner) convinced JT that everyone was growing weary of living with Michaela, so much so that he thought it unnecessary to retrieve his idol. As we tweeted, Sandra has now attended Tribal Council 28 times, and has only received 1 vote against her (although she did erase two with an idol at the F6 vote in Heroes vs. Villains).
Nobody else in Survivor history has even come close to that mark. Boston Rob received 20 total votes against, from 8 of his 29 Tribals (and he was immune at 9 of them, so 8 of the 20 times it was possible to vote against him). Amanda Kimmel received no votes against in 22 Tribals between China and Micronesia, although she used an idol once (voiding four votes) and was immune four times, then was voted against six out of 10 times in Heroes vs. Villains, so she's received 10 total votes, in 7 of the 28 times it was possible. Ozzy? 27 lifetime votes against. Parvati? 12 votes, in the 28 times she wasn't immune.
Only one other person has even attended Tribal Council more than 20 times and come away with fewer than 10 votes against: Cirie (with 9 in 25 trips, and like Sandra, no immunity wins). If Cirie and Sandra could team up, that would be an alliance for the ages. But since they're very similar players, chances are they'll butt heads instead. Let's hope for the former, though.
Big numbers ahead
Ozzy has now officially tied Boston Rob for most days playing Survivor, at 117. As soon as the next episode starts, he'll have the record all to himself. Could that be why there's a surprise visit next episode? Several people suggested that on twitter last week, and it seemed like a funny joke at the time, but maybe it's true? Boston Rob even tweeted a "confirmation" on April Fools Day, further muddying the water, but the fact that his four daughters were all sporting different Game Changers buffs (including Tavua and merge ones) in their #Survivor500 video argues that maybe Rob wasn't fooling, after all. Either way, since Ozzy has already had one confessional about his days played this season, expect to see some mention of it next episode.
In other numbers, with the merge either 2 or 3 episodes away, there's also an increasingly strong possibility that Varner, Michaela, and Brad could finally be reaching the merge for the first time. Yay.
Four of the first five boots have been alpha males. But that didn't stop Brad, Ozzy, and JT from commandeering the IC, and taking over the slingshot duties from women who had been successful -- Sierra with two targets hit for Mana, Sarah with one for Tavua. (Okay, fine, only three alpha males had been booted up until then, but JT never even let any of the womenfolk take a shot, as far as we were shown.) This is an odd disconnect, a conflict between the game as a whole, and this challenge in miniature. Especially when one of those three guys was then booted. Maybe now that JT's gone, they'll learn? Probably not. Or at least not soon enough.
Sidenote: JT probably also should have known that it's never a good idea to pin your immunity chances on a one-on-one showdown with Ozzy.
Other Game Changers Episode 5 recaps and analysis
Episode 5 exit interviews: J.T. Thomas
Episode 5 podcasts