Before we put this season to bed (no matter how happy we are to do so), let’s take one last look at the top moments of the season. Note: “top” does not mean “best”. That’ll be really important to remember as this list whittles its way down.
10. Tony Goes for a Run
Episode 1 – “The Stakes Have Been Raised”
Those of us that had been hoping for Tony to come back were treated to exactly the sort of thing we were hoping for in the very first episode of his return – Tony hitting the beach, seeing his tribe gathered, and then immediately saying “You all play nice-nice, I’m gonna go look for the idol” before sprinting off into the woods like a maniac. There is no such thing as a dialed-down Tony, so Tony simply leaned into his established reputation, went on offense first, and let everyone else react to him.
Alas, #TeamTV got just two episodes of these antics before Tony was sent home by a fellow Survivor Hall of Famer. But this moment gave us just a sample of what this season might have been. [John]
9. The Final Tribal Council Game is Changed
Episode 13 – “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”
Let’s just admit it. Final tribal had gotten stale. Jurors would stand up, give a speech and sit down. The final 3 rarely got a chance to speak anymore, and worse the speeches had turned into bad performance art, obscuring the decision-making process rather than enlightening it. And after the winner-that-shall-not-be-named, Probst vowed changes. Now usually, when this show vows changes, I get worried. I remember Redemption Island; I remember the Medallion of Power; I know how twists can go wrong. But I also forget how often they get twists right! And this is a format change that I think the show nailed.
So why do I think this is a great change? Because having the jury talk to each other in conversation not only adds an element of drama to the proceedings that had been missing, but it also explains why people are voting the way they are. And when a jury has strong partisans of two people it turns it into a debate! An actual discussion of the different merits of not just the finalists, but also the style of play. It also forces jurors to not just sit there and rehearse their speech in their heads, but instead engage in what the other jurors are thinking and what the finalists are saying (but definitely the former more than the latter).
I also can’t help but think about how this format would have made my least favorite ending to a season better. Think about Kaoh Rong! Yes, Scott and Jason would have still been dicks, but I’d love to hear Cydney explain what she was thinking and react to what the people who treated her so terribly in Ponderosa were thinking and voting. And with this format, would the result have been as stunning? I don’t think so.
Now was it perfect? No. The artificial structure Probst imposed on it was silly, and you can easily foresee a scenario where the jury is going to go to someone 10-0 and it just becomes a boring discussion of either that player’s greatness or the other player’s flaws. But those instances are boring final tribal councils anyway. And compared to what jury speeches have become, I think this format is a massive improvement. [Matt]
Episode 13 – “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”
The key to any good thriller movie is tension. That moment where you’re waiting for the killer to enter the house or the monster to be revealed. All throughout the post-merge of Survivor: Game Changers, weeks went by when players held onto immunity idols and advantages. After a certain point, you knew the shark was circling the boat. It’s just a matter of when.
Enter the first tribal council of the finale. Tai played both of his idols. Sarah played her legacy advantage. Troy played his big green idol. Brad won a challenge. But with only six people left, that meant someone was getting the short end of the stick. And like a horror movie for longtime fans, Cirie was the victim.
Everyone’s moves were technically sound, and I certainly wouldn’t want fewer idols in the game in the future. But the entire tribal council was rendered moot by its outcome, even though Cirie got a legend’s sendoff. This moment was more memorable for what we lost: not just the best player left, but a possible winner. Remember: if the votes were read, Sarah was going home. The whole game could have really changed then. Not all Survivor firsts are exciting milestones, but this is a game that runs on two parts strategy, one part luck. Let’s remember that we viewers were the lucky ones to have Cirie on screen for all 13 episodes. [Mark]
7. This Advantage is Non-Transferrable
Episode 12 – “Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow”
Look, we all make mistakes, right? Like you’ve never misread something before. Of course, we now know Cirie did not in fact get a chance to read Sarah’s advantage before she attempted to play it. Not to mention that it’s very likely that production never actually intended the controversial non-transferable rule to have the consequences it ended up having. But naturally, Sarah knows exactly how to enforce the letter of the law and make sure the advantage ultimately stayed with her.
This moment accomplishes two things:
- It highlights how well Sarah played, charisma or not. She was able to ensure trust without actually risking anything valuable, and she managed to make Cirie Fields, Cirie mother fucking “greatest to never win” Fields, look foolish in front of the jury.
- Game Changers giveth, Game Changers taketh away. “Wow what a great cast!” Most of the highlights are voted out pre-merge. “The fun characters have the numbers!” They imploded because they don’t trust each other. “Cirie has Sarah’s advantage and is going to do one of her patented Gangster in an Oprah Suit moves!” She didn’t read the fine print. Every time we thought we might have hope, the season yanked it away from us. But at least the winner played well, despite… you know, that other stuff. [Emma]
6. Two Tribes, One Vote
Episode 4 – “The Tables Have Turned”
Those of us that watched Malcolm’s first two seasons were fairly convinced that Malcolm would always face an uphill battle as a returning player. He’s such an easy target – reasonably athletic, impossibly charming, a clever strategist, and so pretty. He’s basically Boy Parvati.
So it shocked all of us here when we looked at this cast, saw Malcolm, and began to ask, “Could Malcolm actually win this season?” It somehow seemed like the show may have stumbled across the right combination of players that would give Malcolm a shot at a win; Malcolm wouldn’t be the biggest challenge beast, the biggest star, or the biggest strategic threat. He was a common draft pick in our fantasy leagues and was our readers’ preseason winner pick.
Early on, things seemed to be going well for him. He worked his way into comfortable spots in his alliances and was doing well for his tribe in challenges (even when they weren’t winning). So even when his tribe was forced to go to a two-tribe tribal council, he seemed well-positioned – his tribe was coming in with a numbers advantage.
And then, as Tai handed the immunity idol to Sierra, the entire season flips. Malcolm goes home, and his weakened tribe loses the next challenge and votes out JT. Imagine a world where Sierra had gone home here – maybe Troy’s tribe loses the next challenge, and Troy somehow gets sent home with an idol in his pocket. The idol play was a great move by Tai, Brad, and Sierra, but it was also a sign that the pregame favorites might be doomed. [John]
5. Cirie and Michaela Talk About “Fitting In”
Episode 8 – “There’s a New Sheriff in Town”
“Their perception is reality.” These are profound words spoken by Cirie Fields, a four-time Survivor player and one of greatest minds the game has seen, to Michaela Bradshaw, the young, smart, energetic superstar-in-the-making. The intelligent veteran offering sage advice to the up-and-comer full of potential greatness is nothing new on television. It’s pretty much a sports cliché at this point. It’s probably happened on Survivor before. The conversation between Cirie and Michaela felt different though. The viewers were treated to something special the night of the merge and it was absolutely because we were witnessing two black women navigating through the game together.
At this point in the game, Michaela was not a popular figure among her tribemates. She was being targeted as a vote out option and described by Sierra, in this episode, as someone who was shifty and very blunt, a person she did not want around. Michaela’s story has been filled with negative opinions of her, including the idea that she was ready to explode and ignorant. I couldn’t help but feel tinges of uncomfortable feelings when language like this is used. I have heard it in my own life as a black man and was left wondering if this criticism is warranted or is there something else going on here. Not to say that Sierra or anyone in this season is a racist. It is more so that society has been taught to see black as different and in many cases as lesser. So ingrained into the subconscious that people don’t even realize that they are holding people of color to different, near unrealistic expectations. We have little room for failure, little room to grow as humans. It’s a shitty feeling. A feeling that Michaela knows and one Cirie notices because she knows so well with her vast life experience.
Cirie takes this opportunity to speak to Michaela. She walks through with Michaela how she should act in this grand social experiment so she can be able to move on and continue to succeed. Ideas like always being pleasant around the others, making sure that others are comfortable around them. Don’t let others see you be mad, don’t let them see you be down. There are many takeaways I got from this scene. Yeah, there is frustration that the conversation is even necessary. But mostly there is a feeling of pride. Finally, in a game where people of color, especially women, have a tough time in Survivor, we had two black women excel and make the merge. We have them working together to get further. We have them prominently featured to be able to tell their story, a story that needs to be told. We get a funny, powerful poignant conversation between two strong, badass, entertaining ladies. You get what I consider to be the best moment of the season because even if you strip away the cameras, Fiji, and the carnival games, you still get the experience of people’s struggle, truth, power, and life. [Blurry Denzel]
4. Sarah Learns About the Legacy Advantage
Episode 12 – “It’s Not a High Without a Low”
I’m an admitted critic of the Legacy Advantage from its inception until now. So it’s odd to be simultaneously calling for its elimination AND recognize that its existence was instrumental in helping the season’s best player win it all. But frankly, while this moment is probably the BEST example of how thoroughly Sarah manipulated practically every player on the season, remove it and there’s probably several other examples to chose from and other paths she could’ve taken to survive the final six. So we probably don’t need this twist. But since we DID have it… can you believe what she pulled off?
Sarah had developed such a close relationship that a scrambling Sierra Dawn Thomas decided to share her most important secret with her in a moment of weakness. A secret that can only MOTIVATE someone to vote you out (and to answer the question that a few Sierra defenders had at the time: Sarah has confirmed multiple times that she did, in fact, vote Sierra out to get that advantage). And why was Sierra scrambling and so in desperate need of a trusted ally to keep her in the game? BECAUSE SARAH HAD VOTED AGAINST HER TWO TRIBALS PREVIOUS. So not even being solely responsible for the complete destruction of Sheriff Sierra’s unbreakable six was enough to dampen the bond Sierra assumed she had. I mean, what?
From one perspective, this scene is a slow motion car wreck if you’re invested in Sierra and dumbfounded that she is indeed doing what she is doing. So… basically if you are in her immediate family or were on a previous season with her*. For the rest of us, it was the moment that Sarah’s quiet control over the entire game was highlighted and underlined. [Andy]
*Some restrictions may apply
3. The Sugar Incident (Non-Heroes vs Villains Edition)
Episode 5 – “Dirty Deed”
I just love Sandra you guys. I mean look Sandra is a great player, yadda yadda, but when she is this entertaining, who cares what she actually does in the game? When Tony won, we talked about he might be the greatest combination of character and game player, but Sandra has to be right up there with him. But screw talking about her game play, I want to talk about how much I enjoy Sandra the character.
Before I break down what happened – just look at that damn photo above! She is mugging for the camera harder than Jim Halpert ever did. She knows this is a tv show and she is giving us what we want.
So how does it start? It starts with her tribe winning reward! Well, actually, it really starts with JT stabbing them in the back the night before and getting his good buddy Malcolm voted out. And having Malcolm out causes Sandra to vow revenge. And JT and Michaela getting into a petty squabble over eating sugar is the opening Sandra sees to enact her revenge. So Sandra eats the sugar. All the goddamn sugar.
First, she tells Varner exactly what she is going to do so that someone, anyone, can appreciate this on the same level she is. And then she starts mugging for the camera, making sure that everyone at home knows just how badly she is about to own JT. And, boy, JT hasn’t gotten this burned up about Sugar since Heroes vs Villains. He falls for it hook, line, and sinker. Not only is he immediately convinced that Michaela ate the sugar, but he starts making snide comments to everyone about it. He is talking to Varner and it is all Varner can do not to keep from laughing. And then, hearing that he is doing this, Sandra steps in and acts all clueless about it and eggs him on. All the while, enjoying seeing him get worked up about something so meaningless and seeing him be so wrong.
There was a strategic benefit to this move as well. JT’s outrage over the sugar incident and Sandra and Varner egging him on because of it made JT think that everyone was on board with booting Michaela. And that complacency made JT sit on his idol. And it had a secondary benefit for Sandra, it moved JT’s target off Sandra and to Michaela, which would have benefited her if he did play his idol. Even when Sandra is clowning someone, she can’t help but reveal layers of great strategic thought. [Matt]
2. Sippin’ Tea with Michaela B
Episode 5 – “Dirty Deed”
When the bios for Millennials vs. Gen X were released, Michaela was largely considered the most un-millennial millennial, largely because she worked hard and paid off her student debt. This is largely due to the fact that a lot of the worst millennial think pieces only think about rich white people, but that’s another story. We only had Michaela at two tribal councils in her first season, but on Game Changers she showed the world that there is more to millennials than entitlement: they also like memes.
A great way to tell who understood what Michaela was doing at the tribal council where JT was voted out is by seeing how they described her beverage. Was it coffee? No. Was it water? Well, technically yes, but we denizens of the internet knew that Michaela was sipping tea. The great thing is that it even would have worked if she was getting voted out, in a “y’all are making a mistake, but that’s not of my business” kind of way. But instead, she made JT look the second-most foolish he’s ever looked on Survivor, and that’s a tall order. After he gave her crap all day over some sugar, she made sure he knew what was up on the way out the door. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but tea is best served hot. [Emma]
1. Zeke is Outed by a Fellow Contestant
Episode 7 – “What Happened on Exile, Stays on Exile”
Sadly, there’s no getting around this. This is easily one of the most significant things to have ever happened on Survivor, even if we’re all more than tired of discussing it. This will be a top of mind part of this season whenever Game Changers is brought up, even if no one will want to bring the incident up. And frankly, you can divide the “fun” part of the season and the “other” part of this season with this moment. It never fully recovered.
You know who did recover though? Zeke. Both in the moment and in the time that has passed since the moment. And while we should never forget that none of this should have ever happened and that this was as ugly a moment as you’ll find on this show, we must also remember how Zeke managed it. How he was able to show his attacker that he couldn’t hurt him. How he was able to turn the situation and himself into a positive representation of transgender people for millions of viewers. And how when the chips were down, six other people (Sarah, Andrea, Tai, Debbie, Ozzy, and Probst) had his back without hesitation. That was important. In a world where transgender people are frequently under attack for being their true selves, this show we love showed instant, unflinching support for Zeke and immediate, unreserved repudiation for the attack.
So when you’re thinking back on this season and unavoidably thinking about this moment, think about that. Think about how Zeke went from victim to hero within the span of minutes. Think about what a positive advocate he’s been and continues to be, even though he was under no obligation to be. Let this be his moment. Because he’s the one that deserves it. [Andy]