Rob Cesternino has often pointed out that returning players frequently change their games in their second appearance, tweaking their behavior and strategy to better resemble that of the winner from the last time they played. For example, while the results weren't quite there, both Ciera and Varner came into this season intending to have a more relaxed, collegial playing style, much like Jeremy did in Cambodia. A much more successful example? Sarah, who overplayed her hand in a swing vote situation in Cagayan, instead gave hope to the group of people out of the numbers here this week, flipping the game much as Tony frequently did her first season. After voting out their leader at the last vote.
(Yes, we dimly remember that the actual Tony was also on this season, and that he was gone in the first week, thanks to an unnecessary double episode.)
Not only that, but we also saw Sarah taking the initiative and grabbing a potentially game-shifting advantage at the reward challenge. (Again, pretty Vlachos-esque.) Coupled with a glowing edit -- we see Sarah diving in to help Cirie finish the reward challenge, and her frequent confessionals about changing her game -- Sarah finally appears to be fulfilling the potential many saw during the Cagayan pre-season. She's not playing like a criminal, she's playing like Tony. Albeit without a loyal Woo flipping alongside her, and with a single advantage instead of an armful of idols.
How far can she go? That mostly depends on how accepting the people around her are to betrayals and constantly shifting alliances. People like Brad and Andrea (and the departed Debbie) have been quite vocal proponents of loyalty above all else, despite the Game Changers theme. Tony's success came from mending hurt feelings with people like these after each flip (Trish helped quite a bit with that), or at least repairing them enough to persuade them to work with him again the next time.
There are also people who are open to more fluid gameplay: Zeke is still eager to bathe in the blood of his enemies, an Aubry or a Cirie will strike wherever possible, and Michaela seems happy to go along with whatever, as long as she's in on the plan, and has a ready supply of Tribal Council props. So there's hope yet for this season. If Sarah pulls this all off, maybe we'll be saying that Tony played like a Sarah, rather than the reverse.
Still, as grateful as we are that Brad and Sierra's alliance didn't just march unhindered on toward the final six, there's... still not that much hope. Even if Sarah's flip stays firm (which seems pretty unlikely), the side that was just blindsided still has a mere three idols and the Legacy Advantage at their disposal.
The optimistic view would argue that maybe, just maybe, Debbie's blindside here will work out the same way Malcolm's Three Amigos ouster of Phillip worked in Caramoan: a wake-up call that frees everyone up to play more freely, and not feel chained to alliances they had really only joined out of self-preservation. Considering most of the people left are original Nukus, that could happen here, right?
Or, you know, this episode's surprise power shift could just be a temporary annoyance from a gnat that Brad/Tai/Troyzan/Sierra grind under their boots as they stomp and trample their way to the end.
One of the two.
Eh... 2 Debbie?
Where Cagayan Tony was the perfect marriage of an over-the-top TV character with effective gameplay, Debbie has always flashed hints of that same potential, but now, two seasons in, it's still only paid off in small doses. As effective as Debbie was at subverting expectations this season, the end result was almost exactly the same as it was in Kaoh Rong: Tenth person out, third person on the jury.
Debbie's Survivor successes have come when she's been a swing voter, or at least a taken-for-granted vote, overlooked due to her eccentric demeanor, who brings together disparate groups to oust a seemingly powerful opponent, as with Liz in Kaoh Rong, and Ozzy here. It's an effective short-term play, tricking people into thinking you're not dangerous, then surprising them by showing you actually are. Perhaps not surprisingly, though, it doesn't seem to work as a long-term strategy, because people tend to remember things, at least during the same season. Both times, Debbie's surprising rise has been followed shortly thereafter by a downfall; after she gains the numbers, she becomes overconfident and demands to have her strategic thinking validated by directing subsequent votes.
Many people have said "I wish I could have half the confidence Debbie has!" This is an accurate statement, because Debbie's level of confidence is approximately twice what any person needs. Cochran even warned her about it! Debbie's hubris made her blind to how she was being perceived by the others. In offering a path forward to Aubry, Debbie's own assessment was "I need her to think I'm her best friend, and I think it's working." (Perfectly edited, as that voiceover coincides with a glowering eyeroll from Aubry as the conversation breaks up.) Meanwhile, Aubry's later description of the same conversation was, "The way she said ['You're safe, Aubry'], I was like, 'Go f*** yourself!'"
It's important to note that Debbie's own alliancemates were never shown speaking disparagingly about her, at least since the merge. She seemed genuinely loyal to them, and hadn't been shown plotting against any of them. Had the least interesting outcome happened, and the Power Six had Pagonged their way to the final six, Debbie's game probably would have looked a lot better. So in a lot of ways, Debbie was a simple victim of a power shift. But like Tony, she also seemed to be a bit of a victim of her own quest for returnee screen time.
Her various bits of acting this season -- pretending to be drunk at merge, blowing up at Brad over the balance beam -- were spotty. Attention-getting, for sure, and dutifully included in the edit. Considering the results, however, it's hard to argue they constituted great gameplay. Some of it was worth exploring, and it advanced the game more than other, more brazen returnee spotlight hogging, such as Phillip's recycled antics in Caramoan, but mostly it expanded Debbie's brand as a smart, overconfident, slightly off-kilter player, rather than advancing her chances of success.
Supplemental note: Popcorn good, tea bad?
As much as we were underwhelmed by the stagey-ness of Michaela's tea sipping during the JT-ousting Tribal Council, we were highly amused by her (coconut) "popcorn" eating during the Debbie boot. Maybe it's growing on us? Maybe we just like liking things? Maybe we're just giant hypocrites with no actual standards for anything? Dunno. If nobody's going to let Michaela win challenges for them, at least we'll have this.
Great moment or... the greatest moment ever?
While it was delightful as always to spend more time with Cirie this episode, there's a fine line between celebrating someone's triumph over adversity and seizing an opportunity to exploit someone's struggles for a heartwarming TV Teachable Moment™.
We're not objecting to watching Cirie struggle to complete a physical challenge. But we are a bit disturbed that this decision didn't seem particularly consensual. Was Cirie begging to continue with the challenge after it had already ended? Not that we could see. Once Probst announced in front of everyone, "We will stay here with you, if you want to try and conquer this," was there really any way that Cirie, clearly physically exhausted, could have politely declined? No. The onus was squarely on Cirie to accept the host's generous offer that she was "allowed" to finish the challenge.
Everything after that was fine, even if it did feel a bit patronizing. Cirie gave it her all, and succeeded. Her teammates looked legitimately delighted for her. She then gamely gave solid affirmational quotes after the fact, although it was difficult to tell if she was shedding tears of happiness, tears of sadness, or tears of embarrassment.
The thing is, though, it wasn't entirely (or even mostly) Cirie's fault that her team lost. Tai and Zeke also struggled on the balance beam. The winning blue team had already started retrieving their five rings by the time Cirie entered the course. Probst was clearly trying to help Cirie feel better about herself by presenting this "option," but by putting the focus solely on her, he also was tacitly implying that Cirie's failure was the one that cost her team the reward, when Team Blue clearly would have won anyway, even if Cirie had breezed across in her first attempt.
An interesting contrast to this was the Ep.5 reward challenge, "Slave to the Grind," in Survivor: Guatemala. Here, Jamie Newton has to chop through a rope with a sharpened rock, so his newly swapped Nakúm tribe can advance to the final stages of the challenge. His opponent, Brandon Bellinger, flies through the task, and Brandon's new Yaxhá tribe goes on to quickly complete the next few tasks, while Jamie futilely continues to chop and saw away. In the end, as Jamie's tribemates exasperatedly sigh and turn away, Brandon's tribe piles into a mine cart and rolls down a hill, whooping in victory. The challenge long since ended, Jamie finally cuts through the rope, starts untying a bundle of sticks, and asks his tribemates if they want to keep going and finish. Stephenie LaGrossa resignedly informs him, "Jamie, the challenge is over." Probst turns his back and walks away.
That was an organic, human moment. Probst all but forcing Cirie to continue here? Less so. It's great that Cirie was later able to frame it as something positive and uplifting. But on the whole, it seemed an awful lot like a producer trying to create some reality, rather than allowing events to play out under their own power.
Other Game Changers Episode 10 recaps and analysis
Episode 10 exit interviews: Debbie Wanner
Episode 10 podcasts