With two episodes and two people dropping this week, and a new, doubly named tribe, asking who's running this joint seems appropriate. Clearly, the correct answer is: Original Nuku. Of the 11 people still remaining, a whopping 8 started out in the blue buffs. Only Aubry, Michaela, and Troyzan remain from original Mana, and as far as we've been shown, none of them even talk to each other, let alone claim to be in charge.
But within the teeming hordes of original Nukus, a surprisingly large number of people seem to think they are themselves the puppetmaster. And with the editors seemingly crediting all of them, it's a bit hard to tell what the correct story actually is. So let's go through and try to separate the contenders from the pretenders, shall we?
Sierra received the episode title (singular, even though it was two regular episodes Frankensteined together), proposed the merge vote Hali/Michaela split. She also says she feels like she's in charge. She (correctly) felt safe enough that she pocketed her Legacy Advantage at the merge, saving it for its final potential use at Final 6. While her name came up this week as a potential vote target, it was only actually written down once, and then just by Cirie as some (unexplained) mischief. With her six-person alliance's likelihood of Pagonging the stragglers intact, F6 is probably about the time she'll eventually be targeted. Cirie sees Sierra as "The godfather, she's controlling Brad, who's controlling Troyzan." Andrea, however, sees Sierra as a pawn protecting Brad. With the women holding a 7-4 advantage over the remaining men, it's possible that somewhere down the line, Sierra could end that question by taking Brad out. Until then, though, it's an open question of who's really in charge.
Meanwhile, Brad seems to think he's in control, and the editors seem to gush at his every utterance (especially if it's about Monica). It's unclear whether Troyzan views Brad as his real #2, but every time Brad mentions Sierra and Troyzan in confessional, he always mentions Sierra first. So that's a sign that Troyzan is actually #3 in that alliance, and thus clearly is not in charge. But Brad still could be. Up until this point, the editing has argued that Brad is the actual leader here, making decisions at challenges (and dealing with the fallout), or directing where Tai's idol lands. Sierra's post-merge rise in visibility, however, could argue that this balance of power could be shifting. One of these two seems to be the real leader, unless someone takes them down. If someone does, that would make a far more interesting story, but it was first avoided and then skipped in these two episodes, and with each misstep, there's one fewer number on the non-Brad/-Sierra side of the ledger.
Debbie still doesn't seem to have any solid allies, although she does spend a lot of hammock time with Sierra, apparently. She also she gets to name-drop Cochran a few times an episode, so she'll at least be able to leverage that into screentime while claiming she's in charge. Her pretend drunken bender at the merge feast was an inspired bit of theater, at least in the short term. What she needs to do is lull people into complacency and make them think she's harmless, in order to avoid another early post-merge exit. This allows her to do things like blindside Ozzy, for which she received full editorial credit: It was shown as her idea, she did all the footwork in alerting her allies, and the final vote shown sending Ozzy home was her extra vote. On the other hand, next week's Tribal Council is (more or less) the spot in which she went home in Kaoh Rong -- third post-merge boot -- and then she was targeted because she was trying too hard to control the game.
Cirie has been spot on in her reads of everyone, and has been playing up a storm (as expected), now that she's finally been forced to attend Tribal Council. Saving Michaela was a potentially huge move for her, although Michaela did outlast the last Survivor icon who took her under her wing (Sandra). Even so, nothing about fellow legend Ozzy's departure suggests good things lie in store for Cirie (or Andrea). If those two could just re-connect with Zeke and Sarah, then lock in Michaela and Aubry, they would have the numbers. But Zeke's insistence on targeting Cirie and Andrea one step early, before Brad and Sierra, has doomed this option, and probably this season, at least for people hoping to see Cirie succeed. Oh well.
Zeke received votes in both episodes, which is not a good sign for his longevity. He tried to make a big move against Andrea and Cirie, because he felt like he wasn't in charge. The fact that it didn't go through, and that now Andrea and Cirie don't trust him, is pretty clear evidence that Zeke is not, in fact, in charge. But if anyone can schmooze their way back into almost-numbers, it's Zeke (maybe also Cirie). Although having contemplated betraying his own alliance (and, again, Cirie) in the second hour also doesn't bode well for him.
One of the best segments in these two hours was the brief counseling session between Cirie and Michaela. Cirie stepped out of game mode for a few minutes to offer some free, heartfelt advice about navigating the post-merge social game (and life in general), simply because Michaela's closed-off, prickly demeanor reminded Cirie of her younger self. Michaela essentially had a free trip to Exile yacht, minus the food and relaxation and advantage, but plus a four-time player who happens to be one of Survivor's best social/strategic players ever, instead of two-time player/ one-time winner Cochran. Not to mention that it paid off, because Cirie then went to work, turning the numbers on the split vote around to target Hali instead, thereby saving Michaela.
Why was this important? Because, as Michaela asked on the show and on twitter: Yes, this is the first time two African-American women have made the merge. In 34 seasons of Survivor, there have only been seven times (counting this one) where there were two (or more) black women in the cast, period. Three of those times (South Pacific, Philippines, MvGX) both were gone before the merge. And in Cook Islands, two of the three were (although Rebecca made the jury). We're not claiming this happens due to racism, but in a hyper-social game like Survivor, being the only representative of a minority group in a huge tribe of (mostly) white people is just one more hurdle to fitting in. Let's hope this is a game changer.
Game Changers: If players won't change the game, producers will
With the merge in the rear-view mirror, and the game almost two-thirds over, a six-person Day 1 alliance has solid control over the game. (To be accurate, Troyzan, an orphaned straggler from another Day 1 alliance, joined them at the second swap.) All indications are this group will stay strong, and march their way to the end, picking off big-time players as they go. So what can producers do to try to keep things interesting in a season called "Game Changers"? They change the game, of course.
Here, the twist was relatively minor, just forcing Brad and Tai to "voluntarily" sit out of the merge feast. But given how much everyone was complaining about lack of food, that seems like a fairly significant sacrifice, especially in contrast to the bevy of luxurious consolation prizes Debbie received at Exile yacht. What were Tai and Brad given to ease their suffering? Nada. Not even a useless reward-steal advantage. Game changing!
But we did see Debbie play her extra vote advantage, and for the fourth straight time, it had no impact on the game. More game changing! To be fair, most seasons have only a handful of close votes where a single extra one would matter. Furthermore, the new tie vote rules (and massive merge tribe numbers) heavily select in favor of lopsided vote splits, and thus against any scenario in which an extra vote would be useful. Hence an intentional 7-4 split against Hali and Michaela. Ho hum.
On the plus side, with Sierra holding on to her Legacy Advantage, and Tai and Troyzan hoarding their idols (even more game changing!), there could still feasibly be four people immune via idol at the Final 6 vote, plus one more person with regular immunity, for a possible five people that can't be voted out. If only all six could be immune! That would be a real Game Changer.
So long, and no thanks for all the fish, apparently
After seeing the parade of big players that departed in the pre-merge, it's not remotely surprising that Ozzy was booted here, especially after falling just short of an individual immunity win. As we anticipated before the season started, Ozzy leaves after having set a number of career Survivor records:
First off, the obvious one, even though the show never mentioned it: Ozzy has played Survivor more days than anyone else, ending his run here at 128 days played. He's 11 days ahead of Boston Rob (who is in second place), and 19 days ahead of Cirie (fourth), the active player who's closest to his total. Since there are only 14 game days left this season, Cirie can't pass him, no matter what happens this season, so Ozzy will hold onto this record. At least until there's another returning player season, and possibly beyond.
Ozzy's other standout category is obviously challenges. Here, Ozzy needed just two individual challenge wins to tie Boston Rob for most lifetime, but he fell just short in the IC that would have both moved him one step closer, and given him that shot at tying. But he's also a consistently high-finishing contender, and came into the season third in career mean % finish (MPF) in challenges: he slipped, just barely to fourth. Ozzy was 7th in the first IC, dropping out just before Aubry. If he'd just outlasted Aubry, he'd still be ahead of Boston Rob. That's how close it was. Meanwhile, the guy who dethroned Ozzy at "Get a Grip," Tai, debuts at #10 (since this leaderboard requires at least 2 challenges in each of 2 seasons), while Andrea moves up to #16.
There's a third, less-prestigious category in which Ozzy also "excels": getting voted against at Tribal Council. Heading into this season, Ozzy already held the career records in times being voted out (then 4) and VAP, or votes against (then 27). While Ciera briefly passed him the latter category, he re-took that lead (now 34!) with his 7-4-1-1 exit, and of course, extended the other with his fifth boot. Progress?
Tai vs. Debbie - a tale of two nudities
It was the best of times, it was the blur-est of times. The back-to-back airing of these episodes did create a direct comparison of Debbie and Tai's approaches to making themselves seem less threatening by acting kooky. Notably, both methods involved bare butts. Backside-to-backside episodes? (Bonus butt-related trivia: The song from which I lifted the column title contains the word "arse". You're welcome.)
Debbie's seemed to be the more calculated showing: Pretending to be drunk at the merge feast (and eventually mooning Tai). On the surface, this seemed like a brilliant ploy to reduce Debbie's perceived target. On the other hand, it didn't seem like everyone was completely fooled, at least not Hali, raising more questions of "Is she acting?" Furthermore, as a long-term survival mechanism, is this really a good plan? If it breaks down barriers and allows Debbie to be closer to Sierra, then great. It may help Debbie get to the end, although it's unclear how it will help sway a jury.
Tai's streaking at the Ep.9 Marshall's reward seemed more spontaneous, and the more well-received. Everyone cracked up at Tai's clothes-free scampering about, and Tai himself said in confessional that he was just trying to have fun. There was no indication Tai was doing this purely to ingratiate himself with his castmates, it seemed like a spontaneous, free-spirited bit of whimsy. Still, maybe it had the effect of making Tai seem less threatening? Nobody has yet mentioned voting him out.
Together, both Tai and Debbie seem to be trying to take the approach the last winner of an all-returnee season (Jeremy Collins in Cambodia) used: trying to set people at ease. Except that Jeremy's method was to instill confidence by remaining calm, acting as a sounding board, and being everyone's loyal friend. In contrast, both Tai and Debbie are acting erratically, which seems like the opposite. Time will tell if the end result is the same.
Short takes and minor feats: Actual game changing
The Keith Nale Memorial "Stick with the Plan" count: Three - Sierra, Zeke, and Cirie all said this during Episode 8. We still think the show should flash back to Keith saying this (and cackling) at Tribal Council every time someone else says it. Why not?
Nomenclature disconnect: Probst exclusively calls Brad "Culpepper" during challenges, and Brad signed his name that way on the merge tribe flag. But his chyron says "Brad." Everyone else on the show calls him "Brad." Furthermore, if quizzed, probably half the cast would guess his last name was "Andsierra." Give it a rest, Probst.
Pre-merge edit watch: Bogus? Remember all those new alliances that formed last week, based on a deep appreciation of Brad's newly expositioned empathy? Aubry and Brad? Cirie and Brad? Well, two votes past the merge, those have all washed away like so many tears. But hey, at least we did get another #WWMD instance this week.
Other Game Changers Episodes 8-9 recaps and analysis
Episode 8 exit interviews: Hali Ford
Episode 9 exit interviews: Ozzy Lusth
Episodes 8-9 podcasts