All season long, it appeared the overall narrative of Survivor: Game Changers was building up to a showdown between real-life cop Sarah Lacina, playing as the Criminal, and Brad Culpepper, formerly of "F*** You, Brad Culpepper!" fame, as the Hero. Two role reversals from their real lives or previous incarnations on the show. Game Changers, you might say. (Also present: Troyzan, formerly of "This is my island!" notoriety, now reduced to "Whatever, I'm just happy to be here, guys! Sure, go ahead and steal my one line, Brad. No biggie.")
But as the finale went down, it quickly became apparent that something was going off track, spectacularly. Sure, Brad burnished his physical game credentials, sweeping the immunity challenges, and tying the overall record for immunity wins in a single season (five). Meanwhile, however, his social game, that one major change he'd made this season, came crashing down around him. Maybe he dropped his guard and/or lost focus due to winning immunity every time? Whatever the case, where once he had deftly, subtly manipulated Tai way back in the premiere, Finale Brad angrily attempted to order Tai around, which... did not go well. Despite all the interior decorating he'd done early on in the season, Brad's game immediately changed from being the hero to being the bully. Ten jury votes later, he completed his #WhatWouldMonicaDo self-fulfilling prophecy by finishing in second place, 7-3-0.
Meanwhile, Sarah successfully continued playing the middle all the way to a well-earned victory. She completed an aggressive, active strategic game, and really differentiated herself from her erstwhile mentor, Cagayan winner Tony Vlachos, in the final stretch. Where Tony's game was built on high-energy, bombastic showmanship, waving idols and bags of tricks around at Tribal Council, Sarah's was far more subtle, and built on personal relationships. Tony backstabbed with abandon, and generally relied on his ally Trish to smooth things over afterwards. Sarah did it all herself. Notably, instead of wielding the implicit threat of an armload of idols and super-idols (none of which Tony ever played to cancel a vote), Sarah used one of her key relationships to gain access to the idol-like Legacy Advantage, never told anyone else about it, and used it to save herself at the Final Six vote. While in some ways, Sarah's and Tony's winning games were similar, in that they both made it to the end while repeatedly flipping on alliances, in many ways they were also quite different. Indeed, this was Sarah's victory, not a Legacy win from Tony.
And yet, despite what should have been a triumphant finish, the finale felt a bit deflated. That's in part because Sarah seemed to be playing the best overall game for the second half of the season, and seized the narrative focus at the merge. The only counterweights to that were Cirie's continued subtle mastery (gone in the first hour), and Brad's rebirth as a player that, despite his previous season's edit, everyone seemed to like. The obvious collapse of the latter removed a lot of the finale's suspense. What had previously been touted all season as "Hero vs. Criminal: The Showdown" instead became "The Criminal Coronation (Two-Plus) Hour." Sure, there was still the possibility that jurors might shower Brad with jury votes in praise of his mighty challenge prowess. But in the end, that probably only resulted in Ozzy's vote switching from Sarah/Cirie to Brad, and Sarah won (and deservedly so) in a slightly smaller landslide than expected. The right ending, but an underwhelming, drama-free finish to a highly uneven season, one that never really seemed to find its footing.
The tragedy of Cirie Fields is the tragedy of Game Changers
The elimination of Cirie at the Final 6 Tribal Council, despite not a single person voting against her, is emblematic of that season-long unevenness. When it became apparent shortly after the merge that Troyzan and Tai's three idols and the Legacy Advantage might all be played at this point, it seemed exciting and hilarious to ponder. As the weeks passed and this still remained a possibility, it started to seem inevitable. And as the numbers dwindled, it became clear that if this did come to pass, it was going to rob the season of one of the best players, either Cirie or Aubry. And thus we lost Cirie, the one player left almost everyone was rooting for, even though we were fully prepared for something as dumb as this, thanks to the uncharacteristically joyless, foreboding edit she received all season.
So of course this would happen to Cirie. Of course Cirie would come back to Survivor for a fourth time a (seemingly) safe 14 seasons later, only to be felled by another production miscalculation (namely, allowing three idols and an idol-like advantage to be active at Final 6). Cirie, who if there had been no idols or advantages active, would have pulled off another masterful 3-2-1 vote here, taking out her strongest competitor in Sarah. Heck, it still would have worked even if Tai and Troyzan's three idols had all been played. It was the Legacy Advantage that did Cirie in. Thus ended the fourth, and quite possibly the final season for Cirie Fields, because there's never been a five-time Survivor contestant.
To be clear, it really was the Legacy Advantage that took out Cirie. Tai was probably always going to play at least one of his idols there, and he was the first to stand up and do so. Had it stopped there, maybe Troyzan doesn't play his idol. But the rules stated that Sarah had to play the Legacy Advantage at that point, and so she followed Tai's lead. Sarah's Advantage play thus forced Troyzan to play his idol, because otherwise he had a 50-50 shot at either being idoled out by a stray vote or drawing rocks. And thus the row of immunity dominoes toppled over, and Cirie was left as the only person not immune, and therefore was out. Sigh.
Jeff Probst tried to put a brave face on it, talking up the historic nature of Cirie's exit. The only person to be voted out while receiving zero votes! Most idols played at a single Tribal! The jury gave her a standing ovation. Probst brought Cirie onstage heading into the commercial break, and the live finale audience gave her a standing ovation, too. Even so, what a pointless waste of another great player, and for the second time this season. (Following Malcolm's falling victim to another of Tai's idols at the completely unnecessary and unfair Two Tribes, One Tribal Council twist in Episode 4.)
And that's the biggest problem with this season. For all the emphasis on aggressive gameplay and making big moves, two of the people most capable of doing those things were hamstrung by production decisions that were mostly there in the first place to allow the less-adept contestants a shot at doing something.
Let's be honest: Four idols at Final Six is far too many. This should never happen again. Do we really need to see the Legacy Advantage again, especially now that contestants will be expecting it? No. Eliminating that will help a lot. Furthermore, if every season has to have three pre-merge tribes, having three (or more) active idols post-merge is also too many. Why can't pre-merge idols expire at the merge Tribal Council? Then toss a couple out in the merge camp, or at challenges, or duct-tape them to Probst's favorite player's water bottle, or whatever. As this season amply demonstrated, idols are only interesting when they're played, not when they're hoarded. And if they're hoarded too long, they become even less interesting, except in a morbid crime scene sense. Expiration dates are a way to force idols to actually be played, and merge Tribal Councils flooded with idols have historically been pretty entertaining. So why not try it? Please?
New Final Tribal - good, but not great?
The other major development of the finale was the new Final Tribal Council/ jury questioning format. When it first got underway, we were worried, because it seemed like the same unhinged ranting by jurors at the finalists, minus the usual boundaries. Plus with people talking over each other!
But after rewatching, allowing the jurors to speak at any point in the proceedings actually did seem to lead to at least some productive discussion, rather than a tired parade of formulaic speeches, mostly made for screen time (Reed in San Juan del Sur, for example). Gone are grandstanding closing tirades; in are people chomping at the bit to spout off their opening tirade, only to have to defend and argue their point under cross-examination. That part is better.
That's how it worked this time, anyway. Given the suspicion that the show made this change after dissatisfaction with the Kaoh Rong jury, it's worth considering: Would that have ended differently with this format? There's no way to know for sure, but probably not.
Kaoh Rong suffered doubly - certainly from a vocal minority of jurors clinging to an inaccurate impression of Aubry as a non-entity who succeeded only because she kept Joe around as an extra vote, but also from production's own stupid decision to allow someone to remove a juror (Neal, who would have been Aubry's champion). With that same idiotic twist in place, the new jury format would almost certainly produce the same result: Loudmouth Scot (and Jason) would stampede over the discussion (abetted by Debbie, as here), and still raise Michele as the only palatable choice, mainly because she was part of their alliance and won some challenges.
That scenario could happen any time a sufficiently motivated "champion" emerges on the jury, and speaks unopposed. This seemed more like a discussion than usual mainly because Ozzy spoke up to defend Brad, after Zeke tried to Erik Cardona the thing for Sarah. But what if there's just one person willing to take a stand, and they dominate the proceedings? That would require active moderation by Probst, something he wasn't obviously doing here. (Maybe he was, and it just wasn't shown.)
The 2016 presidential primaries are ample evidence that a single loudmouthed, belligerent know-nothing can succeed in a crowded debate field simply by talking over everyone and asserting dominance. Probst could regulate that, and certainly, given his dual role as host and executive producer (and as a former talk-show host), maybe he would. But he might not. Contestants would do well to keep that in mind as they send people off toward the jury: Make sure you have at least one Harvard-trained debater in your corner.
Moving forward: The state of the game
Now that the Game has Changed, what's the state of Survivor? Casting selected strong first-time casts in Kaoh Rong and Millennials vs. Gen X, and America picked a similarly competitive cadre of contestants for Cambodia-Second Chance. The level of play was pretty high in those seasons, especially Cambodia and MvGX, and part of that is because the contestants were Survivor-savvy people whose primary focus was playing the game, not screen time. And then there was this season, in which casting said, "No, America. You really wanted to see Troyzan play again, you dummies." (To which the editors replied, "Oh yeah? We'll see about that.") This season was more uneven, partly because of a greater-than-expected number of non-players, partly because some unnecessary twists hindered gameplay, and partly because
Next season, the unfortunately named Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers, features a cast that seems uncommonly high in recruits, that leans heavily on the bad old days of plug-and-pray generic contestants (A former Miss USA contestant! A former NFL player! Several people from the Santa Monica area!). There's still a chance (given a lack of evidence to the contrary) that they're at least recruits who are also high-level, aggressive gameplayers. Although that plaintive hope seems pretty tenuous when one of the tribes on HvHvH has just one person older than 24. (Maybe it should have been called Survivor: KidzBop instead?) Or more ominously, that another tribe is called "Heroes."
For everyone complaining that there are too many returnee seasons nowadays, keep in mind that having all returnees in Cambodia and Game Changers freed up casting to find just one set of all-new players in 2015 (Kaoh Rong) and in 2016 (MvGX). And that worked out really well! In contrast, the 2017 back-to-back filming schedule features two full casts of all new players (HvHvH just finished filming, Season 36 starts filming in a week or so). Because of that, it's reasonable to worry that the median level of gameplay may now drop back to that of the last double-newbie season filming year (which would be 2014). That was the one that gave us the majestic cast that is San Juan del Sur.
Or we can just hope that casting finally found the right formula in MvGX. Yeah, it's probably that.
Production continues to try to spice up gameplay on their own, with each season sporting an array of new twists, idols, and advantages, some of which stick, and some of which don't. On the whole, it's welcome that the formula changes from season to season. Hopefully the idols + Legacy Advantage debacle this season will inspire some kind of change, if not in HvHvH (too late for that!) then in Season 36. Or it may just change because things always change. Either way, this season notwithstanding, usually the various twists have less impact than the casting. Hopefully, regression to the mean will make that true in the coming seasons. Or that the contestants rise above the twists. Or outwit, outplay, and outlast them.
Until then, have a good Survivor offseason, everyone! Here at the True Dork Times, the offseason will include more coverage of Survivor New Zealand: Nicaragua, which is just about to hit the merge, preliminary coverage of Survivor 35: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers and the as-yet-unnamed Survivor 36, and continuing additions to our stats and contestant pages.
Other Game Changers Episode 14 recaps and analysis
Episode 14 exit interviews: Cirie Fields (6th place)
Episode 14 exit interviews: Aubry Bracco (5th place)
Episode 14 exit interviews: Tai Trang (4th place)
Episode 14 exit interviews: Troyzan Robertson (3rd place)
Episode 14 exit interviews: Brad Culpepper (2nd place)
Episode 14 exit interviews: Sarah Lacina (Winner!)
Episode 14 podcasts