All’s well that ends well. That was my initial reaction to the outcome of Survivor: Game Changers. A great player beat another great player for the title of Soul Survivor. Having it come down to a Final Three usually guarantees that some of the best players will remain in the game. Sure, many great ones get knocked out early (Malcolm, Ozzy, Cirie), but we still have Sarah vs. Culpepper vs. Troyzan. That’s a pretty strong final three.
Sarah Deserved to Win
Absolutely. Unequivocally. Sarah played a smart, patient social game. Her takedown of Sierra might be the most legendary, in my mind, because she first convinced Sierra to will her the Legacy Advantage and then stuck a knife in her back. That is EPIC Survivor game play, if you ask me!
Is she the best winner ever? Who cares?!?! But the answer is ‘no’. She did what she had to do to win this season of Survivor. That required building strategic alliances, but it also meant Sarah had to gamble a bit on her choices at Tribal Council. With the exception of Hali and Cirie, Sarah was on the right side of every vote for the remaining jury members. In some cases, she took them down. In other cases, she played along. Taking out Sierra, Andrea and Michaela were probably her best moves because they were strategic threats all along.
Culpepper deserved to win, too. One of the unfortunate realities of Survivor is physically dominant players get very little respect from the jury. Culpepper joins a fairly distinguished group of players who were challenge beasts when it counted but couldn’t take home the title of Sole Survivor.
Here’s what I mean:
Colby Donaldson. Dude was unstoppable the first time he played in the Australian Outback season, setting the bar at five consecutive immunity challenge wins…and lost to Tina Wesson, 4-3.
Terry Deitz. He was a brusk dude at times during the Panama season, but got hosed when he lost the final immunity challenge with three players in the game. He was the most dominant player that season and didn’t even have a seat at the table. Aras Baskauskas backed his way to what I consider the least deserved Survivor victory in the history of the show. I’m of a mind that Terry’s loss is the reason we now have three-person Final Tribal Councils.
Ozzy Lusth. In fairness, Ozzy did lose to a smart, athletic and strategic player in Yul, but still…dude won FIVE OUT OF SIX IMMUNITY CHALLENGES! That’s got to count for something! Ozzy lost by one vote and, sadly, he’s never gotten that close to winning ever again. He’s been in the game for more days than any other player, but he always gets bounced early because of his physical prowess.
The Fatal Flaw
Outside of being challenge beasts, Culpepper and Colby share the distinction of making a fatal flaw right at the end of the game: voting out the wrong player. In orchestrating a vote to knock out Tai, Culpepper let his heart rule his head. There was no way Troyzan could beat him. None. I think he knew that. But a smart guy like Culpepper should’ve recognized Sarah as the greater threat than Tai and taken her out.
Colby made the very same mistake in the Australian Outback. Tina Wesson—another undeserving champion, in my eyes—sidled up to Colby all season long and used him as a human shield. She couched it as a team mentality, but she was playing him and he didn’t recognize it. By virtue of wearing the Immunity Necklace, Colby lulled himself into believing he didn’t have to think as hard about the jury. It cost him dearly when he wrote down Keith’s name in the penultimate Tribal Council. Had he taken out Tina, he would’ve won.
If Terry had a flaw, it was personality. He locked horns with players that season (Cirie and Aras, mostly). But he didn’t even get the chance to take it to a jury.
As for Ozzy, his fatal flaw is he never adapted after his first season playing Survivor. He continued to be a physical threat and one of the best providers at camp. But he never learned to strategize and work alliances better. He simply relied on his physical prowess to get through the day. While I certainly believe physically dominant players get the short shrift at times, they also have to recognize this and work the social aspect of Survivor to compensate.
To that end, Culpepper adapted and made it through most of the 39 days before he kinda went psycho. His treatment of Tai was both creepy and disturbing. In fairness to Culpepper, he recognized it, owned it and apologized for it at the reunion show. I’m sure a big part of that was his competitive nature as well as genuine frustration with Tai. I’m not sure what it is about Tai, but he must make his fellow Survivor players insane, because he left people feeling the same way during his previous season, Brains vs. Beauty vs. Brawn.
The only one for whom I feel any level of disappointment, it’s Ozzy. This was likely his last time playing Survivor and he went out getting blindsided. It’s a pity, but he joins a long line of great players who never won.
Best Player Who Didn’t Make the Merge
Even though Sandra seems like the obvious choice here, I’m going with Malcolm. He’s got a better all-around game than Sandra, in my mind, because he can win challenges and build alliances at camp. Believe me, I take nothing away from Sandra, but the reality is she’s a one-trick pony in Survivor. To her credit, she is an expert at the social game. But I think a champion should have more than one club in his or her bag.
It’s also worth noting the only reason Malcolm got voted out when he got voted out this season is because J.T. was a complete screw-up at Tribal Council and tipped his hand to Culpepper, leading to Tai playing his Immunity Idol for Sierra.
Unfortunately for Malcolm, he aligned with some ridiculously bad players this season. If he gets another shot at Survivor, it’ll only be tougher for him to build alliances. People know he’s a threat.
(Photo by Timothy Kuratek/CBS via Getty Images)
Speaking of Dumb Players…
J.T. is fast moving up my list of Dumbest Players in Survivor History. I swear, he’s doing everything he can to prove his Survivor: Tocantins victory was a complete fluke. He played a solid game that season, but I still question his unanimous victory over Stephen Fishbach, who was a very smart and crafty player.
After Tocantins, J.T. has done everything he can to deconstruct his own championship. Remember Heroes vs. Villains? When J.T. had the great idea of giving his Immunity Idol to Russell Hantz—who was on the opposing tribe!—as a means of building an alliance later in the game? Yeah, how’d that work out for you, J.T.? And then, when he had a chance to redeem himself this season, he openly betrayed his alliance by trying to curry favor with Culpepper. AT TRIBAL COUNCIL IN FRONT OF EVERYONE! Dude, what were you thinking?!?!
J.T.’s sin is one committed by many players. He was thinking too far ahead of the game and ignoring the most immediate fire that needed extinguishing. He crossed the wrong player (Sandra) and it cost him.
Craftiest Move of the Game
Speaking of Sandra, she proved her bona fides by exposing a growing rift between Michaela and J.T. and using it to her advantage. Remember the sugar incident? To this day, I don’t know how Sandra ate all that sugar without puking her guts out, but it exemplified her ability to seize upon an advantage in the game. She knew J.T. already had a personal beef with Michaela over the sugar. By misleading J.T. to believe Michaela ate all the sugar, it fed J.T.’s obsession to vote out Michaela and take his eye off the ball.
One might argue Sandra didn’t need to go to such lengths to get rid of J.T., but the point is she saw an opportunity to take advantage and tilt the game in her favor where no one else did. That is the mark of a smart player.
Worst Player Ever
This season’s Worst Player Ever Award (first time we’re doing this) goes to none other than Debbie. She rivals #CluelessKass as the most obnoxious, most unnecessarily arrogant, most self-UNaware, most self-absorbed load on two feet to ever play this game. With the exception of getting Ozzy out of the game, Debbie’s time on the island must’ve been an absolute nightmare for her fellow players. Strategically speaking, nothing she said or did made sense. Remember when she “acted drunk” at the merge? …the hell was THAT?!?! How on earth does that advance your lot in the game, you wackadoodle? Or, prior to that, when she went apeshit bonkers on Culpepper? And then insisted it was all an act? Mmm-hmm. Sure it was, Debbie. Sure it was.
Yes, orchestrating the vote to blindside Ozzy out was a smart move, but she screwed the pooch by overplaying her hand and burning her second-vote advantage.
That was dumb for two reasons:
1) You already had the numbers to get him out. Even if the plan backfires, you can lay low and use the advantage later when you need it.
2) Win or lose, you’ve shown everyone your hand—Ozzy included—and now he knows you were out to get him the whole time. That’s just bad jury management, man!
How do I know I was right? Debbie got bounced out the very next Tribal Council. In this game, Debbie with an advantage or power of any sort is like giving a monkey a blow torch: he’s gonna burn shit down and probably hurt himself in the process. That’s exactly how Debbie plays Survivor. Unpredictability only works when you have a strategy no one else can see and can’t predict. Debbie is just a nutbar. Even SHE doesn’t know where she’s going!
In Defense of Tai
Tai is a player I can’t help but like. He seems like a goodhearted guy. In the game of Survivor, he’s a decent competitor; better than people want to admit. Unlike Sarah, he did win individual immunity. His ability to sniff out hidden Immunity Idols is positively Russell Hantzian. To me, those are some pretty strong credentials for his gameplay. Where Tai blows it is his inability to articulate a strategy. He freestyles a bit too much and is therefore an unreliable ally. I’m sure that’s what frustrated Culpepper.
I also think he screwed up his own game by sharing information about his two idols. Sure, he saved Aubry and led to Cirie’s ouster, but he should’ve kept those both to himself.
My Favorite Player
Aubry is easily in my Top Three Survivor Players list. I think she’s one of the smartest, most mentally dialed-in players we’ve had in the game. But, for whatever reason, she just couldn’t get any traction this year and she knew it. Being on the wrong side of so many votes had to be frustrating, but she hung in there right to the bitter end; even winning immunity once! I hope she comes back and has a bit more luck next time.
A Word About Michaela
Michaela could very easily become one of my favorite players. She’s very close to it right now for the simple fact that she understands Survivor the same way I understand Survivor. She called out her fellow jurors for displaying any hurt feelings about getting voted out or getting blindsided or getting backstabbed. It’s part of the game! And the only reason those people bitch is because they got backstabbed first. Michaela’s like me when people bloviate about “integrity” in Survivor: I roll my eyes at that nonsense.
Approach to Survivor aside, Michaela is a smart, strategic player, but I think she got swept up into Cirie’s aura this season; which is easy to let happen. She’s certainly not the first. But playing from under Cirie’s wing didn’t allow Michaela to stretch out and show everyone just how strategic a threat she is to go with her athletic ability in challenges.
To Michaela’s credit, she knows her flaws. She allows her emotions to get the better of her and it ends up costing her. If you listened to her during the reunion show, she even talked about how she learned the game is more than just challenges and votes. If she gets a third chance to play—and I hope she does—I think she could win the whole thing.
Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers
All right, Survivor. You’re trying too hard now. I think we’re going to see some interesting players next season, but let’s cut the cutesy nonsense, eh?
See you in the fall with more Survivor chatter, kids.