Warning: This recap for the “The Tables Have Turned” episode of Survivor: Game Changers contains spoilers.
“The twist” — it’s not just a 1960s dance craze that your dad still busts out at weddings but a term which is synonymous with Survivor. It was the intriguing yet forbidding title of Survivor: Africa‘s fifth episode back in 2001. In that episode, we witnessed the first ever tribe swap, which at the time was a monumental game-changer. Since then, Survivor has used twists to both dramatic effect (hidden idols) and, well, less dramatic effect (medallion of power). Twists have become a staple of the game that inspire both excitement and dread.
Survivor: Africa‘s tribe swap flipped mallrat Silas Gaither’s game upside down, cementing his place in history as the first in a long line of Survivor players screwed by a twist (shoutout to Michelle Yi). We can now add Malcolm Freberg to that unlucky line-up. The long-haired lothario was dropkicked from the game in arguably the show’s biggest twist to date and undoubtedly the most chaotic tribal council we’ve ever seen. “No matter how certain you are, the game can still smack you in the face,” Jeff Probst said as a teary-eyed Malcolm slumped into the night, carrying his now flameless torch in tow, while the other shell-shocked castaways scooped their jaws up from the floor.
Usually, I recap these episodes chronologically, but given that nothing of real importance happened in the first half, it makes sense just to jump right into this insane twist because there’s a lot to unravel.
Twist And Shout
It begins with three simple words — “by the way.” In the hands of Californian funk rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers, those three words are a hit song. In the hands of Jeff Probst, those words are a precursor to your worst nightmare. (Ironically, some people’s worst nightmare is having to listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers.) “By the way, the first, and only the first tribe to finish wins immunity; losers, both tribes go to tribal council,” he casually informs the oblivious castaways. It takes a moment for it to sink in. “That’s kind of a big by the way,” Malcolm laughs, back in happier times.
But the twists don’t stop there. After a competitive immunity challenge which sees castaways blindfolded, drenched in paint, and having to solve a ball maze, Probst drops another clamshell on the two losing tribes (Mana and Nuku). They will attend tribal council TOGETHER and only vote out ONE PERSON. Jaws drop. Eyes widen. The fear is tangible. For a moment I wonder if I’m experiencing some sort of fever dream where Probst has morphed into Jonathan LaPaglia and Australian Survivor is stuck on loop. Anyone that slogged it through that Aussie version of Survivor last year will recognize the twisty similarities.
Nope. This is actually happening. Jeff Varner is almost in tears, having come so close to winning immunity for the Nuku tribe and literally dropping the ball at the last second. His game is now precariously close to ending on the same day it did back in Cambodia just over a year ago. He sums up his worries in a confessional back at camp, “We’re not on the same page. We’re all on a different page. It’s an individual game from the beginning, regardless of what anybody says.” After the actions of certain tribe members later (cough, JT!), he is proven right.
Plotting And Scheming
Sandra doesn’t share Jeff’s concerns. She’s confident in both her position within the tribe and the outcome of the impending tribal showdown. That’s what being a two-time winner with only three votes against you in your entire Survivor career will do for your confidence. On paper, Sandra’s self-assurance is simple to understand; the Nuku tribe has a 6-5 advantage over the Mana tribe. But as Malcolm says, “Paper is the only place it’s simple.” Sandra wants all six of them to plant their votes on Mana’s strongest female, Sierra. But there are other factors in play, like does anyone on Mana have an idol? If so, who? And then there’s the gut-scrambling possibility of a defector in camp.
JT, the lone original Nuku on new-Nuku (NuNuku?), spent the early part of the episode plotting an uprising against Sandra. After seemingly getting Malcolm on board, JT looked set to do what Tony couldn’t — dethrone the Queen. But this twist throws a curveball into JT’s takeover plan, and he now has to decide whether to stick with his new tribe or flip back over to his old buddies on Mana in the hopes they’re all targeting Sandra. And you thought his decision over whether or not to kill that baby goat last week was tough?
The Mana tribe, meanwhile, are trying to figure out their own plan of attack. Antiquing expert Brad believes that JT will vote with them and so targeting Sandra is their best option to survive. Sierra, though, thinks it’s stupid not to go after a physical threat like Malcolm, knowing that it could hurt them in the long-run if he’s still around. While the brain trust tries to come to a consensus, there’s a giant question mark walking around camp who goes by the name Hali Ford.
Hali, the only OG Mana member, is clearly on the bottom of the totem pole and could easily jump back over to her old allies. As we saw earlier in the episode, her new tribe had all but snuffed her torch. These people have no loyalty to her despite what Brad says. It’s this concern and confusion that pushes Tai to look for an idol, hoping that it will at least provide some level of comfort going into what is sure to be a turbulent tribal council. Tai finds a clue which directs him to a spot near the tribe flag, and after a bit of digging, he finds the idol (a lot easier than Troyzan’s challenge idol-grab last episode).
Having proven his loyalty to the tribe by voting out his good friend Caleb, Tai further demonstrates his commitment to the group by telling them he has an idol. He gets a kiss from Sierra for his efforts. First Caleb, now Sierra; Tai is soaking up the love. Now the Mana tribe have some ammo going into what Brad refers to as a “Mexican Standoff.”
Two Tribes Go To War
I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around everything that happened at this tribal council. I feel like my brain has gone 12 rounds with Floyd Mayweather. I need to put all the pieces up on a cork board and connect the dots like Lester Freamon in The Wire.
Things start off relatively tame, with Malcolm talking about how crazy things were back at camp due to all the different angles they had to cover. Then Brad ups the tension by using the word “guns” about four times in the same sentence. “We’ve got our guns against them; they’ve got their guns against us. The question is, is one of their guns pointed at themselves? And is one of our guns pointed at ourselves?” At this point, I start to wish I had a gun pointed at myself. Sandra quickly interjects to let Probst know, “Jeff, all our guns are pointed at them.”
The attention then turns to the potential traitors. JT says, “It would be a shot in the dark for me to land up in the right place,” implying that voting with his old allies would be too risky. Hali, however, seems more willing to jump ship, especially after Brad says she’ll be “public enemy number one” if she doesn’t stay with them. Hali offers information to Nuku, but Sandra turns her down. But Hali isn’t deterred and tries to clue them in by saying “I think this is a stupid time in the game to be thinking about anything except physical threats.” With that, Sandra starts whispering to her tribe, “She wants Brad Culpepper gone.”
Tribal then turns into a whisper-fest. It’s like been back in high school trying to discreetly share answers at the back of the class during a test. Debbie wonders if Nuku has changed plans. JT ponders whether Mana is voting Sandra. Eventually, JT gets up out of his seat, walks over to Brad, and whispers in his ear, “I love you, brother. But they’re voting Sierra out.” Then Hali approaches Sandra and tells her, “You have to do Brad. It’s better for us. I promise.” You’d be kicked out of a class if you were caught doing this during a test.
Suddenly, everybody is wandering around the tribal council set, forming into huddles, whispering plans and promises, the Survivor subtitler putting in an Emmy-worthy performance. To an outsider, the scene resembles a group of people mingling at a Tiki themed after-dinner party. To a Survivor fan (and an elated Jeff Probst), it’s the most anarchic tribal council in 34 seasons. Even when it calms down, and Probst tells them it’s time to vote, Hali holds up the proceedings saying, “I didn’t consent.” But Sandra again knocks her back, telling her “It’s okay, we can vote.” Hali replies, “Okay, you may regret it.”
What a thrill ride. We get a brief moment to breathe while the votes are tallied. Jeff says he’ll soil himself if Sierra plays an idol. Michaela is curious why Hali didn’t just tell them who had an idol; Sandra assures her it’s because none of them have an idol. WRONG!
Before Probst reads the votes, he asks if anyone wants to play an idol. Tai stands up, and after a quick pow-wow with his tribemates decides to play the idol on Sierra. Jeff soils himself. The six Nuku votes come in, all on Sierra, now null and void. Sandra then wonders aloud the same question everyone at home is asking too, “Who’d they go after?” Probst turns over three Malcolm votes, and that’s enough. #Wow indeed.
Malcolm is a player who has been on the other side of some all-time classic idol plays (“Hold up, bro”) and bonkers tribal councils, now he gets to feel the sting of being on the opposite end. “I want to vomit,” he muttered before picking up his torch. I’d feel the same in that situation. To go out because of an unforeseen twist has got to make you sick to your stomach, especially as he was in a good position within his tribe. It’s hard not to feel sympathetic when Malcolm delivers his tearful goodbye message. But hey, at least he joins the ranks of Silas and co in the twist-screwed hall of fame.
But I still have a million questions. What were JT’s intentions with telling Brad they were voting Sierra and for them to vote Sandra? Was he trying to double-bluff him? Or was he hoping Sandra would get idoled out? He certainly didn’t seem pleased that Malcolm ended up taking the bullet. It’s not the first time JT has made a huge blunder in an all-stars season. And where did Hali’s loyalties really lie? It appeared she was trying to help Nuku by telling them to target Brad, which if they did, would have kept them intact. But why didn’t she just let them know about the idol? Or was she not even aware Tai had an idol?
So many questions, and who knows if we’ll ever get all the answers. What I do know is that was one of the most intense and frenzied episodes of Survivor ever. As Probst said, a face-smacker of an episode! Was the twist fair? Probably not. But people said the same about the tribe swap way back in Survivor: Africa and 16 years later Survivor is still twisting and turning.
Quick Tavua Recap: Troyzan failed at the reward challenge. Cirie laughed. Ozzy caught a stringray — it wasn’t as cute as a baby goat so nobody cared about killing and eating it. The end.
Players of the Week
Sierra: It’s hard to figure out the exact details of how things went down but Sierra seemed to be perceptive, correctly called that she was getting votes, and named the target.
Tai: Without finding that idol the Mana crew would have been done for.
Brad: He remained steadfast in the face of craziness. Recognized that Nuku were sticking to their original plan. Told Tai to play the idol for Sierra.
What did you think of that crazy episode? Was Malcolm twist-screwed? Did JT make a huge error? Let us know in the comments below.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.
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