‘Survivor: Game Changers’ Episode 8 & 9 Recap: Merge Madness

Warning: This recap for the “There’s A New Sheriff In Town (Part 1 and 2)” episodes of Survivor: Game Changers contains spoilers.

The events of last week’s tribal council, where Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender, are still resonating, particularly in the media where Survivor is receiving more mainstream attention than it has in over a decade. What happened went beyond the confines of a game show and instead tapped into something deeply important and culturally relevant — as demonstrated by the global news coverage it garnered.

But as the opening scene of last night’s double episode proves, there is very little time for reflection and healing in Survivor. Sarah talks about how her views on the transgender community have changed, and if any good is to come from this terrible situation, we can hope there are many other Sarahs out that who have opened their minds a bit. As for Zeke, his hope is that what happened can help with his own issues and insecurities. But he soon switches back into game mode: “Make no mistake; there’s still a task at hand — I’m here to win a million dollars, so let’s get back to it.”

Zeke is 100 percent right. The emotional scars of that dark tribal council will be carried forever, especially for Zeke, but the momentum of the game doesn’t allow them to dwell on it. As is the nature of Survivor, the show must go on. Contestants are still embroiled in a strategic scramble for power, and that’s never more present than at the merge.

With 13 players merging and a double-episode, there’s no time to waste, so as Zeke says, let’s get back to it…

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

Feast or Famine

There are always two guarantees that come with a Survivor merge: paranoid scrambling and a delicious feast. The merge is a milestone in the game that is worthy of celebration, and that seems to be what is on the table when Jeff Probst tells the 13 remaining castaways to drop their buffs. But as with many things in this “game-changing” season, it comes with a caveat. Probst informs the group that the only way they’ll get to indulge in the table of food is if one person from each tribe volunteers not to eat.

The amount of twists this season is bordering on Big Brother ridiculous at this point. So far we’ve had new re-vote rules, the Legacy Advantage, five Hidden Immunity Idols (three currently in play), two tribe swaps, Debbie’s Exile yacht surprise with added Cochran, an Extra Vote, and now this. It seems like just because the season is titled “Game Changers” the producers think they have to throw everything at the beach. But too many twists simply water down the game, especially ones like this which are pointless and cruel.

Brad and Tai, the volunteers, don’t even receive a secret advantage for their sacrifice. Instead, they have to sit on the sidelines watching the rest of the tribe stuff their stupid faces. And as if that wasn’t punishment enough, Debbie, after one too many cocktails, moons Tai. Three things I didn’t think I’d see this episode — Debbie’s blurred buttocks, Debbie twerking, and Debbie controlling a vote. In that order. In a confessional, Debbie claims she was only acting “drunk” in an attempt to make people feel comfortable with her, and hey, it kind of worked. Let’s add “actor” to her resume.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

Sides Begin To Form

The great thing about the merge from a viewer perspective is that we start to learn more about the game dynamics. Despite all the twists and big-name eliminations, the strategy so far has been fairly straightforward; players have voted based on their original tribe designation. The simplicity of the game has meant a lack of insight into the sub-alliances and relationships within the large nine-person Nuku majority.

Initially, there appears to be a consensus to take out Michaela or Hali, two old Mana members with no strong connections to anyone from Nuku. But outside all of the nodding and smiling, it soon becomes apparent not everyone is on board with that plan. Cirie, for one, doesn’t see how getting rid of Michaela benefits her game. She shares her concerns with Andrea and Zeke, who seem to make up one alliance, and they’re stuck in a covert power struggle with the Sierra/Brad alliance.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

That’s the other plus point of the merge; we get to hear from players that up until now have been shortchanged by the edit. Cirie, a true game-changer, has been criminally absent from the season, due in large part to not attending a single pre-merge tribal council. With her life in the game now at risk, we get to hear from the legendary Survivor mastermind, and it’s delightful. Much like a Sandra or a Tony, Cirie has her own unique way of looking at the game and can express her thoughts and strategies in such a compelling manner (while beaming that great big smile of hers).

In one of the stand-out scenes of the episode, Cirie reaches out to Michaela to give her a pep talk. She is able to see herself in Michaela when she was her age — hot-headed and temperamental. Cirie tells Michaela she needs to be aware of what she is projecting to others; that she needs to socialize and not push people away. Having Cirie as a mentor is better than any advantage Probst could offer — she’s worth a thousand Cochrans (Yeesh, imagine a thousand Cochrans?). Michaela is appreciative of Cirie’s support, and as she later mentions, both being African-American women further strengthens their bond. This is the first time in 34 seasons that two African-American women have made the merge, which is as depressing as it is shocking.

Who Will Fire First?

After Andrea wins a hard fought immunity challenge, back at camp the plans for the night’s tribal council begin to take shape. Sierra, a quiet presence in her first season, has now stumbled into the role of “the cocky leader,” an archetype that is rarely rewarded in Survivor. She says she is in charge and wants to split the vote between Michaela and Hali, just in case Hali has an idol. They throw out Zeke’s name as a decoy vote, with Debbie saying, “He has the absolute best story.” How quickly sympathy can be turned against you.

In theory, splitting the votes makes sense, but Sierra suggests putting four votes on Hali, and the rest on Michaela. If your intention is to flush an idol, it would surely make more sense to put the majority of votes on the idol holder, that way if it isn’t played, the person goes home with the idol. I guess working with Brad Culpepper has an adverse effect on your math skills. Zeke later queries Sierra on this matter, and her reasoning is that she doesn’t want Michaela coming back to camp in a rage if she realizes she is a target.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

Meanwhile, Cirie isn’t happy with Michaela going home and would rather take out Hali if it’s a choice between the two. However, Cirie is slick and doesn’t want to draw an unnecessary target on herself, so she tells Michaela to vote Zeke still and that she’ll do what she does best.

At tribal council, there is a lot of talk of lines being drawn and idol paranoia. Hali says people are welcome to strip search her to prove she doesn’t have an idol but nobody takes her up on the offer. Despite Hali’s protestations, she becomes the first member of the jury, as seven votes send her packing, while only four hit Michaela, and two for Zeke. We didn’t see it unfold, but it seems Cirie was able to convince the group to vote Hali while keeping her alliance with Michaela undetected. Welcome back to the game, Cirie!

When To Make A Move?

After being saved, Michaela puts her full trust in Cirie and makes a pledge to help her out however she can. Cirie wants to keep their alliance under wraps so that they can continue to chip away at the other side. And that appears to be the next move; use the numbers to take a swing at one of the big dogs — Brad or Sierra. Who would have thought we’d be referring to Brad and Sierra as the big dogs of the season?

Cirie discusses the plan with Andrea, Aubry, and Zeke. Andrea is all in but doesn’t think they should let Debbie or Tai know in case they spill to Brad/Sierra. Aubry also seems pumped to be Team Cirie. And then there’s Zeke.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

Zeke has spent a significant portion of this season talking about wanting to slay his enemies and bathe in their blood like some kind of medieval villain. The Survivor superfan in him wants to take control of the game even when it might not be in his best interest. He is visibly frustrated that Cirie and Andrea are privy to more information than he is. It’s a knock to his ego, and he can’t have that. So he considers eliminating one of them so that he can take charge of the alliance. It’s way too early to be even thinking about such a move, and Zeke recognizes that, referring to how making a move too soon last season cost him. But he’d rather make a move and fail than have regrets for not making it at all.

I think the problem for Zeke is that he’s indoctrinated in Probst’s “BIG MOVEZ” mantra. Millennials vs. Gen X was a fast-paced game of ever-shifting alliances, idol plays, rock draws, and all sorts of things that play right into that mindset. Zeke was a big part of that season and being invited right back to play again probably brainwashed him into thinking that is the only way to play. But Zeke misses some of the nuances of the game, the smaller moves like knowing to when to sit back and allow someone else to take control. Aiming his arrows at Andrea and Cirie at this stage, who were clearly loyal to him, was an error in judgment.

Zeke’s desperation to make a move immediately draws suspicion. During a spa reward, won by the team of Zeke, Andrea, Tai, Ozzy, Troyzan, and Debbie, he approaches Debbie and Tai with the idea of blindsiding Andrea or Cirie. They humor him, but in confessional Debbie tells us she doesn’t trust Zeke. Even though he was telling the truth, his eagerness to make a big move is seen as a red flag, especially in a season where the movers and shakers have been quickly snuffed out.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

Record Breaker

The immunity challenge in the second hour is a Survivor classic — grip onto a tall pole and don’t fall off. As Ozzy probably lives in a tree, this is a challenge he’s born to play and is undefeated in having won it twice previously. Players drop one by one, and it looks like Ozzy will complete the hat trick, but he’s given some fierce competition from a skinny, streaking, 51-year-old Vietnamese man named Tai. For all of Tai’s idol sleuthing skills, it’s easy to forget that he’s also pretty adept at challenges.

It’s an intense showdown, and Ozzy even has to resort to cheap tactics, like threatening not to catch any fish for the tribe if Tai wins. There’s that famous social game Ozzy is known for! It’s a great contrast to Tai, who earlier in the episode gave up the chance to eat so that everybody else could feast. And it’s what makes it so much more satisfying when Tai ultimately dethrones Ozzy. He also accidentally refers to Ozzy as the “queen” instead of “king” which is hilarious. All Ozzy can do is sit and take it, not realizing his day is about to go from bad to worse.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

Back at camp, Zeke continues to push his blindside Andrea/Cirie plan, this time telling Sierra that the girls are targeting her. Much like Debbie, Sierra is wary of Zeke and is put off by his approach. Sierra relays this information to Cirie, who then shares it with Andrea, and before you know it, Zeke’s spot is blown up. Andrea is flabbergasted that Zeke would do this and now wants Zeke gone tonight.

Amidst all the chaos, an unlikely figure decides to take hold of an opportunity. Debbie tells Sierra they should blindside Ozzy as nobody would see it coming. Sierra seems into the idea, and so Debbie goes and spreads the word, whispering the new plan to Sarah, Tai, and Troyzan. It should be noted that Debbie’s whispering is louder than most people’s shouting.

At tribal council, Sarah says the tribe is currently like a bunch of single people who are just looking to hookup. With all the nudity this episode and now the talk of hooking up, I’m not sure where all this is heading. Ozzy reiterates his ability to provide food for the tribe but given this is Season 34 and not Season 1 people don’t really care despite their regular pizza and hamburger cravings. The game is about so many other things. For example, Zeke is on the hunt for people who think they can beat him in the end. And Cirie is looking for people who display trust.

Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.
Photo: Jeffrey Neira/CBS.

The time for talking is over. The castaways make their votes. We see Sierra vote for Ozzy. Andrea votes Zeke saying she’s done with him forever — again, how quickly things change. Cirie’s vote isn’t shown, but we hear her say it’s “to spice things up.” Before Probst can go and collect the urn, Debbie stands up and asks to play her Extra Vote advantage.

The votes come in. Six for Ozzy. Four for Zeke. And two stray votes, one for Aubry from Zeke, and Cirie’s “spicy” vote for Sierra. It turns out Debbie didn’t need to play her Extra Vote, but it’s hard to fault her decision, given that if Cirie hadn’t thrown that hinky vote, we’d have had a 5-5 tie. Hopefully we’ll find out next week what Cirie’s motive was for the Sierra vote.

And with that, Ozzy is voted out of Survivor for an unprecedented fifth time (he was once voted out three times in the same season). He’s played more days than anyone in the show’s history yet his game has never really evolved. His focus is always on the challenges and camp life but very little time is spent on creating the social bonds and deep relationships that are necessary to maneuver through the game. In a way, he’s similar to Zeke, but just at the other end of the totem pole. They’re both fixated on one particular aspect of the game; Zeke with the BIG MOVEZ and Ozzy with the survival elements. It cost Ozzy his life in the game and almost ruined Zeke’s too.

Player of the Week

Cirie: It’s such a thrill to see Cirie wheeling and dealing again. She managed to switch the vote to Hali, save Michaela, and keep her alliance undetected.

Debbie: Drunk or not, Debbie pulled out some impressive gameplay this week. She kissed and made up with Brad, following Cochran’s advice. And she spearheaded the Ozzy vote-off. Just no more twerking, please.

Tai: Let’s give it up for Tai. He earned goodwill by volunteering to sit out of the feast. He beat Ozzy at his own challenge. He’s in the majority alliance. And he still has two idols!

Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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