‘Survivor: Game Changers’ Episode 1 & 2 Recap: Clash of Champions

Warning: This recap for the “The Stakes Have Been Raised (Part 1 and 2)” episode of Survivor: Game Changers contains spoilers.

Before we recap that epic showdown between two Survivor titans, I want you to cast your mind back to early 2004. George W. Bush wasn’t a humble painter hawking his portraits on The Tonight Show; he was the warmongering President of the United States. A Myspace “Top 8” friends list determined your popularity. Donald Trump had just fired his first set of contestants on The Apprentice. Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple at the Super Bowl half-time show. And what happened after that particular Super Bowl? Survivor launched its very first all-star season.

Survivor was a surprise smash hit for CBS in 2000, but its behemoth ratings started to dip after the first two water cooler seasons (remember water coolers? They existed in 2004 too). So to boost the show’s popularity and draw in lapsed fans, CBS brought back some of the game’s most memorable players (and Amber) from the first seven seasons. Survivor: All-Stars was billed as a battle of the best, and while many of the big hitters left early, the season did succeed in bumping the show up a couple of ratings points.

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.

Now, after 499 episodes of backstabbing, betrayals, and blindsides, Survivor returns for its monumental 500th episode and fourth full all-star season — Survivor: Game Changers. That title speaks to why the show has had such longevity — the evolution of the game. The core concept of having to vote people out and then convince those same people to vote for you to win at the end is intrinsically fascinating. It’s why the format has only needed minor tweaks over the years (tribe swaps, hidden immunity idols, and this season, no re-votes.) because it’s the players themselves and their approach to the game that keep it constantly moving and changing.

Some of those game-changing players are back this season, including the Queen of Survivor, Sandra Diaz-Twine, the only two-time champ in the history of the show. Joining her is New Jersey cop and Cagayan winner, Tony Vlachos, a man who played his first game with the erratic energy of a coked-up gerbil. The cast includes other memorable names (jungle heart-throbs Malcolm Freberg and Ozzy Lusth, the “gangsta-with-a-smile” Cirie Fields, and Tocantins winner J.T. Thomas), as well as some more questionable choices (the under-the-radar women from Worlds Apart, Hali Ford and Sierra Dawn-Thomas, topping that list). But it’s clear right away that Sandra and Tony are the main attractions and these opening two hours prove just that.

Before the King and Queen do battle, though, there is a whole first hour and elimination to recap!

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.

The Tribes:

Mana: Aubry Bracco, Caleb Reynolds, Ciera Eastin, Hali, Jeff Varner, Malcolm, Michaela Bradshaw, Sandra, Tony, Troyzan Robertson.

Nuku: Andrea Boehlke, Brad Culpepper, Cirie, Debbie Wanner, J.T., Ozzy, Sarah Lacina, Sierra, Tai Trang, Zeke Smith.

Here We Go Again

In the pre-game press, unaging Survivor host Jeff Probst described the start of this season as “uneasy,” comparing it to the movie Jaws, where the sharks are circling, but nobody wants to make the first move in case their head is bitten off. It’s immediately obvious what he meant, as these 20 returning players cautiously maneuver through the early moments of the game, treading lightly so as not to disturb the water.

Even at the marooning, when Probst introduces the theme and kicks things off, it’s only Ozzy who attempts to swim for the tool-kit advantage, while everyone else frantically dashes around the boat collecting supplies. It’s no real surprise that nobody went after him, I mean, it’s Ozzy! You’d have better luck racing a dolphin. Ozzy retrieves the tool-kit, while a cage full of chickens lands on top of Tai; almost killed by the thing he loves most. Meanwhile, Sierra snatches up an envelope marked “secret advantage,” because of course she does, nobody knows she is there.

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.

Mana Maniac

The uneasiness of the game is best exemplified on the Mana tribe. After mere minutes of hitting the beach, Tony hurtles into the woods, screaming like a lunatic about how he’s going looking for the idol. While he later claims it was a joke, Tony’s volatile behavior doesn’t stop at idol searching; he’s soon digging a “spy bunker” so that he can listen in on his tribemates’ conversations.

Tony’s shenanigans create a trepidatious tone at Mana beach. Malcolm refers to him as a “big, bald maniac” and as far as descriptions go, that pretty much nails it. All in all, it’s classic Tony Vlachos, which means superb television, but bad gameplay on a season where everyone is familiar with your antics.

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.

Rising to the Occasion

Things aren’t quite as nutty at the Nuku beach; their main concern seems to be whether they can kill and eat some nearby goats without having to murder Tai first.

Sierra scuttles off to read her secret advantage (although she doesn’t scream about it like Tony). She finds out it’s an updated Legacy Advantage, giving her automatic immunity, but it can only be played at the final thirteen or the final six. If she is voted out before then she must will it to another player. I assume this means the merge is at thirteen — if not, that is a strangely specific time.

There was controversy in the Survivor community when it was first revealed Sierra made it onto this cast. She had many opportunities to change the game in Worlds Apart yet chose to do nothing, so it was rather baffling how she could be considered a “game changer.” But this is exactly the start she needed to help rebuild her image — finding an advantage and following it up by approaching the guys to secure herself in the majority. The problem she needs to avoid is falling into the same position as last time, being a loyal number to an alliance that will dispose of her towards the end. If she can recognize when to make a move and actually go ahead with it, Sierra could make a mark this season.

Things aren’t so peachy for Survivor‘s resident gangsta Cirie, who is definitely feeling on edge within her tribe. The Survivor gods were not kind to her by placing her on a tribe with two of her former enemies, Ozzy and J.T. Ozzy, in particular, seems to have it out for her, even after they clear the air. While nothing comes to a head this episode, the seeds have been planted for Round 2 of the Ozzy vs. Cirie saga.

Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS.
Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS.

Loose Lips Sink Ships

The Nuku tribe win the first immunity challenge of the season, where they had to paddle a raft to an obstacle and collect puzzle pieces before putting them together to form a ship’s wheel. I don’t think the tribes are evenly distributed this season; the Nuku group appears far stronger than Mana challenge wise, and it’s not a shock that they come out on top in both episodes.

With the loss comes a date with Probst at tribal council. If the game wasn’t already uneasy, it’s also revealed to the castaways that for the first time ever, there will be no re-votes after a tie. What this means is that if there is a tied vote, the group must come to a unanimous decision who to send home, otherwise, the vote-getters become safe and everyone else must draw rocks. It’s an interesting wrinkle to the game that could create some compelling situations, or it could backfire and make everyone too nervous to make a move.

Despite Tony’s bunker-building and idol searching, the tribe decides that he’s needed for his strength, plus he’s a big threat, and for other big threats like Sandra and Malcolm, having Tony around as a shield is a great thing. The question then becomes, if not Tony, who? Nobody wants to say anything. Except for Ciera, who throws out the option of splitting the vote between Tony and his right-hand man, Caleb.

Ciera epitomizes the Game Changer theme; she is certainly the person Probst promotes as the player that shares his ethos for the game, meaning big moves, big moves, big moves. “She voted out her mom!” Probst is quick to yell any chance he gets. But the trouble with that reputation in a season where everyone is playing cautiously is that you can quickly become a scapegoat. Once Ciera opened her mouth, these veteran players pounced on it and it was game over. Just like her former Blood vs. Water tribemate Vytas Baskauskas, who was first out in Second Chance, Ciera is the first person sent packing in Game Changers.

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.

Winners Go to War

The second hour of the night is amped up to a whole new level when former winners Sandra and Tony go head to head. It’s the kind of encounter Survivor fantasies are made of. The Ali vs. Fraizer of Survivor. Two of the game’s best, with widely different strategic approaches, locking horns in a battle to prove who is truly worthy of their crown. The only downfall is, it means we have to lose a Survivor superstar this early in the season, which is what plagued the first All-Stars back in 2004 when the legends and former winners were all eliminated pre-merge.

But let’s just back up a second, because it didn’t have to go down like this. At the start of Episode 2, Tony says he’s bored of sitting around and wants to start playing the game. He clearly didn’t take in what just happened to Ciera. He groups together all the big threats (Aubry, Malcolm, Sandra, and… Caleb? Okay, we’ll go with it) and tells them it’s wise to align to keep each other safe. For a brief moment, it seems that another Survivor fantasy has come to life, a super Sandra/Tony alliance! It’s like something straight out of fan-fiction — two former winners working together to bulldoze through the game.

Then reality sets in. Tony’s reality. And Tony’s reality is made up of paranoia and llama noises. While continuing renovations on his spy bunker, he spots Sandra and Troyzan talking in the bushes, so he commando crawls (literally) out of eyesight. Tony listens in to their conversation and overhears his name, mistakenly thinking they were talking about targeting him when really they were saying the exact opposite. Tony’s paranoia kicks into a motion a series of events that sees him end the night with his torch snuffed.

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.
Photo: Robert Voets/CBS.

Not a Gangsta’s Paradise

Checking in with Nuku for a moment, not much has changed for Cirie, who continues to find herself as an outcast on her tribe. It’s blatantly obvious that J.T. and Ozzy are pals; I’m sure it won’t be long before J.T. is sending him a love letter, as he is wont to do. That means Cirie needs to rack up allies, but while everyone is giving her smiles and handshakes, none of them seem willing to actually jump aboard the Cirie wagon. Once again, it mainly comes down to fear and uneasiness.

Sarah tells Cirie she has her back but admits in confessional that she will happily write Cirie’s name down if necessary. Zeke is a massive fan of Cirie, but he’s too scared to align with her knowing how big of a threat she is. Debbie, likewise, isn’t buying what Cirie’s selling, although Debbie seems to think Cirie is called “Sheree,” so maybe not having her as an ally is a good thing.

Luckily for Cirie, Nuku is god-like in challenges, and once again win immunity, this time carrying a giant snake filled with puzzle pieces through the water, before tossing rings onto a target. The Mana tribe completely blew the snake part of the challenge, although Malcolm almost made the most impressive comeback in Survivor history, just two ring tosses away from immortality.

Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS.
Photo: Timothy Kuratek/CBS.

The Queen Stays Queen

With Mana returning to tribal council, it means the Sandra vs. Tony war is back on.

Sandra has had it with Tony’s crap but is worried he might have an idol, so puts forward a plan to split the vote with Aubry, just in case. It’s a rare sight to see Sandra so in control of a vote; that isn’t her usual style. She pioneered the “as long as it ain’t me” strategy and is usually comfortable following someone else’s lead while always remaining aware of where the vote is going. But here, Sandra takes charge, looking like a total badass while doing so. “You’re only King ’til the Queen arrives. I’m here.” Print that on a t-shirt.

Tony, who played a blustering yet masterful game in Cagayan, is outplayed — partly by himself and his own paranoia. His only option is to play the “tribe strength” card, and while it seems that Caleb, Malcolm, and Aubry are on his wavelength, it isn’t enough to topple the Queen. But Tony never gives up, he tries to flip Michaela, recognizing that she is the type of person that doesn’t like to lose. However, at tribal council, it’s clear the jig is up. Sandra and Tony trade cutting one-liners, but when the votes are read, it’s two votes Aubry, and seven votes Tony. And with that, the llama whisperer has his torch snuffed for the first time, leaving his crown behind for Sandra to place in her trophy cabinet.

It’s sad to say goodbye to Tony this early. Even in All-Stars, we got a few episodes with Richard Hatch and Rob Cesternino. Tony leaving in the premiere is devastating. He brings such an electric enthusiasm to the game that lights up the screen whenever he’s on it. He commando crawled across the sand in the middle of the night! It makes me think this season is going to be a repeat of All-Stars, with the big hitters all biting the dust pre-merge, while the lesser known names run away with the game. And that’s what makes me uneasy.

The difference here, though, and why this vote-off is easier to stomach, is that Tony wasn’t taken out by a no-name, he was eliminated by Survivor elite, the two-time champ, Queen of the Jungle, sassy Sandra Diaz-Twine. Adios, Tony.

Players of the Week

Sandra: How could it not be? Even after two previous wins, there is still a vocal minority that undermines Sandra’s abilities in this game. The main criticism is that she has never controlled a vote, and has been lucky not to attend the first two tribal councils. Well, she just attended the first two tribals and controlled the vote. If the phrase “Yaas Queen” was ever appropriate, it’s now.

Sierra: She nabbed an advantage and got herself into an alliance. For someone with almost zero reputation coming into this season, she did what she needed to cement her place.

Malcolm: He’s playing exactly how he should be right now. Being social, trying to keep the threats around to shield himself, but not pushing his agenda if the wind starts blowing in a different direction.

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