Warning: This recap for the “Vote Early, Vote Often” episode of Survivor: Game Changers contains spoilers.
The Survivor flag is flying at half-staff today. Survivor fans across the country are wearing their buffs around their arms in commemoration. Why? The queen is dead. That’s right; the unthinkable happened. Sandra Diaz-Twine, Survivor‘s only two-time winner, finally had her torch snuffed.
My childhood was already stomped into dust this past Sunday night at Wrestlemania when Roman Reigns retired The Undertaker, so why not just completely bury my soul in the dirt. Now my all-time favorite Survivor player is voted out for the very first time, bringing an end to one of the greatest reigns in not only Survivor history but game show history as a whole.
Ninety-four days. That’s how many days Sandra has played this game (not in a row, this isn’t Australian Survivor). She went 93 of those days without ever being eliminated. That’s 2,232 hours of gameplay over three seasons where she attended a total of 28 tribal councils and only ever received one vote against her that counted. She outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted icons of the game such as Rupert Boneham, Jonny Fairplay, Russell Hantz, Parvati Shallow, Boston Rob, and Tony Vlachos. She competed in the old school era (when idols were just a glimmer in Probst’s eye), the middle years, and now the new school BIG MOVEZ era. And, most importantly, she was awarded the $1 million check twice! There is a reason she receives an ovation from her tribe upon leaving this episode.
It all starts with Jeff Probst, a phrase becoming all too familiar when it relates to terrible, terrible twists. He tells the three tribes to drop their buffs. The second tribe swap of the season sees the 15 remaining players shuffled into two new tribes — well, everyone but Debbie, who doesn’t draw a buff. Probst informs the balancing specialist that she’ll be heading to Exile Island and will join the losing tribe after the next tribal council.
The new tribes are as follows:
Mana: Aubry, Brad, Cirie, Hali, Michaela, Sierra, and Troyzan.
Nuku: Andrea, Jeff, Ozzy, Sandra, Sarah, Tai, and Zeke.
Crazy Island – Debbie.
Things instantly look sketchy for Jeff and Sandra, having gone from the top to the bottom in a “New York minute” as Jeff phrases it. Aubry and Troyzan, however, are given new life. While outcasts on their previous tribes, this shake-up gives them the opportunity to build new relationships, and we see that right away as Brad reaches out to Troyzan on the basis that “we’re both men.” A high chance this is going to be the worst alliance ever.
On the new-new-Nuku (blame the constant swaps), all eyes are on the queen. Zeke states that Sandra is the most dangerous player in the game and they need to take her out before the merge, otherwise she’ll end up winning again. The plan is to feed Sandra and Jeff a story, pretending that the tribe really wants to vote out Tai, a ruse which Jeff seems to buy even though he knows he shouldn’t fully trust it. Sandra isn’t so confident but assures us that once she gets her feet wet, she’ll be running things on this tribe, too.
An Exile Surprise
Meanwhile, Debbie makes her way to Exile. She says she can handle it because she spent a lot of time alone as a kid with just her and her pony. That’s animal cruelty making that poor pony spend time alone with Debbie. But wait… there’s another twist!
It turns out Exile isn’t a desolate island where Debbie must fend for herself, it’s a luxury yacht with a full spread of food. But wait… there’s another twist!
As Debbie is filling up on shrimp cocktails, a boat pulls up carrying Survivor: Caramoan winner John Cochran. No, he’s not there to plug his new CBS sitcom but to act as a sounding board for Debbie. I believe at this point in my notes I wrote, “WHAT IS THIS S–T?!” Cochran had more confessionals in this one segment than Andrea has had all season. It was just weird — like some sort of Survivor Aftershow where Cochran interviewed Debbie about her game so far, except it was stuck in the middle of the actual show. This is not acceptable in Sandra’s send-off episode!
But wait… there’s another twist! After trying to convince Debbie that calling Brad a “wanker” is probably not her smartest move, Cochran presents her with a secret game advantage. She can choose between a fake idol making kit, an extra vote, or a tribal immunity challenge advantage. Debbie picks the extra vote because who came to Survivor to sew? Plus, screw those other people, right? I’d have probably picked the same, although the extra vote has a cursed history in this game, and I’m not sure Debbie’s going to be the one to utilize it to full effect.
I despised this whole segment. I don’t mind Cochran, but I didn’t understand the point of him here. It ate up way too much time and served no real purpose other than Probst getting his buddy on TV again. The advantage could have just been waiting for Debbie on the boat sans Cochran. But in a season of Game Changers, I guess the twists will just keep on coming. It’s getting to the point where next week I expect Probst to bring out a giant Wheel of Fortune-style wheel for the contestants to spin. Maybe someone will win Tai Chi lessons with Coach? Or perhaps an Idol Finding 101 course with Russell Hantz?
Tai Freak Out
After a shut-out in the immunity challenge, the Nuku tribe has a tribal council looming. Jeff is confident that everyone wants Tai out, but Sandra senses something isn’t quite right and sets about working her magic on the tribe. Sandra has always had a scary ability to read a room (or campsite). She knows when someone isn’t forthcoming with the whole truth. And while the vote ultimately goes against her here, she was able to pick up on the bad juju.
She makes a pitch to Andrea, Ozzy, and Sarah about targeting the remaining Kaoh Rong players. But it’s her “magic” which makes her so threatening, because as Ozzy and Sarah soon admit, they almost began to fall for Sandra’s words. Sarah says that Sandra “sucks you in” because she speaks so calmly and in a matter of fact way. Yes, we’ve seen Sandra argue with the best of them, but she never freaks out when it comes to the game. She gives off confidence and charm, and it’s that which draws people in.
Tai, on the other hand, is the opposite of Sandra. Even though he’s been playing a fairly impressive game so far, he is easily paranoid and prone to freak-outs. Not that his worries are completely unwarranted: his tribe has set him up as the decoy boot. Tai recognizes his own paranoia, which is partly brought on by discovering not one, but two hidden idols in the same episode (a Survivor first?)! Earlier in the episode, he poured water on the wooden boards of the water well at both his old and new camp, revealing tribe symbols which allowed him to locate the idols.
For some, having all that power would make them feel untouchable, but for Tai, it’s a burden. When he sees his tribemates sneaking off for private discussions without him, it only makes him more nervous. He approaches Ozzy and Jeff to make sure everyone is still voting Sandra, inadvertently revealing the real plan to Jeff, who informs Sandra. Sandra tells Jeff that she’ll act like she is going home and then call out Tai at tribal council.
The Reign Is Over
At tribal, once again, things break down into all out chaos. Sandra plays up that she’s going home, but Tai isn’t so sure. Sarah says that she’s heard multiple names thrown out at camp, which pushes Tai into ultimate freak-out mode, because the only name he heard all day was Sandra. Tai whispers a new plan to Sandra and Jeff before eventually calling his target out loud — Ozzy. Again, WHAT IS THIS S–T?!
Now the whole tribe is whispering and wondering if they should change plans. Zeke questions Tai’s loyalty. Sandra and Jeff tell Andrea and Ozzy they’ll vote with them. It’s a mess. But for a brief moment, it seems like Sandra has managed to work her way out of another sticky situation. Is Tai about to be voted out while holding TWO idols, James Clement style? Or is he going to end up playing an idol and Ozzy will be blindsided?
Unfortunately, neither of those things happens. Instead, all but two votes land on Sandra, sentencing her to her first-ever torch snuffing. “Sandra, for the first time in 94 days, the tribe has spoken,” Probst says as her tribemates serenade her with a round of applause. A mark of respect for a Survivor legend.
Now we’re one episode away from the merge, and this season is looking bleak. Those All-Stars fears I had back in the premiere are becoming more of a reality by the week. Just look at who we’ve lost so far — Ciera, Tony, Malcolm, JT, Sandra. Those are some of the biggest names in Survivor history; easily some of the most iconic players in this cast. Only Cirie and Ozzy remain who fit into that legendary bracket. The merge could be a hard slog.
A Final Ode To Sandra
Putting aside all Sandra’s game accomplishments, the best thing about the queen is her personality. She isn’t the archetypal Survivor winner. She’s not physically imposing or this mega challenge beast. She isn’t the Harvard-educated nerd who studied game theory. Nor is she the flirtatious bikini babe. She’s this lippy, fish-destroying, hat-burning, Russell-hating, no-nonsense Hispanic momma who trips over her own feet and can’t win a challenge to save her life. Even in her first season, Pearl Islands, when she was only 28, she still seemed like the mom of the tribe — albeit the cool mom that cursed and let you bum cigarettes. Sandra wasn’t plucked from central casting; she is a real salt of the earth, hardworking woman who CAN GET LOUD TOO, WTF?!
Yet it was her bluntness that allowed her to succeed within the game. She was deceptively honest — or should that be honestly deceptive? She used her reputation as a straight-shooter to craft lies (and they were good lies!) that spared her on multiple occasions. Sandra didn’t care who went home and when; yes she had preferred targets, but she was always able to read a situation and move with the flow of the game. Her motto — “as long as it ain’t me” — became a blueprint for how to win the game for herself and many future players.
But last night, it was her.
“I think I did good for 16 days, considering I’m a two-time winner,” Sandra said in her heartfelt exit confessional. “I know why I live the life that I live, and it’s because of Survivor. There will never be another two-time winner except the queen.”
Adios, Queen Sandra.
Players of the Week
Zeke: I’m still confused over what exactly went down at that tribal council. But ultimately Sandra went home and Tai was the decoy. That was Zeke’s plan, and therefore I guess he should receive the credit.
Tai (for the first half): I have to specify, this is only due to finding both idols. He had the smarts to try the water trick again at his new camp and it paid off big time. Although the paranoia having those two idols in his pocket is causing might not be worth it in the long run.
Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS.
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