‘Survivor: Game Changers’ Finale Recap: Smooth Criminal

Warning: This recap for the “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” episode of Survivor: Game Changers contains spoilers.

Survivor has been on somewhat of a hot streak the past few seasons. The franchise found a renewed energy, helped in large part by an improvement in the casting department. After a bad patch of heavy LA recruiting, the show returned to casting genuine fans of the show from a wider spectrum of backgrounds and locations. It made for a more dynamic, exciting, and engaging television show.

It started with Second Chance, where for the first time ever, fans got to decide the cast, voting 20 of their favorite former players back onto the island for another shot. While the Second Chance season veered into meta territory at times, there was a palpable sense of passion amongst the returning castaways. Kaoh Rong followed, a season with a distinctly old school feel (in the best possible way), choosing to focus on character over pure strategy. Last season’s Millennials vs. Gex X — silly theme notwithstanding — was a perfect blend of the two, combining compelling characters with captivating gameplay.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

That hot streak is probably why Survivor: Game Changers has felt so empty and sluggish in comparison. The pre-merge purge of the biggest personalities, the deplorable and ugly Varner/Zeke situation, the dreary post-merge game where everyone looked like they’d rather be doing anything else than playing this game for $1 million. Even when the episodes included interesting gameplay and surprise eliminations, it all felt rather hollow, leading to what is arguably one of the worst season finales in the show’s history.

Honestly, the season was flawed from the very moment they announced the theme and cast. The title, Game Changers, is so grandiose it was unlikely ever to meet the expectations the name evoked. The producers tried livening it up with countless twists and advantages, but it came off as a desperate ploy rather than entertaining TV. Then there was the cast itself — a hodgepodge of Survivor legends and also-rans that never quite looked right on paper and even less so when they got out on the island together.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

Three of those names that raised eyebrows when the cast was first revealed were Sarah Lacina, Brad Culpepper, and Troyzan Robertson — ironically, the Final 3 of Survivor: Game Changers. That kind of sums up the season and this soul-sucking season finale. Sarah had a relatively large presence in pre-merge Cagayan, but she’s not a “Game Changer” in the same way as a Tony or a Sandra are. As for Brad and Troyzan, fans had previously made their opinions on the pair clear by refusing to vote them onto Second Chance.

That’s not to say Sarah didn’t deserve her win. She’s played a commanding game, ruthless when necessary but maintaining strong enough relationships where people felt an emotional connection with her even after she’d betrayed them. As she tells the jury, her background as a cop, working undercover, allowed her to switch her emotions on and off depending on the situation. Seven out of the ten jury members awarded Sarah for her “badass” moves and strong social play over the condescending Brad and the laughably non-existent Troyzan.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

Death by Default

The tone of the finale is set early into the episode when Cirie, one of Survivor‘s most highly regarded strategists, is eliminated due to a technicality. In what has been described elsewhere as “Advantaggedon,” five of the six players wind up with immunity. Tai plays an idol for himself and another for Aubry, Sarah uses her Legacy Advantage, Troyzan brings out his idol, and Brad has individual immunity, meaning that Cirie is the only person not immune and therefore eliminated without even receiving a vote.

Many things about this leave a bad taste in my mouth. Firstly, at its heart, Survivor is a game about using social adaptation and strategic maneuvering to convince people not to vote for you. Cirie has played a total of 121-days over her Survivor career, and never received a vote against her this season, not even at the tribal council that sent her home! Having the game decided by a barrage of advantages and idols robs both the players and the viewers of the show’s most interesting aspect.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

Secondly, there are simply too many advantages. Jeff Probst might hype this up as another groundbreaking “SURVIVOR FIRST!” but watching player after player stand-up and reveal their Twisty McTwisty Power as if it was Show and Tell in junior high is silly, not shocking. It was like a parody of the Second Chance final six tribal council, where Jeremy Collins and Kelley Wentworth both played idols, nullifying all the votes against them and creating a no-vote situation. But that moment felt organic and earned; it was two idols out of only four that existed all season. In comparison, let’s list all the advantages we’ve seen throughout Game Changers:

-Legacy Advantage
-Troyzan Idol
-Tai Idol #1
-JT Idol
-Tai Idol #2
-Tai Idol #3
-Extra Vote
-Vote Steal

That’s on top of the three tribe swaps and the surprise double tribal and other insane twists cooked up in the minds of some particularly bored producers. It’s too much. All it does is water down the product and turn tribal council into a crapshoot rather than an intriguing game of interpersonal dynamics and social strategy.

Cirie may have got her praise from Probst and a standing ovation from the jurors, but I can’t help feeling that she deserved better. It’s not the first time twists have screwed Cirie, Survivor has been tough on her over the years. She was knocked out via a fire-making challenge in Panama one vote before the end, in Micronesia she’d made the Final 3 only for a surprise Final 2 twist to send her home, and in Heroes vs. Villains, she was idoled out with only three votes against her. I’d say let’s hope for a fifth attempt, but she’d probably make it to the end only to be told people can’t vote for anyone whose name begins with a ‘C’ this season.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

Brad the Bully

The rest of the finale is dragged down by the reemergence of egomaniacal Brad Culpepper of “F**k You Brad Culpepper” fame. The same Brad that was hounded and called out by his cast mates in Blood vs. Water for his bullish and dictatorial behavior. Those aspects have been well hidden this season, leading to many people calling Brad “misunderstood” — that he was a good guy all along and it was just the edit that painted him in a negative light.

But with each immunity challenge Brad wins — and he wins all three this episode, taking his overall total to five and tying the individual season record — the more his nasty side begins to emerge. The majority of his vitriol is reserved for Tai, who he tries bullying into giving up his idols and then later ordering him to vote his way. It’s not just a stressed man at an intense point in the game, there is malice behind his words, as he later shoots down Troyzan’s suggestion of letting Tai know they’re voting him out. “I want him to suffer,” Brad says, holding some weird grudge against Tai for betraying him, despite Tai saving the alliance pre-merge and Brad voting for Tai himself a few episodes back.

“You’re treating me like a little child, like a simpleton,” Tai tells Brad. It’s true, the way Brad speaks to Tai is incredibly condescending. Unfortunately, with Brad hogging all the immunities, we have to watch him stomping around, declaring “It’s my island now!” as if he was trying his best Troyzan in One World impression. It gives Tai and Aubry little room to maneuver, their best option being persuading Sarah to vote Troyzan, but given Sarah has a much better chance of winning sitting next to Troy, we all know the result. Aubry and Tai are eliminated in fifth and fourth place respectively.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

Cop A Million

Sarah is the benefactor of Brad’s ego and poor social game. Despite Sarah being the clear favorite to win in front of the jury, Brad convinces himself that he’s unbeatable regardless of who he sits next to, and when he votes out Tai based on spite, he buys his ticket to the Woo Hwang/Colby Donaldson club of dumb finalist decisions

Meanwhile, Sarah has been crafting her relationships carefully, reminding Tai that she’s cared for him the most out of anyone in the game. It’s hard to tell when Sarah is genuine or not because the intonation in her voice never changes. Whether it’s true or not, people believe her, right up until she votes them out. She takes a big risk by voting Tai, rather than putting a vote on Troyzan and forcing a tie; she must have been very confident that Brad and Troyzan were voting Tai, because that could have easily been her having her torch snuffed.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

Once Sarah gets in front of the jury she shines, especially under this new format. Probst informs everyone that the jury questioning will work a little differently this season, rather than each juror standing up to deliver a question/speech, instead, an open discussion will take place structured around the concept of Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast. This allows each juror to fire back and forth multiple questions to the three finalists (well mainly to two of them, no one cares about Troyzan), discussing their decisions in deeper detail that in the past.

There are elements of this new jury format that I like; it definitely provides a more detailed debate, not just between the jurors and the finalists, but between the jurors themselves. The troubling aspect is how Probst is controlling this like he would a regular tribal council. Usually at the Final Tribal Council, at least in the version we’re shown on TV, Probst is relatively hands-off, just announcing when each jurors turn is up. In this format, he gets to direct the conversation, changing the way it’s heading if he sees fit. It seems clear this was thought up because Probst is still shedding tears over the Kaoh Rong jury crowning Michele Fitzgerald over Aubry.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

However, in either format, I think Sarah had this locked up. While there are some hurt feelings, especially from Andrea, about how Sarah used her relationships to get ahead, the overall vibe from the jury is that Sarah was a “badass,” in Zeke’s words. Her cunning move of voting out Sierra and still getting her to will the Legacy Advantage to her is heralded as a defining moment, and Sarah adds to this badassery by revealing she also snatched the Vote Steal advantage right from under Michaela’s feet. When Aubry asks, “What allows you to separate the game and the personal?” Sarah explains that her career as a cop gave her those skills.

Brad has support from Ozzy, obviously, who respects him for his impressive physical game, and Debbie, who defends Brad’s aggressiveness by saying that his “testosterone level is 100 times the average male.” But he comes under fire from Andrea and Tai for the way he speaks to people, his condescending attitude, and his poor social game, expertly exposed when Michaela asks him how much he knows about her life — he knows no more than what he probably read off a bio sheet.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS.

Troyzan, realizing the way the wind is blowing, says that he’s just happy to have made Day 39 and got to share this experience on the show he’s loved since season one. It’d be a nice sentiment coming from most people, but this is Troy, who has had more action blocking people on Twitter this season than he has in the game, yet still thought he was the favorite to win.

Ultimately, the jury awards Sarah the title of Sole Survivor and the $1 million prize in a 7-3-0 vote. The cop that said she wanted to play like a criminal lived up to her promise, literally lying and stealing her way to the money. It’s the best outcome of this particular final three, but not a finale that will be remembered fondly overall and certainly not one that was “game changing.”

That’s it for another season of Survivor. Thanks for reading these recaps each week, we’ll be back for Season 35 — Heroes v Healers v Hustlers (oh boy).

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