‘Survivor: Game Changers’ Premiere Episode Recap: There Will Be Blood

Not everybody is a fan of returning player seasons, and I get the reasoning. There are so many people out there just clamoring for an opportunity to play Survivor, why not give new faces a chance? And while that’s a fair argument, there’s a special joy in getting to watch your favorite players play the game again, or to watch legends go head-to-head. These sort of showdowns have produced some of the absolute best moments in the game’s history, and unarguably some of the very best seasons (Fans vs. Favorites and Heroes vs. Villains come to mind). As Survivor kicked off its 34th Season Wednesday night – “Survivor: Game Changers,” featuring 20 returning contestants – we were given another such epic showdown, between the self-proclaimed King and Queen of Survivor, which resulted in a somewhat shocking and satisfying start to what looks to be a promising season.

There’s a lot to get to, so get caught up first by reading my previous article, “Survivor: Game Changers – Everything You Need to Know” and then be warned that if you read any further than this very paragraph, that the events of the Premiere Episode will get spoiled for you. You’ve been warned! Now like a bug caught in Sandra’s hair, let’s let loose this Recap!


The Stakes Have Been Raised

Jeff Probst had publicly stated that in his opinion, Game Changers got off to an odd start. Not necessarily a slow start, although that’s up for debate, but instead he described a very cautious “mood” that the game would start off in. 20 returning “game changers” were returning to compete, some of whom have won the game at least once (Tony, JT, Sandra), but strangely enough it seemed as if most of this group was a little bit nervous and hesitant to make a big move right out of the gate. This of course, does not include Tony Vlachos, winner of Survivor: Cagayan and recent inductee to the Survivor Hall of Fame, who within minutes of arriving at his tribe’s beach this episode, told his tribe-mates, “You guys play nice-nice, I’m going to look for an Idol.” You gotta love Tony, the walking-talking epitome of the moniker “go big or go home.”

But the “tentativeness” started even before the players hit the beach, when Probst kicked off this season the same way that he did the very first season of Survivor: By having the players scramble for supplies on a ship, before jumping on their tribe raft and rowing themselves into shore. There was one twist that wasn’t there in Borneo however, and that was that there was a buoy located a good ways away from the boat, and whoever could swim out to it first, would win a treasure trove of helpful tools. Only Ozzy even bothered taking the challenge, which was a bit surprising. Sierra uncovered an envelope containing the “Legacy Advantage,” which you may remember from last season gives the person Immunity when there is 13 or 6 players left in the game, and it must be willed on if the person holding it were to get voted-out prior to these intervals in the game. Sierra did gain the Legacy Advantage, but only after over-looking the envelope and trampling on it a few times first. Nobody else noticed it there either. To me, all of this boat action just showed me that this group was a bit nervous and maybe not as aggressive or attentive as we may have expected them to be. Come on you so-called game changers!  Get your **** together!

Tonight’s 120-minute Premiere Episode was less an over-stuffed premiere and more of a “back-to-back” regular episode. With returning players, they can jettison the usual introductions and the whole “get to know the tribe” segments. Instead, a lot of the first hour was spent sort of checking in with all of these players to see if and how they might have changed. Michaela for example, was looking to turn over a new, more relaxed leaf (it didn’t last too long, but as she said tonight, “Oh well, you can’t contain greatness.”). Zeke had to pinch himself knowing that he was playing next to many of his favorites, but kept reminding himself (and us) that he belongs there too. Sarah called herself the “silent assassin” and she may have been right, because we never heard from her again the rest of the night. Brad Culpepper adopted the motto “WWMD,” or “What Would Monica Do?” referring to his wife, the lovely Monica Culpepper. Caleb didn’t give us much confidence that he wasn’t going to be medically evacuated again, taking a nasty spill on some wet rocks and also getting his arm caught up during a challenge…Beast-Mode better take it easy, bro. Tai is still more concerned about chickens, and unable to tell a lie, as displayed when he was caught in Cirie‘s headlights. And speaking of Cirie, it appears that there is still some baggage remaining from when she played a hand in voting out Ozzy over eight years ago, as both of them seemed uneasy with the other. Yes, another key element to these returning player seasons is that you must always factor in the players’ previous seasons and relationships, and even though several other players this season have crossed paths before, I find it interesting that they chose to highlight the Ozzy/Cirie relationship. Could that be a seed of foreshadow for what’s to come this season?


The tribes, for the record, were as follows: Over at the “Mana” Tribe, you have Michaela, Aubry, Sandra, Ciera, Malcolm, Hali, Caleb, Troyzan, Jeff and Tony. The “Nuku” Tribe consisted of Andrea, Brad Culpepper, Sierra, Cirie, Sarah, Ozzy, Zeke, JT, Tai and Debbie. So that’s out of the way.

Of all of the players this time around, it seemed like Ciera was maybe the least aware of her own reputation. She was instantly targeted as a huge threat, and as Varner pointed out, she voted out her own mother and forced a rock draw…is there anything that this girl won’t do? Nobody seemed to want to give Ciera a chance, but she also didn’t help herself by being the first person on her tribe to blurt out the names of others. She perhaps felt a little too comfortable a little too early, having been able to “blend in” in the past. But not this time around.

The Stakes Have Been Raised

And then there is poor Tony, instantly up to his old tricks. You loved his Spy Shack in Cagayan? How about a #SpyBunker? You have to give him credit, because of this batch of 20, only Tony seemed to come in guns a’blazin.’ It proved to be a losing strategy, but Tony’s reputation preceded him. To his credit, once he settled down and began to play the game, he did have what seemed like a solid strategy. Knowing he is a major threat, his idea was to align himself with the other “biggest threats” on his tribe. He pulled in Aubry, Malcolm, Caleb and Sandra. It appeared to be a great move, but his own paranoia did him in this time. When Troyzan pulled Sandra aside to – yes – talk about voting out Tony, Tony perceived this to be Sandra plotting behind his back. In actuality, I feel like Sandra was actually on board with working with Tony, but what was she to do when Troyzan pulls her aside and asks for her ear? By this conversation, Tony was convinced that Sandra was against him, and the rest is history. Don’t you even begin to rile the Queen.

I’ve gone on record several times in saying that Sandra is the hands-down best Survivor player of all-time, by the mere fact that she is the only person to have won the game twice. You can bring every other argument in the world, and I’ll say yeah, but have they won the game two out of two times? Sandra deserves to call herself the Queen, and her “anybody but me” strategy has worked beautifully twice. This being said, there is a HUGE faction of Survivor fans that don’t agree with this, and think that somehow Sandra “got lucky” or is otherwise a sham. Dude, she won twice…that’s something Boston Rob, Richard Hatch, Kim Spradlin, Tyson Apostol, or any of the 498 people who have ever played Survivor can’t say. As lovable and as good as Tony may be, he aimed his “heat-seeking missile” at the Queen and he done got blowed-up.  Just add this to her list of achievements that no other Survivor can match: She took down Tony Vlachos.

The Stakes Have Been Raised

Sandra’s problem this season though may have been revealed by Tony. She is used to blending in and letting others pick themselves off, but she has rarely been the target and put out front this early in a season. But as sad as I was to see Tony (and Ciera) go home after just one episode, I was so happy to know that Sandra will be around at least for one more week. That exchange at the end too…my, my. Tony may have been right when he said, “sheep being led to the slaughter,” after being voted out, but Sandra summed it up nicely when she fired back, “That’s what you get for plotting against me.” She probably didn’t need to add in the “say hi to Ciera” but she did, in true Sandra fashion.

Of course in addition to the big showdown in the second-hour, and all of the check-ins with the contestants, there were also two epic challenges. It looks like there was beautiful weather this season in Fiji where the show taped last Summer, and the first two challenges involved land and ocean, and a 600-lb snake. Of course the “Nuku” tribe won the Immunity Idol both times, and kudos to the prop department in crafting the most unique-looking Idol I think the show’s ever seen (it’s basically a miniature scuba helmet, instead of some exotic doll as is custom). The 2nd challenge I might add, was pretty epic, as the Mana Tribe overcame a huge deficit to make it a nail-biter, only to lose by a thread when JT hit the winning ring toss. Malcolm had been the one to narrow the gap, much to the chagrin of Michaela, who was chomping at the bit for a chance to get in the challenge, but was denied. It seems Michaela is growing increasingly frustrated, mainly because she has not been getting much respect thus far…maybe because of her age, but probably mostly because of the fact that nobody knows who she is or what she’s all about (hers and Zeke‘s season had not yet aired when this season filmed).

There was also a great scene this episode between Deb and Cirie, and it reminded me yet again as to why I love returning player seasons. Deb and Cirie come from different seasons, but it feels like they come from two different worlds, and I loved how Deb handled herself after Cirie tried to offer up some friendly “advice,” which in actuality was just a comment dripping with condescension. Deb dropped a few more occupations on us that we didn’t know she had, and also let us know that her “BS” Detector is working beautifully.

The Stakes Have Been Raised

Episode Take-Away: So who seemed to get through the first two hours unscathed? Well we didn’t hear much from Andrea, or Nuku in general, simply because they’ve yet to go to Tribal Council. Varner – for being such a larger-than-life personality – also seemed to be blending in nicely through two Tribals. But honestly, as we saw tonight, nobody is going to be able to hide in a season with this caliber of players…just ask Ciera. But let’s just hope they all play as hard as Tony. Smarter than Tony yes, but just as hard. As for the season itself, I think we’re in store for a good one, but man will Tony’s energy and drama be sorely missed.

Strategic Move of the Week: I’ll have to wait until my exit interview with Tony to figure out just why all of the votes went his way, and why he ultimately cast his vote for Aubry. But I think the best move of the night didn’t happen at the Mana tribe at all, but over at Nuku. Those that know the magical powers of Cirie in this game, know that it wasn’t a coincidence that they had a segment tonight showing her approaching nearly everyone at her tribe. She made nice with Sarah and also Zeke, two of the more “low-key” players on the tribe. And even though she still may have an existing beef with Ozzy, and that she may have rubbed Deb the wrong way, I still think that Cirie made a subtle, but powerful play during tonight’s episode.

Voted out this week: Ciera and Tony

Won Immunity: The Nuku Tribe (twice)

Vote #1: No Idol played. 9 – Ciera (Sandra, Tony, Troyzan, Michaela, Varner, Aubry, Caleb, Malcolm, Hali). 1 – Michaela (Ciera).

Vote #2: No Idol played. 7 – Tony (Troyzan, Michaela, Varner, Aubry, Caleb, Malcolm, Hali). 2 – Aubry (Sandra, Tony).

Next Week’s Episode: It’s only been six days in the game so far, but Probst tells the tribes to drop their buffs! Game Changers is changing up the game already! We also see a few contestants chasing some goats, and it looks like the former “Hero” JT is up to some mischief, when he strands a few of his tribe-mates out on a raft so he can look for an Idol on the shore in peace.

Important Note! Remember that Thursday afternoon I will be bringing you my exclusive interviews with BOTH Ciera and Tony right here at Reality Tea. It will probably post sometime in the evening (EST). Then be sure to check back next week for my episode preview, recap on Wednesday night and new exit interview next Thursday. Also next week, I’ll have a special edition of the “FilmSurvivor Podcast” when I’m joined by Survivor guru Gordon Holmes of XfinityTV.com, who was actually out on the island during the filming of the first few days of this season. You won’t want to miss it!

I’m also the National Film Critic for AXS.com, and I encourage you to check out my movie reviews! As always, the easiest way to get all of my Survivor coverage and movie reviews is to follow me on Twitter – @tomsantilli – or on Facebook.


Photo Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton/Robert Voets/Timothy Kuratek