Survivor: Game Changers Recap: Metamorphosis

Survivor began over 17 years ago as a social experiment of sorts: What would happen if different people, from various walks of life, of different religious beliefs, ages, and ethnicities, creeds, classes, and color, were put together on an island and forced to vote each other out?

In the Summer of 2000, with Survivor’s very first season, this question was put to the ultimate test, and television’s best Reality TV show was born. The reason it has endured for 34 seasons is not just because of the concept, or the entertainment value…surely there are other shows that haven’t lasted half as long as Survivor, that included elements of strategy, competition, or battling the elements. One of the main reasons that Survivor has lasted for so long was on display during the latest episode of Survivor: Game Changers. There wasn’t a massive blindside (well, not in the normal sense of the word anyways). There wasn’t an amazing come-from-behind challenge victory. No idols were played. No, on occasion, Survivor crosses the line and enters into social relevancy, tackling topics that are far more complex in the real world but dealing with them in a real, human way, within the microcosm of the game.

Please be warned that there are spoilers to follow, as we will be discussing in detail the events that took place during Episode 6 of Survivor: Game Changers.


What Happened on Exile, Stays on Exile

For anybody who saw last night’s episode, you know that what happened at Tribal Council transcended the show. Jeff Varner, a long-time fan-favorite who first played in Survivor’s 2nd-ever season, made what was inarguably the worst personal attack on another player the show has ever seen. Yes, way worse than Sue Hawk‘s “snake and rat” speech, and much worse than anything I could fathom ever having had happen on the show. Basically, as Jeff Probst pointed out, Varner outed Zeke as being transgender not only to the other members of his tribe, but to the millions of Survivor fans watching at home. It was a move made in desperation in an effort by Varner to try to show Zeke’s ability to deceive, but it backfired miserably. I truly think that 15-odd minutes or so spent at Tribal Council were the most unpleasant, uncomfortable, and gut-wrenching I’ve ever had as a fan watching from home.

It needs to be said, that what Varner did is and was inexcusable. Worse than lying about a dead grandmother, as Jonny Fairplay did. Worse than anything Russell Hantz or Colton Cumbie ever dreamed of doing within the confines of the game. But to the show’s credit, I think the entire situation was handled beautifully by the producers of the show. They showed all sides of it, allowed others to react and comment, and ultimately portrayed it truthfully as it was. On one hand, you have Zeke, who was downright wronged on national TV, having something stripped away from him in the worst of ways. On the other hand you have Varner, who nobody in their right mind (including Varner) would defend, but who up to this point for many, like myself, had been one of their favorite Reality TV personalities in Survivor history. Probst did not pull any punches in his questioning, but even when the tables had turned on Varner and his face was buried in his hands, I think most rational humans felt pain for everybody involved in the entire situation: Zeke most of all, but Varner too, and the rest of those at Tribal. When your mind realizes the impact that this might have had on those watching, the friends/family/colleagues of Zeke, things just go to a whole other level of anguish.

Simply calling it a “bad move” doesn’t quite capture what happened. As Probst said, you can’t “un-ring the bell.” But what happened does echo a scene from earlier in the episode (yes, some other things happened this episode besides Tribal, and we’ll get to those), where the Mana tribe all broke down into tears about how hard this game can be on a person. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. It’s easy for us to tune in to a show once a week, but for the 400+ people who have had the privilege of competing on Survivor over the years, this experience sticks with them all forever. Forget “game-changers,” for these players the experience is often more of a “life-changer.” Before the Twitter-verse unleashes all the layers of Hell towards Varner, I bet you that every other Survivor player out there can sympathize with what Varner did. Again, NOTHING makes what he did OK, and there is no defending what he did. I don’t think anybody would be willing to do that. But I bet if you ask other players, they’ll be able to relate as to the desperation Varner was feeling, and to how the game can cloud your normal rational thinking and judgment, to the point where it can consume you. Much like it consumed Varner.

Varner grossly miscalculated what constitutes throwing “everything to the wall” to save himself in the game, and what is considered within the normal bounds of game-play by everyone else. I think a well-rested, well-fed Varner would find his actions completely despicable, as he did almost immediately after saying the words out loud. Despite the editing in the episode, Varner must have known without a doubt that he was going home, as he so much stated at Tribal. How he rationalized doing what he did is like trying to explain your actions from the night before, when you did that keg-stand and ran naked through the town square. It seemed like a good idea at the time, I guess.

I do believe it’s important to remember that everybody makes mistakes, even if only a few happen to do so on television with millions of people watching. I can honestly say that I was shocked and appalled that Varner did what he did, but at the same time I can openly say that I’m not sure I like him any less. He’s a human being and I believed him when he said he instantly regretted his actions. To not be able to forgive another person for their mistakes in life…that to me, is more about my problem than that person’s. On a side note, minutes after the show, Varner tweeted a response that you can find here.

Reaction to Varner‘s comment ranged from disbelief, to anger, to sadness, to disappointment, expressed from all of the other members of the tribe and from Probst.

One last thought I’ll address here: Zeke handled it like an absolute champion. He was not only strong, but in his quiet response and his stone-like demeanor, you could just feel that this was a person who has endured attacks like this before, and who has learned to rise up in the face of adversity. I do agree that this situation might lead to something “beautiful” as Probst suggested, but if anything it showed us the mettle in which Zeke is made of. Bravo to you Zeke, and may this empower you even more against any and all obstacles you may encounter…you are Zeke to me, not just the “transgender Survivor player,” and at Tribal you were an inspirational beacon of strength.

What Happened on Exile, Stays on Exile

There’s no easy way to transition back to the game, and everything else seems wholly unimportant now, but let’s quickly hit on a few quick things that led up to the devastating Tribal Council:

  • Deb kept her experience at Exile to herself, so nobody else knows that she was actually on a yacht and not a desolate, flint-free beach.
  • When the Mana tribe had their cry session, Brad opened up and as he said, his relationship with Aubry and Cirie was “galvanized.”
  • It was funny to note, that when everybody was shown crying, they cut to Michaela who was not crying and was fiddling with a stick in the sand. Still a total bad-ass.

Varner, for what it’s worth, did seem to have a few cracks to work with in the Nuku tribe before he imploded his game. As he pointed out at Tribal before outing Zeke, he named Tai, Deb, and Sarah as being next up on the chopping block, having realized that Zeke and Ozzy were working closer together than he had thought. If Sarah remembers or believes her earlier conversation with Varner once she gets back to camp, then she may realize that Zeke still threw her and Andrea under the bus…so there could be repercussions still from that. And each week, someone else points out how Ozzy is a complete player whom no one should allow to make the merge… well guess what? Next week is the merge, and Ozzy made it there. As Scooby says, “Ruh, Roh.”

It will be a different kind of interview and Podcast, but I urge everyone to listen to the FilmSurvivor Podcast tomorrow afternoon (available on iTunes), when I speak with Jeff Varner. It will be an interview you will not want to miss.

Strategic Move of the Week: I almost didn’t want to name one this week due to all the drama, and even though I feel it was genuine and not a “strategic move” per se, I’m going to give the nod to Brad Culpepper. By opening up and showing a more vulnerable side of himself, he seems to have really built the game’s most powerful alliance up to this point. It will be interesting to see how it holds together post-merge.

Voted out this week: Jeff Varner

Won Immunity: The Mana Tribe (Troyzan, Michaela, Sierra, Hali, Aubry, Cirie, Brad)

Vote: No Idol played. No votes cast (Probst took a unanimous count, since it was obvious that Varner was the one leaving)

Next Week’s Episode: We will all try to put the seriousness of this episode behind us and get back to the stuff we love: Strategy, challenges, and back-stabbing, of course. The big news for next week is that the merge will be happening, now with 13 players still in the game. Probst categorizes it in the voice-over as a “scramble for power” as Sierra proclaims “there’s a new sheriff in town.”

Important Note! Remember to return right here to RealityTea for my FilmSurvivor Podcast Thursday, where you can listen to my full exit interview with Jeff Varner. Last but not least, I encourage you to check out my weekly movie reviews. And 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/Jeffrey Neira