Always listen to Jeff Probst during a word puzzle.

By Dalton Ross
May 03, 2017 at 09:00 PM EDT
S34 E11
  • TV Show
  • CBS

That is how you play Survivor! We begin this week’s recap by giving credit where credit is due. And the credit goes to Andrea Boehlke. I’m not just saying this so she is nice to me on the Survivor Fan Forum set we share every week and doesn’t spit in the water they place in the goofy tiki cup with the umbrella in front of me. I’m saying it because she had a hell of an episode — mastering pretty much everything there was to master.

She listened when Jeff Probst started dropping subtle clues 50 minutes into that ridiculously difficult reward puzzle. She made an immunity challenge look easy that was anything but. And, most importantly, she knew exactly when to strike at Tribal Council and why. I dubbed Andrea the Goldilocks of Survivor before the season began, but it wasn’t for her golden hair. It’s because her first two times out represented both extremes of the Survivor spectrum.

Andrea’s first time playing, she did nothing. She was part of a group of young star-struck newbies who let Survivor superstar Boston Rob walk all over them because they were too timid to do anything about it. Honestly, it was infuriating. Just thinking about it again is causing me to break out in hives. Her next time out, she course-corrected, but by too much. She played too aggressively and was way too obvious about it, making herself a target in the process. This time, like Goldilocks, she needed to find that middle ground that was juuuuuuuust right.

And that’s exactly what Andrea appears to have done. On one hand, her targeting Zeke now may seem like a revenge play, and maybe part of it was. But the bigger issue was that Andrea knew she could never trust Zeke again. If he wanted her out a few days ago because he worried she was too big a threat, then he would want her out again. And that turned out to be exactly the case when we saw Zeke tell Sarah that they should get rid of her at the next vote after Sierra. Andrea correctly anticipated this, and instead of waiting around to find out when Zeke was gong to strike, she struck first.

That’s an aggressive game move that makes perfect sense — more than Sarah’s flip last week (which did not get her as much credit as she thinks), and more than Zeke’s flip the week before (which put him in a social and strategic no man’s land). And the fact that Andrea got more aggressive about pulling the trigger when she had immunity and could not feel any immediate repercussions was also smart and shows she understands the importance of timing.

Debbie wrote down before the season started in her pre-game vote that she wanted Andrea out first “because this is Survivor, not a Playboy shoot.” However, Goldilocks has proven she is more than just a pretty face, and if Andrea comes back and plays a fourth time, I’m guessing a lot of people will be writing her name down as the person they want out first, but this time it will be out of fear and respect, not dismissiveness.

Okay, I am away again this week on a work trip so will try to keep this down to a much more manageable length than usual, but let’s jam through the biggest moments of the episode. And make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a chance to win Zeke’s original pre-game vote.

Watch PEN Fan Forum: Survivor, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

Words With Friends
You already know what I’m going to say about this reward challenge, don’t you? Because watching the players rip their bodies through an obstacle course, and then be raised and lowered on a seat while they picked out 30 numbers in order was all so awesome. I loved the way it was designed. I loved watching everything about it. But you know what I’m going to say, right? Because I say it every week. None of it mattered. Because — say it with me now — IT’S ALL ABOUT THE PUZZLE!

Once again, the coolest physical part of the challenge served as mere window dressing. After all that up and down and pulling and dropping and what have you, the difference between teams going into the puzzle was only five seconds. But it could have seriously been 10 minutes and it still would not have made a lick of difference. Whichever team was going to do the puzzle faster was going to win. Ninety-five percent of the time, that’s how it goes.

So you knew I was going to say that, and I apologize for the broken record routine. But, as I mentioned, I still loved watching all that stuff happen, even if I knew it ultimately meant nothing. Now, let’s get to the word puzzle. Reinventing how this game is played. That is a hard freakin’ puzzle. As soon as I saw that, I knew the contestants would struggle. They would be thinking about words like “Reward” or Probst phrases like “Dig deep” and “Worth playing for.” Hell, they may have even been considering things like “Scoop of the crispy,” for all I know. But reinventing? Let’s just say that wouldn’t exactly be at the top of my list. (Incidentally, the things that would be at the top of my list would be stuff like “Sally Schumann wuz robbed,” “Tata is a total pimp daddy,” and, “Why is Jeff Probst always looking at his shoes when he tells players to come on in?” But that’s just my list.)

Sure enough, 50 minutes in, the players did not have a clue. So Jeff Probst gave them one! When you’re doing a challenge, the smartest thing is to block out Jeff Probst’s voice. It’s just a distraction. I know from all the times he has mercilessly mocked me while I’ve tested competitions out on location. But there is one big exception to that rule: when you are doing a word puzzle. Because the longer that puzzle takes, the more likely he is to drop a hint. And that’s exactly what happened here.

After players tossed around possibilities like “nutritional” and “perspiration” over 50 minutes of futility, Probst started harping on the theme of the season (Game Changers) while stressing, “You guys are changing,” and “Everything is always changing in this game.” He kept repeating that one word over and over. Hell, if he had a boombox handy, he probably would have started blaring David Bowie’s “Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes…” just to drive the point home.

So in that situation, you listen, and you try to come up with another word for changing. Altering? Nah, that feels more like a challenge for a contestant on Project Runway. Modifying? Nope, that sounds like something that would get a mad scientist killed halfway through a Syfy movie titled Turkeypotamus vs. Werewhale. Refining? That’s just a word for what I should spend time doing for once before posting my recaps. So what could it be? Andrea’s got it! Reinventing! After that, it was pretty much game over, and the blue team was off to Tokoriki Island Resort to accept drinks from a very high-pitched-speaking greeter.

Watch PEN Fan Forum: Survivor, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

Hey, Blockhead!
I got an early sneak peak at this week’s immunity challenge back in the testing phase. I was shooting some darts and downing some brews with Scott Porter (of Friday Night Lights) in the challenge department trailer when John Kirhoffer, Chris “Milhouse” Marchand, and Zach Jensen asked us to step outside to test out this block stacking competition.

The key is to get your legs high enough where you don’t hit the trip obstacle that will then cause all the blocks to fall. I let Scott take this one so I could photograph and videotape it for him. (Also, I hadn’t yet finished my beer and, you know, priorities.) The challenge looked pretty damn easy on TV, as only one person (Brad) knocked his blocks over, but I will tell you it took Scott a while to do it in the testing phase, and homeboy was sweating up a storm having to reach his legs up so high every time.

The problem is, that struggle did not really translate on TV. And there was only one block drop, which is what makes a challenge like this so dramatic. You need two or three people getting really close to the end, so close to that elusive immunity… and then having it all come crashing down. That’s the fun in a challenge like this. I know that sounds mean, but it’s true. So even though we were treated to a close finish between Andrea and Michaela, it lacked some of the back-and-forth that you ultimately would like to see in an immunity challenge. Trust me, this challenge (which we’ve seen before) is not easy. But it looked easy from our couches, and that was the problem.

Also, “spin & grin” kind of freaks me out for some reason, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Speaking of the finger, maybe it’s because “spin & grin” is a little too close to that classic schoolyard taunt, “Sit and spin.” Perhaps that’s the issue. Just a working theory.

[Congratulations! You’ve found the super secret Survivor pre-game vote-off giveaway of the week. In case you’re new here, I am giving away all the original votes that the Game Changers cast before the game (that you can view on my Instagram feed). To enter for a chance to win Zeke’s vote for J.T., just answer the following question. Zeke and Michaela just competed on back-to-back seasons, so the other Game Changers had yet to see them play. Who is the first person to play back-to-back where the contestants that person faced in the second outing had not seen his/her first one? (Hint: There are some people who played back-to-back where the players the second time out HAD seen at least part of that person’s first season, but we want the name of the first returning player who was a complete mystery to the rest of the cast.) Email your answer to AND PLEASE MAKE SURE TO INCLUDE YOUR MAILING ADDRESS! The winner will be contacted directly. (Congratulations to last week’s winner of Debbie’s infamous “Playboy vote,” Jessica Redcliffe. Good luck to all! We now return you to your regularly scheduled Survivor recap, still in progress.]

Zeke’s Last Stand
I still don’t know what “Boomer Sooner” means, but I know enough to figure out that Zeke is a big college football fan, and we’ve seen that play out in both seasons. But this time, it may have gotten him in a bit of hot water, and I’m not talking about the Jacuzzi at Tokoriki Island Resort either. This time, Brad (a former NFL lineman) and Zeke started bonding over football. Now, even though Zeke told us later that he did want a final five that involved Brad, he’s not the kind of guy who would let a little football talk sway his strategic decision. We saw that when he cut Chris’ throat last season.

But Andrea and Aubry didn’t know that. So they saw Zeke — who had already flipped on them once — getting chummy with the enemy, and what were they supposed to think? Of course, that wasn’t the real problem for Zeke. The real problem for Zeke is that he had shown his cards as a big-time gamer too early. “I played this game four times, and he knows this game better than I do,” said Cirie. That was Zeke’s fatal flaw this time. The key to playing Survivor is playing great without letting others realize how great you are until it’s too late. Unfortunately for Zeke, he came on so strong right after the merge that he put a target on himself that was impossible to shake.

Once Andrea won immunity, she was ready to strike. The only question was whether she and Cirie would seek a vote from Sierra to turn the tables or get Sarah and Michaela to play ball. Andrea and Michaela kept the ruse going at Tribal Council, saying that the majority six would stick together, but it was all for show, as Sarah and Michaela did indeed flip. (Evidently, they told the other alliance the target was Tai because they all put their votes on him.)

Watching Michaela burst into tears was surprising because I didn’t get the sense she and Zeke were close at all going into this season, and they didn’t seem to get particularly chummy this time out either. Michaela is an emotional player, to be sure, but this was one emotion I was not expecting out of her.

As for Zeke, you could feel — and hear — his disappointment after the vote came in. “Dammit,” he murmured while walking off. But no bitterness. If you play big, you may go home. Zeke knew this. It’s never personal in his book — just business. That’s one of the things I admire most about him. And while Zeke erred by playing a bit too antsy after the merge and left himself devoid of any true allies in the process, it’s that restlessness and refusal to settle that makes him so exciting to watch. (He’s also a hell of a narrator, one of the most consistently underrated qualities of a top-tier Survivor contestant.)

Zeke didn’t want to be defined by what happened at Tribal Council with Jeff Varner. To a degree, he will be, because the class and composure he showed in that situation was off-the-charts impactful. But if he wanted to be known as Zeke the Survivor player first and foremost, then mission accomplished for a second straight season. He didn’t win, but in many ways Zeke is the embodiment of what the game has become and the take-no-prisoners approach that makes the show so electric to watch. I sincerely hope we haven’t seen the last of him.

Watch PEN Fan Forum: Survivor, on the new PEOPLE/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN) here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

Nor have you seen the last of our Survivor coverage! We have an exclusive deleted scene waiting for you above. And don’t forget to read my weekly Q&A with the Hostmaster General himself, Jeff Probst. My exit interview with Zeke will be up Thursday morning, so keep an eye out for that, and of course you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for all your Survivor coverage needs.

But now it’s your turn. Were you Team Andrea or Team Zeke? What did you think of this week’s challenges? And who has played the best game so far? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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