But wait, there's more!

By Dalton Ross
May 17, 2017 at 09:00 PM EDT
Credit: CBS
S34 E13
  • TV Show
  • CBS

Halloween is still over five months away. Plenty of time to figure out what hilarious or horrifically scary costume you are going to sport for the big day. For the past 20 years or so, my dad has dressed up as Superman. It’s kind of become his thing. He walks around Washington, D.C., dressed as Supes and seems to enjoy all the bizarre looks he gets from everyone, because I guess it’s not all that often you see a 70-something dude playing make-believe as a caped crusader. In any event, there is some fine print on that Superman costume — a mildly humorous warning/disclaimer that comes with the package reading, “Wearing of this garment does not enable you to fly.”

Now, to many that would seem a tad on the unnecessary side. I mean, unless you are rocking an awesome blond Afro as the Greatest American Hero, it’s not like a cape and spandex are going to suddenly imbue you with the power of flight. My dad is under no illusions that a change of outfit will make him able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. The point is, in this case, I think you’re pretty safe in putting on the Superman costume without reading the fine print.

But evidently there is some fine print one should read, and it comes in the form of the words “non-transferable” on a Survivor vote steal. And Cirie learned this the hard way. I’m going to try to set this up to explain what happened, but honestly, it is all so confusing you may as well just put on a Superman costume yourself and fly into a tree, because your head will probably hurt equal amounts either way. In any event, it went down like this: Cirie warned Sarah that Tai was after her, but Sarah didn’t believe her. However, in an attempt to build trust, Sarah told Cirie about her vote steal advantage and let her hold onto the steal through the next vote.

Things only got more convoluted from there. Worried that Sarah would get blindsided, Cirie decided to play Sarah’s advantage against her will in order to put two votes on Tai. Not only that, but the person from whom she was planning to steal the vote was none other than Sarah herself! So, in essence, she was stealing Sarah’s vote with Sarah’s own advantage to keep Sarah in the game. Crazy, right? But I feel like I am now about to sell you some Ginsu knives over late night television, because WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

Cirie astutely realized that Tai very well may have an idol and would then use it if he saw someone stealing votes, so the get-off-the-couch lady went to Tai and made up a story about how they were all secretly targeting him but that she was using the vote steal to save him so he would not get freaked out and play his idol. Smart. Very smart. There were already so many layers to this thing, it felt like Patagonia’s High Alpine Kit. But once again, take a good look at how this knife cuts through a penny; however, don’t tell me yet how much you would pay… BECAUSE WAIT, THERE’S MORE!!!

Because right after Jeff Probst announced at Tribal Council that it was time to vote, Cirie stopped him and announced, “Jeff, I just have to say there is a rat in this group, and the person I save by exposing this rat will thank me tomorrow when they wake up here on day 36.” She then announced that she would be using the vote steal advantage and stealing Sarah’s vote. However, Sarah said she couldn’t and she wanted it back. Cirie responded that she couldn’t have it back because she had given it to her. Sarah countered by saying she couldn’t give it to her because it was non-transferable. Finally, Jeff Probst basically did the equivalent of an NFL referee stepping under the hood to take a look at instant replay by having Cirie read the instructions, and sure enough, there were those very words: non-transferable. Whoooooooooops!

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Here’s my question, ladies and gentlemen: Why? Why non-transferable? Some of Survivor’s greatest moments ever have come from people giving things to other people. Why, look no further than when Cirie convinced Erik to give his immunity to Natalie in Survivor Micronesia. Situations like that almost always pay dramatic dividends, so I remain shocked that producers limited the powers in this case. If idols and immunity can be passed along, why not the vote steal?

However, said producers for the billionth time proved themselves far smarter than I am, as they ended up getting their drama anyway. That’s because after Jeff Probst gave Cirie the Heisman on using the vote steal, Whisperpalooza 2017 broke out. Sarah went over to Tai. Then Cirie to Sarah. Then Michaela joined in. Then Troyzan — who, after exhaustive research and reporting, I have finally confirmed is indeed a contestant on this season — attempted to join before being told to back up by Michaela. (Dude just can’t get any respect from editors or players.) Then Sarah decided to use her vote steal because evidently you can transfer it to yourself. But she used it to steal Tai’s vote. And then Tai still didn’t use one of his two immunity idols.

At this point, I was screaming at my TV screen as if someone had depleted the world’s entire supply of Milwaukee’s Best: “WHY IS TAI NOT USING HIS IDOL?!?!?” Because he was not the target, that’s why. And neither was Cirie. Because they all pulled a fast one — and that is meant literally because they had to come up with this plan very quickly on the spot — and voted out Michaela. Soooooo, to recap: Sarah gave Cirie an advantage that was not able to be used by Cirie. Cirie attempted to steal Sarah’s vote to save Sarah. And then Sarah stole Tai’s vote to not vote out Tai. Got all that? (I feel like I am stuck in an old “Who’s on First?” routine.)
(Recap continues on page 2.)

The entire scene was so ludicrous and comical. But it was simultaneously amazing. I also want to say this: I LOVE what Cirie did. No, it didn’t work, it cost her a huge ally in Michaela, and put a massive target on her back that will most likely be impossible to remove. But that was truly some next-level stuff. Trying to use someone else’s vote steal that that she didn’t want used, and using it on her to save her? Throw in the misdirect by prepping Tai for what was going to happen to keep him from using his idol, and the plan was beyond audacious. And that is precisely what I love about it. Cirie wasn’t just threading a needle — she was knitting an entire ugly Christmas sweater with a design featuring Jeff Probst putting an immunity necklace around Santa’s neck over the words “Spin & Grin.”

I mean, seriously, who else would even contemplate such a crazy series of moves? (Put your hand down, J.T.) Clearly, the execution was flawed due to that fine print, but still — A for effort. I also really like what Sarah did here. There was still a lot for her to sort out on the fly. Was Cirie really protecting me from Tai? Is Tai really after me? Did I really stick the Legacy Advantage into the front of my pants earlier? So instead of immediately targeting either Tai or Cirie while still waiting on the facts, she took out Michaela, who also wouldn’t see it coming. (I suppose we could fault Sarah for using the vote steal when she did not need it, but it provided a nice misdirection by taking Tai’s vote and making Cirie and Michaela feel comfortable so there were no idols played. Not that they had one anyway.) So it was all great stuff all around.

Ah, but what sort of grade will this entire season of Survivor get? This being the penultimate episode, it is time for our updated season-by-season rankings. Where will Game Changers fall? Read on to find out, and also keep your eyes peeled for a chance to win either Andrea or Michaela’s original pre-game votes. Okay, let’s hit a few other big moments from this double-elimination episode before we get to the rankings.

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.

The Frank Underwood Immunity Challenge
The house of cards challenge is a Survivor classic, and with good reason. Watching people build giant stacks only to have them crash down before their eyes is the stuff of dreams…or nightmares, depending on your view. This variation added in the whole use-one-hand-to-balance-the-board-while-you-stack-with-your-other-hand variable. Again, anything to cause more stack dropping works for me.

And stack dropping there was, especially when a strong breeze came through. (Side note: If I ran this show, I would hide big wind machines behind bushes and periodically turn them on just to screw with people. Which is precisely why I don’t run this show.) Michaela appeared to get the worst of it. Every time she came within striking distance of Aubry, her stack fell. Not once. Not twice. But thrice! I was actually impressed at how calm Michaela remained when it kept crashing to the ground. I half-expected her to start hurling the pieces at Jeff Probst in disgust, but there was no kicking, no cursing, no wild gesticulating. Michaela kept her cool. It’s probably worth reading that last sentence again to let it sink in. Michaela kept her cool.

Certainly more so than Aubry. After shattering the record for this challenge while simultaneously completing an on-air Tinder profile geared specifically for one John Cochran, Aubry full-on bum rushed Jeff Probst and bear hugged the Hostmaster General with the same verve and enthusiasm with which she ends every confessional interview with, “At the end of the day…” (Not that we’ve had many Aubry confessionals this season.)

To Probst’s credit, he handled that incoming assault pretty well. No doubt he had flashbacks of the Survivor Kissing Bandit (a.k.a. Dawson) storming his personal space to plant a big wet one, but Probst held his ground and accepted the affection with grace and far less awkwardness than I would have. (In between Aubry/Probst and Cochran/Debbie, this certainly has been the season of long, unexpected embraces.)

Fishing for an Explanation
I still don’t understand what was going on with Michaela telling Brad to go fishing. I mean, I do in that she was trying to get him to stop looking for an idol, but she could have stated this far more eloquently. She could have said, “Hey, Brad, I know we haven’t been the best of buddies out here, but I’d really like to see you stick around because there are other threats I’d rather see go. I know they’ve thrown your name around a little, but if you can prove to them that they need your skill as a provider, I bet they would consider keeping you around. I’m going to try to turn the vote, but getting a big haul of fish to remind them also might be a good call.”

Now, he probably wouldn’t have bought that. I wouldn’t have. But it would be a hell of a lot more tactful than, “Go fish.” Unless they were, you know, actually playing Go Fish.
(Recap continues on page 3.)

Andrea’s Last Stand (Maybe?)
A pretty interesting discussion broke out at the first Tribal Council as to what drives jury voting. The players went back and forth on whether the jury would reward gameplay or friendship. Sometimes it’s neither, as we have seen some juries in essence vote against the person who played the best game just because they couldn’t handle being bested by said person. This is a common condition known in Survivor circles as BJS (Bitter Jury Syndrome). There have been confirmed outbreaks in Panama (for All-Stars), Samoa (for Samoa), and Cambodia (for Kaoh Rong).

But that’s not always the case. And I do get the sense that this is a jury that will respect strong gameplay the most and vote accordingly. I could be wrong, but that’s just the sense I get. And at this point, that means Sarah is in very good shape should she make it to the end.

One person not making it to the end is Andrea, whom Cirie turned on after she made a play to get Cirie’s ally Sarah out. Andrea played a very strong game this time around. Her Survivor Spidey sense was tingling whenever anyone came after her, she performed well in challenges, her hosting background on People Now enabled her to become a more eloquent speaker at Tribal Council, and she was active without being too overactive (as was the case last time).

Andrea was emotional after the vote, pulling off the always impressive simultaneous laugh-cry, but now that it is all said and done, she should be proud of how she did. Easily her best outing so far. I say “so far” because while I do not really endorse anyone coming back for a fourth time, I would not be surprised to see Andrea enter that increasingly less-exclusive club.

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.

The Bucket List
Look, an immunity challenge taking place in the water!!! Only, not really. More like on top of the water, with a brief swim to shore. In this one, the final seven were perched on a pole in the ocean and had to use a bucket to retrieve water, which they would then use to pour into a chute that would raise a key. Once the key was high enough, they would grab it, swim to shore, and then use the key to unlock puzzle pieces that would then use to solve a block puzzle.

Cirie had just a weeeeee bit of trouble with this one. First off, she couldn’t even stand up on the pole. Then her bucket got stuck. Then she had to climb all the way down to fix it. And then once she did get her key, she was peer pressured by Probst to jump rather than climb down to the water.

All in all, this challenge was fine, but I have one of my patented Super Presumptuous Dalton Ross Challenge Suggestions! You guys are familiar with these. For years, I begged for idols to be hidden at challenges. I also last year put forth my daughter Violet’s excellent suggestion that there be choices in a challenge — where the first tribe to get past the first stage gets to pick between options at the next stage (like, say, strength, smarts, or balance), and then the second-place team gets to take one of the two options left, and then the third-place tribe is stuck with the last one. (I emailed this idea to Probst and challenge producer John Kirhoffer and am hopeful they break it out at some point.)

Anyway, here’s my latest annoying suggestion: Listen, we know the producers love their puzzles. They love them because they are the ultimate equalizers and allow for big dramatic comebacks. Fine. I get it. Makes sense. (Plus, I’ve already been blasted enough by fans — rightfully so — for that one puzzle-less season that Probst said was due to all my puzzle complaints. That one’s on me. That’s my bad.) But what about this: What about having the contestants use that key they got to unlock their puzzle pieces, and then have to do the puzzle UNDERWATER?!?! Give them a mask plus things to secure each puzzle piece when they place it, and force them to do the entire puzzle underwater, coming up for air as often as they need.

Sure, there are a million logistical reasons why this is a terrible idea. The tides may not allow it. It would be hard for viewers to follow along. It would be difficult for Jeff Probst to see if someone got it right. Stuff like that. But I don’t care. You could figure all that out and make a type of puzzle that would work. Anyway, it would be a fun twist and test not just contestants’ puzzle prowess, but also how they work while holding their breath. Let’s make this happen, Kirhoffer!

Oh, so anyway, Brad won, and we got our first real glimpse back to Blood vs. Water Culpepper as the former NFL lineman stormed off, started throwing sand, and yelled, “You’re goddamn right! You’re goddamn right! Pick somebody else, people!” Let me be clear: I don’t have a problem with Brad celebrating his victory. He earned that celebration. But I was a bit surprised after he worked all season to present this image of a kinder, gentler player to see him revert to that cocky character we saw in his first time playing. The pressure of 35 days and now being seemingly on the bottom clearly took their toll.

[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 Andrea or Michaela’s vote, just answer the following question. We are heading into the last few days of the game for Survivor: Game Changers. Who was the person who was medically evacuated the latest in terms of day number on a season, what day was it on, and in what season? Email the player name, the day he/she was evacuated, and the season to survivor@ew.com AND PLEASE MAKE SURE TO INCLUDE YOUR MAILING ADDRESS as well as your preference of either Andrea or Michaela’s vote. The winner will be contacted directly. Good luck! We now return you to your regularly scheduled Survivor recap, still in progress.]
(Recap continues on page 4.)

Michaela’s Moment
All things considered, Michaela took her ouster pretty well. There was no intense stare-down like she did to Jay last season. There was no stomping off and kicking things like she had just lost a reward challenge. She did have one parting gift line in the form of, “I don’t see how that made sense, Sarah, but you do you, Boo,” but for Michaela that is downright restrained. In fact, just moments later she was laughing and already calling out coming back to play a third time to win the million dollars.

It was fascinating to watch Michaela’s back-to-back seasons and how different they were. In season 33, she was a force of nature and respected for both her challenge prowess and strategic acuity. In season 34, she was seemingly regarded by her tribemates as little more than a hotheaded nuisance not even worth selecting in a schoolyard pick challenge.

What’s that all about? Is this because the Game Changers did not see what Michaela was capable of in her previous outing (because season 34 was filmed before season 33 aired)? Or is it because Michaela was a different person out there the second time due to the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion of everyone who has played back-to-back experiences? Perhaps it was a combination of the two, but it was curious to see how pretty much the entire cast (save for Cirie) pretty much dismissed Michaela entirely right out of the gate.

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.

Who Should and Will Win?
The “should” question is pretty easy at this point, as Sarah appears to have played a pretty rock solid game, and everyone seems to see her as the most deserving judging by conversations on the beach. And you have to think she is most likely to win as well. After all, look at the competition.

Brad has done better in challenges, but his biggest game move was betraying J.T., and that was ages ago and unlikely to get him much credit at this point. Cirie has been gaming hard since the merge, and some consideration from the jury should be given to her should she make it the end simply because she was seen as one of the biggest threats before the game began. But the failed attempt to use Sarah’s vote steal probably did her in. Plus, why would anyone bring Cirie to the end? And because she is not strong enough in challenges, she can’t get there on her own.

Tai is an idol-hunting machine and an endurance challenge beast, but similar to his last time, I don’t think anyone out there thinks of him as a strategic mastermind, and that’s probably what you need with this group to win. Meanwhile, Aubry and Troyzan have been practically invisible in the edit this season, which tells you their chances of becoming the Sole Survivor are about as great as their air time. So Sarah’s the best bet as far as who will win, and if she does, it will be a satisfying — if not spectacular — result.

Okay, we need to get to the new updated season rankings now and see where Game Changers falls, but since the rankings tend go on for a bit, just a reminder to read my weekly Q&A with Probst and to check out an exclusive deleted scene from the episode on the last page. Okay, let’s get it to it, and please feel free to put your own rankings in the comments section, as no two lists are ever the same.

(From best to worst)

1.(Tie) Survivor: Borneo
(Winner: Richard Hatch)

and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
(Winner: Parvati Shallow)
I’ve gone back and forth with these two over the years. After Micronesia aired, I named it the best Survivor season ever. Upon reflection, while I still considered it the most enjoyable, I also worried I was understating the impact of the first season, which became a national phenomenon. (Yes, Borneo now seems dated and tame by comparison, but it’s the biggest game changer in the past 20 years of television.) So then I returned that to the No. 1 spot. If I wanted to watch one season again, it would be Micronesia. If you ask me which is the most important season, well, obviously it’s Borneo. So instead of constantly flipping them, they can simply share the top spot… until I change my mind again.

3. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains
(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
The Russell vs. Boston Rob feud made for the best pre-merge run of episodes ever. And the greatness just kept on coming — filled with huge memorable moments like Tyson voting himself off, J.T. giving Russell his immunity idol, and Parvati handing out two immunity idols at one Tribal Council. Loses a few points for having so many three-timers, though, including a few (Amanda, James) we simply didn’t need to see again. I know many people would consider this No. 1, but it’s all returnees. For me, the fresh blood of Micronesia keeps that season higher.

4. Survivor: Cagayan
(Winner: Tony Vlachos)

Quite simply, the best Survivor season ever with all new players since the very first one (which is only better by the fact that it was the very first one). It was an intoxicating mix of terrific and terrible gameplay in which the big personalities (Tony, Spencer, Kass) weren’t just personalities — they actually were there to play the game. (Maybe not well at all times, but at least they were playing.) The casting was killer, the challenges were solid, the boot order was completely unpredictable, and the creative twists worked (although I was not a fan of the return of the post-votes read idol; thankfully that never came into play). The fact that Woo inexplicably brought Tony to the end with him added one last great “WHAT THE HELL?!?” moment to a truly intoxicating season.

5. Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance
(Winner: Jeremy Collins)
The first thing to note about Cambodia is how well all the production twists turned out. Letting fans vote in the cast? Brilliant. Hiding idols at challenges? I think you all know how I feel about that. Tempting people to quit an immunity challenge for a mystery vote steal advantage? Loved it. All the tribe switcheroos? They played out to perfection. The Survivor producers always throw a bunch of twists out there. Usually some work and some don’t. This season, they all paid dividends.

I also appreciated how hard the bulk of the cast was playing. Usually you get a small handful of big-time gamers. This season, you only had a handful who weren’t going hard (which, granted, is somewhat a function of returning player seasons in general). Another plus: the votes were completely unpredictable from week to week, leading to some truly crazy Tribals. Sure, the challenges were a bit blah, but still, a rousing and triumphant success.
(Recap continues on page 5.)

6. Survivor: Amazon
(Winner: Jenna Morasca)
Probably the first truly unpredictable season ever from week to week. Some people hate on Jenna as a winner, but she won challenges and played an effective social game.

7. Survivor: Pearl Islands
(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten sucking at everything. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, which also led to a disappointing final two (Lil? Seriously?).

8. Survivor: Palau
(Winner: Tom Westman)
I loved watching one tribe decimate the other, culminating with Stephenie becoming a tribe of one. And the challenges may have been Survivor’s best ever. What’s interesting about Palau is that we basically all knew Tom would win from episode 1, but it was still gripping nonetheless.

9. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
(Winner: Adam Klein)

With the exception of Caramoan, I’ve never had a season rise so much through the rankings from week to week. When Millennials vs. Gen X started, most us of were like, “Yeah, it’s fine. Not amazing, but not terrible either.” But then things kept happening. And everyone kept flipping on one another. And everyone kept getting blindsided. And everyone kept futilely using their idols for other people.

It was madness and chaos in the best way possible. And what was so fascinating was that (with the exception of Michaela) nobody took their ouster personally. This was a season remarkably free of any sort of fighting whatsoever. None of the ugliness of Worlds Apart or Kaoh Rong permeated the proceedings, even amongst all the lying and backstabbing. Everyone seemed to legitimately appreciate and respect the competition they were going up against, and, as a result, so did we.

What seemed like a so-so cast at first ended up giving us a fair number of breakouts: Michaela, Zeke, David, Adam, Jay. Even Hannah was entertaining with her neurosis. Even Ken was entertaining with his late-game cluelessness. Bret gave us a touching moment where he came out as gay to Zeke. Sunday outsmarted Adam and Hannah with a ruse at Tribal Council. Everyone contributed something.

10. Survivor: Blood vs. Water
(Winner: Tyson Apostol)
The returning contestants playing with/against their loved ones twist added new dimensions and forced players — and us — to think about the strategic elements of the game in an entirely new way. And for strategy nerds like myself, it was like opening a brand new Christmas present each and every week as new layers were revealed.

And although I am certainly no fan of the Redemption Island twist due to the fact that it neuters the show’s most dramatic moment (the vote-off), it is undeniable that the RI element is what led to many of the intriguing strategic decisions of whom to vote out and why. (However, I still can’t figure out why they went with three-person duels — a.k.a. truels — and they definitely should have stopped RI at the merge.) Yes, the challenges were a letdown, and there was a bit of a lull just after the merge, but all in all, this was a super solid season from top to bottom and a nice change of pace.

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.

11. Survivor: Philippines
(Winner: Denise Stapley)
This season was all about one thing: casting, casting, casting. When you look back on what happened, while there were a lot of shake-ups with the voting, there weren’t a whole lot of jaw-on-the-floor shocking moments. So why is it so high? Because the casting and story lines that developed gave us people to root for and against — something every great Survivor season needs. And the fact that Philippines had such a strong final four — Denise, Malcolm, Lisa, Skupin — also doesn’t hurt.

12. Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites
(Winner: John Cochran)
A tale of two seasons this was, and I can already hear people yelling that I am putting it too high. But hear me out first before you Russell any feathers. If I were grading this solely on pre-merge episodes, this would be waaaay down the list due to the emphasis on big personalities (Shamar, Brandon, Phillip) as opposed to big gameplay. It was flat-out grating. But everything post-merge was spectacular. There were so many moves and countermoves galore down the homestretch. The same way it is more important for a sports team to play well in the second half of a game as opposed to the first, a great season needs to build momentum, and Caramoan definitely did that with six fantastic episodes in a row.

It’s much more important to finish strong than to start strong, so I definitely put more weight and emphasis on post-merge episodes when doing the rankings, and this season made a remarkable comeback. Also, don’t overlook how great the bevy of water challenges was. Should I push it down in the rankings due to the lackluster Reunion show that followed? Perhaps. Kind of not sure how much I should take that live show into consideration when ranking what happened out on the island.

13. Survivor: Samoa
(Winner: Natalie White)
I like this season a lot more than most people, but Russell’s controlling of the game (especially post-merge when his side was down 8-4) was truly a work of art. Evil genius art. He was robbed in the end, though, in the most controversial jury decision ever.

14. Survivor: Marquesas
(Winner: Vecepia Towery)
An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. Yes, it was a weak final two, but it also had a woman peeing on a guy’s hand. Plus: purple rock!!!

15. Survivor: China
(Winner: Todd Herzog)
I’ve always loved this season. It featured a really good cast stuck in a really bad location. Todd completely owned that final Tribal Council. That’s how you win a million dollars.
(Recap continues on page 6.)

16. Survivor: Cook Islands
(Winner: Yul Kwon)
What a difference a mutiny makes. It was listless until that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we finally had underdogs to root for. The Tribal Council fire-making tiebreaker between Sundra and Becky may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Plus, just look at all the great first-time contestants (Parvati, Penner, Ozzy, Yul). Mutineers must die!

17. Survivor: Game Changers
(Winner: ????)

Here it is, 17 out of 34 — smack dab in the middle. What a weird season this has been. On one hand, there has been a bevy of huge crazy Tribal Councils with last-second whispering and maneuvering leading to jaw-dropping exits. We were treated to two titans of the game (Tony and Sandra) going toe to toe. We saw one of the ugliest moments ever (Jeff Varner outing Zeke) turn into a shining instructive example of how to handle insensitive bullying via the reactions from Zeke and his tribemates. But something was missing. It’s hard to put your finger right on it, but it felt like this season lacked a consistent flow. Instead of a gradually building arc, we were instead presented with what could be best described as a random series of events. Said events were all exciting, but they failed to form a cohesive unit.

It didn’t help that most of the big players and personalities went out so early: Tony, Malcolm, Sandra, J.T. — all gone before the merge. Then Ozzy went home in the merge double-episode and we hardly saw Cirie until the merge because she never went to Tribal Council. That means we did not get a lot of bang for our buck when it came to the biggest players in the cast. No offense to someone like Sarah — who appears to have played a very strong game and deserves to be applauded for it — but she and most of the others we are left with are simply not as dynamic as the personalities we lost early on.

That was always my big fear about this season — that as exciting as the early episodes were, those high-profile exits were diluting the cast and leaving us with players that we, as viewers, were not fully invested in. That’s kind of how I’ve viewed the past few weeks — I’m enjoying the gameplay and unpredictability, but don’t have a strong rooting interest and am therefore less invested. I would say that could be just me, but I’ve heard similar concerns from a lot of people.

But — contrary to what the paragraphs above may lead you to believe — I don’t by any means think this is a bad season. I’m just explaining what has kept it from being a truly great one in my book. Because there have been a lot of great moments, and judged on their own you would think this should be a top 10 entry. It’s not in my book, but it is a totally solid one. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong at all. And when you combine it with true greatness that was Millennials vs. Gen X, it was a strong year of filming in Fiji. (As always, the ranking can move up or down a few spots depending on what happens in the finale.)

18. Survivor: Australian Outback
(Winner: Tina Wesson)
An overrated season in my book. Probst loves it. I didn’t. Solid but unspectacular. Pretty predictable boot order as well. Dude did burn his hands off, though.

19. Survivor: South Pacific
(Winner: Sophie Clarke)
Here’s another one that I like more than most people, which is curious considering how much it has in common with the season that aired directly before it, which I didn’t like: the same twist of two returning players, Redemption Island, the predictable vote-offs, no real water challenges, etc… But there is one thing I really did dig about this season, and that is the cast. I was invested in the players and their fates — the ones I wanted to do well, and not so well. Plus, this season gave us three signature moments: Ozzy volunteering to go to Redemption, Cochran flipping, and Brandon giving away his immunity.

20. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng
(Winner: Michelle Fitzgerald)
Not one of the best seasons ever; not one of the worst. Working in this season’s favor was the sheer unpredictability from week to week in terms of who was aligned with whom and what would happen at Tribal Council. That’s always exciting. Working against this season is the fact that there simply were not enough transcendent players in the cast. Talking to fellow fans of the show, I did not find a lot of passion or hardcore rooting interest for any of the folks who made it far in the game (especially after Tai sabotaged the tribe by putting out the fire). That’s a problem. Another problem was the selection of an underwhelming winner in Michele, as Aubry was denied at the end by an unsurprisingly bitter jury.

While the reward challenge that caused three players to collapse was certainly riveting (and scary as hell) to watch, it also robbed us of one of the most charismatic contestants in Beast Mode Cowboy, which was a shame. The other medical evacuations (Neal and Joe) meant we were denied chances to see how those pivotal votes would have gone down, and the challenges in general were at times too heavily reliant on balancing.

All that said, there were legitimate moments of glory — like when Tai turned on Scot and Jason — that elevated the proceedings and turned this season into a solid, if unspectacular, entry. (I originally had the season ranked as 16 out of 32, but then dropped it two slots after the finale, and then two more to make way for Millennials vs. Gen X and now Game Changers.)
(Recap continues on page 7.)

21. Survivor: Tocantins
(Winner: J.T. Thomas)
Okay, you may roll your eyes at Coach 1.0. But imagine for a second this season without him. Bo-ring! His unintentional comedy single-handedly lifted this into the middle of the pack. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any memorable moments that didn’t involve the Steven Seagal wannabe?

22. Survivor: All-Stars
(Winner: Amber Brkich)
Overall, a bit of a letdown, but man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. Plus: Best. Reunion Show. Ever. (Remember Jerri getting literally booed off the stage?)

23. Survivor: Worlds Apart
(Winner: Mike Holloway)

The main problem, of course, was that there were not enough people to root for. Worlds Apart got somewhat hijacked by an assault of offensive comments to and about women by some of the male characters. It’s too bad because there was actually some interesting gameplay — mostly thanks to Mike. And there were some big moments at the last few Tribal Councils as well. This season moved around a bunch for me. It started off middle-of-the-pack and went WAY down during all that Dan-and-Will ugliness, but it slowly crept back up after that.

24. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island
(Winner: Aras Baskauskas)
Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Terry was robbed on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Another unmemorable final two. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. And the Second Chance season, for that matter.

25. Survivor: Gabon
(Winner: Bob Crowley)
It got better near the end, but it was still a case of too little, too late. The fact that so many unworthy players went so far is simply too damning.

26. Survivor: Redemption Island
(Winner: Boston Rob Mariano)
The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (the most dominant showing ever) and Phillip philosophize (the craziest showing ever), just not very dramatic. Most of the vote-offs were clearly telegraphed, and the Redemption Island twist sucked the life out of Survivor’s signature moment — the vote-off.

27. Survivor: Africa
(Winner: Ethan Zohn)
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.

28. Survivor: Guatemala
(Winner: Danni Boatwright)
One of the more unlikable casts so far. (Remember Judd? Jamie? Stephenie’s evil twin?) Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.

29. Survivor: Vanuatu
(Winner: Chris Daugherty)
I don’t blame producers: The battle of the sexes worked well the first time around.

30. Survivor: San Juan del Sur
(Winner: Natalie Anderson)

The cast was for the most part boring if not boorish, and when you look back on this season, does any one big moment even stand out? Anything? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I will say there were a few strong post-merge episodes, and it definitely got better over the last few weeks thanks to Natalie’s strong play. That counts for something. This is not a season that inspires anger or rage, just apathy, which is maybe the worst indictment of all.

31. Survivor: One World
(Winner: Kim Spradlin)
Look, I have total respect for Kim’s game. Like Tom in Palau and Rob in Redemption Island, she excelled strategically, socially, and physically. Unfortunately, that is really the only good thing I can say about this season. And that’s too bad, because I do think the “One World” concept was a solid one. But, man, what a thoroughly uninspiring cast. Colton was more a horrible human being than a classic villain, and the rest of the players were mostly either completely forgettable or people you wish you could forget. I worry I am being generous by putting it even this high, but out of respect for Kim, it goes here.

32. Survivor: Thailand
(Winner: Brian Heidik)
The fake merge and brutal last challenge — where the final three had to hold coins between their fingers in a crazy painful pose — keep this dud out of the bottom spot. Barely.

33. Survivor: Fiji
(Winner: Earl Cole)
With the exception of Yau-Man and Earl, a true bummer of a cast, and the “Haves vs. Have-Nots” twist was one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…

34. Survivor: Nicaragua
(Winner: Jud “Fabio” Birza)
It’s at the bottom for a few reasons. (1) Splitting the tribes up by age and the Medallion of Power were both enormous flops. (2) Like One World, Thailand, and Fiji, Nicaragua had just too many unlikable players. (3) Two people quitting with only 11 days left. (4) No big memorable moments. Even Thailand had the fake merge and Fiji had the big Yau-Man/Dreamz free car deal gone bad, but what was Nicaragua’s signature moment? Unfortunately, it was people quitting, and that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

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.

Okay, that’s gonna do it for the recap/season rankings combo platter. But we have plenty of more side dishes for you to feast upon. Make sure to check out my penultimate Q&A with Jeff Probst as well as an exclusive deleted scene from the episode, above. We’ll also be chatting with both Andrea and Michaela on EW Radio (SiruisXM, channel 105) Thursday morning, and you can read/hear those interviews a bit later on EW.com as well. And for a steady stream of Survivor scoop, you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

But now it’s your turn. Where would you rank Game Changers? Who should and will win from the remaining six? And should the vote steal have been transferable? Weigh in on the message boards below, and I’ll be back next week with another supersized scoop of the crispy.

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