A few players get the short end of the stick when tribes are reshuffled

By Dalton Ross
March 15, 2017 at 09:00 PM EDT
Credit: Jeffrey Neira/CBS
S34 E3
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Well, I’m looking over this handy-dandy Survivor menu for what to eat after this latest installment from the gold star of reality television. This is an odd one because the menu says “Goat,” but then the word goat is crossed out. Does this mean notorious Survivor crosser-outer Aubry Bracco prepared this evening’s menu or was there a back-room feud between Chef Sandra and the rest of the kitchen staff?

No matter, goat is no longer on the menu, and instead it appears to have been replaced with… crow. That’s right, crow for me and crow for you. We’ll all be eating crow all day and all night because here we were before Survivor: Game Changers wondering how Caleb qualified under the terms of the subtitle moniker if he never even went to a single Tribal Council. We were dubious. We were suspicious. And then what does Caleb do? He ends up being eliminated on day 9 — the exact same day his journey ended last time. You know what they call that attention to detail and precision? A GAME CHANGER!

Sure, your typical Survivor player would have fought, and clawed, and scratched, and strategized to keep themselves in the game, but Caleb is no typical Survivor player, ladies and gentlemen. He’s a GAME CHANGER, and he truly changed the game by appearing to make no attempt whatsoever to stay in it (until a last ditch plea at Tribal Council). That’s the type of thinking-outside-the-box approach you expect from someone who redefined the game.

Forget about the Tony or Sandra battle last week. That was merely the undercard for this epic battle royale between Caleb and Hali — two people whose entire strategy seemed to be something along the lines of, “Well, I hope it’s not me. Guess I’ll just sit here and stare at the ocean for a while and then find out tonight at Tribal Council. No point in trying to do anything about it!”

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.

(By the way, remember to look for the hidden Survivor question somewhere in this week’s recap for your chance to win Caleb’s infamous “You aren’t a Game Changer!” vote at Sandra. It’s your chance to own a part of Survivor history… for free! And congratulations to last week’s winners, Meg and Lindsey, for taking home Tony and Ciera’s votes.)

Maybe I’m giving those two a bit of a hard time. The guy who really blew it this episode appears to be Tai, as the chicken-loving gardener got completely strategically played by… Brad Culpepper?!? Yes, Brad Culpepper! The whole tribe was ready to vote out Hali in order to keep challenge strength with Caleb, but then Culpepper — concerned about a Kaoh Rong power trio forming — somehow managed to convince Tai that having a strong partner that you can trust and count on no matter what was a bad thing.

Seriously, that was his pitch. Look, I get the subtext — that if you keep Caleb around you too will be considered a threat and then make yourself a target. But if Tai is smart, what he does is take steps to distance himself a bit from Caleb and make it seem as if they are not so close. This is not that difficult to do. You just bring his name up in conversations about whether to get rid of him, thereby giving the impression that you only want him around for so long. (Kissing him less would probably help as well.) So you do all of that, but you don’t vote him out. And that’s because you don’t vote out someone at this stage of the game who will have your back and protect you no matter what — and that’s exactly the type of guy Caleb is, loyal to a fault. (Go watch his season of Big Brother if you don’t believe me.)

Has someone from Survivor ever voted out their biggest ally this early in the game solely because they were a big ally? No, because you need allies in this game. You need numbers. You need loyalty. Those are the things you collect, not discard. Besides, guess what? Had Tai kept Caleb around, he could have had a Kaoh Rong power trio and would be running the Mana tribe right now with a 3-2 majority. He would be in control and he would be building a résumé to win the game. Instead, he allowed Brad to weaken his position by allowing himself to be convinced to vote off his best buddy. Whoopsie daisy!

But if we’re going to take Tai to task, we have to give props to Brad Culpepper. I know that is difficult for a lot of us, especially after all the nonsense in Blood vs. Water, but a well-executed game move is a well-executed game move. Respect is due. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call Brad a Game Changer, but he certainly appears to have changed his own game, and for the better. At least nine days in he has.

Okay, let’s get to all the other novelty and nonsense that went down this week, starting from the top. We begin right on the beach, where Jeff Probst is waiting in what can only be classified as an #OrangeHatAlert. The tribes converge, with the folks at Nuku expressing shock at the sight of Tony being voted out. “I can’t believe it,” says Sarah. This, of course, makes no sense seeing as how Tony got the most votes in my whom-do-you-want-to-vote-out-first pre-game poll, but I suppose everyone making yeah-that-makes-sense faces is significantly less dramatic and does not make for particularly good television.

It’s clearly tribe reshuffling time — even Zeke knows it! The men have to pick from one tray of covered buffs while the women pick from another, and apparently they have to do it without looking, as everyone gets super-superstitious, avoiding any and all eye contact with the tray as if it is Medusa and they will somehow be turned to stone should they steal a glance in its general direction.

The players also look surprised to learn they are expanding from two to three tribes, although this surprise also makes no sense seeing as how even the less-seasoned Survivor viewer knows Probst and producers love going to three tribes at 18. Anyhoo, here’s how it all shakes out.


Breakdown: Caleb and Hali are the only two from Mana; however, you also now have three Kaoh Rongs together. Also, with Sierra, Hali, and Caleb all together, this definitely has all the makings of the “What the hell are these people doing on Game Changers?” tribe. Throw in Brad, Tai, and Debbie and this tribe without a doubt has the least impressive résumé — by far. It’s as if they took all the people fans cared least about and put them all on the same tribe. (Producer: “Uhhhh, yeah, you six please come over here with me.” Sierra: “But there aren’t even any cameras on this beach?” Producer: “Ummm, you, uh, just can’t see them. They’re secret cameras. We are totally recording you all and… er, will absolutely make sure you get tons of camera time. Um, gotta go. Bye!”)


Breakdown: Yikes! How do you go from being on a tribe up two in numbers to being the only person from your original tribe on the new one? That is maybe the worst luck in tribe swapping I have ever seen. Man, J.T. can just not catch a break since Tocantins. He should write a letter to Russell all about his feelings over the latest tribe swap. While Varner and Sandra are definite liabilities in terms of physical performance in challenges, as long as they can be hidden by untying knots or doing puzzles or something, this tribe should be good to go.


Breakdown: Troyzan got the J.T. treatment as he is the only Mana on the new Tavua, but that’s more to be expected since Mana was down two members. Keeping Ozzy and Cirie together is a blessing for viewers as we can see what happens with their 9-year-old feud.

Tribe placement and replacement is the singular biggest wild card in the game. Someone who is voted out first in a season from their tribe could very well have been a winner had they been put on the other side. (The most famous example on the reverse side of this is Boston Rob on Redemption Island. Had he ended up on the older, more skeptical tribe at the start of that season, would he have been able to manipulate them as easily as he owned the starstruck group he actually played with?)

The tribe reshuffling can be especially cruel. You can have everything lined up for a deep run in the game and then get completely screwed over by pulling the wrong buff. You can do everything right and then get eliminated due to no fault of your own. I remember I howled and wailed about the unfairness of it all when the first tribe swap happened on Survivor: Africa. But now it is as much a part of the game as anything else. So much of Survivor is luck and circumstance. That explains how someone like Boston Rob could make the finals twice and not even make the merge the other two times. As a player, all you can do is pray to the Survivor gods that fortune smiles on you when these sorts of twists emerge.

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Fortune was clearly not smiling on J.T, but the other players on the new Nuku are PYSCHED! That’s because not only have they gone from losing every challenge to now being in an overwhelming majority, but they have hit the “Survivor jackpot,” as Malcolm calls it. They have an insane amount of food (including chickens that can now be eaten since Tai is gone), they have a tool kit, they pretty much have everything. They look less like Survivor contestants and more like folks appearing on a show called Pimp My Tribe where some home makeover expert (Tata the Bushman, perhaps?) shows up and starts hanging ornaments on trees to “spruce up the place” while we look at before and after pictures to show what an amazing new Feng shui has been achieved.

J.T. needs to flip the script, so he drags the rest of the tribe out a half-mile into the water to fish, only to then swim back to shore — allegedly to retrieve some pliers after Malcolm bent the spear, but actually to hunt for an idol. J.T. checks every nook and cranny available, also going through his tribemates’ bags and pants to see if they happen to have an idol (which he is not allowed to steal, if any of you were wondering.)

The odd thing about this segment is that everyone else just sits out there in the water talking about how J.T. abandoned them to go idol hunting. But if that’s the case, why not send someone to go check on him? Aubry and Malcolm are both strong swimmers. If J.T. could make it back, couldn’t they? (Unless J.T. had some other raft or boat that I did not notice.) In any event, the only thing J.T. finds is bupkis, so it’s all for naught and now he needs to come up with another method of working his way into his tribe’s good graces. Which brings us to the goats.

Sandra wants to eat one, and if the queen orders a goat, it is a subject’s duty to get that woman a damn goat. So J.T. corrals a baby goat and Malcolm catches the mommy goat. Only one problem: Nobody wants to actually eat the goats… except Sandra. “That’s what they’re here for, for human consumption,” says the queen, clearly putting less of a premium on luscious hair and land-clearing skills.

So all of Nuku gathers to hold their own impromptu Tribal Council to decide whether to vote the mommy goat off the planet, and for the first time in her Survivor life, Sandra ends up on the wrong side of the vote. No matter, because since Tai is not there, it’s chicken dinner time! So the whole feel-good ending is only so feel goody, with another animal taking its place on the proverbial guillotine.

Meanwhile, as Tai and Brad have a very confusing conversation at Mana over the order of whom should go when among the threesome of Hali Caleb, and Debbie, we have something potentially fascinating happening over at Tavua. The new tribe has to start from scratch and build a new shelter. They may also have to build some new relationships. Cirie wants to stop having to call in and donate to Ozzy’s Grudge-a-Thon Spectacular, and Ozzy is down with burying the hatchet — for now — since Troyzan “can be an easy first one to go.”

Besides, Ozzy wants to put his 115 days of Survivor playing to use and become a leader. He needs to show everyone “that I still got the skills.” (Note: He may have been spelling skills with a Z in his mind, like skillz. It’s impossible to say, so I went with the more traditional spelling.) I questioned Ozzy out there before the game began if he still had the skills/skillz when it came to challenges. He had no doubt, but I did. However, after watching him in the first three challenges, the dude has been on point. But Ozzy’s problem is showing that he has skills/skillz in terms of the strategic and social elements of the game, because those are things he lacked in his first three times playing. Can Ozzy build relationships and anticipate three steps ahead of everyone else? Those are the skills/skillz he’ll need if he wants to finally win this thing. Or thang.

As for easy first boot Troyzan, he knows he’s on the bottom, Andrea’s half-hearted protestations notwithstanding. “She’s not as clever as she thinks she is,” Troyzan says of Andrea, although I’m sure she thought she was being particularly clever by responding the way one obviously responds to someone on the outs. Andrea goes back and tells the others they need to keep watch on Troyzan so he does not find an idol, kind of like the way she babysat Malcolm back in Caramoan. But she’s too late, as Troyzan finds a note in a bottle on the beach informing him there will be an immunity idol hidden at the next challenge if he is daring enough to make a move for it. (Hiding idols at challenges: brilliant! Wish I had thought of it.)

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.

[Congratulations! You’ve found the super secret Survivor pre-game vote-off giveaway off 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 Caleb’s infamous vote for Sandra — where he accuses her of not being a Game Changer — just answer the following question: Singing Wanda was one of two people to not even make it on to a tribe on Survivor: Palau. Who was the other contestant eliminated at that schoolyard pick ‘em? Email your answer to survivor@ew.com. Winners will be contacted directly. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Survivor recap, still in progress.]

Speaking of the challenge, let’s head there to see what’s what. I’ve always maintained the most awkward thing Jeff Probst has to say as part of his duties as host of Survivor is when he has to tell contestants they are “playing for love,” as if they will live out the remainder of their days as completely unloved should they not happen to win that challenge… or be one of the approximately 312 people selected to join the winner on the reward. Anything around that loved ones visit just leads to super awkward play-by-play, like last season when Probst told the contestants they had to race through the obstacles “towards love,” or when he looked at a stuck Adam in the sand and exclaimed that “his shot at love is falling away!” Which seems like a bit of a sweeping generalization to make. Sorry, Adam, but you will never love again!!!

In any event, I always thought that was the most awkward thing Probst had to say. But I was wrong. Because then I heard him instruct the teams on Survivor: Game Changers that they were playing for “comfort for your taste buds.” I don’t know, that seems like an odd way to describe spices. Like, if I was in an Italian restaurant and wanted a little oregano, I wouldn’t ask the waiter for some “comfort for my taste buds.” On second thought, actually now I may do that just because the look at the waiter’s face would be pretty awesome. Although maybe he would just get confused and think I was hitting on him or something. That’s the problem with a phrase like “comfort for your taste buds” — it could be easily misconstrued. And “Hey, can you please pass some comfort for my taste buds?” doesn’t exactly roll off the tip of your tongue when you’re jonesing for a little salt.

Let’s do a little test. Next time you sit down for a family meal or are out at a restaurant, ask someone to pass you some “comfort for your taste buds” and see what happens. Better yet, record it and tweet it to me and I promise to RT. What I’m getting at, ladies and gentlemen, is that Jeff Probst is both a trendsetter and a tastemaker, because the more I ruminate on this whole comfort for your taste buds thing, the more I am convinced it is the most genius thing to ever come out of Survivor, and keep in mind, I love Survivor. But as amazing as 34 seasons and counting is, if “comfort for your taste buds” ends up being the lasting legacy of this show, I am totally down with that. As are my taste buds. Oh, by the way, those spices go tothe team that finishes in second place (along with immunity). First place gets immunity and “comfort for your body,” which includes pillows and a tarp (comfort from the elements?).

As for the contest itself, three members of each tribe are tied together and have to work to get through a series of obstacles, then grab a bucket, fill it with water, go over a giant teeter-totter and transfer the water until there is enough to lower a gate. Then the remaining tribe members must finish a Game Changers logo puzzle. Tai, Caleb, and Debbie doom their tribe by attempting to go through the wood bramble instead of up and over it. Although Hali and Brad make a valiant attempt to catch up on the puzzle, Mana loses yet again. The players on Mana may change, but the result stays the same.

However, there is also the game within the game. Or, more accurately, the game after the game, as Troyzan goes to retrieve his challenge idol. As his fellow Tavuaians celebrate their narrow escape from Tribal Council, Troyzan leans down awkwardly to snag the idol, but he reaches too low, forcing him to crouch there for a while like he’s Bob Dog dropping a deuce at Casa de Charmin. Troyzan finally makes his second successful attempt — grabbing the package and hiding it in his other package. THIS IS MY ISLAND!!!!

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Troyzan may be the ultimate winner in that challenge, but Mana are the losers, so they go back to camp to lick their wounds (without any comfort for their taste buds, it should be noted). Hali says it would be a miracle for her to stay, but then again it was a miracle she was cast on this season to begin with, so maybe lightning can strike twice? For her part, Debbie says that past relationships absolutely matter and she knows this from the last time she played — which seems a bit odd because weren’t they all strangers the last time she played? No matter, because that is of little consequence when there are much more important things going on, like, say, Tai exfoliating his face with a sand scrub that makes him look like Sandman from Spider-Man 3.

After Brad pulls his Jedi mind trick on Tai —“These aren’t the allies you are looking for” — we head to Tribal Council, and now is where I will give Caleb and Hali some props for fighting to stay. Now, they don’t do a particularly good job of it, but at least they are finally trying, and it’s nice to acknowledge the kiddie table every once in while. Caleb says they should get rid of Hali because she is easier to manipulate and bring along far into the game, which is the exact reason NOT to get rid of her, while Hali says, “Basically, my closing argument is that I’ve just been myself,” which is perhaps the worst closing argument I have ever heard, and I watched at least a season-and-a-half of Judging Amy. But still, they’re trying!

So after Tai does his best Eliza Orlins/Hannah Shapiro impersonation by taking waaaaay too long to vote, Caleb is sent home. On day 9 once again. It’s too bad. I actually really like watching him compete in challenges because the guy does have another gear that others can’t seem to match. Then again, he did lose every single challenge he played this season, and he simply does not have the strategic chops to play with the big dogs in such a cutthroat game dependent on lies and manipulation. Caleb is a straight-up dude and too loyal to play this game. You gotta love the way he planted one last kiss on Tai’s head after his island BFF voted him out. No hard feelings. I can dig it.

And there is plenty for you to dig into right here. Like, an exclusive deleted scene below. And my weekly Q&A with Jeff Probst. I’ll also be talking to the ousted Caleb at 9:40am on EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) and you can read/hear that later right here on EW.com.

But right now it’s your turn. Did the Mana tribe make the right move in getting rid of Caleb? Think J.T. is done for? And what do you make of the new tribes? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and make sure to follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for more scoopage. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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