Two tribes go to war in a joint Tribal Council

By Dalton Ross
March 22, 2017 at 09:00 PM EDT
Jeffrey Neira/CBS Entertainment


S34 E4
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I’m sorry, but before we get into this week’s Survivor recap, can someone please go check Jeff Varner’s underwear? Because judging by what happened and what was said during the casting of votes on this latest episode, we may need a cleanup in aisle 4 of Tribal Council. Only this time it was not Fishbachian levels of #SevereGastrointestinalDistress to blame for any problems down below. (Although it certainly is fun to blame Fishbach for anything really, and I am more than willing to look the other way if you want to do that.)

“If you pull out an idol I will soil myself,” said Varner while casting his vote for Sierra… who promptly then used a hidden immunity idol courtesy of Tai. Look, I don’t know if Jeff Varner is rocking the Depends out there in Fiji or not, but things could get a little uncomfortable for my man from here on out. But fret not, Varner, because if misery loves company then you should be plum ecstatic, as I have a feeling plenty of viewers may have joined you in experiencing involuntary activity after all the madness that went down on their TV screen.

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MADNESS! That really is the only word for it. It was a scene clearly foretold 33 years ago by the singing Nostradamuses known as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who opined that “when two tribes go to war, a point is all you can score.” Well, two tribes did indeed go to war in a joint Tribal Council, and the point scored was when Mana outmaneuvered Nuku to send a shell-shocked Malcolm out of the game.

Let me absolutely clear: I still am not entirely sure what the hell transpired in what has to be considered the most chaotic Tribal Council ever, and I’m not sure the players involved in the melee have a clear idea either. Was J.T. playing double agent to get Sandra out but then it backfired when Mana voted for Malcolm instead? Was Hali only pretending to be siding with Nuku, or did she actually want Brad Culpepper out but the folks at Nuku wouldn’t go for it (which would explain her hesitancy to go vote, telling the inpatient Nukuians, “All right, you may regret, it but I’ll go”)?

We think we know, but the truth is, we don’t really know. At least not for sure. Which is what made this joint Tribal Council such a stroke of brilliance. It put us as viewers right in the place of the contestants themselves — scrambling to uncover the truth and consider every possible angle. I honestly think I bruised my thighs by clutching them so hard while watching, that’s how tense it was.

Here’s a rough timeline of how things went down. We’ll start with some of less consequential stuff and then we’ll get into the big moves by Hali and J.T. I will also point out the big mistake that Nuku made — and it’s not what you think. (I feel like I’m at a Murder Mystery Dinner trying to piece together the clues to figure out whodunit. By the way, can we please bring back that bizarre ABC reality show Whodunnit? where contestants would have to hilariously fake their own deaths after they were eliminated, and all the other contestants would have to pretend like the folks were actually murdered? That was maybe the height of addictive stupidity.)

Anyway, back to Tribal. Brad kicked things off by making me feel like we were at an NRA convention, as there was a hell of a lot of talk about guns. About who has guns. About whose guns are pointed at whom. About whether some guns are pointed at people on their own tribe. Sandra, however, was confident where the Nuku artillery was aimed. “Jeff, all of our guns are pointed at them,” she said in what would not be her last boastful claim of the evening.

The foreplay portion of the evening continued as Debbie pointed out that there was someone in the Nuku 6 who used to be very, very close to them. Was she right? Sure, but why the hell is she selling out J.T? AT this point J.T. — being the only original Nuku in that tribe — is hopefully either acting as a double agent for his former tribe or trying like hell to fit in with his new tribemates. Either way, probably not smart to make his new tribe suspicious of him, yet that is exactly what Debbie did right there.

Back and forth the tribes went, with Brad Culpepper pointing out how there were more threats on the Nuku side that needed to be taken out. This led Probst to ask Sandra if she was a threat because she had never lost. “Oh, I’m not worried,” she responded. “I know I’m not going home tonight. How ‘bout that?” At first gander, this just seemed to be random boasting, but Sandra was actually doing something very smart here. She’s essentially bluffing and leading the Mana folks to deduce that she has an idol. A lot of times, it is easy to see through such bluffs, but since Sandra is such a world-renowned boaster — see her week two verbal takedown of Tony — it is completely reasonable to deduce that if she is bragging about not going home, she simply was unable to contain herself and inadvertently leaked some valuable intel.

Did Sandra just buy herself three more days on the island with that comment? And did that comment set the stage for what was to come? It’s certainly possible it helped shift the target from her to Malcolm. There were also some very interesting things happening over on the Mana side of Tribal Council. Brad (correctly) pointed out that it would make no sense for Hali to switch sides because then she would be public enemy No. 1 on her own tribe and a shoo-in to be voted out at the next Tribal. However, Hali seemingly did not appreciate the threat. “I don’t know. That’s not a good speech to, like, groom me in.” I italicized the word seemingly because everything from this point out in terms of Hali and J.T. is somewhat open for debate. Again, we may think we know, but there is still an element of guesswork involved. Let’s take the Hali side first.

At this point, Hali appears to be firmly in play for both tribes. Is it an act to fool the Nuku folks into thinking she is with them? Perhaps, but then why is Sierra fighting for her to stay and whispering to her, “You don’t know where they’re going. You have to go with us.” (And again, why did Hali try to talk the Nuku folks out of beginning the voting while she tried to clear some things up before deciding what she was going to do?) There is also her announcement that “I think this is a stupid time in the game to be thinking about anything but physical threats. That’s where I am. That’s where I sit in this group.”

Essentially, it seems that Hali possibly could be on board with Mana as long as they vote for Malcolm and not Sandra, which was a viewpoint Sierra also expressed back at camp before they even got to Tribal Council. But then what are we to make of Hali walking over to the Nuku side, huddling with them and telling the group, “You have to do Brad. It’s better for us. I promise”? She could be doing this because:

A. She has ditched Mana and wants Nuku to vote Brad out, even if she has to still vote with Mana to at least carry out the illusion she is still with them (since Nuku already has the majority numbers anyway and does not need her vote) so she is not treated as a leper back at camp.

B. She is just trying to confuse Nuku and make them think she is on their side when she is not, to control where their vote goes.

C. She has not nor is she is trying to confuse them. But she would rather see Brad go instead of Sierra so if her Mana side loses at least she can try to control which one of them goes. So she is still on Team Mana but just wants to shape the team moving forward in case they lose.

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It’s hard to know for sure what Hali’s true intent was, but my inclination is to go with scenario A. She told Sierra in a Mana huddle, “I’m trying to change everything,” and she told Nuku several times to vote out Brad, but we still don’t know her real reason for doing so. Since a flipped vote really means nothing here, seeing as how Nuku already had the numbers, the only valuable piece of intel Hali could provide is whether Mana had an idol and who would be using it. Michaela even says this to Sandra, wondering before the vote why Hali didn’t just tell them who had the idol. “Nobody got no idol over there,” responded Sandra… which technically is accurate seeing as how she used a double negative. (Nobody has no idol = somebody has an idol.)

The reason Hali did not tell them about the idol is that Hali most likely didn’t know about it. Remember, she was not in the scene when Tai revealed to the others (Brad, Sierra, Debbie) that he found it, which makes total sense because they knew Hali was a shaky vote at best for them. So Hali was unable to share the one important piece of information and therefore was of no use to Nuku. So while she may very well have wanted to join up with her original tribemates, she had no value in the short term. Except for in one very critical way, and this, ladies and gentlemen, was Nuku’s big screw-up of the evening.

Since they had the numbers, the only way Nuku could mess things up was to get hit with a hidden immunity idol. And who is the one person the Mana folks would never give an idol to? Hali. Now I get why Nuku did not vote for Hali. They want to potentially reunite with Hali later at the merge, so they want to keep her in the game, but if I’m in their shoes, I know that is the only safe vote that keeps everyone on the tribe — including myself — from being eliminated, so I am writing her name down in a heartbeat. That’s all they had to do. And the person who should have suggested it was J.T.

Think about it: If J.T. tells them that a Hali vote protects against an idol and keeps all of them 100 percent safe and they go ahead and do that, then J.T. is the biggest winner of the evening. Not only is he safe, and not only is his biggest ally (Malcolm) still there, but he took out an original Mana in Hali who could hook back up with the others later, and his current tribe does not hate him for deceiving them. That’s what J.T. should have done. Now let’s take a look at what actually went down with him.

J.T. wants Sandra out. This makes him like a lot of other players who want no part in going against the self-proclaimed Queen of Survivor. When he heard the Mana folks talking, he thought they were targeting Sandra, and this was music to his ears. “Should I talk to Brad?” he asked Malcolm, and then went over and did exactly that. Think about what an extraordinary move this was: a guy from one tribe walking all the way over to the other side to have a private conversation with someone from the opposing tribe.

“I love you, brother, but they’re voting Sierra out,” J.T. told him. After J.T. went back and sat down, Brad asked for confirmation. “You swear?” he asked. “I swear,” came the response. “It’s on you, buddy,” Brad said. Then, later, J.T. told Brad to vote for Sandra, which clearly did not happen. So the bottom line is this: J.T.’s plan was to take out a threat from his own tribe and hope like hell he could then make it to the merge and reunite with his besties. I can’t say I’m in love with that plan. Nor am I in love with giving all that intel to the enemy knowing that the entire thing falls apart if I cannot trust them back.

And that has been J.T.’s biggest problem in Survivor. On one hand, I love that J.T. makes HUGE moves like giving a hidden immunity idol to someone from the opposition tribe in Heroes vs. Villains and now leaking voting intel to the opposition tribe here on Game Changers. I love it because it shows a willingness to take risks, to go for the glory, to be — yes — a GAME CHANGER! But the problem with both those moves is they involved implicitly trusting the person on the other side. And both times that misplaced trust did him in.

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Because J.T. told Brad where the votes were going, now he has lost his biggest ally on his current tribe in Malcolm, and the rest of Nuku most likely wants nothing to do with him. Imagine walking back to his beach right now and having to deal with the aftermath of this. We saw Michaela tell Varner that J.T. set them up, and poor Malcolm has even taken J.T. off his Christmas card list! (As if Malcolm has ever sent a Christmas card in his life.) Again, had he just told his tribemates to vote for Hali it would be all good in the hood now. Original Mana would have lost a member, the original Nuku on current Mana would not be too upset at him since Hali was not part of their alliance anyway, and current Nuku would consider J.T. a hero because he kept them all safe with his savvy move to target the one person Tai would not have given an idol to. Win. Win. Win.

Except it turned into a loss. For the second week in a row, we have to give major props to Brad Culpepper. He got the info he needed from J.T., saved a key alliance partner in the process, and may have possibly just won over Hali by agreeing to vote out the physical threat she was never close to in Malcolm. Not bad.

Although it was all-bad for Malcolm, who looked like he had been hypnotized by Catherine Keener in Get Out on his way to get his torch snuffed. And the guy still appeared utterly devastated as he relayed his final words, delivered on the verge of tears. I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible, seeing as how Malcolm was my pre-game pick to win it all. That brings the official Dalton Curse up to 19 seasons straight and counting! Shows you what a genius I am.

Wow, are you as exhausted as I am trying to figure that all out? Of course, the irony is, none of it is figured out! This is all educated guesswork, and not that educated at that. Well, I just spent 2,500 words on a single Tribal Council, which has to be some sort of record — a pathetic record, mind you, but a record nonetheless — and I didn’t even really get into Brad imploring Tai to play the idol, Sierra playing said idol, Malcolm chatting about vomit, or any of the talk about “Tribal Council consent,” which isn’t as gross as it sounds

But, believe it or not, there were some other things that happened in this episode, so let’s get to those super quick before we wrap up, But first, CONGRATULATIONS! You have found this week’s super secret Survivor quiz question. In case you’re new here, I am giving away all the original votes (that you can view on my Instagram feed) that the Game Changers cast before the game for whom they wanted out first. To enter for a chance to win Malcolm’s vote for Cirie, just answer the following question: Who is my favorite player from Survivor: Panama — Exile Island? The past few weeks were pretty easy factual exercises, but this week will reward longtime readers who have paid attention — and trust me, you didn’t have to pay that close attention when it comes to my affinity for this particular player. Email your answer to Winners will be contacted directly. Okay, let’s get back to it.


• In case it was not clear, I LOVED the joint Tribal Council twist. It felt like the first pre-merge Tribal Council, which is almost always a great one. I don’t think I need to elaborate much more on why it is such a fantastic idea seeing as how I just devoted a novel to the repercussions of said twist, but suffice it to say it gets a huge thumbs up from me. However there was also a far less celebrated twist in this episode, the two-on-two-on-two reward challenge.

Now I generally like to see everyone compete. That’s why they’re out there, and we as viewers want to see them in action. But every once in a while it is nice to shake things up and have what amounts to a hero challenge. In this case it was basically: Everyone pick your two strongest players and let them battle it out. This was a hero or goat situation, and in this case, Brad Culpepper was the hero, while Troyzan was the goat. Again, I wouldn’t want to make a habit of it, but as a one-off, I liked it because every single player’s actions were magnified. There was absolutely nowhere to hide. On the downside, though, all six of the competitors were male. If they were to do this again, I would probably tweak the rules and say you had to pick one male and one female to compete — it’s just more interesting that way.

• About that reward, though. Maybe this is just because I don’t drink coffee. But let’s say you do — because everyone on this planet over the age of 15 except for me seems to. If you’re a big coffee drinker and spent the first few days out on the island battling caffeine withdrawal, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to stay off the stuff once you’ve already gone off it? I honestly wouldn’t know, but I would at least think that would make some sense. Aren’t you risking another day of headaches if you start chugging coffee and then have to go cold turkey again? Coffee drinkers of the world, please illuminate me! Are coffee withdrawal symptoms an actual thing?

• Ozzy caught a sting ray. Because of course Ozzy caught a sting ray. And of course he won his individual portion of the reward challenge (before Troyzan literally threw it away). I questioned Ozzy before the game if he still had it at his age (which is hilarious since I am like a dinosaur compared to him), but so far, so good. His strategic and social skills remain a question mark at this point, however.

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• Is it just me or was there a glaring lack of groin hits in this blindfold challenge? Usually the blindfold challenge features a brutal montage of hits, crashes, and shots to the crotch that rivals any America’s Funniest Home Videos best-of episode, but not so much this time. Very disappointing. Speaking of disappointing, how about Jeff Varner on that table maze? Oh, I love Jeff Varner so much, and he was sooooo proud before the game began of all the physical training he did before this season, but with the exception of him as the caller here, his performance in challenges has been suspect at best. And sure enough, he lost a massive lead here at the end to Andrea from Tavua, sending his team to Tribal Council, and sending Malcolm — the guy who told him, “We have a huge lead, take your time” — out of the game. Whoops!

Okay, that’s enough out of me. But there’s still plenty more for you! Make sure to read my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst, where he breaks down all the insanity from that Tribal Council. Also make sure to enjoy the exclusive deleted scene from last night’s episode below, as Troyzan shares his thoughts about sitting out a challenge. And I’ll be chatting with the ousted Malcolm at 9:40am on EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105), and you can read/hear that later right here on

But now it’s your turn. Did you like the joint Tribal Council twist? What do you think about J.T. and Hali at Tribal Council? And what would you have done in that situation? Have at it on the message boards and make sure to follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for more scoopage. Thanks for enduring and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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