Who stole the sugar from the sugar jar?

RECAP: 3/29/17 Survivor
Credit: Jeffrey Neira/CBS
S34 E5

It’s hard being the best. Which is why it is so frustrating when others try to tell you what to do when you know you can do it better. For instance, other Survivor recappers sit there dicking around for 10 pages while I zoom through a recap in, like, 30 seconds. If there’s one thing I’m known for, it’s brevity. None of this long-winded nonsense you find in other Survivor recaps. Not here!

And my track record in terms of predicting future Survivor winners is pretty much beyond reproach. Why, just look at my pre-game prediction this season when I wrote that Brad Culpepper would dominate in accuracy challenges, sway tribemates to vote against their best interest, outplay a former champion at Tribal Council, and win Game Changers. A lot of people said I was crazy and that I should make Malcolm my pre-game pick, but I had a sneaky suspicion that Brad was the better call. Don’t listen to all those “naysaysers” and so-called “Internet recap readers” who claim I actually picked Malcolm back in week 1. Hogwash! I picked Brad even though doing so CRUSHED MY HEART!

It was a strong selection, if I do say so myself. But, then, again, everything I do is strong. Have you checked out my 8-pack abs? Yeah, I’ve been spending a lot time down at the gym and I think the results pretty much speak for…

… Okay, I think that may have been pushing it too far with that last one. The reality is, I’m so emaciated and weak those 8-pack abs I was referring to are actually just rib cage bones protruding out of my body. Not a pretty visual, I know, but often the truth is not pretty. Welcome to the era of #AlternativeFacts, ladies and gentlemen! Where truth is in the eye of the beholder. Where Debbie can volunteer for an assignment in a challenge and then accuse someone else of forcing her to do it against her will. Where speed and competency in a challenge is completely open to debate. And where trash-talking your own team during a competition is a must.

There may not be a typhoon this season in Fiji, but Hurricane Debbie landed on the Mana tribe this week, and to quote my good friend LL Cool J, it was destruction, terror, and mayhem. I mean, it’s one thing to be upset and feel like you’re not being respected by your tribe for your physical contribution. It’s another thing to do it after you have just performed horribly (at least judging by the edit of the reward competition that was presented to us). And then it’s another thing to come back to your camp bragging about how incredible you were after said debacle. And then it’s another thing to bitch and complain while running an immunity challenge about how awesome you are and that nobody thinks you’re awesome. (“DON’T LET THAT FOOL YOU!”)

Anyway, that’s a lot of things. But perhaps the most remarkable moment of this entire incident is what the Survivor producers did with it, and it was something that we have rarely — if ever — seen before. It was small. You may not have even noticed, but it also spoke volumes. After the reward challenge — in which Debbie went from first to worst after dropping her ball numerous times on the balance beam, we saw a furious Debbie complaining to camera that Brad was running a dictatorship. And then we actually had a Survivor flashback! All of sudden, they started re-airing the footage we had already seen from before the challenge of Debbie volunteering to do the balance beam (“I have a really good sense of balance”) and then Brad responding (“Okay, then you balance”).

Has the show ever done this before? Perhaps in the early seasons where they also had wacky stuff like Jeff Probst narration, a giant gong, and a cheesy trunk of cash on the Tribal Council set, but I can’t recall. All I know is that it’s not every day you see production reshowing you something that already aired a few minutes prior to specifically fact-check the veracity of a contestant’s statement. Of course we are now living in a world where the current Time magazine cover asks “Is Truth Dead?” Did producers go too far in pointing out that Debbie’s version of events is Fake News? Should everything out of everyone’s mouth now be scanned for #AlternativeFacts?

My question is: Why so harsh on Debbie? Aren’t these just the actions of a true GAME CHANGER?! She is literally trying to change the game right in front of everyone’s eyes by giving a completely new narrative for what is actually happening! The game can’t change if the game stays the same! So she’s changing it by saying something absolutely different transpired. GAME CHANGER!

And why stop there? Next thing you know Debbie’s going to be telling us that all the goats are immunity idols and that Jeff Probst likes to look up to the sky as he tells people to “come on in” to a challenge. Unfortunately those stuffed shirts over at CBS insist on putting the kibosh on this radical new narrative thanks to their insistence on “actual events” and “facts.” Sad!

In any event, we can at least all look forward to next week, when Debbie spills the beans to her tribe about the upcoming quadruple elimination taking place in a hot air balloon while the castaways are bring serenaded “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by a Fijian Wang Chung cover band floating nearby in another hot air balloon.

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.

But that’s next week. First, we need to finish up with all of this week’s insanity. And before we can do that, I will remind you that somewhere hidden in this recap is a super secret Survivor quiz question. Answer it correctly and you have a chance at winning J.T.’s original pre-game vote (as originally seen on my Instagram feed) for the person he wanted out first in the game. Congratulations to Kathryn, who won last week’s Malcolm vote by correctly identifying my favorite Survivor: Panama — Exile Island contestant as Sally Schumann! (Easiest question ever, by the way?) Best of luck to all, now on to the rest of the recap!

We begin with the aftermath of last week’s insane joint Tribal Council. Back at Nuku, Sandra wonders how Tai knew to give Sierra the idol, leading J.T. to perform his best impression of a kid feigning ignorance as to who cleaned out the cookie jar… while crumbs literally fall right off of his chin. J.T. claims all he told Brad was that he was safe, which is immediately followed by attempts to sell his tribe rights to the Brooklyn Bridge. (By the way, if you want to see how Mana reacted right after saving themselves with the hidden immunity idol, make sure to check out the exclusive deleted scene at the end of this recap.)

J.T. informs us that none of them can actually prove what he said, but what he doesn’t seem to grasp is that that they don’t need to prove anything. Their suspicion — rightfully placed, I might add — is all that is required to doom him. And doomed he is. Unless he finds his own hidden immunity idol. Which he does! Hooray! J.T. just saved himself! After all, knowing that he is on the absolute bottom of his tribe, there is no way he would not use it at the next Tribal, no matter what his tribemates tell him about being safe, right? I mean, you would have to be CRAZY not to use it. And CRAZIER to not even bring it. But J.T.’s not crazy, so he should be just fine.

We move on to the reward challenge and the requisite shocked faces as contestants look to see who got voted out. Note to future players: This is always a guaranteed way to score a little extra camera time. Just act super surprised and say something like “No way!” or “Crazy!” or “What the…?” when you see the last tribe show up one member down. Now a three-timer, and a host herself on People Now, Andrea is savvy enough to understand this, making herself the focal point for the second week in a row with her proclamation of “That’s nuts!” when, in fact, seeing that the biggest threat was voted out at Tribal Council is far from nuts. Doesn’t matter. She knows how to play this game.

It’s similar to how whenever you win a reward that includes some sort of corporate sponsorship — say a Snickers bar or a new Sprint phone or whatever — you just talk incessantly about how amazing that product is to ensure yourself a little more face time. That’s exactly what Coach did in my personal favorite example — when he morphed into Roger Ebert and gave his thumbs-up review to the South Pacific reward screening of infamous cross-dressing dud Jack & Jill. “Jack and Jill. Loved it!” pronounced Coach. “Adam Sandler — personally, I’m a fan. It was funny, but at the same time, there was a message, and that message was hey, family comes first.” Sure, that message may have been obscured by fart jokes and lame gender stereotypes, but it’s all about family!

The challenge itself basically involves retrieving things, digging things up, balancing things, and then a slide puzzle. So a lot of different elements at play here, which is always fun. Also fun is seeing the strategy sessions that precede the challenge. First, some behind-the-scenes intel. Here’s what basically happens out on location before a challenge. After Jeff Probst gives the instructions for what the challenge is, you hear him say, “I’ll give you a minute to strategize.” And he does. But that minute does not happen immediately. What happens first is he and challenge producer John Kirhoffer walk each tribe individually through the contest — literally walking them from section to section explaining exactly how it should be done, what is allowed, and what is not allowed. While Probst is giving one tribe the tour, the others are in a lockdown, meaning they are not allowed to speak to each other at all. So say he is walking Nuku through it. While he is doing that, Mana and Tavua have to just sit there and stare off into the ocean and contemplate Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.

Also worth noting: While Probst is giving the tours, someone from CBS standards and practices is listening in. If the host gives one piece of information to one tribe but forgets to tell the others, that S&P person will flag it and make sure the other tribes are informed as well. So everyone gets the exact same 411.

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.

Anyway, after all three tribes have gotten their personal walk-throughs, the cameras are turned back on and then they are finally told to strategize. This is always filmed but hardly ever shown, just because there is never enough time. If it is ever shown, it is because it somehow directly connects to something that will happen later in a challenge — usually someone saying how great they are at a particular thing and then sucking. (Think about it: They never show someone saying how great they are at puzzles… and then that person rocking the puzzle. I mean, they actually did do that here with Zeke, but it was jut to show all three tribes strategizing to set up the Debbie fireworks. If that Debbie craziness does not happen, none of that is ever shown.)

So we all know what happens. Debbie goes from first to worst while dropping her ball repeatedly on the balance beam, sending Mana home without any peanut butter or jelly. And then Debbie explodes. She storms off, then storms back (AWKWARD!), then storms off again while yelling something about them giving Hali her clothing after they vote her off. (Question: Does Hali want Debbie’s clothing?)

The interesting thing about watching a pissed-off Debbie is the way she sporadically yells out odd words from time to time. Like, she will be sitting there talking and all of a sudden START SCREAMING and then get calm again but then YELL SOMETHING ELSE before combining a laugh/cry into a single indistinguishable facial expression.

The other interesting thing about Debbie temper tantrums is that she says stuff like this: “He’s got his head so far up your ass his eyeballs are sticking out of your mouth.” Lovely visual. But also, not to get technical, but if Debbie’s thesis statement is that Brad is completely running the show and that everyone else is catering to whatever he wants and just trying to please him, then wouldn’t Hali actually have her head up Brad’s ass and not vice-versa? Again, I’m just working with what Debbie is saying here, but she is seeming to contradict her own argument by insinuating that Brad is up Hali’s ass. And does that now mean that Brad is up everyone’s ass? Has anyone checked Sierra or Tai’s asses? (Or, for that matter, their mouths, to see if there are any eyeballs in them?)

And I don’t know what to make of the push-ups. I’ve never seen anyone interrupt a rage fest to start doing push-ups, but I suppose that does actually make a fair amount of sense in terms of a way to blow out that negative energy. In fact, that may be the only thing that makes sense out of all of this. (By the way, I love Tai’s reaction to this entire incident, which basically seems to be: Screw this, I’m gonna go find another idol!)

There’s not nearly as much drama over at Tavua. They’re too busy enjoying their feast. But Sarah the cop doesn’t want to get too comfortable. She’s thinking ahead and is smart enough to know that when you want to make a move, the person to reach out to is the dude on the bottom with few options. And that dude’s name in this case happens to be Troyzan. She makes a very loose undefined alliance with Troy, informing us that, “I am totally playing like a criminal this time.” Except any smart criminal should always know to be wary of a wire. In this case, that means not feeding too much info to anyone that can use said info against you.

Like when Sarah tells Troyzan that she is looking for an idol. That is information that could easily be relayed back to the others to sow division in their ranks. He wouldn’t even have to obviously betray her to do it either, just make an off-hand comment like “Hey, has anyone see Sarah?” while she was out searching and then let their imaginations run wild with the rest. (And since Troyzan actually has the idol, she’ll most likely be searching out their for a quite a while.)

Meanwhile, we join the folks over at Nuku while they are in the midst of the most Survivor drama involving sugar since Jessica Kiper flipped off the villains tribe while topless. I don’t even really understand what the problem here is. I guess Michaela and J.T. both really like sugar… as in the food. (I’m relatively confident J.T. wants nothing to do with Sugar the person after what went down with them both before and during Heroes vs. Villains.)

Anyway, J.T. apparently thinks Michaela is eating too much of the sugar. It’s somewhat ridiculous and also reminiscent of Phillip Sheppard yelling at people about wanting his scoop of the crispy, but whatever. So Sandra — being Sandra — decides to exploit the situation, finishing the sugar herself so that J.T. will think it was Michaela and get pissed at her instead. Let’s be clear about something: There is no strategic advantage to doing this. Sandra is still just pissed about the last Tribal Council and feels like messing with the guy who screwed them over. So she does. And it works. It also helps set up the fireworks that will explode later at Tribal Council.

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 J.T.’s vote for Tony, just answer the following question: Last season, we watched Bret get pretty hammered on booze during a Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X reward. It was a refreshing return to the days of yesteryear when drunken Survivor contestants were a regular thing. Your question is as follows: Who is Dalton’s favorite Survivor drunk ever? You need to give me both the player and the season, and I will give you a hint: What makes this particular incident so amazing is that it was not from an obvious person from whom you might automatically expect such shenanigans. Email your answer to survivor@ew.com. Winners will be contacted directly. Good luck! We now return you to your regularly scheduled Survivor recap, still in progress.]

Welcome to the latest immunity challenge! Or, as I like to call it, Stephen Fishbach’s personal Vietnam. That’s because it involves using a slingshot to aim at targets, and we all remember what happened last time Stephen tried that, right?

Anyway, it’s not just targets this time. The teams also have to race up and over a wall, roll a massive cube, unwind a ring of keys, transport sand bags over a balance beam, and then knock down the targets. What’s that? Another balance beam? Sometimes the Survivor gods are simply too kind, as we get to play fly on the wall at yet another Mana pre-challenge strategy session.

After Debbie’ debacle last time, everyone on the tribe wants Tai to handle the balance beam portion this time around — everyone except Debbie, that is. “I have a bad attitude because I’m sick of f—ing defending myself,” she tells Culpepper. “I took gymnastics for 10 goddamn years and made it across that beam. Does anybody notice it took me 2 minutes? She was on there for 10! With all due respect.”

Ah, “with all due respect.” Let me ask you a question: Have you ever noticed how the phrase “with all due respect” only surfaces after a statement containing no respect whatsoever has been uttered? You’re ugly… with all due respect. You’re an imbecile… with all due respect. You’re an ugly imbecile who has wasted far too much of his life recapping a reality television show when you could have used that time to actually do something meaningful and productive with your short existence on God’s green earth… with all due respect.

Debbie finally announces that she’s decided she won’t do the balance beam and then proceeds to spend the rest of the challenge trash talking her own team in one of the most bizarre displays I’ve ever seen. “Yeah, first one down!” she yells after descending down the wall. She’s not done bragging about the wall either. “Did you notice, Brad, I was the first person over?” she huffs while a teammate goes for the keys.

Then, as Tai falls twice on the balance beam, Debbie starts announcing to no one in particular, “Well, I’m glad we didn’t send the gymnast!” Let’s give Debbie the benefit of the doubt for a minute — a massive benefit of the doubt. Let’s say she’s right. Let’s say she would have done better than Tai on the balance beam. So what? Verbally accosting your own tribe during a challenge is basically akin to hanging a flashing neon sign around your neck that says “VOTE ME OUT!” — and just try to traverse over a balance beam while wearing that. (Also, if we’re going to talk about weird balance beam strategies, why did Nuku put Jeff Varner on that portion of the challenge?)

Luckily for Debbie, Culpepper has already shown a proficiency for hitting targets in challenges, and he continues his hot streak here, saving Debbie from having all of her clothes stripped off her body and handed to Hali. Ozzy doesn’t have his best performance but manages to not completely blow that Tavua lead, narrowly edging out J.T. and Nuku to take second place.

Man, J.T. can just not catch a break this season, but for some reason has convinced himself that he is safe because he believes the tribe hates Michaela as much as he does. He says he can’t think of one reason to keep her. Ummmm…what about challenges? Didn’t she just dig up two bags in roughly the same amount of time it took me to write this sentence? Here’s a Survivor secret: Everyone always talks about having to keep the strongest dudes around early to help in the challenges, but you could easily argue that is vastly overrated. Survivor almost always has a bunch of big, beefy athletic dudes who can kind of end up canceling each other out. Where you can often see a bigger discrepancy in terms of athletic ability is among the women.

Having a Michaela can be a huge asset. Now, I recognize that Michaela’s record does not necessarily match up to the results she’s experienced this season because she always seems to be at Tribal Council, but any of us who have watched her two Survivor outings know what a competition beast she is. Yet, whenever we hear about keeping challenge strength, it is always about the dudes. Why? Also, as a side note, if I were out there, I’d be much more concerned with keeping the best puzzle solvers around, because most challenges are ultimately decided by the puzzle, not physicality. (Okay, random gender rant over.)

The one person J.T. does have on his side is Aubry, most likely because she was on the outs with the others anyway over on original Mana, so she is hoping she can flip the script at some point. A shake-up is good for her. That leaves Varner as the swing vote, a role he clearly relishes going back to his Second Chance days. He says his choice basically comes down to “Get rid of an attitude problem or get rid of a big threat.”

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Off to Tribal Council we go, and the charade is on in full effect. Her appetite for destruction and mockery clearly not sated by her sugar-related antics, Sandra is relishing pulling the wool over J.T.s eyes. “We’re going to keep our strongest player in the game, and with him we’re going to move forward,” she tells Probst. And it’s working. J.T. — who should know he is in trouble based solely on numbers and what he did to sabotage his peers the last time he was at Tribal — announces that “I’ve never been so excited to be at Tribal Council.” WHAT?!? Dude, go ahead and buy yourself a Coke because you just jinxed yourself beyond any and all recognition. It’s as if the second J.T. uttered that the Survivor gods looked down and said, “Oh no you didn’t!” and then blasted every bad vibe possible his way.

And J.T. isn’t just feeling comfortable (which is a sin in itself). He’s downright cocky, talking about how they were all sick of babysitting and how Michaela didn’t do anything — leading her to tell him to “shut the f—up.” He isn’t done, also proclaiming that, “Jeff, some of us aren’t quite Game Changers. Some of us are just filling space.” What’s this all about? Yes, Michaela can be a bit of a hothead, but Survivor and hotheads go hand in hand. I mean, have you not met Sandra Diaz-Twine? Is this still about the damn sugar?

But J.T. is not the only one fooled. “This vote to me has become abundantly clear,” says Aubry. On one hand, you might wonder why the others did not clue Aubry in as to what was actually happening in an effort to mend fences since they will need all the original Mana members aligned later on. But had they told Aubry the real deal, she may have informed J.T., and then he may have used an idol. J.T had to feel safe enough where he did not play his idol. Not only did he not play it — he didn’t even bring it!

That is simply stunning to me. I’ve already stated my incredulousness over J.T. feeling safe after everything that’s gone down, but how can you not even bring it? What if you start to get a bad feeling about the way things are going once you get there. What if Michaela gets so mad she spills the beans and begins to gloat before the vote? Now you’re stuck with no recourse whatsoever. Of all the questionable decisions J.T. has made in Survivor, this one honestly might be the most baffling.

Hey, who’s thirsty? Apparently, Michaela is because right as Probst is about to read the votes she pours herself a mug of what I can only assume is Milwaukee’s Best and starts drinking. And not drowning her sorrows, mind you, but rather a celebratory drink — complete with dramatic hair whip — as J.T.’s fate is sealed. “Tell Malcolm you sent him home too,” she taunts him on his way out. “I will,” J.T. responds feebly, because what else are you really going to say in that situation?

Then, the laughter erupts, with Sandra even copping to stealing the sugar. Oh, J.T. I’ve been harsh on some of his decisions this season — okay, last season too — but here’s the thing: I love having J.T. on the show because J.T. is not afraid. Yes, his idea to hand over an idol and trust someone he had never even met under the false assumption that Russell was on the outs on the other tribe was hilarious and disastrous at the same time — but what freakin’ cojones!

And then going over and feeding someone from the opposite tribe last week their voting plan was a massive miscalculation also based on misplaced trust. But again, you have to admire the go-big-or-go-home attitude. It would have been SO MUCH EASIER to just sit there and do nothing in both circumstances. That’s what most people would do — not take the potentially humiliating risk and just hope it all turns out okay. Not J.T.

Of course, these risks have bitten him on the butt both times. (Wait, is Brad Culpepper in J.T.’s ass as well?) I have a theory about why J.T. keeps over-trusting others who then take advantage of said trust and send him down in flames. Think back to Tocantins. It was the biggest love-fest I have seen for a single player in Survivor history. Even people from the opposite tribe like Coach and Tyson fell head over heels for J.T. It may have helped him win a million dollars, but it also skewed his perspective moving forward in terms of how much you can trust other players.

J.T. thought he could count on what everyone said and did in Heroes vs. Villains and Game Changers because he could count on what everyone said and did in Tocantins. But players in the two all-star seasons were far less starstruck and did not bend over backwards to help him. Kudos to him for not becoming gun shy after what happened in Heroes vs. Villains, but if J.T. ever does come back for an all-winners season, hopefully he will have learned his lesson that you can trust people in this game for about as long as a jar of sugar lasts — which ain’t very long.

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, what else we got for you? Well, we have a fascinating exclusive deleted scene above that shows Mana celebrating after they outsmarted J.T. to keep Sierra safe. We also have our weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst. Want to hear from J.T. himself? Then tune into EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) at 9:40am eastern or read/hear it later on EW.com. And for more Survivor scoop, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

Now it’s your turn. Are you Team J.T. or Team Michaela? Did Sandra take things too far with sugar? And what do you make of Debbie’s antics? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

Episode Recaps

SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols


Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst looks at his feet while telling them to "COME ON IN, GUYS!"

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