A legend goes home early in another chaotic Tribal Council

By Dalton Ross
April 05, 2017 at 09:00 PM EDT
Jeffrey Neira/CBS
S34 E6
  • TV Show

We’ll get to the dethroning of the self-proclaimed queen. We’ll get to the tribe swap. We’ll get to another chaotic Tribal Council. And we’ll get to my one big concern in this so far excellent season of Survivor. But first, we start with what has to be the most awkward hug in human history.

God bless Survivor producers for stranding John Cochran and Debbie Wanner on a boat together. I can only assume this was put into motion as some sort of backdoor pilot for an upcoming CBS sitcom titled Power & Cower. What? You think I’m kidding? Cochran has already written for two CBS sitcoms (The Millers and Kevin Can Wait). This tale of two mismatched eccentrics who have to live out on a boat while surviving the elements — and each other! — could be comedic gold and make for a great Thursday night companion piece to Big Bang Theory. Look, I’m not telling you how to do your job, CBS scheduling guru Kelly Kahl, but well, that’s how you do your job!

Their entire interaction bordered on bizarre — including Cochran’s regrettable attempt at a Brad Culpepper impersonation and the fact that he appeared to be being paid by the mention for every time he could awkwardly work some form of the phrase “game changer” into conversation. But the pièce de résistance was the hug. I watched and rewatched this hug so many times it was like I was breaking down the freakin’ Zapruder film. I called in every favor from the production team to secure multiple angles of said hug. I hacked into backlogged Google satellite imagery. I storyboarded the scene and put the pages up on a wall with push-pins and thread like some giant FBI wall investigating alien conspiracies or the mob. I seriously can’t get enough of it. And neither could Debbie… because she kept hugging!!!

Go back and watch it if you have not already. Take it in. Soak in it. Let it wash over you. It starts innocently enough when Cochran informs Debbie that she has received an advantage in the game. Debbie is so excited she jumps up and starts hugging Cochran. Just one problem: He’s not standing. So the hug continues. Her standing. Him sitting. Her standing. Him sitting. You can practically hear Cochran counting down the seconds in his head until it is over. But then it is not over! She’s still hugging him! She won’t let go!

Clearly lacking the self-confidence to aggressively disengage from a hug that is already longer than the combined forces of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and a Michael Cimino film festival, Cochran finally gives in and stands up, perhaps mistakenly figuring that will get him out of Debbie’s clutches sooner rather than later. Watch Cochran closely here. He’s panicking. You can sense it by the fact that he has no idea what to do with his hands. He eventually starts stroking Debbie’s back — again, no doubt attempting to use it as a tactile sign that he is ready for their bodies to part, not unlike the way Moses parted the Red Sea. But does that work? Of course not! This is Debbie Wanner we’re talking about!

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You also have to love the way Cochran was brought all the way to Fiji to impart his advice and wisdom to Debbie… who didn’t want it! Every time the Caramoan champ attempted to be a strategic sounding board, Debbie just talked about how she had no fears, no reservations, no questions, no nothing! To his credit, the Survivor contestant formerly known as John used this as a stealth teaching moment, instructing Debbie to swallow her pride and pander to egos because that is a strategy that can win her the game.

As hilarious as the whole thing was, imagine how amazing it would have been had Sandra been the one on that boat. What sort of wisdom would Cochran have been expected to dispense to the then-undefeated two-time champion? Maybe he could have just shown up, handed her the Advantage box, and left. In any event, seeing as how there was no Cochran sighting at the last finale — or was there? Honestly, I’ve lost track — we were due for an appearance, and watching him and Debbie hug it out — and out… and out… and out — made it well worth it. (Check out my Jeff Probst Q&A for how it all came together.) Also, props to Boston Rob for pulling that sweet April Fools’ Day prank a few days before the episode.

Okay, a lot to get to. So much, in fact, that let’s just break down the biggest moments with my take on each. But before we get to that, remember to keep an eye out for this week’s super secret Survivor quiz question hidden somewhere in this week’s recap. Answer it correctly and you have a chance at winning Sandra’s original pre-game vote (as originally seen on my Instagram feed) for the person she wanted out first in the game. Congratulations to Beth Sederstrom, who won last week’s J.T. vote by correctly identifying my favorite Survivor drunk as a stumbling, bumbling Tom Westman in Palau. (Like the Cochran–Debbie hug, that clip never gets old.) Best of luck to all, now on to the rest of the recap!

Let’s Do the Tribe Swap Agaaaaaaaain!
First off, kudos to Andrea for extending her shocked-reaction-to-seeing-who-is-voted-out streak with a dramatic shaking of the head upon seeing J.T. was gone (even though anyone but J.T. would have been the surprise). That’s three weeks in a row for Andrea. After an Aubry dance remix, it was time to shake things up and contract back down to two tribes.

However, unlike the previous tribe shake-up, where each gender picked from a different batch o’ buffs, this time everyone selected from the same group. What’s the deal with that? Why such concern about gender imbalance back then but no concern now? So glad you asked! Which is why I asked Jeff Probst. You can see his reasoning for it in our Q&A. Anyway, let’s get to the new teams and my reaction.


Okay, so the first takeaway here is that you only have two men and five women. There’s that gender imbalance we were talking about. It also doesn’t make a difference. This is a strong tribe. Everyone is a solid-to-strong challenge competitor — even Cirie if you can get her on the puzzle. No huge weaknesses. The other interesting thing of note is that you actually have a 4-3 original Mana majority. Even though Mana has been down in numbers all game, they keep managing to squeak out some majorities due to these tribe swaps. If you’re Brad, you cannot be too psyched about the way things turned out here — except for the fact that his tribe is strong enough that maybe they don’t have to go any Tribals before the merge.


Only two men on the other tribe, but four dudes here. Sill, they have a challenge weak link in Varner, which tips the advantage the other way. Obviously original Nuku is in firm control here with a 5-2 advantage so it kind of feels like Dead Survivors Walking… and yes, I am fully aware of the oxymoron behind “Dead Survivors.” Or at least I was after I typed it. So yeah, this was trouble for Jeff and Sandra. “When I drew the minority buff yesterday, I kind of s— my pants a little bit,” Jeff told Zeke.

Can I ask a question? What the hell is up with Jeff Varner constantly soiling himself? He talked about it when Sierra played the idol and now again after the tribe swap. Apparently this guy needs his own personal Casa de Charmin or he is still experiencing Fishbachian levels of #SevereGastrointestinalDistress. (Side note: I love Jeff Varner. The guy is so much fun to watch, no matter what is going on down south of the border.)

I was also a little bummed that Ozzy and Cirie were split apart, because I want to see if they are still gunning for each other due to what happened 18 seasons ago. Hopefully they both make it to the merge so we can see a battle (or union) of the four-timers finally go down.

Exiled in Paradise
Okay, so it wasn’t really an island. It was more like Exile Yacht. But in truth, Exile Island is rarely an island. Yes, it was in its first iteration back in Panama and in some other places, but plenty of seasons it’s just in another area of land. So this is not the first time for misusing that moniker.

I generally really like Exile (non) Island, and I think it’s kind of hilarious the twist they put on it by making it a posh, luxury outing. Fun! But here’s one thing I would say: I prefer Exile Island when a decision is forced to send someone there rather than just someone going because of bad luck. I get that they had an odd amount of people so needed to send someone off to then later replace the voted-out member, but why not make the contestants choose who gets sent there? How would that happen in this instance? You can’t go old school and do a schoolyard pick ‘em and have the left-out person go to Exile because in a schoolyard pick ‘em, folks will just choose people they are already aligned with from their previous tribe, and that would be boring.

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But I have something they could do. Why not before the picking of the buffs, everyone had to vote on the person to send to Exile? In essence, it would be like the start of the first Blood vs. Water season, when Candice and Rupert’s wife were sent there (with Rupert then choosing to take her place). You’d then get to see the drama of people whispering to each other about whom to vote for, and then the drama of seeing who was picked.

Can you imagine how pissed Debbie would have been if it were her? And then, on the flip side, can you continue to imagine how delighted she would have been to rub those bastards’ noses in the fact that she had ended up getting a feast on a yacht? Call me crazy, but that would have been a hell of a lot better than her just happening to pick the buffless package. Probst! Make this happen next time! (I love how I’m sitting here assuming that the producers did not even consider this option, when in all likelihood they most likely did and discarded it for some obvious reason that they hashed out over an hour-long discussion in a tent somewhere, as opposed to me shooting off random suggestions like an a-hole while I drink beer from the comfort of my couch. Backseat driving at its finest, ladies and gentlemen!)

Debating the Advantage Option
Okay, let’s nerd out on some strategy for a minute, shall we? After giving up on dispensing any sort of advice to a person who clearly did not want it, Cochran presented three Advantage options, from which Debbie could choose one. Since I just rambled on like an annoying know-it-all about how the producers could have done their job better on the Exile (non) Island selection, allow me to now credit them. I love the idea of not just giving her an advantage, but allowing/forcing her to choose. Choices are always good on this show. They get the contestants thinking and they get the audience arguing. Repeat after me: Choices = Good. So bravo on this one. Now let’s get to the three options Debbie had at her disposal.

1. Fake hidden immunity idol kit.
2. An extra vote.
3. Tribe advantage in the next immunity challenge.

Oh, mercy. This is sooooooo hard. Let’s talk it out. I was ready to dismiss the fake hidden immunity idol kit because there is no hard, concrete benefit to it that you can measure. All it is good for is deception. But then again, deception is often everything in this game. Let’s say Debbie shows up at the next Tribal Council and puts it around her neck. People may think she’s bluffing, but if it looks good enough then are you willing to risk it? Plus, everyone knows Debbie is impulsive enough to not hide an idol and just shout out that she has one, so if Debbie did that at Tribal by showing it off, I probably would tend to believe her. So she could do that, then not use it (obviously) and still have it to scare people off in future Tribal Councils. It’s a solid option.

Next is is the extra vote. This is the one Debbie picked because she said it involved the least amount of what-if factors: You know exactly what the advantage is and how it can be used. I definitely see the logic in that. But I also know that extra votes and vote steals never seem to work out in this game. In fact, people go home when they use them.

If you are down 5-2 or 6-1, an extra vote does absolutely nothing for you. So it’s risky. You’re counting on a close vote, either to save yourself or flip the game. But since you can never trust anyone in this game, you may think you have the votes to make it close enough to use, but then find out you don’t and just wasted it. So it’s more of a gamble than Debbie thinks. My initial reaction was that she made the right call in taking it, but now I’m not so sure. This actually is the most circumstantial of all the advantage options. Sure, you know exactly what it is and how to use it, but what if the right circumstances don’t pop up to use it. Then you’re left with nothing.

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That leaves us with the tribe advantage in the next immunity challenge. The reason to take this is that an advantage is almost always a free pass to a win, so that pretty much guarantees that you will not be going to the next Tribal and are guaranteed three more days in the game. The reason to not take this advantage is that, unlike the other options, it is only good for the next immunity challenge. So you can’t choose how and when you use it. That inflexibility causes this option to lose some luster. Plus, what if producers have been reading these here recaps and tweaked the formula so that the advantage no longer does lead to at automatic victory? Or, on the flip side, what if you didn’t need the advantage to win a challenge you would’ve finished first in anyway? Well, that would be a bummer.

And then there’s this to consider: Although Debbie did absolutely nothing to earn any of the advantages, the fact is, playing a fake hidden immunity idol or vote steal off to perfection acts as a much better résumé builder. That Tribal Council drama is much more likely to remembered than a strong strategic move that can win you points later if you are sitting at the end. That shouldn’t necessarily be the overriding factor, but it definitely should be in the consideration mix.

When I first started vomiting out this comparison, I thought I was going to side with Debbie that the extra vote was the safest option, but I’ve now flipped the script and am going to go with the fake immunity idol kit. There’s just more you can do with it, and it even has the potential to play out over several Tribals if people are scared off by it. Plus, fake idols are just more fun. Ask Randy Bailey and Jason Siska.

Idol Thoughts
The producers have never been shy about admitting that they want contestants to find hidden immunity idols. They add drama and intrigue to the game and want them to be found and played (which is why I thought Jeff Probst was going to have a heart attack when people kept burning idol clues during Blood vs. Water).

But when Tai locates three hidden idols in 14 days, you may have a problem. First off, kudos to Tai for getting out there and searching. The guy has been idol obsessed going back to his first season, but that was pretty smart of him to check his new tribe for the same water well hidden idol that he found at his previous camp. I do think it was a bit of a cheat by producers though. Wait, cheat is not the right word. You have to be careful in saying anything that even unintentionally implies that a particular player is being given preference by production. So let’s be crystal clear: I am not implying Tai was given any unfair advantages in the game. Everything is completely on the level here, ladies and gentlemen.

However… when you put an idol in the exact same spot at the two camps and then have a tribe swap, you are in effect giving a 2-for-1 opportunity to anyone that found the first one. And that is waaaaay too much of an advantage to have. (Reminds me of the idols in China.) Maybe that idol has been sitting there all season and producers figured it would be long gone by now. But it wasn’t. I’d rather have every hiding spot be unique so there is no double-dipping. That said, again, props to Tai for thinking to search in the same spot.

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Also, side note before we move on from this: Was that first magic symbol that appeared when the wood got wet an anchor or penis graffiti? Because it kinda looked like penis graffiti. I mean, not that I’ve drawn or stared at a lot of penis graffiti in my lifetime, but it looked like that one could go either way. Yet then the second idol that Tai found and stuffed into his underwear next to his junk was beneath a moistened ship wheel symbol, not the penis graffiti one. And I would now like to take the opportunity to apologize for making you read the word “moistened.”

[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 Sandra’s vote for Aubry, just answer the following question. Once again I failed to correctly predict the winner at the start of the season, with my pre-game pick of Malcolm going out in spectacularly early fashion thanks to a hidden immunity idol. When is the last time I CORRECTLY predicted a season winner? Give me that player’s name as well as the season he/she won. 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.]

Goodbye to a Legend (and My One Fear About This Otherwise Excellent Season)
Okay, so this latest immunity challenge had a lot of stages. First the players had to… wait. Never mind. Cirie, Aubry, and Sierra already solved the puzzle. Damn, that was fast.

That meant Nuku was heading to Tribal Council, and things were not looking good for the queen. So she went to work. Sandra approached her subjects and told them how they shouldn’t want Debbie, Tai, and Aubry together to form a Kaoh Rong threesome. This has been an obsession of Sandra’s going back to before the game even started. She told me repeatedly about the Kaoh Rong four (including Caleb) and how she wanted to break them up but also use them as a diversion to keep the heat off herself.

Sandra’s words here got people thinking, but not enough to sway their vote. The plan was still to get her out but tell her they were going for Tai, who was probably off somewhere pooping out another immunity idol the same way chickens lay eggs. Tai felt safe, but he wasn’t entirely sure. “I’m not very smart compared to all these dangerous people,” he told us. “Like Ozzy and Sandra — they’re very good at scheming and plotting.”

Ozzy? Scheming and plotting?!? Look, Ozzy is a great Survivor player and in many ways personifies the game better than anyone. But even Ozzy himself would tell you that scheming and plotting has not been his strong suit — unless it is scheming and plotting to hook up with one of the hottie female contestants. Tai is not a great schemer or plotter either, which explains why he then promptly informed Jeff Varner they were all voting out his ally Sandra. WHOOPS!

Off to Tribal Council we went — the first Tribal for Zeke, Ozzy, Sarah, and Andrea, who pointed out that this season has been all about getting rid of big threats. “There isn’t anybody here that isn’t a threat,” responded Probst as the camera then cut to Sarah, in what I can only hope and assume was an intentional wink to the audience saying, “Okay, you got us there.”

And then chaos erupted. Sandra was playing possum, as if she was dead already, Tai went on about how nervous and paranoid he was before forgetting Jeff Probst’s question, and then the trademark Game Changers Tribal Council whispering began. Tai whispered to Sandra and Jeff, and the three made a plan right there on the spot to vote out Ozzy. “I’m just keeping the tradition of vote out the biggest guy,” Tai informed everyone openly. “I can’t compete against him. He’s a God.”

This led to Zeke asking Ozzy if they should change their vote, Sandra and Jeff flipping back and telling Andrea they would vote with them to get rid of Tai, Zeke accusing Tai of endless idol hunting, Sarah shaking her head in disbelief, and Debbie peeking out from behind her fingers at all the carnage in front of her. These Tribal Council shenanigans serve as one of the most welcome examples of the show’s evolution. Back in the old days, a vote was pretty much always locked before folks went to Tribal Council. Sure, there might be a surprise if someone played an idol, but people knew which way they were voting when they left the beach and stuck with it. Tribal Council was more for show. But now… stuff happens, man! And I love it!

“Tai, you’re a fool,” said Sandra while voting. “You threw my name out there and what you don’t know is when you come after me, I bury you. The queen stays queen. Adios.” The queen did not stay queen. You could see that cocky smile turn to a frown as Sandra’s name continued to come up. Her reign was finally over. “Sandra, for the first time in 94 days, the tribe has spoken,” commented Probst as he started to bring the snuffer down on her torch.

“Don’t do it, Jeff,” she pleaded. “Don’t do it!” Probst paused for comedic effect and then finally got to snuffin’ as the tribe offered what may be the first ovation from a group for someone they just booted out of the game. It was a nice and deserving bit of ceremony for one of the faces on the Mt. Rushmore of Survivor. Here’s the crazy thing about Sandra. She played twice and won twice, yet this time only lasted 16 days. However, you could make a case that in many ways, this was her most impressive performance.

The last two times Sandra played, her strategy was to play completely under the radar and hide behind much bigger threats. She classified her strategy as “anyone but me” when it came to voting, and the only thing she was truly active at was seeking out a passive role. It got her to the end and got her the votes, but it raised questions among some as to how impressive her game really was. But this time was completely different. Everyone was gunning for her. She knew it and responded by playing her most aggressive game yet.

Remember when she flipped the script on Tony and formed a completely new alliance in 15 minutes (according to Jeff Varner) to get rid of her enemy? As Lord Vader would say — impressive… most impressive. And she was wildly entertaining all the way through her final words after being voted out: “There will never be another two-time winner except the queen.” (You hear that, Parvati?)

This season has been so great so far. The challenges have been exciting, the dynamics intriguing, and the Tribal Councils completely bonkers. Producers must have been high-fiving each other on a daily basis. (Question: Do people still high five? And, if not, can we bring that back?) There is nothing not to love about this season so far. Except this. We’re losing all the best players. Tony. Gone! Malcolm. Gone! J.T. Gone! Sandra. Gone!

That’s three winners and a major threat (the guy pretty much every single member of the press picked to win before the game) all dusted way too early. Tony and J.T. are two of the most aggressive contestants to ever play, except now we can’t enjoy their antics. Sandra and Malcolm are quote machines every time they open their mouths. Now we can’t enjoy their bon mots. Caleb was an absolute beast in challenges. He’s dunzo. Ciera loved to stir things up and give us epic Tribal Council eye rolls. She’s history.

So while this has led to an incredible six hours of television, it does have me concerned as to what’s ahead. Are we speeding towards a Hali, Sarah, Troyzan final three? All wonderfully nice people I have nothing against. But if they end up being your ultimate “Game Changers”… well, that would be a bit of a letdown.

What is wrong with me?!? Why can’t I just relax and enjoy things? Especially when there has been so much to enjoy? Instead I have to sit here and be a Debbie Downer by harping on the only possible cloud in an otherwise beautifully sunny sky. The truth is, I do worry about such things because I love to see a great group at the end, and every time a big hitter goes home the likelihood of that decreases a bit. But look, Brad Culpepper has certainly stepped up his game this season. Perhaps others will do the same.

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Are we done? Not even close! That’s because we have an exclusive look at Sandra the day after her outer above. And check out my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst for some more inide intel on the episode. We’ll have the queen herself, Sandra Diaz-Twine, on EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) at 9:40am tomorrow and later here on EW.com. And for more Survivor updates, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

Now it’s your turn. Which advantage would you have taken? What do you think of my voted onto Exile (non) Island idea? Happy or hating to see Sandra go? Hit the message boards to weigh in, and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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