A tribe unites against a contestant when a hateful incident goes down at Tribal Council
The Stakes Have Been Raised
Credit: Timothy Kuratek/CBS

I’m not going to be writing about the reward challenge today. Or the immunity challenge, for that matter. There won’t be a lot of strategy analysis. Or humor. No mentions of Survivor Sally (unless you count that one) or Milwaukee’s Best or some random Yahoo Serious movie that came out in the 1980s. If that’s what you came for this week and now want to bail, that’s totally cool. I get it. It’ll all be back next time.

I’m only going to be writing about one thing today, and that is what happened at Tribal Council when Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender on national television. That’s pretty much it. Because I think that really is the only thing to write or talk about in terms of this episode. But even though it is just one thing, there are many angles to explore in what transpired here.

There are a bunch of places I could start, but let me begin right here. That was disgusting. I was mortified by what I saw happen on my TV screen. I was embarrassed for Jeff Varner and what he did by sharing a secret that was not his to share. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this may have been the singular lowest point for any contestant in the history of the show (although Colton had some terrible moments, and some of the racist-sounding stuff that came out of Ben Browning’s mouth in Samoa was pretty awful).

I could go on and on about why what Jeff Varner did was so invasive and cruel and hateful and hurtful and unconscionable, but do I really need to? I mean, is that actually necessary? And if I’m saying that, then that really demonstrates how out of bounds it was for Jeff to do what he did. Allow me to explain.

I am the ultimate separation-between-game-and-real-life guy you will meet. Not only did I have no problem with Jonny Fairplay lying about his dead grandma back in Pearl Islands, I thought it was genius! Likewise, I had zero problems with Dawn voting out Brenda in Caramoan after Brenda found her teeth and brought her on the loved ones reward, which were two deeply personal moments. I had no problem with it because the game is still the game. (I believe what Dawn did was wrong for strategic reasons, not personal ones.) And I’ve always believed that pretty much anything that happens in said game is fair game.

When people get mad at someone (like at Dawn) for claiming to be holier than thou, or religious, or a good person out of the game and then lying and deceiving in it, I cant help but roll my eyes. How you act outside of the game and inside of it can be — and probably should be — mutually exclusive. This is my way of saying that I will excuse pretty much anything boundary-crossing that happens in Survivor as long as it is done with some strategic endgame in mind. But allow me to quote the wise philosopher Meat Loaf when I say, “But I won’t do that.”

Varner took one of the deepest, most personal and private things imaginable and aired it in front of the entire country. And for what? After being verbally attacked by his tribe for his actions, Jeff said he did it “to show the deception… It reveals the ability to deceive.” That is probably the worst answer imaginable he could have given. To insinuate that someone is a deceitful person because he did not tell people he had only known for two weeks that he is transgender is downright offensive. I actually think that is the most repulsive thing Varner said all night. It calls to mind the worst kind of hateful negativity directed at LGBT people — that they can’t be trusted around other people, or children, or whatever other insidious example you want to make to excuse away ignorance or fear of anything that does not conform to a standard heterosexual script. I am not going to even get into the question of whether Jeff Varner’s own sexuality makes this attack any better or worse. The statement stands as atrocious on its own, no matter whom it comes from.

Varner tried to walk it back soon after. “I’m not saying, Jeff, that transgender people are deceptive,” he told Probst, to which the host deftly replied: “You’re saying that by not revealing it, he’s capable of deception. That’s a giant leap of logic. Do you honestly not see that?”

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What was also disturbing was how Varner’s immediate reaction appeared to be almost as much about protecting himself and his own image as making up for what he had done to Zeke. “I don’t want the perception to be that I’m this evil, hateful person,” he said at one point. Later, he kept interrupting Sarah, who has not having any sort of happy Kumbaya resolution to the situation, and when she asked him to stop interrupting, his response was, “I don’t want you to paint me as something I’m not.”

That was another bad look for Jeff. Yes, he was apologizing. Yes, he said he was devastated. But there were several small qualifiers he kept bringing up along the way. “I assume everyone in his world knew,” he said at another point. “So that’s my ignorance. I thought he was just deceiving these people. It never dawned on me that no one knew.” This is not the type of thing you make assumptions about. And even equating coming out with deception is wildly irresponsible and an affront to anyone who has ever struggled with that decision.

Here’s the bottom line as far as I’m concerned. Not only was this taking something that was completely out of bounds and putting it into the field of play, but what was the point? Varner said his back was up against the wall and he was grasping at anything he could use to stay in the game. But did he really think so low of his tribemates that they would stoop to being offended by that? Unless they were bigots and completely intolerant, this revelation served zero strategic value.

It reminds me a bit — but only a bit since the circumstances are obviously wildly different in other regards — of when Jonathan Penner used his Philippines final Tribal Council jury speech to reveal to everyone that Lisa Whelchel had been a successful sitcom actress on The Facts of Life. As I mentioned, it was obviously different because Lisa did purposefully hide her career because she worried that information would hurt her in the game (“Why should the rich TV star get the money? She doesn’t need it”). But still, when Penner did that, it struck me as very mean-spirited. Yes, it made for great television, but Penner was already out of the game, so putting that info out there did him absolutely no advantage whatsoever, and all it did was prejudice the jury against Lisa for something that had absolutely nothing to do with her gameplay! (In fact, if anything, she should have been commended for keeping it under wraps the whole time.)

It also brought to mind when Brenda made Dawn take her fake teeth out at the Caramoan final Tribal Council. I defended Dawn’s actions (even though I think it was a strategic mistake) because you should vote out whoever you think gives you the best chance to win, no matter what your personal connection is and what they have done for you on that level. But when Brenda did that, it served no function or purpose whatsoever other than revenge and meanness.

And here’s the thing: I like Brenda. I like Penner. And I like Varner. I’ve come down pretty hard on him in this recap, and I will not back off that one bit. What he did was horrific. It was a horrific display. But I don’t think Varner is a horrific person. He made a MASSIVE miscalculation in about a million different ways and then his initial follow-up made the problem even worse. I’ve spoken to Jeff a few times over the years and I have found him engaging, intelligent, funny, refreshingly candid, and yes, a little unhinged at times. We spoke out in Fiji right before the season began and he kept stressing what a good place he was in compared to Second Chance the year before. “I’m not emotional like last time,” he said then. “I am ready. I am focused. This is my time… because in Cambodia, I was a basket case. I’m not at all a basket case now. I feel like a million dollars. I’m walking around Ponderosa in pre-game like I’m on a cloud, like nothing matters.”

Ah, but that was before the game. Then you get in there. You get hungry. You get tired. You start losing challenges. You watch your alliance members get voted out. You know it’s your third time playing and most likely your last, so you want to scratch, claw, and fight to stay. You’ll use anything you can — only problem is, there really is nothing you can use. So you try something that you really shouldn’t try. My best guess is this is what happened with Jeff Varner. He has never struck me as a malicious person. But desperate people do desperate things — regrettable things.

And I am pretty confident Varner regrets what happened out there in Fiji in June of 2016. You could already see it in his final words. “Nobody on this planet should do what I did tonight — ever,” he said. “And I am so sorry to anybody I offended, especially Zeke, and his family and his friends. I can’t talk. I’m sorry.” And then the bawling began. I can only imagine that night has been torturing Varner for the past 10 months, knowing what happened and knowing that he would have to live it all over again when the episode aired. I can’t even comprehend having to watch that back on TV from his perspective — it sounds like watching a horror movie where you know the killer is coming but are powerless to stop it.

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Jeff is going to have a very tough day on Thursday when he speaks to me and other members of the press (the very first place you can hear from him is on EW Morning Live on SiriusXM channel 105 at 9:40am). My full expectation is that he will be remorseful and contrite and horrified by his own actions.

But what Varner did is, thankfully, only part of the story. The other part is how everyone reacted to this nuclear bomb of poor taste that was detonated at Tribal Council. I want to save Zeke until the very end, so we’ll get to him later. Let’s start with his tribemates. As appalling as what Varner did was, I was incredibly heartened to see how everyone else at Tribal reacted. And I mean everyone. Immediately after Varner attacked Zeke, Andrea and Tai began a mixture of yelling and crying. “You f—ing just outed him! Nobody have the right to out anybody!” screamed Tai. “What’s your goal in doing that?” asked a clearly distraught Andrea. Meanwhile, over on the other side of Tribal, Debbie was serving as another voice of reason. (Yes, I just used the words “Debbie” and “voice of reason” in the same sentence.) “It was for Zeke to decide,” she told Varner. “It was for Zeke to discuss when he was comfortable discussing it.”

Even the folks who originally appeared to be quiet on the matter eventually spoke up with very strong language. “Jeff, you should be ashamed of yourself,” said Ozzy. “You should be ashamed of yourself for what you’re willing to do to get yourself further in a game for a million dollars. It’s like, you’re playing with people’s lives at this point.” Ozzy’s comments really stuck with me because they were said not with anger, but disappointment. We often say things in anger because of the heat of the moment. We may say them but don’t really mean them — at least not to the full extent. But the matter-of-fact calm nature in which Ozzy said this made his comments hit home that much more.

Sarah was pretty silent, but then delivered perhaps the most emotionally resonant moment of the evening. After describing Jeff’s actions as a “malicious attack” she went on to talk about her own experience coming from a conservative Midwest background with little diversity. “And the fact that I can love [Zeke] so much — and it doesn’t change anything for me — makes me realize I’ve grown huge as a person… The metamorphosis I’ve even made as a person that I didn’t realize until this minute is invaluable.”

God, is it possible to be any prouder of this group? This could have turned so ugly had someone nibbled on Varner’s bait, but Tai, Andrea, Debbie, Ozzy, and Sarah provided a united front of solidarity and decency, and I am so thankful to them for it. We often talk about the questionable moral character of reality show contestants, and with good reason — because shows often cast people with that questionable character to watch the sparks fly as a result. So to see these five refuse to stand (or sit, in this case) for Jeff’s tactics, while supporting the victim of those tactics, and talking about their own backgrounds and how their attitudes have changed… well, it was awesome.

That wasn’t the only awesome thing. Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot overstate what a stealthy amazing job Jeff Probst did in this situation as host. I say stealthy because you may not have even realized how great he was. But you will now, because here’s how this entire thing would have unfolded in the hands of a lesser host. A lesser host would have pitted people against each other. He would have poked and prodded and pushed more buttons to get every salacious detail out as possible. He would have milked the drama while simultaneously making himself the center of the action. Or, he would not know what the hell to do and embarrass himself with patronizing commentary and offensive vernacular.

Probst didn’t do any of that. He sat back. He let the discussion develop organically. He didn’t attempt to exacerbate a sensitive situation for the sake of drama. But he also didn’t let Varner off the hook. After Varner proclaimed, “I’m not saying, Jeff, that transgender people are deceptive,” Probst immediately shot back with, “You’re saying that by not revealing it, he’s capable of deception. That’s a giant leap of logic. Do you honestly not see that?” Later when Varner apologized and wanted the whole thing to just go away, the host had to remind him, “Jeff, you can’t unring the bell.”

And then there was his comment after Varner told Sarah, “I don’t want you to paint me as something I’m not,” to which to host noted, “That is an ironic statement.” Probst wasn’t digging up dirt, but he was also not going to give his embattled contestant a free pass either. This is an extremely difficult line to navigate, especially live without a script. He asked all the right questions, but only when they needed to be asked, including wondering to Varner what he thought the LGBT community reaction would be to what he had said.

And here’s the most important thing Probst did, and he’s maybe the only host on the planet that would have done it this way: After Varner dropped his bombshell, Probst did NOT go immediately to Zeke for a reaction. He allowed Zeke to compose himself. He gave the attacked party time to take everything in so he could figure out how he wanted to respond. Smart, and considerate. I’ve always said that Jeff Probst’s best moment on Survivor came when he expertly navigated some tricky terrain when a racial disagreement broke out at Tribal between Phillip Sheppard and Steve Wright on the Redemption Island season. That was a master class in non-exploitative hosting. But here, he was even better. Jesus, give the man another Emmy already!!!

Okay, now it’s finally time to talk about Zeke. Well, I suppose everyone has already been talking about Zeke, but let’s get into what the man himself actually did and said at Tribal. When Probst finally did go to him for his thoughts about what Varner had done, the contestant explained that he stopped telling people he was transgender “because when people know that about you, that’s sort of who you are. There are questions people ask. People want to know about your life and they want to know about this and that. It sort of overwhelms everything else that they know about you… One of the reasons why I didn’t want to lead with that is I didn’t want to be, like, the trans Survivor player. I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor player.”

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That’s pretty much the perfect answer and one that everyone can completely understand. There are a million things all of us would rather not tell people for whatever reason. Some of them may be positive (we don’t want to gloat), some may be negative (we’re embarrassed), and some — like this — may simply be things we are worried will define our identity among people we just met. That doesn’t make us deceptive. It makes us human.

Zeke would have been well within his rights to curse Varner out right then and there. He could have read him the riot act and taken all that embarrassment and humiliation that Jeff attempted to put on him and bounced it right back. But he didn’t. “It’s really not cool,” he said. “But I’m fine.” He hugged Varner on his way out. He chose to unite rather than divide, even though he had every reason at that point to pick the latter. Maybe it’s because he remembered his own (albeit far less) ugly incident at a Tribal Council last season when he and Bret mocked David’s anxiety and taunted him by asking if he was going to cry. Or maybe it’s because he acknowledged that he knew someone might pick up on him being transgender and was prepared to talk about it. It doesn’t really matter. When Varner took the low road, Zeke went high.

Again, he could have inflamed the situation if he wanted to, but by refocusing the conversation on his own “metamorphosis” (there’s that word again) thanks to his Survivor experience, he proved to be a class act in a classless situation.

One last thing I want to address because I could see people asking the following question: If producers knew Varner was going to out Zeke at Tribal — which they did, judging by Jeff’s comments before going there — why didn’t they stop it? If you are of that mind, then you are of the mind that producers should manipulate gameplay, tell people what to say and not say, and preemptively censor out anything uncomfortable and unseemly before it happens. And that, in my book, would be much worse than what transpired here.

Zeke said himself he knew it was a possibility someone would figure out he was transgender when he agreed to appear on the show (twice) and was prepared to talk about it if that happened. This was a scenario that I am confident was discussed between the contestant and producers before his first season began. It was a risk Zeke was willing to take, he took it, this happened, and in the end, Zeke hoped it would actually “lead to a greater good” if some trans Survivor fan saw his story and was inspired by it.

So while to say that producers should have intervened to make sure this never happened is a suggestion that no doubt comes from a good place, you can’t document a “social experiment” — which is what Survivor has professed to be since its very first episode 17 years ago — and then not let that experiment play out. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it’s ugly. This night happened to be all three. But you can’t rewrite the rulebook over a situation everyone was prepared for as a possibility anyway. The last thing I want to do in this instance is speak for Zeke, but my best guess is that as a hardcore Survivor fan, he himself would not stand for such producer manipulation, even if it was as some sort of protection on his behalf.

I’m sorry this recap has been so one-note, but I’ve been writing about this show for 17 years now, and you’ll have to excuse the occasional break in tone and format. Hey, it has to be better than that time I wrote an entire Survivor: Nicaragua recap in the voice of Jimmy T. (Yes, it happened.) To me, what went down at this Tribal Council overshadowed everything that came before it and made it rather obsolete. So my apologies to you, Hali, for not noting your dominance in the puzzle portion of the immunity challenge. My apologies to you, challenge producer John Kirhoffer, for not giving you the public thumbs up how awesome that challenge was. My apologies to you, Brad Culpepper, for not delivering kudos for wearing your heart on your sleeve, and making some potential alliance partners in the process.

And thanks to all for reading this far. Just for doing so, I have a reward for you that we’ll get into in a minute. But first, I usually do this later but am going to do it here so it does not get lost. Now that we are back on Disqus, the message boards are building back up again, which is great to see. I really do encourage everyone to weigh in with their thoughts on tonight’s episode, and a diversity of opinions is always welcome. Maybe you feel Varner’s gambit did have some strategic value. Maybe you didn’t like the way the other tribemates responded and felt they piled on. If that’s the case, by all means please share your two cents. Any community is boring if everyone feels and thinks the exact same way. That said, please do not under any circumstances use any offensive or hateful language towards anyone. In essence, be cool. Respect others. Feel free to disagree, but not disrespect. Capiche?

Okay, here’s the reward. As you probably know, I’ve been giving away all the original votes that the Game Changers contestants cast before the game (that you can view on my Instagram feed). To enter for a chance to win Jeff Varner’s vote for Tony, just answer the following question. What season of Survivor do I have ranked dead last when I do my twice-a-year rankings? Email your answer to survivor@ew.com. And please include your mailing address, since we have not heard back from some winners since responses may be ending up in their spam folders. For instance, if your name is Carey Megan, congrats! You won Sandra’s vote last week! But you better get back in touch with your full mailing address if you want us to send it to you, or we go to the runner-up. Good luck!

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, you heard what I thought, but what about Jeff Probst? You can find out his reaction to everything in our weekly Q&A. Also make sure to check out an exclusive deleted scene above, and you can hear from Jeff Varner himself first on EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) at 9:40am Thursday and later here on EW.com. And for more Survivor updates, follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

Thanks again for getting through this one with me — and getting through all these recaps, really; I know they’re not short — and I’ll be back next week with a double-episode sized scoop of the crispy!