Timothy Kuratek/CBS

A tribe unites against a contestant when a hateful incident goes down at Tribal Council


S34 E7
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April 12, 2017 at 09:00 PM EDT

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.

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