Who's the biggest Game Changer of them all?

How do you like your coffee? Do you take it black? Cream and sugar? Just cream? Decaf? I don’t drink coffee myself so am a little out of my depth here, and I’m not even going to attempt to decipher the foreign language that is a Starbucks order. (Those mornings where my wife has sent me to fetch her a caffeine fix from a Starbucks when we are away from home are among the scariest of my life because I have no idea how to even order.) But while I may not drink the stuff, I am aware that there is no right way to drink coffee. Different strokes for different folks, it seems.

So let me ask you another question: How do you like your Survivor? Or, more specifically: How do you like your Survivor winner? Arguing over whether the right or wrong person won the gold standard of reality TV shows is a long, proud tradition dating all the way back to Hatch versus Wigglesworth. But perhaps never has the contrast between two finalists been as stark as it was here at the end of Survivor: Game Changers — Mamanuca Islands. [By the way, that’s the first time I have ever used the official season subtitle. It’s certainly no Earth’s Last Eden (Gabon) or Islands of Fire (Vanuatu).]

On one hand, you have Sarah, who was the dominant force from a social/strategic perspective. She repeatedly was the pivotal point person in determining who was voted off, and everyone thought they were her best friend… until she slit their proverbial throat. She was savvy enough to obtain the vote steal when Michaela did not see it and shrewd enough to vote Sierra out and then receive Sierra’s Legacy Advantage after doing so. She built a very impressive résumé.

On the other hand, you have Brad. He tied the Survivor record by winning five individual immunity challenges. Not only that, but he won the last four of the season, several of which he no doubt needed or would have been sent home. Say what you want about F.U. Brad Culpepper, but that is a super impressive accomplishment. Winning the last four challenges of the season? That is super clutch. So again, a very impressive résumé.

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So I’ll ask you again: How do you like your Survivor winner? I’ll tell you how I feel in a bit, but the honest truth is that I’m not sure there is necessarily a wrong answer. It’s all about what you value more — challenge dominance or strategic dominance. For someone like Ozzy, it was all about the incredible fortitude Brad showed by continually winning when he would have gone home otherwise. I know many of you probably want to write Brad off and — like Sarah at Tribal Council — argue that as a former professional athlete, he had an advantage, but that is shortsighted and simplistic. Because the reality is that physically had absolutely NOTHING to do with it. Three of the four challenges Brad won were on puzzles! Puzzles! And the fourth one was that weird balancing balls one that had nothing to do with strength whatsoever.

If you’re not really impressed by what Brad did by winning those five immunities, then you are just refusing to give him credit that he deserves, because it was ridiculously impressive. But more impressive than Sarah? According to Ozzy and Debbie’s criteria, yes. And again, if that’s their criteria — and we can argue that point, but it’s by no means a ridiculous or absurd criteria to have — then Brad played the best game this season and deserved to win.

Zeke illustrates the opposite end of the Survivor juror opinion spectrum. Zeke pointed out the cutthroat strategic game Sarah played by cozying up to people, forming personal bonds, and then slitting their throats. To him, it didn’t matter that Sarah did not win a single individual immunity challenge, because to a strategist like Zeke, the real game is played back at the beach. I have consistently said that Sarah’s game has been stellar since the merge, and if Brad was the dominant competitor when Jeff Probst dropped one arm and raised the other, then Sarah was the dominant one in terms of pulling the strings everywhere else.

Brad’s social/strategic game is probably a wash. He made the first huge move of the season by backstabbing J.T., was impressively calm when dealing with a hyper-critical Debbie, and formed bonds with lots of women not even in his alliance (including Aubry and Cirie) early on by showing his more sensitive side. He did a lot of good work early. I was actually shocked considering how he acted in his last outing. But what the hell happened after the merge? When he got on the wrong side of the numbers, Brad’s smooth social game began to crack. He openly feuded with a future jury vote in Michaela and was super demeaning to another juror in Tai. Not smart. Which also brings us to his decision to not bring Tai to the end instead of Sarah, which was a seemingly obvious strategic blunder. It was as if he undid all the good work of the first 35 days in the last four. Put that all together, and his social/strategic game pretty much equates Sarah’s zero immunity wins

So who is more deserving? In a way, this final was a mirror image of Cook Islands, where you had the challenge beast in Ozzy facing off against the strategic whiz in Yul (with Troyzan basically playing the part of bystander Becky). And both finals ultimately asked the jury which they valued more — being the best at controlling the competitions or the vote?
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I wrote that way too lengthy preamble for a few reasons. (1) I am long winded by nature. (2) I am drinking a beer — some hipster brand called “The Crisp” — and I usually write longer, not shorter, when drinking. Sorry about that. And (3) at the end of pretty much every season I write one of two things. It’s either “The right person won!” or “The wrong person won!” To me and my criteria, it is obvious who deserved to win each season, even though others may argue the point. And believe you me, they do argue. I still maintain Russell deserved to win Samoa, Parvati was the best in Heroes vs. Villains, and Aubry was robbed in Kaoh Rong, but there are plenty of Natalie, Sandra, and Michele supporters to tell me how crazy I am. And I love it! That’s because the vote is purely subjective as opposed to objective.

Sometimes that can be super annoying if we, as viewers, feel jurors are suffering from an acute case of BJS (Bitter Juror Syndrome). There’s nothing fun about watching people refuse to give credit because their ego can’t get over the fact that they were bested. But when you have a legitimate divide based not on hurt feelings, but rather differing values of gameplay, then that is a pretty interesting debate worth having. All that said, the right person won. At least in my book. I do value challenge victories because to not do so is to discount performance under pressure, especially if you’re going to be voted out if you don’t win — which Brad clearly did at least once. But you all know I am something of a strategy nerd and am more likely to reward the person who controls the vote, and that person was Sarah. She ran the risk of getting “Coached,” like when Coach got too close to the people he voted out, leaving him short at the end, but Sarah wisely did not lead any prayer circles before knocking people from the game.

Bottom line: I’m glad Sarah won. I think she deserved it. And I think the jury made the right decision. Ideally, a closer vote like the last challenge-versus-strategy debate (with Yul besting Ozzy by a single juror) would have been a bit more exciting, but since the jury sided with me, whom I am to quibble! (Me quibble in a recap? What are the odds?!?) So congratulations, Sarah Lacina. You without a doubt did change your game to win the million dollars. There were a lot of contestants brought back to play whom fans openly questioned. Some of them did not deliver the second time either, but you did in a big way. Well done, copper!

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Okay, there is a lot of other nonsense to get to, including an immunity-stuffed affair as well as a radical change to the final Tribal Council format, and if you think I don’t have hot takes on those then you don’t know me very well. I implore to read on to see my thoughts and then share yours in the message boards, because that’s how we do things around here. It’s our last Survivor recap of the season, so let’s make it count! (Speaking of count, I invited people before the recap posted to guess my final word count, and the winner will receive Sarah’s winning pre-game vote, as seen on my Instagram feed. Look for a chance to win one of the other finalist votes later in the recap.)

We start the episode with a recap of the season so far, which is both great and terrible. Great because it shows us of all the fantastic folks like Tony, Sandra, J.T., and Malcolm, but terrible because it reminds us that most of the dynamic players went out waaaaaaay too early. Look, I do not relish what I am about to write because I like everyone who played this game and I am not trying to be critical. But if you had been told at the start of the year that the final four of a season called Survivor: Game Changers would be Troyzan, Tai, Brad, and Sarah, what would your reaction have been? Exactly.

Again, this is nothing against any of them personally (and I just spent over 1,000 words giving Sarah and Brad a lot of credit) but the honest truth is that this is just not nearly as engaging or exciting a group as one that would have included any number of people who got voted out early. (Cirie was the last of the legends, and she got taken out at six, which we’ll get to in a bit.) So again, seeing all these titans in the recap could not help but be a bit bittersweet.

Then Probst launches into descriptions of the final six. He talks about how Sarah played an aggressive game since the merge, how Culpepper’s social game was dominant early, how Tai was a master idol hunter, and how Troyzan “for weeks has quietly played from the bottom.” Yes, very quietly. So quietly you half wonder if it is Cowboy Rick in disguise. (Wow, two South Pacific references already. I guess it’s only a matter of time before we get to the Cochran rock flip.)

Of course there is also Aubry, who informs us, “I’m in deep doo-doo, but that’s the Aubry way” — making the Aubry way sound less than appetizing — and Cirie, of whom we are informed, “In her four seasons, Cirie has never found an idol or won an individual immunity challenge.” In my infinite wisdom I assumed that to be foreshadowing and that Cirie would indeed finally win a challenge, because why else throw out that random statistic there? (Sadly, I was wrong.)
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We then finally begin on night 35 after the aborted vote steal attempt, and unsurprisingly, Sarah is pissed. “I want to know who the rat is,” she screams. IT’S FREDO! FREDO IS THE RAT! Oh, sorry, wrong rat. “That was my advantage to use,” she tells Cirie. “Not yours. Why would you take my vote? I wanted to use that another time and now I can’t because of you.”

But instead of letting Sarah’s seeds of distrust towards Cirie sprout, Tai admits to wanting to vote Sarah out. This is the first in a series of absolutely terrible moves that Tai will make down the stretch. And they keep getting worse. Now distraught over being seen as “Tai the liar,” the gardener with the heart of gold panics and does something completely inexplicable — he tells Brad he has two idols. Why he does this is beyond me. Tai feels like he needs an ally in the game, but he’s wrong. All he needs to do is mend some social fences, which is actually pretty easy to do because he already has a fast pass to the final four. Because he’s safe and can use idols at the next two Tribal Councils, he does not need to lie or deceive anyone, and then the villain target shifts to someone else. We have seen it time and time again — yesterday’s adversary can become tomorrow’s ally.

There was absolutely nothing for Tai to gain by doing this, and he’s not done mismanaging his idols either. As for Brad, he sees an opportunity. “I manipulated him on the first one, and I’m going to manipulate him on these two as well,” says Culpepper. “He’s lied to me numerous times, and I got no problem throwing him under the bus and voting him out with his own idol.” In an odd twist, this revelation of the idol will also end up crippling Brad’s social game as well. It becomes a lose-lose scenario.

But first we have to head to the first challenge of the evening, and it is indeed for immunity — causing me to jump up and awkwardly high-five myself because that means there will be no reward-to-play-for-an-advantage-in-the-next-immunity-challenge-which-will-therefore-make-the-next-immunity-challenge-less-exciting-because-the-winner-is-pretty-much-already-determined. There is a reward attached, however: a big Italian meal delivered to camp. But also the far more important immunity.

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The challenge itself is a Survivor classic, as players have to run through a huge maze to collect bags of puzzle pieces and then use those pieces to solve a compass rose puzzle. (A lot of compass roses this season, by the way.) Even though it is, as always, all about the puzzle, I like the window dressing as well, as it is fun to watch the contestants throw their bodies through the maze. At one point Troyzan drops a puzzle bag on Aubry’s box instead and then blames it on being colorblind. I don’t know if he was kidding or not, but it does raise an interesting point. My son is colorblind, and there are certain shades of red and green that look identical to him. Since there have been over 550 Survivor contestants over the years and approximately 8 percent of all males are colorblind, has this issue ever come up before in a challenge? (Incidentally, the NFL had to deal with this problem in 2015 when the Jets wore all-green uniforms and the Bills wore all-red ones in a special Thursday night “Color Rush” uniform game, and colorblind spectators could not tell who was on what team. Of course, it would have been more fun if the players themselves could not have told who was on what team, but I digress.)

Anyway, we get to the portion of the challenge that actually matters — the puzzle — and it is very close between Brad, Aubry, and Cirie. This is it! This is when Cirie finally wins her first individual immunity challenge in four seasons! They totally spoiled it in the preview! Here it comes! YOU GO, CIRIE!!!!… Except it is Brad. “Pretty good for a dumb jock,” he exclaims after winning, and while he’s correct, it’s still kind of an annoying thing to say — especially because I don’t think anyone has ever accused Brad Culpepper of being dumb.

So he chooses Troyzan and Sarah to join him on the feast, where they decide to put votes on Tai and Aubry. And then Brad goes to put the heat back on Tai, telling him that if he wants to go to the end, he has to play one of his idols tonight, and then, “You’re going to give me your other one to hold, because I don’t want any funny business. I need a leap of faith from you for the way things have been.” What sort of funny business exactly is Brad taking about? Is he worried Tai is going to steal all the sugar and then blame it on Michaela… even though Michaela is no longer even playing the game? What sort of hijinks, shenanigans, or tomfoolery does he have in mind?

I don’t begrudge Brad for trying to take advantage of Tai’s lapse in judgment. Why wouldn’t you? But the problem is the tact and approach he takes when doing so. When someone says he “feels like a dog” because of the way you are treating him, the answer is not to double down and order that “if you want to get to the end, that’s what you need to do.” Considering that Brad wants to send Tai to jury — telling Troyzan, “He’s not getting it back. I’m getting it. We’re voting him out tomorrow. We’re making him the fool” — why would he want to antagonize a future jury vote? That’s just shortsighted gameplay.

Now Tai is crying to Aubry, and Aubry is crying because Tai is crying, and Cirie is walking up and wondering why everyone is crying, and you’re probably crying because we are almost 3,000 words into this recap and haven’t even gotten to the first Tribal Council yet. “Honestly, nobody really cares about me,” says Tai. “They just want something from me. And it’s painful.” That should be hung on the wall of Tribal Council where the giant gong used to be along with the words “WELCOME TO FREAKIN’ SURVIVOR” under it. (And yes, there used to be a giant gong at Tribal Council. As well as a hilarious trunk of cash.)
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Hey, who likes numbers? Let’s head over to Sesame Street to consult my good friend Count von Count. Hey, Count, how many players are left in Survivor at this point. “One… two… three… four… five… six. Six players!” That’s right. Now with Brad’s immunity, and Sarah’s Legacy immunity (which has to be used now), and Tai’s two idols, and Troyzan’s idol, how many people could potentially have immunity at this next Tribal Council? “One… two… three… four… five.” Uh-oh. I may not have been a math major, but I can do basic subtraction and 6–5=1. And what that means is that once Tai plays his idol, and plays another idol for Aubry, and Sarah plays her Legacy immunity, and Troyzan plays his immunity, then all five of them are immune. That means the votes are completely irrelevant. It also means that Cirie just became the first person in the history of Survivor to be “voted out” without a single vote cast against her.

So how do we feel about this? Put aside the fact that it was Cirie for a moment. I think most of us love Cirie and were sorry to see her go, but again, put the identity of the victim aside for a moment while we focus on the event itself. This entire incident is fascinating because I think it sort of sums up this season of Survivor: Game Changers as a whole. On one hand, it was just the latest in a season that you could easily argue had the biggest collection of crazy WTF Tribal Councils ever. On the other hand, it was almost too much and demonstrates how Game Changers was more about crazy events than solid character arcs. The same way in which we never really got a true sense all season long of who was truly closely aligned with whom and why, and therefore some of the vote-offs lacked clarity, here we had the most random elimination of them all. Not a single person voted for Cirie, and yet she was booted from the game.

It goes back to an earlier point I made that there were simply too many immunities and advantages in the game. I want to be clear: I love hidden immunity idols and I think having one advantage in the game is tons of fun. But it should only be that one advantage, not three. (Imagine if Cirie had not forced Sarah to burn her other advantage at the last Tribal and that also came out here. That is advantage overload in a huge way.) And as far as idols, this is one of the risks you run with a three-tribe format — more tribes means there are more idols out there. And when people hoard them as they did this year, then all of a sudden it turns into Idolpalooza at the end.

So it was a crazy, jaw-dropping moment, to be sure, but definitely not ideal to have someone “voted out” with no votes, and definitely a sign of advantage overload. The good news is that I believe the producers are smart enough to know this. I don’t think they ever anticipated having five immunities played at a single Tribal Council. They experimented by adding two extra advantages — don’t forget Debbie’s at Exile Yacht — and my guess (hope?) is that they realize that was probably two too many. This is what they do — they constantly experiment and recalibrate. Here’s hoping they scale back a bit moving forward.

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So it was a Tribal of firsts. First person voted out with no votes cast against them. Most idols played at a Tribal. Most people immune at a Tribal. And, I believe, the first ever standing ovation from the jury, as Jeff told Cirie, “You have played every day of Survivor with grace, and it has been an honor to have you be a part of the Survivor family.” (Poor Ozzy must have been like, Where was my standing ovation? Although at the point he was voted out the jury was only Hali and I’m not even sure Hali knew who the hell Ozzy was, to be honest.) Jeff even let Cirie take his line of “the Tribe has spoken.”

Yes, I’m sure some people will take offense at that — the same way they may have criticized Jeff for letting Cirie finish a challenge that was already over when other players have not been afforded the same luxury — but I can’t work up a lot of outrage over that. She’s Cirie. Let her have her special moment. Especially since we want to savor every last moment we can of her before we move on the legend-less final five. (By the way, had nobody played any of their immunities, Sarah would have gone home with three votes, followed by Tai with two, and Aubry with one.)

You think we’re heading back to the beach? Think again! It’s time for immunity challenge No. 2, and one that looks vaguely like Doc Brown’s automatic toast-popping and dog-food serving contraption as players must move three balls through obstacles to the finish. Let me just say that this one looks positively maddening. And most of the players seemed maddened by it. In fact, the only person experiencing no difficulty is Brad Culpepper, who goes two balls up on everyone… which I realize now sounds suuuuuuuuper gross. God, I have the most disturbing mental image in my mind right now and it has nothing to do with any Survivor challenges. I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT GOING “TWO BALLS UP ON EVERYONE” MEANS BUT IT STILL FREAKS ME OUT!

Anyway, what I was trying to say is that Brad has an enormous advantage…. See, even that sounds gross now after going two balls up, because you can’t start using words like enormous and balls together or people will get the wrong idea. I can’t win! The point is, he wins easily, and proclaims, “That was for Monica,” begging the question: Who were the first three immunity wins for?
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Then, a lot of confusing stuff happens back at the beach as a result of Brad’s victory. Aubry wants Troyzan out because Brad is definitely taking Toryzan to the end, so getting rid of him opens up another potential final three spot. That makes sense. I mean, it might make more sense to get Sarah out because Sarah’s got the most jury votes, but I get what Aubry is thinking. But that is about the last thing I get. Because next thing you know, Sarah is telling Tai that he is the only person she cared about this entire game, which is interesting and gets a bit at the disconnect between what was happening on the island this season and what we saw on TV. Last week we saw Sarah refuse to believe Tai was after her (forcing Cirie to try to use her vote steal to save her), but since we had not seen the two of them bond all season long, it didn’t make much sense. Now, Sarah is reiterating that bond, even though the only thing we’ve seen between these two players is Tai trying to vote Sarah out and then Sarah yelling at him for it.

Speaking of confusing, Tai now wants to get Aubry out because he says he can’t beat her EVEN THOUGH HE JUST USED AN IMMUNITY IDOL TO SAVE HER!!! It wasn’t last week. It wasn’t even three days ago. It was yesterday! What in the name of Dreamz with a Z is going on here?!? It never made sense for Tai to tell Brad about his idols and it never made sense to give Aubry one, and now it makes even less sense because a few hours later he wants her out of the game and can’t protect himself in the process. Of course, nobody should want Tai out of the game because that’s the guy you want to be sitting next to at the end, but we’ll get to that a little bit later.

Then there’s Brad, who is still putting the screws to Tai — dammit! First two balls up, then enormous, then screws… I swear I am not doing this on purpose! — even though Tai no longer has an idol. “I’ll put it to you like this,” Brad barks at him. “I control who goes to the final four. I do. I control who goes to the final four.” What the hell happened to Brad Culpepper’s social game? Again, I get it, he’s trying to make sure he is sitting next to Troyzan at the end, but this guy’s bedside manner is worse than Kathy Bates in Misery. “He has no respect for me,” says a despondent Tai, and he’s right.

So we head to Tribal Council No. 2, where Aubry pleads her case that there is only one final three spot open unless they get rid of Troyzan. Meanwhile, everyone says that there are people left they feel they can’t beat at the end. Everyone, that is, besides Troyzan, and Michaela’s reaction shot pretty much says it all.

Obviously, “Do you feel there are people left you can’t beat at the end?” is a weird question to answer because as a contestant, you have to weigh two completely opposite impulses. On one hand, you are trying to convince the players still in the game that they can beat you so they want to take you to the end. On the other hand, you are trying to convince the jury that you are the best player and they should consider you as such. So you really can’t trust how anyone answers this question. It seems like all the players were still playing to each other with their answers, while Troyzan decided to play to the jury, so I didn’t find his response as crazy as it sounded. Even though it is, you know, crazy. Just ask the editors who gave Troyzan’s brother Todd more screen time this season.

In any event, Aubry is cut loose, has her torch snuffed for the first time, and then makes the rookie mistake of trying to bring the torch with her. (I wonder how many people do that but it’s edited out so we don’t see.) I also find it interesting that Brad and Troy both spelled her name “Aubrey” even though she was a returning player and they presumably watched her season and her name pop up on screen a million times. Misspelling people’s names on a newbie season makes total sense, but doing so in a returning player’s season is a bit lame.

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Aubry clearly did not have as impactful a performance this time out as she did in Kaoh Rong, but the fact she made it this far is super impressive. You have to remember that filming on Game Changers began about 10 days after the Kaoh Rong finale, so her dominant performance there was fresh in everyone’s minds. Talking to people before the game, they were worried about Aubry. And she was on the ropes from day 1. Word around production base camp was that Aubry might be the first to go, and then she was still in trouble after Ciera was cut loose. But she held on and made it all the way to day 37. Gotta give her props for that.
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But the time for props is over because we have the final immunity challenge to get to. There is a massive build for this one, giving it the epic feel you like to see in final challenges. Of course, there’s a puzzle at the end so none of it really matters, but it at least looks super cool! In this one, contestants must race through an obstacle course and down a giant water slide, collecting bags of puzzle pieces along the way. Then they must use said pieces to build a lighthouse puzzle — bringing things full circle with the Tribal Council lighthouse from which they have been voting out their fellow castmates.

Brad, Sarah, and Tai all start the puzzle close together, but Brad attacks the lighthouse with the same vim and vigor that he attacks a gullible player with two immunity idols, destroying everyone else in a full-on rout. That marks his record-tying fifth individual immunity victory and clean finale sweep. All that’s left is to vote off the only obvious competition in Sarah and take home the million dollars. Easy peasy! “Quite frankly,” says Brad, “I think I can beat every single one of them.” WHAT?!? NO! NO, YOU CAN’T!

But wait, you’re still going to get rid of Sarah, right? “It comes down to who has done me wrong the most. And that would be Tai.” NO! IT DOESN’T COME DOWN TO WHO HAS DONE YOU WRONG! IT COMES DOWN TO WHOM YOU CAN BEAT! AND YOU CAN BEAT TAI! Look, sometimes we as viewers can tell things the players cannot, because we see things they do not and hear the way players talk about each other, which they do not. But this was stone-cold obvious that everyone was fed up with Tai out there and he would be a hell of a lot easier to take on than Sarah. I don’t know if Brad just massively miscalculated or simply assumed he could easily beat anyone so chose to bring the person he liked more… which I suppose also qualifies as a massive miscalculation.

To make matters even more strategically infuriating, after Troyzan suggests telling Tai he’s next to let him down easy, Brad refuses. “It’s my island,” he brags, stealing a line from his One World alliance-mate. He then goes to say that because he is a trial attorney, he can out-talk the other players at the end, when it is actually his talking that has gotten Brad in trouble down the stretch.

Meanwhile, Tai has a pitch to Sarah, telling her they should both vote Troyzan to force a tie. That way whomever Brad and Troy are voting for still has a chance to stay via fire-making tiebreaker. It’s actually a very smart move. Sarah is pretty confident that Tai is the target, but why? She must know she has played the better game, which makes her the wrong person to bring to the end. That would cause my Spidey Survivor sense to start tingling. If I were Sarah I would have hedged my bet and voted Troyzan as a safety measure. That way, if I’m the target, I am not blindsided and still have a shot. And if I’m not the target, it’s no harm, no foul. After all, this is the last vote-out, so who cares if Brad and Troyzan are pissed? Let them be pissed! And let Tai and Troyzan duke it out because it’s a pretty much a wash because neither of them can beat her at this point anyway. It’s the perfect safety net. So why wouldn’t she do it?

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Alas, at Tribal Council, after Brad yells at Tai — right in front of the jury, I might add — about leverage and Tai says Brad is treating him like a child, Sarah does not force the Tai, I mean, tie. And tie — I mean, Tai — like Aubry before him, is voted out of Survivor for the very first time. Tai is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. I hold him in the highest regard… outside the game. In the game he seems to have difficulty with deception. The rap on him last time he played was that he was wishy-washy and could not be counted on because he kept flipping. You could see that again here at the end of the game when he went to Brad, then ran away from Brad and ran to Aubry, and then voted out Aubry a day later. Quite simply, he was all over the place. Tai’s a great guy, and he is great at certain elements of the game (specifically endurance competitions and finding idols), but if Tai plays again, he’ll have to figure out a smoother way to own his gameplay when it comes to some of the more underhanded aspects of making it to the end.

So there’s our final three of Brad Sarah, and Troyzan. We see them at the beach for just a minute in the standard finalists-being-reflective-of-their-journey-while-also-looking-ahead-to-final-Tribal-Council scene. The most telling moment is when Sarah asks Brad if he’s nervous about the final Tribal. “Not really,” he replies. Whoops!
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Okay, it’s time to talk about this new final Tribal Council format because I’m sure you have thoughts on it, and so do I. Instead of going with the standard question and answer format that has ended seasons 1-33, Jeff Probst shakes things up. He informs the jury that they will be taking part in three extended discussions centered around the Survivor mantra of Outwit, Outplay, Outlast.

In this case, Outwit stands for the social part of the game and emotional intelligence. The Outplay discussion is supposed to be centered around “how you responded to the conditions of the game” in terms of building shelters, performing in challenges and “responding to the hand you were dealt” (although I’m not exactly sure what that means). Finally, Outlast asks, “Did you put people on the jury that respect you more than the other two?” which frankly, sounds a bit repetitive with the social gameplay covered in the Outwit portion, but whatever. It is really just an opportunity for the trio to give closing statements anyway (at least in the edit).

So what are my thoughts on this huge format change? Well, I’m not sure this is the right answer in terms of how to approach a final Tribal Council, but I do think they needed to try something. The last few finale Q&As have kinda been snoozefests — or, at the very least, underwhelming. And they all seemed to be following the same script. There’s the person who annoyingly asks something along the lines of “Why did you vote me out?” There’s the person who gets up and gives a campaign speech for a contestant and tells everyone not to be bitter about being bested. There’s the person who is bitter about being bested. There’s the person who feels compelled to tell one or two people in the finals that they do not deserve to be there. And there is someone — usually an actor or Broadway performer — who gives a very dramatic biting monologue that involves chariots or evil stepmothers who wraps up the proceedings before Jeff announces that it is time to vote.

It was time for a change, and therefore I have no problem whatsoever with them experimenting with the new format. But here is what is kind of fascinating. Jeff Probst talked after the Kaoh Rong finale about trying to find a way to make jury members more accountable for their votes. He was concerned — rightfully so — about group think invading the jury house and people having their opinions swayed by some of the more forceful or persuasive fellow members of the jury — especially the more bitter ones. He has been very open about saying that the jury system was not perfect, but they simply did not have the budget and resources to keep all the jury members sequestered from each other. (Plus, those would be some pretty damn boring Ponderosa videos if nobody could talk to each other after being voted out.) Probst spoke about trying to find a way to tweak the system.

So that’s why I find this new Tribal format so interesting, because what producers did is actually go in the complete opposite direction by encouraging more open discussion amongst the jury. Instead of not allowing them to talk to each other, they created a forum for an open debate. I’m not being critical of that decision. If anything, just the opposite. I like that the producers did not take any idea off the table and are actively trying to fine-tune the final Tribal Council process to make it as engaging as possible while also figuring out what is the best way to allow jury members to work out their decision.

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Again, I’m not sure they landed on the best answer, and I’m not sure this is how I’d like all Tribals to end, but I definitely do believe they needed to change something. If this is the first experimental step towards landing on a better solution — or even a break for a season or two from the one that had gotten a bit stale — then I’m totally with it. Here are a few highlights from the three sections

Zeke kicks things off by proclaiming himself Sarah’s champion — which I guess is sort of like Game of Thrones and means he now has to battle The Mountain to the death or something. (No offense, Zeke, but my money’s on The Mountain.) That is followed by some harsher words from Andrea, who says she felt gross from the way Sarah played. Ozzy goes even further, telling Sarah, “There is a way of playing this game without going as low as you had to go,” although I think he may just have been confusing Survivor with the drunken limbo game they had the night before back at Ponderosa.

At this point, Ozzy also proclaims himself Brad’s champion for having to win out, so now I guess Ozzy and Zeke are fighting to the death? The smart money would probably go on Ozzy in such a situation, although don’t count Zeke out. He’s scrappy. I could totally see him pulling the old throw-some-dirt-in-the-eyes-and-then-kick-him-in-the-nuts type maneuver, after which Ozzy would complain that you don’t have to go so low to win a fight to the death, bringing us full circle.

Elsewhere, Cirie hypothesizes that Brad and Troyzan “probably would have bumped into each other” had Sierra not been around while Michaela asks Brad how much he actually knows about her, to which he basically hems, haws, and finally yells out, “San Dimas High School Football Rules!”

Tai, for once, says he is shocked! — shocked! — to learn that there is gambling going on in here. His Claude Raines Casablanca impersonation is actually in reference to finding out how everybody else thought Sarah was their bestie before she got rid of them, because Tai thought he was the one who had something special with her. (Again, a sign of Sarah’s effective gameplay.) Sarah explains that she had to assume a different identity at the start of the game to play effectively, using her background as an undercover police officer as experience. “If you are buying drugs, you’re a drug user now. If you’re a prostitute, you’re now a prostitute.” While those last two sentences may sound like a Survivor reward gone wild, I get what she is saying. I mean, not that I am particularly familiar with drugs and prostitutes but… you know what? Let’s just move on.
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For her part, Debbie tells Sarah, “I have zero respect for you or your game play, and that is why I am his lieutenant in arms for you, Brad.” This response to Sarah’s superior gameplay tracks completely with how Debbie voted in Kaoh Rong as well. As I mentioned earlier, I am willing to respect Ozzy and Debbie’s decision to vote for Brad if they felt his epic challenge-winning run merited him the million, but no need to go all sour grapes and drag Sarah in the process.

Hey, guess what, everyone? Troyzan is here! I suppose we could have surprised you with that information pretty much all season long, but he is especially inconspicuous here at final Tribal. Troyzan’s lack of screen time begs the question: Is it better to get a bad edit or no edit at all? Troyzan may never have popped as a character this season, but he never came off as mean, vindictive, clueless, or anything else either. So which would you take: an invisible edit or a less-than-flattering one? Anyway, Troy talks about how he felt handcuffed strategically by what his alliance-members wanted to do, which is not the right answer in this situation because it reinforces the perception that Troyzan did not call any of the shots or do anything big to get himself to the end of game. But truthfully, it really does not matter what Troy says at this point, a realization he will come to himself shortly.

Finally, Brad gets himself in some more hot water attempting to justify his tone while trying to fool Tai into giving him an idol. “Do you realize how you talk to people?” Tai asks him, and my guess is it is right around here when Brad realizes he has lost the million dollars. Brad’s not a “dumb jock” as he likes to say. He’s perceptive enough to probably have figured out by this point which way the wind was blowing, especially when Hali hammers him with, “Did you just say you used condescension as a strategy to control Tai?” That’s a difficult one to recover from, and Brad never does.

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While Probst valiantly tried his best to explain how this section would be different from Outwit, the two end up repeating a lot of the same ground. Ozzy once again praises Brad winning out, while Sarah points out how she tricked Sierra into giving her the Legacy Advantage and was savvy enough to spot and obtain the vote steal — which probably belonged more in the Outwit department.

The other thing of note here is Sarah trying to deemphasize Brad’s challenge victories by pointing out that he was a professional athlete. That’s a smart move and I would have done the exact same thing — but it’s really not accurate or fair. As mentioned, Brad’s wins came because of his work on puzzles and balancing the balls into the chute. None of them were because of any form of brute strength or athletic prowess. Of course, most of the jury doesn’t know that because they did not see the challenges themselves. And we do not see Brad effectively counter that argument, so while Sarah’s attack is without much merit, it appears effective is taking some of the wind out of Brad’s challenge victory sails.

Rather than continuing the debate and discussion format, this is just an opportunity for the players to give their final statements. Brad tries to take a knock at Sarah by saying that you do not need to lie and deceive every single person in the game to win, which shows he is already on the defensive in terms of addressing Sarah’s gameplay as opposed to his own.

Sarah then does a Survivor classic that dates all the way back to Todd Herzog in China. She tells the people on the jury that they were only there because she worried they could beat her. This is exactly what Todd did to Jean-Robert. And it almost always works because not only are you killing with kindness by telling people what great players they were and making them therefore feel better about their exit because it now becomes a badge of honor to their awesomeness, but it also allows Sarah to take credit for the moves. Instead of apologizing and avoiding the blame for blindsiding people, she embraces the responsibility while complimenting the victims in the process. Like I said, smart.

And then there’s Troyzan, and let me say, good for him, He knows he isn’t winning anything at this point, so instead of futilely trying to wave his arms around and scream to prove what a great player he was, he just thanks the jury for being part of his dream. Very classy. Troyzan may have gotten the invisible edit this season, but he ends on a very strong note.

The editors have done a good job making the vote seem close, but as jurors head to the urn, it seems more likely that Ozzy and Debbie are mere outliers and that the the group as a whole is going for Sarah. And that’s exactly what happens as Jeff Probst once again stubbornly refuses to board a jet ski, prop plane, motorcycle, or subway to deliver the votes to America.

So Sarah is indeed revealed as the winner and the celebration begins. Okay, we’re going to move on to some thoughts about the live reunion show, but before we do, I mentioned on Twitter that I am giving away Sarah’s original pre-game vote to the person who came closest to guessing the final word count of my recap. (I’m too tired to go through all the guesses now, but will contact the winner directly. But we still have five other original pre-game votes (as seen on my Instagram feed) to give away, so here’s how you can enter a chance to win Brad, Troyzan, Tai, Aubry, or Cirie’s vote. The question is simple: What juror asked the very first final Tribal Question in Survivor history?? Email the player’s name to survivor@ew.com AND PLEASE MAKE SURE TO INCLUDE YOUR MAILING ADDRESS as well as your preference of whose vote you would ideally like to receive. The winner will be contacted directly. Okay, let’s get to some odds and ends from the Reunion show.
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* Why was Sarah sitting in the middle at the final Tribal Council in Fiji but then Troyzan was sitting in the middle at the live reading of the votes in L.A.? I mean, that’s a super minor thing, but also the kind of thing I obsess over. First off, they should be in the same spots because it makes no sense to change them. Plus, you had the winner in the middle, which is the best spot. Plus that way you had one woman between the two men, which also is the preferred visual. So what gives? Did Troyzan just run in there and steal Sarah’s seat? THESE ARE THE THINGS THAT KEEP ME UP AT NIGHT!

* I am OBSESSED with the fact that Jeff Probst revealed one of Survivor’s most closely guarded secrets — the final Tribal Council tiebreaking procedure. I wrote a whole post about it here, but basically he told us that if there is a tie between two finalists, then the third finalist moves over to the jury and casts the deciding vote. (In this case, had Brad brought Tai instead of Sarah, it would have been a 5-5 tie and Troyzan would have broken it by voting for Brad.) People like myself have been asking Probst about this for years. I guess he got sick of jambronis like me wearing him down so he finally let the cat out of the bag. As a rule, it makes total sense and I dig it. What will be really interesting is to see if this newfound knowledge impacts any future contestants and their strategy in terms of whom to bring to the end of the game, knowing it cold potentially be another vote for or against them.

* As obsessed as I was with the big tiebreaker reveal, I am twice as obsessed with Brad Culpepper’s new mustache.

* Brad also did a good job of owning his terrible behavior down the stretch when it came to Tai. “I obviously needed a Snickers out there,” he proclaimed. We really saw a Jekyll-and-Hyde type social game from Brad this time around, but kudos for admitting his mistakes. And kudos to Sarah for saying she modeled her game after Tony’s. I love that he was calling her at 5:30 a.m. every morning to get her hyped up, because of course he was.

* It’s really nice to see Zeke thriving in the wake of that terrible public outing. He spoke about being scared about what would happen once the episode aired but said that “what this experience has shown me is I have so much love in my life… I have never felt as loved as I do right now.” That’s awesome. (It was also nice of him to give a shout-out to my boy Josh Wigler!) I’m also glad to see Jeff Varner doing okay in what had to be a personally devastating time for him. Look, anyone who read my recap of that episode knows how I feel about what Jeff did. But I don’t want the guy to suffer for all eternity because of it. I did notice that Zeke and Varner did not interact at all during that segment. I’m not sure if that was a request from Zeke, a decision by Probst, or just the way it ended up happening, but I do plan to ask the host about it, and we’ll see what he says in our finale/reunion Q&A.

* There were three Cochran cutaway shots during the Reunion, in case you were counting. Clearly, I was.

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Okay, I think I’ve rambled for long enough at this point. In closing, I’d like to thank you all for hanging out with me for another season of Survivor recapping. I spend way too much time writing these things, and I know that forces you to spend way too much time reading them… unless you just skim through it to try to win a pre-game vote or check out the exclusive deleted scene or something. But I really appreciate you taking that time and also thank you for your kind comments along the way. They are much appreciated and make the whole thing worthwhile.

And to continue to make it worthwhile for you, we have lots of more goodies. Like that aforementioned deleted scene above, as well as Jeff Probst sharing some inside intel on next season. The Hostmaster General will also weigh in shortly by answering some finale/reunion burning questions, and we will be speaking to the entire final six Thursday morning at 9 a.m. ET on EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, Channel 105), and you can check those out later on EW.com as well. Of course, you can always follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for all the updates.

And that will do for me. Thanks again for playing along. Have a great summer, and I will see you in September with a huge, overflowing season 35 scoop of the crispy!