Hannah Shapiro was a runner-up on Survivor season 33: Millennials vs. Gen X. She'll be recapping Survivor season 34: Game Changers throughout the season. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahLilNessen.
The politics of power on Survivor
I've been a fan of Survivor for over 10 years now. I remember when I was 14 years old I used to throw Survivor parties with my friend Taylor. We would mash up Oreos and put in gummy worms. That's what we would eat when the tribes were starving. Then, when a tribe won a reward challenge, we would munch on the fancy food we ordered. Survivor drew me in. I was fascinated by the social politics, the characters and the storytelling. As an awkward, unpopular 14-year-old, I loved the idea that those in power didn't hold power forever.
That's the theme of episode three: shifting power dynamics. Survivor is a game of power: the high of having power, the liberation of fighting for some and the fall from a seat of glory.
Mana tribe: Actions speak louder than words
The Mana tribe returns from tribal, having just voted out Caleb Reynolds. Returning from tribal council can be different depending on the vote. Sometimes it's awkward, sometimes it's joyful, sometimes it's explosive and sometimes it's just reaffirming. After voting as a unified block, Mana comes together stronger than ever.
After episode two of Game Changers, I defended Tai Trang for making the difficult decision to vote out his friend. Tai returns to camp having shown his core alliance — Brad Culpepper, Sierra Dawn-Thomas and Debbie Wanner — that he is with them. Brad points out that "actions speak louder than words." This was my defense of Tai last week. The only way to prove trust with a group is to vote with them. Is Tai playing perfectly? Not by any means. Will Tai regret losing a friend in the game? Potentially. But did Tai make a decision and reap the benefits of it this episode? Completely. Tai continues to build trust with his core alliance.
But the theme of episode three is power — who has it, who doesn't and how this can change in the blink of Jeff Probst's eye. Debbie narrates that Hali Ford is next to go if they lose. Hali has no options. Debbie's throne of power is impressive but a statement of power usually precedes a fall.
Reward challenge: Damn, Mr. Culpepper
It's wild to me that only two people from each Game Changers tribe played in this challenge. It's a chance to be a hero or fall short. One might think contestants take reward challenges lightly since no one is eliminated as a result. But trust me, you do not want to be the reason that people are hungry.
I know Mana only got second place in the challenge, but holy moly. Brad Culpepper did an excellent job at coming from behind. As someone not quite sports inclined, watching an ex-professional athlete compete is impressive. Brad knocks down the blocks as if he came out of the womb ready to play in this challenge.
Nuku wins the full coffee and cookie spread, Brad wins Mana a pitcher of iced coffee and Tavua goes back to camp with stomachs growling. Even though Ozzy Lusth left hungry, his challenge braids were adorable. And that's what counts.
Tavua: Stingray delight
Ozzy is a staple of Survivor. I started my Survivor journey watching season 13, Survivor: Cook Islands. Ozzy made it to the end and almost won. Ozzy was my first Survivor crush, despite the fact that I'm generally more attracted to the nerdier characters, and Ozzy is still in shape and fishing ready on his fourth season.
Ozzy catches a stingray in episode three. Fun fact: Kenneth Cole and I caught a stingray on day 38 of Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X. Ken stabbed it, then I held the spear in. I felt like a true Survivor warrior!
Nuku: Bros vs. the queen
Tony Vlachos is famous for saying, "You don't move forward with an alliance of numbers. You move forward with an alliance of comfort — who you're happy to be around."
This is exactly what starts to happen at Nuku. Despite the fact that J.T. is clearly on the bottom of the numbers, J.T. and Malcolm gravitate towards each other. Both of them are challenge performers, and also bros who like to high-five while shirtless. They want to target the person everyone seems to want to target: Sandra Diaz-Twine, the queen.
Sandra has been playing a game without fear or anxiety. Maybe you become a calmer person when you win twice. Even if she doesn't always hold the power immediately, she projects power until she gets it. What a badass.
Immunity Challenge: Twist!
Probst is a fantastic host for many reasons. He is an orchestra conductor at tribal, has the best poker face in the business and now has a hand in every aspect of a Survivor season. Another reason to love Probst? He's got a sense of humor. Probst announces the twist of the episode with a smile and a sly: "By the way."
The twist of the challenge is what shakes up the power on each tribe. Two tribes will go to tribal council. And, as Probst announces post-challenge, they will go to tribal together. This changes everything! But we'll get to that.
The challenge is a classic: a blindfold challenge with a maze finish. Some highlights are Zeke shouting, "Oh, balls," as he is doused with water while blindfolded, and Malcolm tripping and falling while running sans blindfold. Jeff Probst shouts, "Malcolm with a big fall." Ah, foreshadowing.
Despite Jeff Varner telling his tribe that they're way ahead, it comes down to a showdown between Varner and Andrea Boehlke. Andrea pulls out the win. As Varner literally weeps, Tavua celebrates.
Probst explains that both tribals will go as a group to tribal and vote one person out together. Aubry Bracco, whose narration and one-liners remind me why it's a pleasure to watch her on Survivor, predicts that the tribal will be unpredictable — and it is.
Nuku: J.T. goes from the bottom to the top
Here we go, people. Power starts to flip-flop at this point. While Malcolm lets us know it's simple on paper, it's not even that simple on paper. So let me break it down for you.
Nuku has six people and Mana has five people. So on the one hand, all six Nuku could vote together and take out a Mana. But here's where it gets tricky. These are not unified tribes. As established last episode, J.T. is the only original member of his own tribe and thus on the bottom. So he could flip and give Mana the numbers. Or Hali could flip, on the bottom of Mana, and reaffirm Nuku's numbers. Also, idols can mess everything up.
In a game where everyone was ready to target each other, unification is now the only way to survive. J.T., who was out of luck and on the bottom, now finds himself in a position to make a move. For a Survivor geek, this is a fun episode. For a casual fan at home, do your best to keep up.
Mana: Cobras and idols
Hali has had a big voice in this premerge Survivor game. Hali, who Debbie proclaimed was next to go, is now in a position of power. Similar to J.T., Hali could change it up. This is the magic of Survivor. In Survivor, it is not about always having the numbers, but keeping a steady head until you can claim power. That is what Hali has done in episode three.
Tai also deserves a high five this episode. Known for finding idols in season 32, Survivor: Kao Rong, he finds an idol this season too. Sierra notices something is up and pushes Tai to share. Tai speaks up, says he found an idol and wants to use it for the group. By doing this, Tai builds trust with his allies once again. While an idol is nice, trust is better in the long run.
Tribal: A 12-minute tribal
Tribal council clocked in at 12 minutes long tonight. To put that into perspective, tribal councils usually air for about four to seven minutes. Of course, the reality of tribal council is much different than what you see on TV. Tribal council lasts hours. Probst conducts them with mastery, but the reality is you are sitting on an uncomfortable stump of wood for multiple hours, wondering if you're getting your torch snuffed.
Tribal council is a game. Probst peppers you with questions and you must give him enough to satisfy him, but not enough to reveal the true plan. Probst will literally call you out if he thinks your answer is not enough. As a contestant, keeping track of the various stories while keeping nerves in check is a must.
This tribal was one for the books. It's the kind of tribal that makes me fall in love with the show all over again. We've seen some history-making tribal councils in past seasons: Parvati Shallow and her two idols, Tyson Apostol voting himself out of the game, rock draws and shouting matches. Heck, I've been a part of some very memorable tribals. In the council where my name tied with Zeke, the group of us didn't stop whispering and pointing fingers the whole time.
The episode three tribal instantly makes the Survivor history books. Guns are pointed everywhere, talks of threats and targets pepper the early conversation. Then J.T. literally stands up to talk to Brad Culpepper and chaos ensues. So much chaos that Probst himself is left gawking at the madness. People huddle up with their tribe and run around to old allies. Whispers of changing plans are plentiful. And nobody wants to tie, thanks to the new rock rule.
Aubry's one-liners at this tribal are golden. She states, "I feel like I showed up at the wrong wedding." And, "It's like a bunch of carrier pigeons were going back and forth."
In the madness, a few important things happen. J.T. tells Brad where the majority vote is going: Sierra. Hali tries to get the other tribe to go for Brad, but they still aim their guns at Sierra. It's unclear if J.T. expects the minority vote to be Sandra, his original target. The group decides it's time to vote, despite Hali hilariously stating, "I didn't consent." It's a warning that the majority may no longer be in control. She needed more time to switch the vote.
Who gets sent home in Survivor: Game Changers episode three?
After the votes are cast, Tai, with J.T.'s information and Brad and Sierra's encouragement, plays the idol for Sierra. Sierra, who had the most votes, becomes immune. The minority tribe number gains the power thanks to the idol. Despite seeming like Sandra was the aim for the vote, Malcolm was actually their target. He goes home in the most chaotic, thrilling tribal of the season so far.
I believe they went for Malcolm over Sandra because, while both are threats, voting out Malcolm weakens their opposition physically. And this may pay off.
Did you follow all that? Basically, it's chaos, and Malcolm is the victim of the chaos.
More Survivor news, predictions and recaps
Mic has ongoing Survivor coverage. Be sure to check out Hannah's recap of the Game Changers premiere, as well as details about the filming location for season 34. You can follow our main Survivor hub here.