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 mental game of Survivor
There are many ways to play Survivor. The game is not just who can run the fastest, who can swim the farthest or who can solve a puzzle the quickest. While of course these things come into play, the game is much more complicated and, in some ways, more brutal. I played Survivor for 39 days straight. I lasted as long as any contestant can on the American version of the show and I know more than any viewer at home the toll Survivor can take — not just on the body, but also on the mind.
There is a line players walk in Survivor. You decide your moral code out there, how you treat other contestants and how you stay sane. With a returning-player season, contestants walk in with a lot more baggage, turmoil and regret. It's not uncommon in a returning-player season to watch folks unravel, make bigger mistakes and walk the moral line.
Let's get to episode four! Shall we?
Nuku returns from the episode three tribal and J.T. Thomas is in hot water for giving Brad Culpepper the heads up about who they were targeting.
Here's the deal: Tribal council is the only truth-teller. It's where you find out if your allies are lying. Returning from a tribal council, with the truth on the table, can be awkward. I remember coming back from camp after voting out someone and having to sit down on a log next to someone else I had just lied to. They knew I lied, I knew I lied, but we had to both pretend to be hunky-dory — that's Survivor.
I admire Sandra Diaz-Twine. Say what you want about her, she doesn't apologize for being tough and playing hard. As a female player, being unapologetic can be dangerous, but Sandra does it with ease.
Sandra announces that she wants to target J.T. for betraying her core group. With his back against the wall and his butt in hot water, J.T. wakes up in the morning and goes on an idol hunt. An idol is the only thing that if played correctly can help a player save himself. Everyone looks for idols, but desperation often leads to success. J.T., desperate and hungry, finds an idol.
Reward: Huddles and a slide puzzle champ
I really loved this fun PB&J battleground challenge.
A note about PB&J: There was a secret PB&J summit that I missed out on during my season, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X. But I did get to watch the effect of hungry people getting PB&J. A simple sandwich becomes a boost of energy, joy and unparalleled happiness. Never underestimate the feeling of levity and humanness that comes from eating when you haven't in a long time. People who haven't played Survivor will never truly understand why reward challenges can get as heated as they do.
A few challenge highlights include: ball balancing, sand digging and Zeke Smith pulling out a win on a slide puzzle. It all comes down to that puzzle. Good thing Zeke practiced slide puzzles on his phone before going out.
Also, Sierra Dawn Thomas, the professional lasso-er, gets to lasso!
It was fascinating that they aired the huddles. Of course the huddles became a key point in the story; I'm just not used to seeing them on TV. But as a player, huddles are an important part of the challenge. You want to do a part that will highlight your strengths, but the etiquette of nominating yourself is tricky. The politics of camp life are heightened as folks decide who is doing what. The Mana huddle, with Debbie stepping up for the balancing section, later becomes the center of camp controversy.
Tavua gets PB&J, milk and cookies. Nuku gets PB&J. Mana goes back to camp with nothing but heated tempers.
Tavua: Cookies and criminals
Tavua celebrates their win. It's clear what a friendly camp, food and winning can do to a contestant's mental state. Even the music is happier!
Police officer Sarah Lacina gets the bonus points in episode four. In her first season, Sarah's word was her bond. She swore on her badge and meant it. Sarah also lost to the flip-flopping, lying other officer, Tony Vlachos, in season 28. Sarah has said from episode one that her word is no longer her bond, she is playing like a criminal. And the best part is that everyone seems to trust her. Reputation has a large impact on a returning player season. A huge reputation can hurt a player but someone like Sarah can use her reputation of trust to trick her fellow castaways.
Troyzan is also hopeful he won't have to play his idol. He's on the bottom but he still has that magic protection.
Mana: Debbie and Survivor's mental strain
This section was hard for me to watch. Survivor can be such a magical game full of exciting moves and underdog stories. It's also a brutal mental challenge, and Debbie Wanner's breakdown in episode four is the prime example of the mental strain of Survivor.
Debbie gets angry over a perceived lack of being heard and respected. I am not denying that there may be some things we at home are missing. But from what I can tell of episode four, much of her breakdown has to do with her own insecurities, heightened by hunger and a lack of sleep.
I remember an interview deep into the game of my season in which I expressed how difficult it was becoming to control my emotions. In the "real world," sleep, friends and food allow a person to regulate how they express themselves. On Survivor, the longer you play, the more you lose control over the barriers that keep you civil. I cried on Survivor — heck, I even had a nationally televised panic attack — so I empathize with feeling out of control with an audience watching.
With that said, Debbie really loses it. There's no way to get around this. It's uncomfortable to watch and was probably uncomfortable to live. Her other tribemates do their best to stay calm, be caring and not lose their minds, too. The closest Survivor moment it reminded me of was when Brandon Hantz of Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites has a mental breakdown before a challenge and gets taken out of the game. Moments like these are scary and not the fun side of Survivor.
Whatever the strain of the game, there is always a choice in how we conduct ourselves and the decisions we make. Tai Trang uses the free time he has not to yell but to find an idol clue. Go Tai!
Nuku: Sugar shack
Sandra, already a recurring winner, won a season titled Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains — as a villain. By this point in her Survivor career, Sandra fully owns her villain title, and that's clear in episode four.
Camp etiquette is a much larger part of the game than the viewers at home could ever fully appreciate. Yes, Survivor is a game of intense gameplay, manipulation and physical challenges. It's also a game, however, of "surviving" living with a group of strangers in the wilderness. The day-to-day behavior might not always make TV, but it certainly can impact the game. We see this impact at the Nuku beach. J.T. and Aubry are annoyed with Michaela's camp behavior. Sandra picks up on this and elevates their anger through mental manipulation — and eating the sugar.
Then, in a brilliant stroke, Sandra gets J.T. to believe Michaela did it. J.T., already annoyed with Michaela's general attitude, takes the bait and guns for Michaela.
I believe I may have some insight here, having played with Michaela closely on Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X. I love Michaela. When I got out of the game on day 39, I found a note Michaela had left for me after she was voted out. It basically said that she hoped I kicked butt and dominated. Michaela and I were friends on the island and remain buds off the island.
That is to say, I know her game. Michaela tends to express exactly how she feels and doesn't shy away from confrontation. In a game as tricky as Survivor, this can land you in hot water. I played with many versions of Michaela on Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X. On the millennial tribe, she often separated herself and expressed her frustrations openly. It made her a constant target. On Ikabula, our swap tribe, she stepped up, starting the fire and being an enjoyable jokester around camp. I can see how Michaela has found herself in a tricky situation again, even though she technically has the numbers on her side.
Sandra, meanwhile, is playing an aggressive game. She sees the camp breakdown, heightens it through devious methods and makes her move to vote out J.T. — the only other remaining Survivor winner.
Immunity Challenge: Debbie yells and Culpepper closes
This challenge has everything: balance, the pushing of a giant heavy square and a slingshot. But the challenge activities are secondary to the drama.
Debbie yells at Brad Culpepper and her teammates during the challenge. You may think, why is this important? She has already been yelling at them at camp. It's key because she yells at her team in front of everyone. Other players desperately want to know what is happening on the other tribes. Anything spoken, any look even, can be a hint of tribe dynamics. By yelling at her tribe, Debbie sends the message that she is not united with her team. This could play out in future episodes of Game Changers if other tribes pay attention.
Mana wins because Culpepper is badass and slingshots his way to victory. Tavua gets second and is safe. Nuku heads to tribal council.
Nuku: Idol ... at camp
It comes down to a showdown between Michaela and J.T.
Michaela tests fate, saying, "The last time I played, the challenge that got me sent home ended with slingshots, and today it ended with slingshots. But this is Game Changers and the same thing can't really happen to me twice. I hope."
Sandra and Michaela are gunning for J.T. Meanwhile, Aubry and J.T are gunning for Michaela. Varner is the swing vote. That's the basic breakdown.
J.T. has an idol and doesn't play it. This will be the main talk after episode four.
All J.T. has to do is play his idol and he'd find safety another night, regardless of the votes. Idols can make you look and feel like a rockstar... when played correctly. When someone should play an idol and doesn't, however, it leaves a player in an embarrassing predicament. There has been a score of players who got voted out with an idol in their pocket. James Clement even got voted out with two idols in his pocket!
J.T. is so sure the vote is going his way that he doesn't even bring his idol to tribal council. He knew only a few days before that he was in hot water, yet his tribe mates were able to lull him into a false sense of security. His lack of even bringing his idol to tribal is baffling and can only be credited to his tribe mates manipulation, sleep deprivation, hunger and a false sense of confidence. This is the second season of bad idol play for the one-time Survivor winner: Remember, J.T. was cut from Heroes vs. Villains after he took a risk and gave Russell Hantz his idol.
J.T gets voted out, not even with an idol in his pocket, but with an idol back at camp.
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.