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.
Episode six of Survivor: Game Changers — when Jeff Varner went after Zeke Smith at tribal and told everyone that Zeke is trans — left a huge impact on the season and the show. Much of the rest of the season will be played out in the shadow of this event. It's hard to move forward after the heartbreaking events of last tribal. But the game didn't end with the last tribal council, and so we continue onward. The conversations episode six spurred should and will continue — and so will the island gameplay.
Nuku: The question of forgiveness
Nuku returns to camp after episode six's devastating tribal council. Sarah Lacina and Tai Trang have a conversation about forgiveness regarding Jeff Varner. I think their perspectives have a valid place. Sarah's unwillingness to immediately forgive is valid; she's grown close to Zeke and watched the events unfold first-hand.
The outpour of love for Zeke over the last week has been heartwarming. He is one of the most intelligent, empathetic and strong people I know. To see people recognize this is amazing. It is heartening to see that very few have questioned why Zeke didn't choose to share that piece of himself. Most understand that the decision is his to talk about when, how and if he wants.
Zeke eloquently closes off what happened during tribal.
"One of the reasons I didn't tell people is that I sort of wanted people to see me as me, as myself," he says. "Often in my life when I tell people I'm trans, that's sort of what they're interested in and everything else about me sort of gets pushed to the wayside. But Survivor, it makes you tough, it makes you resilient and it makes you adaptable. And I think I had all those qualities before but they've certainly been strengthened and grown. And I think I was able to be a little more brave and a little bolder. To help others and to also get over my own fears. Get over my own, you know, issues and complexes and insecurities with being transgender."
Not everyone would continue in the game after what happened. Not only does Zeke continue, he does so with chutzpah.
Merge time: a twist!
The feeling of relief that I made it to the merge, combined with the sudden abundance of food, is one I'll never forget. It's the feeling of pride to have made it to the golden, fun level of the game combined with nourishment. Nothing like it.
The twist this season is that before the tribes merge, one person from each tribe must sacrifice the meal so that everyone can eat. As a Survivor player, I hate this twist. I want to see all the hungry people eat. Not only does the sacrifice of food hurt your body, it also adds a weird target to your back. It's a lose-lose situation other than perhaps some brownie points you don't need this early in the merge game. Brad Culpepper and Tai are the good humans who don't eat.
I like Zeke's break of the fourth wall in talking about Brad and his edit. Brad's first season did not paint him in a positive light. This season he wants to win but he also wants redemption. Zeke points out that Brad's image is on the line.
Debbie Wanner also gets fake-drunk, which is hilarious. She moons Tai and talks about the ability to make moves if people perceive her as goofy. I can't tell how much of her goof is an act. Her outbursts seem out of control, then strategic, depending on the day.
Zeke's fireside chat
While the game is quickly making its way back to the forefront, Zeke must address the events of the episode six tribal. I think Zeke handles this really well. He calmly explains what happened, doesn't throw accusations or heat around, then ties it into the shared experience of Survivor growth. Addressing what happened first-hand is necessary; if people want to talk to him about it they can. It would have been talked about either way, but this way Zeke has some control over the narrative to the group.
Again, this moment reminds me — and should remind everyone at home — what Zeke is dealing with now as he plays. We watch people break under the conditions of Survivor. Zeke has the added burden of the events that transpired during the episode-six tribal.
Gameplay of the first merge vote
Things get fun at the merge — it's as simple and as complicated as that. Each vote isn't just about numbers and surviving, but about setting up future votes. Votes can be a domino effect: People might get voted out as casualties of another target.
There's a fight for power at the merge. While original Nuku have the numbers over original Mana 9-4, there are large schisms within the Mana numbers. Brad has been a bit of a general ringleader all season and has been gathering troops. But there is also the strong four of Cirie Fields, Zeke, Sarah and Andrea Boehlke fighting for control. The game is full of moving pieces!
Cirie's mastery of the game shows here at the Game Changer's merge. The targets become Hali Ford and Michaela Bradshaw. Both are original Mana who are having trouble getting in with original Nuku. Sierra Dawn-Thomas talks a lot about taking control and targeting Michaela. Cirie sees the playing field clearly and decides which of the folks on the chopping block benefit her the most. Then with the subtle mastery of a pro and Zeke's help, Cirie changes the vote from Michaela to Hali.
Michaela is struggling with controlling her attitude and it's causing her name to fly around at almost every vote. Cirie sees Michaela as an asset to her, but also as a younger version of herself. In a game where perception is everything, race and gender become part of that perception much like in the real world. Michaela and Cirie working together as strong women of color is beautiful and important in a season of considerable ugliness.
Challenge: Enduring pain
Andrea balances a block on her head for a very long time and wins individual immunity. She's the first woman to win this particular individual challenge. Congrats!
Maku Maku madness
First of all, since I haven't said it already, Maku Maku sounds like a sushi roll. A tasty sushi roll that I would order.
Anyways, I've hopefully set up most of the shifting dynamics. This vote is a set-up for other votes, in a war between competing alliances. On Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, there was a similar situation for our first vote. Michelle Schubert became the casualty of other targets in a war of numbers and alliances.
Sierra throws Zeke's name out as the fake vote. She and Debbie discuss the fact that nobody should want to sit at the end with him because of his "story." Of the many reasons that the previous episode was horrible, this is a certainly a smaller one. But it's still something. Last week's tribal put Zeke in the position of being undesirable as an end buddy. And that's a tricky spot to be in.
Tribal: "Blindfolded in a room full of guns"
The folks on the bottom — Hali and Michaela — know they are on the bottom. Hali has the line of the night, saying she feels like she is "blindfolded in a room full of people holding rifles." I really enjoy Hali this season. She's smart, delightful and self-aware when she is and isn't in control.
There is also some idol talk. Some folks thinks Hali has one. She insists they can strip-search her if anyone would man up and ask.
Hali the Cobra loses her flame when the votes are read. She will be missed. At least she's on the jury!
Cirie is especially brilliant all episode. She votes for Michaela to cover her tracks and gain her trust.
This is a double episode and a double recap, folks!
Maku Maku: After the first vote
Michaela and Cirie solidify their new alliance over the fire. Michaela vocalizes that there is a level of trust because both her and Cirie are black American females. Often similarities lead to the strongest bonds and alliances.
Aubry Bracco walks behind Cirie and Zeke as they walk down the path. Aubry seems to be one of the few original Mana finding their way into some larger alliances. Aubry says that she's in the middle of a "big Italian-family brawl." Her humor and perceptiveness of the game is why I love watching her play, even when she doesn't have the power.
There are so many people and so many moving pieces. This is the nature of the early merge game. Zeke says his feeling is that it's better to make a move too early and regret it than to never get to make a move. He sees two of his allies as big threats: Andrea and Cirie.
Reward Challenge: Tears and streaking
A friendly reminder to those who have never starved on an island: Reward challenges feel monumental, not just a silly game for food. Food can change your body and help you see and feel clearly.
Zeke pulls out the win on a fish puzzle and sends his team on the Marshall's-sponsored reward. Good subtle advertising!
The team that loses are left feeling weak and hungry. They bond in the despair as Cirie shares personal stories about her kids. Here's the thing: Losers bond through hardships in Survivor. Winners bond through celebration. Both situations must be utilized.
The winning team gets burgers (veggie burgers are an option), soft Marshall's towels and showers. Tai streaking reminds me of how joyful feeling food brings on Survivor. You want to sing and dance and shout.
Zeke talks to Debbie and Tai about how Andrea didn't want to include them on the potential Sierra vote — which is true. He wants to bring in Debbie and Tai for his Andrea vote idea. Unfortunately, Survivor has many layers. People out on islands don't know what to believe, and often have their own game plans. People aren't chess pieces. Zeke may see the game clearly, but he has trouble getting the people he needs onboard to follow his Andrea plan.
Classic survivor challenge
This is a classic hold-onto-the-pole Survivor challenge. Ozzy has won it twice (and never lost), so he is the favorite, but after nearly two hours, Tai ultimately takes the win!
Highlights include bloody legs, a big fall from Andrea and Tai mounting Ozzy to kiss him when Ozzy collapses post-challenge.
Pre-Tribal: perception vs. reality
There are a few players taking advantage of the fact that the perception of them doesn't match the reality. The obvious example of this is Debbie, who leads with her kooky side, while pulling together a vote against Ozzy. Sarah too, sees the game clearly and is ready to make a move. Yet everyone trusts her because she is "Officer Sarah." Tsk tsk, folks.
Here are the moving parts of the vote: Zeke tries to go after Andrea. Andrea catches wind and goes after Zeke. Debbie uses the chaos (and her extra vote) to target Ozzy. And Zeke gets told to write down Aubry. If it feels confusing, that's because it is.
As someone who was occasionally called a "flipper" on my season, I find the personal anger of the episode interesting. Flipping is a matter of perspective and timing. You can only sit next to two people at the end, hopefully people you can beat. If you make a move at the right time (gender, race and many other factors also come into play), it is seen as a game move. If you make a move too early, it is seen as flipping. Here, Andrea feels personally attacked and sees Zeke as a flipper for targeting her. Had he gone after his ally later, who knows what might have happened.
Tribal: A bunch of single people looking to hook up
This tribal feels chaotic and disjointed. The fact that four names were written down proves it really was.
Sarah has a great line saying it feels like, "a bunch of single people ready to hook up." And she would love to go on some dates.
Zeke gets heat for being smart and targeting his allies early. Ozzy gets heat for being a challenge threat. Sierra gets a vote for her hammock comfort power spot. And Aubry gets a vote because she's too pretty for islands. Just kidding, I have no idea why Aubry gets a vote.
Ozzy makes an old school pitch to keep him around so everyone doesn't starve and die. Still, Ozzy gets the majority of votes and Debbie's extra vote. Ozzy loses his flame, and the tribe loses their fish.
Next time on Survivor... Everyone is angry in a season in which everyone gets angry. Sigh.
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