“Can I have that back, please?”

Image: CBS Entertainment

Survivor: Game Changers brought 20 past players back for another shot at winning the game. Before we discuss this season’s highs and lows, I would like to draw its title into question, because it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it.

This cast is purported to be full of game-changing strategists and iconic players, and there certainly are a few: Sandra, because duh; Tony, sure, with his aggressive gameplay that no one could stop; (please know that it’s taking time to conjure a third example) Ciera, (in)famous for voting out her own mother in Blood vs Water. More often than not, though, the cast didn’t really back up such a big title. Hali seems quite nice, and I don’t mean to pick on her alone, but I couldn’t have remembered what season she was on if you narrowed it down to two for me. And I love this show! Overall, the “Game Changers” theme is just puzzling. It doesn’t really apply to three-quarters of the cast (no shade), so it doesn’t make sense why production would go so far out on a limb to try to sell it to us. And boy, do they try. Every episode, someone says “I’m a game-changer so I need to make a big move!” or “This blindside could potentially change the game forever.” It’s like when your friend says they have a really funny joke to tell you: no no matter how good the joke is, your expectations will almost never be met, because you’ve heard funnier. So you pretend to laugh, because you don’t want to be rude. Then you move on with your day.

I’ve been critical of this season out of the gate, but it’s not that bad. Just misleading. There are some very likable castaways this season, truth be told. Maybe it should have been named “Survivor: Fan Favorites” (not to be confused with Fan vs Favorites (1 or 2)), but that’s neither here nor there. Overall, this cast has lots of great personalities, and that was a strength for sure. Players from all eras of the show make appearances here, from Cirie and Sandra to Zeke and Michaela. And, for the most part, everyone came to play. As annoying as it was, the “I’m a Game-Changer” attitude encouraged players this season to make moves and take risks.

Sarah in particular had some great moments. Pretending to be sad when Sierra was voted off to ensure she received her willed legacy advantage was a standout scene. And loaning the steal-a-vote to Cirie, saying casually “Can I have that back?” when Cirie failed to read the fine print (“This advantage is non-transferable”) and attempted to play the advantage at tribal council? I gasped through a smile. Amazing. I’ll touch more on her legacy as a winner at the end, and talk about her odds of winning Survivor: Winners at War this spring.

Brad Culpepper also shined this season. While some arrogance and condescension comes through toward the end of the game, it definitely felt more reserved than his time on season 27, Blood vs Water. Watching him win 5 immunity challenges was incredible. It doesn’t matter how athletic you are on Survivor, because there is a wide variety of possible challenges you’ll face. These challenges often require balance, endurance, precision, agility, and puzzle-solving abilities. No amount of time in major-league baseball can really prepare you for them. I say this in support of Brad’s accomplishment, which shouldn’t be written off as “He was a professional athlete!” Of the last 6 immunity challenges this season, Brad won 5. Talk about taking the fate of your game into your own hands. I wouldn’t say Culpepper deserved to win because of his challenge wins, but it certainly helped build his 2nd-place case to the jury. For the last quarter of the game, Brad Culpepper was unstoppable.

Image: CBS Entertainment

There were a couple of historic moments this season, but one unfortunately stands out as that episode. At the 7th tribal council this season, Jeff Varner was desperate for footing in the game and targeted tribe-mate Zeke, asking “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?” In an out-of-touch move to paint Zeke as a liar, Varner instantly cemented himself in the Survivor Hall of Shame. Zeke could barely speak a word. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. In response to this tactic, Zeke and Varner’s tribe-mates agreed to send Varner home without a vote. Watching this season after Island of the Idols, it’s a bit strange that Jeff Probst was on the ball about kicking Varner to the curb without a formal vote. In Island of the Idols, Dan’s infamous tribal council was not the one that sent him home (that wouldn’t happen for several more episodes, all the way at final 6, via production intervention). Perhaps the unanimously negative reaction to Varner’s strategy was enough to seal the deal. In contrast, several of Dan’s tribe-mates denied that he had done anything wrong, complicating the scenario for Jeff Probst, the torch-snuffer of the series. The Survivor team did its best to smooth things over by the finale, where Varner apologized to Zeke again. But Zeke “[doesn’t] want to be the trans Survivor player, just Zeke the Survivor player,” and you could tell it was uncomfortable to discuss the incident even at the end of the season.

The aesthetic of Survivor: Game Changers – defined by 18th century shipwrecks, compasses, maps, etc. – felt more memorable than average. Zeke even pointed it out during the final tribal council, saying, with a gesture to the surroundings, that Sarah was steering the ship all the way through the game. I can distinctly remember the string music playing as the players entered tribal council every episode. Those who create memorable music and beautiful sets deserve a mention in any good season review.

With 3 Game Changers contestants returning for Survivor: Winners at War next season, we have an opportunity to speculate on their performance based on their showings this time around. Tony failed to dispel the fear around him, and players continue to distrust him after watching his dominant game in Cagayan. Sandra, the only two-time winner, failed to make it much further. I have serious doubts that she will make it to the merge in season 40, unless she can manage to lay low in the company of 19 other winners. Sarah played a memorably good game in Game Changers, but she doesn’t have the legendary status of, say, Parvati. I think this will work to Sarah’s advantage, and I could actually see her making it to the merge and beyond in Winners at War.

I don’t know what it is about Sarah, but I quite like her. Maybe it’s her no-BS attitude or her impressive situational awareness. Who knows? She was barely a factor in Cagayan, then turned around and reversed all her past mistakes to win her second time around. She can comfortably lie when she needs to, but comes across as someone you can trust (right, Sierra?). She isn’t going to trigger anyone’s threat detectors, which could be a great benefit. On the flip side, she could fall victim to the chaos of the game, as she did in a mega-blindside in Cagayan (#ChaosKass). It’s easy to see Sarah forming allies and avoiding crosshairs in the first half of the game. But it’s going to take some luck to overcome 19 other badass Survivor veterans for the win.

Sarah Lacina laughing her way to the win. Image: CBS Entertainment

Thanks for reading my review of Survivor: Game Changers! Stick around for more great Survivor discussions, as well as weekly coverage of Survivor: Winners at War, starting February 12th!