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.
I really enjoyed Survivor tonight. It had everything you'd want in an episode: big egos, big blindsides and music orchestration that rivals even the most dramatic symphonies.
Early merge is an interesting time in the game, where players start to feel confident. You've made it to the fun part of the game. You've spent time with your island castmates and solidified bonds. You even start to envision yourself at the end. Who says it can't be you? Who says this story doesn't end with you jumping into a pile of money?
This episode is all about the downfalls of power and who is really making the decisions. Let's get this coconut party started.
Return From Tribal: So much shade, it's straight up nighttime
I've talked about this again and again, but returning from tribal is always awkward. People feel especially heated post-tribal as truths have often revealed themselves. Andrea Boehlke and Zeke Smith having it out in front of the tribe is actually quite normal. Sure, sly etiquette is usually the name of the game. But sleep-deprived, hungry and angry people aren't always private with their beef. Andrea and Zeke try, but they don't work out their differences. Shade is thrown and tossed and tripped on.
This whole episode is as shiny as a newly polished police badge for Officer Sarah Lacina. She clearly has a personal relationship with each player. Every single person on the beach thinks Sarah is with them and considers her a loyal ally to possibly go to the end with.
Sarah takes Zeke aside and tells him she's sorry she couldn't include him in the vote. However, she wants to work with him. Her relationship with him (and every person) is so deep that he isn't angry and believes her.
Meanwhile, Debbie Wanner proclaims that the lines (alliances) are drawn in concrete now. But this is never the case...
Reward Challenge: I wish Survivor music could narrate my life
A schoolyard pick determines the teams. Schoolyard picks (as I know) are tricky: You want to choose a winning team, but you also want to keep your allies close.
Michaela Bradshaw is left out of the pick. I know Michaela to be a strong physical competitor and was surprised she wasn't chosen. I wasn't surprised that she didn't keep her feelings to herself. A theme in her story this season has been learning to control her emotions, which she does poorly here. Then again, she did just miss out on a bunch of food.
There are some funny moments, like Aubry Bracco's twist jump off a platform and Troyzan Robertson losing his pants. But then things get emotional.
Cirie Fields is in many ways in her element on the island. She's smart, strategic and level-headed. In this challenge she struggles to get over a balance beam that plays to her physical weakness. The music swells as she faces her obstacle. Sarah, once again demonstrating her great personal relationships, swims out to help her.
Brad Culpepper and his troops have won the challenge.
I feel for Cirie in this moment because challenges are often overwhelming. At camp, a small camera crew follows you around. In a challenge, there is a wall of cameras and all eyes on you. She must have felt the pressure. The group encourages her as the music continues to orchestrate Cirie's emotional state. In a season marked with fighting and some nastiness, the camaraderie of this moment is beautiful. Cirie crosses the balance beam to prove to herself that she can.
Meanwhile, Sarah spots a secret advantage by the sit-out bench that Michaela was too angry to see. She grabs it on the way home.
Back at Camp: The losers
Cirie thanks the group for being there for her. She wants to show her kids that they should never give up. The personal stories have always been what Survivor is truly about, and hearing what the game has given this legendary player feels like an important moment. But being vulnerable on the island is a double edged sword: It can bond you with your tribemates and also make you impossible to sit with at the end.
Sarah opens her "secret advantage," which she found with her cop eye. She can spot an expired registration tag and she can spot an advantage. The advantage turns out to be a vote steal. Not only does that take away a vote from someone else, but it also gives you an extra vote. Michaela, who sat next to the advantage all challenge, could have really used it. Will Sarah use it right? Only time will tell.
Eating Food: The winners
Ah, what food and power will do to the Survivor ego.
Brad has done an excellent job managing his troops. He seems to see the game in a clear way and reinforces this by saying his team picks were strategic. This is where the talk of the "power six" comes into play. The power six feel in control: Sierra Dawn-Thomas, Troyzan, Brad, Debbie, Tai and Sarah.
Sarah is literally trusted by everyone — the power on top and those on the bottom. I'm curious to see if she can maintain her hold on playing everyone, or if this will eventually be called out once truths are revealed at tribal.
The winners munch and chat and gossip. Sierra is happy to learn that the bottom isn't unified. Andrea is happy to have an audience that will groan about Zeke with her. Aubry is happy to have coleslaw.
Immunity Challenge: This is my necklace
Each player has to spell out immunity with blocks balanced on a wooden paddle. It's a very high-stakes, don't-drop-your-blocks type of situation.
Troyzan wins immunity, to the cheers of his "power six" alliance members.
It's clear who is rooting for who — and who is rooting against who.
Pre-Tribal: Promises and game moves
The politics of this vote have been discussed, but here is the basic breakdown again: Brad, Debbie, Troyzan, Tai and Sierra are on one side, believing they hold all the power. Aubry, Zeke, Andrea, Michaela and Cirie are on the other side, scrambling on the bottom. Then, of course, there is Sarah, who is playing both sides.
The people in power believe they have the numbers because they think they have Sarah, who did just vote with them. The people on the bottom think they have a chance because they feel close to Sarah and think that she is potentially on the bottom of the "power six." Like everything else in this episode, it's all about Sarah.
The power six huddle together and decide on Andrea as the real vote and Michaela as the fake vote. I love how Andrea saw through the fake vote so quickly — this is her third time playing, after all.
The bottom have to get their shit together before they can start functioning as a unit. Andrea and Zeke, who have had beef all episode, are forced to vote together.
There are some moments that I recognized, having played before: Sarah realizes she may be on the bottom of the pecking order in the power six alliance. Often in a big alliance, you can feel who's in charge based on who decides what torch will be snuffed that night. She's included in the huddle, but doesn't have a loud voice in it.
Aubry has to hold it together while Debbie lies to her. She then uses that information to put Debbie's name on the block. Sometimes people underestimate you. In the real world, it's easy to call this out, but on an island you have to hold tight until you can strike. Andrea finally comments on the cockiness of the power six. It's fun to watch people start humble and go mad with power. That's what island games are all about.
Tribal: A blindside!
Smirks and unity turn into shock for the power six. Sarah flips her vote and the pretty jury members watch. It's Debbie who ultimately gets snuffed — and the deck reshuffles!
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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.