The Survivor: Game Changers season 34 finale is here, and it promises to be a frenzy of idols and legacy advantages, with plenty of backstabbing, betrayal and disappointment. I'm filling in for our usual Survivor recapper, Millennials vs. Gen X alum Hannah Shapiro. So say it with me, in the hearty timbre of a delighted, rain-soaked Jeff Probst: Come on in, guys!
Here's where we stand going into the finale. Brad Culpepper, who used to command the dominant alliance, is now left with Troyzan Robertson and Tai Trang. Tai is also tied to Aubry Bracco, although earlier, she talked about voting him out. Then there's four-time player Cirie Fields, who was connected to Sarah Lacina — until she stole her advantage in the last tribal council.
Miraculously, there are four idols in play right now. Tai has two idols, Troyzan has one and Sarah has a legacy advantage that's … also an idol. Here's where it gets complicated: Sarah has to use her idol with six remaining players, but Troyzan and Tai can use theirs at six or five. So in the next two votes, expect to see these idols make a huge impact.
In the last episode, Michaela Bradshaw was voted out after Cirie tried to use Sarah's legacy advantage — but it backfired; the advantage was non-transferable.
Sarah says she targeted Michaela because she was Cirie's "right-hand man," and she was pissed Cirie tried to use her advantage without telling her. Cirie tells Sarah she was using it to save her, but Sarah isn't having it. Sarah snaps at Tai, the "rat" who floated her name.
Brad is figuring out if he can trust Tai. He knows Tai has at least one idol, and he hints that he'd like to use Tai's idol for himself and vote out Tai with it. Sneaky.
First immunity and reward
This challenge is a good old-fashioned maze, obstacle course and puzzle that involves grabbing bags, falling down nets and carrying bags around. Troy reveals he's colorblind, which is why he accidentally put a bag at Aubry's station. The puzzle seems easy: It's a compass shape they have to fit different shapes into. Culpepper takes an early lead, even though he'd left pieces in his bag. Just when it looks like Sarah is about to catch up, Brad pulls it out. He wins, guaranteeing him immunity and a place in the final five.
Brad gets to pick two people to eat with him as part of his reward, and he chooses Sarah and his man Troy. His picking Troyzan is obvious, but choosing Sarah says a lot about her reputation: People think of her as loyal and trustworthy; she's everyone's friend and confidant. That's a hard persona to pull off when you're screwing everyone out of a million dollars.
Brad gets back from his nice meal and makes a deal with Tai: They vote for Aubry tonight. Brad asks Tai to give him one idol "to hold." But Brad is too aggressive — you can tell Tai doesn't like his style. It takes more finesse on the island to get people to do what you want.
Tai, sick of getting kicked around, has other plans. He goes to Aubry, with whom he has an existing relationship from Survivor: Kaoh Rong — off-island relationships matter more than we think in the game — and tells her he has two idols and would like to make a move with them. They take the plan to Cirie, and an ominous shot shows Brad in the background, possibly watching them.
First tribal council: Here's where the legacy advantage comes into play
There are a lot of fingers thrown at Tai tonight. He's called a liar: "Buyer beware if you want to do a deal with Tai," Brad says. It seems clear he's dug a hole for himself — but Cirie says "never say never."
Then comes the moment we've all been waiting for: The idols come out.
Tai plays one idol, the blue one, for himself.
He takes out another one, a red one, which he plays for Aubry. Sarah looks surprised.
Sarah then takes out her secret advantage, which she can only play at six.
Last, Troyzan wants to "get on the immunity train." He plays his idol.
Don't forget Culpepper has immunity from the challenge. That means there are five people safe at this tribal. If you've been doing the easy math this whole time, there's only one player remaining who can even receive votes: Cirie.
No one there voted for Cirie! But it's no matter: Cirie becomes the only player to be voted out. "There literally is no other choice," Jeff Probst announces.
There's no way around it: Cirie is sent to the jury. It's been a wild ride this season for Cirie, who's been a fan favorite through four seasons and 11 years, since she first debuted on Survivor: Panama in season 12 and made waves in the infamous "black widow brigade" in season 16.
We cut to the live show, where Cirie walks out onstage to a standing ovation. Teary-eyed, Cirie tells the crowd what an honor it's been. Well deserved. Cirie is a Survivor legend.
Time for another immunity challenge. This one looks hard as heck: They use long spoons to pull a ball through some metallic obstacles. It's no contest: Culpepper, the ex-NFL star, wins. It's his fourth individual immunity. He dedicates this one to Monica, his wife (and Survivor alum). He'll be in the final four.
Brad, Sarah and Troy want Aubry out. Troyzan thinks Tai will be easier to beat in a final three.
Aubry makes her case to Sarah and Tai: If Brad wins, he's taking Troy no matter what. Troy would take Brad, too. So taking out Troyzan instead of Aubry would open up spots at the end.
"I'm always in the middle," Sarah says. She needs to make sure she can trust Tai. Later, she meets him alone and tells him how betrayed she feels. She asks him who he'd like to vote out, and he answers, "Aubry."
Brad gets Tai alone and takes a very different tack with him. He tries to strong-arm him into voting for Aubry. Tai hates how Brad talks to him: "He has no respect for me."
Tai tells Sarah that Brad told him he has no choice. Sarah, however, is mad Tai is changing his mind at the last minute. Let's see how it plays out.
Second tribal council
Aubry feels she's on the outs. She again makes her case: Brad and Troy will be two of the spots in the final three if one of them, probably Brad, wins immunity tomorrow, in the final challenge. Tai says he's taking that into consideration. (Unlinking a pair is a fair argument. It's why you take out couples. And Brad and Troy are definitely a couple.) Sarah sees the advantages of Aubry's strategy, but she says she's gotta think about who she wants to sit next to in the final three.
The vote: Aubry. It's sad to see her go. Another fan favorite, Aubry was the strategic and quippy underdog who was favored to win season 32, Kaoh Rong, but lost to Michelle Fitzgerald, who had made more friends on the jury.
Aubry exits with grace. "I'm so freaking excited to be on the jury," she tells us. "I'm so excited to watch these psychopaths." Aubry is always great in her commentary, every single time she speaks.
Final immunity challenge
This challenge looks fun: There's a waterslide! Nothing says "we're having a good time starving" like a waterslide (and a fireman's pole). Basically, contestants must untie key bags on a structure. Then they must go down a fireman's pole to the waterslide. Once they've collected all their bags, they work on a puzzle. The puzzle shows the combination to a lock.
Again, it's no contest. Culpepper wins this one, too. That's three in a row, his fifth total. He sounds confident going into the end: "I think I could beat every single one of them," he says.
Brad and Troyzan talk about who's going home. It's an easy choice for him: Tai. "I know that I can beat both Troyzan and Sarah," Brad says, explaining that he's a trial attorney at home and knows how to argue his case. "I'm in control, and Tai is gonna get what he deserves."
That's a bizarre and faulty way of thinking, Brad. The person who betrayed you is exactly the person you want next to you as you plead your case to the jury.
"I have to come up with something," Tai says. He talks with Sarah about the possibility of a forced tie vote that would result in Tai and Troy racing to build a fire to stay in the game. Sarah considers making fire herself — although she might not have to, as Brad seems intent on taking her to the final three. Tai's better pitch might be how good of a game Sarah has played and how she'd be harder to beat than she seems.
Third tribal council
Brad and Troy are feeling cocky. Tai says he and Sarah are on the bottom. He says out loud that if they join forces and vote for Troy, they could force a tie vote. Tai says he gave Brad the idol to buy his trust, but Brad fires back, "Nothing's for free."
It's time to vote. Sadly, there'll be no fire: Tai goes home.
The sun rises on day 39. The final three contestants are alone on the island. Troy is crying — oh, sorry, no, it's the smoke.
Troy tells us about how he's earned everyone's trust in the game and how he hopes to inspire better gameplay "from the inside." That's a nice thought, but he's been pretty invisible throughout the season.
Then they nosh on pancakes and mimosas. Anyone who's chowed down on a delicious breakfast after a hangover must realize how satisfying it is to feast after 39 days of starving.
Sarah says she's made moves others were scared to make. She's made moves she was scared to make, she says. She's a "criminal tonight," and the people on the jury are "police officers," but she hopes they'll reward her honesty.
Brad says he's the biggest game-changer. He's won five immunity challenges. He dragged himself here, he says — and while he doesn't need the money, he desperately wants the win. (If Brad really wants to make a compelling case, maybe he'll announce he's donating every cent to a children's charity?)
Final tribal council
Jeff Probst makes a surprising announcement: They'll be changing the structure of council this year, structuring their cases to the jury in three parts: outwit, outlast and outplay. It's interesting how Probst talks about "outlasting" in terms of selecting a friendly jury rather than merely defeating your rivals. That's what it takes to win, not just get to the end.
Now it's time for the jury to grill the players. Watch how Sarah and Brad both find champions willing to fight for them.
Zeke Smith tells Sarah how badass it is for her to have taken his jacket after blindsiding him.
Andrea Boehlke feels hurt. Sarah tells her her personal relationships are 100% real. "Yeah, I lied," she said, but it put her in this spot in the final three. The jury's reaction is clear: They all feel hurt by Sarah.
Ozzy Lusth will be Brad's champion, he announces, like Bronn defending Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones.
Michaela tells Brad that they all knew Sierra Dawn-Thomas was the brains of the operation, keeping Brad and Troy from running into each other. She challenges Brad to tell her one smart move he made. His answer: blindsiding Malcolm. Michaela then challenges Brad to say something he learned about her. He fumbles.
Debbie Wanner has no respect for Sarah's gameplay, she says. She's throwing in with Brad.
Michaela isn't. She says she doesn't understand the "emotional feeling" people have toward Sarah. She wants to know why people are so upset that she played a good game.
"I'm making moves to basically help my game," Troyzan says, responding to the accusation that he was a passenger, not a driver. "I did things … more sneaky. … I can make moves from the middle or from the bottom just as easy."
Tai asks Brad if he realizes how he talks to people. "Time after time, you say, 'I control you.' … Do you realize how you come across to me?" Hali Ford also grills Brad about how condescending he sounds basically all the time.
Debbie weighs in on Brad's social game: "I understand your testosterone is 100 times the average male. … Love you anyway." (Remember how much Debbie hated Brad in the game?)
Zeke steps up for Sarah again. "Sarah was always directing the right way," he says. It's true: She has, without fail, been on the right side of the vote.
"Brad, the 'outplay' portion goes to you," Ozzy says. Brad played physically, the way Ozzy respects. Brad played to win, so he deserves the money.
Sarah points out the obvious: "Brad is a professional athlete, people."
"I was," he admits. "I'm 47."
Sarah, meanwhile, says she's had to adapt to every situation and act. She tells the jury how she spotted the secret advantage Michaela missed on the sit-out bench during that pivotal challenge. Michaela admits it was a great move: "That's some badass stuff. You used it and sent me home. Brilliant!"
Now they plead their case for outlasting the others.
"You have to strike first in this game," Sarah says. "The reason you guys are there and these two aren't is because I truly believe you guys could have beaten me. I hope you can respect the gameplay and how hard it was to play with 20 people [who are] at such a high caliber. I was the one person here who was in on every vote." This is a great strategy — telling them they're on the jury because they're great players.
Troyzan talks about being a fan of Survivor since Richard Hatch was running around naked. It's an honor to be here tonight, he says. "I'm out!"
It's time to vote for the final time — and the jury seems split.
Who wins Survivor: Game Changers?
Here's the moment we've been waiting for! "Let's not waste any time," Jeff announces live in the studio.
Time to read the votes:
Sarah. That's five votes.
And the winner is... Sarah!
Check out Hannah Shapiro's breakdown of Sarah's game and how she pulled it off. Meanwhile, let's talk about the live show — and Brad's mustache.
The live show
Brad says he feels terrible about how he treated Tai. He picks him up and kisses him on the mouth.
Brad should feel terrible — he would probably have won if he had picked Tai instead of Sarah.
Jeff reveals what would happen if there'd been a tie vote for the sole survivor: The one remaining contestant — in this case, Troyzan — would have the tiebreaker vote.
Next, we knew this was coming: It's time to talk about the moment Jeff Varner outed Zeke Smith as transgender, a scene Jeff calls a "cultural milestone." "Everyone agrees on how amazing Zeke was in the moment," he adds, asking Zeke to tell us what it was like.
"I didn't know what was going to happen to my world," Zeke says, but the biggest moment for him was realizing how much love he has in his life. He reveals that when he transitioned, he became depressed and almost failed out of Harvard, and he started watching Survivor as an escape. He knew he had to go play, and he found "courage and boldness" on Millennials vs. Gen X. Zeke talks about his emerging career, writing for the Hollywood Reporter and partnering with GLAAD. "I don't any young trans person to feel they might be in any way limited," he says.
Sarah gets a nice moment too, telling us how her grandma scolded her for voting out Zeke: "'He gave you his jacket!'"
Jeff Varner gets his chance to speak. "I got hit hard," he says, while acknowledging that "the real victim is Zeke." Varner is proud of how he's owned his mistakes and learned from them. He even got a new job at a real estate firm after getting fired from his old one. (Varner is so proud, in fact, that he steals the final moment of the live show to plug his new book.)
After the commercial break, Jeff Probst roasts Aubry for calling past Survivor winner John Cochran her boyfriend, and hilariously, Aubry turns it right back on Jeff. Jeff loves Cochran. Cochran is his favorite winner. Excellent reverse roast.
Ozzy takes his moment in the spotlight to get political: "We need to make better decisions about how the United States is run!" Jeff can't seem to cut him off fast enough. But this was a political season — its most pivotal moment centered on a Republican police officer supporting a gay, liberal trans man.
What's coming up in season 35
This season's title is going to be made fun of more than Millennials vs. Gen X. It's called Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.