Each week in Lessons in Survivor History, Catherine Lucas revisits another season to compare gameplay and draw from the lessons that have been learned.
Lessons in Survivor History: There is a Line.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was writing a blog recapping everyone’s favourite moment of season 30, Survivor: Worlds Apart- Will Simms verbally attacking Shirin Oskooi. I can vividly remember how ugly that scene was and how depressing it was to blog about it. For me, that scene soured the way that I felt about Survivor for a while. Because as Will was telling Shirin that she had no soul and nobody loved her, the rest of Shirin’s tribe stood watching. And they stood in silence. Shirin had no allies left in the game. She had no power. And so there was no in-game benefit to defending her. Eventually, Mike Holloway, who would go on to win, heard what was happening. He stood up for Shirin, and as a reward for his heroic behaviour, he continued to be on the outside of the majority alliance. For the most part, the cast were happy to do the safe thing- to watch Shirin being personally attacked, and do nothing to help.
The main reason that this was so depressing to write about was that although I found Will’s actions morally reprehensible, there was no in-game repercussions for him. In fact, he made it all the way to the end, where although he clearly wasn’t going to win, he did at least receive a vote. Although bystander behaviour infuriates me, there was no doubt that the cast of Worlds Apart were doing what was right for their game. They wanted to remain part of the majority alliance, and didn’t want to rock the boat. They were doing what they needed to do to get themselves closer to the million dollars. Because Survivor is a game, it is outside of the real world. Real world rules don’t count. Not only that, but the ‘correct’ move to make was to ignore someone’s real pain, to allow bullying to happen. To step up and do something about it would have meant jeopardising their spots in the game.
Shirin got a small moment of victory in the next episode, when she was able to stop Will from receiving his letters from home. It was a small way for the show to tell us that Will’s actions did have some consequences. But looking at the big picture, Will was rewarded for his outburst. The bystanders were rewarded for their silence. Shirin was voted out in the next episode. Mike was never able to infiltrate the majority alliance and only made it to the end via an improbable run of immunity wins and a successful idol play. It seemed that the best way to play Survivor was to leave your morals at home. When I was watching Will attack Shirin, I was convinced that there were no more moral boundaries in Survivor. That in this ‘big moves’ era, anything and everything had become acceptable. While you are on this island, all that should be motivating you is the promise of winning. Every move you make should be about getting closer to the money. It was uncomfortable, but unfortunately, in this case at least, it was true.
So thank you, Nuku tribe, for being different.
Thank you for showing this week that morality does play a part in Survivor, that you can see someone in pain and actually stand up and do the right thing, that bullying can (and should) have immediate consequences, even in a game for a million dollars. That despite the lessons of Worlds Apart, there are clearly problems with having the ‘you should do anything to win’ mindset. There are some things that are off limits. There is a line– and while some may debate where that line is– I don’t think there is any debate that Jeff Varner crossed it.
Jeff Probst called this Tribal Council “a complicated but ultimately beautiful night.” And on first view, I really couldn’t see the beauty. I could only see the ugliness in Varner’s words. But Probst is right– there is beauty there. There is beauty in the angry way that Tai screamed at Varner. There is beauty in the authoritative way that Debbie spoke, quickly telling Varner that his actions were wrong, and assuring Zeke that his identity as ‘Zeke the Survivor player’ was still intact. There was beauty in Andrea’s fury and devastation at seeing her friend hurt. There was beauty in Ozzy’s stoic disappointment that Varner had stooped so low. There was beauty in Sarah’s heartfelt realisation that she had learnt something and grown as a person. But mostly, there was beauty in Zeke’s quiet strength and eloquence, as he voiced a struggle that most of the audience can’t claim to really understand.
I don’t want to spend too much time talking about Varner. Other than to condemn his move as disgusting, what else is there to say? Instead, I’d like to focus on the other players in the tribe, on the other players who decided that they would not sit quietly and allow Zeke to be attacked as deceptive (as a side note, what a ridiculous thing for Varner to say. Of course Zeke has the capacity to be deceptive. They all do- they are out there playing Survivor after all.), but that they would take a stand against what was happening. Varner attacking Zeke was a great thing for their games–with each passing word, Varner was digging his own grave. Ozzy’s position in the game, which could have been threatened, was more secure the nastier things got. But all of the Nuku members decided that there were things that were more important than the game, and for this reason we are going back to season five for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, and looking at the Chuay Gahn tribe from Survivor: Thailand.
Looking at a catalogue of ugly moments in Survivor, there were of course plenty to choose from, but it was this moment that stood out for me. In episode three of Survivor: Thailand, Ghandia Johnson and Ted Rogers, Jr. had a really, really ugly exchange. It began in the morning. As she woke up, Ghandia was furious. In confessional, she explained what was wrong. She and Ted (who were both married at the time) had been sleeping next to each other that night, and during the night, Ted had apparently mistaken Ghandia for his wife. In Ghandia’s words, “he started to become really, um, kind of sexual…specifically he was grinding against me.” Throughout the day, Ghandia became more and more upset, ultimately leading to her confronting Ted. In this confrontation, Ghandia revealed to Ted that she had previously been raped, and that was why Ted’s actions had upset her so much. Ted, to his credit, apologised profusely and promised not to sleep near her again. And here is where it should have ended.
Ghandia accepted the apology, but later felt that the apology wasn’t genuine enough. She told Helen Glover and Jan Gentry, the women in the tribe, what had happened. Ted told the men, Brian Heidik and Clay Jordan, his perspective of events. And with the whole tribe involved, things got ugly. Ghandia became more and more agitated, alienating herself from her tribe. The men were firmly on Ted’s side. In confessional, Brian said: “Ted told me that nothing happened…which is fine, because nothing did happen.” Brian related this to Helen, who immediately told Ghandia that Ted was denying everything. This made Ghandia furious, and led to another, much more spiteful confrontation between Ted and Ghandia, where Ted defended himself by telling Ghandia that he wasn’t even attracted to her, and that he was famously “150-200% happy” with the wife that he had.
When Chuay Gahn next lost immunity, it was clear that for the sake of tribe unity, Ted or Ghandia had to go. The men believed Ted’s story, and wanted to vote for Ghandia. Ghandia wanted the women to come together and force a tie. However, Helen didn’t want to align with the women. In the early stages of Survivor, where you couldn’t count on tribe swaps or twists, and knowing that the merge was still many votes away, she wanted to keep the tribe strong. Strategically, the right thing to do was to keep Ted, who was one of the strongest men in the game. Helen believed Ghandia. She believed that Ted had taken advantage of her– but she also knew the ‘right’ thing to do for her game. Helen voted with the men and Ghandia was sent home in a 4-2 vote. From here, Chuay Gahn went on a winning streak and Ted made it all the way to the final five.
In every season of Survivor, morality does have some place. There is a proverbial ‘line’ that the contestants cannot cross, but the contestants themselves decide where that line is. It differs from group to group and from individual to individual. In Survivor: Thailand, the Chuay Gahn tribe collectively decided that what happened between Ted and Ghandia didn’t cross the line. They were happy to continue to work with Ted, and they voted Ghandia out because she was physically the weaker of the two. The majority of the Chuay Gahn tribe cared more for the money than anything else.
That’s what made the reaction of the Nuku tribe so special. There was a moment of stunned silence. Where they could have left Zeke to fend for himself, but it was Debbie who spoke up and condemned Varner’s words. And once Debbie found the courage to say the right thing, the others followed. Andrea and Tai were both so angry that they could barely speak. It was left to Ozzy to eloquently sum up how they were feeling– that Jeff should be ashamed of himself, that he had crossed the line, that there were some things that you shouldn’t be willing to do, even for a million dollars.
What surprised me was Sarah’s fury. Varner was immediately regretful. When he saw the impact of his words, and when he realised that the tribe were not on his side, he began to apologise. When Zeke showed forgiveness towards Varner, everyone else was happy to follow his lead. But Sarah refused to let Varner paint himself as a good person. She refused to accept Varner’s explanation that his words had been a mistake. She insisted that he had done something malicious, and although Varner vehemently disagreed with her, I’m inclined to agree. He did say in confessional that he knew something about Zeke, something “insignificant to this game”. This was a premeditated act, and while Varner may regret what he said, I think that in the moment, it was important that he was made to own it. I think that Sarah spoke for the audience here.
As far as Zeke’s speech, I think that everybody watching was touched. I think that ultimately, although the fury of the Nuku tribe was what made Varner regret his choices, it was Zeke’s heartfelt speech that really taught Varner and possibly the rest of the audience, a very real lesson. I don’t need to write about how perfect Zeke’s words were– he doesn’t need anyone to be a cheerleader for him, but he really showed the reality of the situation- that Varner’s words had no impact inside the game and a life changing impact outside of it. He gave a window into a world that Varner claimed to have experience in and should have understood. While we are here, I’d like to say that I think Probst handled the whole thing perfectly– giving Zeke enough time to compose himself before going to him for a response and not allowing Varner to back away from his statements. This wasn’t presented as morally ambiguous- from Probst’s furious refusal to let the tribe vote, to the heroic music surrounding Zeke, CBS were clear in their unequivocal condemnation of Varner’s actions.
When issues of morality come up, the majority decide where that ‘line’ is. Varner’s words will certainly impact Zeke in his everyday life. Zeke will likely always be defined by that moment. And Nuku decided that that was not okay. Contrast that with the Chuay Gahn tribe, or the majority alliance in Worlds Apart, who decided that it was okay to make personal remarks about people. The Ted and Ghandia situation certainly had real life ramifications. Both were married and would have to deal with the way that this impacted on their marriages. Ghandia revealed on national television that she had been a victim of sexual assault. Like the incident at this week’s tribal, this had real life consequences. The difference was that Chuay Gahn decided that the game was more important. Nuku tribe, to their credit, had a clearly defined moral line. Zeke’s personal life was off limits.
The troubling thing about Survivor is that the morally ‘correct’ thing to do is rarely the correct thing to do in the game. Chuay Gahn voted Ghandia out. Helen did this despite believing that he was a sexual predator. And it worked out perfectly for them. Ted was physically strong, and with Ted’s help, Chuay Gahn went on to win the remaining four tribal immunities. This led to them having the majority at the merge, where they easily picked off the opposing tribe. The remaining members of Chuay Gahn were the final five, with Brian going on to win the game. After Ghandia was voted out, Chuay Gahn were down in the numbers, five to seven. If Helen had decided that Ted’s actions were bad enough to warrant a consequence, if Chuay Gahn had decided that Ted had crossed a line, then they would likely have lost many of the remaining challenges. The outcome of the game would have been completely different. Gamewise, Chuay Gahn were vindicated. Although Helen’s decision to support someone who she believed took advantage of her friend was morally questionable– gamewise at least, it was the right choice.
Nuku should get credit for their support of Zeke, but it also should be noted that they were all acting in the best interests of their game. It had already been decided prior to Tribal Council that Varner would be going home. It was going to be a unanimous vote. Varner was already on the outside of the majority alliance. So when he outed Zeke, it was a no-brainer for the rest of the tribe. Not only were they sticking up for their friend, but they were proving their loyalty to their alliance member. I’m not saying that the reactions of the Nuku tribe were anything less than genuine. They saw their friend in distress, and they reacted accordingly, but it was a lot easier for them to stick up for Zeke than it was for, say, Rodney LaVoie to stick up for Shirin in Worlds Apart or for Helen to stick up for Ghandia in Survivor: Thailand. Shirin and Ghandia were parts of the minority alliance. Zeke was part of the majority. There weren’t going to be any in game consequences for condemning Varner’s bullying– Varner was going home anyway. This was one of those rare occasions where doing the right thing morally and doing the right thing for your game was actually the same thing. Helen had to choose between sticking up for her friend and having a chance to win the game. She chose furthering her chances in the game above her friendship with Ghandia. Nuku didn’t have to make the same decision. Defending Zeke didn’t jeopardise their games. They all defended Zeke because it was the right thing to do. But they didn’t have to risk anything to do so.
Helen made her decision to ignore her suspicions about Ted because she was playing a conservative game. This was season five. The game in season 34 is completely different. People don’t play conservative games anymore– or at the very least– they don’t get rewarded for them. We are firmly in the ‘big moves’ era of Survivor, and I think that this is where Varner’s words came from. We’re in a time where Survivor is clearly recognised as a game, and where you can do anything in your quest for the million. In season nine, a contestant swore on her son and lied. The rest of the cast was outraged. Tony did the same thing in season 28 and he won the game. That imaginary line has become fuzzier and fuzzier. People are willing to do whatever it takes to win. Contestants are more likely to understand that their primary alliance is to their family back home, and they have been willing to do whatever it takes to win a million dollars. Sarah has come into this season saying that she is willing to play like a criminal. There is definitely a perspective in Survivor right now that says that any move is permissible. Making any move is better than making no move at all.
And that is, I think, where Jeff Varner was coming from. His back was against the wall. He knew he was going home that night– Zeke had already told him, but he wasn’t going to go quietly, and he didn’t think about the impact that his words would have on Zeke. He didn’t think about the moral thing to do. He just thought that he had to do something. He couldn’t leave the game without trying absolutely everything to stay. He was looking purely at the game– a game that he was about to lose, without even making the jury for the third time. And that combination of embarrassment, desperation, and desire to make a big move on his way out, led to Varner forgetting, or ignoring, his own moral compass.
In Survivor: Thailand, the Chuay Gahn tribe saw the way that Ghandia was feeling. The women, at least, believed that Ghandia had been sexually assaulted. Yet they made the decision to ignore it, knowing that confronting the situation would likely lead to them all losing the game. For Chuay Gahn, and for other survivors throughout the seasons, Survivor was just a game, and anything done within the context of the game was fair and allowable.
What was wonderful about this episode was that we saw something different. Collectively, the Nuku tribe decided that morality does have a place in Survivor, at least in this season. What Varner did wasn’t okay, even if it was in pursuit of a million dollars. In fact, far from excusing Varner, that made things worse. To me, that was the beautiful thing about Tribal Council. This group of people put the well-being of their friend ahead of their desire to win, and in the midst of such an ugly moment in Survivor history, that was a heartening thing to see.