Survivor: Game Changers

Diplomatic View: Crossing the Line

Diplomatic View dives into each week’s episode of Survivor, looking at who’s winning, who’s losing, and most importantly: how they’re doing it.

Diplomatic View: Crossing the Line

Survivor Game Changers: Crossing the Line

One of the reasons I initially started writing the Diplomatic View, other than wanting to share the weird correlations and connections Survivor pops up in my brain, is because I was getting a bit tired of people harping on ‘the right way’ to play Survivor. None of these people were talking about strategy or relationships; they were trying to impose some form of ethics test on Survivor, injecting the rules of the outside world into the social experiment of the game. If asked I would, and have, said something akin to: “There is no morals test to Survivor. You can lie, betray, manipulate, steal, swear on your dead parrot’s life and break your word. It’s all fair within the context of the game.”

I’ve occasionally been asked, and had interesting discussions on how you define ‘the context of the game’. It’s not quite as cut and dried as you’d think at first blush. It’s complicated by the fact that, while I think all of the behaviors listed are okay, I don’t think it’s out of bounds for people to hold a grudge after the game. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t, that some form of the ‘box rule’ that I use when gaming with friends would apply (to wit: any feelings about what happened in the game, go back in the box with the other pieces). I’m honest enough to admit that if someone betrayed me by voting me off at the final tribal when I had a sure shot at the million, I’d probably need a little time to swallow that down, and I would only get a day or so at  Ponderosa to drink  the pain away.

The ultimate barometer for the question was Johnny’s Fairplay’s ‘dead grandmother’ lie, where he attempted to bring an outside the game lie into the game to improve his chances. A lot of people deride that move; some few are big fans of it. For me, I always thought it was within the bounds of acceptable game play… I just thought it was ineffective and in bad taste. While Fairplay was right, in that we’ve seen players use personal tragedy to gain sympathy in the game, he completely misunderstood why that happens. While even an odious player can get a sympathy bump, the personal pain won’t keep that player in the game all that much longer. Fairplay was seen quite negatively by his fellow players and that didn’t change because they thought his grandmother had passed.

In the end, my interpretation on what’s ‘fair game’ on the island has settled roughly into this definition: “As long as what’s done, or said, doesn’t have actual impact beyond the results of the game, then it’s allowable.” While I’ll admit that almost anything goes under this definition (I think the only clear violator was Brandon Hantz and Ted’s treatment of Ghandia), it still gives a clearly defined limit and range.


This week, Varner blew right past the line without looking back. By this point we all know what Varner did. While desperate to extend his life in the game and feeling like he needed to pull at every straw to increase his chances, he decided to cast a spotlight on Zeke’s gender identity and his transitional status.  Particularly, he did this in the context of showing that because Zeke had not revealed this information to his fellow players that it made Zeke ‘deceitful’ and ‘untrustworthy’.

I am definitely not the first person to write about this moment, why it was reprehensible for Varner to do it, and why I think Jeff was right to skip the vote and simply snuff his torch. I may hit a few points others haven’t, but if you don’t want to hear another take feel free to skip ahead to the ‘Diplomatic Disqus’ section… the only mention you’ll see after that point is why his revelation was strategically bad.

While Varner almost immediately began back-tracking when he saw how his tribe reacted, and he’s done a fair amount of back-tracking since then, one thing I think we should be clear on is that a lot of the apologies we’ve seen from Jeff Varner, particularly the ones at that tribal council, is because he was shocked that his tribe were offended at Varner’s betrayal of Zeke… rather than Zeke’s ‘betrayal of their trust’ which Varner was counting on. Let’s remember in his confessional Varner stated that: ‘…if I have to go to tribal tonight, and raise moral hell, I’m going to do it. I am not going quietly off this island’.


Varner is not a fool, and he pointed out that he works with the LGBT community. Given that, Varner has to be aware of the specific type of hate crimes and bigotry that transgender people face, and how often that bigotry (and violence) is tied to the moment of revelation / discovery of their status. I believe that, in his desperation, Varner was hoping that enough of his tribe would have a disgusted reaction to Zeke’s status, that the tribe would vote Zeke off. That was the ‘moral hell’ that he was hoping to raise and unleash on Zeke.

As Varner said, he ‘didn’t think that would be the reaction.’ He was expecting that the tribe would rally together against Zeke. The tribe’s horror at Varner’s actions, which is to their credit, made it sink in just how vile what he’d attempted to do was… and that prompted Varner’s incipient break down at tribal council.


There are three things that are particularly horrifying about this to me.

The first is that if Survivor was on the air thirty years ago, this is the sort of thing someone would / could have done to Varner. Preying on the prejudices of fellow tribemates to try to run someone off the island for being gay, if that person wasn’t out, could easily have happened in that sort of circumstance. I don’t understand how any level of desperation could have blocked that correlation from Varner’s mind. Given how hard he hit (both initially and then after he was confronted) on the tried and true slurs of transgender people as ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘having a capacity for deceit’, made it clear Varner knew exactly what he was trying to incite.

The second question is how Varner knew. It’s clear that Zeke didn’t tell him, so the obvious answer is that Varner figured it out from close observation. His quote from People magazine indicates that:

I don’t want to go into this whole this, that and the other about how I knew because I don’t think that’s respectful, not only to Zeke but to other trans people.

So, essentially, Varner’s working with transgender people and friendships with other transgender people has given him particular insight to certain indications indicative of someone who’s transgender. I am horrified for his friends, who may have shared things in confidence about the struggles they face, only for Varner to turn around and use them as a bludgeon to attempt to bash Zeke. If the episode had never aired, this second point would be the most horrifying aspect for me. What Varner did wasn’t just a betrayal of Zeke, it was a betrayal of every transgender person Jeff has hung out with, whom he’s come to know, and whom he’s close enough to that he could see similar signs of transition in Zeke. I can’t imagine the strain on those friendships now.

The last aspect is that this revelation is personally dangerous for Zeke. While those in Zeke’s circle already knew, his gender identity is really only an issue that as Zeke put it, ‘medical professionals and naked fun-time friends’ need to know. Now everyone who knows / recognizes Zeke knows that he’s transgender. There will be people watching who are inspired by his story; there will be people watching who take the confidence from what he’s done to face their own questions; there will be people watching inspired to change their mindsets and reach out to others; there will also be people watching for who all of those listed above, and Zeke himself, are anathema. Varner has specifically put Zeke forward as a glaring, obvious, and unmissable target for hate from those particular groups.


It can be argued that CBS shouldn’t have aired it, and I’m sure the argument was made in a room somewhere. My hope is that if Zeke had said ‘No’ they would have found some way to edit around the tribal council, maybe voting out a CGI Varner, I hope it was Zeke’s choice in the end. Regardless of CBS’ responsibility, Varner raised it as an issue… and Varner by his own admission knows enough transgender people to know what he was doing.

In 2014, a transgender golf club designer was outed by the website ‘Grantland’, and committed suicide as a result. Many transgender people suffer from depression during the transition process because they face rejection and feel like they’re alone. A simple Google search will return far too many current instances of hate targeting the transgender community. We’d like to be an enlightened society, and the responses to Varner’s outing of Zeke are encouraging, but it would be hopelessly naïve to suggest that there won’t be negativity sent Zeke’s way.

Varner isn’t ignorant to any of this. As someone who knows enough transgender people well enough to recognize the signs in Zeke, he has to have known exactly what he was doing… and that’s why this is so far outside of the line of acceptable play. For all Varner knew, he was blowing up Zeke’s entire life… to try to get one step closer to a million dollars. Varner was quick to interrupt any attempts to cast him as hateful, pointing out that he works in the community and that isn’t the person he is.

The problem is that it’s easy to do the right thing when there’s nothing at stake. It’s your actions when there is something at stake, personally, that define who you are. Your moral character, or lack thereof, isn’t created by times of stress and crisis, but it is revealed by them. In this case Varner, all protests aside, showed us exactly who he is by what he did when his back was against the wall.


Diplomatic Disqus

Sarah Channon (whom you all have to blame for bringing me out of retirement last year) chimed in about Sandra’s attempt to flip the game:

I give Sandra major props for that Tribal Council. We’ll have to see what post-game interviews say, but I have to think if it had been anybody with a smaller target, Tai would have gone home. I have a soft spot for Tai, but that was just disastrous!

I agree that Sandra did all she could, and that tribal council was the most disastrous it could have been for Tai without him going home. The biggest issue for me is that Tai forgot that, in Survivor, once you start contemplating betraying someone out loud… you really are better off just pulling the trigger. This is even more the case when you do it at tribal council. Tai could have gotten Ozzy out by using an idol, flipping the balance of power in the tribe. Or he could have just quietly voted Sandra off. The path he chose instead just reinforced his image as being untrustworthy, and means he’ll have extra reason to be paranoid going forward.

That being said, Tai also has two immunity idols and is tight with what I suspect will be the majority alliance going into the merge so…. Maybe I know nothing.

Andy Pfeiffer chimed in about the quest for idols:

Why don’t returning players look for idols? They all know how useful idols are and that it could get them out of a jam. Are they afraid people will just assume they have one and that’ll put a target on them? Me, if I were playing, I’d just presume everyone was looking for idols and that there’s no reason to target someone just for that.

We have seen in some seasons the returning players all say something to the effect of ‘If anyone goes looking for idols, that means we vote them off’. Often enough all that talk comes to nothing, with the person not getting voted out or them forming an alliance for safety. I’d like to think that there’s lots of searching that we just don’t get to see and it’s edited out because it comes to nothing (as opposed to Tai’s searches, where the producers might as well just give him an idol).

Damnbueno took issue with my praise of Cochran:

On top of that, she got a visit from one of the best strategic players of all time, Cochran. ” — Have we already forgotten South Pacific? And can we really heap this much praise on someone who beat a cast with half clueless rookies, Brandon and Phillip? Cochran is good, but not THAT good. And I think his advice was totally lost on Debbie.

There’s a key component of my comment on Cochran that I think you overlooked. He’s one of the best strategic players of all time, which doesn’t mean he’s the best player. The peak Survivor players combine strategy with a splash of instinct, personal charisma, and magnetism. Do I think Cochran is better than a Boston Rob, a Kim Spradling, a Cirie, or a Parvati? No. But do I think he has a better handle on the game from a sheer strategy and analysis perspective? Yes, yes I do. Would a Boston Rob who got to spend 3 hours  on the beach have a better feel? Sure. But this returning player had a very specific information set to work from, and I think that made Cochran the superior choice.

If I needed a three point play to save my life, I’d want Steph Curry to execute it… but I’d want Gregg Popovich to draw it up. In this case Cochran is Popovich.


Key Points: What Happened on Exile, Stays on Exile

Weaving a web: Culpepper style

I’ve talked about players making ‘the leap’ in a returnee season, where the game clicks for them and they start making the correct choices and moves. This season I completely underestimated Culpepper’s potential to make that jump, much to my sorrow. Around camp Brad has let it all out there with his Mana tribemates, showing his vulnerability, his empathy, and emphasizing the importance / awesomeness of his wife Monica. The vulnerability and believability have opened up connections with two of the better strategic players on his tribe in Aubry and Cirie… which is a bad sign for Michaela and Hali, though the problem is different with the merge coming.

Brad has pulled together a loose, but incredibly powerful coalition. Strategically, there’s Aubry and Cirie, who have great resumes and good Survivor IQ. From pure power there’s Troyzan and Tai, with three idols between them, and there’s Sierra with an advantage that kicks in… right now. If he only had six people in his alliance, he’d be able to cover four of them with protection assuming Troyzan and Sierra share their secrets (We’re pretty sure Tai will… eventually).

The biggest question for Brad will be just how tightly the newly bonded Nuku stays together. If Tai comes home to Brad to roost, he’s in a very good position going forward. That could mean bad things for fan favorites like Ozzy, Andrea, Michaela and Zeke. It’s also a legitimate question as to whether he wants to move forward with an Aubry or Cirie. With strong players of the game, there’s always a bit of a two-edged sword. Allying with them can advance you far in the game, but they didn’t get their reputations by being passive witnesses to your march to victory. Bringing Cirie and Aubry along starts the timer on an explosion at some point down the line. On the other hand, if you don’t work with them… the explosion starts right now.. and you need to hope you survive it.


To Ozzy or Not to Ozzy

Before tribal council started, the Nuku decision isn’t clear-cut at all. Varner has made, we know, a reasonable case at that point for why they should think about voting out Ozzy. He’s still a challenge beast after all of these years, and when the individual part of the game starts that can be a staggering advantage. How much of an advantage is debatable. It’s a great individual advantage, but doesn’t necessarily help your alliance.  What it clearly does, is reduce the chances of other players being safe for a vote… and if you’re not Ozzy, that should be a concern.

The key vote here is Zeke. Sarah wants Ozzy to go, Tai can be persuaded, Andrea is on the bubble, and Debbie wants Varner to go. If Zeke decided to vote out Ozzy, then Ozzy’s going to get stepping. Zeke gives us an insight to his strategy, that he wants to keep Ozzy around as a stalking horse… It’s not a horrible strategy, but I think he needs a more holistic view. With the merge around the corner, if Zeke votes out Ozzy he gets Varner as a loyal vote in future, while taking out a physical threat. Additionally, in Culpepper, Cirie, Andrea, and Aubry, there are several other players who can serve as a stalking horse instead. Voting out Ozzy is risky, but has rewards.

The key leaning point here, I believe, is that Zeke trusts Ozzy slightly more than he trusts Varner which, as it turns out, is a good call.


The Other Reason Varner Made a Bad Decision

Varner was 100% correct that Zeke didn’t want to vote out Ozzy, and he had extremely good ammunition in the argument that: ‘Zeke is lying to you, and about you, because he wants to keep Ozzy in the game.’ We’ve seen that kind of argument used to powerful effect at tribal council, reminding people that if they’re not in the know, then they’re on the outside of their alliance and aren’t as safe as they think.

He prepared the ground before tribal council, and when given the chance to talk at tribal council he picked up that conversation point again. Would the argument alone have been enough to change his fate? It’s hard to say. Tai was already paranoid; there was a small chance he’d have gotten Tai to maybe play an idol to vote out Ozzy… After all, the only reason he didn’t last time is that they were a vote short.

I think Varner’s initial argument at tribal was very well stated, though aimed slightly off (he should have reached out to Andrea not to Debbie) and gave him his best chance to continue on in the game. I expect that he would have gone home 5 – 2, unless Tai decided to play an idol in support. So, it would have failed most likely… but it actually had a chance, and we would have been praising the fight he put up. His appeal to bigotry didn’t work out so well.

From a strategic standpoint, Varner’s second shot only hit himself. Regardless of how players actually feel about transgender people, and I do feel we saw their true feelings at tribal, all of these players are highly conscious of their images post-Survivor. The chances of them coming together to vote out Zeke, based on Varner’s rallying cry that he’s transgender and thus guilty of hiding things from them and innately deceitful(?) was non-existent.

If it was effective at all, it was still going to lock Ozzy / Zeke / Tai against him, meaning he would have needed Sarah, Debbie, and Andrea to be convinced by his ridiculous argument in order to stay (and ironically if that had happened, I guarantee Tai would have played his idol anyway).  Plus he goes out looking about as bad as he can look.



  • Props to Hali for solving the ‘Metamorphosis’ puzzle. We were getting close to a tribe trying ‘Pirate Moosies’.
  • I’m not sure if I could survive doing something well on Michaela’s team. She threw Hali around like luggage when celebrating their win.
  • Beautiful moment that I only caught on second viewing, as Tai yells at Jeff that it isn’t deception, Sarah reaches back to Zeke to see if he’s okay. Debbie did it too.
  • People have criticized Probst for not immediately going to Zeke for comment. Probst initially looked stunned and horrified, with no idea what to do next.
  • I don’t normally give credit to people for simply being human, but Sarah’s self-awareness and discussion on how she sees her background differently based on her response to Varner’s outing, was a touching moment as well.
  • Why did Varner carry a pizza box with him to Ponderosa?


Closing Points and Looking Ahead

This has been a crazy season, and unless a fist fight breaks out at tribal council, I don’t think anything will be able to top what we’ve seen over the last three weeks. On the other hand, we’re walking into a merge tribal council with four different immunity idols available to be played… so I’m guessing that there’s still a little excitement in store for us.

The key questions I see in the coming episode are: What kind of coalition does Brad build around himself, and just how closely bonded the new-nu-Nuku feel after the events of the Varner tribal council. It’s entirely possible that those six will hang together after what happened, in which case they only need to pull one person over (perhaps Hali) to steer Culpepper’s ship into the rocks.


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