Survivor: Game Changers

Lessons in Survivor History: Debbie’s Disaster

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: Debbie’s Disaster

Survivor justice has been served. I hope the Facebook fans are appeased, and I want to imagine that Malcolm got at least some pleasure seeing JT follow him to Loser’s Lodge. It is so good when the Survivor gods smile on us, and the outcome is so beautifully poetic- except that it meant losing JT, who despite (or perhaps because of) his obvious shortcomings as a player, has been one of the more entertaining members of the cast this season. Who else out there is going to have the guts to strand their tribe in the middle of the ocean? Players who act first and then try and fix mistakes later make for wonderful television. But now we’ve lost Tony, and we’ve lost JT, and I don’t know if we have anyone else left who would truly be willing to risk it to get the biscuit.

I’m glad to see that we are getting another tribe swap next week- if only because it’s been a while since we saw much of the green tribe. I’d pretty much forgotten that Sarah was in the game at all. The trouble with three tribes, particularly when one tribe is dominant in the challenges, is that it is hard to evenly edit all of the players. Ozzy caught a fish. Troyzan has an idol. Andrea is great at balancing- almost as if she were a gymnast for ten years! Zeke does a mean slide puzzle, and Cirie… is there too. But really, we haven’t had to see much of Tavua because they didn’t have a role in the story. With two tribes, we should hopefully have time to see more of everyone. Cirie is one of the only people left that I’m actively rooting for. She gives great confessionals, and I can’t wait for her to actually be in the show again.

I’m also excited to see the ramifications of the Malcolm and JT votes once the three tribes are mixed up. JT was the first of the original Nuku tribe to be voted out of the game, and the original members of Mana are at a huge disadvantage. Has Hali integrated herself with her new tribe? Will Sarah end up working with Troyzan? Will Sandra be able to weasel her way through this game just a little further? There are still five players left in the game who haven’t been to Tribal. Ozzy and Cirie, two of the biggest names out there, have been protected so far. Can both of them make it to the merge? With another tribe swap, things become a little more unpredictable. We know the merge is close. Perhaps the players can feel it too and start playing a more individual game.

I’ve heard JT’s exit interview, where he claims that if Sandra was thinking about the merge, she would have voted with him against Michaela. After all, the ex-Mana tribe are in a problematic spot. They’ve lost four of their members (five if they vote Michaela out here), and all of the original Nuku members are still in the game. Theoretically, JT could provide a link between Sandra/Varner/Aubry and the original alliances that he had back on Nuku. JT suggested that Sandra’s move was motivated purely be revenge, and wasn’t best for her game at all. In a way, he is correct. Sandra is an emotional player, and always has been. Her friend got screwed, and she was angry. We’ve seen this version of Sandra before- in Pearl Islands after her close ally Rupert Boneham was blindsided, and in Heroes vs Villains when her best friend Courtney was voted out. Sandra is a fiercely loyal ally, and she sticks up for her friends. There is no doubt in my mind that her crusade against JT was motivated by her emotions, but that doesn’t make it a foolish move in the game.

The more I think about Sandra’s move, the more brilliant I think it was. Firstly, and most obviously, JT wanted Sandra out. Sandra is a pretty intuitive player. She was also close to Malcolm, and so she likely knew that she was JT’s target. She could never have trusted JT moving forward, and to put her game into his hands would have been extremely foolish. I mean, just ask the entire Heroes tribe! JT does have relationships that could have benefited Sandra, but even that wasn’t a given. We saw Brad betray JT. Maybe JT’s allies weren’t as ready to welcome him back into the fold as he had hoped.

I also loved Sandra’s move to eat all of the sugar. The tribe had to suspect that JT had an idol- he stranded them in the middle of the ocean, and had ample time to search the camp. I think that Sandra knew that JT was coming after her, and that if he played an immunity idol, she would be going home. By eating the sugar, she successfully shifts the target away from herself, and on to one of her least valuable allies. I think that Varner and Sandra trust each other completely. Sandra likes and trusts Michaela, but I think that she could live with Michaela being collateral damage. Best case scenario, JT goes home without playing an idol. Worst case scenario, she loses an ally. But hey, at least it still isn’t Sandra going home. And then, thanks mostly to the Oscar-worthy acting skills of Sandra, Varner and Michaela, the best case scenario happened. JT, who was targeting Sandra, goes home. Sandra keeps all her allies. And yes, she’s down in numbers at the merge, but that doesn’t mean she is doomed- in her previous two seasons, the Heroes had the numerical disadvantage after the merge vote, and yet two of them made the final six. In Pearl Islands, Morgan had the numerical disadvantage after the merge vote- and they weren’t immediately pagonged either. The old Mana tribe might be down in the numbers now, but all is not lost.


And then we go from Sandra’s brilliant strategy to Debbie. Debbie seemingly lost her mind this episode, screaming at Brad, passively aggressively huffing around at the challenge, and calling Hali a princess. She’s a loose cannon, and it was uncomfortable to watch. And because we have a loose cannon who is uncomfortable to watch, there was only one place that we could go for this week’s lesson in Survivor history, and that is back to season 26, Survivor: Caramoan, and the last in game moments of the 15th finisher, Brandon Hantz.

Survivor: Caramoan was a Fans vs Favourites season, and Brandon started the game in an ideal spot. He received a largely positive edit in his original season, Survivor: South Pacific, and was widely perceived as an innocent kid who was easy to manipulate. He didn’t have a reputation for sneakiness- -in fact it was quite the opposite, he had been too honest, and too loyal, even to the point of giving away the immunity necklace. Adding to his positive reputation, Brandon also had two of his fellow South Pacific cast members, John Cochran and Dawn Meehan, joining him on the tribe.

However, at the first vote, things began to go sour for Brandon. Along with Francesca Hogi, Erik Reichenbach and Brenda Lowe, Brandon voted for Andrea Boehlke at Tribal Council. The other members of the Favourites tribe, including Cochran and Dawn, voted together and sent Francesca home. Angered by being on the outside of the majority alliance, Brandon began to struggle with his emotions. Although he attempted to spend time with the leader of the majority, Phillip Sheppard, and nominally joined the alliance, it was clear that he was on the outside. Phillip intended on voting Brandon out of the tribe as soon as they lost a challenge. Brandon was also angered by Phillip’s insistence on calling the alliance ‘Stealth R Us’, and giving all of the alliance members code names. Most of the Favourites found Phillip irritating, but were able to acquiesce to his demands to preserve the peace of the camp. Brandon didn’t have that ability.

When Brandon recognised that his fate in the game was in Phillip’s hands, Brandon had a meltdown. He struggled with his guilt about leaving his family at home, threatened to burn down the shelter, and asked the tribe to vote him out of the game. The next morning, he had changed his mind, and was now fully committed to winning the money for his family. The rest of the tribe were justifiably concerned. Corinne Kaplan called him “loco”, and said that a meltdown was definitely coming: it was “just a matter of time.” At the reward challenge, Brandon’s performance was average. But Phillip was able to hold onto a net full of coconuts long enough for the Favourites to win.

Back at camp, Brandon had a screaming match with Phillip, accusing him of running the camp as a dictatorship. While screaming at Phillip, Brandon then tipped the majority of the tribe’s rice out onto the ground. Despite the best efforts of the tribe, nobody could calm him. When the tribe arrived at the immunity challenge, Corinne announced that they would be forfeiting the challenge. With Probst massaging his shoulders, Brandon continued to rant and rave (mostly at Phillip), threatening violence, while an impromptu Tribal Council was held. Each member of the Favourites tribe was asked to give their vote aloud, and one by one, each member of the tribe voted for Brandon.

I’m not saying that Debbie has reached Hantz levels of crazy just yet. But there was no doubt that this week she was unstable. There are many similarities between the way that Debbie is seeing the game, and the way that Brandon saw the game in Caramoan. Both players think that their tribe is ruled by some sort of dictatorship, and both see it as their duty to rectify the situation. Debbie hasn’t messed with the food supply yet, but she is certainly making her tribe feel uneasy. And the strange thing is that up until this week, she was actually playing a strong game.


Pre-game, Debbie was the person that everyone wanted to work with. Brad in particular saw himself aligning with Debbie. On the Nuku tribe, she was quickly accepted into the majority alliance. Even those on the minority wanted Debbie on their side– Cirie (or Shirie?) was trying to get Debbie on her side. Basically, like Brandon before Caramoan began, Debbie was in the perfect position.

And then the swap happened. Debbie, along with Brad, Tai and Sierra, three of her tight allies, swapped to the Mana tribe, where they held the numerical majority. Debbie was an integral part of keeping them together. Again, the minority was trying to court Debbie. Hali tried to form an alliance with her. If Mana were to return to Tribal Council, then Hali would have been the easy boot. Even if Hali managed to pull something crazy off, then Tai would have been her target. Nobody was coming for Debbie. Brad saw her as part of his long term plans– the main reason that he convinced Tai to boot Caleb ahead of Hali was that he wanted to bring Tai and Debbie in closer to him.

And then we had the meltdown this week. I’m not trying to rationalise Debbie’s actions, but I can see where her paranoia came from. Perhaps the longer Hali was with them, the more Debbie felt like she was being replaced. It makes sense that Sierra wants to keep Hali around. Perhaps Debbie saw that Sierra was Brad’s number one ally, and that put her in a much weaker position. If Brad is listening to Sierra’s voice, then it is no longer guaranteed that Hali would be the next boot. If Sierra and Brad are committed to each other, then Debbie becomes expendable. Tai has had the chance to show his loyalty and usefulness twice now. He voted out Caleb. He was willing to use his idol to save Brad’s life in the game. Tai has been making moves that have strengthened his alliance with Brad. And Sierra and Brad seem to be in lockstep. For the first time in her Survivor career, Debbie doesn’t feel as though she is in a strong position. She can’t control the game, or make decisions by herself. She’s not going to be the swing vote here. She has nobody on her side. And so, feeling as though she was backed into a corner, Debbie hit back.

There is no doubt that Debbie’s performance during the challenge was pitiful. Brad and Tai both confirmed that “Hali rocked the balance beam”, and Debbie struggled. We could see from the footage of the teams strategising that Debbie volunteered to complete the balance portion, and Brad agreed. There was nothing dictatorial in Brad’s actions before the challenge. The editors went to some pains to prove that Debbie was, in this case at least, delusional. They even included a flashback so that the viewers could see that what Debbie was saying about Brad was completely false.

From Debbie’s perspective, what seemed to have happened was that Brad treated her with little respect, Debbie was the one that actually did really well in the challenge, and Hali was the one that cost them the reward. In confessional, she said “If Hali wants to do the balance beam, even though she cost us…and I zipped across the balance beam in 30 seconds- that means you don’t respect me. It’s freaking nauseating, frustrating, and I’m pissed!” Not long after this, she claimed that she wasn’t an angry person. “I don’t explode in anger. I take it out in my workout”. She then went on to say that she would make a “calm, strategic decision”, and target Brad. From a viewer’s perspective, this outburst seemed to come out of nowhere. It left her tribe bewildered as well. Brad was clearly worried about her anger, trying various times to appease her with no success. Brad even went so far as apologising to Debbie, even though he clearly had no idea what it was that he was supposed to have done. Tai said in confessional “I got really scared…Debbie’s like a crazy lady.” The Mana tribe was walking on eggshells from the moment that they got back from the reward challenge, and from what we saw of Debbie’s behaviour at the challenge, the situation isn’t going to improve any time soon.


So the question now becomes, what do they do with Debbie? In Caramoan, the Favourites tribe had genuine concern for their welfare, and when Brandon tipped the rice out, it was an easy decision. They absolutely had to throw the challenge and get rid of him. But at this point, the Favourites also had a commanding numerical advantage over the Fans tribe. Getting rid of Brandon was not only going to make life much more pleasant around camp, but it was also not going to pose any risk to anybody else’s games. Brandon wasn’t aligned with anyone- Brenda and Erik had both integrated themselves into the Stealth R Us alliance. Everyone was happy to get rid of Brandon.

Getting rid of Debbie this week wouldn’t have been as straightforward. They know they have some time before the merge, and they must suspect that a swap is coming, but they can’t be certain. Getting rid of Debbie would bring Mana down to four members, and that would definitely hurt them in the challenges. Besides, Debbie was a key member of the old Nuku tribe. Throwing a challenge to vote her out would definitely have consequences. She isn’t Brandon– a number that can be easily shed. There are definite risks to voting against Debbie.

For Brad moving forward, he has to target Debbie now. She’s openly targeting him, telling everyone that he is the dictatorial leader. She might as well have accused him of ‘shushing the women’- because the things that she was saying about Brad are exactly the things that Candice Cody and Marissa Peterson accused him of when he played in Blood vs Water. Brad remembers how that turns out– as soon as he becomes the known leadership figure, he’s going to get voted out. He’s taken pains this season to make everyone feel like they are part of the decision making process, and if Debbie is going to be starting the Fijian chapter of the F-you Brad Culpepper Club, he needs to nip that in the bud, and do it quickly.

What I’m really concerned about is that the other players are going to look at Debbie and the irrational way that she is currently behaving and see her as the perfect person to drag to the end. Debbie isn’t getting any votes. You can put up with a few weeks of discomfort if it is for a million dollars. So why not just take Debbie as a goat? Why not put up with her ranting, if you know that if she is sitting next to you at the end, you win?

Firstly, Debbie’s behaviour concerned me, and I don’t want to see it last. I think that whether it is the lack of food and sleep, perhaps the pressure of playing again so soon after her first season, or whether something that Brad said or did triggered emotions for her that she just can’t control– Debbie needs help. She doesn’t need to spend any more time in such a stressful environment. But secondly, Debbie is an unpredictable player. She’s an agent of chaos, and that is never a good person to have on your side. She’s just proven that she isn’t a loyal ally– she flipped on Brad with zero provocation and she’ll do the same again to whoever decides to keep her around.

I really, really liked Debbie on Survivor: Kaoh Rong. I liked that she was wacky and quirky, yet strategic and willing to play the game. I liked that she was self-aware enough to know that her tribe members viewed her as a loyal soldier, and brave enough to make a move against them. I loved that she was a female archetype that we hadn’t seen before. And I was glad to see her return. But after this week, I’m really hoping that we see her voted out quickly. The last thing that Survivor wants or needs is another Brandon Hantz situation. For the sake of the show, and for her own sake, Debbie needs to be sent home.


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