Wow, just wow. It has been almost 18 hours since I saw the episode and I am still trying unravel and figure out what the hell went on at that tribal. That was legitimately one of the most crazy things I have ever seen on the show and it sucks that it had to come at the expense of a fan favorite in Malcolm. I have so many thoughts on everything involved with this vote out, but let’s wait until we get there. We still have a whole episode to breakdown first. Let’s get to it.

We start off on the night Caleb got voted out. Tai is talking about how that was difficult for him, but Sierra and Brad are comforting him. They are further cementing Tai as their solid ally and doing a great job of it. Brad and Sierra could become a formidable pair down the road if people are not careful. The next day Hali talks with Debbie as she tries to solidify her own position on the tribe. Hali throws out Tai’s name as a possible next target and to her face Debbie agrees, but she tells us that Hali is goner and she is just playing her to save face.

We immediately head to the reward challenge which is a play on the hero challenges of seasons past. Only two contestants from each tribe will compete. In the first part of the challenge the first castaway will navigate three obstacles while balancing a ball on the top of a pole. After each obstacle they will add a section to the pole making it taller and harder to carry. Once they complete the obstacles, the second castaway will use the ball to get a key and unlock a chest of sandbags. They will then use those sandbags to knock off a series of bamboo targets. The first tribe wins everything you need to make coffee and some cookies while the second place tribe gets a large thermos of iced coffee.

For Nuku, J.T. will be doing the balancing and Malcolm will be doing the tossing. For Tavua, Ozzy is balancing and Troyzan is throwing, while for Mana Tai is balancing and Brad is tossing. Ozzy gets out to a huge lead as you would expect, but drops the ball on the third obstacle allowing J.T. to catch up. Troyzan ends up being the first to throw with Malcolm not too far behind. Tai is still struggling with the last obstacle, but eventually finishes with Mana way behind. Malcolm makes quick work of his targets meaning Nuku gets 1st. Troyzan is down to his final two targets, but Brad turns into the Terminator and absolutely destroys this portion of the challenge giving Mana a huge come from behind victory. As we leave the challenge we get reinforcement from Cirie that Troyzan is the goat on that tribe, but this story line will not play out until a later date.

After the challenge Ozzy tells us that he is glad they did not win. He thinks that if they do not win rewards the tribe will have more reason to keep him around because he provides for them. He goes fishing like he always does and catches a stingray. Troyzan and Andrea are impressed. A side not here, but how would Ozzy do on a landlocked season like Australia, Africa or Gabon? His thing is all about swimming and fishing and if he can’t do that is he neutered? Just an interesting thought.

Over at Nuku everyone is happy and drinking their coffee. Sandra is super confident in her position and says that no one knows that she is running this game. Once again the editors of the show come in clutch as they cut right to J.T. telling Malcolm that they have to go after Sandra because she is running the game. Malcolm seems to agree and J.T. is happy because he wants to make a move.

After a commercial break we go right back to challenge time. For immunity its the classic Survivor blindfold challenge. In this version the caller has to direct two pairs of castaways who are belted together to three towers that contain buckets of water as well as bags containing small wooden balls. Once they retrieve all three bags they have to go back to the start mat, take off their blindfolds and use the balls to complete a table maze. After a castaway lands one ball they have to switch out and give someone else a chance. After explaining the challenge Jeff explains that only tribe will get immunity in this challenge and everyone is pretty surprised. Tavua and Nuku then each have to sit out a member so Troyzan and Sandra sit out.

The callers for Tavua, Mana and Nuku are Cirie, Brad and Varner respectively. Each caller uses different strategies and Mana seems to be having lots of trouble hearing Brad. Eventually Nuku is the first to get all three bags and they have a huge lead. J.T. starts out on the maze for them. Tavua then catches up and Ozzy is the first one on the maze for them. After a little bit Mana catches up and Sierra jumps on the maze for them. J.T. lands the first ball and Malcolm takes over. Seemingly right after Ozzy lands his and Sarah takes over Tavua. Sierra is having lots of trouble so Brad steps in. Malcolm and Sarah both land theirs before Culpeper lands his. So it comes down to Varner for Nuku against Andrea for Tavua. Its a nail biter as both people have their ball in the inner circle, but Varner flinches and loses his ball to a hole while Andrea lands hers sealing the win for Tavua. (Side note: According to Malcolm’s exit press Nuku’s lead was huge and Varner really did blow it by dropping the ball three times). Varner breaks down in tears because he really blew it for his tribe. After Tavua leaves Probst reveals the second layer to the twist as he tells Nuku and Mana that they will be going to tribal together and voting out just one person. Everyone is shocked and you can see all the wheels turning.

When Nuku gets back to their beach Malcolm says they should all sit down and talk the logistics of the vote through. He then gives us a great line in confessional saying that this vote should be simple on paper, “but that is the only place it is simple, on paper”. They all agree that Mana is probably going to try and flip J.T. He says that he is loyal and will stick with them. Sandra wants to get rid of Sierra because she is a strong competitor in the challenges and would be the least likely to find and play an idol. J.T. tries to pitch Tai because he is sneaky and slippery, but that gets shot down. Malcolm and J.T. do agree thought that Brad will most likely target Sandra on their side. J.T. secretly hopes they do so that he can vote with them and make his big move.

Over at Mana Brad is super worried about Hali possibly flipping. He tries to comfort Hali and tell her that they are loyal to her. She does not seem super into it though. Talk then turns to targets and Brad (as J.T. and Malcolm predicted) wants Sandra. Sierra is pitching Malcolm though and there is our first seed of his impending doom. While all of this is happening Tai goes looking for idol because he feels like he will feel safer if it is with him. He eventually finds the clue and its a map of the beach to find it. Its near the flag in a clearing of four trees, he just has to dig in the right spot. Here is our first instance of the idols hidden many different ways twist mentioned in the preseason. We now have one found at a challenge and another at camp. He goes back to his tribe and shares it with them and they are ecstatic. It is just what they needed to go to war with Nuku.

Well here we go with that Tribal. We start off with Malcolm talking about how this is history and how they all had to run numbers. Brad then says that they are in a “Mexican Standoff” with guns pointing everywhere and how it comes down to who’s gun changes sides. Sandra responds that all of their guns are pointing towards Mana. Debbie points out that J.T. could be one to change sides and says that he used to be close with some of the people on Mana. Sandra once again claps back and says the key words in that sentence were “used to”. J.T. says that people expect him to take a big risk and he is not sure he can do that. Brad follows that up by saying there are a lot more threats on the Nuku side like Malcolm and Sandra. Sandra boasts that she knows she is not going home tonight. Malcolm says that he will be cussing his way down the ramp if he got voted out by this twist (that’s your second clue he was going home). Eventually talk changes to the possibility of idols being in play and then it changes back to flippers. Brad and Debbie tell Hali she will be public enemy number one if she flips so Hali throws her allegiance out the window and sends a signal to Nuku she may be willing to work with them. She is shut down by Sandra saying they don’t need her and Sierra points out that is where she stands with her old tribe mates who are now on Nuku. J.T. just generally looks distressed through all of this.

This is where the real fun starts. Hali points out that this would be the perfect time to get rid of physical threats and Sandra interprets this to mean she wants to vote out Brad and whispers this to all of her tribe mates. Debbie gets worried and checks in with Brad. Eventually both sides calm down and say stick to the original plan. J.T. then throws all caution to the wind and starts even more bedlam by getting up from his seat, walking over to Brad and telling him that his side is voting for Sierra. Brad makes sure that J.T. swears this is true, but then Hali says screw it and jumps up to talk to Sandra and tell her to vote Brad. Both tribes just get up and huddle now. Nuku wonders if they should switch the vote to Brad because J.T. told the others that they were voting Sierra. J.T. then ends ups talking to Brad again and tells him to vote Sandra. Eventually everyone settles down and asks if they just want to vote. Everyone says yes, but Hali said she did not consent. Nuku says let’s just vote and Hali says “Alright, you might regret it”. During voting Michaela asks Sandra why Hali did not just tell them who had the idol, but Sandra says there is not one. As Jeff asks about the idol, Tai stands up and says he has one. He then turns to his tribe and says, “Who wants it?” and Brad points to Sierra. She plays the idol for herself and they were right. Malcolm goes home in a 5-0 vote. As Malcolm gets his torch snuffed, J.T. is holding his head in his hands. He looks over at Brad pissed and looks like he is about to cry. As the tribes leave tribal council Michaela says that she thinks J.T. set them up.

Alright so there is a lot to unpack here. First of all, as pointed out by Rob Cesternino on Survivor Know It Alls last night, this was essentially an early “merge” and Malcolm became the earliest “merge boot” in Survivor history. Malcolm is the typical merge boot in any season and that’s what came to be in this. It was the weirdest “merge” though because not all of the players got to talk with each other. The people who benefited the most from this twist were Jeff Varner and Hali. If it had been a typical double tribal both would have been gone. Varner due to the fact he blew the challenge and Hali because she was on the wrong side of the numbers. You have to feel good for Varner in this case because this was the same day he got voted out in Second Chances and that is why he was crying so much at the end of the challenge.

Ok now time to break down what the two wild cards were trying to do in that tribal. Let’s start with J.T. who’s motives are a little more clear. I think he was trying to have his cake and eat it too. He was hoping that Mana had an idol and that Sandra would go home. He could vote with Nuku against Sierra, have them nullified and send his intended target home. Unfortunately he was way too cute about it and just ended up creating more confusion. He gave up too much information without getting any solid guarantees in return, leaving himself to be betrayed by Brad. If he wanted to create confusion and make sure Sandra went home he should have been way more open about everything. He should have literally stood up and said that he was voting for Sandra and that Mana should too. Or he could have kept up the cloak and dagger stuff, but only promised to give Brad the name of who they were voting for if he promised to vote Sandra. Parsing out the information like that was a bad idea. Apparently he knew it too because according to Malcolm he became more increasingly distraught as tribal went on and at the last moment tried to get them to switch the vote to Brad, but they wouldn’t. Another bad break for the ever increasingly irrational J.T. who may just prove he needs Stephen to reign him in for this game.

Hali is the much harder one to figure out. I legitimately had no idea what her intentions were as they seemed to switch every second. Here is what Dalton Ross could parse out from her planning

A. She has ditched Mana and wants Nuku to vote Brad out, even if she has to still vote with Mana to at least carry out the illusion she is still with them (since Nuku already has the majority numbers anyway and does not need her vote) so she is not treated as a leper back at camp.

B. She is just trying to confuse Nuku and make them think she is on their side when she is not, to control where their vote goes.

C. She has not nor is she is trying to confuse them. But she would rather see Brad go instead of Sierra so if her Mana side loses at least she can try to control which one of them goes. So she is still on Team Mana but just wants to shape the team moving forward in case they lose.

All of these are possible, but the point becomes that she wanted a physical threat out and Nuku would not play ball. I am guessing in one of the huddles Brad promised her they would vote out Malcolm in order to secure her loyalty. She makes one last ditch attempt to have the person she wants to go home, Brad, get voted out, but Nuku shuts her down and she says the regret line. This is literally all I could parse from her thinking.

Now let’s look at this move from the perspective of each of the tribes. First for Nuku. What were they thinking? Why were they so confident that Mana did not have an idol at all? And if they did think about this why Sierra? It has come to the point in Survivor where the most obvious person to play the idol on is now the least obvious. At the beginning of idol play on Survivor the idol would most definitely be played on Brad because he is the biggest target, but strategy subverted that by voting for the lieutenant. It has leaned so far that way now that the biggest threat is now the least likely to have idol played on them so just vote for him/her. Another safer play would have been to just put the votes on Hali or even Debbie or Tai. Neither of those three would be candidates for an idol play usually. Hali is an especially safe bet because she did not even know about the idol. That is why she never told them. A Hali vote would have been no harm, no foul for both sides. The whole thing just seemed like a bad plan from the start and J.T.’s flub just heightened that and made Mana more sure.

As for Mana I really like this move for them as a whole and specifically for Brad. As a whole they just took out the key cog in Nuku’s tribal challenge machine. From now on they have to play both Sandra in Varner in pretty much every challenge evening out the playing field and lowering the chances that Mana will have to go to tribal again. As for Brad, he comes out looking like a winner again. He did fantastic in the challenges, is the center of a strong alliance and adds a huge move to his resume. If you watch that tribal Debbie, Tai and Sierra are always looking to him for the answers and that really shows where he is at. Some people will say he should have taken out Sandra here because then Malcolm could be a shield for him come merge time and the meat shield strategy is huge right now, but I don’t by it. That’s thinking about 10 days too far down the road and having Sandra gone is not going to destabilize that tribe. Overall another very good night for Brad.

Finally let’s talk about the twist in general. I have been all around the online Survivor community today and many people are furious. These are not just casual fans either, hard core fans are in an uproar and talking about how unfair this is. As for that point I say, when has Survivor ever been fair? Was it fair when Silas got screwed by the first swap in Africa? Was it fair when Shii Ann got screwed by the fake merge in Thailand? Was it fair when Michelle Yi got screwed by the merge twist in Fiji? To me that is a silly argument. Especially because if Sierra or Tai or Debbie had gone home nobody would be batting an eye. It’s just because it is Malcolm that people are rioting. Listen I love Malcolm too and he had a great shot in this game, but all is fair in Survivor. Now some others have a more valid point in that it changes the core tenets of the game in the fact that you are voted out by people you have played with and had a chance to strategize with. Now I somewhat agree with this. If it were an all new players season I would actually wholeheartedly agree, but this is a returning players season. They all know each other to some degree and it should be elevated strategy wise. Especially on a season called “Game Changers” people should have to think outside of the box. Some are saying that Malcolm had no chance to save himself by using his superior social game to talk to the Mana people, but what was stopping him from doing that right there at tribal council. If he was so confident that he was not the target then his pride was his own downfall. He could have been working the room like J.T. and making some magic, but he did not. Also logistically speaking it should have been unfair for Mana, but they worked their way out of the jam and Nuku did not. That’s on the people on Nuku and no one else. They were too overconfident in their numbers advantage. I loved the twist in this context for those reasons. It provided us with probably the most entertaining tribal council of all time and with some high level strategic thinking. What else could you ask for?

With all of that said, I would never say no to a fourth time for Malcolm. He is consistently one of the most engaging narrators on the island and all around good guy. It’s too bad that chips fell this way. As for next week we have J.T. on the hot seat (if he doesn’t go home in the next week or two it will be a miracle) and Debbie going nuclear for some reason? Can’t wait to find out what the source of that is. Well I just spent nearly 3500 words on just the fourth episode of the season so we are definitely in for a wild one. Cannot wait to watch more. Until next time!