Jeffrey Neira / CBS

Survivor Serves Up A Slice Of Realness

The Survivors compete for yet more sad food, followed by a wrenching, awkward Tribal Council.

Return Of The Debbie

After Blue Tribe votes out Sandra, Debbie takes her place, and of course the first thing everyone wants to know is how her time on Exile was. She's playing it off like it was the typical miserable, spartan Exile experience. "There was no flint," she moans, which, I suppose, is technically true. There was a huge feast, and a hammock, and John Cochran for some reason, but no flint that we could see.

We also get a couple of bite-sized chunks of other tribe members' reactions to Sandra's ouster. Tai, as you may recall, was forced to throw out a name and blurted out "Ozzy," and now he's a little worried about the fallout. "I'm terrible at Tribal Council," he laments. Fortunately, what he's not terrible at is finding idols; with two of them under his belt, he's probably fine for a while. Varner, though, might be in worse trouble; arguably, he's also worse at Tribal Council, since he had no idea his BFF Sandra was getting voted out (and even Sandra kind of saw that one coming). He's made friends with Zeke; the two vow to be totally honest with each other from here on out.

Up for grabs in this Reward Challenge is a big stack of Survivor-branded pizza that's clearly been sitting out in the Fijian sun for awhile, and everyone pretends to be extremely jazzed about the prospect of it, even though it's so congealed that the entire top surface of the pizza is a uniform, tepid shade of orange and it's sort of sweating a little. The Survivors demand a sample of the pizza, but Probst declines, probably because if they actually tasted that mess they wouldn't necessarily knock themselves out trying to win it.

Blue Tribe takes an early lead, and as has been happening a lot lately, Culpepper manages to make up a lot of time for Orange Tribe in the "balls" phase of the challenge (because there's always a "balls" phase). This time, though, it's not quite enough, and Blue Tribe wins the "reward." Orange Tribe's devastation feels out of proportion to the quality of this reward, even when one considers that it also comes with "soft drinks."

Pizza; Advice

Oh, good lord, is Orange Tribe still pretending they're despondent over the loss of the pizza? Apparently, the lack of coagulated cheese and soggy, greasy crust in their lives takes them to a surprisingly deep place, emotionally speaking. Suddenly, everyone's crying and sharing their feelings about the crucible that is the Survivor experience. Through tears, Brad describes the physical and emotional toll the game took on his wife, Monica, who made it all the way to the end in Survivor: Blood vs. Water. Aubry and Cirie are particularly affected by his candor.

As the Blue Tribe "enjoys" pizza, Varner searches for a target to take some heat off of him. Ozzy, as the biggest threat, is the most obvious place to throw some extra votes, and Sarah appears to be on board with this plan.

Word Scrambles And Game Scrambles

Since Immunity this week begins with a lot of diving down to retrieve buoys, and Blue Tribe has Ozzy, who is part Sea Monkey, Blue Tribe again takes a huge lead, but the word-scramble portion of the challenge proves to be something of an equalizer. Orange Tribe figures out the word -- "METAMORPHOSIS" -- while Blue Tribe is still stuck on "something SHIP." Possibly all that pizza was weighing them down.

During what he terms "Scramble Afternoon," Varner requests one-on-one meetings with each of his tribemates. While he and Zeke are conferring, the rest of the tribe takes a straw poll. Debbie and Andrea are leaning toward voting out Varner, Sarah thinks now is the time to vote out Ozzy, and Zeke feels torn: he'd like to save Varner, but he'd also like to keep Ozzy.

What happens next is hard to parse; what we see and what Varner narrates kind of appear to be two different things. Zeke is pretty candid with Varner that he's doing what he can to save him, but he doesn't quite have the troops rallied. In Varner's mind, this means that Zeke and Ozzy have some sort of long-term pact about which they're keeping the rest of the tribe in the dark.

If he's going out, Varner reasons, he's dragging everyone else down with him, so he tells Sarah and Andrea that Zeke's playing them, and that Zeke is far sneakier than he looks. It's at this point that Varner brings up, via confessional, that he has figured something else out about Zeke. He doesn't say what it is, only that "it's insignificant to the game."

As the show cuts to commercial, it's 8:37, meaning nearly half the show's about to be given over to Tribal Council, and you have to imagine that even an Ozzy blindside wouldn't fill that much time, so whatever it is, it's got to be pretty bananas.

Candor On Camera

Tribal Council actually starts out pretty rote: Varner knows he's going home, and he further knows it's probably not going to be a close vote. So his only move is to point out that Blue Tribe is not actually six strong; the secret alliance between Zeke and Ozzy is poised to take down everyone else. So everyone should vote out Ozzy tonight. It's not a bad pitch, muses Debbie.

But Varner's not done yet. "There's deception here," he adds. And then he pivots, both literally and figuratively. "Why haven't you told anyone you're transgender?" he asks Zeke.

A good thirty seconds of awkward silence follows. It's immediately clear that Varner's gone too far. Whether he was close to getting anyone to vote with him or not is unclear, but he's definitely not winning any friends now. Unfortunately for Varner, he does not know when to quit here. "What I'm showing is a deception," he repeats, and the rest of the tribe is rightly horrified that Varner has just revealed something deeply personal about Zeke that he was not ready to reveal to them. Andrea, Sarah, and Tai actually burst into tears, and Tai shouts at Varner that it's never okay to out anybody, for any reason. "You're playing with people's lives," says Ozzy.

It takes Varner way too long to realize what a huge line he's crossed, although he does realize it eventually. He is an advocate for transgender people in his home state of North Carolina, he says, but Zeke is capable of being deceptive, and if he's out and proud in his life but not here in the game...oh, wait, that's actually a pretty horrible thing to say, and, um, Zeke maybe wasn't exactly out and proud, and oh shit. And Varner's just outed someone not only to his Survivor tribe, but to millions of viewers. And that is super-shitty, not to mention something that can't be taken back.

The silver lining to this wrenching, ugly moment is that the entire tribe accepts Zeke, immediately and without question. Even Probst is very quick to point out that being transgender has absolutely nothing to do with being deceptive, and that implying such a thing is pretty beyond the pale. Zeke explains that he isn't necessarily not out, it's just ceased to be something that he volunteers. He didn't want to be "the transgender Survivor player," just "Zeke the Survivor player," and Andrea is very quick to assure him that he is. Sarah, who comes from a relatively conservative background, explains that learning this about Zeke, and realizing it changes nothing about how she feels about him, has been a watershed moment in her life.

For his part, Zeke takes this all with surprising grace. He doesn't see himself as a role model, he says, but he hopes the whole thing will serve as an educational experience for someone out there watching the show. Still, the pain on his face when he's outed is pretty obvious, and Varner's back-pedaling once he realizes the damage he's caused is pretty cringeworthy...on the whole, it's not easy to watch.

Which isn't to say you shouldn't, it's just...this is complicated. There's an argument to be made that Survivor shouldn't be exploiting this for ratings, but ultimately I think insofar as they're able to show this incident without exploiting it, they are. But then again, when Probst decides nobody is voting, he's effectively declaring that the editors will have to air what happened, with minimal spin, since they will have to explain the weirdness of the proceedings.

Anyway, Varner's going home, obviously, and without the courtesy of a vote. In his final words he reiterates that he realizes what a horrible mistake he's made, and how inadequate his apologies are. There's no coming back from this -- certainly not in the game and maybe not in the real world either.


To Probst's credit, and Blue Tribe's, and CBS's, this really could have gone a lot worse than it did. The overall message is one of acceptance, which is encouraging in a look-how-far-we've-come-as-a-society sort of way, but the harder you think about the ramifications this Tribal Council might have out in the post-Survivor world for all of its participants, the further outside of your comfort zone it'll take you. It's undeniable that this is one of the realer things ever shown on this particular reality show.

Also, don't out people. Ever.

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