Tales from Tribal Council- Week 6

(BLOGGER’S NOTE: So it’s been a few years since I’ve done one of these, but I thought it would be fun to bring back the weekly Survivor recap. For those of you who are new to this, I give my cheerfully rambling opinions on last night’s episode, both in terms of game play and production, and speculate on strategies the players might use going forward. It should be noted that this does assume you’ve already watched the episode. If you haven’t, go find an online recap and come back to us. (Or watch the thing On Demand. This doesn’t have to be hard, ya cheap bastard!)

So, full confession, even though it contains information you’re probably only mildly interested in: the reason these recaps don’t come out the day after the new episode of Survivor airs is that my girlfriend, also a Survivor fanatic, works on Wednesday nights. Out of consideration for her, I wait and watch the new episode on CBS All Access on Thursday nights, then write the recap for Friday. This week, had something going on Thursday, so the viewing was pushed back to Friday. On the one hand, I lamented this, since the episode was so newsworthy, I felt I should have put a recap out ASAP. But I’m also grateful that I had the chance to gather perspectives that others have written over the last few days before writing my own recap. And like a lot of them, I’m not going to offer up the usual recap and instead focus on what happened at Tribal Council.

To provide some context, here’s what happened leading up to Tribal Council. Varner was feeling he was on the bottom of the Nuku tribe and started looking for ways to ensure his own survival in the game. He began to focus on Ozzy, whom everybody believed to be a physical threat. To that end, he seemed to have found allies in Zeke and Sarah. However, after Nuku lost the Immunity Challenge, he found himself facing elimination, something Zeke more or less confirmed for him. (In an interview, Zeke said the tribe needed Ozzy to stay strong, but he didn’t want Varner’s elimination to be a blindside.) Varner began questioning Zeke’s trustworthiness to Andrea and Sarah, hoping to maybe make Zeke the target instead. He then hinted in an interview (in words that would become more ominous later) that he had figured out something about Zeke and was going to use it at Tribal Council. Once at Tribal, Varner admitted that he was on his way out of the game, but said there was a secret alliance between Ozzy and Zeke (the editing, at least, had offered no evidence of this.) Then Varner questioned Zeke’s trustworthiness before turning to him and saying:

“Zeke, why haven’t you told anyone that you’re transgender?”

That moment-and everything that followed-is all that’s really worth talking about from this episode.

The tribe’s reaction to Varner’s words was swift and emotional. Andrea and Tai spoke up first, both moved to tears of anger at what Varner had done. Tai, so frequently fumbling when dealing with conflict, was decisive: “You f**ing just outed him! Nobody have the right to out anybody!” Debbie calmly, but firmly stated: “It was for Zeke to decide. It was for Zeke to discuss when he was comfortable discussing it.” Ozzy would later tell Varner, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Sarah tearfully discussed her Midwestern, conservative background before talking about how much she respected Zeke because she had come to know him.

For his part, Varner was at first incredulous at his tribemates’ response, feeling that Zach not telling everyone he was transgender was proof of his willingness to deceive. He then became defensive, saying he did not want to be portrayed as some kind of evil monster. Then he seemed determined to make the whole thing go away. Finally, as his tribemates’ vehemence continued and the fundamental flaws in his own logic were pointed out, the full weight of what he had done began to hit him. He tearfully asked for Zeke’s forgiveness.

The most important person in all of this, of course, is Zeke, who is the victim. For a long stretch, Zeke was quiet, looking almost shell-shocked. When the discussion finally came around to him, he explained why he had stopped telling people he was transgender “because when people know that about you, that’s sort of who you are.” He went on to explain that he wanted to be seen as Zeke the Survivor player rather than the trans Survivor player. While he wasn’t able to look at Varner for a while, Zeke seemed fine with discussing his reasons for not revealing the information (not that ANY explanation was required.) By the end of it, he was willing to hug Varner and offer words of forgiveness.

The advantage of not seeing the episode for a few days is that I was able to read how the reactions evolved. At first, many people understandably took the show to the woodshed, saying it was unnecessary to air the episode or at least unnecessary to air Zeke’s outing at Tribal Council. There was criticism of Jeff Probst for turning the whole Tribal Council into a “talk show” moment and for ignoring Zeke  through a good portion of it. There was also criticism of Sarah’s speech, in which she seemed to imply that Zeke had been afraid to reveal the information and that she seemed to make it a bit too much about her and her background. Let’s tackle each of these criticisms and see how they’ve evolved.

First, as I said, the criticism of CBS for airing the episode and Survivor producers for airing the Tribal Council is understandable. There is precedent for these kind of ugly incidents being cut out. Big Brother has had a few houseguests sent home for throwing temper tantrums and/or threatening castmates. In each of these cases, the Big Brother producers chose not to air the offending footage and to simply tell the audience that this particular houseguest had been ejected. Of course, this instance on Survivor would have been more difficult. If Varner had simply disappeared from the show, the reason would have to be conveyed to the audience. If it was, Zeke would have been outed anyway. Regardless, all of these arguments, pro or con, were muted when it was revealed that Zeke had given the producers and the network permission to air the episode.

The criticism of Probst is unwarranted, but also understandable. Over the years, Probst has evolved (or perhaps devolved) from a host who acted as the audience’s stand-in to a host who openly tries to manipulate how the audience perceives the game. In this case, though, Probst did a masterful job. He immediately recognized the seriousness of what was happening and didn’t attempt to add anything. While he didn’t try to manipulate events, he didn’t let Varner off the hook, either. When Varner attempted to explain away his accusation by saying, “I’m not saying, Jeff, that transgender people are deceptive,” Probst replied,  “You’re saying that by not revealing it, he’s capable of deception. That’s a giant leap of logic. Do you honestly not see that?” By pointing out the basic contradictions in Varner’s defenses, Probst went back to doing what he does best: saying exactly what’s on the audience’s mind. There was nothing exploitative in what he did. As for ignoring Zeke, that criticism was muted when Zeke praised Probst for letting him gather himself and his thoughts before turning to him. In hindsight, the exploitative thing to do would have been immediately demanding answers from Zeke.

One additional criticism of Probst was his forgoing the traditional vote and simply asking the tribe if they were willing to vote out Varner. The answer came back as a resounding yes. To some, this felt like Probst manipulating the vote. I disagree. So many recappers like myself decided to throw out our usual formats and simply talk about what happened to Zeke, recognizing that moment to be so much more than business-as-usual. Certainly, Jeff Probst, standing at ground zero of that moment, would understandably feel the same way.

As for the criticism of Sarah, could her words have been phrased better? I suppose. But really, how often do ANY of us, faced with an extremely emotional moment, get our words Minute Rice perfect? What Sarah clearly intended was to point out that she liked Zeke for who he is and no revelation and no part of Sarah’s own background was going to get in the way of that. She was simply letting Zeke know he had a friend and an ally that went beyond the game. Surely, what she was trying to convey was more eloquent than any words she could come up with.

For Varner, he’s going to have to live with what he’s done. It’s complicated to look at the situation, certainly. On the one hand, it’s good to see that he recognized the full weight of what he did. Of course, that doesn’t excuse the incredibly poor judgment he showed in the first place. Clearly, the actions he took to avoid getting voted out of the game have resulted in something far worse than getting voted out of the game. He was let go from his job as a real estate agent the day after the show aired. But moreover, he’s learned the lesson of anyone who’s ever victimized someone else: that no matter what you tell yourself, you are, for all time, the person who did that awful thing. And nothing can change that.

For Zeke, his reaction to all of this has been beyond admirable. He wrote this beautiful piece for the Hollywood Reporter and also appeared on The Talk earlier this week. That he has been willing to take a thoughtless, horrible moment and turn it into an opportunity to open up a dialogue (one that in the current political atmosphere seems to be desperately needed) is truly inspiring. While Jeff Varner had the decency to regret what he did, there will always be hateful voices that will attempt to disparage people like Zeke for being who he is and these people will use their religion as grounds for these hateful attacks. It’s ironic that Zeke’s willingness to forgive makes him a better Christian than those who would attack him for simply being who he is.

As a fan of the show, though, I worry about what we’re going to see when the show continues. Zeke’s been put through this and he doesn’t have a support system of family and friends out there. Yes, what his tribemates did was, in Probst’s words, beautiful. But no matter how much they genuinely feel for Zeke, they will, at some point, go back to being his competitors in a game for a million dollars. I hope Zeke’s able to get through all of this. Certainly, his public appearances have shown he’s come out okay.


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