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’Survivor 44’ returned last night with this season’s first proper merge vote, and it did not disappoint. With several targets teased, it was anyone’s guess who would be the seventh eliminated player.

Luckily, fans were treated to one of this season’s more dramatic blindsides with an idol play by Danny that was used to combat votes against fellow Soka tribemate, Frannie. On the receiving end of the move was security specialist and former Seattle Seahawk Brandon Cottom, who left the game by a vote of 4-0. Among the votes against Brandon were those of Carolyn, Danny, Frannie, and Heidi, while Yam Yam and Carson sided with the Ratu four in an attempt to save face with them and maintain their middle position in the game. With this vote, Brandon becomes the second juror of the season, joining Matt on the jury of seven who will decide the winner of ’Survivor 44’ later next month.

Pop Crave caught up with Brandon following his elimination to discuss why an alliance with Danny never came to fruition, underestimating Carolyn’s game, wanting to compete on ‘The Challenge,’ and more. Keep reading for the full exit interview!

What an insane tribal council that was. How surprised were you by the vote?

I was a little surprised by it, but not so much of Danny playing his idol. I did know that that was a possibility. It kind of stems back to last week. So last week, we thought that Matt actually had the idol — the real one. Even though he showed us the fake, we thought that there was a possibility that he just didn’t show us the real one. And then when we first got to the beach, the first thing he said was, “I forgot my bag.” He was very adamant about trying to get his bag. So then there was a lightbulb like, “Oh, yeah. He has it for sure.” And when he went home without it, we were thinking, “Alright, he didn’t have it. That means either Frannie has it, or Danny might have it.” So we knew the possibility that one of them had the idol. I thought that we had come up with a plan, but there was just so much that happened before and after that, that I never checked in with anybody before we went to tribal. I don’t think it was ever specifically said who would vote for who, and so it ended up playing out how it played out. You know, it’s funny… when I was sitting at tribal, I was thinking that we did split the vote. I actually looked over to Lauren and I’m like, “Oh, he has no idea what he just did,” because I’m thinking there’s gonna be a couple of Danny votes. And then all of a sudden, “Frannie, Frannie, Frannie, Frannie, Frannie.” And I was like, “That’s way too many Frannie votes, so I’m definitely going home.” And sure enough, that’s how it played out.

This was your first tribal council without safety since the very first Ratu vote where Maddy was eliminated. What were your nerves like going into this vote knowing that you were vulnerable to be voted for?

It was definitely scary because anytime that you’re not immune, you’re thinking, “It could be me.” And that was 100% what I was thinking: “It could probably be me tonight.” I thought that we might have had a plan for anything that could possibly happen, so I wasn’t terrified. I didn’t necessarily think I was going home, but I knew that my name was probably going to be out there. Especially because early in the episode, Yam Yam, and they don’t show it, but he actually does come up to me and tell me, “Danny’s, putting your name out there.” Now, he never confirmed to me that he had an idol. I don’t even know if he knew that he had one. But he did know that there was a possibility that my name was getting tossed out there, so I knew that it was a possibility as well. I just didn’t plan well enough for it, or, I mean, it was a combination: I didn’t plan well enough for it, but then also there were other people that knew the plan — and were privy to it — that didn’t necessarily want to see me not go home. They were just letting everything run its course. And by those [people], I’m talking about the Tika group.

Courtesy of CBS

Yourself and the rest of Ratu were pretty open with everyone that you wanted Frannie to be the vote. What was the thought process behind going about it that way, and did you guys ever have a backup plan?

We were so open about it because I think everybody saw her as a big threat. With or without Matt, Frannie was killing challenges. She was very likable. She’s very smart. She understood the game, and she’s strategic. So it just seemed like the perfect moment for us to try to take a shot at her. I did think we had a plan. I thought the plan was gonna be a split vote between Frannie and Danny. But again, terrible planning. Like, all the way around, it was just a terrible job. So it kind of all fell in front of my eyes there at tribal as you see.

We saw Heidi mention wanting to take you out because of your strength. Do you think there was anything you could have done to downplay your threat level?

I mean, I think the only thing I could have done to downplay being a physical threat would have been to tank every challenge, which is just not who I am. It’s not what I’ll ever be. Especially because when you lose, then you’re on the chopping block. And that was the last thing I ever wanted: to be on the chopping block. So as a competitor, I don’t think there’s anything I could have done differently. Maybe as a strategic player, I could have been like, “Alright, I could not do as well in challenges,” but to me, that wasn’t realistic. It wasn’t who I was or who I wanted to be. So I don’t think I would have done anything differently, honestly.

Courtesy of CBS

You had a confessional mentioning that Ratu had the majority in the game, and you included Carson as part of it. What was your perception of his relationship with Carolyn and Yam Yam out there?

So when Carson first got to Ratu beach, one of the first things he was telling us — which obviously looking back now it’s like, “Why would we believe him?” but it felt very believable — was that Yam Yam was running the show and that he thought he would be the next one going home. To us, he seemed like he was just wide open armed; he was happy to be there. So we thought that we were taking him in and that he was a part of Ratu. You know, and he did kind of share information. He did help us out in certain situations where it just seemed like he was aligned with us. So I think that he did a very, very good job of aligning with us without aligning with us. And you kind of see that in this episode, where he knows what’s going on. He knew where the votes were going, and he still chose to go with Ratu’s plan because he didn’t want to put his neck out there. For what? He knew what was going on, and he knew that they had the firepower to get it done. So it was a great move by him and Yam Yam to kind of not put themselves out there.

You and Danny had agreed to look out for each other and other physical players in the game during your journey meal with Carolyn. Why wasn’t that alliance able to come to fruition?

I think with that, what you see there when we first get together… that was the first time we ever met and got to talk to each other. So obviously, yeah, we’re going to “bro out” in a sense. But we’re also playing this game just like everybody else is out there playing. We understand that you can’t, just for one, openly be like, “Oh, I have an alliance with this person,” and really mean it. And then the other thing is, it was very clearly a Ratu versus Soka war that was going on. We both knew it, and everybody who was out there knew. I think it’s just becoming more clear to the audience now that that’s what was happening. But we already knew that the line was gonna be drawn in the sand, no matter if that was last night, next week, or the week after. So what you see is us having a good time or whatever. But there was still so much strategy that went on behind the scenes. We understood that, realistically, we’re going to have to go for each other anyway because I didn’t want to take him to the end. And I know he didn’t want to take me to the end. So we knew that that was going to come to fruition eventually.

The members of Tika have indicated in their confessionals that they feel like the tribe is underestimating them. Would you say that was the perception of them while you were out there?

So I think, in a sense, it is. I don’t necessarily think that people are underestimating Yam Yam that much. I think that he’s just been in the minority as far as numbers. Everybody knows how strong of a social game both him and Carson are playing. They know that they’re very strategic. I think the one person — I can’t speak for everyone else, but personally — that I overlooked and that I did downplay their game was Carolyn. Carolyn, especially watching it back, completely surprised me with her gameplay. What you gotta remember out there is that you don’t have all of the information. You don’t know who has what. You don’t know what the situation is. So at that lunch when we had it, Carolyn, and they don’t necessarily show it, was like, “I’m going home next. I’m not gonna be here tomorrow!” This, that, the other. [The] whole time, she had an idol in her pocket! You know what I mean [laughs]. So it’s like, you only get what people show you. And from what I was getting out there, I completely underestimated her game. And I’ve told her that personally as well. But yeah, she definitely surprised me with how she played.

Courtesy of CBS

What were your conversations with Matt like back at Ponderosa? I’m sure there was lots to talk about after last week’s tribal council.

So the conversation I had with Matt was like… one of the big things that kind of played a factor in us voting for him last week was that he was lying to me specifically about things that I knew were a lie. Like as far as who he voted for. Now, I didn’t realize he lost both of his votes. I kind of found that out later on from Frannie, actually. I think he said he voted for Kane when I knew everybody who voted for Kane at that previous vote. So I knew that that was a lie, and I was like, “Why are you lying to me about this when we were literally the ones who talked about this plan together?” So that was a big red flag for me. And then the other thing I told him was, “I genuinely thought you had the idol.” I’m like, “You were so adamant about getting your bag that in our heads, we were like, ‘Nobody acts like that for a Shot in the Dark’.” And I told him, “If you would have just been honest with me and been cool, calm, and collected, we would have made it work,” because Matt was somebody who I wanted to work with. Him and Frannie. We had talked about it, like, the episode before or so. So it was more so that I felt like, when you catch somebody in a lie like that, it’s hard to trust everything they’re saying, especially when now it makes you question everything. And that’s kind of what happened.

You’re officially the second member of the jury! What are you looking for in the winner of ‘Survivor 44’?

I think one of the biggest things that I was looking for was the awareness of the game and the intentionality behind the moves. I think there’s a lot of times where you have people that kind of fall into situations, and they might not necessarily know why they did it or what the thought process was that went behind it. So my biggest thing is that I want to see that you’ve made these moves intentionally, understanding how that affects your game and how that’s gonna get you to the end. As opposed to just doing what somebody else said, and then it just happened to work out.

This question is a bit more fun. We’ve seen Danny McCray, another former Survivor and NFL player, crush it on The Challenge. Would you ever be open to appearing on a future season?

Absolutely! They better call me. I need it. I love ‘The Challenge.’ That’s another show that I like to watch. So if they were to come call me, I would 100% go out there. And I think that’d be something I’d do very well in. So my phone is open!

New episodes of Survivor air Wednesday nights at 8/7c on CBS.