Survivor Survival Guide: Previewing the Finale

The night the first Survivor finale aired in the summer of 2000 is oddly salient in my memory. My parents were on vacation, so my cousin was staying with us, and I remember having to go with her to drive my brother to a friend’s house quickly before the finale started–except that I was kind of ashamed of falling prey to this reality TV thing, so I never mentioned it, and we had trouble finding the house on a secluded street, and I was panicking in the back seat because I wanted Rudy to win so badly, and we ended up getting home about two minutes after the episode started. Even today, when I pass that secluded street, I think immediately of that night.

Like I said, oddly salient.

Although the Survivor finale that night didn’t give me the result I wanted, it certainly did deliver. It gave us arguably the landmark moment in reality television and a winner who, while unpopular with many, was probably the best the show could have had for its long-term health.*

*The polarity of opinions on Richard Hatch and how he played the game remains an issue 20 seasons into the game. Does controlling the game and risking the alienation of others constitute playing it the best? Or is it better to lay low, ride coattails, and hope your opponent is voted against? It’s a subjective stance, and it’s what makes the finale so interesting time after time.

Although my viewership of Survivor seasons has been haphazard at best, my excitement for the season finale when I do watch is always as embarrassingly high as it was that night a decade ago.* I would say that Survivor finales have regularly amped me up more than the finales of any other drama–although, to be fair, I would attribute this largely to the fact that most of the great dramas I have watched recently (The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, Mad Men, and Lost), I have watched either online or on DVD, meaning I can watch the finale immediately after the penultimate episode. This is one of my least favorite things about watching shows on DVD.

*It’s even to the point where, when I see commercials for the finale of a season I didn’t watch, I regret not having watched the other 13 or so episodes. In fact, I watched the finale of Tocantins for the hell of it when JT won, and it was still a pretty enthralling episode of television despite my unfamiliarity with the season.

I love the Survivor finale because, no matter how clearcut it seems going in, you can never rely on the fickle psychology of the jury. You can’t predict which players will graciously vote for the person who caused their elimination because he was the best player, which ones will remain loyal to their alliances long after they’ve died, and which ones will hold long-term grudges. These questions are only amplified by the ambiguity of watching a season of Survivor: We the viewers only see so much, and it’s no secret that the editing plays a big role in the portrayal of different characters.

And so the Final Tribal Council always ends up as gripping drama, as we see everyday people attempt to articulate themselves in a highly stressful question and answer format with $1 million on the line. And again, add in the various off-the-wall questions* (or Sue Hawk condemnations) thrown in the face of the finalists, and you get one of the most fun half-hours of the year. In fact, if it were up to me, I would stretch the finale to a two-night affair, with the entirety of Tribal Council running the next night. It’s that good.

*Like Natalie’s infamous question to Parvati: “How does your reputation as a flirt extend to the bedroom?” It was absurd.

Furthermore, the 20th season of Survivor has been one of the most entertaining. It has proven once again that an all-star cast, despite some of its theoretical quandaries, works very well for dramatic purposes, and it has given us, by my count, two pantheon Survivor episodes (“I’m Not a Good Villain” and “The Sinking Ship”). There’s been Sugar going topless to win a challenge, enough time for a Colby-sucks-but-then-he-redeems-himself-but-now-he-sucks-even-more storyline, JT giving an immunity idol to Russell, a catfight–albeit a disappointing one–between Danielle and Amanda officiated by Colby because he was perturbed they were interrupting a showing of Treasure Island in the Robert Louis Stevenson House, Courtney’s snarky comments at Tribal, and finally, what in my mind goes down as the greatest quote in the history of Survivor from Coach, moments before, mind you, he voted for Randy:

“There’s nobody out here that’s honorable. There’s nobody out here that’s honorable anymore—except for me. I hate to pontificate on this. Martin Luther King says that the greatest measure of a man is not in the way he handles times of comfort, but in the way he rises to controversy and challenge. There’s always hope; the last thing we have in life and in this game is hope that the impossible will happen, that we dare to dream that Randy’s gonna wake up in this camp tomorrow. So yes, there’s still hope. I still have breath and a brain cell in this brain. I will fight for him.”

Heading into the finale, there’s a final five without a clear favorite and with two former winners involved. So let’s break this all down.


10. Russell/Jerri/Colby

9. Parvati/Jerri/Colby

8. Parvati/Sandra/Colby

7. Russell/Sandra/Colby

6. Russell/Parvati/Colby

5. Jerri/Sandra/Colby

4. Russell/Sandra/Jerri

3. Russell/Parvati/Jerri

2. Parvati/Sandra/Jerri

1. Russell/Parvati/Sandra

The dominant trend, of course, is that I don’t want to see Colby in the Final Three. Even though he is the last Hero and I used to like Colby, you simply can’t make a case that he belongs in the final five, let alone the last three. It would be a disgrace if he won.

I have Russell/Parvati/Sandra ranked first not only because I think it’s the likeliest final three but also because it brings together the two people who have controlled the game with a former winner who has played it very well a second time around despite losing her alliance before the merge.


Coach: Jerri, Parvati, Sandra,

Courtney: Sandra, Parvati, Jerri,

J.T.: Russell, Colby, Parvati

Amanda: Parvati, Colby, Sandra

Candice: Russell, Parvati, Jerri

Danielle: Parvati, Jerri, Sandra

Rupert: Colby, Sandra, Jerri


One of the recurring themes of the last few weeks has been the Villains’ need to eliminate the Heroes because they would struggle to beat them in a jury vote. Now that Colby, of all people, is the last Hero, I don’t think that’s a concern. The four Heroes on the jury right now (J.T., Amanda, Candice, and Rupert) were against Colby’s alliance with Tom and Stephenie at the start of the game, and I think only Rupert would vote for Colby above anyone else remaining. J.T. seems like the type who would tip his hat to Russell for playing him, Amanda still seems more loyal to Parvati than anyone else (and she’s certainly not going to vote for Colby first after the way he officiated that catfight between her and Danielle), and Candice was always more a villain than anything else who bonded more with Russell.


Russell: Jerri, Colby

Parvati: Russell, Jerri

Sandra: Parvati, Jerri

Jerri: Russell, Parvati

Colby: Jerri, Sandra

I can’t see Russell being gracious enough to vote for Parvati if she were in the finals and not him while I do see Parvati voting for Russell if he makes it and she doesn’t. I’m guessing Colby would vote for Jerri to make amends for turning on her in Australia oh so many years ago.


Based off that information, the 10 Final Three combinations would end with Parvati winning 5 times, Jerri winning twice, Sandra and Russell winning once, and one ending in a three-way tie between Russell, Jerri, and Sandra. But, we all know that there’s not an equal chance of each combination occurring. My guess is that Colby is the least likely to be a part of the Final Three, and if we take the four possibilities that don’t involve him, Parvati would win three and Sandra one.

This is all to say, I think Parvati is the favorite.


I’ve pondered all season whether the jurors would vote for former winners in the finals since, you know, they already won $1 million dollars. If it’s Russell, Parvati, and Sandra at the end, would a single juror decide not to award a second million to Parvati and Sandra and toss his/her vote to Russell? That could be enough to turn the tides.


We have to rank here!

5. Colby: It’s not just that Colby has been an absolute no-show in challenges; it’s also that he seemed to give up on trying to win the game once Steph was voted off in the second episode. HeHe’s been nothing short of miserable for his entire stay in Samoa, and he would be among the least deserving winners in Survivor history–which would be remarkable since he’s also one of the runners-up who most deserved to win.

4. Jerri: I’ve been pretty hard on Jerri throughout this season, but I’ve been very impressed that she’s been able to make it this far. She knew when to jump to Russell’s side (although it could be argued she would have been just as safe with Boston Rob), and she has never ruffled Russell’s or really anyone’s feathers, meaning she has a good chance with the jury.

3. Russell: I’ve chided Russell too for what I thought was his inability to adapt his game this time around after finishing second last season–right up until I read in this revelatory Jeff Probst interview (talk about burying your lede) that Russell played this entire season before knowing the results of his last season, which he presumably thought he won. This explains a lot of Russell’s behavior, but still, the guy has to be aware that what he does rubs people the wrong way–people that then hold his fate in his hands. And as much as he has tried to control the game, he hasn’t had as good a grip on it as the top two precisely because he doesn’t read people as well as they do.

2. Sandra: Did you know that Sandra is the only survivor yet to have a vote count against her? She received her first two votes last week, only they didn’t matter because she had the hidden immunity idol that, for once, remained a secret for multiple episodes. Sandra has persevered through the collapse of her alliance before the merge, and she has played her cards perfectly since the merge. She knew how to try to get the Heroes on her side while simultaneously staying “loyal” to the Villains. She has betrayed no one. If only she didn’t spend so much time emoting about her husband…

1. Parvati: Who else could it be? The essence of Survivor is getting other people to do your dirty work for you, and in that case, Parvati has played even better this time around than she did in Fans v. Favorites. That time, she was often the vehicle of Cirie’s machinations and simply had the good fortune to meet Amanda in a Final Two instead of Cirie in a Final Three. This season, she’s played Russell every bit as well as he’s played her, and in fact, his decision to eliminate Danielle (in a way, to punish Parvati) probably worked better for her in the end. Not only does she subtract someone who would have probably beaten her in the finals, but she adds an ally in the jury box. Russell was the bad guy in it all, but Parvati’s the one who made out best. She encapsulated her relationship with Russell perfectly some weeks ago: “It’s not Russell running the show here. He’s not the king of Survivor. I’m the queen. And usually the king does what the queen wants anyway.” She knew when to keep secrets from Russell with the immunity idol and when to play it (still a ballsy move to save Jerri AND Sandra in the same Tribal, therein exposing herself). She even emerged as a physical presence since the merge, winning two individual immunities and stepping down in favor of Danielle when she had a shot at a third. She’s made fewer enemies than she did last time when she still won, and she has cemented herself as one of the best players in the game’s history.

So that’s why Parvati should win. Whether she does, well, that’s why it’s so much fun to watch.

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] one of the two people I thought should win was going to win. Perhaps it was because the voting went almost exactly as I expected,* from five down to four down to three down to one. Or perhaps it was because I wrote those 2,000 […]


  2. […] Tim finally convinced me. Based on his investment in the last season of Survivor, he inspired me to watch some of last […]


  3. […] and force everybody to contribute. They are almost always a perfect climax to the season (unlike certain other competitive reality shows), pushing players to their breaking point and bringing different tensions to the surface. And when […]


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