Survivor Survival Guide: Anything Can Happen

“King Arthur’s journey is officially ended.” –Coach

“The Heroes built it and the Villains burned it.” –Parvati

“This is how I hustle, this is how I make my money: I come out here and play Survivor. That’s what I’m best at.” –Sandra

“If she can win the game twice, there is a flaw in the game.” –Russell

Perhaps it was because it was clear that 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 fawning words about the euphoria of a Survivor season finale.

*Qualification time: I said “almost exactly.” Even though I said Parvati was the favorite, I thought we would get to a Final Three of Russell, Parvati, and Sandra, and that Sandra would win in that scenario (I thought 4-3-2 before the final tribal and 5-3-1 after it, with JT sticking with Russell. He didn’t.).

But I have to admit, there was something a little disappointing about last night’s finale. Let’s review it (you can also skip down to “The Disappointment of It All” if you think you’re above a quasi-analytical recap):

FROM FIVE TO FOUR

It started with highlights from the players’ previous Survivor experiences, and what struck me most was the difference in the reactions of Colby and Russell when they each lost. I had forgotten just how likable Colby was on Australia; I mean, he jumped up and fist-pumped the moment he lost because he was excited for Tina! What a guy! Russell, meanwhile, looked like the sorest loser in Survivor history–a designation he would add to later.

There was some fallout from last episode, specifically over whether Parvati knew Sandra had a hidden immunity idol. This felt mainly like contrived drama, with Russell using it as an excuse to talk up voting out Parvati–if and only if Colby somehow won the Immunity Challenge, of course. Russell mentioned that his ideal Final Three would include Jerri and Sandra–two players he felt did nothing to get this far.

The Immunity Challenge consisted of balancing an ever-increasing stack of dishes on a pole with a tiny ball as a fulcrum. I wasn’t really on board with this challenge at first–remember, I prefer the “Stand somewhere for a long time” variety–but it grew on me. I mean, it looked really hard, and it placed a strong focus on concentration (reminding me of the final challenge on Fans v. Favorites, when Amanda, Parvati, and Cirie had to balance a marble on a longer and longer piece of wood). Sandra and Jerri bowed out first, with Russell’s stack collapsing after 16 dishes. It came down to Parvati and Colby, with the loser likely being voted out. With both stacks wobbling as they reached 17 dishes, Colby’s fell over without much provocation, handing Parvati her second straight immunity and third in the last four.*

*Man, you know it’s a weak physical season when Parvati starts dominating challenges. She’s no Colby Donaldson or Tom Westman or even Bob Crowley.

The plan seemed to be set to vote off Colby, who was ostensibly at peace with it. Back at camp, he told everyone to just enjoy the day, essentially waving a white flag. However, after saying, “I don’t know how to quit. It’s just not in me. I’ve never quit anything in my life,”* he clandestinely approaches Russell to talk about voting off Sandra now, so that he, Jerri, and Russell could take out Parvati next. I thought this was the right move for Russell then; to me, the Villains oversold Colby’s “friends” in the jury all season. I couldn’t see JT or Candice or Amanda voting for him as quickly as they would vote for Sandra, and thus she was the more dangerous player to keep around. Russell obviously didn’t see it that way, going so far as to say he wanted her around precisely because he didn’t think she could beat him. Colby was voted out 3-1.

*An ironic statement to say the least (but not nearly the most ironic delivered in the finale): More than any other player who ever made it this far, Colby quit on the season several weeks ago.

FROM FOUR TO THREE

Day 38 always consists of one of Survivor’s great rituals, the Rites of Passage where the remaining castaways pay tribute to their “fallen comrades.” Every season, I dread these 10 minutes; they seem self-serving and a waste of time better spent prepping for the season’s conclusion. But I always change my mind during the Rites of Passage because I do forget things like Sugar was on this season and Jerri was tight with Coach and Tyson would say stuff like “As far as I’m concerned, I’m still the winner.”* The RoP helped me remember all the long-forgotten but hugely critical moves made in the game, like JT swinging on Cirie one week and Tom the next and Tyson’s inexplicable decision to change his vote based on Russell’s counsel. It ended, as it always does, with the survivors setting their comrades’ names aflame and paying homage to the “Burning Man.”

*”Yes, but in another, more accurate way, Barney is the winner.”

The trek took them to their final Immunity Challenge, and it was a doozie. The four of them had to find their way blindfolded through a maze, picking up four necklaces on the way, to the pole with the Immunity Necklace on it–guided by Braille maps* positioned inside the maze. Again, I would have definitely preferred a “Stand somewhere for a long time” challenge, but this one was exciting to watch. Parvati and Russell each picked up their fourth necklace from the same spot simultaneously, moments before Jerri found hers. The three of them then raced–slowly and indirectly–toward the Immunity Necklace. With all three within about a five-foot radius of immunity, Russell was able to grasp the necklace seconds before Parvati to ensure himself a spot in the finals. Even Jeff thought it was uber-dramatic.

*Not Braille as in actual Braille but, you know, maps that direct by being felt and not seen.

Afterward, Russell’s first determination was that he wouldn’t be voting out Sandra. He wanted her in the finals because “she might get Courtney’s vote and that’s it.” Jerri was confident he’d be voting out Parvati; after all, the two had been bickering almost non-stop for the last few weeks. Parvati told Russell to get rid of Sandra, who she thought had Amanda, Candice, and Courtney’s votes in the bag. Russell saw this as Parvati’s last desperate act–a sign that she didn’t think she could even beat Sandra! He was still deciding between Parvati and Jerri, between staying loyal to the person who’s really been his closest ally all game (Jerri) and voting her off in order to secure her vote.

Heading to Tribal, I thought Parvati was gone. I, like Russell, thought his best chance was with Jerri and Sandra (I had that hypothetical going as a tie), and Russell clearly saw Parvati as his biggest threat in terms of jury votes. But his explanation of his (unseen) vote to the camera–“Sorry to do this to you. I’ve trusted you this entire game, and I believe you’d be loyal to me. But this is my best shot to win this game.”–more or less gave away that he had voted for Jerri. There’s no way he says that about either of the other two. Jerri was stunned by it, shaking her head and saying, “I can’t wait to hear this story later.”

That set up the Final Three I had hoped for, with three players who had been to the finals before and two that had won. They were also, in my opinion, the three castaways most deserving of being in the finals. There wasn’t a Suzie or Katie (from Tom’s season) sneaking into the finals simply because they would be easy to beat.

DAY 39

The Day 39 breakfast–another Survivor tradition–seemed downplayed this time around; it certainly didn’t get the same kind of play I remember it did in Tocantins, when JT and Stephen had planned on having that breakfast together all season.* I think it was a side-effect of going to a Final Three; there isn’t the sense of connection or achievement quite yet when there’s still two other people there.

*I didn’t even watch that season until the finale and I was so happy for those guys.

The other final day footage featured a lot of confessionals, most of which came from Sandra. In her customary, leaning-back-with-legs-crossed style, she talked about her husband (of course), her kids, and her success in the game. Russell asked Parvati if she would have voted for him in the finals had she been eliminated last night, and she told him that she would have voted for Sandra. Russell said he would have voted for her if he were gone, but that’s wildly circumstantial.* And to close out camp, Sandra tossed Russell’s trusty hat into the fire.

*If Parvati had played ANY part in Russell going home, he wouldn’t have voted for her. In fact, I think it’s almost a certainty that he would have voted for Jerri.

THE FINAL TRIBAL

We arrived at the Final Tribal with each finalist seeming confident in their chances. Russell was worried about Parvati but not enough to vote her off the night before, Sandra thought Russell had wildly underestimated her sway with the jury, and Parvati knew–as she did all along–that she was well-liked among the jurors, especially when compared to Russell.

The opening statements were edited very tightly. Sandra talked of trying to get rid of Russell for weeks but never being able to convince the Heroes and how she played predominantly by herself after the merge. Russell said his game carried him to the finals without the assistance of luck before he apologized for any offenses he committed en route to the end. Parvati claimed she played the “ultimate social, strategic, physical game” and that she used Russell, “the dragon,” as her “pet.”

The Q&A session between the jurors and the finalists also seemed edited more tightly than usual with disappointing results. Most of the jurors attacked Russell for the way he played the game and his remorselessness, with Colby calling him “delusional” for not thinking luck played a part, Danielle telling him that “nobody respects the way that you played the game,” Candice saying there’s a difference between lying and “the dirty lies” Russell told, and Rupert saying he “took the easy way out” by being manipulative instead of honest and reiterating that he is “a disgusting human being.” And through all that, the BEST insult directed at Russell was from Coach, who hilariously and seemingly unconsciously called him “a little man”–the exact same thing Rob called Coach when he chickened out of taking sides in the Rob-Russell showdown!

You could figure out which direction several of the jurors were leaning. Even going in, it was clear that Courtney would vote for Sandra and Danielle would vote for Parvati. By differentiating between Sandra being “useless” in challenges and Parvati being a “warrior” in them, Coach tipped his hand. Jerri reacted strongly to Parvati’s revelation that Russell voted her out because he could count on her voting for him, meaning she was definitely not going to vote for him (and, given her season-long distaste for Parvati, appeared to be leaning toward Sandra). Candice compared Parvati to a spouse “in an abusive relationship” with Russell (woefully unobservant in my opinion), so she was going for Sandra, too. I figured JT would stick with Russell, Colby would go with Sandra, and Amanda with Parvati; if that all went down, Sandra would win 5-3-1.

An unusually high* half-dozen votes were revealed as they were cast, with Candice, Courtney, and Rupert voting for Sandra while Danielle, Coach, and surprisingly, Jerri voted for Parvati. With the two women tied at three, it was clear Russell was a goner (it didn’t seem likely he had Colby and Amanda’s votes along with JT’s). Jerri’s vote was the one that surprised me, and it made me think Parvati had a chance of at least tying it.

*That is unusually high, right? They don’t usually show this many?

In the end, though, the other three votes (I think; did they ever reveal the final vote?) were all cast for Sandra, who emerged as the first two-time champion in Survivor history.

THE DISAPPOINTING THING OF IT ALL

Like I said up top, there was something vaguely disappointing about the finale. And it wasn’t from a competitive standpoint.

I still think Parvati should have won, and that she should have played the “I saved Jerri AND Sandra when Russell had immunity and thus left myself as the only vulnerable villain one night” card even harder than she did–she simply called it her best move of the game. But I don’t really have any complaints about Sandra. To think that her last ally was voted off before the merge even happened and that she was thisclose to being eliminated that night instead of Courtney (can you imagine Courtney getting this far in the same scenario?), that she even made it to the Final Three is a testament to her wily, last-minute strategic acumen–and to Russell’s gross misreading of how the jury would vote.* I can’t remember anyone winning while exerting less control on the game, and this is actually a compliment. Sandra was able to prod both sides without ever fully betraying either one. For instance, she could basically flip to the Heroes’ side in an attempt to vote Parvati off in “Jumping Ship,” and then recognize that the plan wouldn’t work because of Candice and vote with the Villains instead. Within another two weeks, she had become Parvati’s closest ally left. So even though she didn’t make any close friends, she more importantly did not make any enemies. The only bad things said about her were said by Russell.

*A brief, admittedly amateur dissection of Russell with the caveat that I did not see his first season on the show: His problem is that the way he defines “the game” diverges radically from how everyone else does. There’s no single way to play the game, but there’s a general consensus, and although he knows he plays the game differently, he expects the jurors to respect his definition of it. You can make a case that they should, that they shouldn’t be bitter about his machinations and manipulations, as they are all part of “the game.” But the biggest issue is that he does not respect nor acknowledge their right to hold a different interpretation. As he showed in the Reunion, he doesn’t understand that, in virtually everyone else’s conception of the game, how you treat those you vote off counts. How he could go into the Final Tribal not understanding that he had no chance to earn votes from people like Danielle or Rupert or that his turning on Jerri would affect how she voted is beyond me; it’s ignorant. I mean, Russell himself is as fickle as anyone who has ever played the game.

This comes back to his conversation with Parvati about their hypothetical jury votes: Parvati knows she would have voted for Sandra, and while Russell thinks he would have “respected” her game enough to vote for Parvati, I seriously doubt that’s how he would have reacted one day after she (hypothetically) engineered his departure.

He made the case in the Reunion that viewers should hold a percentage of the vote; they would be better, less bitter judges of who played the best. But that’s not how the game is set up. This isn’t American Idol. Survivor is not about who controls the game best; it’s about who controls their own perception within the game best. It’s about BOTH getting your way AND not making enemies.

So while Russell is as good as the game has seen in getting people to do what he wants for 38 days, he can’t manage to get them to give him $1 million on Day 39.

The two-hour finale, though, lacked the usual drama, and I propose there are three reasons why (and two of them are systemic and connected while the third is unique to this season):

  1. They went to a Final Three instead of a Final Two. This is only the second season I’ve ever seen that went to a Final Three (also saw Bob beat Suzie and Sugar), and I remember being really surprised when I realized it was a possibility during Fans v. Favorites (when Cirie’s assumption that it would be a Final Three wrecked her late-game plans). The Final Three just obscures so much of the math about who to take to the finals and who to vote out, and let’s face it, an immunity to get into a Final Two, where you get to decide your single opponent, is much more dramatic and significant than one to get you to a Final Three.
  2. The final Tribal Council seemed very rushed to me. It occurred over 25 minutes (I seem to remember it taking up over 30 most years), and the fact that there were three finalists meant that we didn’t hear even a majority of the questions from the jurors. We only got to see Amanda talk to Sandra and Danielle talk to Russell. It’s much more interesting and enlightening when we get to see (at least most of the time) questions to every finalist and even some back-and-forth between the jury and the finalists. Can you imagine the editors giving one juror a full three-and-a-half minutes for an uninterrupted speech anymore (and one who had no questions)? The only thing we really derived from the Q&A was that Russell’s sustained arrogance really pissed off the jurors, which we knew going in. None of the finalists really stated their case very well (are their opening statements really 30 seconds long? And was Russell trying to channel Rasheed Wallace with his “I played the game hard” refrain all night?). All in all, those 25 minutes were Exhibit: A as to why the final Tribal should be stretched out and shown in close to its entirety. You can’t build up a season for 13 weeks and shortchange the conclusion.
  3. The lack of a cohesive alliance at the end made the final decision–essentially, Russell’s to eliminate Jerri instead of Sandra and Parvati–less dramatic than usual. Some of the most memorable and heart-wrenching decisions made on Survivor have been that last one: Who to take to the finals and who to get rid of? Tocantins had JT deciding between Stephen and Erinn (and Stephen exhaling he didn’t have to decide between JT and Erinn, which would have been a much harder decision). Gabon had Sugar picking between Matty and Bob (basically deciding who was going to win). Fans v. Favorites had Amanda taking Parvati over Cirie. And of course, Australia had Colby taking Tina over Keith. I’ve just always enjoyed the balancing act between taking someone who deserves to be in the finals and you’ve been loyal to and taking someone who you can beat. And when there’s a Final Three and there’s no real true alliance anymore and it’s a character like Russell making the big decision, we don’t get the same kind of introspection or logical explanation for the choice.

Having said all this about the disappointment of the finale, it was still good. I mean, I watched both hours plus the Reunion on the edge of my seat as always.*

*Exaggeration: I sat back and relaxed during the Reunion.

But the finale should always be the best episode of a season of Survivor. The show’s basic principles and setup should inherently build drama as the season progresses, reaching a crescendo as the final vote is revealed. This season, though, the best episode remains the pre-merge battle between Rob and Russell–a showdown that helped propel “Heroes vs. Villains” to “one of the greatest seasons ever” status that also happened to be far more intriguing than the finale.

I’m not sure where this ranks in terms of the “greatest” seasons in the show’s history; I haven’t seen enough of them to properly discern its position. I enjoyed it immensely, but I would probably put Fans v. Favorites above it for the sheer amount of episode-to-episode drama that built as the season went along. This season was certainly better played, but I’m not sure it was more fun to watch (I mean, the bar had been set pretty high).

As for the greatest players ever, it’s tough to argue against someone who has played twice and won twice. Boston Rob and Parvati are probably my two favorite repeat players, and they’ve won a total of one time in six combined seasons.*

*Gun to my head, though, I’m going with Dr. Sean from Survivor: Borneo.

The most disappointing thing of all, though, is that on May 17, we’ve reached the longest possible time until more Survivor. Wake me up when September comes.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] me. Based on his investment in the last season of Survivor, he inspired me to watch some of last season’s finale, which was enough for me to commit to watching the next season of the show in full—my first […]

    Reply

  2. […] The worst part of the merge coming in this episode, though, is that it almost certainly means there will be a Final Three. I do not like Final Threes. […]

    Reply

  3. […] the final immunity, though, they all had to go on the customary Rites of Passage. As I said in last year’s wrap-up, I like the RoP in practice a lot more than in theory. I actually thought of making myself dessert […]

    Reply

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