Survivor Survival Guide: “What about Me?”

“It comes down to knowing yourself very well. I’m very aware of the vibes I’m giving off and how people perceive them.”

—JudFabio, summarizing in two sentences the essence of Survivor

So much of this 21st season of Survivor has paled in comparison to its 20th iteration. The castaways were not only unfamiliar, but seemingly unenlightened in how to play the game. The outsize personalities were less polarizing than simply unpleasant, and none of the final five could really lay claim to controlling the game for extended periods of time.

But Survivor: Nicaragua did deliver something that Heroes vs. Villains couldn’t: a completely compelling and satisfying finale with a more-deserving-than-we-thought winner. Let’s take a spin.


The “Previously on…” established the narrative arcs and the relative strengths and weaknesses for each of the final five castaways. Dan had done nothing, but that included not making any enemies. Holly had a nervous breakdown before taking down the game’s most powerful player in Brenda. Chase seemed to show genuine remorse each and every time he voted off an ally. Sash had made innumerable side deals, allying himself with everyone (and, as a result, no one). JudFabio was dumb—or was he?—and is a physical threat to win immunity.

Catch up on the entire season of Survivor: Nicaragua with Tim’s complete “Survivor Survival Guide” archive

There wasn’t any real fallout from the Jane decision at the previous evening’s Tribal, with JudFabio trying to figure out a way to stay alive if he didn’t win the immunity necklace. He straight-up asked Holly, “Do you want to go to the Final Three with me?” in a cute high-school-prom kind of way that at least charmed me. Holly didn’t say no, but she sure implied it.

In an aside, Sash told Chase, “[JudFabio] thinks he’s the next to go, because he is.”

The first Immunity Challenge of the night involved racing to a station with a trivia question about Nicaragua and picking the puzzle pieces connected to the right answer (one of two multiple choices). There were three questions, and the proper puzzle pieces were then used to build the Survivor logo. Holly, Sash, and Chase all answered the three questions on their first try* and got a head start on the puzzle because JudFabio missed the second question and Dan just moves very slowly. Chase and Holly, however, struggled mightily with the puzzle (Chase unknowingly dropped a piece in the mud), and JudFabio quickly passed them and settled into a one-on-one race with Sash. With both nearing the end, though, JudFabio got revenge for losing the last puzzle immunity to Sash, claiming his second straight necklace.**

*The last question was “Who claimed Nicaragua for Spain? Conquistadors or Matadors?” Come ON.

**How different would this whole season have played out if puzzles were a larger part? It’s clear now that Sash and JudFabio were way ahead of everyone else in puzzle construction.

“I won—again!” JudFabio said incredulously back at camp. “It was awesome, man.” He revealed that his plan all along was to become much more aggressive at the end once he got there. He started that by approaching Chase about voting out Holly because she posed the biggest threat in a Final Three—much bigger than Dan. Chase disagreed, at least publicly, saying Dan didn’t make any enemies. JF was frustrated, so he went back and talked to Dan, who came off as even less aware of Survivor rules than I thought he was. “How many votes do we need?” he asked before instructing JudFabio to just tell Sash to vote off Holly, as if it were that simple.

Dan made the case to Sash about just what a terrible winner he would be—he has lots of money, he didn’t do anything, etc.—while JudFabio continued to push Holly’s name. “You bring up good points,” said Sash, who added to the camera that now was the time to transition from an alliance-based game to an individual one—even though Sash did that the minute he voted off Brenda (or at the very least, when he called himself “a free agent”).

The first Tribal Council of the night focused on Dan, Holly, and their respective statuses as potential threats. “Tonight’s vote comes down to who people think is a threat for the million,” said JudFabio. Both Dan and Holly explained how the other is a threat—Dan more persuasively than Holly, because he had a lot more to argue with—with Probst providing a good review of Survivor principles to Holly: “What matters is not if Dan is right or wrong; it’s that that’s his perception.” It was nice to hear that appropriate word used on multiple occasions in the finale.

The first two votes went to Dan, the third surprisingly to Chase, and the last one back to Dan to ensure we wouldn’t have the least deserving Survivor winner ever.* JudFabio had also cast the final vote for Dan, as well, meaning there was some shrewd editing by the CBS folk to keep us guessing going into Tribal.**

*Who owns that title? Is it the girl who beat Russell the first time? I didn’t see that season.

**I know. I never thought they’d do that, either.

After condemning Chase, Holly, and Sash, Dan fired a closing salvo: “I wish them the worst. I can’t wait to cast my vote.”


Even though he went along with the decision, JudFabio was disappointed that he couldn’t convince Chase or Sash to knock off Holly. “I really don’t know what’s going through Sash’s and Chase’s minds right now,” he said, understanding that he was, in all likelihood, going to have to win immunity AGAIN to make it to Day 39.

Sash, meanwhile, was comfortable considering everyone would likely take him to the Final Three. He did view JudFabio as “the biggest threat to [his] endgame” and stressed the importance of preventing him from winning immunity. Holly and Chase discussed their options if JudFabio were to win the necklace, settling (as you can imagine they would) on Sash.

Before 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 during it last night, but stuck around to hear things like NaOnka saying “I always had a smile. I was friendly…. I was literally the smartest player in the game”* and Benry boasting that he could have won the remaining immunities, provided there were no puzzles.** Don’t worry, Benry, there were. Holly seemed to lead the castaways’ brief remembrances for each “fallen comrade,” praising Jimmy Johnson in particular. I found it interesting that they really harped on their disappointment in NaOnka and Purple Kelly for quitting; the show has really came down hard editorially on them—aside from, you know, letting them stay in the jury (which they said they might not do in the future).

*Continuing her season-long trend of misusing “literally.”

**Keeping JudFabio over Benry because the latter posed a greater physical threat turned out to be a bit of a mistake, no?

The final Immunity Challenge of the season continued the theme of recent finale immunities by challenging the castaways’ focus and equilibrium.* The four had to hold a sword into a shield on the ground and build a stack of uneven coins on the handle (or, if you will, hilt). It reminded me instantly of the two times they’ve played the house of cards challenge (won in stunning fashion each time, by Susie and Jerri) and the challenge Amanda won in Fans v. Favorites where you had to balance a ball with an ever-increasing number of rods. I think these are well-designed challenges, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If I were running Survivor, the last challenge would be an endurance one.**

*Sometimes, they do this in the penultimate immunity challenge, thus the equivocation on my part.

**I imagine they don’t do this for time constraints, but still, it can be done.

JudFabio was the first one to experience some issues with his stack, with it beginning to tilt in one direction well before anyone else’s did. With the camera zooming closer and closer on his stack and each coin being shown, Holly actually became the first person eliminated when a single coin fell off her hilt. Chase soon followed, meaning it was down to JudFabio, who needed to win, and Sash, who I predicted for several weeks now would win a final challenge predicated on focus. With JF’s stack leaning so much that he titled his sword in the opposite direction, Sash’s coins fell. JudFabio had won the necklace a third straight time—a physical achievement on par with that of Colby in Australia.*

*So Colby won five in a row, but did you see who he was competing against? Tina and Keith and Elisabeth and Rodger? Even Dan could have won…nah, he couldn’t have.

I don’t know if any single player has enjoyed having the final immunity more than JudFabio did. “I’m lovin’ this, man!” JudFabio shouted, in an obvious commercial tie-in to McDonald’s. He reveled in the desperation shown by Chase, Holly, and Sash, each of whom thought they had their paths all figured out. “Chase, Sash, and Holly are panicky people to begin with,” JF said before comparing them to cockroaches caught when the lights are turned on.

Sash is the first one to talk to JudFabio, running through the people on the jury he thinks will vote for Chase (more than each of them initially believed, I think, and certainly more than I would have given Chase at the time). JF asked Sash point blank if he would have taken him to the Final Three had he not won immunity, and Sash replied, “Yes. Absolutely.” JF eyed him suspiciously before Sash called him his “best friend in the game,” which although true, came off as false. When Chase sat down with JudFabio, the latter told him Sash wanted him out. Chase was surprised and called Sash “a snake.” It was cute that he was just realizing it now. Chase came out and admitted that he would’ve voted JudFabio off had he not won the immunity, leading JF to feel that he didn’t want to take either Sash or Chase with him. Holly also told JudFabio she would have voted him out while trying to sway him to vote out Sash.

As the four left for Tribal, the vote was really up in the air. I personally still viewed Holly as the biggest threat, but I also thought Holly and Chase would probably vote for Sash—meaning there would be a tie if JF wanted to vote Holly off.* So I thought Sash would end up going home, even though it made sense—really from everyone’s perspective—to vote off Holly.

*This is another problem with the Final Three: Mathematically, it’s not as exclusively in JudFabio’s hands as it was portrayed.

The best part of Tribal was seeing the jury’s reaction to the necklace around JudFabio’s neck. Leading the charge, Alina opened her mouth in shock and Benry gave one of those toolish nods that Benry gives.* It got pretty candid among the final four, as it’s tended to get at Tribal all season, with JudFabio telling Probst basically what everyone told him during their private meetings. Given another chance to answer JF’s question about whether he would have stuck with him to the Final Three, Sash reiterated that he would not have voted JudFabio off, which led to some surprised reaction shots in the jury. He does, however, admit that he may have “double-promised.”

*No doubt thinking he would have won all three immunities himself.

The first vote was cast for Sash, but the final three all came for Holly, meaning JudFabio had smartly eliminated the biggest jury threat. At this point, it was hard to envision a way he would lose. I had Alina, Marty, Purple Kelly, Jane, and Dan all voting for him over Sash and Chase.

DAY 39

“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m about a 10 right now.”


WARNING: The worst thing about having an all-male Final Three. Pronoun confusion! I tried my best.

There was a fair amount of fallout after the penultimate Tribal, with Sash saying it didn’t feel good to be called out on so much and Chase thinking JudFabio had free reign to bash both of them. JF admitted that was his strategy: “Putting Sash and Chase against one another shows I know what’s going on.” That was great to hear, because it told me at least that while JF pretty much knew he was going to vote Holly out, he wanted to make Chase and Sash look as bad as possible before their future jurors. Sash, in particular, bore the brunt of it.

That didn’t stop him, though, from saying he didn’t think they belonged in the Final Three and calling them, to their faces, his “wingmen.” “You can take a backseat,” JF said to the camera. “I’ll let you take notes on how this is done because it’s gonna be fun.” Chase told JF that eliminating Holly just won JF a million dollars, to which he replied, “Possibly…yeah”—the first sign of potential overconfidence. Over the traditional Day 39 breakfast feast of mimosas and pancakes, the three talked about how honored they were to be with each other and how this was the plan all along. Sigh…Day 39 is either a really genuine, really cool experience (like with JT and Stephen) or it’s all this fake “We’re actually pretty good friends” crap. This was definitely the latter.


The opening statements at the Final Tribal were even shorter than usual, and for the first time, this struck me less as strict editing and more as finalists who didn’t have a whole lot to say. Chase said it was “an honor to play the game” with everyone, talked about how much he enjoyed it, admitted he flip-flopped, and challenged the jury to bring on the questions. He was going to be 100 percent honest. JudFabio said he was himself for much of the game before becoming more assertive at the end, without ever having to backstab anyone. Sash acknowledged that he played the game differently than the other two, saying it comes down to the outwit and outplay elements of the game. He added that the friendships he made in the game mean more to him than alliances, which came off, as usual, as very fake. At this point, I couldn’t imagine Sash winning.

Brenda was first up,* criticizing Sash’s strategy by saying that “making alliances is smart, but you can’t break all of them.” She called Chase her “snuggle buddy” and wondered why he didn’t do more to protect her when she was going to be voted out. During Chase’s answer, which was pretty satisfactory, Sash said, “But you could have stepped up more,” to which Brenda was like, “Dude, you had the Hidden Immunity Idol,” and Sash put his tail between his legs silently. So Brenda was going to vote for Chase, settling a debate John, Josh, and I had on Saturday, and not in my favor. Sash was definitely done.

*How do they decide the order of the questions? It seems arbitrary, but it shouldn’t be.

Marty asked Chase to award someone in the game, aside from Marty, the “Dumber than a Bag of Hammers Award,” which easily qualified as one of the worst questions ever asked at Final Tribal. Clearly meant for Chase to implicate himself, it was, as Chase called it, a “BS question,” so he awarded it to Marty. Marty has been one of my favorite players in the game, not so much because I like him but because I find him entertaining and very interested in the strategic aspect of the game. That question really disappointed me.

Jane and Dan each took shots at Sash (Jane: a “New York city river rat” who belongs in the gutter; Dan: a “liar” and a “phony” who “never lived up to things” and needs to get his wink fixed), with Dan adding a blow at Chase for being “paranoid” and even backstabbing Jane. “This is Survivor, Dan,” said Chase, with Dan rebutting, “Beauty fades; dumb is forever.” I was ashamed that I started liking Dan last night. Jane also asked Chase what he would do with the money if he won; Chase said he would donate $100,000 to a charity foundation started by his brother in honor of his father while using some of the rest to take care of his mom. You could tell JF was crushed; he did not see the deceased father card coming at all. He chimed in that he would take care of his mom, too, but it was forced.

Benry and Purple Kelly unsurprisingly added little to the discussion. Chase gave a good answer to Holly’s good question—what was the best strategic move he made on his own?—by taking it back to Day 6 when he went against his original alliance to vote off Shannon. JudFabio gave a very emotional answer to NaOnka’s eccentric question about whether his family provided the fuel for his final immunity victories by crying and saying he thought about them all the time and had never “put so much focus” into one thing before in his life. It seemed genuine and Na responded to it likewise: “I appreciate your realness.”

Alina was last, and I expected a lot out of her given her snarky analysis at Ponderosa and the fact that I had no read on who she would vote for. She seemed to dismiss JudFabio right away, quipping that she wanted “to give the $1M to a man.” She challenged Sash and Chase (whom she said had impressed her with his performance so far) to convince her why they should win, with both pointing out that JF’s “Play it dumb” strategy wasn’t much of a strategy considering he never seemed to know who to vote for. It was a good point. JudFabio had an equally good rebuttal to Chase, “You tried not to offend anyone. I did it.” He added a zinger for Sash when the latter made his “outwit, outplay” point again: “You didn’t outplay anyone, Sash.”

After the Q&A, it looked like a tight race between Chase and JudFabio. I figured Brenda, Holly, and Na were definite for Chase with Marty and Dan the only definite for JF. Jane seemed to forgive Chase while I was still guessing Purple Kelly would stick with JudFabio—ever since I put two and two together with the yellow jacket, I’ve thought they were closer than we were led to believe. That left Benry and Alina. I had Benry voting for Chase because he struck me as always looking up to Chase (like when he tried to sell out JudFabio) while I had Alina voting for JF, based largely on wishful thinking and the idea that Chase couldn’t win that easily. That made it 5-4 Chase over JF, which definitely was surprising given what I thought was their respective positions before the last Tribal.

Only four votes were revealed—down from six last season—with Marty and Dan voting JF and Brenda and Alina voting Chase. Marty called Chase “the dumbest player to ever play the game” while Dan finally—FINALLY!—said something in writing a name down: “Come on,, Fabio! Come on. I want you to do that for your mom.” It was cool. Alina’s vote, though, gave Chase an even bigger chance of winning in my mind.


The first four votes were the ones we had seen, with two going each way. The next two both came for Chase, putting him one vote from the win. JudFabio was visibly surprised. But the last three were all for JudFabio, making him at 21 the youngest champion in Survivor history.

As it turned out, Holly and Jane stuck with their one-time ally Chase in the vote while Purple Kelly, Benry, and NaOnka voted for JudFabio. Na’s vote surprised me the most, and I’m guessing JF’s emotion during the Final Tribal may have swayed her. She always was unpredictable.


  • Chase’s singing was beyond corny
  • Purple Kelly’s bangs were executed more poorly than those of Manny Santos
  • Interviewing Terry Bradshaw was a real shot at The NFL Today
  • Why was Dan’s bowtie untied?
  • Jane rightfully won the fan favorite but I dislike the idea of the fan favorite
  • I think it’s funny how everyone dresses up


I feel great for JudFabio. Like I said yesterday, he was the castaway I wanted to win the most. At that point, I didn’t think he was the most deserving. But at that point, he hadn’t won three straight Immunity Challenges, he hadn’t been able to get Holly off before the Final Three, he hadn’t brilliantly played Sash and Chase off one another at Tribal, and he hadn’t become the first contestant I can remember to so succinctly capture how to play the game as he does in the epigraph. He is a deserving winner.

And yet, there were so many times where his strategy easily could have been foiled, most notably, of course, if he didn’t win the last three Immunity Challenges. There were times when I still think now that he should have played differently, by perhaps teaming with Marty and Jill earlier or being more assertive in courting Sash for an alliance with Benry and Dan. I suppose I’m being petty and it worked out for him; it just would’ve been a shame if his coins had fallen just before Sash’s and we would never have gotten to see how well JudFabio could play the endgame. He was kind of like the anti-Russell: Quiet the first 36 days, he just needed to get to Day 37.

This marks the second consecutive season (and the last three that I’ve watched now) where the winner did not come from the dominant alliance. Laying low and not ruffling feathers has begun to work more and more, which is both good and bad. Dominant alliances cruising to the end suck the fun out of the game, but when everyone lays low, you get seasons like this one, where everyone seems paralyzed to actually do anything substantial. Big moves were few and far between.

As a sidenote, I still hate Final Threes—there’s always someone who gets no votes and is just an afterthought—and I am very hesitant about the Redemption Island idea. That seems very Real World/Road Rules Challenge-y. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes the dynamic, though, and I understand Survivor feeling it could use a change for change’s sake after 21 seasons.

There are lingering feelings at the end of every season of Survivor about how it could have and perhaps should have gone. But in Survivor: Nicaragua, a season that so rarely satisfied, at least the ending did.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Josh on December 20, 2010 at 11:54 AM

    This is the first I’ve read about the last of the votes and I am very surprised about Naonka’s vote, given how she gave Chase the immunity idol and such.

    And, I wish Wendy Jo sang and danced. That would have made this season so much better.


    • Posted by Tim on December 20, 2010 at 1:14 PM

      Yeah, NaOnka remained unpredictable until the very end. I remember being surprised she was so close to Chase when she gave him the idol, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when she moved away from him.

      I wish Wendy Jo wasn’t on this season. That would have made it so much better.


  2. Posted by clouy on December 20, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    Hey Tim,

    just to let you know I enjoyed reading your insights during this 21st season.


  3. I wish Survivor wasn’t on this season. That would have it so much better.


  4. Posted by Nathan on December 22, 2010 at 12:28 PM

    On final threes:

    The alternative this season would have been a final two of Sash and the winner of the last immunity challenge. Think JT 9 Stephen 0.


    • Posted by Tim on December 22, 2010 at 3:19 PM

      I imagine it’s a fear of that kind of blowout (like the Tom-Katie finale, as well) that drove Survivor away from Final Twos. But to be fair, JT would have beaten Stephen and Erinn 9-0-0 that season. I just feel that, in general, Final Twos allow for more compelling drama–both in the three-to-two vote and in the last tribal council (which wouldn’t have to be edited quite so tightly).


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