“I obviously have the most to lose.” —Rob
“Let’s just focus on relaxing today.” —Natalie
In the end, it was bound to be disappointing. There were two ways the Survivor: Redemption Island finale could have gone last night: It could have been just and unexciting, or it could have been exciting and unjust.
It was the former.
Boston Rob Mariano finally broke through, claiming the $1 million prize in his fourth attempt on Survivor in a finale that lacked drama or controversy. It was, as the season has been pretty much since the fourth episode, a coronation of Boston Rob.
But let’s save those final thoughts for the end. First, a recap of “Seems Like a No-Brainer.”
FROM EIGHT TO FIVE
The “Previously on…” established Rob’s utter dominion over the game—the way he built the Ometepe alliance and used it to pluck off Zapatera one-by-one after the merge. The scene shifted to Redemption Island, the last real source of uncertainty heading into the finale for Rob and his alliance. There, Grant said he was “A-OK” with being betrayed by Rob, a sentiment that was predictable at the time and seemingly contradicted during the reunion, when Grant appeared very upset at Rob.
Back at camp, Rob curiously said he would vote out Ashley ahead of anyone who returned from Redemption Island, aside from Grant. Curious because I would have thought it would be the exact inverse, with Rob wanting to eliminate anyone from Redemption immediately except for Grant (something I postulated in my finale preview). To me, Rob’s biggest threats were Redemption Islanders who had connections with the old Zapatera tribe; not Ashley.
It became clear then that there would be one last Redemption Island challenge, with the winner then going into the final five. I was pretty happy about this, fearful as I was that whoever survived Redemption Island would go straight to the Final Three. Matt was in high spirits as well, and I couldn’t help but think he and Andrea had amended relations over the course of the night, if you know what I mean.
The final RI challenge involved using your foot to balance a vase on a plank. As it had to do with focus and endurance, I loved it. With it being more of a focus challenge (again as I surmised), the advantage switched from Grant’s to Mike and Andrea’s. Grant was the first to go, with Matt anticlimactically following him. Andrea outlasted Mike, eliminating the person I thought was Rob’s biggest threat and earning her way back into the game.
FROM FIVE TO FOUR
When Andrea returned, she made the wise strategic ploy of telling Ashley and Natalie that everyone she met at RI was considering voting for Phillip in the finale, thereby giving them reason to vote Phil out over her. Natalie was having none of all this strategy talk: “Let’s just focus on relaxing today.” It’s Day 37! Seriously?
All the while, Rob was acting as if Ashley had been his nemesis since Day 1, relishing the chance to finally off her at that night’s Tribal.
The penultimate Immunity Challenge consisted of racing across balance beams, picking up puzzle pieces, and then arranging 100 tiles in numeric order. Again, I liked it, with a big part of the reason being that the simplicity of the puzzle made for a more dramatic viewing experience (i.e. it was easier to see who was close to finishing). Rob led much of the way, but Ashley surged past him in the final quarter, beating him by a few tiles to claim her second consecutive immunity necklace. In other words, she was one win away from pulling a JudFabio.
Andrea implored Natalie and Ashley to use this opportunity to finally do something and vote off Rob. It made definite sense; with Rob out, Andrea became the likely favorite to win (and from Natalie and Ashley’s perspective, they could always try to vote her out next Tribal and position themselves in a Final Three with Phillip).
Phillip even dutifully reported to Rob that he spotted Nat and Ash plotting in the woods, a conversation that seemed to end with Nat saying “Thank you, sir” to Ash, which, if true, was an unbelievably subtle and clever reference to the Peppermint Patty/Marcy friendship in Peanuts.
The fly in the ointment was that Rob had the hidden immunity idol all along. And in classic CBS fashion (Sandra did the same thing), Rob acted as if he wasn’t even going to play it since he was so confident and all. At Tribal, Andrea boldly told Probst how she was trying to convince Natalie and Ashley to vote Rob off; it was another smart move by her, as it conveyed to the jury that, were such a move to succeed, it was coming from her.
In the end, though, Rob played the idol, Andrea resisted the urge to shout an expletive when he did, and Rob didn’t even need the security. Acting largely because they knew Rob had the idol—which came out during the reunion—Natalie and Ashley voted with Rob and Phillip to send Andrea home.
FROM FOUR TO THREE
Rob’s first move after Tribal was to tell Natalie and Ashley that they were his girls and he was taking them to the Final Three. He went so far as to promise to vote off Phillip. Heading to the last challenge, Rob said he had “the most to lose” and “10 years, four times on Survivor, 116 days, one challenge for one million bucks. That’s what it comes down to. Pretty big stakes.”
The last challenge—which was NOT preceded by a rites of passage!!!*–involved finding your way through a maze to collect bags of puzzle pieces,** and then putting together a word puzzle on top of a temple. The word puzzle looked harder than usual, since each piece could be manipulated to stand for a different pair of letters.
*It’s available online (and includes a fantastic line from Ralph). Still, it was stunning they didn’t show it in the finale.
**What phrase does Probst say more: “puzzle pieces” or “You’ve got to DIG!”
About three minutes into the challenge, it boiled down to another tete-a-tete between Rob and Ashley. Ash followed Rob throughout the maze, giving him the briefest of head starts on the puzzle. While trying to solve it, Rob told Ashley they could help each other, with both apparently lying to the other that they didn’t have any reads on what the puzzle might say. The editing made it look like Ashley was on the verge of winning when Rob pulled it out at the last minute.
The victory locked up a spot in the Final Three for Rob and, essentially, the $1 million. The only obstacle left was deciding whether he should bring Phillip or Ashley with him to the finals. He told Ash not to sweat anything and Phillip that Ash thought Phil was going home. Eventually, Rob decided Ashley posed more of a threat and was able to convince Natalie to go through with the vote. Usually, the editing makes these kinds of decisions seem even more torturous than they must have been; last night, Natalie’s fight against voting off Ashley lasted about 10 seconds.
It was hard to discern Nat’s motivation in selling out her friend so easily. Yeah, I understand she’s done everything Rob had said up until that point, but she wasn’t going to win anyway. She sacrificed her last shred of autonomy and dignity in the game to make things slightly easier for Rob.
On Rob’s end, it was smarter to bring Phillip than Ashley, since I suppose Ashley had a better chance to garner multiple jury votes and would probably take her anger from the vote out more on Natalie than Rob, perhaps giving him an additional vote in the process. But I still always prefer the Colby route, where you take the people who deserve to be there more.
The Day 39 celebration was even shorter than usual, centering on Phillip’s less-than-cathartic burning of his pink Speedos. There was one moment of intrigue for me during this, which was when Phillip started talking about his great-grandfather again in a confessional and pronounced his name very slowly this time: Jessum Herring. Herring? As in red herring? As in the great-grandfather is fabricated? As in maybe Phillip is simply playing the villain!
Also, was that a real mimosa—complete with champagne—that underage Natalie was drinking?
Heading into Final Tribal, I thought Rob would win 6-3-0, with Natalie getting a handful of votes from Matt (who really was against Rob), Ashley (who’d throw her a vote because of their friendship), and Ralph (who always gave me the impression he’d find a weird reason not to vote for Rob).
The opening statements from each finalist were even briefer and more disappointing than usual. It’s really been a problem these last few seasons. Natalie trumped her loyalty, the fact that she’d be the youngest female winner ever (she’s the youngest contestant ever, so duh), and even uttered the sentence, “Luckily, Rob and I had an alliance.” Luckily? You can’t say “Luckily” in Final Tribal!
Phillip, in his long-awaited master plan of a speech to dethrone Rob, called Rob the “mastermind” of everything, touted his own loyalty, and called himself the “implementer” of Rob’s plan.
I mean, Rob didn’t even have to give a speech after that. He could have stood up, turned to his right to Nat and his left to Phil, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Really? One of these two?” Instead, he went on about how he played every aspect of the game well, and then he got kind of defensive about saying that Survivor doesn’t define him, although it’s pretty clear it does. He met his wife on the show, and he’s been on it four times. Survivor defines him more than Saved by the Bell does Mark-Paul Gosselaar.*
*I am stunned I spelled his name right on the first try.
The finalists’ answers to their jurors’ questions were no better. Andrea essentially gave Phillip the chance to say he was in fact playing the villain, and Phil responded by attacking her: “I’m Phillip Sheppard. If you don’t know who I am, don’t vote for me.” Done.
Almost everyone asked Natalie about why she was so attached to Rob, with Grant (I think) going so far as to call it “creepy” and Julie saying she was like “a servant.” Nat didn’t have much of a response; she said Rob had experience where she didn’t, and he could get her to the end. Rob, when asked a similar question, said Nat basically asked him to tell her what to do, and he obliged.
Ashley had the biggest beef, asking Natalie why she didn’t even tell her she was going home.* Nat came back with a bland, “You’re a big threat.”
*When Andrea asked Natalie why she chose Rob over Ashley, the camera panned to a wide-eyed Ashley as lightning flashed behind her. It was terrifying–and almost certainly not real.
Matt got all righteous on Rob, asking where “the line is” between playing the game and betraying friends. Rob dismissively said the line is when he gets home (to his Survivor wife). Julie went off on them all, taking a very parental approach by asking Natalie if her parents would be proud of her and Rob and Phillip if their children would be proud of them. Julie then skulked off and continued to look like Cathy.*
*Someone’s been reading the classic funny pages lately, am I right?
Ralph asked Phillip if he liked him, which was oddly insecure. Mike asked a bland “What did you learn?” question of all three, and Steve congratulated Nat and Rob before saying he was sorry for Phillip. David then bypassed questioning altogether, turning to the jury to implore them to vote for Rob by bringing up just how genius it was to vote off Matt. David clearly views that voting decision the way I view the 1999 NLCS; we will always overrate it.
After the Q&A, I figured Ash and Matt would still vote Nat, Ralph would go for Phillip, and the other six would vote Rob.
Only two votes were revealed at Tribal, with David obviously voting for Rob and Ralph casting his lot with “Phile.” That there wasn’t a revealed vote for Natalie made it pretty obvious Rob was going to win 8-1.
Rob won 8-1.
SO THE FEELING ABOUT THE SEASON AS A WHOLE
It was boring. I’ve lamented for a few seasons how we haven’t seen a dominant alliance in a while, the kind that controls the game until the end, when it gets really intriguing what with the infighting and betrayal. This season, though, had all the monotony of a dominant alliance with none of the eventual intrigue. There was no infighting. Grant seemed plenty pissed about being voted off by Rob at the reunion, but during the show he was “A-OK” with it. If Ashley and Natalie knew Rob had the hidden idol, why didn’t they try to flush it earlier? Why did everyone approach the game with the same fatalistic attitude that Matt did???*
*Can’t believe I’m saying it, but, man this season could have used Marty.
The season thus transformed into a long coronation for Rob. That it wasn’t insufferable to watch is a testament to how much he’s liked by Survivor fans, and me as well.* Rob obviously deserved to win, and you couldn’t make a coherent case for any of the other 17 castaways.** As Probst said, Rob played about as perfect a game as anyone has in the show’s history. But it sure didn’t hurt that everyone was so cooperative. Rob himself said the game would have been very different had he ended up on Zapatera at the start, where he wouldn’t have been able to prey on the loyal naivete of someone like Natalie. Yes, Rob won easily, but it’s hard not to consider the rest of the field of candidates diluted. His title reminds me of that of the 1999 San Antonio Spurs.
*Well, maybe it was for Parvati. Ironically, she’s probably the only other returning character I wouldn’t mind seeing win in such runaway fashion.
**Just last fall, during a bad season for the show, you could make better cases for JudFabio, Chase, Sash, Holly, and even people like Brenda and Marty than nearly anyone on this season besides Rob. And if you’re scoring at home, I think Andrea and Ashley are the only two I’d even consider saying had a case to win had things broken differently for them.
Rob’s dominion over the game made this one of the least entertaining seasons in recent memory—perhaps even more so than last season. The introduction of Redemption Island made the game slightly more interesting early on, but I think it did more harm than good. Having RI as a fallback probably allowed some contestants more complacency in fighting to stay in the game; we saw precious little scrambling all season long. It also sucked out much of the finality of being voted out; Probst’s snuffing of the torch didn’t feel quite the same when a duel still awaited them.
And what was all of it for? For four soul-searching weeks for Matt? For Russell to leave the game in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion? For Mike to find his faith? For Andrea to get a second chance to try her strategy on the same deaf ears of her tribemates? Most of all, for that speck of uncertainty heading into the finale, an uncertainty colored by the fear that someone who was voted out might end up winning?
They’re going to keep Redemption Island in the next season, but they should limit it to before the merge. Having Matt come back probably provided this season’s second most memorable vote (after Russell’s elimination). Having him head to Redemption Island again—and a watered-down version at that with four-person challenges—seemed pointless.
And look at that: I had enough to complain about that I haven’t even brought up how much I hate the Final Three.
Next season will bring back two other old castaways to do battle with a Redemption Island in play. It’s hard to imagine those returning survivors being more promising in theory than Rob and Russell, and so how will they do better in practice? Which is to say, unless Bob Crowley’s* walking through that door, color me skeptical about Survivor: South Pacific.
*And it won’t be Bob, because the returnees are seeking “redemption,” and alas, Bob already won. Sigh. So did Richard Hatch, for that matter, and he’d be the other really interesting past survivor to see interact with non-returnees.** I honestly don’t know who they haven’t already brought back that I’d be interested in seeing compete again. Even my guesses for possibilities are uninspired: Erik the ice cream man from Fans v. Faves, Marty, Brenda, and Jane from last season, maybe a third go-round of Ozzy?**
**Richard did, of course, have that unfortunate incident with Sue the second time he was on the show.
BRIEF THOUGHTS ON THE REUNION
—Has any female ever looked better on the reunion than they did on the actual season?
—Why is Grant in suspenders? He used to be cool.
—Matt set Redemption Island records? Who knew?
—Way too much burying the hatchet going on between Rob and Russell and then Phillip and Steve.
—What was a more awkward television moment: Sarah Silverman with Buck and McCarver, or David’s proposal to Carolina? David’s proposal or Kolber and Namath? Man, that thing was more poorly executed than when Chris Meyers ruined Ian Johnson’s proposal after the Fiesta Bowl.
—And they’re totally not getting married. Like ever. I don’t even think she likes David.