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''Survivor: Palau'': A scorching victory

Having dominated from start to finish, firefighter Tom wins ”Survivor: Palau”; Ian’s surrender sends Katie to an inexplicable second place

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Tom Westman, Survivor: Palau
Tom Westman: Monty Brinton/CBS

”Survivor: Palau”: A scorching victory

We all knew it was inevitable that, barring his losing an immunity challenge, Tom would end up winning this season of Survivor. It was as certain as the fact that the scribble boards to this article will be choked with cries of ”Where’s Dalton?” (He was at the live finale, rubbing shoulders with the cast members and trying to figure out how Caryn turned into Sharon Stone for the reunion show, so let’s move on.)

But what I didn’t see coming was just how easy Katie would make it for Tom. Her entire campaign platform was ”Vote for me! I was useless and lazy, but at least I knew whose ass to affix myself to like a barnacle.” In her opening remarks, she made the nonexistent distinction that it wasn’t that she skated by: No, what happened is she had made the strategic choice to let two stronger players carry her through. In other words, it’s not that she didn’t deserve to win; it was that it was her strategy not to deserve to win: Ergo, she deserved to win.

Perhaps — just perhaps — this theory would have worked if she had ended up against someone not in her original alliance, say, Caryn or Coby. Then she could at least brag of outsmarting those who brought her along. But how is it supposed to win people over when you say, ”I sucked as a competitor, but I stayed alive by hopping on the back of a great, talented competitor. See the guy to my right? Yeah, that’s the guy.” To be fair, that’s kind of how Tina beat Colby in Australia, but at least she cooked occasionally and wasn’t an alienating pain in the ass.

We all knew Katie was going to lose as soon as we saw only two votes cast at tribal council: They usually show as many as they can all the way up to a tie to make it seem as close as possible before the reveal. But the only one they had to show was Coby’s, with his nonsensical, bitter rantings about honesty. (How did Tom ever screw him over, anyway, other than by not picking him for his alliance in the beginning, thus rekindling a thousand horrific kickball memories?) I find it a little difficult to get emotional over new daddy Coby’s cathartic Survivor experience — no matter how badly Jeff Probst urged the audience to — considering how weaselly he was during the game. One minute he was weeping that no one treated him kindly growing up, and the next he was making bitchy, personal slams about everyone else in the game. And then there was his euphoric self-delusion: From the moment he was kicked off through the finale, he incessantly repeated how flattered he was to be a threat, even though it seemed more that he was booted because he was annoying. But it was as if repeating that he was a power player made it so for Coby. So if you’re ever stuck in a room with Coby and desperate to get away, just appeal to his ego: ”Coby, I’d love to stay and talk, but I’m worried you’ll win the conversation.”

While the tribal-council winner was never in question, the road from four players to two was quite an unpredictable ride. It’s been painful watching Ian self-destruct; he wanted so badly to be a tricky player, but that desire was always trumped by his need to be liked. I respected the guy up until the past two episodes, when he was moved to spastic, arm-flailing histrionics whenever Katie or Tom would tsk-tsk him for his alliance switching. (And why, right up to the end, did he never point out that holier-than-thou Katie had flipped on him even before he flipped on her?) It all led up to his quitting after nearly 12 hours of standing on a pole, just so he can say he has two buddies for life. What the hell does he need two more friends for? The Chevy SSR only seats two, so if he won that, he’d only have room for one pal anyway.

(I’d like to take a second to address the SSR spotlight, if I may. Instead of attacking Howard Stern, could the FCC focus its energy on something more offensive on the air, like Mark Burnett’s ever-growing product-placement greed? We usually hear about the prize car at the end of the show, but this time we got an extra sneak peek on the island, with footage of the starving final four oohing and aahing over the car as if it were made out of meat. This overblown reaction was even more foolish coming a week after Ian won a Corvette, which was a hell of a car. Now how are they supposed to get jazzed about a lemon-colored monstrosity that is 75 percent trunk space? The only good thing I can say for it is that it’s the ultimate sporty ride for the man who wants to impress his date but also needs to move his piano.)

I’m sure that there are some people out there who think that Ian did the right thing. These are the same people who think that Titanic would have been a better movie if the ship hadn’t sunk. This is a game show with one winner. It is the very definition of the show that someone is going to have to hurt someone else. It is not constructed to be a parable on ethics, and if it was, it would be incredibly dull. These players already have friends and family at home, and if they don’t backstab them, they’re doing just fine in the morals department. If you want to see someone win a million bucks by doing the right thing, try to find a game where contestants try to find the best cure for cancer, but stay away from TV.

Yes, Ian probably felt good about his decision, but in about a month, when he’s sleeping in the storage closet of the Philadelphia aquarium on a bed fashioned out of penguin feed, having just finished a meal of fried minnows that his dolphins had spit back at him for being too small, and Katie hasn’t called him back because his bowl haircut won’t really fly with her Madison Avenue friends, maybe he’ll rethink that decision. Especially when he loses his job because none of the dolphins will obey him anymore because they watched the show, too, and are thinking, ”Why should I do tricks for a schmuck who gave up a million bucks just so a fireman will teach him how to slide down a pole?”

As for the reunion show, there were the usual physical surprises: Caryn had her makeover, Gregg had metamorphosed into C. Thomas Howell, and a long winter had downgraded Stephenie’s tan from midnight black to a mere skin-cancer brown. And then there were the shocking revelations, like Ibrehem disclosing that he learned from the loud Jolanda’s ousting that he shouldn’t show a strong personality, even though Ibrehem couldn’t have mustered a strong personality if you hypnotized him into thinking he was Jenny McCarthy.

And then there was the moment that Jeff Probst meant to be uplifting, but managed to make viewers feel bad about America in two unintended ways: When discussing Coby’s fabled victory over James on the raft battle, he asked James if his Alabama steelworker buddies gave him any crap at the plant for losing to a homosexual. James revealed that he was actually now unemployed, but that yes, his old pals did tease him. So there you have it, people: Our nation’s workers can’t get a job, but at least they’re homophobic. Add that to the fact that America’s auto companies are struggling, and their solution is to design misshapen jalopies like the SSR. The pride is . . . back?

Oh well, at least our nation still rules the world in wacko singing teachers. Take us out, Wanda!

What do you think? Do you respect Ian’s decision? How do you rate the finale? How do you rate the season? And how do you rate Wanda’s song?

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