How do you like your coffee? Do you take it black? Cream and sugar? Just cream? Decaf? I don’t drink coffee myself so am a little out of my depth here, and I’m not even going to attempt to decipher the foreign language that is a Starbucks order. (Those mornings where my wife has sent me to fetch her a caffeine fix from a Starbucks when we are away from home are among the scariest of my life because I have no idea how to even order.) But while I may not drink the stuff, I am aware that there is no right way to drink coffee. Different strokes for different folks, it seems.
So let me ask you another question: How do you like your Survivor? Or, more specifically: How do you like your Survivor winner? Arguing over whether the right or wrong person won the gold standard of reality TV shows is a long, proud tradition dating all the way back to Hatch versus Wigglesworth. But perhaps never has the contrast between two finalists been as stark as it was here at the end of Survivor: Game Changers — Mamanuca Islands. [By the way, that’s the first time I have ever used the official season subtitle. It’s certainly no Earth’s Last Eden (Gabon) or Islands of Fire (Vanuatu).]
On one hand, you have Sarah, who was the dominant force from a social/strategic perspective. She repeatedly was the pivotal point person in determining who was voted off, and everyone thought they were her best friend… until she slit their proverbial throat. She was savvy enough to obtain the vote steal when Michaela did not see it and shrewd enough to vote Sierra out and then receive Sierra’s Legacy Advantage after doing so. She built a very impressive résumé.
On the other hand, you have Brad. He tied the Survivor record by winning five individual immunity challenges. Not only that, but he won the last four of the season, several of which he no doubt needed or would have been sent home. Say what you want about F.U. Brad Culpepper, but that is a super impressive accomplishment. Winning the last four challenges of the season? That is super clutch. So again, a very impressive résumé.
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So I’ll ask you again: How do you like your Survivor winner? I’ll tell you how I feel in a bit, but the honest truth is that I’m not sure there is necessarily a wrong answer. It’s all about what you value more — challenge dominance or strategic dominance. For someone like Ozzy, it was all about the incredible fortitude Brad showed by continually winning when he would have gone home otherwise. I know many of you probably want to write Brad off and — like Sarah at Tribal Council — argue that as a former professional athlete, he had an advantage, but that is shortsighted and simplistic. Because the reality is that physically had absolutely NOTHING to do with it. Three of the four challenges Brad won were on puzzles! Puzzles! And the fourth one was that weird balancing balls one that had nothing to do with strength whatsoever.
If you’re not really impressed by what Brad did by winning those five immunities, then you are just refusing to give him credit that he deserves, because it was ridiculously impressive. But more impressive than Sarah? According to Ozzy and Debbie’s criteria, yes. And again, if that’s their criteria — and we can argue that point, but it’s by no means a ridiculous or absurd criteria to have — then Brad played the best game this season and deserved to win.
Zeke illustrates the opposite end of the Survivor juror opinion spectrum. Zeke pointed out the cutthroat strategic game Sarah played by cozying up to people, forming personal bonds, and then slitting their throats. To him, it didn’t matter that Sarah did not win a single individual immunity challenge, because to a strategist like Zeke, the real game is played back at the beach. I have consistently said that Sarah’s game has been stellar since the merge, and if Brad was the dominant competitor when Jeff Probst dropped one arm and raised the other, then Sarah was the dominant one in terms of pulling the strings everywhere else.
Brad’s social/strategic game is probably a wash. He made the first huge move of the season by backstabbing J.T., was impressively calm when dealing with a hyper-critical Debbie, and formed bonds with lots of women not even in his alliance (including Aubry and Cirie) early on by showing his more sensitive side. He did a lot of good work early. I was actually shocked considering how he acted in his last outing. But what the hell happened after the merge? When he got on the wrong side of the numbers, Brad’s smooth social game began to crack. He openly feuded with a future jury vote in Michaela and was super demeaning to another juror in Tai. Not smart. Which also brings us to his decision to not bring Tai to the end instead of Sarah, which was a seemingly obvious strategic blunder. It was as if he undid all the good work of the first 35 days in the last four. Put that all together, and his social/strategic game pretty much equates Sarah’s zero immunity wins
So who is more deserving? In a way, this final was a mirror image of Cook Islands, where you had the challenge beast in Ozzy facing off against the strategic whiz in Yul (with Troyzan basically playing the part of bystander Becky). And both finals ultimately asked the jury which they valued more — being the best at controlling the competitions or the vote?
(Recap continues on page 2)