Jonathan Penner attempted to steal the show, but did his last second revelation about Lisa hand the game to Denise?

By Dalton Ross
Updated February 27, 2015 at 11:25 PM EST
Image credit: CBS

There are some things you need to know about me before you can do your final reading of my final recap of the Survivor: Philippines season. So here they are. I once wore my sister’s white jacket and white pants to a 7 th grade dance because I thought it made me look like Crockett from Miami Vice. As a youth, I peed myself in the elevator of the Homestead resort in Virginia and still didn’t bother bathing for a good two days. At one time I thought Moonraker was, like, the best James Bond film EVER! And once, in college, I went on a protest march…and had no idea what I was even protesting! These are but a few on my youthful indiscretions. I submit them to you now out of fear that Jonathan Penner will see fit to do so himself. Even though they have no bearing on my job as a recapper. Why would he do such a thing? For the same reason he did it to Lisa Whelchel just moments before final voting took place in Survivor: Phi lippines. Because he is a former actor, and sometimes actors simply cannot not resist usurping the spotlight when placed on the grandest of stages, in this case the final speaker at the final Tribal Council of the season.

After dissing and dismissing Denise and Skupin, Penner took aim at Lisa, but not for anything she did in the game, but rather for something she did 30 years ago. “Lisa was a television star who spent nine years on the television program The Facts of Life,” he told the jury just moments before they went to vote for the winner. “From the age of 12 to the age of 21 she was America’s sweetheart. Still may be. You guys deserve to know that when you vote or don’t vote for her, that she has kept that all from you and I kept your secret safe until now.” In other words, he kept it a secret until the most dramatic moment possible to make the moment all about himself. Incidentally, I would have had no problem with Skupin — who was actually still in the game and trying to win — doing this. But to come from Penner, it just seemed petty and more about making a big splash for himself. And I say this as someone who loves Penner. I have always found him to be a total breath of fresh air and supremely entertaining. BUT YOU JUST MESSED WITH MY GIRL, JP! NOBODY MESSES WITH MY GIRL!

Did it cost Lisa the victory? Probably not. Denise never had to turn on anyone and therefore made no enemies with her moves (although she made one with Abi with her tongue). People’s minds were no doubt made up before they even stepped on the Tribal Council set, but it was still a low blow by Penner and had all the markings of BJS (Bitter Jury Syndrome). But enough about that. Congratulations to Denise! I said I would have no problem with any of the final four winning and that still holds true. Denise became the first person to attend every single Tribal Council, and the last one was the sweetest as she was rewarded with a million dollars for her efforts. So it was a record-breaking performance, and although she beat my episode 1 pick to win it all (Skupin) and my 1980s crush extraordinaire (Lisa), I have nothing but respect for her game and commend her on the victory. And I commend you if you can make it through all a zillion pages of this here recap, because there’s a lot to say and this is the last time we can say it until February, so let’s get right to it, folks, as we break down the Survivor: Philippines finale and reunion starting right now!

Recapping the Recap

You know how you know a season has been really great? When you get fired up watching the “Previously on…” Survivor season recap that starts off every finale. The recap that kicked off tonight’s finale reminded me of everything that made this season so damn good. Unlike last season’s One World recap which was a series of “Ugh, not that guy,” and “Ugh, not that girl,” this one actually had me clapping my hands together like some nervous sports fan psyching himself up before a big play. And why not? It’s the Super Bowl of Survivor!

NEXT: One of the worst Survivor twists ever

The Survivor Twist I Hate Above All Others

There was so much I loved about this season and this finale, but there was also one thing I really, really hated. And, as usual, I shant be shy about sharing why. The contestants went to a final Reward Challenge and saw an elaborate obstacle course set up which they had to traverse while collecting three bags of — what else? —puzzle pieces along the way which then needed to be used to solve a dragon puzzle. It looked pretty cool. But then we found out what the reward actually was: an advantage in the final immunity challenge the following day.

Now that I’ve set the table, allow me to explain why said table should be blown to smithereens and never reconstructed ever again. The final immunity challenge is a truly epic event — win and you are not only in the finals, but you pretty much determine who sits next to you in the end. It is obviously the most important challenge all season long. And for that reason THERE SHOULD BE NO ADVANTAGES! What we as viewers want to see is a level playing field. No, I understand that you may say, “Hey, Malcolm won that advantage by winning the reward challenge.” I don’t care. What I want to know is who is best at the challenge that is presented before them. Not who is best because he was allowed to start over again because he happened to win a previous challenge that had nothing to do with the one that is being performed now. To Survivor producers, I say this: Stop getting fancy! Sometimes simplicity is more epic and dramatic — and, yes, fair —then allowing one of the players to have a “do over.” It’s like the “judges save” on American Idol. Are you kidding me? What, did the NFL replacement referees come in and map out this Survivor season? I want to see an even playing field, and that’s it.

If Malcolm had won that Immunity Challenge — which we’ll get into more later — after having his ball drop before everyone else’s, it would have totally tainted that victory. Thankfully, that did not happen. And I say this as someone who digs Malcolm and would have been totally happy with him as a winner. But you know what? If he had ultimately gone on to win because of that, it would have changed how a lot of people felt about his victory. Is that really worth it, Survivor? Keep it simple. YOU DON’T MESS WITH THE FINAL IMMUNITY CHALLENGE!

Still Not Sure Whether We’re Supposed to Laugh or Cry at the Fallen Comrades Tribute

There is no one on God’s green earth who has made more fun of the Fallen Comrades tribute than yours truly. There’s just something ridiculous about people waxing poetic about other people they often didn’t like or spend any time with. Granted, watching folks struggle to come up with something to say about someone who was sent packing on day 3 — “Ah, Sonja. She uh, sure did love that ukulele” — was always kinda comical. But for the most part I always found the thing to be an enormous waste of time. Then the show got rid of the Fallen Comrades montage for a few seasons, and I have to say, I kinda missed the damn thing. Those finales just didn’t feel the same without it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the Fallen Comrades tribute is a cesspool of phony baloney staged sentimentality. But you know what? It’s OUR cesspool of phony baloney staged sentimentality dammit!

So bring on Lisa saying Zane — a person she never even spoke once to — “appeared to be a little insane,” bring on Roxy telling us that “keepin’ it real” was her downfall (even though I have no idea what that means), bring on Angie actually describing herself as “well rounded,” and definitely bring on one more shot of RC bouncing around in her leopard print bikini. Sure, and go ahead and burn all the departed players’ name tags like they are Darth Vader on Endor, because while they may not have thrown the Emperor into oblivion and saved the entire Rebel Alliance in the process, they did agree to show off their breast implants and Invisalign on a reality TV show. Such nobility should not go unrewarded.

NEXT: Malcolm & Skupin try to stay calm while holding their wood

Balls on Wood

We’ve already discussed my distaste for the advantage that meant it was not a level playing field for the final Immunity Challenge, but other than that, I thought the last challenge was great. Personally, I would be happy if every final immunity challenge was the same as the first season’s final one, where contestants just had to keep touching a pole for as long as possible, because while such a contest appears so basic and simple, it is one which tests you on both mental and physical levels. (My two other favorite final challenges are the one from Thailand where contestants had to keep six coins between their fingers while holding a very painful pose, and in Palau where they had to bob on a buoy for as long as possible.)

We’ve seen variations on this final Philippines challenge before but it always yields dramatic results. This time, a wooden cylinder had been cut into several pieces. Contestants had to use handles to pick up a piece while balancing a ball in the center of the wood. Every 5 minutes they added more pieces. Once your ball dropped, you were out. Indeed, Malcolm — who apparently suffers from Shaky Hands Syndrome — dropped first, got the do over, and dropped again. After Probst busted out several sexually-explicit-comments-when-taken-out-of-context (“Set down your balls and relax your hands”) it eventually came down to Lisa vs. Skupin, who made it all the way to round four with seven blocks. I can’t tell you how much I was rooting for my gal to finally win an individual immunity challenge, but alas, it was not meant to be. SILVER LINING ALERT! This meant that my episode 1 pick to win, Skupin, would be guaranteed of making it to the finals. I picked Skupin solely because I was playing the percentages and the fact that every single time returning players had been brought back into the game, at least one of them had made it to the finals, and I figured Skupin had the best chance of the three to do so. Turns out I was right. Unfortunately, as with last season’s episode 1 pick of Chelsea, I would once again be thwarted in the finals.

Malcolm or Denise?

From the very start of the episode, everyone was maneuvering to make sure they would be part of the final three. Except Malcolm made one fatal flaw. Homeboy pulled a Penner. Much like when Lisa and Skupin approached Penner and he refused their final four alliance offer, Denise asked Malcolm for a final three commitment and he hemmed and hawed without agreeing. Perhaps he thought that with the challenge advantage he was close to a shoo-in to win immunity and did not want to anger a future jury member. I get that. But I also get that when you are down to four people you have to convince every single one of them you are taking them so that they take you. Had Malcolm given his word to Denise right then and there, would she have stuck with him and forced a tie, leading to a fire-making tie-breaker? It’s certainly possible. But when he refused to commit to her, it gave her a free pass to then go make her own final 3 deal with Lisa and Skupin, and Malcolm’s fate was sealed.

Or was it? ALPHA MALE ALERT! ALPHA MALE ALERT! Skupin was keen on actually bringing Malcolm to the finals because he wanted the “honor” of defeating him. “I would love to take Malcolm, and beat him straight up man to man,” he told us. “My wife said to me as I was walking out the door, ‘make us proud of you.’” Well, Mike, if you want to make her proud then don’t be an idiot and take the player guaranteed to beat you. Is anyone proud of Colby Donaldson?

NEXT: The final Tribal Council begins

The things is, Mike actually thought he could beat Malcolm. He thought he had just as good a “story” because he won more tribe challenges than Malcolm and just as many individual ones. And let’s be clear, I’m not bagging on Skupin’s game. He performed very well at challenges and did a great job of realizing when he was on the bottom of one alliance and then changing the game by flipping to another one. Skupin played really, really well, and like everyone in the final four, deserves major props. But you have to be able to read how people feel about you and how they feel about the people you would be competing against for the money, and Mike was way off in his assessment here. (Apparnetly, so were all of us, because we thought Malcolm was a shoo-in over Denise, but jury members at the Reunion said Denise would have even beaten Malcolm in the finals.)

Lisa, of course, wanted no part of Malcolm in the finals. “Handing the title of sole survivor to Malcolm on a platter would just be stupid,” she said. “Everybody who signed up to play this game came to win, and I did to.” Sure enough, when they got to Tribal Council, it became pretty clear that Malcolm was going home. All you Simpsons fans may remember the classic “I choo-choo-choose you” episode of the show where Lisa goes on a date with Ralph Wiggum to a Krusty the Clown TV special, and Bart freeze-frames the precise moment on the air when you can see Lisa breaking Ralph’s heart. That’s how I felt about Malcolm after Probst asked, “Lisa, is there a reason to take Malcolm to the end?” and she replied “There is not a reason for me to take him to the end.” BAM! Lights out. Show’s over. Please tip your waitress on the way out. You could see all the life drain from Malcolm’s body at that exact moment. Brutal.

So Malcolm walked up to get his torch snuffed, but not without a not-so-subtle message of “Congratulations, Denise,” insinuating the game was hers to lose. Malcolm was casting gold for this show — an attractive young dude who was smart, social, physical, and a great storyteller to help narrate the action. He’s also a huge fan of the game and I love it when people who love this show do well on it. He’s one of the big reasons this season was so enjoyable, and while I am sure being that close will haunt him for a long time, he should be stoked for how well he did. Well played, Freberg. Your next Milwaukee’s Best is on me! (P.S. Good luck finding a place that still serves Milwaukee’s Best.)

The Final Tribal Council, finally

The time in between the two final Tribal Councils is always just people talking about their “journey” and stuff like “emotions” and “feelings” while sipping mimosas and staring pensively out at the ocean. I have no use for it, so let’s get straight to the final Tribal Council.

Truthfully, I didn’t think the opening statements were that strong. I liked Denise saying she would make no apologies, but there is a difference between not apologizing and being braggy, and saying, “I’ve outwit many of you, I outplayed many of you, and ultimately, I outlast all of you,” is just laying it on a little thick. Lisa went on and on about all the things she did wrong and how “not pretty” her game was. She emphasized how the switch flipped for her when her brother came on the loved ones visit. That was no good because to me that was like saying “I only really played the last 9 days or so,” so I’m not sure why she decided to hammer that point home. Skupin spoke of being a huge target as a returning player, and there is something to that, but we’ve also seen all the success returning players have had, so there are clearly advantages to that as well. Here are quick summations of what each of the jury members said:

ARTIS

“Normally this is the point in the game where you would be congratulated for making it where you are,’ said Artis. “Unfortunately, I cannot do that.” Why not? Artis went on to say that they should have stuck with their alliances and that karma is a bitch. But Denise never betrayed any alliance, and Lisa didn’t vote against him either, so I’m not sure why Artis was such a bitter Betty with those two.

NEXT: The jury shows off its bitter beer face

CARTER

Carter didn’t say much this whole season, but what he said here was pretty refreshing, complimenting Lisa and Skupin for being early and easy targets yet still making it to the end, while also asking Skupin about voting him out. Skupin handled this pretty well, going Todd Herzog style and killing Carter with kindness by saying he had to get rid of him or he would have won.

PETE

This was a bit confusing as Team Jacob went back and forth with Lisa on whether she had in fact betrayed Tandang because she knew Artis was going home and didn’t do anything to stop it. Lisa corrected him and said she had no idea, and then Pete just seemed confused. Too bad he could not look into her soul and see that it was true.

RC

RC complimented Lisa by saying she wanted her gone from the first second because she knew how dangerous she was, but this was really about RC complimenting RC for recognizing a threat when she saw one. She also busted out the famous RC cackle a few times for good measure. I actually think RC is a great character and should be brought back again at some point. Her intensity proved to be a liability here, but could serve her well under the right circumstances with the right people.

MALCOLM

This is where things got interesting. We all had Malcolm pegged as an automatic Denise vote, but that was thrown into question when he said, “Lisa came out and gave her opening speech and she was swinging for the fences. I didn’t think she had it in her but it was exactly what I wanted to hear from her. And for the first time I actually considered writing your name down tonight.” Then it came time to address his alliance partner from day 1: “Denise, don’t nod. I’m telling you right now, don’t nod. Don’t nod. This appeasing everybody thing has to stop.”

Denise handled this probably the worst way possible, finishing her response to Malcolm with, “I was playing the game every step of the way, and I’m sitting here and you’re standing there.” Again, no need to apologize, but stop rubbing it in!!! I was actually shocked by this point at how poorly Denise was performing.

JEFF KENT

“I’m a little bitter too but I can handle it pretty well,” said Jeff Kent. Wanna bet? According to Kent, “There are three kinds of people. People that make things happen, people that watch things happen, and people that wonder what the hell just happened.” I’d like to add a fourth type of person to that list: People who chew on toothpicks and make no sense whatsoever while talking in riddles. Jeff asked Skupin to define which one of those people he was and then argued pretty unsuccessfully on whether Lisa was a floater or not. In baseball parlance, I’m going to score this outing as an Error for the former second baseman.

ABI-MARIA

Abi just talked about how everyone was mean to her. On one hand, I want to blow her off. On the other, the woman is an expert on being mean, so I guess she knows what she’s talking about. Doesn’t mean I need to waste any more space recounting it though.

PENNER

Oh, boy. I have such conflicted thoughts about Penner’s final words. Penner is a performer. He is a former actor and we know all actors looooove the spotlight. So I was a bit put off by what seemed to be more about Penner and his own performance than any of the three people up there vying for the million dollars. Someone clearly still wanted to be the star.

That said, in terms of providing dramatic television, it was a hell of a performance. He started in first on Denise: “You shared with me once that the one thing you were afraid of being seen as was a bitch. You can rest assured that you have now shown the world that side.” Ouch! He then moved on to Skupin: “You were able to avoid having your name written down even once. You may find that you have a perfect record even after tonight.” But he saved his biggest dig for the person he bonded with the closest out on the island, Lisa, informing the jury of her past. As stated at the top of this recap, oh those many pages ago, that felt like a low blow having nothing at all to do with the game that was dealt solely so his speech could be that much more dramatic. So in those terms, I didn’t like it. But in terms of providing the dramatic moment he so clearly craved, it certainly delivered. Whether you feel that revelation made Jonathan a hero or a villain, it was one of those hands over the mouth shocking moments that we’ll remember for a long time.

NEXT: Missed opportunities at the Reunion

And his final comments were similarly both genius and self-serving at the same time. Yes, they were bit overblown, crafted by the writer-actor as his epic send-off, but if you want drama, well, then Penner is the right guy to give it to you. Who else could come up with the following? “I think that one of you has ridden the other two here like oxen. You have yoked to a cart and have been ridden in and now you will be led to the slaughter. And you hear the cheering. You think the million dollars is yours. One of you is right. One of you is standing in the chariot. And the other two are actually just the oxen listening to the crowd cheering the person behind you. I’m done.” I wonder how many times he practiced that in the mirror at the jury house.

We Have Our Winner!

In the end, it was as we predicted this scenario would play out, with Denise taking the majority of votes (RC voted for Lisa and Carter voted for “Skoopin”) in the oldest final 3 in Survivor history, with all three finalists over the age of 40. No hate here. Denise did something nobody else has ever done in surviving every single Tribal Council. I don’t know if her win was “exciting,” but it was rock solid.

Reunited and it Feels So…Mild

I was really looking forward to this reunion, but I gotta say, was a little disappointed. First off, Probst once again refused all manner of absurd forms of transportation (jet ski, skydiving, motorcycle, subway, taxi) and simply walked the votes in. We got a moment of silence for the victims of the Newtown, CT shooting that was entirely appropriate but also made for a super awkward transition to the celebratory reading of the votes.

Lisa was eloquent talking about how “I don’t think God cares who wins Survivor,” but Jeff stayed with her on the Christianity thing for way too long. I thought there was a fascinating line of questioning to be had with Russell Swan and his various meltdowns and difficult time he has had coming to grips with what happened after the episodes aired, but instead we just got a throwaway question to him about rain. I definitely would have loved more time on the RC-Abi feud, which continues in full force to this day, and we never got into why Artis hates Skupin so much (which he discussed in detail on our InsideTV Podcast). And worst of all, No OVERSIZED NOVELTY CHECK!!! If I were Denise, I would pissed. You go all the way out there, watch your original tribe lose every single challenge, you have to attend every single Tribal Council, make it all the way to the end, win, and then you don’t even get an oversized novelty check? Lame!

Oh, and also, Lisa just beat Malcolm in the $100,000 fan favorite voting, if you care about that sort of thing. At least we had Dawson spice things up uy bum rushing Jeff Probst to land a big fat wet one right on his lips. And then we got to get our first tease of next season, titled Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs Favorites. (Jeff Probst shared more details about it with me that you can read right here.)

So, um, over 4,000 words later and I guess that’s it. Congrats to all the contestants and Survivor crew for giving us a thoroughly entertaining season. And thanks, as always, to you for reading…if anyone out there indeed is still reading. May your holidays be festive and merry! And if you’re a glutton for punishment looking for more, check out that post with Probst talking about next season. You can also feast on an exclusive deleted scene from last night’s finale in the video player below, along with my pre-game interviews with the entire final four. Speaking of the final four, I’ll be chatting with them on Monday, so look for that as well as my finale/reunion Q&A with Probst. And of course, make sure to follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for all the latest Survivor scoop. I got nothing left to say except sorry about whatever typos may be lurking within! It’s late, this is long, and stuff happens. See you in 2013 with a brand new scoop of the crispy!

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