Natalie makes the power move of the season. Plus, ranking every single Survivor season, from first to worst.

By Dalton Ross
February 27, 2015 at 09:47 PM EST
CBS
S29 E13
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Dear Natalie Anderson,

Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Dalton Ross. We’ve met actually—out in Nicaragua the day before filming began on Survivor: San Juan del Sur. I spoke with you and your sister Nadiya. You guys cursed a lot and made fun of Rupert. I say that as a point of reference as if that might help you remember, but my best educated guess is that you curse and make fun of Rupert relatively frequently so that may not help much. Anyhoo, I write to you today to say the following: THANK YOU!!! Thank you for restoring my faith in Survivor. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s not as if my faith in the franchise ever wavered, but this more just reminded me that remarkable things can still happen in unremarkable seasons.

Look, it’s no secret that this has not been the best of Survivor installments. (And I will tell you exactly where it falls in my updated season-by-season rankings, which can be found a bit later.) Maybe it’s because San Juan del Sur had the unfortunate timing of having to come right after the tremendous Cagayan. Perhaps it’s because the Nicaraguan locale can’t match up to the scenic South Pacific settings. Or could it be because most of the players seemingly have had no clue what they are doing? Whatever the reasons, it just hasn’t measured up.

Matters were not helped when the two biggest players (Josh and Jeremy) were ousted in consecutive weeks. Reed gave it a go for a while and is to be lauded and applauded for his efforts to shake things up, but he was ultimately undermined by clueless Keith. We appeared destined for a super-underwhelming final 3 comprised of people from the Jon, Jaclyn, Missy, Baylor less-than-fearsome-foursome. As viewers, it felt like playing out the string. But then you did it, you magnificent bastard! You got Baylor to agree to your plan to oust Jon. That was temporarily put on hold when he won immunity—I still don’t understand why you didn’t target Jaclyn then instead of Alec, by the way, but I’ll let that slide—however the plan was later back on. Then, after convincing Baylor, you won immunity, and won over Missy as well.

Not only did you provide us with an awesome blindside, but you provided us with something even more valuable—a person to root for. That was the biggest problem with this season after Josh and Jeremy were ousted. I was pulling for you by default after that, pointing to your earlier play to get rid of Drew as evidence of your savvy, but my rooting was half-hearted at best. No longer. You’ve pulled off the move of the game and proven yourself worthy of the million dollar prize. (Although I do want to warn you that there has been a disturbing trend recently in the presentation of said million dollars—they are no longer accompanied by an oversized novelty check. And honestly, if they’re not going to present you with an oversized novelty check, then why bother?) Not only did you do all this, but you did it after your twin sister was the very first one out of the game! Impressive.

So again, my thanks. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to this week’s recap, and I have to do it all lickety-split-like since it is also time for the updated season rankings. Where will San Juan del Sur fall? Read on to find out!

Sincerely,

Dalton Ross

Okay, let’s get to the episode that made me about 1,000 percent more excited for next week’s finale, starting from the tippy-top. Jon and Jaclyn are still mystified by Alec being voted out instead of Keith. “I’m really confused,” says Jaclyn. “Did Alec vote for himself?” Oh, boy. That pretty much sums up Jaclyn’s gameplay right there in a nutshell. Hey, Jaclyn: Try to vote yourself out next time and see what happens. Either way, we will enjoy watching.

The next morning, Keith has trouble spitting something out of his mouth, and if things have gotten to the point where Keith cannot even do the one thing he is competent at—spitting—then what good is he? That’s not fair: Keith is actually good at challenges, so let’s see how he does in this week’s reward competition, shall we? The players are divided into 2 teams which will be belted together and have to run through some hay and then over and under a series of hitching posts… wait a minute, hay and hitching posts? What are they, freakin’ horses? What the hell is going on here? Anyway, then they need to fill a bucket with water, go over a teeter-totter and pour the water into a bigger bucket, which will lower a gate, and then they have to solve a plank puzzle. Winners get a spa day. Keith, Missy, and Jon comprise the blue team while yellow is Natalie, Baylor, and Jaclyn.

I want to say a few things about this challenge, the first of which is that the strategically placed teeter-totter camera totally made me feel like I was tripping on mushrooms while watching this, which, coincidentally, I was! It also made me a bit nauseated when it would tilt up and down. Kinda reminded me of the time I went on the Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey ride at Universal Studios, almost hurled… and then went on it again! It was just that good.

I’d also like to point out that for some reason Probst yelling to the contestants to “Get clean! Get rubbed! Get fed!” struck me as super awkward—especially the “get rubbed!” part. I mean, have you ever been walking down the street minding your own business and then someone started yelling at you to “get rubbed”? People complain all the time about Jeff Probst’s play-by-play during challenges, and I honestly do not know what they are talking about. That’s when the guy unleashes some of his greatest gems! Yelling at contestants to “get rubbed”? Magic. Pure magic. Just imagine if this challenge had involved balls!

NEXT: Keith knocks the funk off

So blue wins (not like you cared), but the big story is Missy, who manages to twice bash into the first hitching post and then hurt her ankle on the teeter-totter. To her credit, Missy just doesn’t have time for the pain. “It’s just swollen. It’s not a big deal,” she says, downplaying the injury. If you ask me, that’s nothing that cooking all of the tribe’s rice supply can’t fix. Of course, the real drama is not Missy’s injury, but rather the fact that Jaclyn did not win so now is going to be all pissy at everybody. In fact, if one of the winners does not swap with her immediately to give her the spa reward getaway she so clearly deserves she may try to switch sides again and form a new alliance with the jury. (“What? You can’t do that? But Alec voted for himself!”) Her boyfriend Jon actually does give up his spot, but to Baylor instead. BECAUSE GIVING UP YOUR SPOT IN A REWARD ALWAYS WORKS OUT SO GREAT!!! HISTORY IS ON YOUR SIDE! (Seriously, I think reward giveaways are the new self-inflicted version of the Survivor car curse—look it up, newbies.) Apparently hoping there may be another hidden immunity idol at Exile (non) Island, Jon and Natalie both hilariously compete to be sent there. Natalie wins, so Jon gets the consolation prize: private time with his girlfriend back at camp.

Over at their spa, Keith is enjoying his first shower in over a month, explaining how it “knocked the funk off of me.” He also proclaims that “I’m coming out of here looking like George Clooney,” and I’m not sure George Clooney has ever been more depressed in his entire life. (Probably not. What does he even have to be depressed about? I mean, besides YouTube for archiving all of his mulleted work on The Facts of Life.) We also get some weird shots looking up at Keith’s face on the massage table as he gets a rub-down that are perhaps even more disturbing than the acid-tinged teeter-totter angles.

Let’s get over to the immunity challenge, where the contestants are walking—or, in the case of Missy… hobbling—in. Fun behind-the-scenes tidbit: When I spent my fateful evening as the first person to ever inhabit Exile Island back in season 12, I found a walking stick and named it Valerie Bertinelli after my schoolboy crush on the sitcom star. I wonder if Missy named her stick after anybody. Hopefully not, or else she may try to marry it.

Hey, here comes Natalie back from Exile Island. She’s crying just talking about how hard it was. And now Missy is crying talking about her hurt foot and how she won’t quit. Probst brings medical in to take a look and now Baylor is crying. Somewhere Lisa Welchel and Dawn Meehan are no doubt crying as well. And they’re not even watching the episode! Ahhhhh, I kid. But no, seriously, someone should get Dawn some Kleenex ASAP, just in case.

Ben the doctor comes in, looks at the foot, makes Missy think she needs to be pulled from the game, and then is all “PSYCH! You’re good! Here’s an awkward looking cast for your leg. Enjoy!” Whatever. Missy is not going to compete in the challenge because with her injury she would not last as long as it takes me to type this very sentence. Players in this contest must hold on to two handles while their feet balance on a teeter-totter… Hold up. What the hell with all the teeter-totters this episode? It’s as if this entire episode is sponsored by Weebles—because Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down. And if you have no idea what a Weeble is, then congratulations on being under the age of 40. Anyhow, attached to the teeter-tooter is a vase, and when the vase drops, you’re out.

It eventually comes down to a duel between Natalie and Jon as both survive several large gusts of wind. Finally, Jon’s vase falls, leading a triumphant Natalie to run over and hug Jeff Probst, who, judging by his reaction, is concerned that she may be infected with the cooties virus. (In his defense, Jeff Probst did get bed bugs last time he was in Nicaragua, so you can’t blame him for playing it safe.) So, like, this is great! Now we actually will have some drama to see if Nat can pull off her plan to blindside Jon. Said plan involves getting a three-way split in votes for Jon, Jaclyn, and Keith, and then voting out Jon on the revote (or Jaclyn, if Jon has played an idol). For it to work, all Keith has to do is keep his big George Clooney yap shut at Tribal Council. “At Tribal, don’t act crazy,” Natalie tells him. “Just act depressed that you’re going home.”

NEXT: The top 5 Survivor seasons ever

But there is one other key element of the plan—getting Missy on board, and Gimpy McGee is not so keen on it. “I can’t do that,” she tells her daughter. “I’ve given him my word to the end. And I will get no votes.” Wrong. You will get no votes if you go against him in the finals. “Okay, well, I don’t have a deal with Jon. I have nothing with Jon,” responds Baylor. This is the kind of intrigue you want to see on a Blood vs. Water season—two loved ones with different interests trying to come to a decision that is mutually beneficial for both of them. You could argue that Jon and Jaclyn have been doing the same thing all season, but that was often over petty reasons like whom Jaclyn was annoyed with as opposed to genuine strategy. We’ll have to wait to Tribal Council to see how it plays out.

So the contestants arrive at Tribal and are joined by Sausage Party 2014 (a.k.a. the Jury). There’s a bunch of stuff happening—including Keith doing some terrible acting in talking about how he can’t pierce the alliance of five, and Jury member Alec going for some sort of Guinness World Record for having his mouth open for the longest time imaginable without talking—but we just want to get to the voting. When the time comes, Keith helps Missy up to the urn and back (rumor has it Missy proposed to him along the way) and nobody plays an idol. The votes are revealed, and indeed Natalie and Baylor got Missy to switch. It’s a three-way tie, and Jon is ousted on the revote. BAM! Natalie laughs, Keith winks, and Jon kisses Jaclyn goodbye before forgetting his torch.

“The game is wide open,” says Probst. And he’s right. Best of all, now we have someone to root for. And Lord knows I am rooting for her, because how depressing would any sort of final 3 at this point without Natalie be? Which brings me to one last point that bears clarification. I suppose I have not been particularly complimentary of the season’s cast as a whole, but I do want it noted for the record that they all seem like decent people. Terrible game-players and bland personalities perhaps, but decent people nonetheless. Keith may have driven me crazy with his nonsensical play, and Jon and Jaclyn may have had me pulling my hair out with their wishy-washiness and back and forth, but I enjoyed speaking with them out on location before the game started.

I point this out because while this may not have been the most dynamic season of Survivor, it was not a One World, Nicaragua, or Fiji situation, where there were so many actively unlikable folks among the cast. That’s worth keeping in mind as we finally get to it and delve into the latest Survivor season-by-season rankings. And to reiterate (as I do every season) these are done now instead of as part of the finale recap because the finale recap is already waaaaay too long as it is. And I always reserve the right to move a season up or down depending on what happens in the finale, so don’t freak out or anything. Okay, disclaimer over! Let’s get to it.

SURVIVOR SEASON RANKINGS

1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo

(Winner: Richard Hatch)

and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites

(Winner: Parvati Shallow)

I’ve gone back and forth with these two over the years. After Micronesia aired, I named it the best Survivor season ever. Upon reflection, while I still considered it the most enjoyable, I also worried I was understating the impact of the first season, which became a national phenomenon. (Yes, Borneo now seems dated and tame by comparison, but it’s the biggest game changer in the past 20 years of television.) So then I returned that to the #1 spot. If I wanted to watch one season again, it would be Micronesia. If you ask me which is the most important season, well, obviously it’s Borneo. So instead of constantly flipping them, they can simply share the top spot… until I change my mind again.

3. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)

The Russell vs. Boston Rob feud made for the best pre-merge run of episodes ever. And the greatness just kept on coming. Filled with huge memorable moments like Tyson voting himself off, J.T. giving Russell his immunity idol, and Parvati handing out two immunity idols at one Tribal Council. Loses a few points for having so many three-timers, though, including a few (Amanda, James) we simply didn’t need to see again. I know many people would consider this #1, but it’s all returnees. For me, the fresh blood of Micronesia keeps that season higher.

4. Survivor: Cagayan

(Winner: Tony Vlachos)

Quite simply, the best Survivor  season ever with all new players since the very first one (which is only better by the fact that it was the very first one). It was an intoxicating mix of terrific and terrible gameplay in which the big personalities (Tony, Spencer, Kass) weren’t just personalities—they actually were there to play the game. (Maybe not well at all times, but at least they were playing.) The casting was killer, the challenges were solid, the boot order was completely unpredictable, and the creative twists worked (although I was not a fan of the return of the post-votes read idol; thankfully that never came into play). The fact that Woo inexplicably brought Tony to the end with him added one last great “WHAT THE HELL?!?” moment to a truly intoxicating season.

5. Survivor: Amazon

(Winner: Jenna Morasca)

Probably the most unpredictable season ever from week to week. Some people hate on Morasca as a winner, but she won challenges and played an effective social game.

NEXT: More Survivor season-by-season rankings

6. Survivor: Pearl Islands

(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)

Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten sucking at everything. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, which also led to a disappointing final two (Lil? Seriously?)

7. Survivor: Palau

(Winner: Tom Westman)

I loved watching one tribe decimate the other, culminating with Stephenie becoming a tribe of one. And the challenges may have been Survivor‘s best ever. What’s interesting about Palau is that we basically all knew Tom would win from episode 1, but it was still gripping nonetheless.

8. Survivor: Blood vs. Water

(Winner: Tyson Apostol)

The returning contestants playing with/against their loved ones twist added new dimensions and forced players—and us—to think about the strategic elements of the game in an entirely new way. And for strategy nerds like myself, it was like opening a brand new Christmas present each and every week as new layers were revealed. And although I am certainly no fan of the Redemption Island twist due to the fact that it neuters the show’s most dramatic moment (the vote-off), it is undeniable that the RI element is what led to many of the intriguing strategic decisions of whom to vote out and why. (However, I still can’t figure out why they went with three person duels—a.k.a. truels—and they definitely should have stopped RI at the merge.) Yes, the challenges were a letdown this season and there was a bit of a lull just after the merge, but all in all, this was a super solid season from top to bottom and a nice change of pace.

9. Survivor: Philippines

(Winner: Denise Stapley)

This season was all about one thing: casting, casting, casting. When you look back on what happened, while there were a lot of shake-ups with the voting, there weren’t a whole lot of jaw-on-the-floor shocking moments. So why is it so high? Because the casting and storylines that developed gave us people to root for and against—something every great Survivor season needs. And the fact that Philippines had such a strong final four—Denise, Malcolm, Lisa, Skupin—also doesn’t hurt.

10. Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites

(Winner: John Cochran)

A tale of two seasons this was, and I can already hear people yelling that I am putting it too high. But hear me out first before you Russell any feathers. If I was grading this solely on pre-merge episodes, this would be waaaay down the list due to the emphasis on big personalities (Shamar, Brandon, Phillip) as opposed to big gameplay. It was flat-out grating. But everything post-merge was spectacular. I can’t remember a time when there were so many moves and countermoves so late in the season. The same way it is more important for a sports team to play well in the second half of a game as opposed to the first, a great season needs to build momentum, and Caramoan definitely did that with six fantastic episodes in a row. It’s much more important to finish strong than to start strong, so I definitely put more weight and emphasis on post-merge episodes when doing the rankings, and this season made a remarkable comeback and slipped into the top 10. Also, don’t overlook how great the bevy of water challenges was. Should I push it down in the rankings due to the lackluster Reunion show that followed? Perhaps. Kind of not sure how much I should take that live show into consideration when ranking what happened out on the island.

11. Survivor: Samoa

(Winner: Natalie White)

I like this season a lot more than most people, but Russell’s controlling of the game (especially post-merge when his side was down 8-4) was truly a work of art. Evil genius art. He was robbed in the end, though, in the most controversial jury decision ever.

12. Survivor: Marquesas

(Winner: Vecepia Towery)

An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. Yes, it was a weak final two, but it also had a woman peeing on a guy’s hand. Plus: Purple rock!!!

13. Survivor: China

(Winner: Todd Herzog)

After constantly threatening to move this ranking up, I finally did a year ago. I’ve always loved this season. It featured a really good cast stuck in a really bad location. Todd completely owned that final Tribal Council. That’s how you win a million dollars.

14. Survivor: Cook Islands

(Winner: Yul Kwon)

What a difference a mutiny makes. It was listless until that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we finally had underdogs to root for. The Tribal Council fire-making tiebreaker between Sundra and Becky may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Plus, just look at all the great first-time contestants (Parvati, Penner, Ozzy, Yul). Mutineers must die!

15. Survivor: Australian Outback

(Winner: Tina Wesson)

An overrated season in my book. Probst loves it. I didn’t. Solid but unspectacular. Pretty predictable boot order as well. Dude did burn his hands off, though.

 NEXT: Those were the best, here are the rest

16. Survivor: South Pacific

(Winner: Sophie Clarke)

Here’s another one that I like more than most people, which is curious considering how much it has in common with the season that aired directly before it, which I didn’t like: the same twist of two returning players, Redemption Island, the predictable vote-offs, no real water challenges, etc… But there is one thing I really did dig about this season, and that is the cast. I was invested in the players and their fates—the ones I wanted to do well, and not so well. Plus, this season gave us three signature moments: Ozzy volunteering to go to Redemption, Cochran flipping, and Brandon giving away his immunity.

17. Survivor: Tocantins

(Winner: J.T. Thomas)

Okay, you may roll your eyes at Coach 1.0. But imagine for a second this season without him. Bo-ring! His unintentional comedy single-handedly lifted this into the middle of the pack. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any memorable moments that didn’t involve the Steven Seagal wannabe?

18. Survivor: All-Stars

(Winner: Amber Brkich)

Overall, a bit of a letdown, but man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. Plus: Best. Reunion Show. Ever. (Remember Jerri getting literally booed off the stage?)

19. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island

(Winner: Aras Baskauskas)

Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Terry was robbed on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Another unmemorable final two. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. Or any other time, for that matter.

20. Survivor: Gabon

(Winner: Bob Crowley)

It got better near the end, but it was still a case of too little, too late. The fact that so many unworthy players went so far is simply too damning.

21. Survivor: Redemption Island

(Winner: Boston Rob Mariano)

The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (the most dominant showing ever) and Phillip philosophize (the craziest showing ever), just not very dramatic. Most of the vote-offs were clearly telegraphed and the Redemption Island twist sucked the life out of Survivor’s signature moment—the vote-off.

22. Survivor: Africa

(Winner: Ethan Zohn)

Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.

23. Survivor: Guatemala

(Winner: Danni Boatwright)

One of the more unlikable casts so far. (Remember Judd? Jamie? Stephenie’s evil twin?) Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.

24. Survivor: Vanuatu

(Winner: Chris Daugherty)

I don’t blame producers: The battle of the sexes worked well the first time around.

25. Survivor: San Juan del Sur

(Winner: ???)

I asked you all over Twitter this week where you would rank it, and most of you had it somewhere around here. I agree. The cast was boring if not boorish, and when we look back on this season a few years down the line, will any one moment even stand out? Anything? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I will say it has gotten better over the past few weeks as we head to the homestretch. That counts for something. This is not a season that inspires anger or rage, just apathy, which is maybe the worst indictment of all. But a Natalie run to victory would lessen the sting.

26. Survivor: One World

(Winner: Kim Spradlin)

Look, I have total respect for Kim’s game. Like Tom in Palau and Rob in Redemption Island, she excelled strategically, socially, and physically. Unfortunately, that is really the only good thing I can say about this season. And that’s too bad, because I do think the “One World” concept was a solid one. But, man, what a thoroughly uninspiring cast. Colton was more a horrible human being than a classic villain, and the rest of the players were mostly either completely forgettable or people you wish you could forget. I worry I am being generous by putting it even this high, but out of respect for Kim, it will go here for now.

27. Survivor: Thailand

(Winner: Brian Heidik)

The fake merge and brutal last challenge—where the final three had to hold coins between their fingers in a crazy painful pose—keep this dud out of the bottom spot. Barely.

28. Survivor: Fiji

(Winner: Earl Cole)

With the exception of Yau-Man and Earl, a true bummer of a cast, and the “Haves Vs. Have-Nots” twist was one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor  history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…

29. Survivor: Nicaragua

(Winner: Jud “Fabio” Birza)

It’s at the bottom for a few reasons. 1) Splitting the tribes up by age and the Medallion of Power were both enormous flops. 2.) Like One WorldThailand,  and Fiji, Nicaragua had just too many unlikable players. 3) Two people quitting with only 11 days left. 4) No big memorable moments. Even Thailand had the fake merge and Fiji had the big Yau-Man/Dreamz free car deal gone bad, but what was Nicaragua‘s signature moment? Unfortunately, it was people quitting, and that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Okay, that will do it. On second thought, no it won’t. That’s because we also have an exclusive deleted scene for you along with my pre-game interview with Jon and Jaclyn in the video player below. Don’t forget to hop over to check out my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst, and my exit interview with Jon will be on the InsideTV Podcast on Thursday afternoon. Of course, you can have all these Survivor goodies sent right to your virtual doorstep buy following me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

Good news! The time has come for you to tell me how terrible my rankings are. Or you can weigh in on the episode itself and whom you want to win at next week’s finale. Hit the message boards, and I’ll be back next week with another super-sized scoop of the crispy!

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