A new twist shakes up the final three before the winner is announced
Million Dollar Night
Credit: CBS

Ben Driebergen hustled, scrapped, scratched, and clawed his way to the title of Sole Survivor and deserves every penny of the million-dollar prize.

Ben Driebergen took advantage of a twist designed to get him to the end of a game he had no business winning because he — like everyone else before him — should have been voted out instead of being given a special chance to save himself.

Which do you believe? Because there are no doubt two narratives circulating throughout Survivor Nation in the wake of Ben being named the champion of Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers. Ben defeated Chrissy and Ryan to take home the title, but the question many are now asking is: Should he have even been there? It’s a fascinating question that — like so many other things about the greatest game on the face of the Earth — can be debated and discussed ad nauseam. Which — fair warning — is exactly what I am about to do here.

Because Ben does not win unless Ben gets to the final three. And Ben does not get to the final three unless there is a new twist that allowed the winner of the last immunity challenge (Chrissy) to choose the person (Ryan) to sit next to her at the end, with the other two (Devon and Ben) having to battle it out to join them. Under the traditional voting that has been a part of every single Tribal Council ever on the show — over 500 and counting — Ben would have been voted out by Chrissy, Ryan, and Devon. He was a goner. It was a fait accompli. Instead, he was given new life and a chance to advance.

Was it fair? Was it an exciting new wrinkle, or merely a method to give a strong player extra help to survive? While most people probably fell quickly into LOVE IT! and LOATHE IT! camps, I can understand both sides. On one hand, I get it. It’s a new twist! New twists are exciting! It also adds guaranteed drama in terms of a built-in fire-making challenge, which are always either riveting or — in the case of Becky and Sundra — hilarious. But then there is the inescapable feeling that it is also a bit of a cop-out.

Survivor went to the final three format in season 13 (Cook Islands) because producers were sick of losing great contestants at the three spot. Just the season before in Panama, Terry Deitz had been voted out at three, leading to what many considered an underwhelming final two in Aras and Danielle. The move to the final three — which I have gone on record as not liking because I always think A versus B is inherently more dramatic than “pick one of the above” — was made to ensure a greater chance of an exciting player sitting at the final Tribal Council. And producers would point to the fact that both Ozzy and Yul (and Becky) made it the very first season they implemented it as proof that it worked. (Probst and I have respectfully disagreed about this for years.)

So what has happened since then? Just as before, we’ve often seen iconic players cut just before final Tribal, but now it’s at the four spot instead of the three spot. It happened to Malcolm in Philippines. It happened to previous winner Tina in Blood vs. Water. It happened to Kelley in Second Chance. It happened to David in Millennials vs Gen X. (Spencer also went out fourth in Cagayan but there was a rare final two that season due to someone quitting.) And it would have undoubtedly happened to Ben here. This new final four twist is not necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card, because you still have to win a fire-making challenge to stave off elimination, but it does now give that person who is often either a fan favorite or the biggest threat to win — which is why the others all want him or her out — a 50 percent chance of making the finals as opposed to, in Ben’s case here, a zero percent chance. That’s a pretty significant boost.

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There are two ways of looking at this new twist. One way is to say: Good! Not only is it nice to see a new twist introduced, but I want the best people at the end and this helps make sure that happens. Plus, it’s totally fair because this special help is open to all players. It’s not like at the beginning of the season the producers said, “We like Ben. Let’s give him extra help to make it to the end.” If Ryan or Chrissy or Devon or even freakin’ JP had been the most dangerous threat still standing at the final four they would have been afforded the same luxury. Plus, this new twist offers a new strategic wrinkle. Now Chrissy has to not only think about whom she wants to sit next to at the end, but she needs to consider which person has the best chance of beating Ben. So what’s not to love?

That’s one way. Here’s the other way: They started doing the final three as a rule modification to make sure better people were sitting at the end. Now they have modified the rules yet again at the final four to once again game the system in the interest of protecting the best players to help them make it to the million dollar jury. What’s next? A final five? Everyone at the merge automatically makes it to the end? Allowing jurors to vote one of themselves into the finals? Yes, it stinks to lose great players right before the final three. But it’s also AMAZING! What creates some of the best drama on the show is watching someone who has played so well and done everything right and been on the cusp of winning a million dollars fall One. Day. Short. THAT is drama! Let it play out! Put the cheesy piano music underneath them talking about how painful it is to be so close yet so far and then call it a day. (Recap continues on next page)

Is it possible to agree with certain elements of both of those arguments? Like everyone, I like to see a new twist and how the players react. I also like the strategic wrinkle of the challenge winner having to work out the best way to approach the decision of whom to bring and whom to have compete. But on the flip side, I also do not want this to be business as usual and the final four norm moving forward for all the counter-arguments also expressed.

Remember in Kaoh Rong when Michele got to remove a member of the jury? That was super cool! I also would never want that to happen every season. It was a nice one-time deal. If this was a final four twist introduced for this season and this season only to see how it plays out, then I’m okay with that and can let it slide. But I don’t want the rules of the game to be fundamentally and permanently altered once again just so we potentially have a more dynamic final three. Part of what makes this show so great is that the best players do fall short. Adding them a form of assistance — even if that assistance is technically available to everyone — just feels like gerrymandering to protect the most popular players.

Let me be absolutely 100 percent clear on something: I am not suggesting that production put this fire-making twist in at the last minute just to allow Ben specifically to slip into the final three. It’s not like they were huddling in a tent once it got down to four people, twirling their mustaches and saying “How can we rig the game to get Ben into the finals?” I have way too much respect for them to insinuate something like that. I don’t think there was anything untoward or underhanded about the twist. Some former Survivors did not agree, however.

I also don’t know their exact motivation for putting it there. I am guessing producers had discussions before the season about situations exactly like this where someone great got cut loose at the four spot and therefore came up with an idea that might keep them alive, but I am just guessing. Also, producers SHOULD be having discussions on ways to improve the game and improve the show. Not only is that their prerogative, but is their job. Even when I don’t agree with some of the moves, I always appreciate them taking a risk in trying something out. They tried out a new final Tribal format last season, and thank God they did!

Whether the producers liked the idea of giving a strong player a better chance of making it to the end or simply liked the idea of a guaranteed fire-making tiebreaker, they thought this could make for more drama. And you very well may agree. But I would argue (like I argued when they moved to the final three) that it is more dramatic to watch great players like Malcolm, Kelley, David, and Ben get cut loose early rather finding a way to make it more possible for them get to the end. That often makes for a much more compelling story.

Anyway, as I said, I would let it slide if this was merely a one-time experiment because they should be trying new things, but I’m definitely not feeling it as a permanent addition to the format of the show — although judging by Probst’s comments during a live look-in that “That final four twist is not a one-off; that is a part of the show, so you can expect to see it again next season,” it seems Jeff and I have yet another thing to debate and discuss right next to our Final 2 vs. Final 3 deliberations. (And yes, I recognize the irony of me complaining all season about too many advantages devaluing strong gameplay yet now here I am worrying that strong game players are getting too friendly a roll of the dice. I guess I’m just contrarian to the point of even contradicting myself!) Anyway, very curious to hear your thoughts on it.

AND THIS IS WHY I LOVE SURVIVOR! Exactly for debates like this! How many shows on television can inspire such passionate opinions on both sides? Not Chicago Med, I’ll tell you that much. Maybe that’s the real reason producers put this twist in: just to watch us engage in the kind of spirited discourse that keeps this show in the news and on people’s minds. If so, they’re even smarter and sneakier than I thought. Speaking of which, I polled you all as to what you thought of it.

Now that we got that out of the way, congratulations to Ben! Because whether you liked the twist or didn’t like the twist, and whether you like the fact that there were so many idols or didn’t like the way there were so many idols, the fact is he was the one who found all the idols and he’s the one who burned his rope the fastest. Ben found idols and made fire when he had to, and in the end, that gave him the edge over Chrissy (who won four individual immunities — including the last three), and Ryan (who even by his own admission talked a better game than he played).

While I’m very impressed by Chrissy’s challenge prowess and am very tempted to throw my completely useless vote from the couch her way, there is something about surviving time and time again when you are the No. 1 target on the board that is super impressive, and that is exactly what Ben did. Now we can (and will) talk all about how crazy it was that the others were not babysitting him more to make sure he didn’t keep finding idols, and yes, he was a goner if the new fire-making twist was not there. But guess what? It was there! You can’t deduct points from him for that.

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And while Ben never won an individual immunity and did not have any huge signature moves, he did play the game. He’s the one who took the info Ryan gave him about the idol in his pants and used it to break the seemingly unbreakable bond between Devon and Ryan. He then turned the tables on Lauren when he overheard them talking about him at the well, trying to get Chrissy to help him vote out the 25-year centerfielder, and then using an idol to do it when she wouldn’t. The guy literally would not sleep while others were stacking Zs in the shelter. Even if you don’t like the way he got to the end, you have to like how he worked so hard to get there. (Recap continues on next page)

And congrats to Chrissy as well. She went from a possible first boot puking at the first challenge to the biggest challenge dominator of the season, sweeping the final three competitions and tying the record for most immunity wins by a woman. Give the lady her due. She truly is Jersey Strong. Speaking of Jersey, that brings us to Ryan. Of course, he was retroactively jinxed the minute I picked him as my episode 1 pick to win it all. For the 20th straight season, my choice came up short. No hate on Ryan’s game though. He would no doubt be the first to admit that his pre-merge game was stronger than his post-merge game, when he ceded control to others, but he managed to stay alive once down in the numbers and at least did a good enough job talking at the end to sway Devon’s vote.

So a solid final three, all in all. I leave it to you in message boards to debate whether that is due to the twist or not and how much would have been gained or lost by a Devon appearance there instead. It sounds like we’ve gone through a lot, but the truth is…WE’VE ONLY SCRATCHED THE SURFACE! So let’s get down to it and recap the rest of the finale. It’s our last finale of 2017 so we have to make it count. And I encourage you to read all the way through because later on I have what some may deem some interesting thoughts on the power (or lack thereof) of immunity necklaces when compared to immunity idols. (That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we in the biz call a “tease.”)

We begin with our usual recap of the season as Jeff Probst reintroduces us to the final five with platitudes like “This American hero is a strategic powerhouse” and “This super-fan’s knowledge of the game helped him find advantages and idols” and “This doctor has found a way to stay alive.” Oh, jeez. That last one was a little weak. I mean, isn’t that just kind of like saying “This person is still in the game!” I guess that means Mike’s not winning tonight.

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Then we cut to live action — which is to say action that was filmed seven months ago, but on night 36, as opposed to night 1 in a recap. While the others make small talk, Ben leaves immediately to go idol hunting. He doesn’t even bother making up any phony baloney lie about what he’s up to. He just runs away. “Ben is the bad guy in any horror movie,” says Mike. “You keep trying to kill him, and he keeps coming back to life.” That’s fine, Mike, but it’s hard to kill the bad guy in a horror movie if you just let him walk around your town unimpeded with an ax for no reason.

“I wonder where he is,” says Chrissy, who then makes no effort whatsoever to find out where he is. Just like last week, Ben cannot believe his good fortune: “It is absolutely crazy nobody is following me. Everybody is sleeping. Everybody is zonked out cozy with their pillows.” (Cue Steve Martin in Planes, Trains & Automobiles: “Those aren’t pillows!”)

It is indeed crazy that nobody is even making an attempt to follow him. It reminds me of how back in the ‘80s, when a comedian would put out an album of stand-up, they for some reason would often include some sort of musical comedy number as well. Rodney Dangerfield had “Rappin’ Rodney,” Billy Crystal’s was “You Look Marvelous” (in the guise of his SNL character Fernando), and for some reason Sam Kinison decided to scream his way through “Wild Thing” in a video that starred Jessica Hahn and lots of heavy metal stars with incredible hair.

In any event, SNL superstar Eddie Murphy was not immune to this trend, giving us his magnum opus, “Boogie in Your Butt.” The song is super confusing in that Murphy seems to be arguing with himself about whether or not to start stuffing things into his and/or other people’s butts. On one hand, you have Eddie Murphy rapping about cramming all sorts of things up a rear end. Chief among them is something called “the boogie,” but among the other items he references that should be put in one’s butt are, but not limited to: a clown, a frown, a boat, a moat, and a mink coat. There are also instructions to include a bumblebee, a clock, “some fleas,” a TV, a metal case, a dinosaur bone, a pizza crust, and a radiator. Honestly, this is not even half the items on the stick-this-in-your-butt list. At one point, Murphy just instructs to “put everything in your butt,” which perhaps could have saved a bit of time if he had just started with that.

Then you have another Eddie Murphy in the song arguing about how he doesn’t want to put anything into his or anyone else’s butt…until he is offered $100, at which point his objections seem to magically melt away. The point is…well, there is actually no point to the song as far as I can tell, but I did think about that terrible tune during the Survivor finale and half wonder if Ben might have hidden some idols where the sun don’t shine before hitting the beach this season. It would certainly explain why he has been able to find so many. And there is, of course a long proud history of Survivor players trying to smuggle items up next to the boogie, including the legend of Richard Hatch smuggling matches up his rear for All-Stars. Also, where do you think Kel hid that beef jerky? (By the way, if you don’t believe me that this song exits, have at it below.)

(Recap continues on next page)

In any event, after staying up all night, Ben indeed does find the idol, guaranteeing himself a spot in the final four. This is followed by everyone else waking up and swapping stories about how well they slept — a perfect juxtaposition. We then head off to the first immunity challenge, which takes place out in the water. It’s a cool one, as players must swim to a platform and climb a stack of crates before grabbing some keys in the air while jumping into the water, then crossing a balance beam while grabbing more keys before finally unlocking a puzzle in which colored balls must match colors on a wheel.

It’s actually an immunity/reward combo providing the winner with a feast filled with food items that Jeff Probst once again sounds like he wants to have sex with: “Chiiiiiiiiiicken, maaaaaaashed potatooooooooes, graaaavy, veeeeggies, wiiiiiiiine.” (As hard as Jeff tries, is there any food less sexy than veggies? Balut, perhaps?) Regardless, Chrissy — the only person still in the game who has won an individual immunity — wins again, because Survivor challenges are all about the puzzle and Chrissy is very good at puzzles so there you go. Chrissy invites Mike and Devon to join her on the feast, and then the real fun begins.

After a cursory search of their reward feast setting, Chrissy tells Mike and Devon about her dead super immunity necklace and how they can add Ryan’s old idol instructions to fool Ben into thinking there is no reason to keep searching for the real one. “This is the best plan ever!” exclaims Mike, to which I would say, “Actually, Mike, the best plan ever would probably involve following Ben around to make sure he does not find it without any resistance whatsoever.

This plan leads to a truly hilarious scene in which Chrissy thinks she is pulling a fast one on Ben by showing him the powerless idol and telling him, “Clearly, I’ll be giving this one away tonight” to which the former Marine shifts back into Super Spy Ben mode, playing along flawlessly. “He bought it hook, line, sinker,” says Ryan. “That let us all know that he does not have a hidden immunity idol.”

The only person laughing any harder than we were at this is Ben himself. “I’m one step ahead of them through this whole game. It’s like a bunch of blind mice just running around bumping into stuff.” And then, in a brilliant bit of editing, we are treated to a shot of Mike literally falling on his face. So now not only is Ben safe, but it appears he is in complete control of who goes home. Unless…

Devon has an idea, and it’s a good one. What if Ben does have an idol? And what if Ben sees Devon as his biggest competition? There’s an easy solution to this: If Devon casts a stray vote at Mike, it means he protects himself against a blindside and forces a tiebreaker vote. And that’s exactly what happens. Devon’s one concern is that everyone would be mad at him for deviating from the plan, but at a final four, who the hell cares? People are going to bring the person to the end they feel they can beat. You could literally walk up to someone, curse him out, call him the son of a motherless goat, force him to listen to 12 straight hours of “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” (easily the most infuriating holiday song of all time), put the boogie in his butt, and he still would bring you to the end if he thought it made his chances of getting the million even half a percent better. Meaning the concern of hurting someone’s feelings is not a concern at all if it keeps you in the game. (If he’s mad on the jury that’s not great, but it’s also better than you being on the jury. And if anything, he should respect the intelligent game move.)

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And it’s a good thing Devon cast that vote for the Sex Doctor, because the next thing you know everyone is ducking for cover as Ben bombs detonate all over the Tribal Council set. And the jury loves it! There’s an interesting note to be made here in terms of immunity necklaces versus immunity idols. I would argue that a challenge win is probably more impressive than finding an idol. Sure, it depends on the challenge and how hard you had to work to find the idol, but the point is the two should be seen pretty similarly in terms of achievement. But they’re not. Juries seem to be more impressed with idols over necklaces and I think that’s because of the theater involved.

Think about it. The jury doesn’t see the challenge. They don’t see the domination. They don’t see the big comeback. They don’t see the way someone almost passed out to will him or herself to victory. All they see is someone walk in with a necklace. There’s no tension. There’s no drama. Just jewelry. Now compare that to playing an idol. It’s the height of drama! That’s why the jury seems to lose its collective mind every time one is played. Therefore the achievement seems heightened because it is happening right in front of their face. They see someone saving themselves before their very eyes. They see the other players still in the game with their open mouths and shocked looks. They see it all. And it therefore has far more impact, even if the achievement may not even be as great.

This is why Chrissy tried to downplay Ben’s big play last week in handing Probst the idol before voting had even taken place. But the jury can’t unsee what is happening right in front of them. Anyway, there’s my bargain basement theory for why juries seem to respect idols and advantages more than challenge victories. (Just ask Chrissy and F.U. Brad Culpepper.)

So Mike goes home on the revote and he handles it pretty well — explaining that he gets how Chirssy and Ryan wanted to keep Devon to help beat Ben at the next challenge and how he is not bitter even though he would have won Survivor had he made the final three because…WAIT, WHAT?!? Mike thinks he would have beaten Ben? I don’t mean to insinuate that the Sex Doctor is getting high on his own supply but is the dude on heavy meds or something? I like Mike much in the same way Americans once liked Ike, but that seems to be crazy talk. Maybe he truly is coconuts after all. (Recap continues on next page)

It’s time to now get to the final immunity challenge of the season, but before we do, since the contestants no longer take part in the Rites of Passage — that ceremonial stroll (or paddle) down memory lane (or river) where they fondly recall people they barely played with — I just thought I would offer my own cheery memories of the fallen comrades we lost along the way.

Ahhhh, Simone. You were…um, afraid to go to the bathroom. And then you did, and you were very proud. We are now the ones who are proud of you. Nice job on that aqua dump. You are missed.

Oh, Alan. Is that a hidden immunity idol in your pants or are you just happy to see me? Ha! I kid, of course. Deuces!

And then there is you, Roark…………Wait, I’m sorry — who the hell is Roark?!? Is that a real person? Because I am pretty sure that is not a real person. Can we fact-check this one because I’m relatively confident the only Roark we saw this season was Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island when I got bored earlier in the season and started daydreaming about that Love Boat crossover episode and what a missed opportunity it was to not have a Tattoo–Julie McCoy–Gopher love triangle B-story.

Anyway, thus concludes my unofficial Rites of Passage for all the eliminated contestants, and I feel in terms of usefulness it at least equaled what used to actually air on the show. So awaaaaaaay we go to the final immunity challenge of the season and let me make sure I am absolutely clear about this so there is no confusion.


Love it. Would marry it. Want to go all Tattoo–Julie McCoy–Gopher on it. Here’s the deal: Any time you have any sort of stacking challenge where blocks can come tumbling down, good things are going to happen. Well, let me clarify that: Bad things are going to happen for the contestants, which means good things are going to happen for us. There is no greater thrill for a viewer than watching someone on the absolute cusp of victory have everything come literally crashing down. You can go from first to worst in a second and a vice versa. I love it.

In this particular one, players have to stack letter blocks spelling out Heroes, Healers, and Hustlers on a wobbly platform. The trick is, not only is the platform wobbly, but it will wobble even more when you lock and unlock it to get or place more items. That means lots of hard work that all goes for naught as blocks constantly hit the ground. Let’s also pause for the cause to give some props to the editing department. The montage of drops and foot locks are brilliant. We don’t think or talk a lot about editing on this show, but it is always top notch and this episode was simply spectacular in that department.

Of course, of all the player miscues in this challenge, the greatest is when Ben places all of his blocks, locks in his answer, and then calls Probst over to hand him the final immunity victory of the season. Except there is one teeny tiny problem. He went into the upside down. No, he was not forced to fight a Demogorgon and, if possible, save Barb. Rather he placed his letter U in Hustlers upside down. And sure enough, when he unlocks his rig to fix it, everything comes undone. It was both beautiful and horrifying at the same time. But then Ryan drops. And then Chrissy. And then Devon. The entire challenge has turned into a symphony of destruction and futility.

Then after several more montages, Ben once again places all of his letters —and this time all right side up. But as he tries to lock it for the final time — KABOOM! (Another Ben bomb, I guess?) This opens the door for Chrissy, who uses suburban mom power to knock that damn door down and claim her fourth and final immunity victory. Of course, that’s not all she wins. She also gets an advantage in the form of “knowledge,” which really proves to be not much of an advantage at all because once she tells Devon that he will have to battle Ben in a fire-making contest with his entire Survivor life at stake, Devon breaks the flint and is all “Whatever, bro.”

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Devon is not only oddly confident, but he’s actually oddly psyched about being chosen to take on Ben and not get a fast-pass to the finals. “I’m excited, man. I’m pumped.” This leads us to an interesting point. I know I went on and on about the pros and cons of the fire-making twist, but it is worth more than the mere one line I spent talking about the strategic implications of having to decide whom to bring to the end and whom to let fight it out. Chrissy no doubt knew that there was no way she could beat Ben at the end, so her call to have the person best equipped to take him out at making a fire — Devon — was an easy one. She was also closer to Ryan so did not look bad by not bringing Devon, and Ryan was the easiest to beat at the end.

So by every single metric, Chrissy did the right thing. But it had the potential to be a more complex decision if Ben was not seen as so unbeatable, because then Chrissy would also have had to weigh whether she wanted to give the two people competing in fire the chance to add another hero moment onto their resume. Think of it this way in terms of the final three: One person got there by winning the final challenge, another got there by winning a fire-making contest, and the last got there by…just being carried. It’s not a great look. So under the right circumstances, there is a case to be made for choosing to bring the person you want to weaken a bit in the jury’s eyes. It’s a risky move, but one that in the right circumstances could be worth considering. (Recap continues on next page)

Anyhoodle, we go to Tribal where everyone knows about the twist but Ben, who is about to be even happier than if he was watching a Stripes marathon (at least the first two-thirds of Stripes; the end of that movie is garbage). But Devon seems equally happy. “I get a chance to plead my case to the jury,” says Devon. “It feels incredible.” He’s right, in a sense. As I opined earlier, if Devon can beat Ben, he just strengthens his case to beat Chrissy and Ryan. But that’s only if he beats Ben. Of course, he doesn’t. He’s not even close, actually.

Devon seems like a good dude who played a good game. Not a great game, but a good game. He exceeded my expectations in terms of strategy in that he came up with some moves I didn’t think he had in him. But I also expected more out of him when it came to challenges. Like I said, good game. It’s always weird to see someone voted out without actually being voted out. Like Cirie, Devon didn’t actually have any votes cast against him at this Tribal, yet he’s still gone.

Before we lave this second Tribal Council, can we agree it was a bit odd the lack of pomp and circumstance that surrounded Chrissy bringing Ryan to the finals? I guess it would have been weird for her to go up to the urn and write down the name of the person she was bringing, and equally weird to write the two names of the people she was not, but it just seemed like that could have used a little more ceremony or mystery. I mean, as much mystery that could have been mustered considering everyone but Ben already knew what the answer was. Anyway, her announcement was so understated, I just thought it could have used a little mustard on it.

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So the final three go back to camp, sleep, get back up to deliver sound bites about their journey to make it to day 39, and then whaddya know, we’re back at Tribal Council again! Not only are Ryan, Chrissy, and Ben back, but so is the more open conversational format that replaced the standard Q&A approach last season. See, here’s an example of why producers should always keep tinkering and trying things out. While the Q&A at final Tribal was often the most exciting part of every season back in the early days of Survivor, it had gradually over time become way too static and predictable with variations on four basic questions asked over and over and over again.

One person would say, “Tell me why you deserve to be there.” Another self-absorbed jury member would ask, “Why did you get rid of me?” Someone else would tell the finalists they were all terrible, and then one person would inevitably make a campaign speech in the form of a plea to his or her fellow jurors to look past their bitterness and vote for a certain player because that player was so clearly the dominant force of the season. It all happened every single season.

All of that stuff was amazing the first 20 or so times we saw it, but not so much anymore. Probst sensed the same thing, He said it took him a few seasons to work up the courage to change it — because this really is one of the defining moments of the show and if it fell flat on its face he would have idiots like me screaming bloody murder — but they finally did in season 34, and it was a welcome change. Now, instead of often carefully prepared and memorized queries, we got a more free-flowing back and forth. It’s not completely remaking the wheel, merely refining it. The producers wouldn’t truly know how it played out until they tried it, and because they tried it, we now have an improvement for the better.

The action here in the “Outwit” portion of the proceedings begins with Desi telling Ryan he’s only there because everyone thought they could beat him. Ouch. But Ryan’s strength (and weakness, when he blabbed about his idol to too many people) has always been his tongue, and he acquits himself well here at the top by talking about how the original alliance of seven was his idea and then telling Ashley how he used Devon to get to her and others.

Joe says he respects that and then lights into Ben and Chrissy for only focusing on idols and challenges and having no social game, but they too do a good job of tossing away these verbal grenades. Ben talks about his problems coming back from military service and the strides he’s made from not even being able to sit at the Christmas table with his family. As a juror, it’s pretty hard not to be sympathetic to that, giving Ben something of a free pass in that department. Chrissy also expertly deflects the criticism of her game not being social by pointing out that she can tell each of them very personal things about themselves. When Joe tests her on this, she passes with flying colors by mentioning how he didn’t want to get married because his parents got divorced when he was young. (Been there.) (Recap continues on next page)

It’s around this time where Ryan starts to lose his cool. It’s a fine line at final Tribal in terms of showing that you are a fighter and losing your composure, and Ryan leans toward the latter a bit here, jumping in on Ben’s answer to Cole that he only painted him as a thief as a game move, and then criticizing island BFF Chrissy for just throwing out “random facts” after she recites Cole’s ACT score. It’s actually the jury who breaks up a verbal spat between Chrissy and Ryan, telling them to chill out. At which point I looked at the screen and screamed, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?”

We have these two New Jersey players bonded by a day 1 advantage one gave to the other that forged a friendship and alliance that got them to the very end, and now they are losing it on each other and you tell them to stop?!? Hell, this is where you send Probst out for popcorn so you can soak it all in like you’re at an advance screening of The Last Jedi and Luke Skywalker is about to stare down a wall of AT-ATs. This is showtime, baby! You don’t tell them to chill out. YOU EGG THEM ON!!! “Wow, Chrissy, are you going to let Ryan talk to you like that? And Ryan, let’s be honest, Chrissy pretty much carried you to the end, right?” This is the beauty of the new open forum format. Stir the damn pot, people!

I’ll be honest: No matter how many times Jeff Probst explains it, I still don’t get the difference between the Outwit, Outplay, and Outlast portions of the new final Tribal. Anyway, we’re now on “Outplay.” We begin with Cole giving himself props for being the only male to win an individual immunity competition. What makes that statistic even more remarkable is how many more men made it further than women in the game. Chrissy won the last two going against all dudes. Impressive stuff.

Ryan attempts to explain away his lack of any survival skills by talking about how he had never done anything like this before in his life, but that is a wrong move because he is quickly shot down by others there who had also never come close to this. (Desi was a beauty pageant winner for crissakes.) Plus, Ryan just fell firmly into Chrissy’s trap because he just teed her up with the best narrative imaginable. Chrissy is the one who was puking at the very first challenge yet then went on to become the season’s most dominant challenge beast. The fact that Chrissy went from zero to hero in that department makes Ryan look that much worse by comparison.

Watch Fan Forum: Survivor on People TV here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

I did find it odd, however, that Chrissy happened to have the statistics of exactly how many female contestants there had been in Survivor history handy. Although I also feel she just may have made up that 258 number. I mean, the last thing I want to do is question the calculations of a self-proclaimed math whiz, but let’s do a little multiplication ourselves. This is the 35th season of Survivor and each season has had in between 8-10 female contestants. Even if we shot on the low end of that and said it was only eight women per season (for a 16-person cast, which they have not done in forever), that would still make for 280 female contestants total. Anyway, I don’t know why I am wasting both my time and yours talking about this. Although I suppose it is interesting that Chrissy is simultaneously selling herself short in terms of her accomplishment while also demonstrating she may not be the mathematical genius she purports to be.

The Outplay portion of the evening concludes with Desi giving Chrissy and Ryan crap for not keeping on top of Ben as he looked for (and found) idols. As well she should. It makes no sense. In fact, if I’m going to be completely honest, it still makes me a little angry. You’ve been dreaming to get on this show for years. You finally get on. You go all the way out there. You bust your tail for 39 days to make it to the end. But when it comes to the one thing that can completely derail your game, you allow yourself to be completely not outwitted, but outworked. It’s as simple as that: Ben outworked them. If you’re Chrissy or Ryan (or even Devon or Mike) that has to haunt you.

Then we are finally at the “Outlast” section, which is kind of like closing statements, but ones that can be interrupted at the whim of any jury. That becomes clear as Ryan launches into his speech about how he went to almost every single Tribal Council and that “nobody dragged me here. Nobody,” only to be asked by the Sex Doctor what he learned while playing. Then, after Ben gives a very underwhelming final message, essentially comparing himself to Edwin Moses and how the other players were the hurdles he had to get over, Joe tells him that final message was covered in a thick layer of weak sauce.

“I need more,” Joe tells him. And he gets it. This is Ben’s moment, as he talks about dealing with PTSD. The same way Jeremy talked about his wife Val being pregnant back home. The same way Adam talked about his mother dying of cancer. This is the intensely personal human moment that one could easily argue has no place whatsoever in terms of a discussion or debate about the quality of one’s gameplay, yet forges an undeniable connection nonetheless between juror and finalist right before that juror decides whom to hand a million dollars over to. As soon as you hear that piano music swelling under Ben as he speaks, you know the game is his. (Recap continues on next page)

Chrissy attempts to give her version of this as well with her final comments — trying to make a connection with the jurors with her speech that “all moms are heroes. Moms are not only heroes, but we are also healers and we are also hustlers.” (You know Probst loves it when you can work the theme of the season into the conversation. Too bad he doesn’t have a vote.) She also talks about her journey of having applied for 16 years to be on the show. It’s all good stuff — even if it does sound a little too over-rehearsed as opposed to off-the-cuff and from the heart — but it can’t compete with Ben’s story. It just can’t.

So Probst walks the final votes from Fiji to California IN THE MOST BORING MANNER POSSIBLE! Seriously! Where’s the skydiving? Where’s the motorcycle? Where’s the epic vote delivery that he has been promising me for years would return at some point? Are you seriously going to force me to embed the epic Vanuatu vote delivery AGAIN?!? Seriously? You are? Fine. You brought this on yourself.

What? Now you want me to embed the epic Amazon vote delivery via jet ski and Subway (complete with a pit stop at the Statue of Liberty)? Done and done.

And yes, because I am a moron, I polled Survivor fans to determine for once and for all which is the most epic of the epic:

In any event, this time Probst just walks them in like it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal! Treat it like a big deal! Get in a submarine or on a paddle-board or parasail your ass back to the states with the urn! That’s what the fans want! That’s what the fans command and demand! We need an airborne Probst holding on the urn while holding on for dear life to make sure these votes get to CBS Studios dammit!!!! Well, maybe next time.

In any event, Ben is announced the winner and whether you think that was the right call or the wrong call, how can you not be happy for the guy considering everything he has been through and the price he has paid mentally and emotionally for serving his country? He’s a quality dude in what turned out to be a quality season. As for my season rankings, I think this one probably stays where it is at 17 after watching the finale. The challenges were great, the final four were solid, and the final Tribal Council was lively, but I still haven’t quite worked out my feelings on that fire-making challenge and until I let that marinate for a bit longer, I’m going to leave it be there.

But if you thought we were done, you are oh so wrong because we still have the reunion show to get to. Here are the notable odds and ends from what went down during the live portion of the evening.

• Setting a new land speed record, it only took eight seconds to get our first Cochran shot of the evening as he, Andrea, and Rob Cesternino were playing actual Survivor challenges against fans. This was actually my idea and first debuted at EW’s PopFest last year. Glad to see they’ve made it a tradition by bringing it over to the finales. The more chances fans have to take part in an experience like that the better. (We also got a Cochran shot in the studio audience, natch. Does he actually live in that studio or something?)

• Let’s just say I was not a fan of the randos in the audience that Probst went to during the actual finale for their expert analysis on what was happening in the episode. “It just tells me that it’s never too late to rock it,” said someone named Maggie after Chrissy won the final immunity. And then there was “Ben fan” Grant, who just kind of nodded in agreement to whatever Probst said. These served no purpose whatsoever.

• There were also midgame interviews with Mike and Devon after they got voted out. I actually usually like the live look-ins they do from time to time during the finale, but this just felt like too much. It actually took me out of the finale because they happened so often and went on so long. I’m not saying get rid of them entirely, but I think producers do need to recalibrate and scale them back to what we’ve seen in the previous few seasons and maybe move those finalist interviews back to the reunion. I get it: The live look-ins worked well then so they tried to give us more, but sometimes less is better.

• “We literally saw your heart beating out of your tiny little chest,” Probst said to Ryan. Love that line.

• That was kind of weird to get a really long visual recap to the season…after the season was already over.

• Chrissy lost her job to play Survivor. (#Dedication.) I know Chrissy rubs some people (players and fans) the wrong way, but I dig her.

• Some people may have rolled their eyes when Probst brought Ben’s Marine buddies on the stage, but not me. That was a major story line for Ben this season. The PTSD he has been suffering from since returning from combat duty is something that has haunted him. It is something he brought with him to the island. It is something he wanted to shine a light on with the platform of being out there, so doing something that honored that I felt was totally appropriate and totally a nice moment. Plus, that is really his second family, so for him to be able to celebrate with them on his big night was pretty cool. And to do it as a surprise was even cooler on the part of the producers. I don’t know what Maggie and Grant thought about it, but I actually thought it was a really nice touch. Did you catch Ben saying “I love you” through muffled tears? How can that not move you?

Okay, we’re ALMOST done. I promise. But I would be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to thank you all for hanging out with me for another season of Survivor coverage. I’ve been doing this for a long time — too long, some might say. (And when I say some I mean my wife. And, you know, Survivor fans who are sick of me.) But your kind comments mean the world to me and I appreciate all the support you all have provided over the years. It really means a lot. OH MY GOD, CUE THE PIANO MUSIC, I’M HAVING A FULL-BLOWN #SURVIVORBREAKDOWN!!!

Whatever, you catch my drift. When I question the decision to devote thousands upon thousands of hours of my life over the past 35 seasons to a reality television show — and I do question it often because I am not completely insane — your positive feedback keep me going. Who knows? Maybe that’s a bad thing. Maybe I should have moved on to more serious endeavors long ago. But it’s too late now, I suppose. Anyway, thanks.

Watch Fan Forum: Survivor on People TV here, or download the free app on your Smart TV, mobile and web devices.

And as a more tangible measure of my gratitude, I’ve got plenty of goodies for you. First off, there’s that exclusive deleted scene above. Also make sure to check out my Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst about NEXT season, Survivor: Ghost Island. I’ll have post-finale interviews with Ben (now LIVE!), Chrissy (now LIVE!), Ryan (now LIVE!), Devon (now LIVE!), and Mike (now LIVE!) and will link to those here when they become available. We also have our finale Q&A with Probst where explains why they added the new final four twist. And if you missed my season-by-season rankings or the fan-ranked winners list, definitely check that out as well. Of course, you can also just follow me @DaltonRoss on Twitter to get links to all that stuff.

And that will just about do it. Hit the message boards to weigh in with your thoughts on the winner and the new final four twist, and have happy holidays no mater where and when you may be reading this. I’ll be back in apparition form with plenty of scoops of the crispy for Survivor: Ghost Island. Until then, everyone!