Survivor season finale recap: The end
The streak is over! Tell your friends, neighbors, and countrymen! Scream it from the tallest mountain! Ring it from the highest bell tower! Collooh! Callay! There finally will be joy in Mudville because, for the first time in 24 seasons, I have not struck out.
Is this real, or is it all a fever dream? Have I finally conquered my demons and put a stop to the most embarrassing streak in the history of prognostication? Admittedly, I got a little cocky after successfully predicting the winners in three straight Survivor seasons. Only problem is, those were seasons 13 through 15. Ever since? Nada. Nil. Zilch. It’s become a well-worn joke in the Survivor community, with yours truly being the punchline.
Well, now — for the first time in twelve long, fruitless years — you can actually laugh with me rather than at me. Because your boy finally got one right. Sure, sure, sure… you can cry all you want about “law of averages” and “even idiots have to be right once in a while” but just let me enjoy this one shining moment for correctly predicting Tommy Sheehan back in episode 1 as the player that would win Survivor: Island of the Idols. It may be another 24 seasons before it happens again. Of course, one thing has become clear, and maybe this was part of my problem all along: If you want to bet on a Survivor winner these days, you better bet on a man.
Yep, Survivor’s unfortunate recent trend of male winners only continued. As I pointed out in a recent article, the gender disparity on Survivor in terms of winners has gotten out of control. Tommy became the fifth consecutive man to win Survivor and the 11th male winner out of the last 14 seasons.
That’s… not good. Updating the equally disturbing stats I put together a few months ago, there have now been 130 votes cast at the final Tribal Councils over the past 14 seasons, and 104 of those votes have gone to men and only 26 to women. And the past five seasons have been a horror show in the gender disparity department. Not only have men won five straight times, and not only has each of those five seasons featured two male finalists and only one female finalist, but check out the breakdown of jury votes. Including Laurel’s tiebreaker vote, 52 votes for a winner have been cast at the past five final Tribal Councils. Of those 52 votes, 50 have gone to men.
That’s right: The scoreboard reads 50-2, and the only two votes received by a woman to win over the past five seasons went to Chrissy Hofbeck, while Laurel Johnson, Angelina Keeley, Julie Rosenberg, and now Noura Salman were all completely shut out. What makes that such a bummer (in what has been a season of bummers) is that when this season started, it was all about the women. They were the ones that were making all the moves and becoming the biggest personalities. They were owning the season. And yet here we are. Again.
Now that we’ve established all of that, let’s give Tommy his due. There’s something about the guy and his game that may not have jumped off-screen to viewers, but players absolutely recognized as legit. Elaine said as much in our exit interview last week, calling him the biggest threat still in the game and the only one she wasn’t sure she could beat.
Not only did people seem to genuinely like Tommy (meaning A+ for his social game), but he did appear to be viewed as the main force in the decision making — even if that wasn’t really clear to us watching at home. Contrary to what he said at the final Tribal Council about all of his big moves, his moves did not come off as big. For the most part, Tommy simply stayed the course with his alliance. But it didn’t matter, because he was viewed by other players as a focal point in the decision-making process, and sometimes that’s enough — especially when people like you. (Again, social game.)
So, I’m happy for the guy. (And you can read our exit interview right here.) Sure, it would have been cool to watch Janet win after everything that she went through and the courage she showed earlier in the season, and yes, Lauren proved her mettle, and holy smokes a Noura win would have been so wackadoodle that I was kinda secretly rooting for it the entire time, but no hating on Tommy here. Especially since he helped me end my epic streak of futility.
Also, this note on Tommy: He becomes the first person to win Survivor without winning the final four fire-making competition. At one point at final Tribal, Jamal posed a question that illustrates exactly why I (and many of you) hate this format change so much, telling Tommy: “Doesn’t Dean have a better story than you? He earned his way into the final three.”
That perfectly summarizes what is wrong with the final four fire-making: You are punished for either winning the final challenge or being brought to the end because you don’t get that heroic moment of fire-making. And why don’t you get it? Because you didn’t need it!!! But you didn’t come here to listen to me rant about that twist for the fifth season in a row… or, I don’t know, maybe you did. Thankfully, Tommy had the perfect response as to whether Dean had the better story: “If you want this season and your winner to be about who won the fire challenge.” Lord knows I don’t.
Okay, let’s get to a few other things from the finale:
Island of the Very Confusing Clues
It ultimately didn’t really make any difference in the game, but I kinda loved the weird little Island of the Idols scavenger hunt that Rob and Sandra left for the contestants when they moved into their Island of the Idols digs. I gotta admit: I don’t think I would have figured it out. Tommy looked at his buff and saw a machete, so then went to a machete and found a red coconut, and then found a red plank, which underneath had what looked like an H. At least he thought it was an H. Turns out there was another such mark on bamboo by the swing. And since Tommy had told Dean about the clues, Dean then scored the idol hiding inside said bamboo.
It never got played because Dean also won immunity, but it was still kinda cool. And I TOTALLY want one of those limited edition buffs.
A Challenging Situation
There were just two challenges in the finale due to Dan’s removal from the game, but they were good ones. The first had players retrieving rope rungs and then climbing a tower before landing two balls on a table maze. It was nice to once again see everyone out moving in a physical competition with several different elements and stages at play — one which Dean eventually won.
The second challenge has become a recent Survivor classic, as the players had to stack letter blocks (in this case to spell out “Island of the Idols”) on a wobbly platform. There is nothing more satisfying than observing contestants watching all their hard work crumble and fall to the ground before their very eyes. Seriously, if I could inject that directly into my veins, I would. You may call me horrible, but I prefer the word “honest.” Because admit it, you love it too.
And we got sooooo much of it at the start of this one. It was constant carnage with so many letters falling from the sky it was as if someone had ripped open and poured out multiple boxes of Alpha-Bits all over the ground. It was incredible and served as my World Series, Stanley Cup, Final Four, and Super Bowl all rolled up into one. And then Noura won it. And that was great too.
Ugh. The only thing that sucked more than watching Janet get voted out was seeing how happy she was talking about making it to the final four (with the knowledge she could then dominate anyone and everyone at fire-making)… knowing full well she was never going to make it there. “I’m already thinking about what I’m going to say to the jury at the final 3,” she said at one point mere seconds before I started bursting into tears knowing all too well her immunity idol would be nullified by Dean at Tribal Council.
Think about it: If that stupid Island of the Idols coin came up NO instead of YES, then Dean never gets his idol nullifier, and there is a good chance Janet wins this game. But she wouldn’t. And she looked downright shell-shocked after watching her guaranteed spot become quickly unguaranteed. “I feel really naïve and stupid to think that I allowed myself to go further in my head that I had it,” she said in her final words after being voted out. “But I’m proud of the game I played because it’s who I am.”
She should be proud. Janet stood up for what she thought was right in backing up Elizabeth and Missy when they exaggerated their feelings about Dan’s touching. We don’t need to get into that whole mess again, but we should remember the courage and the conviction Janet showed in that moment. In a season short on heroes, she was a big one. And we were all just as crushed by her ouster as she was.
The only thing that would have been better than Noura taking forever to tell Dean and Lauren that they were going to have to make fire is if she had taken even longer to tell them. Where’s the time-lapse action when you need it? I’m sure it was positively excruciating for them waiting to learn their fate, but for me, it was like watching a sequel to Too Many Cooks that just kept getting weirder and funnier and weirder and funnier the longer she went on without actually saying anything.
And the punchline was finally delivered when both Lauren and Dean told us they had not made a single fire the entire time they had been there. WHAT?!? How is that possible? You know your entire life in the game could come down to that. I get that Janet and others may have taken over fire duty and that was their chore around camp and it would have been weird to interject yourself into that duty, but still, FIND A WAY!
The Noura and Lauren fight made me sad and I think they both could have handled that better. It also made me sad to watch Lauren lose to Dean or DK Chillin or DQ Grill & Chill or whatever his name is.
With Lauren’s loss, the final three of Noura, Tommy, and Dean was set, and while I usually mentally tune-out during the day 39 breakfast feast when players drone on and on about the incredible personal journeys they have been on, I did love this one quote from Noura: “No one has ever played a game like me. I did it my way. I did it the Noura way. It’s up, it’s down. It’s in your face. It’s not replicable. That’s how you win the million. Be a disrupter. Say things that people don’t see coming.”
Look, Noura was never going to win this game, but I do love that philosophy, even if I am not convinced it was an actual strategy on her part. But lord knows I love a disrupter. I love someone who zigs when the others zag. That’s what Noura was this season, and that’s why she was so fun to watch.
Final Thoughts on Final Tribal
While some people on the jury appeared to be campaigning for certain finalists (like when Aaron tried to shut down Tommy from making one point), I still thought it was a lively final Tribal discussion that hit on some very interesting points in terms of Survivor gameplay. I already pointed out the back and forth Jamal and Tommy had about the oversized importance of the fire-making when it comes to résumé building, but there were other key moments as well. Such as…
• Great move by Noura to jump on Lauren’s question to Tommy asking who was his true number one. As soon as he answered that she was, Noura pounced and pointed out how Tommy helped Dean learn to make fire a lot more than her. That was a valuable nugget of intel that Noura dropped at just the right time.
• There are many different ways to win Survivor and I liked hearing Dean and Tommy both effectively point out the differences in their games, with Dean saying he was more honest because he either worked with you or ignored you, and Tommy saying he had eyes and ears everywhere. “I didn’t TS Chill,” the latter stated, scoring a point. But Tommy easily could have been penalized for being so friendly with everyone, because we have seen many people in the past come down with moderate-to-severe cases of BJS (Bitter Jury Syndrome) after someone they felt close to then slit their throat. Sometimes those that get too close end up in trouble because of the betrayal felt when they vote folks out, and there can be value in staying a bit removed because then people never feel betrayed.
• Loved Tommy’s answer to Jamal about what lines he was not willing to cross and talking about being okay with playing a devious game, “but I never wanted to cross that line of bullying someone.” That would be my line as well. Dean flubbed his response and Kellee piggybacked off of his answer to offer what might have been the most insightful comment about Dean of the night: “I don’t really know if I get who you are… like, your essence.” I feel the exact same way.
• I do know this about Dean. He is a master showman. He saved the idol he didn’t need at five and the (fake) Legacy Advantage he couldn’t use due to there being no Tribal Council with six people left and presented them at final Tribal along with the note from Boston Rob and Sandra. I mean, yes, busting out a lot of props mid-act is kinda Carrot Top’s deal, which maybe is not exactly how you want people to see you, but it was still very well-orchestrated and should have won him some points with the jury.
• I also should point out that Tommy had a great response to Dean’s bragging about all of his idols and advantages. After Dean bellowed, “Tell me those are moves,” Tommy responded: “Those aren’t moves. You found things.” As someone that has often opined that Survivor has tilted too far in the direction of foraging skills outweighing actual strategy, that response certainly rang true to me.
• Missy came really, really close to dethroning Eliza Orlins as the most ridiculously expressive juror ever. She even went Full Orlins and milked her time at the voting urn with some classic Eliza indecision. Anyone that eats that much imaginary popcorn at that many Tribal Councils knows exactly how to score some camera time. Hell, I’m half surprised she didn’t show up to Tribal with a big plate of Applebee’s!
Notes from the Reunion
Of course, all eyes were on the reunion show portion of the evening (which went live-to-tape four hours early) to see how the topic of the unwanted touching and everything that happened around that would be handled. CBS announced the evening before the finale that new policies were being put into place to help prevent and deal with similar situations in the future. But how would Jeff Probst deal with the incidents from the past as they looked back on the season? Here’s what went down at the finale:
• Dan was not the only player not to attend the reunion. Jack and Elizabeth also were not in attendance, by choice. That’s too bad. Not because I felt that either of them had to get up there and say anything, but I’m just sad that they (or at least Elizabeth) felt so uncomfortable that they did not even want to attend their own finale. I hope they’re both doing okay and that any scars from this season are continuing to heal.
• “If you follow the herd, you’ll never be heard,” said Noura, which I love. She also said “Be a c––” instead of “peacock, which I loved even more. Like I said before, Noura truly is God’s concept album.
• Sia gave $100,000 to Elaine. Sia gave $100,000 to Janet. Sia gave Jamal…$15,000? Not to be weird or supes ungrateful, but if you are Jamal, are you at least a little bit bummed? Or are you at least a little bit curious as to why you were only 15 percent as awesome as Elaine and Janet? I would be… which also I suppose explains why I would never be on the receiving end of a huge check from an international wig-obsessed pop star.
• I got into the Jeff Probst sit down with Kellee in greater detail right here, (also check out my interview with Kellee right after) but my biggest takeaway is we all finally heard what we have been wanting to hear from the production side all along: an acknowledgment that they could have done better, an apology for the way it was handled, and these magic words: You were right.
That’s what Kellee has deserved since this whole ordeal began, and I’m glad Jeff said it to her on national television. I was also happy to hear that the policies that the network and the show are putting into place are ones that Kellee herself suggested. But, above all, I was so impressed with how Kellee handled that sit down. She was clearly nervous and uncomfortable. But she was also steadfast. She did not mince words when she said, “I felt like I spoke up and was not being supported and believed,” but she also said she was hopeful that this would lead to positive changes in the future. We will see if that is the case, but Kellee gets a standing ovation in my book for the way she has dealt with this dating all the way back to day two on the island. Bravo.
• Season 40! Yes, it’s an all-winners season, something we have dreamed about for years! Yes, the cast is awesome (which you can see right here). Yes, I was out there on location for the start of the game! Yes, you can read Probst’s first comments about it right here! And yes, you should be excited…even if the Edge of Extinction twist is back. Hey, you can’t win ’em all, right?
Okay, that’s just about going to put a wrap on season 39. Look, it was a tough one. There were a lot of tough things that happened. But I hope I was able to offer at least a measure of intelligence, insight, and occasional humor into the process… and even if I just hit one of those three targets, then that’s okay too. Thanks so much for reading. I’ve been doing this for a long time and your kind words are the fuel that keeps my motor running. Well, that and really cheap beer.
Make sure to read my interviews with Kellee and the top five, and then keep your eyes peeled in January 2020 for way more season 40 content than you could ever possibly want. (Oh, and a little hint: I have tons of season 40 photos and videos I shot on location that I will be sharing on my Instagram page so make sure to follow me there @thedaltonross for all the access. So until 2020, everyone, when I will be back for the biggest damn scoop of the crispy you have ever seen!