By Dalton Ross
May 29, 2019 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Almost two weeks after the Survivor: Edge of Extinction finale, fans are still wrapping their heads around the fact that someone who played only 13 out of 39 days was voted the Sole Survivor and awarded the million-dollar check that goes along with it. On one hand, winner Chris Underwood was afforded a chance to befriend the jury in a non-game setting and never had to deal with the consequences of asking for jury votes after voting people out (the basic premise of the game). On the other hand, he showed strategic chops in his very limited action (getting Lauren — who admitted to be played like a fiddle — to waste her hidden immunity idol on him), and made bolder moves (giving up his final immunity to take on Rick Devens at fire) than Gavin or Julie did in 39 days.

We asked host Jeff Probst to weigh in on the verdict around the finale, and then caught up with executive producer Matt Van Wagenen on location in Fiji for filming on season 40 to get his reaction. Van Wagenen talks about the jury’s controversial decision, and also confirms Julie could not have refused the fast-pass to the final three once Chris gave her his final immunity.

CBS

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You just had the finale of season 38. Chris Underwood comes back from the Edge of Extinction and wins the million dollars in what may be the most controversial and fascinating jury decision ever. If you’re on that jury, how do you vote on that one?
MATT VAN WAGENEN: It’s a little hard to say because the jury in this case was at the Edge of Extinction; it’s not like a normal thing. I can’t sit here and say to you from someone who was just watching Tribal Councils and listening in who I’d be voting for; this takes in a lot. And I think Chris definitely had an advantage being on the Edge of Extinction because he was able to talk to people, he knew a little bit more about what people were looking for in a winner.

So, I mean, he had an advantage in that sense; he didn’t have an advantage getting into the game, he didn’t have an advantage getting to the end; he had to bust his ass for it. But it’s hard because Chris did so much in such a short period of time. And that’s why it’s hard. What I loved about the finale of the season is it really is I think a good debate. I would have had a hard time deciding, myself.

A lot of people who watched the finale were really mad about the result. But I also got a text from a family member who was like, “Oh my God, that was crazy. That was amazing.” And then I had someone that doesn’t even watch Survivor come up the day after the Edge of Extinction finale, and say, “Everyone I see on social media is talking about Survivor. What happened last night? What went on?” So it certainly got people talking, and regardless of how you feel about the result, the fact that we can sit here and debate it and that people are still so passionately discussing it in season 38 is generally a good thing in terms of the health of the franchise, right?
Yeah, I agree. We knew going in that even just having this twist was going to be controversial. Some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it, but we always are trying to do different things and see what the result is. In this case what’s funny is I think what surprised people more was that Rick Devens didn’t win. I think him coming up short, there were some people who were really pissed that he got taken out at the end. The funny thing is, he made his way back into the game through Edge of Extinction. Then gets taken out by someone who was at the Edge of Extinction. So it does kind of come full circle.

But the debate is healthy. That’s what I loved about that final Tribal. That was actually one of my favorite Tribal Councils because there was a healthy debate. And you know, as I think it was Wardog who said it, that, you know, “The theme isn’t on trial.”

The game’s not on trial.
The three of you are on trial. Gavin was in a hard spot. He just kind of kept steady, and he wasn’t making big moves, and the truth is these days the big move is flashier, and it gets a lot more attention, so I think Chris not only did a good job because he had some good relationships with people who were voting for him, but those last few days, he played an amazing, crazy game. He did everything that he had to do; if he didn’t do one of those things, he may not have won. But he did so many things in those few days. Plus, taking out Rick in the fire-making: What a huge decision. So I think it is a healthy debate. If he hadn’t done as much and just kind of stumbled his way in the end, I don’t think he would have won just because he had a relationship with the people on Edge of Extinction.

A quick procedural question. Chris does what Don didn’t do. He wins the final immunity, but then gives it up to Julie to take Rick out himself in the fire-making final four contest. A lot of people have asked if Julie could have then refused it because she then had the immunity, but to me, immunity is just kind of a symbol at that point. If you win the final challenge, you decide which two have to do fire and which two don’t, and Chris decided he and Rick would do the fire. Is that an accurate read on the situation?
Yes, 100%. That’s it. Julie doesn’t suddenly get all the power and decide everything.

Your favorite contestant from the Edge of Extinction season: Who was it?
Well, that’s easy for me. I mean, from the very beginning, I loved Rick Devens. We had a good rapport during casting. It was funny; we were talking about how the fact that he was an anchorman, and that’s one of my favorite movies, Anchorman, and people never called Ron Burgundy Ron or Burgundy. It was always Ron Burgundy, and I was like, “You’ve got this name, Rick Devens.” And it turned out that that’s what ended up happening. He was already calling himself Rick Devens, which I always thought was funny.

He had a great sense of humor, but the first part of the game when he played, I was a little bit disappointed. I was like, “He’s funny, he’s interesting. But he’s not playing super aggressively.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s a bummer.” And then he went out so early. I was like, “Oh, you know,” and that happens. Sometimes one of your favorite players goes out early. But this was one of those unique situations where you have an opportunity. I was thrilled that he won his way back in. And then when he went back in, he had such an up and down experience. He and David on opposite sides of everything was so fun to watch. And he just started playing more and more aggressively, and a little bit with like nothing to lose. And that’s the kind of player I like watching.

For more Survivor scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

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