Was it real, or was it all a dream?
SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols
S43 E13
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Look, I ain't gonna lie. I'm cracking a beer right now. For those who have read these Survivor recaps over the years, that may come as no great surprise. But I need something to help me make sense of what just happened on Survivor 43, and in such dire times of need, that's when I turn to my most trusted friend… alcohol.

Did Mike "Gabler" Gabler just win Survivor? Is that something that just happened? Or did I dream it, kind of like that time I dreamed CBS once forced producers to create an entire Gulliver's Travels challenge to promote a terrible new Jack Black movie. People try to mess with me by insisting that really happened, but I know better. No one would actually put that on national television.

And Gabler didn't just WIN Survivor, he almost played a perfect game! He did not have a single vote cast against him all season and then was one vote away from a unanimous victory, winning 7-1-0. GABLER!!!!! To be clear, we're not talking about Jesse. We're talking about GABLER!!!

Survivor 43
Mike Gabler on 'Survivor 43'
| Credit: CBS

How did this happen? Instead of LIVIN', did he have a Medallion of Power tattooed on his right ass cheek? Did he employ the services of noted jury whisperer Tata the Bushman to seal the deal? Is the AlliGabler some sort of secret superhero double identity that allows him to not only "hide in plain sight," but to also conjure fire on demand and hypnotize jury members on a whim?

Going into the finale, I saw the Jesse win, obviously. He made the move of the season. I saw the Karla win. She played a big game and was always in the mix when big decisions were being made. I even saw the (admittedly far less likely) Cassidy and Owen wins. They both won multiple immunity challenges. Cassidy could also point to the "Cassidy Curse" and that whoever came after her went home. And Owen could… well, okay, his job was tougher, but the dude makes a living off of making presentations to students so would presumably kill it at final Tribal and also be able to take partial ownership of the idea for Noelle to use her Steal-a-Vote on him to take out James.

But Gabler? Nobody seemed to take the guy seriously out there. Remember that super awkward group meeting he called after one disastrous challenge? Or the fact that he actually told people to vote him out on day 3 of the game? Or how frustrated Sami always seemed by him? Or the fact that not once during the entire season did we ever hear one person refer to him as a threat in the game? At one point, Gabler's main storyline was just how tired he was. Seriously. The only masterminding he was doing was coordinating his sleep schedule with challenges.Not a typical winner's edit, is all I'm saying.

Look, I'm not hating on Gabler as a champion by any means. As far as I'm concerned, the more metalheads we have winning Survivor, the better. Let's get the entire lineup of Swedish death metal supergroup Bloodbath out on the island for all I care. And you have to love a fifty-something ultimately besting people not even half his age in a brutally physical game. I just did not see this coming from any angle. I mean, even Gabler's strategy seemed a bit confusing. He kept talking over and over and over about "hiding in plain sight," but then was also simultaneously pointing out how he had to submerge himself once things got a bit hot after the Elie vote — essentially arguing that he had to take himself out of plain sight.

Maybe that's just Gabler being Gabler… I have no idea. But the unimaginable started to become very imaginable as that final Tribal Council against Cassidy and Owen continued on. Gabler had the jury smiling. He had them laughing. He was skillfully able to point out his strengths (never having a vote cast against him, and coming out strong against Elie) without laying it on too thick and painting himself as some sort of strategic Svengali, which most likely would have elicited eye rolls.

And perhaps his best move of all is in what he did not say. Had Gabler told the jury he was going to donate 100 percent of his winnings to charity, the jury may have seen that as a ploy for sympathy votes and it may have backfired. So he wisely didn't. Gabler was super solid at FTC. Unlike Cassidy.

Survivor 43
Cassidy Clark on 'Survivor 43'
| Credit: CBS

It wasn't a terrible final Tribal from Cassidy by any means. This wasn't Amanda Kimmel from China. Or Amanda Kimmel from Micronesia. Or Mike Turner from Survivor 41. At least not from what we saw. But it wasn't perfect either. She was 100 percent correct in pointing out to Gabler that one of the main reasons he didn't get any votes against him is that people most likely wanted to sit next to him at the end because he was viewed as so beatable, but how does a comment like that to someone like Gabler come off to the jury? Probably not great. She also made a comment about being the final woman standing in a season that saw lots of early voting against women. That felt like a not-so-thinly veiled plea to vote for her based on her gender, which may or may not have played well with a jury.

But the one clear swing and a miss was on the final question, when Jesse asked each of the finalists to cite a time when they used the art of persuasion to get people to vote a certain way. Cassidy promoted her role in convincing Cody and Jesse to vote Ryan out… only to have Cody and Jesse confirm that the plan was already made without her to oust Ryan if James was voted out. Whoops!

Owen was… fine. My guess is he — unlike Cassidy — had a pretty good idea he was not going to win a jury vote and therefore did not overplay his hand and attempt to embarrass himself by claiming credit where credit was not due. Kind of in the same way I cannot claim credit for picking another winner back on episode 1 when I chose Owen. But Cassidy flat-out told us she expected to win. That's why she chose Gabler to take on Jesse at fire, saying that a victory at fire would not be enough for him to beat her. Again, whoops!

While the Gabler victory was certainly surprising (and I suppose surprising is good?), the final Tribal Council was — like the vast majority of Tribal Councils this season — just a bit too clean. Look, if I am killing the cast of Survivor 43, I am killing them with kindness. That's because I do think they are generally a really great group of really kind and thoughtful people. They're the kind of folks you would actually want to hang out with, shoot the s---, grab a beer (I'm on my second now, by the way). And that was the problem. They were too nice.

I could point to a final Tribal Council from pretty much any old-school Survivor season to see serious fireworks. I realize it's super unfair to compare Survivor 43 to Micronesia, because Micronesia is the greatest Survivor season ever (see my rankings) with the greatest Survivor moment ever, but go back and watch the jury speeches in that final Tribal.

MY GOD! You had Eliza telling Parvati "You might just be a mean person," and then informing Amanda, "listening to you talk literally made me want to kill myself sometimes." You had Natalie ask Amanda, "was that your strategy to play the zombie pretty girl not really know what's going on pageant queen cliché, or is this who you really are as a person?" while also inquiring about Parvati's flirtation in the game and then — in what may be the best jury question of all-time — asking, "how does that resonate for you in the bedroom?"

Ozzy looked as crushed as I have ever seen a jury member as he told Parv, "I am truly to the bottom of my heart hurt by what you did to me," while raking her over the coals. And then there was James, who — in the second-best jury comment of all-time — said simply, "Parvati, you fluffed me." In case you're skimming this way-too-long recap and missed that… yes, he said, "Parvati, you fluffed me."

Again, totally unfair to compare the two seasons. But it illustrates how this final Tribal was a little lackluster due to the simple fact that the jury members were all too normal and well-adjusted. Like, just decent, nice, regular people. Contestants also take the game far less personally now than they did in the early days of the show — which is generally a good thing for the mental health of the players… but let's be a 100 percent honest here, a shame for us as viewers who love to see a little conflict and drama. Not too much, mind you. Nothing ugly. Not a raging inferno like my man Gabler used to take out Jesse. But a spark. Or a flame. Just a little heat in general.

But the WTF nature of an almost unanimous Gabler victory at least makes up for some of it. I feel like in the year 2032 when we are on Survivor 63 (hosted by Sally Schumann) we're all gonna be like, "wait… am I crazy or did some jabroni who called himself the AlliGabler actually win Survivor?" And the answer will be yes… yes, he did. And I'm cool with that. As long as it actually happened and I'm not having another fever dream or drunk on too much Survivor (and, you know, too much beer).

Wait, you thought we were done? Oh, hell-to-the-no! Let's go into Metallica mode and rip into some other key moments from the season finale of Survivor 43, including my latest diatribe on how juries don't give a crap about challenge wins.

Survivor 43
The 'Survivor 43' final five
| Credit: CBS

Karla can't take advantage

Why is it so fun seeing Owen angry? Whether he's throwing his bag on the ground, tossing a challenge pole in disgust, chopping a coconut like a serial killer, or literally kicking sand… at sand, Owen is just really fun when he morphs into Mr. Cranky Pants/Spence Bledsoe. And he certainly had reason to be cranky at the start of the finale.

Naturally, there was an advantage hidden on their new island. You all know I don't like challenge advantages because I think it's much more interesting to watch contestants compete on a level playing field, but nobody cares what I think. (Plus, I will say, any advantage in a challenge that involves a puzzle is somewhat negligible since the puzzles usually take so damn long to solve.) What was important is that both Karla and Owen solved the clue leading to the advantage but could not find it — until they both found it at the exact same time, that is. Luckily, Karla found it, and I say luckily because it resulted in an epic Owen hissy fit that I want to watch on a continuous loop for the rest of my life.

So Karla had an advantage in the first immunity challenge. A very cool challenge, I might add. One that took place on both land and sea and involved buoys, obstacles, puzzle pieces, and a super random phrase to solve. The winner would not only receive immunity, but was also playing for what Jeff Probst described as a "protein burst," which is amazing because Protein Burst also coincidentally happens to be the name of my Right Said Fred cover band.

Unfortunately for Karla, Owen was the first one to figure out the mystery phrase, "you cannot hide in a dangerous game." Which is kind of an odd mystery phrase for producers to bust out seeing as how Gabler was bragging about hiding for pretty much the entire game. Soooooo, I guess you can hide in a dangerous game? Or this game was not particularly dangerous? Not sure how that all shakes out. All I do know is that for Karla, that challenge loss would prove to be crushing. But she still had some waves to make on her way out.

Survivor 43
Jesse Lopez, Cassidy Clark, Karla Cruz Godoy, Owen Knight, and Mike Gabler of 'Survivor 43'
| Credit: CBS

Using the jury as a weapon

After the challenge, there was naturally lots of scrambling back and forth. I am going to just kinda gloss over Owen's statement here that "I didn't come back from those early votes just to be a zero-vote finalist," because it now makes me sad in light of his final fate in the game. But I do want to hit on the conversation between Karla and Cassidy.

Clearly, there was no love lost between the previously close pair at this point. You could see how annoyed Cassidy was for what she perceived as Karla talking down to her in explaining how Jesse had to go because he would win the game. But then things took an even more interesting turn, because that is when Karla told Cassidy that if she planned to claim credit for any pre-merge moves, that those moves were "all me and James," and that is exactly what Karla would tell the jury if Cassidy helped put her there. And then came the hammer: "I'll be on the jury, and my vote is not going to you."

Cassidy didn't like it, saying she lost a lot of respect for Karla for threatening to poison the jury, and I'm guessing a lot of viewers didn't like it either. However, my position on jury threats has not changed. If you're really going to bury someone to fellow jurors just because they voted you out, that is super lame. But if you are just spitting actual facts of how you truly feel, or are merely bluffing and trying to trick a player into keeping you by using the threat of jury interference (and your vote against them) as leverage, I have absolutely no problem with that whatsoever. None.

So much of this game is convincing, cajoling, embellishing, and flat out lying to people so they don't vote you out. And the jury is a major element in the game. So why should that be off-limits when it comes to convincing, cajoling, embellishing, and flat out lying? It shouldn't. Karla was clearly grasping at straws at this point and there's no shame in her game when attempting to use the jury as a pressure point.

But there were simply too many enemies for our island Warrior Princess to battle. Not unlike the mighty Xena, she fought valiantly while taking arrow after arrow in the heat of battle, ultimately succumbing and meeting her demise. Whether that deadly demise came at the blade of a mighty samurai warrior named Morimoto, or courtesy of four reality television contestants playing a game on an island for money is no matter. And whether Karla went on after her torch was snuffed to engage the demon lord Yodoshi in ultimate afterlife combat, or slam down adult beverages at a makeshift Fijian bar to drown her sorrows is likewise not of our concern. All we need to know is that Karla played hard and is demanding of our respect… if not Cassidy's.

Speaking of respect, props to Jesse at this first Tribal Council for helping Jeanine break the Guinness World Record for longest and strongest shocked open-mouth pose ever. I'm a little surprised Jesse didn't wait until after the votes to make his big reveal that he had an idol that everyone thought left the game with Dwight, and I feel he could have milked the delivery just a bit more for dramatic effect, but still… what a great moment. At that point, he just owned that jury. Which is why he had to go.

Survivor 43
Jesse Lopez, Cassidy Clark, Karla Cruz Godoy, Owen Knight, and Mike Gabler of 'Survivor 43'
| Credit: CBS

Juries don't care about challenge wins

I've gone on record as liking challenges where people have to build things up that ultimately will coming crashing down, causing their dreams to come crashing down alongside with them. That house of cards contest earlier this season was about as good as it gets. So when I saw the final four was going to have to stack bowls, I was into it.

Unfortunately, we did not get as many falls as I would've liked. Yes, Gabler was in the lead and lost his stack — which sounds dirtier than I intended — and yes, Own got so angry when his stack fell that he broke his pole in disgust. (Classic Owen!) But, unfortunately, Cassidy was just too damn good and never faltered. I say unfortunately not because I was rooting against Cassidy. I just naturally root against whoever is in the lead on those challenges because I feed off human misery and suffering like some sort of reality TV parasite. And trust me, Survivor has been very good to me in those regards.

The victory meant that both Cassidy and Owen each won three individual immunities. To which the jury once again said… so what? BROKEN RECORD ALERT for those who have been around for a while, and NEWSFLASH to those who are new to the recap: Survivor juries don't care about challenge wins. They just don't. And if you don't believe me, go ask Chrissy Hofbeck about it. Or Brad Culpepper. Or Colby Donaldson. Or plenty of others like… oh, I don't know… Owen and Cassidy, who just combined for 1 total vote against Gabler's 7.

I've presented a theory on this before, and the theory is that juries care much more about idol and advantage plays than challenge wins because while idol plays are big and surprising and dramatic and happen right in front of the jury, early jury members don't even get to see the challenges. All they see is someone walk in with a necklace. None of them — as spectators — got to watch Cassidy persevering to win that final contest. They didn't get to watch Owen overcome Karla's advantage (and then flex his muscles super awkwardly) to take that final five competition. So it doesn't really register. At least not as much as other factors.

I'm not even necessarily arguing that players should value comp wins more; I'm just pointing out that they don't. This is not a complaint, just an observation. Obviously, challenge wins are important for a little thing called immunity, but in terms of being résumé builders, they just aren't. And there is one actual problem when it comes to winning that final challenge.

Survivor 43
The cast of 'Survivor 43'
| Credit: CBS

To fire or not to fire?

You all know I'm not a fan of the final four fire-making twist. There are a lot of reasons why, and I won't bore you with the entire list for the 799th time, but we once again saw one of the big ones — the fact that people are essentially punished for winning that final immunity competition. You saw it at the final Tribal when Noelle asked Cassidy why she didn't take on Jesse herself at fire. So if you do take Jesse on, you essentially give up the immunity you just worked your ass off to get and risk being ousted. And if you don't, then you risk having someone else score points with the jury against you in the final three for winning at it, and you risk people thinking you're lame for not having the guts to do it yourself. It's just a bad game mechanic and I hate it. And I hate that Cassidy was put in that position.

She ultimately chose Gabler to take on Jesse, and Gabler got the job done in record time. Poor Jesse. Just distraught. Look, this game means a lot to everybody out there, but you could just see the devastation all over Jesse's face once his dream was dashed that close to the end. He wins at fire, he wins a million dollars. He knew it. The jury knew it. Probst knew it. The dude who runs the drone camera and had the night off so was sitting back with a Fiji Gold watching Tribal Council on a monitor in a tent knew it. That was a million-dollar fire, and Jesse just couldn't get it. He was that close. And he didn't even try to hide his disappointment, or his tears.

The good news is, he'll get another chance. Jesse — along with Cody, and probably Karla — is an absolute shoo-in to be brought back for another season, whenever they start doing those again. He not only played a great game, but he did it while providing entertaining commentary and insight along the way. Also, I think there is a better than decent chance that Sia hooks him up with a little $$$ some point soon, which would certainly be enough for a complete refurbishing of the Pineapple Zone.

Survivor 43
Jesse Lopez on 'Survivor 43'
| Credit: CBS

The After-Show

We've already discussed the final Tribal Council in enough beer-fueled detail, but there was still the "after-show." Probst made some mini-waves this week when he told EW — while acknowledging that there were certain advantages to having a live reunion show months later — that "in terms of the conversations, there is no comparison" and that "the jungle's where it's at."

I respectfully disagree. Not only do you get the entire cast when you do a live reunion, and not only do you get to see what they look like months later, but they can also react to everything they saw on TV, and trust me, there is plenty that contestants don't know — especially when it comes to what others said about them during the game — until they watch it on TV.

There's also the fact that the immediate after-show means you have people that just got crushed in a final Tribal Council like Xander Hastings or Mike Turner that are still processing what the hell just happened to them and are not really capable of reacting to or making sense of what just transpired minutes before — especially because they haven't yet been able to watch the season unfold outside of their eyes. (Imagine poor Cassidy having to do a champagne toast mere seconds after having her dreams completely crushed.)

The reunion is just better on pretty much every single level. However, that said, I totally get why they do the on-location after-show. Do you remember what a disaster the end of Winners at War was? The season was filmed before Covid and then aired when the entire country was locked down. That meant there was no after-show or reunion for arguably the biggest season in the franchise's history. Instead, there was just a really anti-climactic vote reveal from Probst's garage to the final three on Zoom. This was nobody's fault at all. That was just where we were with Covid at the time. Sucky timing.

And what if we end up there again? We've gone through a series of Covid spikes over the years, with numbers now rising once again, forming a triple whammy with the flu and RSV. What if they ditched the after-show and planned for a reunion instead, and then folks got sick? Then you're left with nothing. Which is why staging the after-show is the safest move and totally makes sense.

Of course, why does it have to be one or the other? My suggestion has always been to do both! Film your immediate on-location after-show and air it after the votes are read. And then, right around the finale, gather the contestants back in L.A., or New York, or Probst's garage — I don't care — and film a full reunion hour. Don't want to air yet another post-finale hour on CBS? Fine. Put it on Paramount+. Putting it on Paramount+ is a savvy business move because trust me when I say that you will have lots of people sign up for that streaming service if you gave them an exclusive hour-long reunion. (Hell, while you're at it, bring back the Ponderosa series and put that on Paramount+ as well. And give me a job so I can tell you other ways to make people care about your streaming platform.)

Whatever. I'm getting all riled up now completely overhauling the former CBS All Access to my whims and demands. The point is, I totally get from a logistical standpoint why they do the after-show instead of the reunion, even if it is not as good. But I do think they should do both — mainly because I am greedy and always want more, but also because I do legitimately think it is a completely missed business opportunity. And if a Covid spike comes and you have to cancel the reunion, then no big deal because you still have the after-show already in the can.

Anyway, the big news during this after-show was Gabler informing the cast that he planned to donate his entire winnings to veterans in need. Obviously, a super cool thing that Gabler is doing, made even cooler by waiting to tell them until after he earned their votes. (It should be noted that Yul Kwon planned to do the same thing had he won Winners at War, in donating his winnings — which would have been $2 million — to fight ALS in honor of Jonathan Penner's wife, Stacy Title. Gabler's generosity had to make the jury feel that much better about their vote.

Survivor 43
Cassidy Clark and Owen Knight on 'Survivor 43'
| Credit: CBS

After the After-Show

So, I guess I should stop writing now???? First, a little house cleaning. I ranked Survivor 43 as the 23rd best season ever in my season rankings last week, while noting (as always) that it could move up or down depending on what happened in the finale. And that is what happened, as I am officially moving it down one spot below Ghost Island into the 24 spot. Ghost Island had that super dramatic tie-vote ending, and Survivor 43… well, didn't. And while the surprising Gabler win was certainly interesting, and Jesse's exit super-emotional, I'm not sure there were any true knock-your-socks-off moments. Then again, I'm not sure I produced any knock-your-socks-off recaps, so who am I to judge?

We still have a mountain of finale coverage ready for you, like an exclusive deleted scene at the top of this recap, Probst sharing intel on NEXT season, and our interviews with Gabler, Cassidy, Owen, Jesse, and Karla. Check back here or follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Mastodon (not Gabler's favorite band!), or Post or anywhere else that will have me for updates on when those all go live. Thanks so much for taking this journey with me and wasting time reading this nonsense all season long. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it, as well as all the kind words along the way. Happy holidays, and I will be back in March with our first oversized scoop of 2023 crispy!

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SURVIVOR: Island of the Idols

Strangers starve themselves on an island for our amusement in the hopes of winning a million dollars, as host Jeff Probst implores them to "DIG DEEP!"

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