By Dalton Ross
May 13, 2020 at 11:06 PM EDT
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Survivor

S40 E14
type
  • TV Show
network
  • CBS
genre

Man, I’m just happy. In a good mood. Have a little extra pep in my step. Things right now, as I write this, are okay. Don’t get me wrong, things are legit terrible out there. Isolation. Economic catastrophe. Death.

We buried my wife’s mother last week, and it was as awful as you can imagine. We couldn’t visit her in her final weeks because we weren’t allowed in the hospital as she was dying. Then, after she passed away, our family grieving was limited to a five-minute ceremony at the cemetery attended by only five people who were instructed to stay in the car. Don’t worry, this isn’t a woe-is-me column, just an acknowledgment of the severity of the situation out there as we all adjust to this new normal.

And I also want you to rest assured that I am going to get into all the big moves and moments of the Survivor: Winners at War finale and weigh in on them as only a seasoned Wednesday evening quarterback can. I’ll nitpick on certain things I didn’t like and probably go on a paragraph or two longer than I should, but allow me for a second to take a big picture view of this episode and this season for a second, if I may.

Back in December, when I ranked Island of the Idols as the worst Survivor season ever, I wrote the following: “When it comes to ranking Survivor seasons, it ultimately comes down to a feeling. You can make pros and cons lists, but, in the end, it all boils down to how a season makes you feel. And, unfortunately, due to the events surrounding the inappropriate touching — and the way it was handled by both production and the other contestants — the ultimate feeling when it comes to this season is sadness.”

So what’s the ultimate feeling when it comes to Winners at War? I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and from the first moment of day 1 when those 20 winners walked onto the sand spit in the middle of the ocean, the overwhelming feeling I have had is…joy. The joy actually started in the days leading up to filming. I spoke with the contestants for our regular pre-game interviews, and it was easily the best collection of pre-game chats I had ever had.

Sure, some of that was probably due to my familiarity with the contestants, some of whom I have known for close to two decades now, but this was also a collection of incredible players and personalities. Some people, like Ben and Michele, had something to prove. Others, like Yul and Kim, were revered one-timers who hoped to show their first dominant runs were not a fluke. There were the legends — Parvati, Boston Rob, and Sandra — who were essentially taking a nostalgia-fueled victory lap, their place secure in the Survivor pantheon. And there was the return of the ultimate Survivor, Ethan Zohn — a guy who used his winnings on Survivor: Africa to help fight AIDS on the continent and then had to survive not one, but two life-threatening bouts of a rare blood cancer. His return alone was one of the best reality TV stories ever.

They stepped on the beach, and I got goosebumps. Twenty of the best players ever, together, on season 40 of a show that even the host and creator thought would probably be a quick fad and then fade away. It was awesome. And what was equally awesome was how the producers treated the season. Yes, we can debate and discuss which twists worked and which didn’t, and you can go back through my season recaps to see which ones I loved and which ones I loathed, but what I mean was they didn’t just treat the season as a regular competition. This season would also act as a celebration of the entire franchise and its epic 20-year run. They leaned into making the season feel special, starting with a champagne toast and the announcement that they were doubling the winner’s prize to $2 million.

I bring all this up because that feeling of joy and celebration permeated the entire season, even when the editing was a bit confusing and there was a little bit of a lull in some of the later episodes. Yes, there was some post-relationship awkwardness between Wendell and Michele at one point, and Ben had a few seemingly minor tiffs with Adam and Jeremy, but that was all super low on the normal Survivor scale of personal animosity.

More often than not, we, as viewers, were celebrating. Celebrating an incredible game move like Denise slaying the Queen, or Tony masterfully flipping the vote onto Sophie. Celebrating the incredible drive and spirit of the folks that completed that brutal log carrying challenge. Celebrating the family reunions that made even an emotionless cyborg like me well up.

Sometimes Survivor can get ugly, with last season being but one example. But this season was perhaps the least ugly installment on record, and the finale serves as the perfect example of that. We saw a great speech from Sarah about gender bias in the game. We saw Jeff Probst go out of his way to acknowledge his role in that bias. We saw Ben tearfully give up his spot in the game to help boost the résumé of the woman he wanted to see win. We saw Tony and Sarah — the two best friends on the island — reduced to a mess of tears, kisses, and “I love yous” as one had her dream dashed and the other his dream fulfilled. And we saw a jury seemingly devoid of any personal bitterness as they relentlessly praised all three finalists for a game well played. (Even the one question Rob posed to Natalie about her lack of social gameplay at the Edge was done in a respectful manner seeking input from her about it before he made his final decision.)

And then there was Tony Vlachos. I wrote a few weeks back about how Tony is the most entertaining player in the history of the show because no one else mixes game sense and nonsense more than him. His run this season was dominant. He won four immunity challenges. He found an idol. He got people from two different alliances to help him when he got hit with an Extortion from the Edge. He managed to direct almost every single vote he was a part of, somehow without angering the folks he blindsided. And he never had his name written down once. Dominant. And probably the most dominant Survivor performance ever, especially considering the level of competition. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to have a great winner on such an important season. Tony won in a 12 to 4 to 0 vote, with Natalie’s 4 votes coming from Jeremy, Parvati, and Ethan (who all played with Nat on her original tribe) and Tyson (whom Nat bought an idol for).

But it’s not just about greatness with Tony. Tony is also FUN! Whether it is putting ashes all over Sarah’s face for her undercover mission, almost killing himself on his homemade ladder, wiping out while sprinting through the jungle, almost losing feeling in his entire body while perched in a Spy Nest™ for an hour, laughing about his extortion, or simply talking to the camera in the way only he can, Tony is the posterchild for the exuberant joy that Survivor can provide.

Which is exactly what we all have needed these past few months‚ exuberant joy. It’s why the timing of season 40 was so perfect. Look, you all know me. I’m not saying I want every season of Survivor to be unicorns, and rainbows, and Spy Bunkers™ with a few verses of “Kumbaya” thrown in for good measure, but this was the season we needed for 2020 with the winning performance we needed. Which is why I’m so happy.

And it’s not just the winner. I’m happy Natalie got kudos for playing her ass off. Instead of now being immersed in controversy over whether someone voted out on day 2 should be able to win the game, we can all just salute her for a truly tremendous effort. I’m happy Michele fought off the personal demons of her previous controversial win by now becoming the only person in history that has played Survivor multiple times and never been voted out or left early. There’s a reason Michele kept being bequeathed tokens. She may not have received any votes at the end, but she fulfilled her mission to prove herself worthy of the crown. And I’m happy for Tony, who undoubtedly just secured his place on the Survivor Mount Rushmore next to Sandra, Parvati, and Boston Rob — players who all won twice (Tony, Sandra) or had two dominant outings (Parvati, Rob).

The season was not perfect, but it was the perfect season to air right now, and if Survivor ultimately comes down to a feeling, I have to say that I’m feeling pretty damn good. And I’m not just saying that because the final 3 all hail from the Garden State of New Jersey HOLLA!!!! Clean sweep for the non-gas pumpers in the house!

Okay, large overview officially over! Let’s now DIG DEEP on some of the big finale moments in a bit more detail.

Day 2, Day 2, Whatcha Gonna Do?

As I outlined in last week’s recap, the battle-back challenge to get back into the game lacked some suspense due to the fact that Natalie had three advantages — which were three more than nine other players had and two more than Parvati, Yul, and Wendell. (Tyson and Sophie bought peanut butter with their tokens.) Shockingly, Natalie then won the competition, narrowly beating Wendell (who also had an advantage).

I won’t go on and on about this again, but will simply state for any newcomers who stumbled across this recap — my apologies, incidentally — that challenges for me are much more dramatic when everyone is competing on a level playing field. As I wrote earlier this season, I don’t want to see a clash of the titans in which half the titans have one arm tied behind their backs. This isn’t even about fairness or anything like that — although Nick lasting all the way to day 34 and having zero opportunities to earn a single token before the competition certainly is anything but fair — but more about what makes for a more dramatic and intriguing contest.

Anyway, after Natalie — who was the first person voted out of the game — was officially welcomed back with lukewarm arms, Probst gave a bunch of Survivor legends a chance to have their moment in the spotlight before possibly saying goodbye to the game forever. In a normal season, chewing up valuable clock on this would have been infuriating, but for a season 40 of all-winners, it fit. It worked. You simply have to love the openness and honesty of Amber saying out loud to Jeff, “Even when you read my name as the All-Stars winner, I knew that nobody really felt like I deserved it. Everybody felt like this guy deserved it and the only reason they voted for me is they hated him more than they hated me.” That’s raw. That’s real.

And Ethan! I made no secret of my desire to see Ethan win this game. Everything that guy has done. Everything he has been through. The oldest season winner. It would have been righteous. But at least he provided the punctuation mark to this scene by talking about how the money raised from Survivor Stand Up to Cancer helped fund the drug that fought his disease. “This show saved my life.” C’mon, how amazing is that? Again, joy.

“We are all part of this sort of giant weird family,” said Probst, and all of a sudden, the host was clapping, the players were clapping, I was clapping, my wife was walking in the room and asking, “Why are you clapping?” So, yes, things got a little awkward on my end, but it was still a nice moment.

Idols Wasted

Now that’s what I’m talking about! Finally, a challenge getting the folks out and moving and grooving. This first final six contest had the players racing through an obstacle, collecting bags, climbing a tower, and going down a water slide. It looked super fun and Michele got absolutely destroyed in the physical portion of this contest, getting lapped by other players. It didn’t matter. Why? Say it with me: It’s all about the puzzle.

And Michele is good at puzzles. She’s especially good at puzzles she has solved before, and with this being the same three-tier brain teaser she conquered in Kaoh Rong, the other players — no matter how large a lead they had or how much blatant copying they wanted to attempt — never stood a chance. Naturally, Michele celebrated her victory by kicking down the puzzle — the same move on the same puzzle from her last season — and I think I strained a hammy just watching it.

With Michele now safe and Natalie likely having an idol, Tony came up with the only sensible plan for the next Tribal — to throw two votes on Natalie (in case Natalie did not have an idol or did not play it) and two votes on Denise (in case Natalie did). Good! Easy! Makes sense! Done!

One little problem. Two, actually. Sarah and Ben. They refused to believe Natalie had an idol. “There’s no way she has something,” said the Marine. The cop’s response was even worse: “Natalie does not have an idol. You know why? Because Natalie and I, in the one day she’s been here, have built a good enough bond that she would have told me. These girls don’t have anything, so calm down dude. Guess who’s in control? Sarah! Sarah knows what’s going on.” But does she?

At this point, Tony was close to losing his mind, and I don’t blame him. Because if Natalie did not have an idol, then she would go out on the revote anyway. By splitting the vote 2-2-2, if Natalie plays an idol, you save your two idols and vote out Denise. But if you don’t split the vote and Natalie plays an idol, now Tony and Ben both have to waste their idols and you end up voting Denise out anyway!

And that is exactly what happened. Natalie played her idol, so then Tony and Ben had to waste theirs. The four votes for Natalie did not count. Neither did the two for Ben, so producers decided to just fly Cirie out to Fiji and snuff her torch instead. Oh, I kid! No, Denise was unanimously voted out on the revote. The only bright side for Tony is that he got to play the world’s longest game of “I told you so” in existence after watching his idol be needlessly wasted.

Lacina is Born

While the ouster of the Queenslayer was certainly noteworthy, as was Sarah and Ben’s flub in underestimating Natalie’s access to a hidden immunity idol, the highlight of the entire affair had to be Sarah’s speech about gender politics. Now, let’s acknowledge something right out of the gate: The impetus for Sarah’s speech was not necessarily to sit there and speak up for all the women whose accomplishments have been minimized over the years as their male counterparts were rewarded for the same behavior. I’ve tracked this angle for the past few years and written several articles about the gender bias in voting — which has now seen men win the last six seasons of the show and 12 of the past 15.

I’m sure Sarah doesn’t like that, but the speech had more current practical concerns as well: Getting her votes! She said it herself after Natalie joined Koru and smartly told the tribe that everyone on the Edge considered Tony the best player: “I have to get my story out to the jury and make sure they know that women are just as equal as men,” said the Game Changers champ. “And just because a man and woman are working together, that doesn’t mean a man is calling all the shots.”

Sarah knew she needed to get into jurors’ heads that she was as equally adept and skilled a player as her alliance partner, and here’s why what she did was so brilliant: A lot of players would have waited until the final Tribal Council to make that speech. The problem is, by that time, the jury’s mind is already made up. Sarah wisely knew she had to strike before then. Why wait to hit them up with that on day 39 when you can drop it on day 36 and give it some time to marinate?

So when the subject of what Natalie said about Tony came up at Tribal, Sarah was ready to pounce with a message the jury would be very receptive to. “It made me realize that if a woman in this game lies or cheats or steals, then she’s fake and phony and a bitch. If a guy does it, it’s good gameplay. If a guy does it, he’s a stud. What it is, is a gender bias.”

Of course, she was right. And it was very impactful to hear Sarah talk about how for two years after she won Game Changers she thought she was a bad person and how only now she realizes that “I can play however I want because if a man can do it, so can I. I will not be defeated by a gender bias.” I honestly consider Sarah to be one of the best players to ever play this game. I’ve told you numerous times how she was seen as the biggest threat heading into this season and yet she still made it all the way to the top 4 and was never really even in any danger at any point. She’s a remarkable player, and she underlined that right here by speaking truth to power that also — not so coincidentally — would also land with the jury.

So, in that sense, because Sarah is smart and Sarah is fierce, what happened there was not so surprising. But what happened next was. Because then Jeff Probst entered the fray and, completely unprompted, said this: “Let me own my part. I am certain right now if I were to look back at all the comments I have made over 20 years, I would find the exact same bias in me. Who I call by last names. Guys have different relationships with each other, and I might not know how to have that relationship with a woman. So I’ll definitely own the fact that I definitely don’t think I saw it when Survivor started. And I don’t even think I know I was supposed to look for it. But I am very much aware of it now.”

Gutsy. Because here’s the thing: Nobody in this scene was calling out Jeff. Nobody was asking him to explain himself. Nobody was accusing him of anything. He could have stayed out of it, looked really deep and pensive, and nodded his head at all the right times while Sarah spoke. But he didn’t. He went there — again, unprompted — and addressed his own role in the alpha-dominated culture of Survivor. The fact that he wanted to go there is huge. But the truly shocking thing is not that Probst said it. It’s that he aired it.

Remember, Tribal Councils can go on for hours and are then condensed to just a few minutes. Especially in a finale, every second is precious. Jeff can say whatever the hell he wants at Tribal Council safe in the knowledge that they can just cut it out later. It’s not live, so he can let it rip. So for him to publicly acknowledge this not just to the cast, but to the millions watching around the world — and to make the time to do so — is the truly remarkable thing. Especially after the events of last season, in which the show appeared flat-footed in reacting to an unwanted touching crisis, this was an unexpected highlight of the night that nobody could have seen coming.

And now Sarah is truly dead. Long live Lacina.

Ben Falls on His Sword

First off, is it just me, or did Tony almost just burn down an entire island? That nighttime idol hunt where the crazy person made a fire in the jungle and used a lit log as a flashlight was as if CBS plugged a machine into my brain that suctioned out my dreams and fantasies and put them directly onto my television screen. Only in my dreams, Tony indeed does set the island on fire, then tries to escape it by climbing up into his Spy Nest™, and is about to be burned to a crisp when he is beamed up out of danger by a UFO manned by all the Tony Vlachos clones that were never unleashed in Game Changers and have been biding their time ever since communicating with alien life forms obsessed with learning the secret as to how one human from New Jersey could be so awesome. Unfortunately for Tony, his idol hunt was fruitless, and Natalie found the idol instead. On the plus side, he didn’t burn the island down, sooooo…

The second immunity challenge was another big build on both land and on sea as the players raced through obstacles, grabbed a key, unlocked sandbags, and then had to land two on a table. Good stuff once again from the challenge production department. Ben was the first one through the obstacles and the first one to land a bag. That’s important to remember because had he landed that second bag, the entire end game could have been very different. But he didn’t, and after several excruciating on and off shots, Tony took the necklace — his fourth of the season. I mean, it’s the same necklace. It’s not like they give him a different necklace each time. You know what I mean.

After the challenge, Tony was back up in the Spy Nest™, although I’m not really sure why. After all, if Lacina is the one talking to Natalie, and Lacina and Tony are so closely aligned, can’t she just, like, tell him what happened? I want to make it absolutely clear that in no way, shape, or form am I advocating for Tony Vlachos to be anywhere but perched in his Spy Nest™ because a grown man hiding in a tree for so long that his body goes numb is my favorite thing in the world that does not involve Jeff Probst skydiving with an urn of votes. I just don’t understand it. Then again, mere mortals cannot be expected to understand the logic of the gods.

But something big did come out of that Natalie and Lacina meeting, when Lacina noticed that Natalie was hiding an immunity idol under her buff. That set off a chain of events that led to a jaw-dropping insert-record-scratch-sound-effect-here moment from the Marine when Ben told Lacina to write his name down at Tribal Council. SAY WHAAAAAAAAAT?!? Lacina was Ben’s No. 1 all along, and after hearing her big speech, but recognizing she needed another big move to compete with the lovable lunatic, Ben told her he would sacrifice himself to help her win the whole thing.

“Use that as your résumé,” he told her, his eyes turning red as he welled up. “I’m for it… That way you can’t say you got drug along.… I’m being totally serious. I love you. You have my permission.” I know what you’re thinking, and it’s probably something along the lines of… BEN DRIEBERGEN IS A CRAZY PERSON! HE MUST BE A MEMBER OF CYPRESS HILL BECAUSE THE MAN HAS GONE INSANE IN THE MEMBRANE!!! HOW COULD HE DO THAT? WHAT IS HE THINKING? HE’S GOT ME SO ANGRY RIGHT NOW I AM WRITING IN ALL CAPS FOR WAY LONGER THAN IS SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE!

If you’re thinking that, I get it. How could someone get to the final five — and be the best fire-making threat in the group — and then give up? All you have to do is make it through this vote and you’re pretty much guaranteed final three! All 39 days! Two seasons, 78 days? That’s legendary stuff.  But instead Ben quits? Who does this guy think he is, Ian Rosenberger?!?

Again, if you’re thinking that, I get it. But think about this: Ben had ZERO chance of winning the game. Just read what my panel for former all-stars had to say about Ben’s chances heading into the finale. They knew he had no chance. The jury knew he had no chance. And Ben knew he had no chance. Not only did Ben have some lingering animosity with jurors like Adam and Jeremy, but Ben was smart enough to know that both Tony and Sarah were seen as the conductors on that train, and not him. He was viewed as a passenger. And he knew that. Just two days prior, he was remarking that he clearly was not very popular with the soon-to-be jury.

So Ben could have stayed, gotten a few more days out of it, scored some more money, and been one of the select few to make it all the way to the end in both of their first two times playing (joining Sandra, Amanda Kimmel, and Russell Hantz, with Michele most likely getting voted out instead in this scenario). That would be important to a lot of people, but something else was more important to Ben: “I know that no matter what happens, I’m going to walk away from Survivor with my head held high and actually have actual friends. Because having friends is worth more than money.”

We all know Ben has demons. We know this because he is so honest and candid about it. We know Ben has struggled with how his last winning effort was perceived. We know he was very sensitive not to bulldoze over people this time around the way he felt he may have done his last time out. Before Lacina carried out his wishes at Tribal, Ben spoke about how his season was about growth and wanting to represent his family in a better light and to “Not go back home and not like the person I was… Tonight is about being brave and being strong and having friendships.”

Last week opened up the discussion about the emotional cost Survivor can take on players after they leave the island. It’s real. Ben chose a course of action that would better serve his mental well-being in the long-term, and if that’s the case, then the dude made the right call. That’s not to say Ben is not competitive. I’ve been around him long enough to know that he is. But he knew there was no way for him to win this game. No chance. If he saw a path to victory, I am confident he would have taken it. So he chose a different path, and if that gives him peace of mind, I’m all for it.

Actually, that’s all a lie. I’m just happy Ben took himself out of the game so we could see that DOPE ASS HORSESHOE MUSTACHE in all of its jury glory. Jesus Christ, give Ben’s facial hair its own spinoff already! And let Tony see if he can hide in it and turn into a Spy Stache™.

Friendly Fire

The final immunity challenge was the human hypnosis machine known as the ball chute… which, now that I write those words, sounds slightly dirtier than I intended. Ball chute. Yuck. Sorry. Anyhoodle, it was that one that Nick Wilson made famous by jumping around super awkwardly with one arm tied behind his back after he won in David vs. Goliath. Basically, you keep putting balls into chutes — again, sorry — until you drop one and you’re out.

It finally came down to a very impressive battle between laser-focused Michele and Natalie, with Natalie eventually winning. And if you’re keeping score, that meant due to her purchased immunity idol, found immunity idol, and challenge win, Natalie did not have to face one single vote or fire-making challenge to make it to the final three. Make of that what you will.

The big question now was: Who would take Tony on at fire? Natalie had zero interest in pulling a Chris Underwood and giving up her immunity, which meant it would be either Michele or Lacina, and one of those options seemed to relish the challenge: “I hope she picks me,” said Lacina. “I want to step up to the plate. I’m not scared. Pick me!” So Natalie did. Not only did Lacina want to go to fire, she also wanted to go against her best friend in the game. “I love this guy. He’s my partner, and if we’re gonna get shot, I’d rather us shoot each other than someone else shoot at us.”

Okay, we need to get into this fire-making battle, and not just because an MIA Sophie probably still has no idea what happened so I’m going to do her solid by clueing her in. Let me start by saying this: You all know I’m not a fan of the final four fire-making. It’s a cheat put in to help certain players escape their inevitable fate and actually punishes people for winning the final immunity challenge, which is absurd. There are a million things wrong with it, and I have spent several seasons now outlining them, so I won’t bore you again. But, all that said, it is okay to acknowledge that something that fundamentally should not be part of the game can still yield dramatic dividends.

Because of the fire-making, we were treated to a Wendell-Domenick final and the first tie in Survivor history. Because of the fire-making, we saw someone give up final immunity for the first time in Chris. And now, because of the fire-making, we saw one of the most powerful and emotional reactions ever to an elimination.

It started with a ridiculous amount of fist-bumping and some good-natured ribbing (“You’re finally going to have to say I’m better than you. That’s gonna hurt, isn’t it?”) and ended in tears, hugs, and kisses. Tony won the fire challenge. That was fine, but the raw emotion on display after it was finished was overwhelming.

TONY [in between sobs]: “I love you so much, Sarah.”

LACINA: “I love you back. Cops ‘R’ Us.”

TONY [sobbing even more now]: “I’m sorry, Sarah.”

LACINA: “Enjoy this. You got one more day and you’re done”

TONY [just a complete mess at this point]: “I love you.”

LACINA: “I love you.”

Tony couldn’t even look at her as they both sat down. Was unable to even hold eye contact. “If I was going to go out of this game,” Lacina told Probst, “that’s how I was going to go out. And if I wanted someone to take me out, that’s who I wanted to take me out. And if someone was going to take him out, I wanted it to be me.”

Tony couldn’t watch. He turned his head and, like, cried to a tree or something. For me, this fire battle was like back in the 1980s when the NFC championship game was the real Super Bowl, or the more recent stretch where the two most dominant Western Conference basketball teams would do battle in the true matchup of the two best teams on the planet. Tony and Lacina are dominant players that came in with a rock-solid relationship that everybody knew about, and yet they still could not stop them.

I would have LOVED to have seen them battle it out at final Tribal together, but if this is how we had to watch their story end, it was a hell of an ending nonetheless, and I think that display of raw vulnerability really helped Tony with the jury in that it really humanized him. We all see Tony as this guy with all the crazy antics, zany schemes, and energy drink enthusiasm, but this showed his heart at this moment… I mean, mumment. When he easily could have been celebrating, Tony was mourning. Sometimes a jury — especially a jury comprised of a lot of parents — needs to see that. And sometimes viewers do as well. It’s just another reason to worship at the altar of Tony Vlachos.

Why Does Europe’s “The Final Countdown” Always Play in My Head When Final Tribal Council Starts?

The only thing better than a final Tribal Council? A final Tribal Council in a punishing monsoon! Yes, Survivor gods! Right on cue! Love it! I mean, I don’t love it for Sophie, who I’m sure was still feeling miserable and then had to endure a downpour while having no idea what happened to Lacina, but otherwise… cool.

There were no real fireworks at the final Tribal, and usually, that would annoy me. Like, throw me at least one bitter juror who can make it all about himself or herself (usually himself, let’s be honest). Or at least something completely out of nowhere. Give me Big Tom leaving Boston Rob hanging on a low five. Give me Natalie Bolton asking Parvati how being a flirt in Survivor resonates for her in the bedroom. Give me a rat and a snake. Give it all to me! We didn’t get any of that this season, but that’s fine because again, this season was not a normal season of Survivor. Here are a few bullet-point highlights from the back and forth discussion.

• Natalie was asked about her missteps in the game, which is kind of a weird question to ask seeing as how Natalie wasn’t even in the game for very long. “My misstep was definitely my day 1,” she answered, which made sense seeing as how she was voted out on day 2.

• Rob dinged Natalie a bit for her social game at the Edge, where she apparently isolated herself a bit. I found that interesting because while we saw Natalie dominating the Edge from a physical and foraging standpoint, the biggest advantage the Edge provides is the ability to bond with people in a non-game setting against the people that voted you out (and that you would be sitting next to later in the final 3). But if you don’t make those bonds, as Natalie apparently did not with some folks, then you have no chance to win when you’re back in.

• Rob also dinged Nat not talking on Tony at fire. That’s the type of thing you don’t necessarily have to do if you’ve been in the game the whole time, but after Chris Underwood set the template for how to come back from the Edge and win, it’s hard to expect someone else to do it without going to the same lengths.

• Regular readers know I was blown away by my pre-game interview with Michele. One of my favorite interviews ever. She was so open and honest about dealing with the negative reaction to her win in Kaoh Rong and how meaningful it would be to prove not only to others but to herself that she deserved her victory. She wasn’t going to win here in the final three. I think she knew that. But she did win. Because the woman has now played twice and never been voted off. A remarkable accomplishment. And she won two immunities.

Michele did a nice job talking about how, unlike Tony down the stretch, she did not have great alliances to protect her and was forced to fend for herself.  She also did well pointing out how others kept sending her tokens on the way to the Edge and, in her final words, stressing how she survived 15 of the 19 Tribal Councils along the way (something Denise should certainly appreciate). “As a fellow controversial winner,” Ben said at one point, “I realized why you won your season, and you did a heck of a job this year and you should be very proud of what you’ve done.” “I can look myself in the mirror at the end of the day win or lose and be proud of that,” Michele said in her final words. For someone who struggled so much after winning the game her first time, that’s a huge step, and it’s pretty impossible not to be happy for her. Again, joy.

• Natalie’s list of all the items she found, won, or sent into the game was truly staggering. Yes, some of those were early in the season when she had little or no competition, and her knowledge of the island helped her later with the disadvantage she sent to Nick, but still… respect.

• I thought Tony did a masterful job of presenting his case without coming on too strong and braggy about his gameplay. He spoke about how hard he worked in searching for idols every night so he wouldn’t make himself a threat by searching during the day, he talked about how he not only had to beat all the other players, but also had to beat the Edge of Extinction, which kept sending Fire Tokens and advantages to other players and hit him with the dreaded extortion twist, and he stressed how he was “leading votes without people knowing I was leading votes.”

But his strongest comment came at the very end when he noted that, “I know it’s a big huge Super Bowl season of Survivor, and I tried my best to be a great player for the season, and I hope you all can appreciate the hard work I put into it to get to where I am tonight.” That’s it right there. These jurors wanted to be proud of their vote. They wanted the best collection of players in history to have a great representative as a winner. Tony knew that and played to that instinct with his final words. They wanted a great winner, and they got it.

• As for the remote reading of the votes, it was… awkward. But there was no way it could not be. Yes, it's a humungous shame that the biggest season ever of the show could not have the epic reunion we all wanted, but look, them’s the breaks and there are certainly bigger tragedies happening out there right now. And I thought the opening with Probst in his garage was totally charming. They made the best of a bad situation.

And is it just me, or did those audio remembrances from the cast over the montage of footage feel like a total throwback to the Rites of Passage segments where players would awkwardly wax poetic about people they barely knew or played with? New school may have dominated old school this season, but you can't stop the old school Rites of Passage! You can only hope to contain it. The only thing that would have been better is if they brought back the gong and cheesy trunk of cash for the final Tribal Council. Yes, I’m bummed we did not get the proper live send-off this anniversary season deserved, but let’s focus on what we did get. Again, it wasn’t a perfect season (I put it at number 10 before the finale, and I think it may sneak up one more spot after the final episode), but it was the perfect season for the time we are in.

And we’re not done, people! I’ll have interviews with Tony, Natalie, Michele, Sarah, Ben, and Denise, so keep your eyes peeled for those. A finale Q&A with Jeff Probst? Sure, I got you covered. And I may possibly just have a special little Survivor bonus story down the line I’m working on to keep you tide over for a bit until Survivor is back on our TV sets, which could be a while. In the meantime, my sincere thanks to everyone that took the time to bother reading this far, and reading anything and everything over the past four months, for that matter. I hope you dug the articles, and videos, and tweets, and Instagram photos, and whatever other nonsense I was throwing out there. This marks my 40th season of writing about Survivor in some way, shape, or form, and it has been my honor taking this journey with you.

In the meantime, weigh in with your finale thoughts in the message boards below, and make sure to peruse our exit interviews with the final six. I hope you have truly enjoyed this final scoop of the crispy.

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Survivor

Jeff Probst leads adventures in the ultimate (and original) reality series.

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  • TV Show
seasons
  • 40
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network
  • CBS
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