It probably surprised few that Tom Westman won Survivor: Palau. Tom was an obvious but well-received winner this season. He used his leadership skills to cobble together an alliance, his tribe dominated throughout, as did his alliance. He stuck with that alliance, and he eventually won the game. Honor and integrity ruled the day.
The problem with Palau is: It's simultaneously both interesting and not very interesting. Its primary appeal is as an outlier season with a series of one-off events (two people out before tribes are picked! one tribe wins all the pre-merge immunities! no merge!) that are "interesting" in the sense of, "Oh, so that's what happens when ____ happens," but not all that exciting to watch play out. For example, it turns out when there's no merge, the dominant tribe's existing power structure probably retains its power. Okay, *shrug*, now we know.
Sure, it's impressive and perhaps a bit nostalgic that an alliance of five could still rule the game as the Tagi (four/five) did back in Borneo. It's just a bit boring to watch, as it's been done before, especially since there was really no point where either Koror or Tom was in any real danger of failure, at least not after they retrieve their flint in Episode 2. If you get excited by a strapping, silver-haired firefighter sticking to his word and winning challenges, then hoo-boy, Palau is without a doubt the season for you. If you want more intrigue and plotting and underdogs seizing power, maybe look elsewhere. There are no twists, no turns, no power shifts. As a season, it's straight as an arrow, just like its winner.
To be clear, Tom's a likable winner, too. He's a real-life hero. He's physical, he's calm, he works hard, he does what he says he'll do. He proves that you can be a leader and win a ton of challenges and still win the game. Furthermore, if not for a couple of errant coconut tosses and some bad luck shooting a replica gun, he almost followed Koror's lead and swept every individual immunity challenge. He's also obviously a man, so he's exactly the type of winner CBS, Survivor, and Jeff Probst probably want every time. Your mileage may vary.
So was Tom's victory one of the best ever, as fans often rank it? It was a dominant one, to be sure. There's an extra degree of difficulty in doing all this while also being the tribe leader. But to be fair, he only had to vote someone out seven times, and four of those times he was immune. (He was also immune when Janu quit.) One of the ones where he wasn't was the Ep5 boot of Willard, and he's obviously not going out there, not at Koror's very first vote. Palau was also a weird season structurally, with no swaps and no merge. That also helped Tom, who was the main beneficiary of Koror being able to maintain its status quo pecking order for so long.
All in all, Tom put in a lot of work. It's certainly an impressive win. But other winners overcame greater obstacles (dodging idols, being down in numbers) and won by greater margins (looking mostly at you, Earl). Still, let's go through the things Tom did well, and the areas where he could have done better.
What Tom did right
What Tom did wrong
What are you even playing for?
There's a fantastic little piece of editorial meta-commentary on the season at the start of Episode 13. It intersperses two conversations: Tom talking to Caryn on the morning of Day 34, and Ian talking to Jenn (and Katie). From their perspectives, Ian and Tom are dividing and conquering, making sure Caryn doesn't flip back to Jenn and Katie to form an all-women's alliance. Tom convinces Caryn she's his ideal Final 2 partner, whereas she'd be #3 with Jenn and Katie, so it doesn't make sense to go with them. Meanwhile, Ian point-blank refuses to vote Tom, should Tom not win immunity, because he doesn't want to "go back" on his word to Tom, and would much rather vote out Caryn. (Jenn is, understandably, somewhat incredulous.)
In isolation, that's the narrative here. Ian and Tom! Working together and individually to thwart those conniving women! They're so smart!
But it also works perfectly as someone in editing having a little dig at Ian for this horrifically bad decision — refusing to make a game-winning move because he likes Tom (it's hard to keep track of which bad Ian decision is which this episode) — because this back-and-forth-conversations segment ends with Tom telling Caryn: "I know you're not gonna go with it, because it's not a good deal. You're just gonna be the third one out [meaning third place], and ... if you're gonna be the third one out, what are you playing for?"
In case you missed that foreshadowing on the first viewing (which would have been difficult unless you were spoiled that Ian ends up in third place), there's an editing coup de grâce: As soon as Tom says that, the video cuts back to a shot of Ian in the background, with a coconut in the foreground, as a machete swings down from out of frame and chops into it. Whack!
Just outstanding work there. Almost makes up for the season's lack of gameplay.
- We'll make a women's alliance happen if it's the death of us: After they fetch the treemail for the Ep13 RC, Tom and Ian immediately realize it'll involve a trip away from camp, and Tom floats the obvious strategy with Ian: If either one of them wins, they *have* to take one of the women with them, to keep them apart, so that they don't form an all-women's alliance. Tom suggests Caryn, Ian suggests Katie. They don't come to a consensus, but the goal is clear, regardless. So when Ian wins the challenge by a mile, he immediately chooses, without hesitation ... Tom.
Excellent work by the camera crew capturing Tom's visible dismay and concern the second he's picked, and Katie's unmistakable death glare. Also solid effort by the editors in the "Previously On..." segment, reminding us that Ian also promised to take Katie if he wins, just three days earlier.
- The Jenn erasure edit: Given that the editors basically cut her out of most of the season, were Jenn's (incorrect) guesses in the Ep13 water obstacles/memory IC also cut out? The rules of the IC were that the players had to cross a bunch of water obstacles, memorize an array of 15 symbols, go back across, then re-create those symbols in order on their answer key. If they ask Probst to check it and they're wrong, they have to go back across the obstacles before altering their answer board. Simple enough. Tom and Ian each take two trips across before asking Probst to check their answers, and each is wrong at least once, so back they go. Jenn appears to memorize her entire 15-symbol set in one shot, but we never see her ask Probst to check it, she just goes back across for some reason. Later, after Ian gets his guess wrong a second time, Jenn goes back across again. Why would anyone *not* have Probst check their answers? It makes no sense. Probst would almost certainly comment if she was going back for no reason, right? So why not show her answer being checked? What's gained by this, apart from making a three- (or more) person race to the finish into an artificially constructed battle between Tom and Ian? Wouldn't it be more exciting if multiple people were threatening Tom's win?
- Random finale format changes weirdness: So many odd choices! (1) For whatever reason, there's no Day 39 breakfast, just a Day 37 breakfast (for the final four). Maybe they were worried Tom might miss out otherwise. (2) There's a car and a fake million-dollar check at the F4 IC, both of which are not "up for grabs," but instead go to the season winner. They're there to "remind" everyone what they're playing for. Saves Probst the work, apparently. Maybe this was a hilarious prank to initially trick the contestants into thinking they were playing for reward? (3) Instead of a hike to collect torches/totems, the Rites of Passage segment has the F3 paddle to a spot where all the torches are, then for each one, dump them in the otherwise pristine waters of Palau. Hooray, pollution! (4) And of course, the "impromptu" Final 3 Tribal Council, where Tom "votes out" Ian with a voice vote. (Obviously done because it was already the middle of the night on Day 38/39.)
- That's some top-tier guessing: The final four IC is a reminder just how unsatisfying combo locks are as equalizers in challenges. If two people are more or less even, the combo luck comes down to pure guessing. Here, the entire final stage of the F4 IC centers on a combo lock, and Tom's win is indeed pure luck. Sure, it starts with a physical part where Tom and Ian ride a zipline to retrieve a bag containing three numbers from the water. But they reach the combo lock at about the same time (Tom is there first, Ian has his numbers out first). There are six possible combinations with three numbers. Both Tom and Ian guess wrong the first two times. Ian then guesses wrong on his third try, Tom guesses right. Hooray, luck? (You can bet production breathed a sigh of relief that Jenn couldn't figure out the grappling hook, and it was Tom-Ian, and not Tom-Jenn.) This is where the more recent switch to puzzles (or even carnival games, like sandbag tossing) as a final element is a much better choice, because at least there's some amount of skill involved. Here, they might as well have just had Tom and Ian draw rocks out of a bag, and whoever got the purple one was the winner. Oh well.
- How about no: In his Talking with T-Bird interview on RHAP (circa the 34-minute mark), Tom reveals that 10 hours into the final ("Bob-bob-buoy") challenge, Probst told him and Ian they were going to have to go to one foot, to make it more difficult. Tom refused, saying that wasn't in the challenge instructions Probst originally gave them. And after arguing back and forth for a bit, Probst ... folded. Good for Tom for sticking to his guns on this, it clearly paid off. (The challenge still went on for almost two hours after this,) Although you wonder if it had been anyone else objecting, or even if Probst had wielded Executive Producer powers at that point, if that refusal would stick. Pretty remarkable behind-the-scenes story, either way.
- She's back: In what must be a confusing development for streaming-only viewers, Wanda's song at the reunion show remains intact (most likely because it's to the tune of a public-domain song). Frankly, the best part is when Probst cuts her off with a terse "thank you, Wanda!" right as she's about to launch into a second verse. But at least some of Wanda's signature contribution still exists. (Actually the best part is how happy her friend Jolanda looks when Wanda gets her moment in the spotlight.)
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes