Mike Holloway, breaker of rules. Jeff Probst kept up his insane collar fixation all the way up to the end, including leading off Worlds Apart's final episode with the highly inaccurate claim, "This is the season finale of Survivor: White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar." Sure, Mike gamely played along all season, proudly self-identifying as Blue Collar, and Lindsey correctly predicted (twice) that a Blue Collar person would win the game. There's just one flaw: Probst insisted in the premiere that "blue collars follow the rules." Clearly, Mike proved that wrong. Mike carved (drilled?) his own path through the game, and instead of following rules, Mike's Worlds Apart win broke a number of long-standing tenets of Survivor conventional wisdom. Here are but a few:
Broken rule #1: You can't challenge beast your way to the win without an alliance. Ever since Borneo, when Kelly Wiglesworth escaped being at the bottom of an alliance (on whom she almost flipped, no less) by winning five straight immunity challenges, guaranteeing herself a spot in the Final Two, post-merge contestants have been deathly afraid of someone else doing that (and it's happened only a few times, with Colby in The Australian Outback, Ozzy in Cook Islands, and... that's about it). In response, anyone who even looks like they might go on a post-merge immunity run gets voted out as soon as humanly possible (see, for example, Joe Anglim). There have been a few late-game immunity streaks that have worked out, but they've usually been people who had numbers, might have been voted out eventually, but thwarted that with a few well-timed immunity wins (Jenna Morasca in The Amazon, J.T. in Tocantins, for example). Furthermore, people who reach the finals in this manner (especially Colby and Ozzy) generally have not been rewarded by the jurors. That's why Mike's run was so different: As soon as Joe left the game, with a full six boots left to make, Mike was the target if he didn't win immunity. "150,000 percent." To escape those six boots, Mike won immunity five times, and played his hidden idol the one time he didn't. While Mike eventually managed to convince Carolyn to work with him, he was never able to swing the numbers enough to give himself a majority. It was a Herculean effort. Dan's jury speech raised the comparison to Mike's fellow Texan Colby Donaldson. Yet while Mike did bring this season's Tina to the end, he still came away with the win. Handily. That's impressive.
Broken rule #2: People saved by an idol can't win. We mentioned this a couple of weeks ago: this was clearly the season where this rule was destined to be broken. Worlds Apart jurors were faced with two finalists in Mike and Carolyn whose Survivor lives had been extended by well-timed hidden immunity idol plays. Plus Will. They had to vote for someone, and it was never going to be Will (unless they were Rodney, who ironically is the least likely person to be aware this unwritten rule existed). Carolyn is the fifth idol-preserved finalist not to win (joining Amanda, Russell Hantz, Parvati, and Jaclyn), but only because Mike snatched the win away from her, and broke this alleged curse. To be fair, there's never been any open hostility to someone saved by an idol actually winning, certainly not to the extent that jurors resented the Outcast twist (or to the extent fans scorned people returning to the game from Redemption Island). Maybe it was all just a coincidence. But it's now no longer even that.
Broken rule #3: You need to own your game at Final Tribal Council. We only saw a brief glimpse of the full thing, obviously, but Mike's answers to juror questions were... not great. He apologized to Tyler for not being a good social player. Jenn did a far better job selling Mike's game than he did himself. This was perhaps the biggest flaw in Mike's game. And yet, six jury votes for Mike, out of eight. Sometimes it helps to be likable.
All in all, the nature of Mike's victory eventually turned Worlds Apart into another Lone Star season - a season in which one player so dominates, the other contestants become little more than afterthoughts. Like Redemption Island and One World. That's not to say the other contestants were less worthy (except maybe Will and Dan). And other contestants from those seasons have gone on to give memorable later performances. But as the furor over the stretch run's misogyny subsides, we expect we will end up looking back at Worlds Apart as less of an ensemble (like Philippines and Cagayan), and more of a season with one lone star.
Putting Worlds Apart (and Mike's win) into historical perspective
Lest you try to argue that Mike's win was not all that impressive (and Survivor fans love to take deliberately obtuse positions such as this and scream them to the heavens), let's look at the numbers. This season had:
Buried by the edit: Carolyn, not Dan
Carolyn played a cautious, methodical game that the jury apparently found underwhelming alongside Mike's over-the-top aggressive one. But not nearly as uninspiring as Survivor's editors appeared to find it. Dan can complain all he wants about his antics being taken out of context. At least his antics were shown. Not so Carolyn, who all but disappeared from the show after the premiere (there was an immunity win here or there in the interim), only to pop back up as Mama C in time for the finale. It was a curious fate for a player who seemed to be a viable winner candidate in the first episode, and might have once again in the last few, if not for the dismissive indifference the editors had shown her for the bulk of the season.
Being buried in the edit is nothing surprising for female Survivor players, especially in seasons in which a man wins. But having almost no screen time from episodes 2-11 also hurt Carolyn in a far more tangible way: It deprived her of an opportunity to compete for a spot on Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance. To be sure, still being an active player on the show throughout the voting period most hindered her chances: the Worlds Apart in-season media gag rules barred Carolyn from joining her fellow candidates on the podcast interview circuit (same for Mike, although since he was ineligible anyway, that was a moot point for him). It was also tempting not to vote for either Carolyn or Mike, because if they won, that vote wouldn't count. But the editing of Worlds Apart did Carolyn no favors, either. Since the editors had invested almost no effort in showing Carolyn's post-premiere game, the audience barely knew who she was when voting opened, and their most recent opinion of her was negative.
Balloting for Second Chance opened after Episode 12, a point at which Carolyn's visibility flame had just re-ignited. After her great premiere episode, she'd been shown almost exclusively as an inflexible enforcer of loyalty to Rodney's despised Axis of Evil majority alliance. That alliance had just finished Pagonging a highly popular quartet of No Collar alliance-members (Hali, Joe, Jenn, Shirin). Then at the close of Ep.12, Carolyn broke with that alliance, and with Sierra and Mike, participated in voting out Tyler. It was the first crack in the previously impregnable majority bloc. The next week she played her idol, and helped take out the tremendously unpopular Dan. (Were it not for the idol, some viewers might have had trouble remembering Carolyn and Mama C were the same person.) Then in the finale, she had a spectacularly positive edit, humanized by her husband's visit, then demonstrating determination and grit in winning the fire-making tiebreaker. She went from a grimacing also-ran to a rootable underdog in the space of two episodes. But that upswing started far too late to impact Second Chance voting, and as we saw at the reunion, she didn't make the cut.
Had voting opened after the finale, Carolyn almost certainly would have been a strong contender for a Holiday in Cambodia. But instead, she's left with having a great premiere, a couple of individual immunities, a successful idol play, and a positive finale edit to point to for her efforts. And a single jury vote, tying her with dead fish Will. Ouch.
Should we just do away with the reunion?
We say that semi-facetiously, and yet not. Three hours is a lot of Survivor to sit through. Especially when the third hour has close to 50% of its time taken up by ads, and has long since abandoned the engaging, highly watchable format it used to have, where the audience got to catch up with all the contestants post-game and hear about how the experience changed them for the better.
Instead, this season's "reunion," from the time Mike's winning vote was revealed, to the switch over to the Second Chance cast reveal, lasted just 22 (commercial-free) minutes. And you weren't imagining it: 8 of those minutes were just Jeff Probst going out of his way to make Dan Foley look like a fool, live on national TV. More than half of the cast didn't get to say anything. Even Jenn, the breakout star of the first half of the season, was completely ignored. Like the season itself, the bulk of the reunion was instead consumed by the dark cloud of multiple ugly interpersonal conflicts, as Probst tried to wrench both apologies and forgiveness out of various cast members. Never mind that a show with that exact format and host has already failed once. As SuperJude sarcastically tweeted, "This is the best episode of The Jeff Probst Show ever!"
Admittedly, the reunion itself was always going to be overshadowed by the Second Chance voting results announcement, a segment that seemed rushed, even thought it only took up the final 10 minutes. We'll get into that in a separate recap/review, since it was essentially Episode Zero of Survivor: Cambodia - Second Chance. We still question the need to have that event piggyback on the Worlds Apart finale, but CBS/SEG made that choice, then had to adjust the reunion accordingly. Fine. And to be clear, we do support Probst's instinct of wanting to set things right, and have everyone be friends from here on out. But that's also something he could be doing on his own time, without the cameras rolling. For the reunion, we'd rather see all the people who were on the season, talking about the game. Not just the ones who made the biggest stink during that season. And if Jeff Probst is unwilling or unable to do that, we'd be fine to just skip the whole thing entirely, have the winner get their check in the mail, and replace the morning 39 breakfast with the teaser for next season.
Where does this season rank?
Survivor: Worlds Apart debuted to incredible levels of hype, and quickly ran afoul of fan sentiment, due to a decidely underwhelming pre-merge in which a succession of seemingly good players or big characters made early exits. Maybe it was a victim of unreasonable expectations, but to make matters worse, just when the gameplay finally seemed to have found its footing with Jenn's merge idol play, everything immediately spiraled out of control: It became clear the majority alliance would simply Pagong the No Collars, Jenn contemplated quitting, Joe was cut down, ugly confrontations erupted, and so on. Mike's heroic edit, even though it seemed a bit obvious, was a ray of hope through the darkest times, and his improbable path to the end at least made the endgame somewhat interesting. Yet for a season trumpeted as being "full of gamers," it was bizarre that very little gameplay actually seemed to be going on, and almost all of the focus was on people fighting with each other. If San Juan del Sur was Survivor: T-Ball Edition, this was Survivor: Drunken Rec League Softball Brawl.
Let's break down the plusses and minuses more rigorously:
All in all, despite Mike's historic victory, Worlds Apart was a disappointment. Despite having all the theoretically game-enhancing benefits of the three-tribe format, it didn't come close to matching the chaotic post-merge fun of Philippines, nor the wire-to-wire thrill ride of Cagayan. As unlikely as Mike's win seemed, the editing had made it pretty clear that he was really the only plausible winner candidate, and if you wanted to root for another outcome, the alternatives were grim. There were some great moments to be sure, but for a good portion of the post-merge, it felt like a joyless, grinding slog. Thanks to a cast peppered with strong players, it was still better than Nicaragua, Redemption Island, and One World. But overall, it's probably on par with South Pacific, Caramoan, and San Juan del Sur: stuck in the middle tier of the post-Heroes vs. Villains seasons, and struggling to be even a top-half season overall.
Unless you're Jeff Probst, of course. In which case it's possibly the best season ever.
Worlds Apart Episode 14 recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Mike Holloway (winner)
Exit interviews - Carolyn Rivera (2nd place-tie)
Exit interviews - Will Sims (2nd place-tie)
Exit interviews - Rodney Lavoie (4th place)
Exit interviews - Sierra Thomas (5th place)
Podcasts - Episode 14