Shakespeare had it right: Parting is indeed sweet sorrow. There is a melancholy edge that accompanies all endings, whether the story be one of triumph or tragedy. And so it is with S2C, both the season and my experiences with the cast last week: there are celebrations and sadness everywhere you turn. The reality of this cast, these people, is that just when viewers are saying goodbye to the season, the players are saying farewell to one another and, for many of them, their Survivor stories. It is a conflicting morass of emotions to experience first hand, but I would argue that there was beauty to be found in the contradiction, sweetness within the sorrow.
But now is not the time for a three thousand word eulogy for a legitimately great season. It is enough, I think, to say it was great, and to see if that adjectival summary holds up once it has steeped in the tides of time. Plus, I’ve found over the years that fans like to discuss Survivor while it’s airing, but prefer to decide where a season ranks entirely on their own without a blowhard blogger weighing in.
So what follows, then, are some brief thoughts about our final six, and then a quick run-down of my after-party interactions with the players. Before diving in, let me say this: Being in the studio audience, and then seeing the players interact away from the cameras, was an education onto itself. If there is nothing else I can impart to you, dear reader, please know this above all: Survivor is, more than anything, a human game, played by flawed and fractured people (because we are all stained glass windows, shattered shards assembled into something beautiful), and to meet the players is to glimpse that truth… but the only way to know that, to REALLY know it, is to play the game.
Jeremy continues an extended run of exceptional winners. Every Sole Survivor is going to have his or her detractors, of course, but who is the last winner who, in a room full of knowledgeable fans, would make most people roll their eyes? Fabio? He’s five years and ten seasons ago! While we’ve been getting a bit male-dominated lately – five out of the last six winners have been men – I’ve been impressed that a game which, one could argue, rewards mediocrity (if you stand out, you’re a target), so often ends with a worthy winner. The game, as always, takes care of itself.
Oh, and Jeremy KILLED it in the Final Tribal Council. Sitting in the audience, surrounded by people utterly invested in the outcome of the season, you could FEEL it. When Jeremy explained to the jury that he was bugging out, that he had an unborn son back at home, and that he didn’t care about himself because his game was all about family, there was a profound and palpable collective realization: Jeremy had won, and it wasn’t going to be close.
Survivor is many things, but one thing it isn’t is fair. The game that Spencer had to play to get to the end – given how he was perceived at the outset and the twists and turns that took place – set him up for failure: Making connections and then betraying those newly forged relationships doomed him in the final vote. Say all you want about jury management, but for that to even matter, you have to get to the Final Tribal Council, and for Spencer to do THAT, he had to make moves that the members of this jury would never reward, especially with a more palatable option like Jeremy sitting next to him.
There are a lot of things Spencer COULD have done to improve his endgame odds, but here’s the thing: I guarantee you that he considered each and every one of them. When you’re in the fog of war, everyone makes mistakes. He made choices, carefully considered ones, and, taking a step back from the temptation of results-oriented analysis, love or hate the young lad, you have to give him the benefit of the doubt, both because he is smarter than you and me put together, but also because he was there, he endured the days and second-guessed the nights, and could feel what we could only see.
I have to think that Tasha wanted and needed the validation that came with being one of the Final 3 in a top-tier returnee season. She believed it would give her the Survivor identity she craved, and reinforce the one she thought she had cultivated in Cagayan: I would guess that Tasha feels that she’s one of the most dangerous triple-threat players the game has ever seen, and getting to the end in Cambodia was supposed to cement that reputation. Despite an edit that was far more positive than it allegedly had any right to be, though, it doesn’t look like Tasha got what she wanted: Somewhere along the way, perhaps in the aftermath of her under-explained battle with Kass, she became a goat, and continues to be seen that way by the other players even now, almost five months later.
It would have been really interesting to see Kelley make an all-in move at the Final 6: Knowing that she was going to play her idol, why not throw her vote on Tasha in case Jeremy has another idol of his own? At that point, she, Keith, and Kimmi would have controlled the game, with Kelley the odds-on favorite to take down the title. Of course, this is the type of move that’s easy to consider when you’re sitting on your couch rather than on a Tribal Council stump, but let’s just add it to the Woulda Coulda Shoulda file and move on; it’s not like Kelley isn’t kicking herself enough already for losing that final challenge.
I really wish Kimmi had said something other than, “I don’t want to go” at the end of that epic Final 6 Tribal Council. I’m sure it’s nearly impossible to possess any clarity of mind – never mind strategic ruthlessness – when the situation is complex enough that Probst has to invoke arcane Survivor rules and then explicate the situation on live TV with the help of visuals. Still, why not throw a Hail Mary: “Kelley, don’t do what those three want you to do! To get to the end, you’re going to need to win the next two challenges… Keith could beat you, but there’s no way I will. Keith won’t hold it against you, will you Keith? See, he understands.”
C’mon, Keith, you HAVE to try the fake idol gambit! Why not show the idol to Spencer once Kelley won the immunity necklace and get him to agree to vote for Jeremy? It looked real enough! You have to suspect that Spencer knows that he needs Jeremy gone, and, as a cautious, rational player, he’d hedge his bets and flip, especially if he’s afraid you might put your votes on him. Sure, Spencer might call your bluff, but you’re going home anyway, so why not at least give it a shot?
Before I jump into quick snapshots of my interactions with the cast members at the finale after-party, a quick shout out to Bill Weibel, a Survivor SuperFan who helped me get into the studio audience. Hanging out with him in the seat filler line – and being reunited with so many friends and familiar faces (including most of the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge production team!) – was a powerful reminder what a great community this is. Four years ago, I was a guy starting a Survivor strategy blog; last week, I was embraced as a member of the family by fans and players alike. Life is a funny, funny thing. And I am ever so grateful for that.
One other quick shout out as I jump into this: I probably wouldn’t have talked to ANY of these people if not for the Herculean efforts of PEOPLE writer Steve Helling, who pulled me into the Survivor scrum that had formed over by the bar. Seriously, it was a reality show reenactment of March of the Penguins, with players past and present huddled together in a protective mosh pit, offering one another mutual support amidst the mayhem. Anyway, Steve was a great conduit for conversation; why this guy hasn’t been invited to play the game is beyond me. He’s also a great writer, if you didn’t know that already, and is a must-read during any Survivor season.
And now, in order of finish, my moments with the players… sadly, there were a number of them I didn’t encounter (and I will forever kick myself for not hanging out at the cast hotel the night before the finale; apparently that was the place to be for meaningful conversation)… most notably, I didn’t have a chance to speak with Jeremy; here’s hoping that we cross paths one of these days.
Vytas: I took his yoga class on Wednesday morning; he’s a gifted teacher. Afterwards, we talked about the fact that he wasn’t invited to the finale, and I came away from the conversation thinking this: Yes, he made the choice to leave location, so he has only himself to blame, but he offered a sincere apology, and gave CBS, SEG, and Probst the opportunity to forgive, to display grace, to allow the cast to be reunited one last time, yet they still chose to exclude him. Leave it to production to be petty, but I suppose it wasn’t surprising, given his hatchet-job of an edit.
Shirin: Within moments of meeting her, you understand why casting loves her. She’s magnetic, her every expression a story. She has her haters; I am decidedly NOT one of them. And yet, despite the kinetic joy of conversing with her, one can’t help but feel her underlying frustration and melancholy: this is someone who LOVES the game, and fears, knows, she won’t play it again. When I say that I have learned how human this game is by interacting with players, seeing and sensing their pleasure and pain, Shirin is one of the two who has taught me the most.
Peih-Gee: I had only a quick moment with Peih-Gee at the end of the night, but it was fun: She was high energy, gracious, and kind.
Varner: After I introduced myself, Varner provided what will undoubtedly be a highlight of my Survivor blogging experience when I take a step back to survey it all: “You,” he said, pointing at his head, “You GET it.” Thank you, Jeff, and I’ll see you in a future season. I mean, is there anyone in this cast more of a mortal lock to be offered a third bite at the apple? I think not.
Monica: Everything I observed and heard about Monica during finale week confirms what I’ve been saying all along: She had no business returning to the game. Ugh. She’s awful.
Kass: From what I understand, Kass doesn’t usually show up at events like the after-party, but she appeared towards the end of the night, and was promptly swarmed by adoring fans. I managed to speak with her for a few moments, and gleaned some fascinating insights into the dynamics of the jury and what we didn’t see of the Final Tribal Council, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Here’s hoping that I have a chance to sit down with her at some point and hear all of the stories; I’m sure she has some GREAT ones.
Savage: Far too often in life, I frustrate myself; why, I wonder, do I feel the need to express my opinions so bluntly? And yet I know no other way. The price I pay, though, is to worry about running into players such as Savage, who has been a target of my consternation and criticism for much of the season. As fate would have it, I encountered him often throughout the evening, was even in a brief conversation with him while Steve Helling asked him about his beanie and necklace; I didn’t dare introduce myself, though, lest I make things uncomfortable for everyone around us. A shame, really, given the glowing reports I heard about him from those who talked with him into the wee hours of the night. Lesson learned: Be nicer, Baker.
Kelly: This might make me seem overly metaphysical, but I believe in the psycho-social spider-web of human connection. We’re hard-wired to know when to trust other people; it’s why we’re drawn to some folks and not others. Why do I point this out? Because I had a few opportunities to approach Kelly, but just… didn’t. The vibe she was putting out said she was there to say goodbye to her friends rather than interact with the fans. Which was well within her rights, of course. So I stayed away.
Ciera: She, on the other hand, seemed approachably sweet (which was surprising, given her confident, aggressive edit); unfortunately, I saw her only in passing and never had a chance to talk with her.
Stephen: I was excited to finally meet Stephen, after having interacted with him, digitally, back in my RHAP days. Sadly, it didn’t go well. It was… abrupt. Strangely terse. He was the last person I thought would brush me off, and yet that’s what it felt like. I hope at some point down the line we get a second chance to make a first impression, because this one was, in a word, brutal.
Joe: The last time I saw a swarm of lovely ladies vying for the attention of one man, it was at the Philippines finale after-party, when Malcolm was in the eye of the storm. Interestingly, Malcolm was at THIS after-party, too, and at one point was watching Joe with bemusement, perhaps remembering back to when he was at the heart of the swarm. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to get any face time with Joey Amazing, and that’s okay. Another time, perhaps.
Abi: She floated through the party with Pete Yurkowski, her Philippines beau, by her side. My impression was the same as it was when I last encountered her: She seems engaging, even sweet, in social situations. But there is an undeniable edge to her, the coiled potential for abrasive fury. So I sat back as she floated by, and allowed other, braver souls to draw her into conversation.
Kelley: Who am I to give advice and offer solace to a Survivor player, right? Especially one as strong as Kelley, who has already forgotten more about the game than I’ll ever know. And yet here I was, as the night was winding down, pointing out the beauty of agony, insisting that knowing she could have won, while cold comfort, is still a prize to be treasured. Thankfully, Kelley was gracious enough not to slug me (and, for the record, given the gun show on display, she could kick my ass in about 3 seconds flat). Anyway, hearing her animated assertion that she would have won had she made it to the Final 3, I can see why it may have been true: She’s convincing, that Kelley. And charming. And lovely. And I’ll shut up now.
Spencer: Ask any member of a Survivor Final 3: It isn’t easy attend the after-party when you’ve just gotten a goose egg from the jury. Tasha couldn’t bring herself to do it, apparently. But Spencer did. He was undoubtedly nervous – I mean, how many of us could face down the endless stream of SuperFan second guessing? – and yet, despite having been forced to relive, only hours before, the regrets of the final four days of the game, he handled the undeniable discomfort with grace and poise. Trust me when I say that Spencer is a self-aware and self-reflective guy who is acutely aware of the mistakes he made; indeed, he will still be wrestling with regrets long after the rest of us have moved on to another season and another cast. I realized something while he talked to me about his game, though: While he was focusing on what he should have done differently, playing woulda, coulda, shoulda, he was ignoring the truth that he had to play the game as it unfolded, play the cards he was dealt, and, against the longest of odds, made it to the endgame with an opportunity to win. Things didn’t break right, of course, and yes, there will always be decisions he wants to go back and change, but to dwell on that is to miss the point: He may not have a million dollar check from CBS, but he’s really, really good at the game. One thing’s for sure: Fellow goose-egger Dawn Meehan – and Stephen Fishbach, too, assuming he’s put Spencer’s so-called betrayal behind him – will offer Spencer a warm welcome into the zero-vote club. And you know what? That’s a pretty good club to be in, because it’s full of players who, with the right jury, could have won the game.
And that’s all I’ve got, folks. Been a blast, as always. Turn off the lights and lock the door: I’m done.
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius