How could this have happened? Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers ended with an extremely likable and relatable winner in Ben Driebergen, a complex, naturally camera-friendly combat veteran with a compelling real-life backstory. Ben put on a late-season tour-de-force of grit and tenacity just to reach the end. Ben's frequently repeated mission: To win the million dollars to improve his life and his family's. How could Ben's win possibly be controversial?
Somehow, Survivor found a way.
That took place through a combination of a previously unannounced, last-minute twist that eliminated a fan-favorite player right at the finish line, and a seemingly endless series of hidden immunity idols, that while breaking no real precedents, still managed to convey the appearance of favoritism.
To dispense with the misconception first: Ben's in-finale idol find was perfectly above board. Just two seasons ago, Jay Starrett played the final remaining unplayed idol at final seven, and Adam Klein found a new one right before the F5 Tribal Council, the exact same timing as Ben's idol discovery here in this finale. Idols can be played until the Final Five, that's when Ben played his. Same as always. Where things started to appear a bit sketchy, however, was with the introduction of the surprise twist at the next Tribal Council, one that again allowed Ben to thwart the plans of the three people opposing him.
A longtime Survivor-watching (but non-superfan) friend, with whom I discuss Survivor infrequently, texted me immediately after that twist, saying "I don't like how the finale is playing out. I think the producers rigged it to give Ben as many options as possible." This is a smart, level-headed, highly educated person talking, not some random, conspiracy-minded internet crank. If it looked like production was pulling out all the stops to help Ben, that's a problem for the show.
Given the amount of effort Ben actually expended to reach the end, that's also highly unfair to Ben. Frankly, the show owes him an apology, simply for creating the appearance of favoritism, when Ben legitimately earned his win. Feel free to blame the ham-fisted twist rollout for that, because that's the root of this problem.
That dumb final four twist
That twist removed all voting from the final four Tribal Council, and replaced it with the immunity winner (Chrissy) getting to select one person (Ryan) to automatically join her in the final three, while the two remaining players (Ben, Devon) were forced to compete in fire-making challenge at Tribal Council, in front of the jury.
The controversy arose for two major reasons:
Even so, the second point gained the most traction, especially with the broader audience.
Going back to the first point, though, the twist really was grossly unfair to multiple people, mainly because they weren't told about it ahead of time:
These are major, structural problems with this twist. Chrissy's are largely solved (too late for her) by advance notice. The others remain, though. Jeff Probst admitted that the twist was born in response to great/popular players being cut down at the final vote-off, simply because they were unbeatable in the jury vote. But that's a problem that has existed since the very first season, when Kelly voted out Rudy. It was there in Marquesas, when Kathy just missed the finals. Or in The Amazon, when Jenna took out Rob Cesternino. The switch to the Final Three format was intended to be the twist that solved this problem, but it kept happening, right from the start: Yau-Man went out fourth in Fiji, Ozzy in South Pacific, Malcolm in Philippines, Keith Nale in San Juan del Sur, Kelley Wentworth in Cambodia, David Wright in Millennials vs. Gen X.
If anything, losing a big player on the final vote has become more prevalent since the permanent switch to the Final Three format, not less. In a Final Two season, just one person makes the decision to eliminate the final juror, and has to weigh that vote against potential consequences from the jury. Sometimes, as with Colby in The Australian Outback, or Woo in Cagayan, that final immunity winner elects to make an "honorable" pick, fearing the jurors will penalize him or her for bringing an obviously weaker player along to Final Tribal. With a final three, however, that's a simple group decision, with the blame spread across three people. Of course they eliminate the biggest threat, it's in all their best interests. That's kind of how Survivor works, though. It's supposed to be a social game.
This twist is not the solution.
Would this twist even have fixed the 'problem' in other seasons?
It sounds like we're stuck with the F4 firemaking format for the foreseeable future whether we like it or not, so it's a worthwhile thought experiment to look back at past seasons to see if they would have been altered in some spectacularly crowd-pleasing manner by this twist. The first two Final Three seasons probably would not have been improved. In Cook Islands, Ozzy takes Sundra with him, and Yul and Becky have to make fire. Yul might win, but what if he doesn't? In Fiji, Dreamz takes Cassandra, and we're left with Yau-Man and Earl making fire. How is that better? In Samoa, Russell takes Natalie, obviously, and Brett and Mick spark it up. If Brett succeeds, he wins the game easily, thanks to a nearly all-Galu jury. Although the silver lining there is that when Russell says the game is flawed, maybe production listens and ditches this dumb twist.
It's certainly possible that some of the outcomes the host most wanted might have happened. In Philippines, Skupin wins the final IC and brings Lisa with him to the end. Malcolm probably beats Denise, since Malcolm can make fire even without flint, and then cruises to an easy jury victory. But that would rob us of Denise Stapley's win, which seems a high price to pay. And yes, Ozzy probably wins South Pacific, after Sophie brings Coach with her, again depriving the Survivor world of another strong female winner. (So that makes two probable Ozzy wins with this change... does that explain its appeal?) Oh, and another obvious one: Keith Nale wins San Juan del Sur. Jaclyn brings Missy along to the finals, leaving Keith to battle Natalie at fire-making. So unless Keith again breaks the flint (oh, right, it was Wes's fault on Day Zero), he tops Natalie in fire-making, and wins the game. Which would be hilarious, given how out of the loop Keith was the entire game, but actually has the unintended effect of nullifying all of Natalie's ferocious endgame gameplay, including her signature Big Move, idoling out Baylor. So... meh.
All in all, this twist seems to combine most of the drawbacks of both the Final Two and the Final Three format, with the only perceptible benefit that it gives the successful fire-maker a bullet point on their résumé. As with Final Three, the immunity winner doesn't bear the burden of eliminating a popular player. But they also have almost no control over who does get removed. So whereas the final IC used to be an iconic test of will (or strategy, in Hatch's case), now it's pretty much just a timefiller whose main purpose is giving Probst an excuse not to talk to any pre-finale bootees at the reunion. Also, Final Three was partly intended to hedge against the nightmare Final Two scenario of an unpopular player flukishly winning the final IC, then bringing along an obvious goat, producing an unsavory jury vote and winner. Still, final four firemaking all but guarantees that same scenario is still possible with the IC winner and the free pass recipient, and leaves the possibility open that the remaining slot could still go to someone terrible at all aspects of the game except starting fire. Luckily that wasn't the case this season, but who knows what the future could hold in store?
Idols vs. immunity: That dumb final four challenge
Having said all that, consider how close we came to escaping all the controversy.
Ben's two near-wins in the card-stacking final immunity challenge, particularly the first mis-fire because of an upside-down U, is the failure that ignited the firestorm against the final twist/advantage. Had Ben simply won regular immunity, there would be very little perception of favoritism, and the boots probably would have played out the same way: Ben picks Ryan to join him in the Final 3, Devon and Chrissy make fire, where Devon probably struggles again, leading to exactly the same final three. Chrissy would have only three immunity wins, but she would have battled her way in to finals under the jury's watchful gaze. Ben probably still wins the jury vote. But again, because the perceived production favorite won immunity fair and square, few complaints.
Except Ben didn't win regular immunity, and instead, Chrissy eventually did, in a challenge that was a neverending avalanche of frustration. Probst extolled the dramatic intensity to the live audience (and Josh Wigler reports that live audience found it thrilling), but was it really that fun to watch person after person lose a challenge because they pressed on a pedal reallllllly slowly, but still just a smidge too forcefully? It seems an awful lot like trying to pass off a challenge design flaw as an exciting feature. To have the added insult that mythical perfect brake operation then potentially being undone by an upside-down letter tile seems like a step too far. That's because to step on the brake, the contestants had to move to the rear of the apparatus, where they could only see the backs of the cards, which were completely blank. Ben wasn't the only person who make the inverted card mistake. Devon had at least three cards inverted at various points in the challenge. Possibly everyone did. Together, as a final immunity challenge, this was asking far too much. Too much luck, too much difficulty. And that's the show's fault.
Had the cards been unlabeled, as in, say, the "A Bit Tipsy" IC that Tyson won near the end of Blood vs. Water, Ben just wins immunity. Had there been a stripe that went all the way around the bottom, so that top and bottom were obvious from the back, that would make the challenge more fair. (Although the locking mechanism still seems ridiculously luck-based.)
This particular challenge may be unsalvageable, at least as the final IC. It's pretty dispiriting to see someone's game end just short of the finish line, simply because they didn't step on a pedal in the precisely correct way.
Furthermore, Chrissy seemingly received approximately zero credit for fighting through and actually completing this challenge, probably because the only juror who witnessed it was Devon, and it seemed like the bulk of the subsequent Tribal Council was devoted to revealing the shiny new twist, then watching Devon repeatedly fail to make fire. Does winning immunity really even matter to the jury any more?
As Dalton Ross discussed in his recap, immunity challenge wins have lost their luster with jurors in recent seasons, with a huge tilt toward idol plays. Just look at the list of recent winners: Tyson Apostol, Tony Vlachos, Natalie Anderson, Mike Holloway, Jeremy Collins, Adam Klein and Sarah Lacina all wielded idols (counting Sarah's purloined Legacy Advantage), and all since Natalie saved either themselves or someone else with one. The sole exception to this trend (Michele Fitzgerald) won a final challenge which allowed her to remove a juror at Tribal Council. All of these were Big Movez played in front of the jury.
Today? Forget about building alliances and subtle manipulation in camp, dramatic Tribal Council (idol) play can leave a more lasting impact on the people who will eventually elect a winner. Certainly moreso than some boring Probst story about some challenge nobody already on the jury witnessed firsthand. For evidence, look no further than this season: of the five jurors who voted for Ben to win, only Joe and Lauren had ever seen Chrissy win immunity, and by the time Lauren was idoled out, both Ashley and Lauren herself had two wins to Chrissy's then total of one. So Chrissy's run occured almost entirely out of the view of more than half the jury. Chrissy did her best to sell this accomplishment to the jurors, but nobody really wants to hear someone else go on and on about their sports prowess.
In contrast, Desi and Cole (and to a lesser extent, JP and Joe) went out at the hands of alliances they perceived to be led by Ben. "King Arthur" Ben was the "dictator" who ended their games. They ought to have been rooting against him. Yet when he pulled an idol out of his boot at three of the last four Tribals, all of a sudden there was the dramatic Ben Show, in which he repeatedly saved himself, in spite of repeated efforts to send him to the jury. That's a solid way to work your way back into the jury's good graces. In contrast, Chrissy did save herself with her first immunity win ("Invulnerable"), and then went on the re-establish a dominant alliance. (An alliance that failed to dispatch Ben.)
One could argue that challenge wins were never all that important. The first two seasons both featured season-ending immunity streaks, with the IC winners losing to a social/strategic threat they foolishly brought to the end. But Hatch and Tina won by intricate planning, shaping the sequence of exits, and building connections to those jurors. Ben's endgame worked against alliances, and his survival strategy was simply finding idols until he couldn't.
While the show (and the audience) obviously loves idol plays, if they become the only reliable path to winning (along with fire-making at F4), that risks rendering the other staples of the show obsolete. If it becomes clear that both alliances and epic challenges are irrelevant to winning—relative to idol plays—how much long-term appeal will the show really have? For many Survivor viewers, particularly kids, challenges are the draw that pulls them into the show for the long term. Other fans prefer the subtler intricacies of long-term strategic play. Different people can play in different ways, and novel strategies continue to add interest as the seasons pass. But if, when jurors decide their votes, the only relevant aspect is who played idols the best, those other parts seem like a bit of a waste of time.
By the numbers: Ben's idolic excellence
Regardless of the long-term impact it may have on the show, Ben's end-of-season run really was impressive. While the best-ever Survivor players may be able to talk their way out of danger in most situations, there are often times when an inflexible opposing alliance simply offers no discernible entry cracks, even to the most charming would-be infiltrators. That's the situation in which Ben found himself, and his only options for continuing in the game were winning immunity or finding idols. He accomplished the latter with historic aplomb.
Ben's three idols found in a single season tie him for first place all-time, with Russell Hantz (Samoa), Tony Vlachos (Cagayan), and Tai Trang (Game Changers). His three idols played in a single season tie him for first place all-time, again with Tai in Game Changers and Malcolm Freberg in Caramoan. He also saved himself either two or three times with idol plays—if you count the pre-emptive (pre-vote) play at Final 6 it's three times, but that play is hard to categorize, because the vote may actually have been for Ashley all along, so if you don't count that, it's two times. Three times is the most by any player ever; two times ties for first with Kelley Wentworth in Cambodia.
Whether or not you count the second idol play, Ben's idols erased nine total votes against him. That's also a historic total, tied for second all-time (again with Game Changers Tai), below just Cambodia Kelley Wentworth's seemingly untouchable 12. That also creates a bit of an asterisk situation with votes against winners, since Ben's name was written down 11 total times, but only two of those votes counted. Here's the winner leaderboard for total votes against, plus or minus idol plays:
|Rank||Winner||Season||Votes against player (VAP)||Votes voided by idol play(s)?||VAP without idols|
|1||Aras Baskauskas||S12: Panama||9||-||9|
|2-t||Richard Hatch||S1: Borneo||6||-||6|
|2-t||Amber Brkich||S8: All-Stars||6||-||6|
|2-t||Boston Rob Mariano||S22: Redemption Island||6||-||6|
|2-t||Denise Stapley||S25: Philippines||6||-||6|
|2-t||Adam Klein||S33: Millennials vs. Gen X||6||No||6|
|7-t||Yul Kwon||S13: Cook Islands||5||-||5|
|7-t||Todd Herzog||S15: China||5||-||5|
|7-t||Natalie White||S19: Samoa||5||-||5|
|7-t||Sophie Clarke||S23: South Pacific||5||-||5|
|7-t||Tony Vlachos||S28: Cagayan||5||-||5|
|12||Parvati Shallow||S16: Micronesia||4||-||4|
|13-t||Jenna Morasca||S6: The Amazon||3||-||3|
|13-t||Chris Daugherty||S9: Vanuatu||3||-||3|
|13-t||Kim Spradlin||S24: One World||3||-||3|
|16-t||Vecepia Towery||S4: Marquesas||2||-||2|
|16-t||Bob Crowley||S17: Gabon||2||-||2|
|16-t||Fabio Birza||S21: Nicaragua||2||-||2|
|16-t||Tyson Apostol||S27: Blood vs. Water||2||-||2|
|16-t||Michele Fitzgerald||S32: Kaoh Rong||2||-||2|
|16-t||Ben Driebergen||S35: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers||2||Yes||11|
|22-t||Sandra Diaz-Twine||S20: Heroes vs. Villains||1||Yes||3|
|25-t||Mike Holloway||S30: Worlds Apart||0||Yes||4|
|25-t||Jeremy Collins||S31: Cambodia||0||Yes||3|
|25-t||Sarah Lacina||S34: Game Changers||0||Yes (Legacy Advantage)||3|
You'll notice that while most winners received very few votes against them, and the vast majority didn't void any with idol plays (the first 10 obviously didn't have that option), three of the last five winners' totals would be higher without idol plays. (The evolution of strategy, right before your very eyes.) Aras Baskauskas retains his title of most total (counted) votes against for a winner with 9, but Ben (11) had his name written down more times. [Note: Previous version incorrectly had Adam's idol play for Hannah counted as votes against himself that he canceled out. Thanks for the catch, @lorenzo_quiogue.]
Finally, Ben's last idol play also forces an update to the overall season totals we made just two episodes ago. Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers expands its lead for most idols found (now up to 9), moves up to first place all-time in terms of number of idols played (7), most times an idol play voided votes (5), and leapfrogs over HvsV into third place for most total votes voided by idols:
|Rank||Season||Total votes voided||Idol players (voided votes)|
|1||S31: Cambodia||20||Kelley Wentworth (9, 3); Jeremy Collins (5, 3)|
|2||S30: Worlds Apart||16||Jenn Brown (7); Carolyn Rivera (5); Mike Holloway (4)|
|3||S35: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers||15||Joe Mena (2, 2); Mike Zahalsky (2); Ben Driebergen (6, 3)|
|4||S20: Heroes vs Villains||14||Tom Westman (3); Russell Hantz (4); Parvati Shallow (5); Sandra Diaz-Twine (2)|
|5||S34: Game Changers||12||Tai Trang (6, 2, 1); Sarah Lacina (Leg. Adv., 3)|
|6-t||S29: San Juan del Sur||10||Jon Misch (4); Keith Nale (3); Natalie Anderson (3)|
|6-t||S33: Millennials vs. Gen X||10||David Wright (5); Adam Klein (4); Jay Starrett (1)|
|8-t||S19: Samoa||7||Russell Hantz (7)|
|8-t||S25: Philippines||7||Jonathan Penner (4); Abi-Maria Gomes (3)|
|8-t||S26: Caramoan||7||Reynold Toepfer (1); Malcolm Freberg (2, 4)|
Ben's play also presents a valuable lesson for future Survivor players: If you need an idol, and you're pretty sure all existing idols have been played (especially if one was recently played), and you're not yet to the final five Tribal Council, keep looking. The show's not about to stop hiding them if there's a chance someone might find one, so effort should produce results. Ben hunting all night proves that, and the benefits with respect to the jury are clear. Never give up.
By the numbers: Challenge-ing with Chrissy
Jeff Probst made a big deal (in real time, even!) of Chrissy tying the record for most single-season individual immunity challenge wins by a woman, with four. We're excited that the host values the show's history enough to have such stats at the ready while the game is progressing. Chrissy's win total is indeed an impressive feat, especially given how tightly fought that final win ended up being. So for context, here's the very top of the single-season immunity wins leaderboard (sorted by wins, then by IC appearances, then chronologically):
|Contestant||Age||Season||IC wins||ICs played|
|Ozzy Lusth||25||Cook Islands||5||6|
|Terry Deitz||47||Panama-Exile Island||5||7|
|Colby Donaldson||26||The Australian Outback||5||8|
|Mike Holloway||38||Worlds Apart||5||9|
|Brad Culpepper||46||Game Changers||5||10|
|Joe Anglim||26||Cambodia-Second Chance||4||6|
|Boston Rob Mariano||27||All-Stars||4||7|
|Jenna Morasca||21||The Amazon||4||8|
|Kim Spradlin||29||One World||4||9|
|Chrissy Hofbeck||46||Heroes v Healers v Hustlers||4||9|
|Boston Rob Mariano||35||Redemption Island||4||10|
|Ken McNickle||33||Millennials vs. Gen X||4||10|
You'll notice that there are a lot of dudes (men in blue, women in pink... sorry, it seemed like an obvious choice), a fair number of winners (six out of 16), and a lot of young people. While a few older guys snuck through, Chrissy is the only woman over 30 on this list, and she cleared that milestone... a while ago.
Age aside, however, there's an interesting statistical comparison you can make between Chrissy and another memorable player. Both could fairly be called strategists and big-time Survivor fans. Both are highly intelligent, and won a few challenges. If you line up their first-season stats as in the table below, they look pretty similar. Chrissy is Player 1. Any idea who Player 2 could be?
|Contestant||Team chall. wins/played.||Individual IC win %||Votes for Boot||Votes against||Tribals|
If you guessed Spencer Bledsoe, you are correct! Both Spencer and Chrissy faced alliance ups and downs, gained power at the swap, lost power shortly after the merge, then regained it. Those travails are reflected fairly well in the voting stats - both voted for the wrong person at Tribal six times, and both picked up a fair number of votes against them. In addition, both were fairly adept at winning immunity.
Final words: the underwhelming and too-brief reunion
Clocking in at a paltry 15 minutes (minus ads), this season's reunion special set new records for fewest contestants talked to (the five finale-active contestants, a few words from Lauren, and that's it). As Rob Cesternino pointed out on the RHAP feedback show, there were still some good moments. Working a few words in with Mike and Devon as their eliminations aired during the finale itself was a nice way to bring the live audience into the finale itself. Furthermore, giving Ben a surprise on-stage reunion with his Marine buddies also seemed worthwhile. But the praise ends roughly there.
As has become common in finale/reunion shows, there was a lot of time wasted during the finale talking to the audience. We get it, Probst likes to interact with the fans, and to keep his talk-show-hosting dreams smoldering. But Survivor fans tune in to the reunion show to see how the contestants are doing after the game, not listen to other fans they don't know. That's what the twitter is for. Remember that? The interactive living room? Maybe if someone could talk Jeff Probst into launching an online Survivor after-show/podcast, maybe he could expend his fan-interacting (fanteracting?) energy there. We hear those things are popular with the kids these days.
But if the only other option is this half-hearted attempt at a reunion show, just skip it altogether. All or nothing. Hand the winner their check, show the preview for the next season, then call it a 39 days.
Other HvHvH Episode 14 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Ben Driebergen (Winner)
Exit interviews - Chrissy Hofbeck (2nd place)
Exit interviews - Ryan Ulrich (3rd place)
Exit interviews - Devon Pinto (4th place)
Exit interviews - Mike Zahalsky (5th place)