I’m always in a weird headspace when Survivor ends, never more so than now, when we’re headed into an unknown future.
Often, I don’t write a column after the finale. I rationalize this by telling myself that no one reads anything after the season has ended. And there is some truth to that. But really, it’s because I don’t like endings.
And, more than anything, this finale, while not THE end, is AN end.
Which leaves us in a purgatorial place, neither within nor without. We’re in what is ostensibly a normal summer hiatus, but we have no idea when Survivor will return. I feel adrift. I’m on the Edge, neither in the game or out of it. And when you’re on the Edge, your mind tends to wander.
This is where mine has gone.
1) Survivor is over
The truth of the now is this: There’s a time in every TV show where we feel a natural end. I suspect that’s what we just had. Survivor feels over.
Don’t get me wrong — I know the show is coming back. But I suspect that we’ll look at this moment a few years from now and think it should have ended here. As flawed as this season was — because what has happened to the game has fractured it — it was a perfect ending.
When Survivor returns to the air, I worry that it will feel less like we’re continuing the show and more like we’re prolonging it. The show hasn’t jumped the shark, exactly; there are stretches almost every season that remind us how compelling and entertaining the game can be. But I don’t know that it will ever be as good as it once was.
Perhaps Survivor will surprise us. I hope it does. In the meantime, though, let me offer up a few final thoughts about Winners at War ... and then begin the joyous journey that will be introducing my 5 year-old daughter to the wonders of Borneo and beyond.
2) That final three
Have we ever had a Final Tribal Council with better embodiments of endgame archetypes? Tony as the relentless strategist ... Natalie as the opportunistic challenge beast ... and Michele as the scrappy social player. They all had arguments to make. It was clear from the outset who was going to win — has a jury ever laughed as much as they did with Tony? — but it was enjoyable seeing them all articulate their approach. It really shouldn’t have surprised me that all three did so well — they’re winners, after all — but it did. Even though the end was never in doubt — or at least, it shouldn’t have been — no one backed down. That’s how the game is played when everyone knows what they’re doing.
3) The King of Survivor
If I had told you at the start of the season that Tony would win, and this is how he would win it, you would have mocked me. Frankly, I would have deserved it. But those are the BEST wins, right? The ones that seem to arrive, fully formed, a gift from the Survivor gods? Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” This win seemed impossible, but it was only improbable. And now it’s the truth. Amazing. Thank you, Tony, for reaffirming for us all that a Survivor player can be both great AND entertaining.
Long live the King.
Of all of my horrendous misreads this season, none was worse than my expectation that winners would play more with their heads than their hearts.
I should know better by now. Every summer, I see 20+ strangers play the game for five days and make deep and abiding friendships. The emotions within the game are profound. They shape everything.
I love the emotion of the game. You live a lifetime when you’re out there. Time dilation is a very real thing; when you’re within the experience, it feels like forever. When you look back, it was over in the blink of an eye.
Tony’s breakdown after beating Sarah in the fire-making challenge is one of my favorite moments in the entire run of the series. It doesn’t get more real than that. We witnessed something remarkable. Love. Trust. Loss.
The tears after the Battle Back challenge was emotionally overwhelming, too. You could feel an era coming to an end. The tears and the tales at Ponderosa in the hours afterwards must have been very special indeed.
And that scene between Ben and Sarah? That’s the beating heart of every Survivor friendship. The number of players who would fall on their sword so that someone they love — yes, love, because that’s what happens out there if you let it — could have a chance to stand atop the mountain, their victory your victory? That list is a lot longer than any of us will ever know.
5) The end of Edge
I am convinced that Natalie would have won if she had been sitting next to Sarah and Michele at the end. The Edge is just too powerful an experience for most players to overcome. It took one of the best games we’ve seen to beat that bond.
The Edge has got to go.
I find game adaptations like Redemption and Edge to be such curious evolutions. Probst has talked about liking a loser’s bracket. But I think it goes deeper than that.
From the outset, Survivor has sold itself as a social experiment. Build a society then tear it down. Find your role within the community. Navigate social politics. Endure to the end.
Survivor has never been shy about being a metaphor for existence. Fire is life. To Outwit, Outplay, Outlast is, when you get right down to it, to Outlive. When you are cast out from your community in a tribal society, this is a death sentence. You’re not supposed to return. Old School Survivor understood that.
Redemption and Edge are liminal places where players reckon with their sins. The way purgatory is supposed to work, though, is that it is a place of purification; after expiation of their sins, souls move on to heaven. There’s no going back to the land of the living. One could argue, of course, that Edge is inherently Buddhist and built upon the belief in reincarnation, but that doesn’t really work, either; a soul is supposed to start over, not reenter the game right near the end, significant advantages in hand.
We all want those we love to come back from the other side. Of course we do. But we know deep down that this is just how existence is designed. We get one shot at this. Survivor would do well to remember that.
6) One last thought on Edge
It seems to me that Survivor has been split in half. The deprivation and suffering — and the mutual dependence — that shaped some of the early seasons has been shifted over to the Edge. Out there, they go hungry. Out there, every day is a grind.
Meanwhile, the main game has more rewards. More comfort. More focus on the social game and strategy.
It’s like a dystopian society in a science fiction novel. One group suffers so that another does not have to. Survivor was the Hunger Games this season, complete with advantages being sent from the outside.
The two halves need to be reintegrated. One game. With all of the good and all of the bad in one place, where it belongs.
7) Fire Tokens
I haven’t talked about Fire Tokens much this season because I’m largely ambivalent. The idea of a Survivor economy is interesting, I’ll give it that. But to find out if the Fire Tokens should persist, they need to be extracted from the Edge. We need to see how they would function with a crew of newbies who have no chance at redemption. I’m not entirely certain that we need an externalization of value — players already barter their loyalty and allegiance — but I’m willing to be convinced.
8) Gender bias
Sarah is right: gender bias in Survivor is a thing. What’s unclear is why. There are a lot of different answers to that question, of course, and many of them would likely lead to heated arguments (and now is not the time).
I’m sure there are sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists who have tackled this question, so I’m not going to try to wing it here. All I know is that when the same issues keep arising, there’s something foundational at work. Is it social constructs that get intensified by the constructs of the game? I really don’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot, and one of these days, I’m going to need to do a deep dive into gender and Survivor.
Two quick thoughts, and I’ll move on: 1) I’m glad the producers are openly addressing this, and 2) I doubt that there are any easy answers.
9) Probst and gender bias
Let me start by saying that I would like nothing better than a woke Probst. Gender bias is a thing in Survivor just as it is in the world. I hate it. I hate that female players get raked over the coals for taking an approach that has earned men the title. It’s maddening. Anything we can do to change this — in the game and in our lives — should and must be done.
But let’s be careful when it comes to Probst and his gender revelations. Context always matters. Let’s look at the timing:
So, to sum up: At Final Tribal, Probst tells the WaW players that he realizes that he hasn’t always been the best about gender issues ...
... and then promptly produces a season of Survivor that is utterly tone deaf in its handling of gender and sexual harassment issues.
Forgive me if, in light of this timing, I don’t fully take Probst’s comments at face value. Admitting that you have a problem is a first step. Now let’s see if Probst does anything about it. I hope he does.
10) One way Probst can do something...
… is to undo the damage he has done.
Over the years, Probst has made changes to the game for one main reason: he thinks he knows which players should be crowned Sole Survivor, but they keep falling short. Despite the promise of the game — that the castaways get to create a society that forms its own value system — Probst keeps tweaking the laws of nature to bring about the stories he wants to tell, ones that validate his values.
The Final 3 was added in Season 13. In the first twelve seasons, we had 6 female winners. After that? Nine out of 38. Probst has said, publicly, that he switched to a Final 3 because strong players were being targeted just before Final Tribal. Let me ask you, which group do you think he was talking about?
Men Who Finished Third In Seasons 1-12: Rudy, Keith (Famie), Lex, Rob C, Fairplay, Ian, Rafe, Terry
Women Who Finished Third in Seasons 1-12: Kathy, Jan, Jenna, Scout
I’m thinking that Probst wanted some of those men to win; I don’t think he was expanding to a Final 3 for Jan, Jenna, or Scout, do you? (I omit Kathy here because she was a big character, but one wonders if Probst was a fan.)
And then there’s the well-documented reality that men find most of the idols ... and now fire-making, which was added because Probst was annoyed with who was being targeted at Final 4.
After twenty years, we’ve got an established trend: Probst thinks he knows who should win the game (men) and will make changes to make his preferred outcomes more likely. Of course, this is in direct violation of a central premise of the show, that the players get to set the criteria for who wins. Probst can argue that the players still get to decide the ultimate outcome, but I think it’s fair to say that he’s reshaped the game to wrest some of that control back from the masses. That’s how it goes with power.
Am I saying that we should go back to a Final 2, get rid of idols, and abolish the fire-making at Final 4? Maybe, no, yes. I’m open to trying pretty much anything, really, that might bring back balance. In my heart of hearts, I think idols are necessary in the modern game, and that F4 fire-making needs to die a swift and permanent death, but I’m not sure what would happen if the show toyed with a Final 2 again. But I’d love to find out ...
11) … in Season 41.
If things get worse this fall and winter — and a lot of folks with Ph.D.'s believe they will — then Survivor isn’t going back to Fiji any time soon.
Which means that SEG has some time to play with right now.
Go nuts, people. Experiment. Play around with the game design. Be willing to take chances. Do what everyone else is doing in quarantine: binge-watch shows. Order everyone in production to watch all of the international seasons. Go back and watch the past twenty years of your own show. Fall in love all over again.
And then consider having a domestic season. Could be on the Gulf if you want that Fiji feel. Or find an island off the coast of Seattle. Doesn’t matter, really. Because if you trust the game, you’ll end up with all the drama you need to fill a season.
No Edge. No Redemption. No F4 Fire-Making. Have idols, maybe an advantage or two, but keep the total number low. Return to a Final 2 for a season to see how it goes (one that the players know about ahead of time; none of this Micronesia nonsense).
Take this time to reflect, Probst. Look back at the key inflection points in the series and be open to revisiting them. Be willing, in this age of irrational certitude, to explore the possibility that you were wrong.
12) Ah, but what Survivor REALLY needs is teenagers.
Do we need any more proof that Probst really doesn’t get it?
The winners just talked about how traumatizing the game is ... and production’s reaction is, “Let’s inflict that on deeply impressionable children.”
I’ve worked with teenagers for years. They’re not ready for Survivor. They may think they are, but they’re not.
Please reconsider, CBS.
Don’t do it.
13) Time to go back to Borneo
Hey there, Hatch! Kelly and Sue, good to have you back on my TV screen. And Rudy — damn. It’s always too soon.
Come on over here, Anna Claire. Let me introduce you to some old friends. Did you know your daddy has met him before? Yes, the naked one. He’s awesome. Just wait to see what he does to the rest of these people. Can you say “Pagong”? Awesome.
Okay, dear reader, time for me to retreat to the past. It’s been a ton of fun exploring this season with you. Here’s hoping that we get to do it again.
Andy Baker swore he’d never play again, but the allure of an All Winners season brought him back..
Andy is no longer on twitter, but he's a regular guest at the Survivor Talk with D&D podcast.