Well, dearest readers, another season of Survivor is in the books, and while I’m adamant in my disagreement with Mr. Probst that this was the greatest season ever ... it was satisfying when all was said and done. Given the wide range in quality of all-returnee seasons, I was expecting this season to fall decidedly on one end of the spectrum, either in the dregs with Game Changers and (although less so) All-Stars, or as an elite season like Second Chance or HvV. Instead, WaW wholly surprised me in that it fell somewhere in the middle. While, to me, the pros ultimately outweighed the cons, the cons were glaring, and should be noted. Before that, however, let’s give congratulations where it’s due.
All Hail the King
The beginning of my pre-season cast assessment of Tony read:
“No one will ever win like Tony did, and Tony won’t either . . . at least not twice. If Tony wants to have any chance, he needs to calm the fuck down and be all right with not calling the shots for a bit. I don’t think this is super likely, but it could happen.”
This review was also accompanied by saying Tony was very unlikely to win, placing him only above Adam in my pre-season ranking. My oh my, how wrong I was. In fairness, Tony didn’t play the exact same way he did in Cagayan, but the style was the same. He took everything he did right in Cagayan and paired it with everything he learned from his colossal missteps in Game Changers. What’s infinitely more astounding to me, Tony never had his name written down. What? Cops R Us slayed this season, taking control early after the Merge and steamrolling their way largely unopposed until Natalie’s return. He is more than deserving to be a two-time champ and Survivor’s first “King.” All hail the king ... I just still can’t believe it’s Tony.
Tony’s win, for me, also ended the season on a decidedly high note, especially considering basically everyone I was stoked to see play got axed pre-Merge. I wasn’t necessarily surprised by this, and given I had my heart torn out in HvV when Steph, Randy, Cirie, and Tom were cut consecutively (and Rob two episodes later), I felt I was emotionally prepared for it. Still, by not casting a few more oldies, I think production inadvertently led to this being an inevitability. After all, most of the big names in Survivor are old-school players, and if returnee seasons have showed us anything, the hyenas will often try to kill the lions, as Tony put it. It is impressive to me, then, that a new-school player like Tony who did have a massive target on his back could win after the field’s best overall batch had been massacred before most of them got the opportunity to really do some damage. But win he did, and he did it well.
Some may feel Tony’s win is cheapened by the fact that he relied so heavily on Sarah. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, Tony leaned on Sarah, but she leaned back. Their partnership showed immense growth from Tony who took the alliance seriously rather than using less-adept pawns like Woo or Trish to merely absorb bullets for him as he made llama noises at another player. Tony growth occurred while maintaining relationships and by somehow nearly tying the single-season record for Individual Immunity wins. Yes, Sarah’s social game was probably better, and yes, I wanted so bad to see a FTC with Sarah versus Tony, but in the end, the Fire Making challenge provided a fitting end to their story.
That being said, I’d like once more to make a case against the Final-Four-Fire-Making (FFFM) inevitability. To do so, however, let’s turn to ...
The Queen that Almost-Was
For as honestly entertaining as it was, if the FFFM challenge did anything, it’s that it potentially robbed us of a FTC showdown for the ages—Sarah v. Tony v. Natalie. Without the FFFM being mandatory, the viewing audience would not have only gotten the stress and anticipation of seeing Sarah agonize on whether or not to turn on Tony, but the potential for Sarah to stick by Tony and resulting in Tony v. Michele for fire. While this hypothetical requires several pieces to go right, most of all Tony winning fire again (which, per the edit, seemed unlikely due to Michele’s apparent fire-making chops), its possibility was utterly extinguished. I could go on, but given as most fans dislike this change anyway, I won’t waste the words. It does warrant noting, however, that again, this FFFM was great. I have to give credit where credit is due, even if I hate the source.
I only bring up fire in this context because I think its so rare to see two people so deserving of the title go at it in the FTC, and make no mistake, my friends, Sarah was just as worthy as Tony. She made mostly the same moves, but with the added benefit of a better social game. Now, obviously Tony’s physical prowess (still can’t believe that) would garner him some credit over Sarah ... but that’s just the point. They seemed so even in so many respects that I wanted to see them face off.
Sarah played very differently from her win in Game Changers, and she showed she could be successful with that radical adaptation. To me, being able to have overwhelming success with two notably different play styles, is something few greats have ever exhibited. Sandra played very similar games twice to win, and Tony, even though his win here was less chaotic than in Cagayan, played in a largely similar fashion as he bounced between alliances and hunted for idols. To have a two-time winner, a second “Queen,” find success with two different modes of playing would’ve been supremely satisfying, I think, especially since Sarah was the last woman to win, way back in 34.
Finally, let’s not forget her calling attention to the double-standard placed on women, not just in Survivor, but in life. It felt great to see that as a part of the evolution in the story that is Survivor. From a show that, sixteen or so years ago, booed a woman off the stage at a live reunion because she spoke about how she felt in the show’s aftermath (we love you, Miss Manthey) to this ... the show has come a long away. While Sarah’s words are, for the time being, just words, hopefully they usher in a new generation of players and respect for cutthroat female games, should they want to play that way. For these and many other reasons, Sarah is the queen that almost-was, and while I am very pleased with Tony’s win, it would’ve felt just the same if she’d been able to keep that fire going.
A Rollercoaster of Opinions
Although I might’ve called preseason that Michele would find herself in the finale, and although I said she’d lose at the FTC in my midseason recap, I have to admit, when the dust settled, I appreciated Michele more than I’d thought. Yes, she provided me with a rollercoaster of opinions throughout the season, ranging from high and sympathetic when she expounded on how she felt almost guilty about her deservingness to win originally to low and furious at how she sided with Wendell despite him seemingly treating her like shit — and that was just pre-Merge — but Michele’s tenacity is something to be admired.
Michele pled her case as well as she could, and while she did not deserve to win over the likes of Tony or Sarah, I would’ve gladly seen her win over Natalie (more on that in a sec). She navigated a fairly dominant alliance, dodging the vote however she could via a solid social game and some well-placed immunity wins, but more than anything, she survived fourteen Tribals. I believe that ties the record, and it’s an impressive one at that. Even if you subtract the two additional Tribals that shouldn’t have existed because of the Edge, surviving thirteen is still a markedly impressive feat (for context, that’s one less than Denise survived when she attended every single one in Philippines). I can’t praise Denise’s ability to survive tribal after tribal and not give Michele the same credit, because at the end of the day, at its absolute most basic, Survivor is about surviving the vote. Any questions as to whether Michele can do that have been assuaged, at least for me.
Michele, I apologize for my doubts of you coming out into the season. You’re more than worthy of joining the elite club of players to reach the end twice, and if you get a third shot, I think people would be foolish to let you get to the end again. You might not have played a winning game, but it was a respectable one.
Natalie (and the Edge)
Another Example of Why the Edge Is Flawed
Before I get into this, let me just say, the criticisms I have here are not Natalie’s fault. I adored Natalie as a winner, I was super stoked to have her back, and I was very sad when she was the first boot. I wanted to see her win going into the season, but after watching this whole season unfold, Natalie is another example of why the Edge is flawed.
It’s not exactly news that both the Edge favors a very particular type of player: physical ones. If the only way to get back into the game is a challenge, it makes some great players’ skillsets all but irrelevant and makes them staying on the Edge pointless. Sandra, to her immense credit, saw this, and figured it wasn’t worth starving to ultimately lose two challenges. This emphasis on physicality was further accentuated with some grueling challenges on the edge, and while they were more interesting than just having people chill on the beach, they still took away from the game and robbed us viewers of seeing more interesting challenges such as for reward. However, with the birth of the “Survivor Economy,” we saw another new type of advantage on the Edge: longevity there.
If one can amass Fire Tokens from day 2 to day 35, obviously they’re going to have a massive advantage in the final challenge. Further, the more time you spend on the Edge, the more time you’ll have to pick up on various landmarks, as Natalie did with the “throne,” which can give you further advantages. Natalie is a perfect example of that, getting three advantages and still surprisingly floundering through the challenge. If not for those advantages, she likely would’ve lost. In this way, Natalie was rewarded for being the first boot. Cagayan’s Kass expressed her dislike of this in a tweet a few days before the finale — and I wholly agree with her. If someone is booted early, they shouldn’t benefit from that.
Now, I understand the counters — Natalie influenced the game a lot by sending advantages (or disadvantages) to people really playing Survivor. She did, and to production’s credit, Fire Tokens made the Edge somewhat better, in the same way slapping a Band-Aid on an infected headwound is better than kicking dirt into it. But just because something is relatively better, doesn’t mean it makes for a good meta or is intriguing. Natalie absolutely slayed the Edge and should be proud of the job she did out there, but the Edge is not Survivor and it was not worthy of the title or the money. Call me a purist, but this isn’t a twist production should ever revive. Thankfully, for the time being, Probst and company have heard fan outcry, but it doesn’t change the fact that the season was bogged down by the Edge and nearly ruined by another Edge returnee claiming victory.
Well, dearest readers, that’s it for me. I’ll be back in the fall for some spotty and shoddy commentary, assuming Survivor is able to film by then. Oh, also I assume we’ll have another draft! I have to defend my (Tommy’s) crown, after all. Until then, my friends, stay safe and healthy.
Dan Otsuki has been watching Survivor religiously since season two, and is a recent graduate of the University of Puget Sound, where he double majored in English and Religious Studies. He's also applied to play on the show every time he's been able to do so.
Follow him on twitter: @DanOtsuki