The final Tribal Council of Survivor: Gabon encapsulates all the things that are weird and/or off-putting about this season. Two of the three finalists repeatedly assert that they made no moves whatsoever. Those two split all seven jury votes between them. The third (Sugar) claims she has played a "perfect social game" minutes before being excoriated by multiple jurors. It's an odd season, one that turns vociferously anti-gameplay towards the end, and one that feels particularly dark in light of those hate-filled jury screeds.
The anti-strategy bent of the season results from a mismatch between two key factors: (1) an over-aggressive, over-produced, heavy emphasis on twists by production, and (2) a cast almost devoid of people with even passing familiarity with the show. As a result, all season long the show pats itself on the back, unveiling surprise twist after surprise twist, then snickering to the audience, "Look how badly we fooled this group of people who have never watched Survivor before." Wow, they never knew what hit them, indeed!
The end result: the heavy reliance on twists also stymied any real attempts by the few people who did know the game to actually play it. Thanks to a ridiculously delayed merge (Day 27!), there were only nine people left when it finally happened. The once-dominant Onion alliance was already in tatters, having lost its leader to the second swap, and the game was almost over. That fed into the anti-strategy endgame. The only people who made any discernible strategic moves all season were Ace (out before the merge), the Onion alliance (Pagonged at the merge), and the Ken and Crystal power couple (picked off as soon as the Onions were out). Really, the only non-obvious post-merge vote was the last one, where Sugar forced a tie between Matty and Bob. Yay?
Production's most visible twists — Exile Island and hidden immunity idols — were at best afterthoughts. Exile became a running joke by Episode 4, after Sugar found the idol as the second visitor in the previous episode. She held onto that idol the entire game, and eventually played it (unnecessarily) as it expired. Randy and Marcus disposed of a second idol at the fake merge, and production was apparently so irate about it that they didn't bother to insert another one into the game. That left Bob's fake-idol-making spree as the only source of variability that could potentially upend boring, predictable, majority-rule votes. And while that created some drama, the fake idols never really changed any outcomes.
The collapse of Crystal and Ken
Ken and Crystal were running the show in the post-merge, only to be tackled just short of the goal line, leaving the game in fifth and sixth place, respectively. The beginning of the end was the Corinne boot, in which Bob and Corinne apparently legitimately duped Ken and Crystal into thinking Bob's (second) fake idol was a real one. Ken got a little too greedy, a little too fancy, and concocted a scheme to have Crystal vote for Corinne anyway, forcing her to flush the idol. Obviously that didn't work with a fake idol, and it was a massive overplay that sunk both their games.
Had Ken and Crystal just stuck with Bob and Corinne's plan, Matty goes out at Final 7, in a 4-3 vote. Sugar and Susie would have been mad, sure, but there wasn't really anything they could do about it. And since everyone disliked Corinne, it would have been painfully simple for Ken and Crystal to keep up the ruse that they're with Bob & Corinne, then secretly flip back to Sugar and Susie and vote out Corinne at final six. But the obvious worry was that Corinne's idol was real, and she would have had to play it then. (Having idols expire at final six instead of the current — and prior! — final five really screwed things up here.) Still, that's a better risk than leaving a solid challenge performer like Matty (61.8% Mean percent finish in individual challenges) around with a chance to win out.
So instead of the low-effort path, Ken and Crystal chose the one that left Matty around to be mad, and Sugar still around to listen to him (and give him her idol). Those two took aim at Ken and Crystal, and did not miss, taking them out in a flurry of overwrought moralizing about "good people" versus "playing the game."
Worst of all for Ken and Crystal, Ken's overplaying didn't stop after the Corinne boot. He had a fair point that Bob's lie had screwed up his game, and after making his case to Bob, extracted a solid concession: Bob promised to give Ken the next immunity necklace, if he won it. Bob then renegotiated the terms at the subsequent reward, changing it to one that seemed quite logical — he'd transfer the necklace if Ken felt he needed to. This is all good. But everything fell apart in the next day or so before Tribal Council. Ken's social/strategic game here was so poor that by the time Tribal rolled around, Bob had again reconsidered, and would only give Ken the necklace if *Bob* thought he needed it. (Bob of course knew he didn't, and was justifiably annoyed when he got wind that Ken was planning to vote him out if he gave up immunity.)
Ken had spent the day nagging Bob incessantly about the necklace, claiming he really needed it, when it was clear to everyone that Matty was the obvious target if Bob won immunity. Ken's begging was a bit much on its own, but then Ken foolishly told his actual plan — trick Bob into transferring the necklace, then voting Bob out — to everyone, mainly because he had to, as the numbers didn't work otherwise. Ken's sad-sack routine was even less believable at Tribal Council, but he laid it on just as thick there. It was not a good look. And Ken's being part of an obvious pair with Crystal gave Bob an easy loophole in the deal: just vote for Crystal instead.
This is why it's so hard to flip at final six! Again, it might have worked if it were Bob and Corinne vs. Sugar and Susie (and Sugar and Susie were a strategic pair, which they're obviously not), with Ken and Crystal in the middle. But when it's a pair vs. a loose coalition of four, and it's the pair who are trying to pull something over on one of the four, someone that everyone else generally likes, it's hopeless. The only realistic scenario where Ken gets buy-in would be if it was a Russell Hantz (or, technically, a Brandon Hantz) he was tricking into transferring the necklace. No way is everyone truly on board if it's nice guy Bob Crowley. This was just a massive overreach.
Had Ken and Crystal been more familiar with the show, they'd have realized that being an obvious power couple at the end is a problem, and they might have planned better, or at least have been more suspicious when everyone nodded along to Ken's scheme. But they didn't know, and they didn't plan, and they didn't suspect. Again, having an easy target like Corinne around instead of the generally well-liked Matty (who was close to both Susie and Sugar) would have helped their situation a lot. Oh well.
To his credit, Ken completely owned up to his late-game arrogance and overconfident misplaying at the reunion show. Both he and Crystal paid the price for it. Ken and Crystal were complex, interesting characters who undoubtedly learned a lot about the game during the time they were playing. It's a pity that they haven't had the chance to demonstrate that in return appearances, especially over lesser players like Sugar. But that's Survivor for you.
The games of the final four
It's interesting to look at how the jury voted with this final three of Bob, Susie, and Sugar. Bob received every original Kota juror's vote (plus Randy — alternatively, Bob, the just-for-numbers Onion, received every Onion alliance juror's vote). Susie received every original Fang juror's vote. Sugar received nothing.
Sugar had a perfect voting record: 10 Tribals, 10 people voted out by her, zero votes against. She didn't win any individual challenges, but she was at least middle of the pack (Susie finished with lower placement, on average, despite two wins). She found and played an immunity idol. She came up with the fake idol plan that tricked Randy. She pushed for ousting Crystal, Ken, and Susie. She also personally saved Bob, by forcing a tie vote at the final four. In a lot of ways, she drove the late game. But she still received zero jury votes.
She led off Final Tribal with a claim that she "played a perfect social game," but that disconnect between voting success and jury votes is a strong suggestion that her social game was probably the opposite of perfect. Several people asserted she was difficult to live with. Randy and Corinne were aggressively dismissive of her gameplay. Ken acted like a wounded fawn in his jury question to her. She basically told Randy and Corinne to fuck off (including at Randy's blindside), and apologized profusely for ... well, playing the game, and blindsiding Ken. Sugar was all over the place and didn't have a coherent message, apart from proclaiming that she was the good guy, and Ken and Crystal were the bad guys, despite their pretty much doing all the same things she did. In all, it was a mess, and compared to Bob, it's not surprising she fared so poorly.
Part of the problem for Sugar is that she was with the original Kotas at the very start of the game when they dominated, then spent most of the post-swap at Exile. As such, she had next to social or strategic experience in the pre-merge, and got by largely by following Ace's lead. Ken then tricked her into making her first big move when she flipped on Ace. She then compounded the impression she was playing an anti-social game by flipping on the Kotas at the merge, simply because she and Randy didn't get along. She was the key vote, but she appeared to vote the way she did for purely personal reasons. She started actually playing after that, and arguably controlled the game, but those plays kicked off with seeking vengeance against Randy and Corinne. Her consistent positioning of every move she made as some saintly crusade against evil people is about the worst possible way to try to win jury votes from those same people. It's a game, not a morality play. In the end, that was evident in her vote total.
Susie was finally given some screen time in the finale, but it was mostly negative, highlighting her inability to stop reacting in amazement all day in camp after she won the final immunity challenge. Even kind, gentle Bob had heard enough, and snapped at her. There's something profoundly ironic about the fact that Susie's Achilles heel in the game — Susie, the same person who the editors decided should be unheard from the entire season — was talking too much. Still, Susie came within a vote of actually winning, and had Randy voted along initial tribal lines as everyone else did, she might have pulled it off.
She ended up with two individual IC wins, including the one that saved her at F4. But it was clear she also contributed little to strategic decisions — she was the swing vote in the Marcus boot (about which Marcus yelled at her in his jury speech) — and that was about it. She even complained in camp during the finale that Matty hadn't told her how to vote that night. Her sales pitch at Final Tribal was also pretty underwhelming, a tepid underdog story: she didn't think she could make it, but at least she tried. Had she sold the Marcus boot as a big move, had she more forcefully highlighted that critical final immunity win, she might have had a pretty solid case for a win. Again, she came as close as she possibly could!
The same could be said of Bob, though, as he curiously touted his dearth of moves as some sort of badge of honor in his jury responses. This was Bob being too modest, though. He did make some moves toward the end of the game. Obviously, while he wasn't the driver of the plan, he played a key role in tricking Randy with the fake idol, including the surreptitious hand-over. More impressively, at least as the show presented it, at the very next vote, Bob came up with the plan to save Corinne: dupe Ken and Crystal with a second fake idol, and use that to form a final four alliance with them. This was a good plan, even if it didn't work, and Bob's execution appeared pretty flawless. He then strategically picked Ken and Crystal to join him on reward right after Corinne's boot, in an effort to repair and solidify that relationship. Sadly it all fell apart, because Bob initially over-promised that he would give Ken the necklace if he won it, and then Ken tried to massively over-leverage that opportunity.
So Bob didn't really have any engineered blindsides to point to as part of a jury résumé, but that was his plan all along. His hands were clean. Because of that, he was on good terms with just about everyone (except Ken). He also had his string of five consecutive challenge wins to point to. Not to mention that he directly saved himself by winning the fire-making tie-breaker at final four.
Bob's (more or less) winning out is a solid case for a winning game, especially for a jury full of former athletes (and Ken). Bob could also have just emphasized his loyalty to the Onion alliance in his jury speech, and he would have won with the same jurors on his side. (He didn't appear to do this.) He had multiple paths to victory, so arguing that his win was some kind of fluke seems a bit disingenuous.
Still, had Sugar not saved Bob at F4, the winner probably would have been Matty. Probst did his standard post-hoc jury-polling question at the reunion, and (allegedly) Matty would have easily won if he'd made the finals. This is perhaps the most mystifying result. Matty won zero individual challenges. He also made zero strategic moves (that worked): His sole effort was the post-swap alliance with Ace, Sugar, and Ken (which, to be fair, was probably Ace's idea). Obviously, Matty did tell Susie how to vote a bunch of times, but those plans appear to have mostly been Ken and Crystal's.
In the end, Matty was just a pleasant surfer dude archetype: coasting through the game, making no enemies, but also declining to make any moves. He was Fabio before Fabio. When Sugar decided to take out Crystal and Ken, he swore to her (and in confessional) that he'd been trying to get rid of them since the start of the game, but that's belied by the terms of his alliance with Ace (protecting Ken to the merge), his ear-to-ear grin at seeing Ken still in the game after the Marcus boot (in the famous GIF everyone knows), and his delighted embrace of Ken at the merge. So if he was trying to get Ken out, he was doing a piss-poor job of accomplishing that goal, and if the friendliness was all just a ruse, he seems to have fooled even himself. Like Susie and Bob, Matty wasn't really playing the strategic game. Except somehow, he found a way to do it even less so. But as with Bob, maybe that was his goal.
Together, the jury's reception of the final four reflects a lot of what's wrong with this era of Survivor. By backfilling the cast (and thus the jury) almost entirely with people unfamiliar with the show, there's a strong anti-gameplay, anti-strategy bias. The winner — again, as is also seen almost identically a few seasons later in Nicaragua — is usually the nicest person, or if that's a toss-up, the person who won the most challenges. Any deceit, any lies told, any attempt to manipulate the game through strategic means is viewed a mark against a player. From Sugar Kiper to Stephen Fishbach to Russell Hantz to Sash Lenahan, actually controlling the game, as opposed to winning the challenge mini-games, is middle-era Survivor jury death. (To be fair here, the anti-strategy bias this season was mainly coming from Sugar herself.)
Thankfully, as Survivor and its casting have evolved over the years, this attitude has largely reversed itself. These days, Survivor seeks out and casts fans who are eager to play strategically. There's less vacuous pontificating about how "The good guys should win in the end," and the show also doesn't pander to that line of thinking by memorializing such bullshit in its episode titles. It's a welcome change. Not being a complete asshole to the jury still matters, but modern jury votes are now less coronations of challenge prowess, and more about playing the actual game. Ironically, just as it was back in Borneo.
- A good sport, but not that sporty: Crystal's challenge frustrations finally came to a head in the Ep12 RC, after she failed to sink even one of three baskets required (all three guys were working on their final one). After the challenge ends and Bob wins, she takes the ball, and tries to dunk it in the head-high basket. Naturally, she clanks it. But at least she has a huge smile after doing so. It turns out being an elite sprinter doesn't also naturally make you good at every other sport.
- Randy and Corinne inadvertently endorse the modern Final Tribal format: Here are Randy's plans for Final Tribal: "I genuinely don't like any of these three people .... I don't know what Bob's gonna say, but one thing's for sure, I'm gonna tear him a new one. It's simply an opportunity for revenge. Pure and simple. Revenge."
Here's Corinne with her preview: "Right before I was voted out, I wasn't really able to let them have it. I would like to say the things I would have said if I wasn't on the chopping block."
This is not what it's supposed to be about. It's not a televised platform for your tantrums. It's a group decision to award someone a million bucks, not a launching pad for your future career of overly rehearsed feigned outrage. Take it seriously, respect the game, don't be a self-indulgent turd. Don't grandstand so offensively that you make us long for Matty's bland aphorisms about honor and respect. It's not that hard.
Of course, Corinne does eventually deliver a vicious broadside against Sugar. Marcus doesn't ask a question, but lays into Susie (who flipped on Kota and Marcus in a move that made total sense for her) for "shed(ing her) obligation to be a positive role model in the biggest game of all ... and that's life." (Massive eyeroll.)
The new "open discussion" format is a bit boring, and tends to allow one or two people to dominate the conversation. But at least it's an improvement over, say, Reed's similarly grandiose soliloquy in San Juan del Sur.
To his credit, Randy does admit in his jury preview that Sugar made some moves, and if she owns that, he could consider voting for her. It doesn't last. But his Crystal-esque, half-yelled "all three of you, kiss my ass!" final voting confessional is pretty great. *This* is where you should do your speechifying.
- Weird continuity error: For some reason, Susie shows up at Final Tribal wearing the F3 immunity necklace (usually production takes it back — off camera — sometime before Final Tribal). The jury comes in. Probst explains the format, and says each finalist will begin with an opening statement, asks them if they understand. Susie (still in the necklace), Bob, Sugar all nod yes. Cut to Probst: "Susie - opening statement." Cut to Susie — now not wearing the necklace — who begins talking. Then again, that's approximately the attention to detail you'd expect from a crew that somehow didn't realize they didn't have the votes in the urn until after the live finale/reunion show had already started (as Dalton Ross explained a year ago).
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes