Blame it on the mayhem of the hollerdaze… on the 22 student recommendations I need to write before the first of the year… on my 2 month-old daughter who is doing cool things like laughing and cooing when she isn’t screaming and vomiting on my shoulder (spawning the adjective, “spew-tiful”)… or blame it on the real cause, the inertia of endings… but the bottom line is this: here I am writing on Wednesday afternoon, a week after the finale, and all I really have so far is a bunch of hastily-scribbled notes.
Time for me to remedy that situation. Gotta close the books on Survivor: San Juan del Sur, and I gotta do it swiftly. So here it is, my loyal readers: my concluding thoughts on the finale and the 29th installment of the best show that ever there was.
1) Natalie is a top-tier winner
I’ve never been one to rank players or seasons, mostly because taste is subjective, but also due to this truth: every aspect of the game is context-dependent. How would Hatch do as a first-time player today? What if Boston Rob had ended up on Zapatera instead of Ometepe? Would Kim Spradlin do as well on a stacked season like Cagayan?
There’s no way to answer any of those questions with any degree of certainty, of course. There’s too much luck, happenstance and circumstance in the game of Survivor to compare across eras, seasons, even tribes. Castaways have to play the hands they’re dealt, and even when they play the game over and over and over again, they’ll never get the same hand twice (although at times the deck will be stacked – hello, Boston Rob).
That said, I do think that some people have stronger Survivor skill sets than others (I know, I know, I’m being Captain Obvious – bear with me for a moment). Drop Yul Kwon, Earl Cole, or Todd Herzog into a random Survivor season – as a new player that no one has ever seen before – and each of them will probably do extremely well. But possessing a well-rounded game guarantees nothing: Had Natalie, not Nadiya, been on Coyopa at the start of this season, she may well have been the first to go (since Dale targeted the Twinnies to save himself).
2) If you will forgive a English teacher digression…
… In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has Malvolio share an observation which you’ve likely heard before: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” If there’s one knock I keep hearing about Natalie’s game, it’s that she didn’t do much until after the merge. While I understand the criticism, I’d argue that she played the game available to her: while Hunahpu avoided Tribal Council, she aligned with Jeremy and forged relationships with the other castaways.
When Jeremy was blindsided, though, that’s when greatness was thrust upon her: her social game kept her off the chopping block, and her strategic game put other heads upon it. The moves she made to eliminate Alec and Jon – the former to keep “threats” in the game and the latter to remove her only Final Tribal council competition – possessed an endgame awareness that only the very best Survivor players can maintain when stress is a psychological tsunami that sweeps just about everyone away.
Indeed, that’s where Natalie’s reality show experience paid the biggest dividends: keeping one’s cool under pressure after a month in the game is precious beyond measure.
In the end, though, that is all preamble to this:
3) To me, the very best Survivor games come down to one rare and remarkable quality:
When the other players know they should turn on you – and have the numbers to do so – but can’t bring themselves to do it.
Everyone knew that Redemption Island Boston Rob had to go, but he got to the end. Ditto Kim Spradlin. And so it was with Natalie this time around.
Missy and Jaclyn talked about it on Day 38, and Jaclyn’s gut was right: Natalie needed to go. But they couldn’t pull the trigger. Why? Natalie. They trusted her, liked her, believed in her. They shouldn’t have, of course… and on some level, they knew that… but when they looked within, they found reasons to keep Nat in the game. And those reasons? Natalie put them there. And that, my friends, is top-tier, Hall of Fame inner circle gameplay.
She was so good, in fact – playing chess while most of her cast was playing checkers – that she spawned a new narrative edit: slowly but steadily, Natalie made her way through the game… seemingly harmless (particularly with Nadiya gone), but possessing the potential for greatness… then, with players falling left and right, she was suddenly exposed and vulnerable – but that’s when this pawn became a queen.
While Sandra is the undisputed Queen of Survivor, Natalie, I would argue, is the heir apparent, the pawn that became a queen… and I wouldn’t bet against her if she plays again.
Is this recency bias? Almost assuredly. Does her win – like Kim Spradlin’s in One World – lose some of its luster because of the caliber of competition? Undoubtedly [it is by design that this is the third time I’ve dropped Kim’s name in this column; Natalie and Kim have quite a lot in common]. And yet, do I think I might look back at this someday ages and ages hence and regret some of what I wrote? Absolutely not.
4) … but let’s not Natalie’s win cloud our judgment about San Juan del Sur.
Like One World before it, San Juan del Sur is a bad season with a great winner.
Fully half the cast – maybe more – didn’t have any idea what they were doing out there.
Fully half the episodes were boring, predictable, or both.
And three, seven, ten seasons down the road, when we look back at San Juan del Sur, fully half of our remaining memories about this train-wreck of a season will be of things like running out of rice, Drew thinking he’s a badass, and Jon and Jaclyn’s five-hour fight.
And that’s really how a season of Survivor gets remembered: the elevator pitch, the 30-second summation of the highlights and lowlights that took place over the course of fourteen episodes.
And just what do I think the San Juan del Sur elevator pitch will be?
Watch the last four episodes and witness Natalie work.
Don’t get me wrong: I vastly prefer a bad season with a great winner to a great season with a bad winner (as Cagayan so nearly became). San Juan del Sur could have staked its claim as the worst season of Survivor ever… but Natalie saved it. To once again quote Shakespeare: All’s well that ends well.
5) Who from this cast is going to return?
Once again, I find myself inclined to make a One World comparison: I have a feeling that we’ll end up seeing far more of these people play a second time than one would expect, given the overall quality of the season. One World has already had three players return – Monica, Colton, and Kat – and will eventually add Kim and probably Troyzan to that list. San Juan del Sur has three mortal locks:
Natalie: As a winner and CBS reality show darling, there is no way she doesn’t get an invite.
Jon: He was edited as a power player and fan favorite, and Les Moonves, President of CBS, was the one who insisted that Jon and Jaclyn be put in the cast (Probst was apparently reluctant, but now admits that Moonves was right).
Jeremy: He checks way too many boxes to not be invited back.
And yet, we might get even MORE returnees from this cast. Why? Heroes vs. Villains 2.
As I’ve written about before, at some point, Probst is going to walk away from Survivor – he’s 53, wealthy, and at times bored and annoyed with the show.
This inevitable end has pundits predicting that there is a “final” season – Survivor: Legends – looming over the future of the show. The CBS and SEG brass won’t want to use their major characters – Boston Rob, Russell, Coach/Rupert/Phillip – on a returnee season if they’re going to use them again, sooner rather than later, on Legends. Which means that if they want to bring anyone back – and they probably do, in Season 32 – they’ll have to utilize recent second-tier players.
Peering through that lens, I can see a handful of other players from San Juan del Sur being considered for, say, Heroes vs. Villains 2:
Josh/Reed: Josh would be my pick, given how well he was playing (and the edit he received); I worry, though, that Reed’s speech, combined with his bag-searching and overall approach to the game (apparently, one thing the edit ignored was how much he stirred things up on Hunahpu), might have given Reed the edge here (if they need a villain).
Keith: They invested heavily in his edit as a character… he did well in challenges… and we’d all go into his returnee season wondering if he learned anything the first time around (a latter day Coach, as it were).
Missy: There’s a lot of competition in her age and gender bracket (Monica, Denise, Lisa, Laura, Trish, and Kass all made it pretty far in the game, and that’s just since One World), but she’s not out of the realm of possibility (I highly doubt it, though).
6) Speaking of Reed’s speech…
I hated it.
The day after the finale, I got into a spirited debate with a group of passionate fans (on Facebook) about Reed’s speech… here’s what I had to say (edited for clarity):
I understand why people like it, but speeches like that – when it's clear the vote isn't in question (unlike Sue Hawk’s speech in Borneo) – are all about ego and petty cruelty. Reed – like Penner before him (in his Survivor: Philippines “oxen” diatribe) – was mean when it would accomplish nothing. Distasteful.
The whole vote was arranged: Nat was going to win, Jaclyn was coming in second. Reed's vote was like his speech: designed to hurt Missy.
Here's another troubling aspect of the speech: Production saved it for last because they LOVED it. It was their showcase "memorable Tribal Council moment." They thought it appropriate to end on a "shred Missy" speech. Yuck. (And I'm not a Missy fan.)
Here's how I look at it: Everything Reed said about Missy could have been said to her one-on-one. The vote was locked. He wasn't swaying anyone. He was simply trying to create a moment that the show would put front and center (I guarantee you that he outlined to the producers everything he was going to say, even performed it for them). He was going to shred someone's game persona to make her uncomfortable, even though that speech would accomplish nothing – it's the very definition of petty cruelty.
And you know what? I'm not buying this whole, "I'm just commenting on her in-game persona" argument. He had a month to see who she was as a person. He didn't like her, and had his reasons not to. The person he decided to "take down a peg" or "give her comeuppance" was the Missy he had gotten to know – and that's a person, not a persona.
And the more I think about it, the more frustrated I am with production, which was a co-conspirator here. He probably pitched what he was going to say, they got all excited, he amped it up, they put it last...
Here's the thing: we're conditioned to want characters in stories – who tend to have less complex motivations than real people – to get their comeuppance when they've treated people poorly. And we carry that over to characters on TV shows, fictional or not. And then, people on reality shows choose to embody those tropes and give the producers, and the viewing audience, what they want.
These are people, however. And Reed could accomplish nothing with that speech (other than selfish goals). Reed was at least in part causing pain because he wanted to hurt Missy.
7) After a week, my feelings about Reed’s speech haven’t changed much.
I’ve heard the opinions of others, including people whose take on all things Survivor I have nothing but respect for, and if anything, I find Reed’s words even more distasteful now than I did in the immediate aftermath. Indeed, there are three layers to what troubles me about Reed’s unnecessary words:
** It says a lot about him. For reasons only he entirely understands, Reed felt it necessary to shred and shame someone on national television to satisfy several egocentric impulses: to be highlighted in the Final Tribal council, which in turn was all about being on the show again… to cause someone who was, in his opinion, less deserving than he to get to the end of the game to feel a measure of his own pain… and to capitalize on the rare opportunity, created by the dynamics of Final Tribal Council, to belittle someone without fear of verbal retaliation. What we do when we have an opportunity to be mean, negative, and cruel – to indulge the baser parts of human nature – we have a choice, and what we do with that choice says a lot about us. We learned quite a bit about Reed last Wednesday… and none of it good.
** It says a lot about the producers. They knew they had a lackluster finale on their hands, so when they heard from Reed what he was planning to say, the producers almost certainly encouraged him to make the most of the moment. Indeed, not only did the producers eagerly anticipate Reed unleashing during Tribal, they also arranged for him to go last so that they could end on what they saw as a high note. To them, the only way to counter mundane mediocrity was with memorable meanness.
** It says a lot about us. By ‘us’ I mean the viewing audience… we eat this stuff up. I could go on an endless “cruelty is currency in current popular culture” diatribe here, but I’ll refrain. I’ll leave it at this: Reed ripping into Missy – one real person being mean to another – really shouldn’t entertain us, and yet for so many of us, it does.
Okay, time to speed things up… I have presents to wrap!
8) That Final Tribal Council was boring.
Indeed, it was bad enough that I can understand – if not respect – the decision to emphasize Reed’s monologue.
We all knew that Missy would play the “integrity, dignity, loyalty” card and that the jury wouldn’t buy a word of it.
Jaclyn did her best – I mean, she’s right, Natalie and Missy wouldn’t have been in the Final 3 if Jaclyn had made some different choices – but she knew she wasn’t going to win, as did we.
All we were left with was Natalie owning her game – as if there was any doubt that a Twinnie would be brutally honest, about herself and others – and a jury whose lack of real questions made it clear the vote was a landslide.
Make that seven seasons in a row – arguably since Survivor: South Pacific – where the winner was never in doubt once the Final Tribal Council began.
9) The reunion show was even worse.
Under thirty minutes were spent discussing San Juan del Sur. Probst ignored almost half the cast during the Q&A. Time was wasted on several meaningless “interact with the audience” segments.
Man oh man oh man, did the powers that be – SEG, CBS, Probst, Burnett, Les Moonves & probably Tyler Perry – HATE this season.
10) Can someone explain Exile on Day 36 to me?
So, Jaclyn goes to Exile – and there’s a clue in the urn. Does that mean that Jon’s idol was replanted? Did Jaclyn even bother to look? Would the producers reintroduce an idol at Final 5 (which would mean that there would be two idols and an immunity necklace played at that Tribal)? Would they bother to put a clue back into the urn if an idol HADN’T been replanted? (Perhaps they would, in case the player who was Exiled didn’t know that Jon had been voted out with an idol in his pocket.)
Most importantly, if there wouldn’t be an idol for the Exiled player to find, isn’t it cruel and unusual punishment to spend a day or two away from the endgame politics back in camp? And to be weaker for the final two immunity challenges? Last question: shouldn’t Exile have ended before the Final 5?
11) The immunity challenge advantages are too significant.
From Danni Boatwright’s position swap in Guatemala (Final 6) to Cochran’s untied puzzle pieces in Caramoan (Final 4) to Keith’s extended practice session (Final 5), the advantages that players earn so close to the end all but guarantee a victory in an extremely important immunity challenge (Malcolm lost in the Philippines, but his do-over was a massive advantage). While I’m glad that the final immunity challenge was pure this time around, I think they should do away with challenge advantages altogether. If they must remain, at least give the other players a fighting chance… it’s the endgame after all.
12) That Final 5 deal…
… is why we’re not going to see Blood vs. Water again. What Probst hates more than anything is stagnant gameplay, and the BvW format all but guarantees it. It makes too much sense for couples to band together and eliminate the opposition, then have members of their tandems willingly leave the game.
When you add in the casting difficulties – finding individual castaways with the constitution to not only endure but entertain while doing so is hard enough; good luck trying to find tandems up to the task – and the odds that the show will embrace the Blood vs. Water theme again are approximately zero. If they do bring it back, though (because Survivor likes nothing better than to revive old twists like Redemption and Exile), they’ll almost certainly hedge their bets: it’ll once again be a returnee-based season. And you know what that means: The vets will dominate the game and use their loved ones as pawns.
13) Prediction time: Worlds Apart
I have three predictions about Season 30 of Survivor:
** If the rumors are to be believed, the Worlds Apart players have a much higher collective “Survivor IQ” than San Juan del Sur’s cast. They’re smarter, know their Survivor history, and are motivated by self-interest… which means we’re in for some stellar gameplay.
** The White Collar/Blue Collar/No Collar twist will be meaningless after the first tribe swap. Until then, though, it will be fascinating to see what sort of assumptions production makes about the people who fit these general categories. (Side note: It says something about language and culture that “white collar” gets listed first, don’t you think?)
** There are two players I’m rooting for (a friend of a friend, and someone who was initially slated to play in the Durham Warriors Survival Challenge with me this past summer) and one that I’m rooting against (because he’s insufferably egotistical; he’s also going to be really good at the game).
As always, loyal readers, thank you for joining Jeff and me here at True Dork Times week after week. I hope you’ll come back in the spring! Until then…
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius