In the end, Survivor 43 crowned a champion that surprised a lot of people. In retrospect, it was ending that the show took pains to foreshadow (more on that below), but it felt shocking because the winner (Gabler) wasn't one of the major characters of the season (Jesse or Karla, or even Cassidy or Owen). It's a storytelling choice that is reasonable for the audience to take issue with. But did the jury make the right choice?
As far as we know, yes. We don't know exactly the jurors' collective thought process, but it was clear from the televised version of Final Tribal Council that all three finalists gave pretty strong performances. It could be that, forced to choose between two people (Cassidy and Owen) who won three immunities each but didn't really personally alter the course of the game, the jury simply opted for the third option. Or it could be that, as Gabler said, he had strong social connections to everyone on the jury, and that drove their decision. Whatever the case, as Sami said, Gabler's answers ticked the boxes of what they were hoping to hear from him.
So with Survivor 43 over, and Survivor 44 already filmed and ready to air in March, 2023, there's naught left to do but reminisce, perhaps catch Tocantins on Netflix in January (and for those whose computers "live" in Australia, SurvivorAU: Heroes v Villains), right?
Wrong. The offseason is the time for brainstorming structural changes to the "new era" show, especially now that we have three straight seasons with essentially identical formats. If CBS is going to throw out a pile of red meat like the "email@example.com" email Suggestion Box, it's our collective duty to fill it with something other than the thousands of boneheaded "BrInG bAcK 'cOmE oN iN, gUyS'" screeds they've probably already received. Below are some suggestions.
The jury system needs revamping
All three champions of the "new era" game have won by a 7-1-0 margin. At least this season, that was partially by design. Survivor 43's jury stated that they collectively developed a voting rubric prior to Final Tribal, then followed that in awarding the million-dollar prize (except James, maybe). That's where the problem lies.
Blowout jury decisions aren't fun. They're bad TV and not fun for the audience, because there's no drama. They're not fun for Jeff Probst, who only has one suspense-maintaining vote to pull out of the urn. And they're definitely not fun for the non-winning finalists, especially the new member of the zero-jury-vote club, but also the second-place finisher, who was probably close, but saw their efforts reduced to a stray consolation vote. Especially in a season like this, where the three finalists all played relatively similar games, it's dissatisfying when one player walks away with almost every vote.
Is there anything that can be done to change this? In the old days, jurors were cautioned not to talk about the game (or at least about how they're voting) while at Ponderosa. Over time, that has faded away, and jurors have been free to collude openly prior to Final Tribal for quite some time now. So just stop that part: Ban the jurors from pre-planning how they're going to vote. The jury vote is a key part of the game, but if it's planned ahead of time at Ponderosa (especially now that Ponderosa footage is no longer even available online), it doesn't make it into the show. The current system is robbing the audience of a modern-day Erik Cardona making an impassioned speech on behalf of the finalist of their choice (Natalie White).
That's not to say jurors shouldn't be able to talk about anything game-related after being voted out. It's reasonable that, in a game where deception is a fundamental pillar, jurors ought to be able to fact-check what they believed to have happened with the perceptions of the other ex-contestants, after they exit the active game. That's fine, it's part of the healing/coping process. But that doesn't mean they should be able to rig the jury vote ahead of time. Even in this season's "If finalist X says Y, they win" decision-tree scenario, where it's theoretically still up in the air, and based on Final Tribal performance.
So, how can Survivor crack down on this sort of thing? Realistically, this will be difficult to do, since there are a lot of jurors, and very few people watching them at Ponderosa. A determined jury could absolutely thwart any enforcement if they wanted to. But it's still worth trying. This will make the jury vote more pure, more in the moment, less of something almost scripted. If MLB can ban the infield shift because, while effective and logical, it makes the game more boring to watch, Survivor ought to be able to do the same with juror collusion, and return to the classic model of each juror voting their individual conscience.
Forced final four firemaking: Time to take a break
If you're a recent fan of the show, you may well wonder: Why does Survivor have a firemaking challenge at the final four, instead of a vote? Well, settle in children, this is a long story. Part of the story is that the producers were mad that the final three wasn't working out the way they had hoped, and good players kept getting voted out in fourth place.
And why do we have a final three, you may well ask? Well, we have a final three because for the first 12 seasons the jury voted on a final two, and smart players had figured out that most reliable way to win was to bring an unlikable person with them to the end, someone for whom the jury would never vote. Often, this meant that good players were getting voted out in third place, which also made producers mad, so ... voila! Final three! And then when that stopped working ... voila! Final four! (More or less. Plus some flames, I guess.)
There are a lot of problems with forced Final 4 fire making (which we will get into below). Most importantly, it has replaced what used to be the final vote of the game. That removes collective power from the contestants, and replaces it with a roll of the dice, especially when it's windy.
Survivor's producers were fine with that, though, because your average do-or-die firemaking tiebreaker has more intrinsic drama than your average 3-1 vote, where it's usually a dominant alliance of three picking off a lone straggler. The problem is, in modern, résumé-era Survivor, that group of three is usually the three people least likely to win the jury vote, because the entire post-merge is a relentless cascade of eliminating threats. Production saw obvious F4 boots — like David Wright's in Millennials vs Gen X — as outrageous, and this was a way for an underdog outsider to crack their way into the final three, against the wishes of the controlling group. So there's at least some logic to the twist. It's just an inelegant solution.
That's mainly because it's not a test of will, but rather a test of skill. Or sometimes luck, if it's close. Weather permitting, someone who's an expert outdoorsy person should be able to beat a determined-but-inexperienced competitor, no matter how much better that person was at the previous 25/38 days of the actual game. So when the F4 IC winner puts in the best firemaker as expected, and the obvious threat is eliminated, and the final three are the people with the thinnest game résumés, what then?
Well, that's when you end up as you did here. The jury is then faced with rewarding one of three players, each of whose control of the game was minimal at best. But they still have to vote for someone! That then elevates the perceived importance of the F4 firemaking event for the jury — it's something they just saw, firsthand, the day before, so of course it seems like a critical data point. Multiple jurors cited this as a factor in Gabler's winning game, and given that none of the final three really masterminded a move (except Gabler blowing up Elie's game at the merge), what else did they really have to go on?
That's where this now becomes production's problem to solve. F4 fire used to be a tiebreaker, something that happened after the tribe had spoken, but had been unable to come to a decision. Now it is a major event in the game all on its own, at least in the jury's eyes, but it's also one that's irredeemably inequitable. It's a late-game element that's only available to two people in the final four, and one in the final three. That restrictive access is antithetical to most other parts of Survivor: Every player has a chance to win immunity (in theory), every player has a vote. Something this exclusive (and let's not forget, trivial) should not be placed on the same tier as those game elements, let alone raised above them.
Back when the final four elimination was regular old vote, the person on the bottom at least had a chance to use their social/strategic manipulation skills to force a 2-2 tie and then make fire, or even pull off the rarely seen (in the US version, at least), tie-avoiding 2-1-1 split. All four players left in the game had agency in that decision. If one of the majority three didn't want to make fire, they could collude with the person on the outs to target someone else and force them into fire. There were more options for everyone.
Forced F4 fire is an artificial mess: There are other problems with forced fire, too. Fans complained that the show "wasn't really about the survival element any more," and shortly thereafter, forced F4 fire was introduced. And sure, fine: after 38 days (now 25 days) in the game, every player probably should be able to make fire.
But that's not what this is testing. It's testing ability to make a big fire, quickly, under pressure, with an audience. It's a former tiebreaker mechanism, others of which have included a trivia test and drawing rocks out of a bag. It's a dumb little minigame. It's not really related in any meaningful way to the actual Survivor social/strategic/physical arenas Probst is so fond of expounding about at Final Tribal. It's kind of like determining the winner of the World Series not through a best-of-seven series of baseball games, but through a Home Run Derby, one where the home team (by virtue of their league winning the All-Star Game) also gets to pick one participant from each team.
Forced F4 fire is a massive time-sink: Another significant problem with forced F4 fire — again, a dumb little minigame — is how much time it takes away from the actual game. The entire segment from the end of the F4 IC up until the firemaking itself was focused on this one silly event. We saw extensive debate over who Cassidy would choose, we saw each likely participant practicing, we saw each of them state their cases at Tribal. That part of the show – from returning to camp to the start of the actual firemaking – took 13 long minutes to plod through. That's almost a third of one 42-minute block (the runtime minus ads of a regular hourlong episode). And then the firemaking itself was an absolute snooze: Gabler made a huge fire quickly, while Jesse's sputtered initially, and he was unable to catch up. All of that buildup, all for an anticlimactic payoff.
So what should Survivor be putting in its place? There are plenty of options here, the most obvious being just ditching forced F4 firemaking entirely, and going back to a normal vote (without idols). If Survivor can go back to Final Two on occasion, why can't it undo this equally underwhelming twist, at least once in a while?
If the fire test is there to *intentionally* give the jury a firsthand viewing opportunity at a key late-game event, why not go back to having challenges at Tribal Council, like the "Fallen Comrades" challenge in Africa? (Too soon?) If that's still too triggering, why not just have the jury take a day trip to the actual final immunity challenge? Part of the inanity of juries demanding an F4 IC winner should give up their necklace to "earn" the win is that, obviously, they had just earned that necklace! That should be enough! But obviously the jury doesn't appreciate that as much, because they didn't see it happen. (And probably everyone tunes out Jeff Probst when he blah-blah-blahs about what happened at the challenge ... understandable.)
So the obvious solution here is to let the jury watch that last competition. Make it an epic, grueling, test of willpower if you want. The jury can sit there, in their luxurious, freshly laundered street clothes, with parasols for sun protection, observing and muttering amongst themselves. Let them eat some dainty finger foods and sip on tea, if that helps. Just get them there, let them appreciate the effort the final IC winner exerts, in person. Then they won't be so quick to demand that person immediately throw that victory away, all for a 50-50 shot at missing the finals entirely.
Ryan Kaiser had another reasonable suggestion in his finale column: If the show insists on fire-making as a mandatory spectacle instead of a vote, why not just make an actual challenge of it, and have all four people compete, with the last person to finish leaving the game? One fewer epic build to put together, which saves on the budget. Win-win, right?
Whatever Survivor ultimately chooses here, please make some change, any change. By the end of (the already filmed) Survivor 44, we'll have had 10 straight seasons with forced F4 firemaking. That's about seven or eight too many. The time has come to switch it up and try something new.
Winning in plain sight
While Gabler's win felt like a shock to the audience, it's not as if there weren't copious hints along the way that Gabler might win (and that Jesse might not), most of them coming straight from Gabler's mouth. Gabler's win also continued the recent trend of the winner coming from the tribe with the fewest pre-merge Tribal Council appearances ("Keeping the tribe strong").
Here's a brief run-down of some of the mostly overlooked evidence, from an edit/story perspective.
(1) The bag search: People go through each other's bags ALL the time on Survivor. Why was
Elie Jeanine going through Gabler's bag so special? It didn't seem like it was, apart from providing one moderately dramatic storyline on Baka, which otherwise wouldn't have had much content, since they didn't go back to Tribal after the premiere. That the simmering tensions over the incident exploded at the merge, leading to Elie's boot, ought to have finally brought that story to rest. Instead, we got his confessional in the next episode about "AlliGabler," and continued check-ins with him about his "hiding in plain sight." It was clear Gabler was in the game for the long haul (of course, why would anyone boot him when there were bigger targets around?), although that didn't necessarily mean he would win.
(2) Jesse's dunking: Jesse already stood out as a top-tier strategist by Episode 5, when he went on a Dilemma trip with Jeanine and Geo. That trip featured two key scenes of people exiting boats poorly: Geo falling into the ocean when arriving at the Dilemma location itself, and Jesse doing the same upon returning to Vesi camp. Josh Canfield had a similar scene at about the same spot in San Juan del Sur, just randomly getting wiped out by a wave. In Survivor, fire is life, and an extraneous scene in which your winner pick is getting submerged by the ocean is generally not a great sign.
(3) Gabler's artificially favorable edit: One of the biggest scenes showing how well Karla was playing circa merge was cut from the show, and ended up as a secret scene. In that scene, she duped Gabler into thinking Lindsay had left the game with Coco's idol. Gabler was convinced. The scene didn't make air. The show's editors do a lot of odd things, but they generally try to avoid the winner looking foolish.
(4) The in-challenge callouts and veteran backstory: While he was talking to distract himself in the first individual IC, Gabler made a big show of dedicating each minute to a specific person in his life. This made the challenge feel like it took forever. It was painful. But it was in there. Lest you thought you were done, though, it was immediately followed by Gabler giving his backstory on his family's military service history, and his desire to help veterans. All good content, but it was a lot of it. It really felt like the editors were laying it on pretty thick. Given that most IC winners disappear from the episode's edit after their win (and brief "Yay, I won!" confessional), this felt like overkill, and quite a bit out of the norm. It all felt weird and tacked on, but obviously it had a big payoff (literally, for the veterans' charities he's supporting) in the finale.
There's more, but it's really more of the same. More "I'm hiding in plain sight" confessionals. More talking up his own game. Praising his camo technique. A lot of Gabler's glowing edit came from Gabler himself, but also from the editors who chose to include it.
We also kept seeing Gabler doing strategic-esque things that didn't quite click, but were included anyway: We saw Cody approach him for the "ride or die" alliance, which as far as we knew, was important for one vote. Approximately one episode later, we saw him telling Karla that someone should break up Cody and Jesse. Neither acted on that, for two episodes at least (and then Jesse did it himself). At final six, we saw Gabler telling Jesse and Cassidy that they needed to turn on their allies (Cody and Karla, respectively), which was a solid strategic move, except that it came one episode after Jesse had already started driving a wedge between Karla and Cassidy - a mission that even Owen had already taken part in. Again, a bit forced, considering the actual context of the game. It felt like someone in post-production was given the task of spicing up his résumé.
Through it all, it was clear Gabler was a long-term character, but it was still a mystery if he was being shown so much because he was the winner, or because he was a non-winning but colorful (Phillip Sheppard-like) finalist. So the final result was still a shock, even if it shouldn't have been.
Was it even a good idea for it to have been a surprise, though? By keeping Gabler's edit in the theoretical space between amusing-but-ineffectual finalist and surprise winner, the editing really did Gabler a disservice. Gabler won largely because, as he said, he had options, and multiple paths to the end, due to his social game. (Very similar to Maryanne's argument last season.) People on the jury liked him, and they clearly felt more at ease working with him than they did with Cassidy or Owen. But that was never really shown. Honestly, you had to pay close attention to exit press from people like Ryan or Cody to know that people in the game really liked the dude. Yet at Final Tribal, they were eating out of his hand, cracking up at the *hilarious* "AlliGabler" portmanteau, and so on.
Instead of actual content showing Gabler's relationships, we were given these snippets of Gabler briefly interacting with other big characters - with Ryan, with Cody, with Karla. But these scenes were given no context, and no support by repetition, leaving the audience scratching their heads as to whether these were random, one-off conversations, or actual working partnerships. That was not true of Cody-Jesse, or Jesse-Dwight, or Jesse-Karla, or Karla-Cassidy, or Karla-James. Or even Sami with any number of other people - except Gabler, who he said was annoying for putting palm fronds on people, and only really talked to when he was stoking intra-Baka chaos. If you saw Gabler, he was napping, or eating coconut, or wandering off to go fishing while other people played the game around him. Or talking about how great his strategy was going.
That's unfortunate, because it robbed the audience of the chance to see how Gabler connected with the people on the jury, and it made his win feel less legitimate. And when the editors obviously knew Gabler would go on to make a dramatic, game-changing gesture in giving away his entire million-dollar prize money haul to veterans' charities, that subjects his selfless gesture to an inevitable backlash, which is not fair.
Survivor has gotten better at avoiding obvious coronation edits. There were multiple contestants this season who appeared to have been in positions to plausibly win the million-dollar prize, and their games were well-depicted. But the season still fell short in fully fleshing out Gabler's game. Maybe that was intentional, to maintain a mystery element. Or maybe it that, bizarrely, even after 43 seasons, the show still hasn't figured out how to depict a social game. Keep trying, I guess?
- Ugh, the unnecessariness of it all: There were several more "new era" twists in the finale — switching to a new camp at final five, having a scavenger hunt for a challenge advantage the next morning. Do these really serve any purpose, other than killing time and playing up the now-defunct "monster" aspect of the shortened season? We got three or four confessionals from poor Gabler talking about how he was running on fumes. Have some mercy on your winner, Survivor!
- Can you give us a minute?: Speaking of having mercy on the finalists, the two non-winning F3 members this season both spoke out about the shitshow that is the "Survivor Aftershow," and how disorienting it is to lose a 26-day game on little to no food, be told by your friends they don't like you and are giving your million dollars to someone else, then guzzle champagne and try not to burst into tears live (recorded) on national TV. Come on, Survivor. There is no need to do it this way. SurvivorSA has already shown you a better alternative: Give them a day to recover, eat, shower, change their clothes, and *then* do your aftershow. It's still fresh in everyone's memories, and free of the influence of audience reaction. Probst raves about how "raw" the current version is. That "raw" sound is people's mental health being put through a meat grinder for your amusement, sir.
- Tone it down, people: Some fans were irate that Karla and Jesse voted for Gabler (again, both worked with him!) and not Cassidy or Owen. Apparently because they were superfans, they were supposed to only support people who won lots of immunity challenges? Anyway, regardless of the situation, I always try to cut the final 2-3 people voted out a little slack in their jury voting decisions. Jesse left the game 24 hours before Final Tribal. Karla left 48 hours before casting her jury vote. It has to be difficult for anyone to decompress, process the loss, eat normally, shower, then rush right back to the business of casting an important jury vote in the game that just destroyed their dreams. And it hurts more for the last few boots, because they were within sniffing distance of the million, only to have that suddenly snatched away. Give them a break, all of you.
- Oh well, on to the next: The preview of Survivor 44 was both hopeful and frightful. On the plus side, there's a new element (which Inside Survivor says is called the "idol cage," above) that appears to be taking the place of the idol bracelets.
Good. A second straight season with the exact same twist would have been excruciating. Good for the show for seeing the negative reaction to the 41/42 cycle repeating almost everything, and adjusting accordingly. Phew! But then there's the real-life horror-show vibe, which Jeff Probst hints to Dalton Ross is not just hype — with one of the Matts falling off a rock, and another player (looks like Bruce, they're always getting injured) needing medical attention in what is probably the first or second challenge of the season. Yikes.
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