What a perfect ending to a dream season! Honestly, I don’t know how I’m about to go into enjoying the upcoming 43 and 44 on CBS — there’s no way they’ll come anywhere close to this carefully crafted, passion-filled, flawless masterpiece of a season of Survivor. Everything from beginning to end was top-notch, SA improving on US in pretty much every way — most of all for me was the revamped live reunion on the island with the decision to include all 20 castaways rather than just those in attendance at Final Tribal Council.
Every season of Survivor should celebrate every person involved (most of the time), and that’s what made Return of the Outcasts so special. Everyone had a voice and a story, and everyone played a part — whether smaller or larger — in making this truly one of the best seasons across all international franchises. This season’s theme was all about redemption and not letting one’s Survivor journey be defined by how deep they go in the game the first (or second) time. Had the pre-mergers been excluded, it would have reinforced the exact fears and feelings of self-doubt that everyone in this cast felt having not succeeded in being named Sole Survivor their first time around. I also loved letting there be a day to process and for the cast to collect themselves before coming back and recapping the season – much better than a delirious pizza party.
I could go on and on and on and on about how every person from the cast to the crew gave us literal perfection, and I wish every Survivor fan had been following along for the last six weeks, but it’s also kind of cool to be in on this amazing “secret” — it’s not exactly a secret season, but I know that many are sitting on SA, as I myself was up until last year. I’m making it my mission before the next season to recruit more fans to come over from the dark side and bathe in all the light and brilliance that is Survivor SA.
Now before my final final words, I’ve got a few more people to thank in this final week for giving it all they had to reach the 2 million rand. This was my first time fully covering a season of SA at TDT and it was a fun, new approach to the way I typically write (it had to be, or else I’d somehow have had to churn out 24 individual columns … I do have SOMEWHAT of a life of my own, believe it or not). I’ve got some final Santoni Stan Stars to award ahead of ultimately naming my Player of the Season!
There are only two complaints I have about the edit of the entire season and one is Killarney’s boot episode. She received no confessionals, and the episode didn’t even end on her leaving the game. I know there was still a lot more story to tell, but I was sad that she didn’t receive the same proper sendoff the rest of the cast did.
That said, I absolutely loved her in her final words talking about how she may be down at times, but she’s never out. 35 days is nothing to not brag about in one of the most competitive seasons ever, and I appreciated her fight until the end. Some of her “moves” may have been a little embellished in her own mind, but I at least have to respect the confidence in herself, especially with all she was dealing with in the game that wasn’t even a part of the game. It sounds like Killarney got what she needed from this return, minus a win, so for that, I am extremely happy and glad she was a part of this season! She deserves something to be extremely proud of and I hope she feels all the love from the Survivor SA family.
There’s something I love about the way Marian calls him that. What a gem! A total shockingly large character and competitor! 4 out of 5 at the end were from Champions, and the lone pre-merge boot Shona was such a huge presence for me too that I really regret not watching that season prior to this one. I did try, though, but was having trouble finding the right links. Now I definitely will try harder!
I loved almost every second of Phil — the exception being when he voted for Shona, but outside of that, this man was TV gold. He had me cracking up in every single confessional, and I’d take 1 confessional like Phil’s over 100 solely strategic ones, but luckily Phil provided plenty. What I loved most was that this guy was just having so much fun. Even in his moments of frustration (“middle of WHAT?!”), I could tell he was low-key loving it all, and I was loving all of him.
The No BS alliance was another narrative driver that I couldn’t imagine this season without. All showmance jokes aside, it was a really sweet partnership between Phil and Dino and rarely would I ever root for two dudes dominating so much of the game, but their run together was really impressive and their tragic end in voting for each other was perfectly poetic. It’s crazy because had Phil won immunity at final four, Dino would’ve left, and I think Phil would’ve won that final immunity and voted out Marian the same as Dino, so I think we’d have been in for a Phil win! It was really meant to be one of them at the end, I guess, and I’d admittedly have been happy either way.
QUEEN FUCKING MARIAN!
Week 6 was the first week where I finally felt worried for my girl. For weeks, she remained off everyone’s radar from all the WERK she was putting in strategically and socially, but when it finally came down to four, I feared her game would finally catch up for her. Though she didn’t win, she still went out with a big week. The plan to fake a vote steal at final 5 was genius, and I’m surprised Dino let her be the one to then go into final four still with Phil’s trust, essentially setting her up with a final two prospect with everyone. That was a stan star performance for me.
Of course, the biggest Marian moment of the week and, truly, the season was then her speech at the final four tribal council where she confidently corrected everyone that she did not have a “sad story” but instead gave an inspiring speech about who she is and what motivated her throughout the game. It’s really in this moment she 100% lost that game because with that preview of what would’ve been her final speech in front of the jury, as Dino would later say, you’d have to be clinically insane to want to sit next to her.
It was a tight race between Dino and Marian most of the season, but in the end, I was slightly pulling more for Marian to win and was a sopping mess on the floor when her torch was snuffed. I knew she’d have to win that final immunity to win the game, so when I saw her fall, there was a 99.9% chance she was losing the game at that point. I only left the 0.01% because if there’s anyone truly nice enough and with a big enough heart to still take her to the end, it was Dino, but then his annoying, lovely fiancé had to tell him, “Do what you need to do,” and so he did — I’m totally kidding about the “annoying” part. I really did admire them playing as teammates there in that decision.
The ”Queen Marian” title is most fitting, and I’m glad that Dino even called out that though she wouldn’t be the Sole Survivor, she played the best game of the season, and for that reason, he couldn’t take her to the end. I loved every step of Marian’s journey through this game, and I’m so happy the show gave her the story and sendoff she deserved. She’s an all-timer.
My second and only other complaint about the season’s edit was not building up Shane to be a stronger contender against Dino in the final two. I’m not exactly sure how the show could’ve done it, but I did admittedly feel like the surprise of who would be the Sole Survivor was over after Marian’s flame went out — in a normal season it is what it is, but having to wait 24 hours to reach the foregone conclusion felt a little funny. Shane played a strong game and by no means was the final tally a blowout, but I wished it would’ve been even like a 60/40 toss-up between him and Dino going into it, rather than it being more a question for me of, “By how many votes will Dino win?”
Shane was close to being the first boot if Chappies hadn’t dug up the Masu beach, but Shane’s story ended up a fun on for me to follow. Aside from TC #1 and the pseudo-merge vote, Shane really remained off the radar. He marched to the beat of his own drum, setting out to play the game his special way, and his final speech showcased way more than just strategy, which I appreciated.
The moments that made me cheer most for Shane in this last week were at the final four immunity challenge where he finally reached his long-awaited goal of winning the necklace (not having it gifted at tribal council). He himself saw himself as the underdog and said that he was more nervous for that challenge than he had been for every other, so I was big Shane stan when he won. Also, that reveal of the necklace walking into tribal council was just one of the best things at a tribal council ever.
Then, his opening speech at FTC blew me away, and had I had no context about the game and was to vote based on those speeches alone, I’d have voted for Shane. It spoke to me on more than just a game level and it reminded me that there are so many different ways one can earn the title of Sole Survivor. Shane’s story was about personal growth and learning to open up to and connect with others, taking on more of the fatherly role than he’d have ever envisioned for himself in the game. We were left at the end of penultimate episode on that note, and I thought, “Damn, this may not be as easy for Dino as I thought!”
Shane is one of a kind, and I remember wishing he had been booted instead of Chappies, but Chappies would have always been an early boot, I think, and he had such an amazing run in Immunity Island that I’m ultimately glad I got to experience more of Shane this season. He was another confessional star and I’m excited to eventually see the story of Shane 1.0 because Shane 2.0 was an icon.
I love everything about this season for Dino so much because I feel like this was multiple seasons in the making, like he was destined to lose the first time so that his story could be one of winning his second time. Literally it was May 2021 where I saw him pop up and Twitter, and I went “who’s this guy?” quickly finding out he was one among the newly announced cast of Survivor SA, a show I had never seen and had only heard whispers (something something Palesa). I knew my friend Jeff Pitman had seen a bit, so I asked him if it was worth a watch, especially since I hadn’t had any new Survivor at that point for a whole year, and Jeff had high praise for it, so I figured out how I would follow that season, and here I am a year later more invested in SA than I am in US, to be quite honest (in case that wasn’t clear yet).
Dino is every superfan, and watching him play is like living vicariously through him, so seeing his dream — our dream — cut so short last summer had me begging to bring him back as soon as possible, and lo and behold, it would happen! I had a lot of favorites among this ROTO cast, obviously, but I got ~the vibe~ from Dino from the day the names first dropped to be the one who would win it all. He’s super smart, ridiculously likable, and I know that loss ate at him, so he was going to come into this second chance making damn sure that he would finish what he started the first time.
The rest is history, and Dino is right up there with Marian for my favorite games of the season. Arguably, his was better because he won, but I don’t want to admit that either was “better” than the other — they were both perfect in my eyes. Maybe Dino was just slightly more perfect. In his final week, the big stan star move for me was his strategy to make Phil appear weaker in front of the jury, in the event that Phil did win his way to the end and Dino was sitting there next to him. If Phil was strong enough to do that, Dino made sure Phil would look weak in other areas which I just thought was brilliant — again, Dino had an answer to everything this time around.
The finale itself for Dino was such a thrill. I laughed, I cried, I cheered — he just deserved everything he got this season, and, again, for me it was even more spectacular with this multi-season arc coming to a satisfying close. “Satisfying” isn’t nearly the appropriate word — Day 1 Dino to Day 55 (in total) Dino was a story filled with so much emotion, and it all just came flooding out at the end. We’ve learned that Dino has not had an always-easy life, and it’s so damn cool to see something so great happen to such a great human being, deserving of every ounce of the outpouring of love and adoration he’s received this season and after his well-earned win. It’s a literal Survivor fairytale. The Sole Survivor of Return of the Outcasts being named Dino Paulo makes sense with my fantasy.
All that said, I still have more love and praise to give! With the final stan stars posted, numbers don’t lie, making my official Player of the Season…
Sole Survivor Dino, Santoni Stan Star Queen Marian — this just feels correct. I’m only sorry that I don’t have 2 million rand to send to Marian to make this win feel equally rewarding.
I only heard great things about Marian before the season, and not only did she deliver, but she super-exceeded any expectations I had of her. Much like Dino, her story was one I was emotionally invested in all the way to the end. I love it most when Survivor lets people find or realize the strength within themselves and walk out of the game a more confident person than when they entered. Marian is a fucking legend, and she came in with a mission to prove that to everyone. Damn Dino thwarted her mission of winning the game, but Marian is a winner in absolutely every other way, and I hope one day every Survivor fan across the globe knows, respects, and adores her like I do.
What a joy she and everyone were this season. I’m glad I had the stan stars to help me mathematically or else I’d have had a terribly tough time naming just ONE Player of the Season. Every single person gave something, even if there wasn’t always an official star to account for it. Chappies, PK, Tania, Tevin, Saemus, Shona, Pinty, Thoriso, Palesa, Toni, Dante, Steffi, Meryl, Tejan, Felix, Killarney, Phil, Marian, Shane, and Dino were all stars in one way or another (Dante’s way a little more far-fetched for me but I’ll still list him).
Winners at War was a big celebration of Survivor’s 20 years, but real talk? Return of the Outcasts did it significantly better. One could still argue there were a few too many advantages or “pouches” present in the game, but with SO much more focus and emphasis on the players — the way it should be — I hardly noticed or even cared. The Survivor SA team is currently the best in the business, at least speaking from my wide-ranging experience of only being able to compare it to US, but, if Twitter is to be trusted (and isn’t it always?) then others with more weight behind their words also support that claim.
On that note, I have so much love for the SA community of fans and favorites alike, and it was a pleasure to spend the last 6 weeks excited to talk about and share in the experience with all of them. That elevated this already highly-praised season so much and I can’t wait to do it again for whenever we get the next season! This will be me as soon as it’s announced:
And, uh, @Leroux, if you need an idea for that next season, steal one from RuPaul and go with “South Africa vs. the World” because as a battered and bruised US Survivor fan, I would very much like to apply for the superior SA experience instead. *I* think it would a fantastic time, so like, if you could make that happen … that’d be great. Also, that would make SA unquestionably *the* global leader of the Survivor franchise. How could you not want that?
Ryan Kaiser has been a lifelong fan of Survivor since the show first aired during his days in elementary school, and he plans to one day put his money where his mouth is by competing in the greatest game on Earth. Until that day comes, however, he'll stick to running his mouth here and on Twitter: @Ryan__Kaiser