Rick continues to find idols and win immunity challenges, leaving everyone stymied in their attempts to vote him out. After pretending he will play his idol for Julie at tribal, everyone votes out Aurora. Tonight: there will be many challenges, and someone will return from the Edge! Will they be able to make it to the final 3? And who will be the Sole Survivor? Will we lose our minds in anger and frustration? Let’s find out!
TO EITHER HELP OR HAUNT
Todd: OK! Finale time! Here. We. Go. If you don’t want to be spoiled on who wins Survivor, look back now.
Mary: Although really, would you not want to be spoiled if you’re reading our recaps? Regardless, do not read on if you don’t want to be spoiled!
Todd: The episode starts with the remaining Edge-ineers stomping in and competing for a chance to return and, in the words of Jeff, “Either help or haunt” the remaining players. Hmm...maybe a better name for The Edge would have been Ghost Island?
Mary: I didn’t see Ghost Island, but that seems right to me. The big hype of this episode is that someone from The Edge will return and get a chance at it all. The weak, fatigued crew competes in a challenge where they do everything conceivable with ropes--tying ropes, untying ropes, crawling on ropes--then navigate two balls through a maze and settle them into holes. If only there was a flag, Jeff’s trifecta of favorite challenge implements would be complete.
Todd: This was not an easy challenge by any means, and it is apparent by the way that people like Aubry and Reem, who I would normally say seem pretty sharp, are barely able to get out of a bundle of ropes! At the end, it is basically a bro-down showdown + Aurora, as Joe, Eric, Chris, and Aurora compete to see who can complete the puzzle maze first. Aurora (a known hater of puzzles) struggles, and it seems for a moment like Joe is going to pull out a victory but his ball drops at the last second and Chris swoops in to claim victory.
Mary: To be fair, Aurora hates everything! Todd, you totally called this last week because you said Chris was getting a lot of airtime while reading his extremely vague letter.
Todd: Yep, and in the moment I was pretty proud of myself. I thought, “Hey! Chris made it back in, good for him, now he can be voted out immediately and we can get on with this finale.” Oh, poor, naive Todd.
Mary: Oh, how we were hoisted by our own petards. *Cue picture of Mike White*
Todd: Look, we could do a point-by-point recap of what went wrong in this finale, but let’s cut to the chase: This never should have happened. There are a couple of spots where all of this could have been avoided, so let’s jump right into that.
Todd: Chris comes back into the game playing hard. He puts up a facade like he doesn’t care what happens next, but basically everyone, especially Victoria, can tell that is a front. He talks to Lauren, revealing that he knows about her idol and telling her that Kelley wants her to play it well.
Mary: This was maybe the most annoying thing to me. It seems like Kelley did say something about telling Lauren to play her idol, but Chris later makes it seem like it’s all his idea. Essentially, he got Lauren to work for him, not with him. Some people might say this is good strategy, but to me it seems emblematic of what a lot of this season has been about--giving the women players the illusion that they might make it to the end, then cutting them off when it’s opportune and taking dudes to the end. Maybe this is something that is common across Survivor history (I certainly have a lot of thoughts to it as it relates to Bach Nation), but it was extremely frustrating to me.
Todd: Perhaps the most galling example of this is Survivor: Vanuatu, a season that divided the survivors along gender lines, which ultimately resulted in an all-female alliance making it to the final 7 and then being unable to vote out a bland white guy named Chris (sound familiar?), who then went on to win the season.
Mary: HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF.
Todd: It really does. Time is a flat circle and all that. Anyway, Lauren plays her idol for Chris (which she doesn’t need to do anyway), and some configuration of people (probably Chris and Devens) vote out Victoria. She throws up the deuces as the last vote against her is called and rides off into the sunset to enjoy food and a real bed at Ponderosa.
THE TWO-PART IDOL
Mary: Chris has the old two part idol from The Edge when he comes back, and gives half to Rick. They have to stay in for one round together in order for the idol to be playable. This is exactly what happened with Rick and David, except Chris and Rick are operating on desperation more than anything--they both think they have a good shot at winning but aren’t sure if they should completely trust each other. The idol is a symbol of trust more than anything else--they trust each other with a secret and trust each other with a chance to stay in the game.
Todd: This, combined with Rick’s very understandable feelings about betraying Chris earlier in the game, is a potent combination that ultimately leads Rick to hand the idol back to Chris after the first tribal council of the episode. Rick didn’t have to do this, and in hindsight, he probably shouldn’t have, but he is still a good person at heart and he wants to do right by his friend Chris. And here is where the Rick redemption arc (in my mind, at least) began.
But before that redemption can completely take place, he plants 2 fake idols in the woods that both Lauren and Julie find. Thinking they are safe, they scramble a little less, although Lauren does admit that she finds it hard to believe that both of the idols are real. In a conversation with Gavin, Rick agrees to play his hidden immunity idol for Gavin if Gavin agrees to take Rick to the final 4 if he wins the final immunity challenge. (Because of his earlier immunity challenge win, an obstacle course combined with a puzzle that looked fun and also difficult, Rick doesn’t need his hidden idol and can’t play it after that tribal.) Gavin agrees to this because he basically has no other option, meaning the only people who are truly vulnerable at tribal are Lauren and Julie.
At tribal, both Julie and Lauren play their fake idols, to the jury’s amusement, and Lauren, Our Queen of Eyerolls, is voted out. And this really stung and is where the night truly began to take on a foreboding air.
THE FINAL IMMUNITY CHALLENGE
Mary: The gang has to navigate a wobbly boat (which is like, vaguely Nordic, IDK) and balance a series of blocks on the end--which they have to keep steady with a rope. In theory, this seems relatively easy, but WOW watching them do it looked so hard. Everyone kept dropping their blocks over and over, to the point that I felt really bad for them. Julie made it most of the way, then dropped her almost-complete stack of blocks, giving Chris a chance to squeak into the lead and win the challenge. Gavin and Rick didn’t really stand a chance, as they kept dropping things from the start, BUT they all gave a good effort.
Todd: It was almost comical how slowly Chris was moving by the end of this challenge, but it works for him, and he manages to secure himself a spot in the Final 4. As much as I may hate to admit it, Chris plays as hard as he can for the time that is allotted him. The question is whether the jury will respect how he played in the time he was given, or favor someone who had to play for the entire game more.
THE FIREMAKING CHALLENGE
Mary: Here is where I ultimately start groaning at the TV and getting mad with Chris, with Jeff, and with the entire Survivor franchise. Back in the game and playing hard, getting Lauren to work for him, etc. etc., Chris starts talking big talk about the fire making challenge. Once he talks to Rick about it, he determines he’s only going to give Julie and Gavin tips on how to build a fire, leaving Rick to practice by himself. Chris says, in so many words, that this is just the smartest thing to do. Chris and Gavin start talking big game about how they want to take on Rick in a firemaking challenge, that beating him will prove they are truly worthy of winning the game.
A brief note on fire challenges: I think they’re dumb. There are so many different variables to making a fire, even in situations where the two firestarters are close to each other in proximity as they are in the final challenge. Rick is an Eagle Scout, and surely knows how to make a fire--we even get a lot of footage of him building fire after successful fire earlier in the episode! Yet Chris finds the variables in his favor and makes a fire that wins him the challenge. Making a fire is part luck, part skill, and it seems silly to let the entire competition--with all it’s many moving parts--rest on making a fire. Though I haven’t seen the season where the firemaking challenge started, Todd, you’ve said it was infuriating. Why is this still part of the game?!
Todd: On one hand, you can see the producers implementing the firemaking challenge to goose up the drama at the Final 4, since that vote either ends in a dull 3-1 vote or a 2-2 tie that would ultimately lead to a firemaking challenge anyway. However, in taking the voting element out of the Final 4, the producers have also taken out an important part of the game. The person who loses due to a firemaking challenge has no one to blame but themselves. There is no animosity toward the other person or even toward to the person who didn’t take them to the Final 3; they have no one to blame but themselves, in theory, and thus the entire premise of Survivor, that you must win over the people who you had a hand in putting on the jury, becomes null and void. Frankly, I wish they would retire this aspect of the game, and it would not surprise me if it goes away eventually, but right now the producers seem enamored of it.
Mary: I think reality shows like this want an unpredictable ending, so something so random as the firemaking challenge has the opportunity to provide that. Unpredictable endings are fun, but they aren’t always what people want. In a game like Survivor, I’d posit that people actually want the contestant who earns it to win. Todd, you’ve said before that you don’t feel like Rick really deserved it--or that you didn’t like Rick’s ascension to the favorite position, but I’d argue that Rick winning would have been the most pleasing outcome. Rick put in his dues, more or less--both on The Edge and at camp--and he did deserve to win. More than Chris, anyway. Which like, who is Chris even? I can’t tell you a single thing about him or what he wants or who his family is.
Todd: Yeah, by the time we got to the firemaking challenge, I was rooting for Rick. And like, maybe I misjudged Ron, too?
Mary: You said this in real life, but it’s worth repeating here--the finale gives us a lot to reconsider about the entire season.
Todd: I was listening to a podcast where the hosts essentially said that if you were to re-watch this season you could cut from Chris getting voted out to the finale, which is honestly a wild thing to think about.
Mary: This is usually my favorite part of the entire season--getting to see the arguments each contestant makes for themselves, but this time I was already mentally checked out. It seemed clear that no one was going to pick Julie--which I want to talk about--and that Gavin didn’t have much of a chance either because his “resume” wasn’t built up enough, whatever that means.
Todd: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: no one on Survivor understands what a résumé is. Let’s talk about Julie! I thought her final tribal was a little hot and a little cold. Parts of it--like her claim that her emotionality was secretly a strategic tool--didn’t play well with me or the jury, but some parts, like her final message to the jury, I found really compelling. I know we both have complicated thoughts about the way that Survivor intersects with issues like gender, so what did you make of Julie’s Final Tribal performance?
Mary: Julie’s argument about her emotions made sense to me, but she phrased it in a terrible way. She tried to say that she’s naturally an emotional person, and that she used her emotions as a strategy to get far in the game, but that’s simply not true. Julie did get emotional several times throughout the season, but she had outbursts because she was genuinely upset. If she’d rephrased her final tribal speech as something like, “I’ve been really vulnerable with you all as a group,” it would have made more sense and been a more compelling argument--Julie managed to stay in the game for the entire time by BEING HERSELF! She was emotional and kind of a mess at times, but in the end she was the one sitting in the final three, not the jury. She got that far by being her true self, more or less, and that is a credit, I think. She didn’t compromise who she was in order to get ahead or screw people over (aside from that one incident where Ron asked her to lie). This would have been a nice opportunity for Julie to talk about how emotions aren’t a bad thing, and that being yourself isn’t a bad thing either. But instead, she tried to reframe her emotions as “strategy,” which is kind of ridiculous. I agree that her final speech was really moving, though, and at this point in the show I wanted Julie to win. Really, I just wanted NOT CHRIS to win.
Todd: I am with you there. Julie makes a pretty compelling point about how aggressive play is not more or less valid than less aggressive play, and I am really waiting for the season of Survivor where a person can play a calm and collected game that isn’t super flashy and win. I’m not sure that is even possible anymore, but I hope that it can be in the future. I would have loved to see what a player like Victoria or Lauren would have done if given a chance to make a Final Tribal speech, but I suppose we will never know!
My good Tennessee boy Gavin was also there! And he mostly talked about how his dream had always been to play Survivor, but when he got out there, he realized his dream was really about what he had back home: his family and his wife. This is sweet, and honestly the most compelling argument made for Gavin wasn’t even made by him. At one point, Rick asks everyone who didn’t receive a vote to raise their hand. The only hand that goes up is Gavin’s. Case closed!
Mary: This is also kind of a gender thing, I think. Sure, Gavin never had a vote against him, but would anyone say they were just taking him to the end because he’d be easy to beat? Not really. At least, I didn’t hear anyone say that. Julie though? People said that about her all the time!
Todd: The only person who said that was Chris! Who said it during the final tribal and then got called out by Kelley Wentworth who said she was “offended” that Chris was trying to ask questions of the Final 3. That’s the jury’s job, Chris!
Mary: Honestly, I loved Kelley for that moment. She was so right.
Todd: Agreed! Chris’s entire final tribal I found kind of awful and off-putting. He used weird business-y talking points because I guess he is a *checks notes* District Sales Manager? And he was straight up rude talking to Lauren, basically making her seem like an idiot for ever trusting him.
Mary: UUUUUGH! He did this dumb thing like, “It was a sales technique, Lauren.” OK, BUT YOU’RE NOT SUPER SMART EITHER, CHRIS. I mean, HONESTLY. Lauren is not stupid and there’s no need to talk to her like a child.
Todd: True story, Chris got voted out 3rd, and Lauren got voted out 2nd-to-last.
Mary: B O O M.
Todd: Chris keeps bringing up the fact that he beat “the strongest competitor in the game,” but making a fire is not something that everyone is universally good at. You can’t just say you beat Rick and thus you are, like, a Dragon Slayer! (Hey, Coach, how you doin’?) Still, the jury seemed to eat it up.
Todd: Welp. We’re here. Let’s get into it. At 9:27, Jeff finally reads the votes. 0 for Julie, 4 for Gavin, and 9 for Chris. (Also, a quick note: this jury was waaaaaaaaaay too big.)
Mary: It’s completely unsurprising and completely disappointing.
Todd: Yup. It sucks, and it makes it feel like most of this season was irrelevant. However, if any of the things mentioned above had gone differently, or if Rick had gone out earlier, or if Joe had managed to land his final ball in the hole, all of this could have been different, and while that’s true of most seasons of Survivor, it is wild to think how random and chance-based this season truly was.
I have so many thoughts about where this season might have gone wrong, and mostly I think there is a disconnect between the way that we expect a story to go and the way that real life usually goes. In a story, there is an arc, and Rick’s story seemed to more or less follow that arc. Even someone like Victoria or Lauren could have had an arc similar to last season’s winner, Nick, but Chris winning feels more like what happens every day: it is unpredictable, chaotic, and usually a bland white dude ends up on top.
Mary: I hear you, and I believe it’s true. But this is also TV, so I want that comforting arc! I want it to be fake and good!
I think what’s been hard for me this season is that it seems unfair, like you said. In The Bachelor, which has its own issues, you can eventually blame preference--people are going to like and love people for reasons they probably don’t fully understand themselves. On Survivor, I want the winner to have earned the money. They weren’t doing something that was completely based on preference, they were competing in supposedly objective challenges! That’s the thing that has made me irritated this season. If Joe had won, for example, I would’ve been fine with it because he did so good in challenges. Chris just didn’t seem to deserve it.
Todd: Yep. And no matter how hard he played for the 4 days he was back in the game, that’s still only 4 days! A Sole Survivor should have to have worked hard for longer than that to win the title, and I think Chris’s role as a provider on The Edge really endeared him to people like Reem in a way that no amount of Final Tribal speechifying could have done for Gavin or Julie.
Or think of this: Reem never even met Gavin or Julie! How could she cast a vote for them if she doesn’t even know who they are? A wild thing to consider!
Mary: You are absolutely right!
Mary: Wardog is STILL awful at challenges, somehow, and it is perplexing to me that he was in the Marines and is still so uncoordinated.
Todd: It also sucks that Aubry’s advantage seemingly was useless. The people on The Edge worked so hard for these advantages and for it to have so little pay-off for Aubry is yet another narratively unsatisfying moment in a season full of them.
Mary: Can we talk about how cute everyone looks post-shower?! It was fun to see them all as their normal selves in a big reveal. Reem has a stylish haircut! Aubry looks so sweet! Aurora seems to feel refreshed! It’s nice.
Todd: This is always one of the most fun things about the show. I liked Aurora’s overalls! And I didn’t like Wardog’s facial hair at the first tribal, post-The Edge.
Mary: HIS HAIR. WHO told him it was a good idea to shave his head bald and still have his mutton chop heard. WHO?!
Todd: Also, and this might be a dump thing to harp on, but why was Eric still wearing his dirty buff? Please, Eric! Give it a wash, at least!
Mary: Can we talk for a second about the SIA AWARD?! Which is apparently, just money that pop superstar Sia gives to her favorite player. Like, how WILD is that?! It makes me happy that Rick got something.
Todd: I am glad that Rick won, especially because he also seemed genuinely shocked! I loved that you were like, not that Sia, right? Yes, Mary, that Sia.
Also, this is the first reunion special I have watched in years, and it is becoming more apparent by the season that Jeff does not really care about these things anymore. Chris, the winner, got 1 question! And then there was a weird montage of Jeff just talking to different people, like Wardog and Aurora, without giving them a chance to respond.
Mary: This is the clearest difference between The Bachelor and Survivor. Gosh, Bach Nation loves a live viewing and I haaaaaaate it. I love how little Jeff cares about the reunion.
Todd: Oof yeah. I still have nightmare flashbacks to the premier of the last season of The Bachelor. So many people, so little to say.
Also, at one point Jeff throws to Victoria and talks about how stealth she was, and honestly this felt rude? Like, Victoria was not being intentionally stealthy, YOU AND THE PRODUCERS DID NOT SHOW HER, JEFFREY. YOU HAVE THE POWER! He also asked Big Wendy a question that wasn’t about chickens, so really, what does he know?
What are you big takeaways from this season of Survivor, your first live season!, Mary?
Mary: Hm….Well I obviously really enjoyed watching it with you, and spending that time together, and it was fun to be in the know about what was going on as it actually happened. It’s sad to be like, HEY did you guys know BOB won Gabon?! BOB! My favorite! And everyone else is like, yes, so many years ago. It was fun to get to speculate as it happened.
I also feel truly a part of the Survivor fan club now because I got to feel the outrage of Chris winning along with everyone else, and I guess that’s part of it. I still have a lot of thoughts about how Survivor fits into the reality genre as a whole, but I’m not sure this is the time or place to articulate all that. Mostly, I think that Survivor has the appearance of being very “real” but is simultaneously completely fabricated. We saw that with how the narrative got away from the producers this season. I’m really, really looking forward to next season, both to have more experience with the show and to see what they do with those RIDICULOUS statues on the beach.
Todd: I already love it. Give me those statues!
My big takeaways: Survivor can still surprise after 38 seasons, and a necessary part of that surprise is that it won’t always be pleasant! This was an interesting experiment, and I am curious what lessons the producers will take away from this season, but I am sure I will be thinking about Lauren’s epic eye rolls, Rick’s clever idol plays, and of course, the Empress of The Edge, Reem, and her inimitable, “Dude!”
THAT’S ALL FROM THE EDGE! WE’LL SEE YOU IN THE FALL FOR