One of the things that makes Survivor such a success after so many years is its ability to still surprise. This entire season felt like one big surprise from the very beginning, simply because it was so unexpectedly entertaining despite having to follow an extremely strong Second Chances season full of returning players. The surprises continued to the very end, crowning a winner it was almost impossible to see coming. Whether that surprise is a good or a bad thing relies entirely on your personal interpretation of how satisfying that winner turned out to be.

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Coming into this finale, it almost felt like a miracle that all four players left were at least pleasant enough for it not to feel like an outrage if any of them won the game. Aubry had a great social game mixed with a good control of the strategic game; Tai had a quirky personality, a great relationship with a chicken, and some good moves under his belt; Cydney was immensely likeable and constantly in the mix on all of the same strategic moves Aubry was; and while Michele didn’t have the longest résumé, she had at least one big strategic decision and an ability to survive situations she had no business surviving. Of the four, Michele had the loosest ties to anyone else and seemed the most likely to not make the final three, but as the episode progressed a narrative started to build that was more surprising than almost anything else that happened this season.

It started with the build up to the final immunity challenge. It was this point where Michele made a very smart declaration: If Aubry didn’t win immunity, she wanted to vote her out, and she wanted Tai’s help to do it. It’s the kind of conversation that can seem like a throwaway moment to build up doubt about who was going home, but its real purpose was to give a narrative showing that Michele could actually win the game. This isn’t the moment that wins her the game, though; that happens when she comes from dead last to win the immunity challenge, effectively saving her life in the game and allowing her to attempt to put her “vote Aubry” plan in motion. Without that win, she would have likely easily been voted out. With it, she managed to almost get out Aubry by convincing Cydney to vote her out and forcing a fire-making challenge tiebreaker when Tai doesn’t go along with it.

This makes it sound like Michele was getting a clear winner’s edit in the finale, which couldn’t be further from the truth. She was simply getting an edit that showed the possibility of a Michele win, while the rest of the edit around her screamed about how most likely Aubry was actually going to win. Aubry has been the clear winner of the “strategic” edit for quite a while, and that edit continues here as she’s forced into what looks like an impossible situation in the final Tribal and somehow manages to convince Tai not to vote her out. Aubry pulling off that move and then getting a triumphant edit during the fire-making challenge made it almost look like her win was a lock, right up until the final jury questioning.

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The final jury questions can be a tough thing to read, and this jury was no exception. What became clear very quickly was that very few of them had questions for Michele, mostly saving their questions for Aubry and Tai, or giving grand speeches about how to talk to the jury (Nick, you condescending jackass). Usually not getting asked very many questions on air is a clear sign that the person is not going to win—or even get very many votes—but the exact opposite happened here. What’s the most baffling about Michele’s win (and whether or not you like her win, the jury voted for her and that’s the game, so she deserves the win) is that Aubry seemed to do such a good job when answering the questions she was given. She touted her clear strategic moves, played up her game emphasis on relationships, fed egos where necessary like when talking to Debbie, and gave a pretty great final speech about her love of the game and how she played it. And it went over like a ton of bricks.

Tai was never going to win the game. Scot and Jason were too betrayed by him, and his reputation of flipping on his alliance didn’t seem to go over with the members of the jury. What’s interesting to see is how the jury valued the game the Michele played over the game that Aubry played, when viewed through what they saw versus what we saw in our edited version. Julia—who was Michele’s ally and voted for her—even laid out all the faults in her game, like getting lucky at the beginning and then getting dragged along as a number until she finally made a move very late in the game. What did the jury see in this game that was so obviously superior to Aubry’s consistent, steady control over what her alliance did?

To me as a viewer, Aubry was the clear person to vote for, so seeing a jury go so far away from that answer is always an interesting exercise in what the viewer sees versus what the people playing the game see, and what I value in the game versus what people playing the game value. And this is why reality television can remain so vital, even when its outcome feels like a disappointment: It’s can be as unpredictable as the humans that populate its world. See you next season, when surely something will manage to surprise us anew, all over again.

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Stray observations

  • Mark the chicken, we’ll miss you most of all.
  • Next season is Millennials vs. Gen X. Never has “kill me now” felt so appropriate.
  • Were Aubry’s only votes Joe and Debbie? How much did Michele removing Neal from the jury ultimately help her win?
  • The whole reunion was terrible, but the worst part was that Cydney didn’t get to talk at all. She was a fun player and I hope she gets to come back someday.
  • The fire-making challenge was very intense to watch, which is surprising considering Cydney was never actually in the game at all.
  • Sia came on television and just handed Tai $50,000 (as well as a charity of his choice). O…kay?
  • Neal, (ultimately wrong) about Michele: “You came to this game thinking you’re a badass bitch and you’re more of a cute little puppy suckling at the teat, and I don’t think you stand a chance.”
  • “The things that men talk about is not what I know.” Loved this from Tai.

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