“The winner of the show is on this mat.”

These words, uttered by Blue Collar tribe member Lindsey on the first day, seems more prophetic than they probably are. Worlds Apart was a season of forced labels slapped on people in an attempt to force tension. The artifice of it was obvious to viewers from the start, but it still managed to infect the interactions of the characters within the game just as intended. The funny thing is, once the tribes started shuffling and this artifice started breaking down, it was readily apparent just how important that artifice was in covering up that this cast just wasn’t all that great at creating a compelling Survivor season.

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Given that the last stretch of the season has at least been watchable (in a “root for the awful people to lose” sort of way) it’s easier to forget how much of this season wallowed in the doldrums—and how much more of it was downright offensive. This season of Survivor was absolutely salvaged into something slightly greater than terrible by Mike’s combination of underdog strategic game and dominant challenge game, which created a rooting interest amidst a virtual black hole of other options (save Carolyn, who also had a strong end run). Mike’s impossible winning streak isn’t compelling television, except that it totally was when given just how much he had stacked against him in the strategic portion of the game. Watching someone win challenge after challenge is boring if they’re also running the strategic game. Watching someone win challenge after challenge is boring if they’re an awful person everyone is trying to defeat. But watching someone win challenge after challenge who is generally fine but hated by everyone else? Someone who has their life in the game on the line every time they step into a challenge? That’s a narrative the producers and editors can run with, and thankfully they did.

To the end, though, Mike winning this game felt like a long shot. His winning streak was responsible for most of the jury members getting voted out. Strategy-wise, he did a lot of chaos-making that resulted in more than one torch getting snuffed. And, as we found out during the strange jury questioning, as much as he seemed likeable on camera, he wasn’t the most well-liked person at camp. Every jury member seemed like they were attacking him a bit. Even Shirin, who seemed like Mike’s biggest champion, looked to be leaning toward voting Carolyn to win the game. Just like during the season, though, the Survivor editing team was just creating intrigue where there was none; Mike won the game in an easy majority, just like it seemed like the edit was setting up Mike to win the game from very early on.

As the seasons roll on and Survivor gets more and more entrenched and complacent in its own structure, seasons like this are absolute killers. The show certainly has a formula—for editing, for casting, for storytelling—and this formula does rather well when they have a cast lively enough to throw a few curveballs into the mix. But when you get a season like this, the structure starts to be a hindrance rather than a help. Plenty of commenters here called that Mike was getting a “winner’s edit” very early on, and at a certain point, that edit is self-fulfilling: If, say, Carolyn had won this season rather than Mike, would that have been satisfying? She certainly played probably the best strategic game throughout, but we rarely got to see that strategy until the very end, with her gameplay being something people talked about more than we got to see. The Survivor structure just doesn’t have time to tell a lot of simultaneous game narratives, especially when that time is used up in dealing with far more unpleasant things like Dan and Will’s behavior.

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This was a pretty darn boring finale and reunion show, save a few things: Jenn and Shirin’s jury speeches, and Jeff Probst dealing with all of Dan and Will’s bad behavior at the reunion. Jenn’s jury moment was fun simply because, after a jury full of dullness, she at least showed some Jenn spark by calling everyone out for being bitter bitches who were just mad at Mike for beating them. Shirin was memorable in a different way, using her experience with Will’s abuse (and Mike’s support during that abuse) to both call out Will for his behavior, praise Mike for his, and give a fun speech that was a total homage to Sue Hawk’s speech in season one.

It was good these women got to shine in the final jury questioning, because they barely got a chance to say anything at the actual reunion. The reunion was way overstuffed, trying to fit far too much content into a collapsed timeframe, and the actual reunion with the current season’s cast is what suffered the most. The good news is they got to deal with the most important things: Why Dan and Will are so terrible. Dan, for his part, simply seems like a viciously self-absorbed person who cannot see how his words and actions appear to other people. After watching the season he does take the time to sincerely apologize to Shirin, but Probst isn’t done with him. No, Probst has an axe to grind about all the bad-mouthing Dan has been doing in the press, and he brings raw video footage to prove that Dan’s edit wasn’t bad. Dan is just bad. It’s a truly great moment.

As for Will, his moment with Shirin was far less satisfying, mostly because Will obviously doesn’t think what he did is any sort of indication that he’s a horrible person way down in his soul. He attempts an apology to Shirin, but only after being prompted—and couched with a litany of caveats about how Shirin should accept the apology. That this all happens while Will’s wife is in the audience yelling about what a great guy he is (during what should be Shirin’s moment) is pretty dire. That Shirin doesn’t immediately accept his apology feels like the right decision for her, even though it’s a tough decision she could definitely see some fallout from in her own life. You don’t have to accept every apology you get, no matter what Will says about Jesus.

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So that’s the end of a season that was mostly blah, with occasional bright spots, and a pretty okay run of episodes at the end. Next season’s viewer-chosen cast is a total wild card, but there’s no way it could possibly be worse right? Right?

Stray observations:

  • The Survivor Second Chance list is up here. Stephen Fishbach got in and that was all I cared about. (Mostly because I don’t know at least half of these people. I have some catching up to do this summer!)
  • The other not boring thing: Final four fire challenge! That was great, even if it started out really, really boring. Once again Rodney is terrible at challenges and thinking under pressure, though.
  • Carolyn is surprised she didn’t get more votes, and honestly I was a bit, too.
  • Rodney thinks he could win the game if he made it to the end, a thought that is immediately rejected by his fellow jury members. At least you finally got that birthday cake, bro.
  • The first Reward Challenge with the blindfolds has to be one of the most gorgeous, best-designed challenges they’ve ever done. Just stunning.
  • “This was a season of gamers.” I…do not agree with this assessment, Carolyn.
  • “Do you want to apologize to her?” “I should apologize to her.” That tells me everything I need to know, Will.

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