This has been one of the stranger seasons in the long and winding history of Survivor. The first half was relentlessly unpleasant, dominated by the bellowing antics of Shamar and Li’l Hantz, and devoting way too much camera time to Special Agent Phil and his Stealth-R-Us nonsense. This is the downside to casting returning players: Jeff Probst, Mark Burnett, and company tend to favor loud, attention-getting personalities, no matter how grating and regardless of whether they wore out their welcomes the first time around. (They may think twice about this strategy in the future following the backlash over the Hantz meltdown; for the first time in history, a cast member was apparently banned from the reunion show.)
But the merge brought new life to the season, and suddenly the game began to play out much like the first Fans vs. Favorites, with one power player after another getting blindsided at Tribal Council. The mood lightened considerably once Shamar and Hantz were gone, and the show got fun again. This is the upside to returning players: They’ve been through it all before, and even those who flopped in their first go-round come to play hard and make big strategic moves. The prime example is Cochran, a pathetic wet noodle on Survivor: South Pacific reborn as a ruthless chess master with some of the funniest smack talk in the show’s history.
The finale begins on a bum note, mere minutes after Brenda’s eviction. The final five have barely left Tribal Council when Erik gets dizzy and has to lie down. Jeff Probst and the medics show up and quickly determine that Erik is in a starvation state and has to be pulled from the game. (As Eddie later points out, Erik has been on every reward and presumably has had more to eat than anyone else, so you just never know.) Not that I think Erik was a strong contender to win, but medical evacuations are always a downer on this show, and coming so close to the end, this one was especially unfortunate. Also, Probst’s bedside manner still leaves a lot to be desired.
The next day brings a Reward Challenge, obviously repurposed from the originally scheduled final five Immunity Challenge. It’s the old house-of-cards race, this time with a twist: The competitors have to balance the base with one hand while building with the other. This leads to an amusing series of stack collapses, but in the end, self-proclaimed challenge beast Cochran pulls it off, winning an advantage in the final IC. Of course, that challenge will have to wait for the Fallen Comrades tribute, during which the editors patch together all the most embarrassing moments from the season while incongruously mournful music plays, and the remaining players struggle to find something nice to say about them. (Favorite part: Phillip saying “No, he’s not the crazy guy” in voice-over while onscreen he makes the universal gesture for “insane in the membrane.”)
The final IC is one of those exhausting deals involving running up stairs, untying bags, and solving a puzzle. At first it seems Cochran’s advantage is significant, as it ends up giving him a one-bag lead on everyone else. At this point, I was wondering why the producers would sabotage the tension of their final challenge, but then Cochran completely squanders the lead and everyone else catches up. It appears Dawn is pulling ahead, but Cochran makes up ground quickly once he gets the hang of it and pulls into the lead, eventually winning his third IC and fourth challenge overall. Sure, he was advantage-aided on two of those, but it’s still an impressive run, leading to his cockiest confessional yet. He seems sure of winning the million; the only question is whether he’ll cut Dawn’s throat or Eddie’s. (Eddie’s compelling argument: I’m an idiot without a strategic bone in my body.) In the end, it’s Eddie that finally goes, after being targeted since at least week two of this season. That’s some sort of accomplishment, I guess, and I hope he pursues his dream of a combined bar/dog park.
Two things are certain heading into the final Tribal: Sherri isn’t going to win, and Dawn is going to break down weeping under questioning. But strangely enough, Dawn manages to hold it together through one of the feistiest and downright weirdest final Tribals ever. Phillip dismisses Sherri from Stealth-R-Us and everyone else basically just laughs at her until she finally cracks and sends Erik back to the jury box without any supper. Reynold revels in his own douchiness. And everyone unloads on Dawn with both barrels, leading to the surreal moment when Brenda demands she take her teeth out. Even stranger: Dawn does! I’m still not sure I really saw that, but it sure was uncomfortable. Andrea alone comes off like a sane human being.
After all that, the season ends in the only way possible: a landslide victory for Cochran, who takes every jury vote. His transformation is complete, and it’s especially rewarding to see someone who’s been a die-hard Survivor fanatic half his life take home the prize. I really didn’t care for Cochran the first time around in South Pacific, but he definitely won me over this time. It was a predictable outcome, but no less satisfying for that.
- I’m as sorry as any of you that Carrie Raisler couldn’t see this season through to the end, but the two-hour Revenge finale was inconveniently scheduled for tonight, so she was otherwise engaged.
- Erik made it just as far as he did last time, but left under slightly less embarrassing circumstances.
- Kind of an odd, awkward reunion show. The non-jury members weren’t on stage (probably to disguise the fact that Hantz wasn’t allowed in the building), Probst badgered Dawn into apologizing to Brenda, who appeared via satellite and showed us her big pregnant belly, and more screen time was devoted to people who didn’t play this season (Boston Rob, Richard Hatch, and holy crap, Rudy is still alive!) than to most who did.
- And the Fan Favorite winner is…Malcolm. With Brenda getting a close second sympathy vote.
- Next season: Blood vs. Water. That would seem to lend credence to the rumors that the season will involve returning players and their family members.