'Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X' Caps a Strong Second Half With a Twist-Filled Finale

The 'Survivor' finale included a fake idol, several real idols and what looked like a close contest until the results were read.
Courtesy of CBS
'Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X'

[Warning: Spoilers ahead for the Wednesday (Dec. 14) season finale of Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X.]

Man, it was only two months ago that I was making fun of Jeff Probst's broad, demographically irrelevant pronouncements about Millennials and Gen-Xers and lamenting an overly predetermined season structure and theme and looking forward to the 34th season in the spring.

Somewhere at midseason, right around the tremendous blindside that took out Michaela, my favorite player in the game, Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X found a new gear. Not at all coincidentally, this was around the time that the tribal boundaries were being merged and then erased entirely, and Probst could only force one or two generational generality into each episode.

Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, which started off as a dud that I was comparing to The Amazing Race's obnoxious social media stars season, had one of the strongest home stretches of any Survivor season in recent memory, if not any Survivor season ever. People were playing smartly and aggressively and thinking about what it would take to win the million dollars in front of a final just. They were making personal connections that often were emotional and powerful and the season also had several broad, sweeping arcs of personal growth edited throughout. There were blindsides and stupidly played idols and one vote that went to rocks and people cried and people were loyal and people made smart moves against their better judgment and dumb moves for smart reasons and we got one great vote after another heading all the way to a top three that felt as wide open as any I could remember.

And then one player at final tribal council played what I thought was a perfect jury game and answered every question with precision and ownership, laid out a clear case and talked down anybody who tried to diminish their case.

And then Hannah was shut out and Adam won unanimously, and he won either because the jury allowed him to get away with dramatically minimizing Hannah's gameplay in the most embarrassingly gendered of terms, or he won because, after holding off for the entire game, he finally told everybody about his cancer-stricken mother — or both. That bothers me somewhat, except that I'll also say this: Adam didn't play a bad game and wasn't an undeserving winner, and I can be totally tolerant of the idea that he was a more deserving winner than Hannah because he played aggressively throughout and she only locked in toward the end. For the totality of the season Adam was a fine winner, and I get that his story was a great story, punctuated by the sad revelation that his mother died only an hour after he got home, but after he told her that he was sure he won. And I also get that by donating $100,000 of his winnings to cancer research, Adam has done a great thing, and I have nothing but respect for him for that.

But Hannah, for me, gave decidedly the best final tribal performance, and the person who won, won because he minimized Hannah's gameplay as "erratic." Now I don't know what happened out there in real life, but I know what the editing showed, and what the editing showed was that the most erratic player out there was Adam and it wasn't even close. Adam made one wrong move after another. He flailed and messed things up and was constantly on the defensive, and he was correct to acknowledge that the best thing he did was make sure that he had three bigger targets in front of him. Over and over again he repeated that Hannah made the wrong decision in keeping David and voting Bret out and that she did it because she was erratic. He might as well have called her "emotional" or anything else that men do to diminish women making decisions. Hannah wasn't playing emotionally. She was absolutely flipping and flopping, but she did it in ways so that nobody accused her of it until the very end. She was floating with purpose — and floating with increased purpose as she grew more comfortable. Remember what an awful liar she was at the midpoint in the game? By the end of the game, Adam didn't know what she was going to do — so he called that erratic because she played him. And if David had won that final immunity or if Ken had prioritized loyalty, might it have looked like a bad move? Of course. But that's not what we saw. That's not what happened.

And it's not like Hannah was a passive observer in making sure Ken made the choice he made in finally turning on David after he won at the top four. Do I believe it's possible that Ken would have voted David out regardless of prodding? Of course. Do I think Hannah at least helped keep Ken's mind on that track? Yes. Do I think Adam had anything at all to do with Ken's decision? No, I do not. (Maybe he did. Who knows? As always, I can only base my opinion on what the editing shows me.) But for Chris to get up there and compliment Adam for making the brilliant move in swaying Ken against David was comical. It was an alpha male refusing to believe that a female could make a power move. Nothing more, nothing less. It was a bad Survivor read from a bad Survivor player.

If you remember where Hannah was at the beginning of the game, basically unable to speak and literally unable to breathe in a challenge where she was on the sideline, her journey to the becoming decisive woman we saw at final tribal was every bit as big as David's journey and much better than what Ken and Adam went through, at least in terms of visible growth. Naturally, that was undervalued and under-respected to the point that in the live reunion show, Jeff Probst started off talking to Adam, as you do because he was the unanimous winner, but then transitioned to David and then Zeke and then Bret, raving about all of their journeys.

Finally, when Probst remembered that Hannah was there, he led by showing a clip of Hannah's one giggly moment on the beach with Ken, reducing her to a woman who flirts, as if that were even a minor part of Hannah's game. Hannah grew smarter, more determined and more able to take control of herself in the game, and she made or helped make a number of big decisions, but Probst wanted to paint her as a silly girl in love with the big hunky man. When Hannah was making her pitches to Ken to vote David out, a pitch that Adam wasn't allowed to have any part of, she appealed to him only on strategic and intellectual levels. She spoke to him as a player in the game, not as an eye-batting damsel.

Hannah didn't have quite as strong as game as Aubry did in losing last season, but it was a comparable game, and Jeff Probst and the Survivor editors weren't able to process that game and, in the end, both juries didn't respond to that game. That doesn't make the game imaginary or invisible.

I mean, Zeke got up at final tribal and asked the top three what they did to evolve the game of Survivor. Ken had nothing to say. Adam said he hid behind stronger people, which has been a tried-and-true strategy forever. Hannah laid out her theory of trust clusters, terminology so catchy that Jeff Probst used it himself when she introduced it earlier in the season. Hannah literally evolved the language of the game, took credit for it and explained how it was essential to how she played — and Zeke still voted for Adam.

Jeff Probst's love of alpha males and his overlooking of any version of Survivor that doesn't align with his ideal has always been a problem, the major blemish for a guy we all agree is still, generally, a superb reality TV host. It's just a fact that it's easy to impress Probst if you're one kind of player, and you have to do far more to win his approval if you deviate from that at all. We saw it again tonight. And we'll see it again next season, when we already know that the crop of returning players will include several of his favorites.

I'll say it again though: The fact that I can get this worked up about a finale, and about the entire second half of the season, is the latest reminder of what a great formula this is. It's not like we really needed a reminder. Last spring's season was great until it went off the rails at the end, and last fall's season was a classic.

Survivor works.

A bunch of Bottom Lines from tonight and maybe the season …

Bottom Line, I. To repeat: Last season, I thought Aubry was robbed, both for the work she did at tribal, but really for her performance for most of the season. Hannah was not robbed. I just think she deserved to win if you believe, as I did, that it was close to a tie before final jury. She definitely didn't deserve to get shut out. But congratulations to Adam for being entertaining TV almost all season long. He just did so many stupid and misguided things if you go back through his entire résumé. He blamed Hannah for being erratic. He was the erratic one. He was the emotional one. He was the one whose actual game was the type that Probst normally minimizes. Hannah started off erratic and became cool and collected. Adam never became that. But he won for a good cause. I do not want to diminish that at all.

Bottom Line, II. How great was that first tribal council? David wasn't the first player to make a fake idol, but was he the first player to make a fake idol, hide a fake idol, have the person he hoped would find the fake idol find it and use it, and then go out of the game exactly as he designed? I think he may have been. I don't know whether I preferred David's Gollum-like glee at Jay spotting the idol or Jay's swagger whipping out the idol at tribal or Probst's "This is … not a hidden immunity idol. It is a work of art, but it has no value in this game" or Jay's horror. Or maybe my favorite part was that as soon as he realized what happened, he was totally gracious and excited and pleased with being part of that moment. I love a blindside where the player blindsided is able to respect the effort that went into the move.

Bottom Line, III. I also loved Hannah's pleasure at being the only woman left in the game at the episode's second vote. You can believe Adam's case that she made the wrong move, but why is it not equally easy to believe that she did the requisite fact-finding, weighed her options and decided that Bret was a stealthy threat that couldn't be allowed to slip through? She saw David's physical capabilities when it came to winning a challenge and weighed that against the belief that either Ken would act in his own best interest or that she could control Ken, and she went with that. She might have hypothetically been proven wrong, but in the concrete reality of the game, what she did was right, and that's not ends-justifying-means thinking. She made a gamble, the gamble paid off, and then she wasn't given credit for it.

Bottom Line, IV. Oh, and she caused Adam to play an idol for nothing, the second idol he played for nothing. So Adam got to make the case that he found idols, but he used both of them on people who didn't get votes. In the previous tribal, Ken used his legacy advantage, basically another idol, in a circumstance in which he at least got a single vote, but he didn't actually need it. There were a lot of idols used this season and a lot of idols used for nothing this season. [UPDATE: In the heat of the recap, I conflated a couple of things in my mind on Adam's first Idol play. He used his actual idol on Hannah when she got votes, but didn't need the idol because Will stayed on their side. The idol he "used" earlier without needing to was when he made Dave waste his idol on Ken because he thought Ken was in trouble. If Adam had wanted to retroactively claim that was strategy on his part, I could almost entertain that interpretation. But he did not because it was not.]

Bottom Line, V. Speaking of wasting or not wasting things, I was intrigued by Dave winning that first immunity and steak reward, Jay using the advantage that Adam gave him to steal it, but still letting David and Adam come on the reward with him. That was a savvy use of that advantage.

Bottom Line, VI. You can make the argument that Adam actually won because of how he used an advantage that we all thought was a disaster. He used the advantage by not using it on the family visit, which let Jay get to spend time with his family. Jay then let Adam have that reward anyway, and Adam gave Jay the advantage, and then Jay let Adam have the reward that he stole. This reward-swapping established a bond between Jay and Adam, making Adam comfortable enough to tell Jay about his mother. If Adam doesn't tell Jay about his mother, Jay doesn't obliquely bring up Adam's mother at final tribal, opening the door for Adam to address it directly. Does Adam win with or without the tears at the end? Maybe. Does he win unanimously? I doubt it.

Bottom Line, VII. Who wins between David and Adam?

Bottom Line, VIII. While next season has a few players I'm a bit sick of seeing back again, it also has some players I'm looking forward to watching another time. Unfortunately, it's Fiji again, so more bats and no monkeys.

That's it for another season! See you guys again in March.

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