Uneven 'Survivor: Kaoh Rong' Finale Mutes An Otherwise Strong Season

Next season's theme of Millennials vs Generation X? Oy.
Courtesy of CBS
'Survivor: Kaoh Rong'

[This article contains spoilers for the Wednesday, May 18 finale of Survivor: Kaoh Rong.]

The first thing to know about the finale of the 32nd installment of Survivor is that this was one of the rare seasons that came into its last leg with no inherently "wrong" winner. Cydney, Michele, Tai and Aubry all had reasonably good arguments for why they deserved the million dollars, which doesn't always happen in a Survivor season. There's almost always a goat who gets taken to the jury or somebody who stumbles through to the final four or five and makes it at least to the finale if not the jury. Cydney was strong physically and made decisive and strong strategic decisions that shaped the game. Tai was responsible for the season's biggest move in blindsiding Scot and found an idol and gained an advantage (and wasted both). Aubry grew from an opening-episode nervous wreck to a power player who helped steer nearly every vote in the second half of the season. And Michele won a couple key challenges, smartly managed some alliance movement and always seemed aware of her position in the game, even if that position wasn't strong.

The second thing to know about the finale of the 32nd installment of Survivor is that a dismal jury delivered a verdict that came so close to wrong it may retroactively dampen my feelings for the season as a whole.

So first, let's remember the compelling things.

*** Nearly every vote for the entire season was up in the air right up until tribal council. There were vicious blindsides, contestants who talked themselves from safety into elimination and a half-dozen situations in which rampant whispering ensued as players scurried to get their votes in order.

*** Three medical evacuations made the season even more unpredictable. The episode that sent Caleb home was a mess. It was an example of a badly designed episode from a production perspective and poor decisions from the producers that led to three castaways suffering from heat stroke or exhaustion. That should never have happened. But it's still important to have Survivor somehow have high stakes. I prefer those stakes come in the form of icky infections and kidney problems rather than near-death situations. Mount Saint Neal and Joe's Bladder Matter were gross situations that also led to strategic shifts.

*** Speaking of gross, the earworm in the first episode was the most disturbing thing to ever happen on Survivor.

*** I also appreciated that there were three found idols and one found advantage and they were all wasted, three in shocking form. Neal took an idol home with him when he was evacuated, Scot took Jason's idol home with him when Tai refused to give up his idol to form a super idol, Joe's evacuation meant Tai's own idol was useless and Tai threw his advantage double-vote at Michele because he attempted to dictate the game and was rebuffed by his own alliance. That's fun and it's a twist on the normal importance or lack of importance that idols can have in the game.

*** Mark the Chicken

So those things, plus many others contributed to make this a very strong season right up until the jury.

Even the finale was pretty good right up until the jury.

Michele's immunity win in the first half of the episode was clutch play in a very difficult challenge. Coming from behind to knock off Aubry and Cydney, who had gotten out to an early lead, when she needed a win to probably avoid elimination was clutch. And her karate kick knocking down the three-tiered puzzle was a nice moment of release and catharsis.

That forced long-time allies Cydney and Aubry to flip on each other and set up a fire-making tie-breaker. One interpretation of the tie-breaker was that it was a dud, because Cydney never even got a flame, but the editors were able to build excitement from Aubry's perfectly built fire rising, nearly hitting the rope and then nearly dying, before she rebuilt it and won, sending Cydney home in tears.

The big finale twist came in the form of Probst announcing to Michele, Tai and Aubry that while they were, indeed, the final three, they had one more pre-jury tribal council, with the winner of a special challenge getting to knock out one member of the jury, a Survivor first. Since the challenge was a rehash of an early season challenge, this felt like Probst and company improvising and trying to make some uneven jury lemons out of eight-person lemonade, but I at least approved of the variation in the game. Michele won that challenge as well and, after some consideration, made the correct decision to eliminate Neal, simultaneously removing a guaranteed Aubry vote and eliminating a potential final tribal pot-stirrer. I'll leave it for every individual fan to decide if this was an interesting variation or if it was a violation of the spirit and structure of the game. I liked that it was unexpected. I don't like that it was unexpected in a way that ended up deciding the season, a wave of disappointment that carried through an all-time worst reunion show and the tease for a new season that has me terrified.

Michele's jury elimination choice gave her the million. Maybe. It wasn't just that Neal was going to vote for Aubry. It's that Neal was one of the few level-headed thinkers in a season that somehow ended up balanced towards wacky egotists once they got out of the game. Actually, they were wacky egotists when they were in the game, which points to the weird paradox of a season that has worthy finalists: If the wheat actually separates itself, the jury runs the risk of being all chaff.

You had Nick making a grand pronouncement instructing each finalist on how to behave, as if he'd been a good enough or meaningful enough Survivor player to be allowed to grandstand. You had Scot talking about monkeys, delivering a questionable reading of game momentum and dancing strangely. Barely any interesting questions were asked and I'd hate to think that Aubry hurt her standing when she interrupted Cydney to make an extremely pertinent point that nobody else seemed to understand. The jury questions were so insubstantial that Probst felt inclined to give the opportunity for closing statements. Aubry gave a detailed accounting of why she deserved to win. Tai cried and offered Vietnamese wisdom relating to the water hyacinth. And Michele cried and said she was an underdog and that nobody believed in her.

Michele won 5-2 and... Yeah. I don't get it. I feel like I've given Michele a ton of credit this season. She was never stupid or oblivious and she played the game as best she could, navigating usually at the bottom of alliances. The only time she came close to getting voted out was when Tai screwed things up by being autocratic. She won two big challenges in the finale and one of the wins protected her and the other made the decision that pushed the jury in her favor, because you can bet Neal would have either asked questions or advocated for Aubry.

The problem is that almost none of that was what Michele presented at the jury. She had no strategic resumé and so she relied on talking about being underestimated and playing the game as an underdog. In contrast, Aubry carefully went through all of the things she'd done to get the game to this point. The jury's entitled to listen to whoever they want and to prioritize whoever they want, but if you're celebrating Michele for being an underdog who peaked at the right time, how can you not be aware that Aubry was seemingly a worthless basketcase for the first half of the game (when Michele was a non-factor) and that she went from being a disposable afterthought to pushing herself into a leadership role and then she withstood being a target for several votes, which feels like a more ambitious arc to me. And nobody hated Aubry either. Normally when a puppet master loses on Survivor, you can chalk it up to a misplayed social game, but nobody had any reason for animosity toward Aubry.

But I guess, in the end, they didn't feel sorry for her either. It's one thing not to be hated, but it's another thing to be loved, and the only person on the jury who loved Aubry was The Physical Space Occupied By Joe and he was incapable of either attacking anybody else or of making it clear to the jury why Aubry deserved to win. And Aubry wasn't prepared to pander emotionally to the jury. She wasn't prepared to talk about how cold and alone she was on the first day and she wasn't prepared to produce tears in the end. I'd compare Aubry to Survivor: South Pacific winner Sophie Clarke in terms of intellectual approach and general deportment. The biggest difference between the two of them is that Sophie was really strong in immunity challenges, but the second biggest difference was that Sophie cried at one of the end-of-season votes. It impacted how everybody in the game saw her. Aubry cried during that early season near-breakdown and she cried a couple times in confessionals, but somehow in the biggest moment, she was analytical and detached.

I think that's what cinched things for Michele, because nothing Michele did at that final jury seemed to justify that vote.

Some Bottom Lines for the finale and reunion show...

Bottom Line, I. I just blamed Aubry's lack of emotion in key moments for her loss (or rather for why the jury didn't respond to her), but I want to retract that already. In my notes after that tribal, I figured Aubry was going to win 6-1 or 5-2. Joe voted for Aubry, but if she got only one other vote, that means either Cydney or Debbie voted for Michele. I would have thought those two were also locks for Aubry. But from there, I misread the jury, without question. Julia was always going with Michele. Nick was aligned with Michele early on and thought he was carrying her and he voted without seeing how she really felt about his condescension. Following through on their buffoonery and status as alpha jocks, Scot and Jason were more likely to vote for the prom queen than the nerd. And that's the jury. So as I look at it, which of those people was Aubry going to sway? Who from that group was going to think with their head? Why on earth did I think Aubry had a chance? Poor Aubry.

Bottom Line, II. When you heard the jury-elimination twist, did you immediately assume that Michele was going to get rid of Aubry's most obvious supporter and send The Physical Space Occupied By Joe away, meaning that one of the most invisible players in Survivor history might even be erased from the jury? I still think Aubry wins if Joe is sent away and Neal gets to stay. I could be wrong. Obviously.

Bottom Line, III. Oh, Mark the Chicken. Set free in the wilderness of Cambodia. A great gag would have been for Jeff Probst to bring a bucket of KFC on-stage with him and just not remark on it. Somebody should have given Mark a write-in vote.

Bottom Line, IV. What an awful reunion show. Did we need 10 minutes of Sia giving money to Tai and his favorite animal charities followed by Drew Carey promoting the Survivor/Price Is Right crossover? And then once the Sia thing was just all adulatory worship of Tai, did we need more time talking about Tai blindsiding Scot and Jason, rather than holding Scot and Jason to account for their smugness and thuggish behavior? Cydney finished fourth in the game and very possibly could have won if she'd made fire, but she didn't open her mouth at the reunion, nor did a few other people whose names I've already forgotten.

Bottom Line, V. Millennials vs Generation X? Oy. I know that Survivor themes tend to peter out after a few episodes, but I'm not sure I can stand a few episodes of what we saw in the clips. Probst spent a lot of time celebrating The Physical Space Occupied By Joe, but let's eliminate Boomers and Greatest Generation contenders and just cast the most stereotypical and annoying young and youngish people we can! And as somebody who spent the first 25 years of his life being considered too young for Generation X and who clearly isn't millennial, I'm already ticked off about the ongoing erasure of what used to be Generation Y.

See y'all in the fall...

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