8:28pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
'Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers' Finale Features a Big Twist and a Tough Vote
[This recap contains spoilers for Wednesday's season finale of CBS' Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. Note that I've skipped the reunion special to write this recap. I'll watch it later, but I don't know anything revealed in that bonus 40 minutes.]
I have many problems with this Survivor season and I have many problems with Wednesday's Survivor finale, but I like to give credit where it's due and I appreciate that however it got there, the season ultimately boiled down to a Final Tribal and a final vote that suggested several valid voting alternatives and wasn't quite the rout I worried it was going to be last week. That was a competitive finale. It was a contrived finale in order to make it competitive. I'd go so far as to say without a needless twist that will apparently continue going forward, it would have been a rout, but instead this was a season in which all three finalists got votes and that's not so bad.
I was fully prepared to accept a win for Chrissy. The cornball final speech in which she argued that moms are Heroes, Hustlers and Healers all together and therefore that she was a worthy and representative winner was silly and manipulative. But I like the narrative of a player who barfed on the platform during the first challenge of the season and then went on to win four individual immunities, a number equaled only by Kelly Wiglesworth, Jenna Morasca and Kim Spradlin. If you're going to be in a group of strong Survivor women, that's a good group to be in.
Chrissy definitely saved herself with a couple of those individual immunity wins and she made a very good case that she'd played a stronger social game than Ben did, or at least that she went out of her way to learn Joe's feelings about marriage and Cole's surprisingly high ACT scores, and if learning Joe's nuptial distrust and Cole's stealth braininess is worth a million bucks...I wouldn't have been angry.
OK. That's a lie. I'd have been angry, because that's what I do in these recaps. But I would have understood.
Why would I have been angry? Well, to me it's pretty simple: Immunities are great. Winning them really helps. And yes, hidden idols are a scourge that has now become too much a part of the game and really needs to be dialed back. But to me, you can't win a Survivor season in which the last four Tribal Council votes leave you shocked or disappointed. You have to have controlled the narrative of the season in the home stretch at least to some degree and even with immunity idols for the majority of those Tribals, Chrissy wasn't the person steering any of those last four eliminations.
I don't necessarily like that Ben won because he kept finding immunity idols, but the reality is that players get voted out with immunity idols all the time. They also play their immunity idols for nothing all the time. Ben found three idols and used three idols perfectly. He whipped out two idols after votes when every person thought he was going home. He used a third idol to screw everything up for the dominant alliance before the vote. Ben should have gone home five or six Tribals in a row. Possibly more. His fellow castaways threw away several shots for no reason at all. But when they were determined to take him out, three times he made it impossible for them.
Then, since Ben took matters into his own hands thrice, the Survivor gods decided to cut him some slack. [In a cosmic sense. I'm not implying the show's producers literally cut him slack.] The final individual immunity challenge brought both immunity and "the advantage of knowledge," but it also took away the more tangible advantage of power thanks to what will apparently be an ongoing format change that, honestly, should not be a format change. Chrissy was shocked to discover that rather than just deciding to take Ben out and going to a final three with Devon and Ryan that I assume she would have won, she would get to take one person with her, leaving the other two to make fire to advance. It's still an advantage. Don't get me wrong. She got to decide she wanted Ben to make fire against the vaguely competent Devon and not the generally useless Ryan. That's nice. It's not as nice as eliminating Ben. And so given a reprieve by the twist Ben dominated Devon making fire. I'm not sure Devon even got a flame.
So Chrissy went into four straight Tribal Councils determined to take Ben out and she was unable to take him out four straight times.
And that, to me, is why Chrissy couldn't justifiably beat Ben for the main prize.
Ben also had a good story and used his PTSD as an excuse for his limited social game, and I definitely believe that overcoming PTSD to win Survivor is an awesome thing and inspirational for our vets. Chrissy doing it for moms and slightly older women just couldn't compete, narrative-wise.
Let's still be clear: The twist gave Ben the million dollars. It added the drama of fire-building and I'm a fan of fire-building in a general sense, but the twist eliminated the penultimate Tribal as a voting entity and reduced the impact of winning that last immunity. Chrissy was forced to go to Final Tribal with somebody she didn't want to go to Final Tribal with and she lost because of it, which is a weird reward for that climactic immunity.
I guess I have to mention here that Ryan got Devon's vote because Ryan made a good argument in favor of his social game at Final Tribal. Ryan presented himself as Devon's puppetmaster and Devon didn't protest or burnish his own credentials, because he's a nice guy and what would it have benefited him to do so? Ryan's point that he parlayed the initial super idol advantage into an alliance with Chrissy that got him to the end was accurate and worthy. Ryan also got a pass to the final three because Chrissy didn't want him to try to make fire against Ben, which means Ryan was a goat, at least on some level. It would have taken an extraordinarily bitter jury to give Ryan the million and other than Ashley, nobody was excessively bitter and even Ashley's bitterness was far less than many past jurors have exhibited.
Congratulations to Ben! And congratulations to Survivor for finishing a middle-of-the-pack season. Not awful. There have been many worse. Not good. There have been many, many, many better. But I was entertained enough.
Let's get to some bottom lines...
Bottom Line, I. Because "Outwit," "Outplay" and "Outlast" don't mean what Jeff Probst describes them as meaning, I still don't love this new Final Tribal they introduced last season. It is, once again, making arbitrary divisions that are poorly defined and therefore become fuzzy and meaningless, just like dividing tribes by Heroes, Hustlers and Healers. I'm OK with shaking up the format. This just isn't great. The discussion, though, was quite fine and it was pretty much Ryan's only chance of winning and he did OK for himself. He just needed bitterness.
Bottom Line, II. The Final Tribal narrative that Ben had no social game is simply factually inaccurate. For the first half of the game, possibly more, he had a strong social game. He aligned with Chrissy and they looked capable of running the game. He aligned with Devon, which both helped him tremendously and split up the Devon/Ryan friendship that could have been JT/Stephen-esque under different circumstances. "Social game" doesn't mean "Makes alliances and sticks with them." It means "Makes alliances when necessary." Ben had strong alliances right up to the play-acting he had to do leading up to the Joe vote. Then he blew his alliance up. Completely. Had he not found idols, that would have been a major social game flaw on his part. But he found idols. He didn't find out about Joe's parents' divorce or Cole's testing aptitude, but there are other ways to win Survivor. So he got pissed off at Joe for being a douche and lying about him swearing on the Marines? I'm fine with that. And he targeted Cole and maybe overemphasized how much Cole was eating? I'm fine with that.
Bottom Line, III. I like the drama of Devon saving himself by voting against Doctor Mike in that first vote of the episode. I can't believe Doctor Mike would have beaten Chrissy or Ben, but Doctor Mike was sure he was going to, so taking Doctor Mike out at that moment was good, astute Survivor. Devon would have had an interesting Jury case in the right situation, but I doubt he beats Ben or Chrissy either. Somehow Devon won zero immunities. That's a letdown given the physical limitations of the people he was competing with in the home stretch.
Bottom Line, IV. Desi was really good on the jury. She was such a forgettable player, but her irritation at everybody allowing Ben constant free mobility to find idols was my irritation, too. There were four of them and one of Ben. Instead, they repeatedly kept dismissing the chances of Ben finding idols and they kept raving about how well they were sleeping. If you do that, you deserve what you get. Once again, Chrissy's failures of Ben maintenance are why she didn't deserve to beat him. Nobody could have known about that first idol he played, but after that, if Chrissy wanted to make sure Ben didn't find another idol, she couldn't keep shrugging and saying, "Nah, there's no way there's another idol." Also, her acting with the expired idol was just dismal. There were flaws in Ben's game, but to my mind there were many more flaws in Chrissy's game.
Bottom Line, V. I don't believe the season was fixed for Ben. I really don't. That's crazy talk. But the season sure felt like it was fixed for Ben. The excess of idols and the preponderance of twists basically all seemed to benefit him. So sometimes perception becomes reality and the perception that the producers had their thumb on the scale of this season is going to be hard to shake for a while. Knowing what they knew, the editors could have edited away from the #BenBomb narrative and instead they edited aggressively into it from the second episode on. It's a choice! Maybe next season we need an out-of-left-field winner.
Bottom Line, VI. How did we make it 25 minutes into the reunion show before the results? Was it really as simple as the producers knowing that there were no deeply meaningful relationships or moments they had to revisit? I guess I'll go watch the reunion show now and see how they filled that limited time.
Check out all of Josh Wigler's wrap-up interviews, and I'll see y'all back here again in the spring.