'Survivor': Jeff Probst Takes Aim at the 'David vs. Goliath' Finale

The executive producer and host breaks down each finalists' shot at the Sole Survivor title.
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'Survivor: David vs Goliath'

As a great television tactician once said: "We march to victory, or we march to defeat, but we go forward. Only forward." Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, as he surveys Survivor: David vs. Goliath and the impact its had on both the audience as well as the franchise's own future, executive producer and host Jeff Probst unwittingly invokes those memorable words from Game of Thrones' Stannis Baratheon, with his own spin on the phrase: "Survivor never goes backwards, only forwards."

After nearly two full decades on the air, CBS' Survivor concludes one of its most decisively riveting seasons with the David vs. Goliath finale on Dec. 19, "With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility." (The finale title's common thread with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is either a well-timed coincidence or another of the many instances of kismet surrounding the current Survivor season.) Over the course of the three-hour episode and live reunion show, six players will battle it out for the tip prize: rice negotiator Angelina Keeley, the good doctor Alison Raybould, hyped-up hunter Davie Rickenbacker, calm and collected Kara Kay, filmmaker and occasional rock star Mike White and prolific nicknamer Nick Wilson.

In the interview with THR below, Probst surveys all six of the finalists' odds heading into the finale, but he first shares some thoughts on the season overall, including the recently eliminated Christian Hubicki.

First of all, the last time we spoke, it was following the vote against John Hennigan, a move I described as the season's iconic "slingshot moment." One week later, the idol nullifier goes off without a hitch, and one week after that, it's a physical David vs. Goliath showdown in Christian and Alec's head-to-head battle. How fun has it been on your side of the aisle, watching the audience's passionate responses at so many points along the way, knowing how many stacked surprises were still waiting in the wings?

It's been a very fun season for us for a few reasons. From a storytelling point of view, we've been exploring lots of new ideas. We've been leaning into our sense of humor and experimenting with fresh ways to create mystery and surprise for the audience. We really believe that we have to continue to try new things and take risks in the editing bays in order to keep ourselves sharp and our fans entertained. The David vs. Goliath theme has also resonated very deeply and that's informed a lot of our storytelling. The idea of advantage is one that continues to fascinate me. You never know when a perceived liability can become your biggest weapon, and that takeaway is huge, especially for young fans who may be dealing with issues of fitting in, or figuring out who they are. Watching someone like Christian turn all his idiosyncrasies into assets is fascinating and inspiring. But for me personally, the biggest kick has come from watching the players up the gameplay. Survivor has very few rules. That is one of the most appealing parts of the game — the players decide how it goes. It's their game. This group has taken it to another level, and in doing so, they've done two things: They've created a very entertaining season, and they've set the bar for future players. Survivor never goes backwards, only forward.

Before we dig into the finalists, let's pour one out for Christian Hubicki. I know it's your job to stay impartial, but did you feel even a twinge of heartbreak in losing the good professor just one spot shy of the finale?

It's an interesting way to frame the question. I didn't feel any more heartbreak when Christian was voted out than I do when any other player is voted out. I can honestly say that I empathize with every player because I know how much they are giving. Of course there are always some personal stories that seem to connect with an audience more than others, and Christian is one of those. It's not hard to figure out why. His first impression is that of a slightly awkward, maybe neurotic, hunched introvert who is probably pretty smart but socially inept. Of course he's a David. Then, out of the gate, he blows away everybody — myself included — with the fastest solve of a slide puzzle in Survivor history. Suddenly we realize, "Maybe we misjudged him?" And now we're interested. He manages to survive a few more votes and we start to see more of his personality, especially his undeniable charm. Now we're fully hooked into his story and I believe it's because a lot of us see parts of ourselves in him. He's extremely relatable, he's vulnerable, he's willing to draw attention to his insecurities. All the things that are tough for most of us to do, he's putting on full display. It's only later that we begin to wonder… is all of this by design? Momentum gains, and oh my gosh, Christian could win it all! And then, he's gone. Such is Survivor. My personal take is that this was not a grand manipulation. I think what we saw was a pretty authentic reveal. A certain level of fear guided him initially, but the longer he played, the more confident he grew. I believe this game changed Christian in ways he won't fully appreciate for years to come. 

This is our first time catching up since we saw Christian holding you hostage at the epic endurance challenge. He gave us a very funny account of how it all went down. First of all, you deserve a medal of your own for withstanding such verbal abuse for six hours in the boiling sun. Second, what are your memories from that day, especially as it concerns Christian's performance? Third, what do we have to do to get you guys to release an extended version of the challenge?

That was definitely a memorable day. Most notably, we never anticipated the challenge would last that long. We brought enough batteries and discs for a couple of hours, but definitely not enough for six hours. So, while the challenge was playing out, our first assistant director Riley Munday was doing a lot of work behind the scenes to get fresh batters and discs across the ocean to our beach. This is critical, because there is no stopping on Survivor. We can't say [to the contestants], "Sorry, we ran out of batteries…hang tight." It was one of those days when you are reminded why your production staff must be top-notch. The challenge went so long, we even had to push Tribal Council to the next day. That never happens! 

As for my own experience with Christian, I thoroughly enjoyed it. So much was happening. It was a beautiful blend of entertainment and strategy that played straight into our theme of David vs. Goliath. Christian senses he could win, but he's up against Alec, arguably the most athletic and resilient person out there. So it if comes down to pure strength, Christian will lose. But he has a secret weapon: his ability to talk, seemingly without pausing to breathe, for hours. He can talk a little bit on a lot of topics. And that's what he did. He moved from topic to topic, all the while appearing to be rambling and stammering as though he was losing his mind. But it was Alec who was slowly losing his mind. The mindless chatter was working. Poor Alec, he knew he was in trouble and he was fighting so hard. But in the end, Christian wore him down. 

Another side note: Alec was really out of it after the challenge. We asked medical to check in with him and he didn't even remember stepping down. Talk about giving everything you have. Alec is a warrior. As for an extended release? I think it's unlikely, but only because of the time it would take to edit it! As it was, it took our editor Dave Armstrong about a week just to watch all the raw footage!

In his exit press, Christian has talked about his strategy of "radical honesty," which more or less means playing with cards up in order to make the moments of true deception land with greater impact. As Survivor becomes more and more complex from a gameplay standpoint, what are your thoughts on the idea of playing the world's most cutthroat game in a relatively open manner? And if you don't buy the idea of "radical honesty," I'll phrase the question another way — what do you think Christian's legacy will be, moving away from this season?

I will answer both of your questions this way: I have said for years that this game requires big moves. And for years, people have criticized me as trying to manipulate players into making big moves when they shouldn't. I haven't detoured from my belief. Just speaking from a macro point of view, the game requires that you move it ahead of where it is when it begins. And there is no guarantee that the move you make will be the right one. It's a total mind bend, but I do believe it's the truth. If you come in basing your game play on a player from a previous season, the chances are very good that you're already behind, because there's another player sleeping next to you that has already made her first big move. So if it's "cards up" one season, then it may be "I have no cards at all" the next season. We never know where the game is going to go, we only know that it is constantly in motion.

In many ways, Christian was the face of David vs. GoliathStephen Fishbach compared him to Rupert circa Pearl Islands, a force of nature as a character. With that said, Christian's final episode was a quiet affair as far as his own visibility, with more attention focused on Nick versus Davie, Mike gearing up to make the move, and other machinations from the perspectives of the players who will be competing in the finale. This season, the evolution of Survivor storytelling has been so fascinating to behold. From that storytelling standpoint, can you guide us through the thinking behind the way in which the show sent out one of its breakout stars? For example, is there a feeling that Christian can go out with a relatively quiet episode, because his seasonal arc can still close out in the finale, given the fluidity of the new Final Tribal Council format, where jurors have more chances now to participate than ever before?

It's really interesting to hear your assumptions because they make total sense, and yet it never occurred to us to look at it that way. In a nutshell, this is how it goes: Once shooting is finished, we come home and lay out a master "big picture" story for the entire season. We chart each players' highs and lows from both a strategy and emotional point of view. We then endeavor to tell the entire story in the most authentic way possible, while still entertaining the audience with the question: "Who will be voted out tonight?" So, when it came time for Christian to be voted out, the story centered on those responsible for the move and setting up the impact it would have on the next episode. It's one of the things that I think help set Survivor apart, and also one of the reasons you can't always tell who is going home. We work hard to give you clues so you can play along, with just enough misdirect to keep it interesting.

With that out of the way, let's get your takes on all of the finalists, heading into the final episode, beginning with Angelina Keeley.

I am in the camp that really appreciates Angelina's bold style of play. She's aggressive, she demands attention, she seeks credit. There's nothing wrong with that in my book. Where Angelina struggles is in failing to read the reaction from others to her style of play. She's smart enough to temper her approach, but right now she seems blind to the need to do so. For instance, bringing up the rice is driving people crazy, but from her point of view, she really saw it as a sacrifice and simply wants credit. When you're not in the game, it's easy to see both sides. Her chances of winning come down to who she sits next to at the final three and if she is able to show the jury that she has grown and does see her faults.

How about Alison?

Alison has done an amazing job of staying in this game. I wonder if there is a connection to the tenacity it takes to get through medical school and become a doctor. She has been on the bottom so long her neck must ache from looking up. If she gets to the final three, she could have a very strong case. Surviving that many votes with very few weapons or support is impressive.

Final thoughts on Davie?

What a fun season for Davie. All his eight-year-old dreams coming true. Davie is a clear threat to win based on likability. Where Davie going to struggle is when it comes down to alliances and trust. Everybody has a game plan for who they want to sit next to at the end. Davie has his, but everybody else has theirs. How Davie gets to the end is as important as getting to the end. The choices he makes about who to remain loyal to will play a big part in his finish.

A dark horse candidate: Kara Kay.

Kara has played a very quiet but stealth game. She navigated the Dan relationship with such grace and has an amazing ability to smile and agree to any idea thrown at her, even when there is zero chance she will go along with it. That ability to bury your ego and let the others think you're just along for the ride is the key to her game. Because of this, Kara has a very good shot to get to the end because so many other players are gunning for each other. If she makes it to final three, she has a very good shot to win.

How do you feel about Mike White and the way he's played?

I think Mike has surprised even himself with how he has played. I don't think he really believed he could get this deep and now that he's here, he can taste victory. You can see his very quick mind at work. He has become a master manipulator who can throw people off the scent of a vote with relative ease. The lingering question is Mike's much-discussed professional success. Will a jury reward someone who has already achieved so much in their normal life? On day one it seemed unlikely, but on day 35? It seems totally possible.

Last but not least: Nick Wilson.

Nick got off to a rough start and had it not been for the unfortunate accident with Pat, I do believe he would have been voted out. It's a great reminder of why you never give up on Survivor. Nick is a very shrewd player. Desperate at times, but he has honed his skills considerably over the 35 days on the island. He has had multiple alliances, and those could be the deciding factor if he makes the final three. How will his social game be evaluated by the jury? I think Nick is a legit threat to win, but first, he has to get to the end — and secondly, he must be sitting next to the right people.

Follow THR.com/Survivor for full coverage of the finale and beyond.