'Survivor' Finale: Jeff Probst Explains Winner's "Desperate" Victory

The veteran 'Survivor' host and executive producer weighs in on the lesson he learned from the 'Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers' champion, and much more.
Courtesy of CBS
Jeff Probst

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season finale of CBS' Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.]

In Survivor, fire represents your life. It's an old adage within the storied reality franchise's history, and one with special significance as it relates to the recently concluded 35th season, Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.

A season that was already brimming with twists culminated in another hard left turn right at the finish line, with the introduction of a brand-new twist: The winner of the final immunity challenge earned the power to bring one of their fellow castaways with them to the final Tribal Council. As a result, the two remaining players would be left to compete in a fire-making challenge for the final seat at the final Tribal. The high-stakes trial by literal fire ended up being a (wait for it) game changer, as the winner went on to win it all: Heroes tribe veteran and war veteran Ben Driebergen, who wound up with the million dollar prize after playing three back-to-back-to-back immunity idols, and winning the aforementioned fire challenge to seal the deal.

"Ben played much harder than even I anticipated," executive producer and host Jeff Probst tells The Hollywood Reporter about the champion of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. "It really woke me up to how much deeper we are all capable of digging if our need is strong enough."

With Driebergen's win and the season at large now in the rearview mirror, Probst spoke with THR about how the finale shook out and the five finalists in particular, starting with one last look at the season at large.

"This season was a great reminder to the production team that for all of our planning, we aren't in charge of much," says Probst about his takeaways from the twists and theme of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. "We can lay out all the clever creative we want, but it's the players' reaction to the creative that determines the story. I liked all of the twists we tried. The idea of secrets and advantages that can only be played at a specific time are things we will try to bring back at some point in the future. We bounce around a lot with which twists we use and when we use them specifically to keep the players off-balance. We try to make it very hard to accurately predict what is in play at any moment. That's one of the fun parts of the job. It's a new Survivor stew every season!" 

Before moving onto each specific player, Probst looks at the finalists as a group: "I was very happy with the final five. They were a great representation of the entire season and all very different types of players. There are a lot of ways to win this game and anytime you go into a finale with five likable players, all of them with a shot to win, you're in good shape."

The first finalist to fall in the finale: Mike Zahalsky, the last Healer left standing. Doctor Mike, or "Doc," as he came to be known in his final moments in the game, would have survived the final five Tribal Council, if not for a clever maneuver from Devon Pinto, who placed a vote against Mike as insurance in the event Ben played a third immunity idol. Devon risked Mike's ire if he was wrong, but would keep his torch lit another night if he was right — and luckily for the surf instructor, he was very right indeed, securing his continued survival over the Florida-based urologist and longtime Survivor super-fan.

Here's how Probst viewed Mike in the preseason: "Doctor Mike is a homerun. Doctor Mike was 'on' about one and a half seconds after he sat down. Doctor Mike ... I think he would be okay with me saying this: He's an underdog, when you look at him. He doesn't look like the prototype for the person that's on our show. But Doctor Mike is surprisingly confident about himself in all areas of life. He knows he's a very good doctor, he talks about his relationship being amazing, and he also says, 'I can start fire in under a minute, so I'm going to surprise people out there.' And man, he is witty. He's very funny. He has a lot of sexual innuendo with his job as a urologist. I think there are a lot of women especially who will think he's very charming."

Here's how Probst views Mike now, following his elimination: "Mike was different than I anticipated, but in an equally charming way. I didn't realize how earnest he was going to be. Mike really seemed to want to connect with others and have a complete Survivor experience. I think he might have surprised his kids with how well he did. So often our family only sees one side of us and we so rarely get a chance to truly be tested. He is not the prototypical Survivor and yet he outlasted most everybody in the game and was only taken out by a big-time gutsy move by another player. Most satisfying of all for me is that Mike seemed to truly enjoy every single moment on the island."

Devon's move against Mike kept him in the game for one more night, but no further. In winning the final immunity of the season, Chrissy Hofbeck was in the power seat to bring Devon or Ryan Ulrich with her to the final three, while leaving one in the game to battle it out against Ben. With that in mind, she selected Devon as the champion against Ben, a task the young Hustler accepted without question. But even with an afternoon to practice, Devon was unable to get his fire started in time to defeat Ben, who made quick work of the challenge. With that, Devon became the last player eliminated from the game, one day short of the final Tribal.

Here's how Probst viewed Devon in the preseason: "Devon's very likable. He's so good-looking and charming, and yet, you still like him. I think it speaks to why he's on the Hustlers tribe. Devon is a bit of an exception to the rule, I think, in that I would say he's had an easier life. If you just look at his background, it hasn't been difficult. But what Devon has done with the choices in his life is say, 'I'm not going to take this for granted. I could be a kid who says, oh, something else will come my way. Doors just open for me because people want to hang out.' But instead, he takes every gift that lands in his lap and goes, 'I can do something with this.' That's the guy who ends up being the billionaire and you go, 'How did you get here?' And he goes, 'A couple of bucks at a time.' He's still good-looking and he's got the cool car and the penthouse in Japan. I think Devon is a real threat to go deep, so long as he doesn't get taken out for being such a threat. That's the hard thing when you're Devon. You're a walking billboard for why people should want to get rid of you."

And here's how Probst views Devon now, following his trial by fire: "Wow, reading this back, one line stands out: 'He takes every gift that lands in his lap and goes, "I can do something with this."' How spot-on that turned out to be in the fire-making showdown. Most players would see that as an obstacle, but Devon took it and said, 'I can do something with this,' and he turned it into an opportunity. It didn't work out this time, but that attitude is incredible and probably the number one reason he was so popular with moms, dads, women, men and kids. Devon was a slow burn for me; I had to learn his cadence, but now that I understand him, I would welcome him back anytime."

With Mike and Devon out of the way, the stage was set for a final showdown between the jury and the three remaining castaways. For his part, Devon cast his winning vote for Ryan, his fellow Hustler and his first ally in the game. Despite earning knocks for his inability to help around camp and his lack of challenge skills, Ryan earned some praise for his social play — but not enough to secure him the win.

Here's how Probst viewed Ryan in the preseason: "Ryan, if he lasts long enough, is going to go down as one of the great storytellers. He's got a great gift for gab. He's very witty. Great wordplay. He's really smart. I hope he lasts. He's in a league we've never really had. Yes, he's kind of like [John] Cochran [who won Survivor: Caramoan] and David [Wright, who came in fourth on Survivor: Millennials vs Gen X], but those are cliche examples. I don't really think we've had anybody like Ryan."

And here's how Probst views Ryan now, following his failed shot at the million: "Again, reading it back, it feels pretty true. He was one of our best storytellers this season. He has a way of saying things you've heard before but saying them in a way you've never heard before. Beyond his storytelling, Ryan is a great strategist. He played a very subtle game where he let other players feel as though they were in charge so he didn't appear as a target. He played it beautifully, but as we saw, it comes with a risk. If you wait too long to stand up and be counted, it can be hard to change opinions. I don't think there is any doubt he's a great Survivor player, and if he played again, it could be a different and more satisfying result."

Then there's the other finalist who couldn't quite reach the million, despite her proficiency with numbers: actual actuary Chrissy Hofbeck, who made an impassioned case as the best representative of the season's Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers theme. Even without the win under her belt, Chrissy made Survivor history by tying the record for most immunity challenges won by a woman at four, three of which were earned in a row. 

Here's how Probst viewed Chrissy in the preseason: "The reason Chrissy is a hero in my eyes? It's a list. She's one of the most amazing women I've ever met. She broke the glass ceiling in terms of business. She's extremely successful in her career. She makes a lot of money. Uber-smart. Stops. Decides to have a family. Has kids, raises them, and then says, 'Okay! I'm ready to go back in [to work],' goes back in, then kicks ass again. That's a hero on so many different planes. Pick one. What I thought was interesting about Chrissy is that going into the game, she said, 'My biggest fear is that I'm going to be the oldest person out there.' It reminded me: 'Man, I see you as this uber-superwoman, and you find your one Achilles' heel and that's what you're focused on.' I hope that doesn't do her in, because I was looking at her going, 'OK, you have an Achilles' heel, but you have, like, 50 assets to use.' I'm really curious if it's just an initial fear and she'll get to the beach and her instincts and brain will take over, or if she'll crush herself."

And here's how Probst views Chrissy now, after making it all the way to the end: "Chrissy outperformed even my initial assessment of her, which was pretty high! She's truly one of the best to ever play. She's strong at strategy, not afraid to play dirty, was physically dominating in the challenges and a very good persuader of people. I think she probably inspired a lot of people to want to play, and not just moms. She made the game fun because she let us see all sides of her. We're not all perfect and Chrissy let us see her when she was up and she let us in when she was down. Those vulnerable moments are typically what really connects an audience to a player because we see ourselves in them. I hope she will play again one day."

And then there was one: Ben Driebergen, army of one. Despite never once earning an immunity challenge win, Ben found himself safe from the vote time and time again thanks to his proficiency at finding idols. The mission-oriented player was public enemy No. 1 for several Tribal Councils in a row and still managed to walk away with the Sole Survivor title and million dollar prize, thanks in large part to the eleventh hour fire-making twist.

Here's how Probst viewed Ben in the preseason: "I love Ben. He walked in with a cowboy hat and a plaid shirt and big boots and a pair of jeans. He sat down and said, 'Well, what do you want to know?' We said, 'Well, who are you?' He said, 'Well, I've done a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I was in the service for a little while. I did a couple of tours.' He made it sound like he was out in the backyard mowing his lawn, you know? And then he also shared, really honestly, that he's not doing something he loves. He said, 'I'm working to make a living for my family. I want more. I see this game as something that can change my life. There's a million dollars [on the line]. I don't care how hard it is. I've done hard. I want this for my kids and my wife.' Man, it's a hard story to not move you. That's what Survivor offers a lot of people: 39 days, you have to be strategic, you have to be savvy about human nature, you have to be willing to endure sometimes some extremely tough situations — but you could come home with a million bucks, and a sense of pride that you did it. You beat everyone else in this game."

And here's how Probst views Ben now, in the aftermath of his victory: "I felt from the beginning that Ben would have a huge target on his back. It didn't help matters when I announced the theme of the season and Ben had to reveal he was a marine. I think he had planned on downplaying his military service. But Ben played much harder than even I anticipated. His game play illustrates the difference between 'want' and 'need.' You could see it in his desperate search for idols, sometimes lasting all night. You could feel it when he lost a challenge. You could hear it when he talked about his wife and kids and the other vets suffering from PTSD. He often used words like 'mission,' and I think it speaks to his determination. It really woke me up to how much deeper we are all capable of digging if our need is strong enough. And if you had to rank players in terms of whose life would most be changed by winning a million dollars, I think the majority of people would say Ben is at the top of that list. I don't mean that he deserved it more than the others, I am only talking about the impact it will have on his family."

With that, the book closes on Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, interviews with the finalists notwithstanding — but then it's straight ahead toward Survivor: Ghost Island, the enigmatically named and themed season debuting in February. Exactly what do the Survivor powers that be have in mind for season 36? Check back soon with THR for that answer and much more.

Follow THR.com/Survivor for more scoop on Survivor: Ghost Island from Probst, interviews with the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers finalists and more.

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