9:00pm PT by Josh Wigler
'Survivor' Season 35: Jeff Probst Promises "One of the Best Finales Ever"
[Warning: this story contains full spoilers through season 35, episode 13 of Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers.]
And then there were five.
The original group of eighteen Heroes, Healers and Hustlers have been whittled down to the final five players competing for the Survivor season 35 title, with the winner set to be crowned at the live finale in Los Angeles on December 20. If the past few weeks of the show are any indication, the race toward the million dollar prize won't end without its fair share of drama — a certainty that's promised by none other than executive producer and host Jeff Probst himself.
"Next week is one of the best finales ever," Probst tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The game play does not relent. I love this final five. Every player left in the game has a legit argument that they deserve to win. It will come down to who goes up against who in the final three. Survivor is all about the people who play, and if you put the right people on the island, the game play will come. What I can promise is this game is far from over."
The five players still in the hunt for the Sole Survivor title include:
• Devon Pinto, the Hustler who has been underestimated due to his surf instructor persona;
• Ryan Ulrich, also hailing from the Hustlers, who hopes to win Survivor before he wins a date;
• Mike Zahalsky, the idol-burning urologist and sole surviving member of the Healers tribe;
• Chrissy Hofbeck, the actual actuary and actual Heroes tribe alum;
• and Ben Driebergen, former marine and Hero, currently the biggest target on the field.
Indeed, if not for an immunity idol play, Ben would have been sent out of the tribe this past week, as was the case one week earlier. The self-proclaimed lone wolf made Survivor history in the final six episode, "The Survivor Devil," by playing a hidden idol on himself at Tribal Council ahead of the vote — an unprecedented move, at least in the modern era of the game.
"Ben's move to play the idol before the vote was a really powerful and clearly calculated move," says Probst. "This is one of the rare cases in which he stood to gain more by playing it early than he did by surprising people after the vote. By playing it early, Ben created chaos. I think he was hoping that he might be able to control the vote and even possibly form a new alliance."
For what it's worth, Probst says there was no hesitation about allowing Ben to play his idol before the votes were even cast: "Although nobody had ever done it before, there's certainly no issue with playing it early, so if players find a way to make that work for them, I say go for it!" With that said, it's not a move he expects to see repeated too often in the future: "I don't imagine this will become the new way to play an idol as you are actually giving up a lot of power by playing it early. The most powerful idol is the one nobody knows about."
Thursday morning quarterbacking on the preemptive idol play aside, Probst can attest to the power the move had at Tribal Council: "The shift in energy once Ben played the idol was massive. It was like someone lifted the needle off the record with everybody in mid-dance move. I could see each of them trying to quickly make sense of what was happening and how it was going to impact them. That is a great Survivor moment. Those moments are why we are all still watching. Watching that episode, you would never guess Survivor started in 2000 and was in it's 35th season."
The casualty of Ben's early idol play: Ashley Nolan, also hailing from the Heroes tribe, discussed earlier in the episode as a back-up plan in case Ben found yet another immunity idol. With two individual immunity wins under her belt, Ashley wound up just shy of the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers finale.
Here's how Probst viewed Ashley in the preseason: "I love Ashley. I don't know if this makes sense and I hope it's respectful, but she can throw down. Ashley is a lifeguard, so first of all, she sits down out there and says, 'I'm so aware. People think lifeguards just sit out there on a tower and don't do anything, but I'm exhausted at the end of the day because all I'm doing is watching human behavior. That guy is in trouble. I can tell by the way he's walking that he's heading into the water and look! There he goes! He's taking off!' But Ashley is also the woman who says, 'Yeah, I'll throw a beer back with you, or four.' She's not afraid to get hurt. She's not afraid to get dirty. Those women tend to do very well on this show. They saddle up next to a guy and say, 'You and I can do this. I might surprise you out here.' I think she could do really well."
And here's how Probst views Ashley now: "I think Ashley played a great game, because she played to her strengths. She is an observer in life and she was an observer in the game. Even at camp, she was not quick to respond to a situation. She would listen, consider, then respond. If Ashley played again, I imagine she would be a bit more aggressive. Survivor is so hard because it requires you to make moves without any assurances they will work out."
Check back with THR.com/Survivor all season long for more from Probst, weekly exit interviews with the eliminated castaways, and weekly recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg.