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[This story contains spoilers for the finale of CBS’ Survivor: Edge of Extinction, “I See the Million Dollars.”]
And the winner is… who?
Survivor: Edge of Extinction closed out Wednesday (May 15) in surprising form thanks to a very unlikely winner: Chris Underwood, the third person voted out of the season. The 38th season of the CBS reality series centered on a format-breaking twist: eliminated players were given a new lease on Survivor life through a veritable losers bracket, the Edge of Extinction, a barren island with nothing to do but wait for a chance to return. After 28 days of thumb-twiddling, Chris’ patience was rewarded, as the South Carolina salesperson (who was voted out in the third episode) reentered the game and embarked on a sprint toward the finish with only three days remaining — more than enough time to disrupt frontrunner Rick Devens‘ chances at the million, and snatch the check for his own.
In the appropriately titled “I See the Million Dollars,” the finale begins with the eleven players from Extinction competing for their shot to rejoin the five active castaways. In a nail-biter challenge, Chris managed to snatch victory from the jaws of three-time player Joe Anglim, himself moments away from earning a ticket back into the game. A visibly shellshocked Chris returned to Vata beach with the other five finalists — Devens, Victoria Baamonde, Lauren O’Connell, Gavin Whitson and Julie Rosenberg — and declared himself an open book for future plans. In no time at all, Chris joined forces with the person who previously voted him out of the game: Devens, another Extinction veteran, armed with a hidden immunity idol and a strong track record in challenges. As with Devens earlier in the season, Chris returned with a hidden immunity idol of his own, only usable if he gave half of it to another one of the players, and still then only usable if he survived his first Tribal.
After convincing Lauren to unnecessarily play her own secret idol on his behalf, Chris moved on to the final five with his idol still intact, while Devens was also protected with a hidden immunity idol, one of the many in his possession throughout the season. The final five Tribal Council saw four different immunity idols played, only two of which were real; the other two were fakes, created and planted by Devens, the latest in a long line of laughs he had at the expense of his fellow contestants. Devens’ laughter was short-lived, however, thanks to the eventual winner.
Following Victoria and Lauren’s back-to-back eliminations, Chris earned immunity at the final four, guaranteeing a spot at the Final Tribal Council, and the right to decide which of his two remaining opponents would compete for a shot at the title in a fire-making challenge. As a former member of the jury himself thanks to his time on Extinction, Chris recognized Devens as a clear threat to win; sending him into the fire challenge was a given. But rather than playing things safe, Chris opted to forfeit immunity in favor of directly challenging Devens in the one-on-one duel, a move nearly implemented two seasons ago on Survivor: Ghost Island by runner-up Domenick Abbate. Where Domenick failed to challenge and defeat eventual winner Wendell Holland at fire, Chris succeeded in his gambit to burn Devens, the consensus pick to win the season heading into the finale.
“I am the player I am because of the Edge of Extinction,” Chris said the morning after he defeated Devens. “It took will, grit and reflection. When I got back in the game, in three days, my game was better than two players who had 39 days to do the same thing. There’s nothing I can hang my head about. In my heart, I know I did everything I possibly could to make it here and plead a true and honest case.”
At Final Tribal Council, Chris and fellow finalists Gavin and Julie pleaded their case to the 13-person jury, the biggest group ever assembled to vote on a winner. Eleven of them previously spent time with Chris on the Edge of Extinction, himself a temporary juror, a role he could not seem to shake early on in the Tribal when he asked fellow finalist Gavin a pointed question: “Are you building [your] relationships as someone who is in charge, or are you building those relationships as a goat?”
The question landed unfavorably, and later paved the way for a harsh inquisition from Gavin — both toward Chris specifically, and toward the greater structure of the season: “I think [Edge of Extinction] was an unfair advantage, because he didn’t find his [immunity idol], it was given to him. He would have been voted out if he hadn’t been given that idol.”
A fair critique, and one that’s sure to be debated within Survivor circles for years to come, but not enough to change the result: Chris’ victory over Gavin and Julie, making him the only player to ever win without lasting 39 days in the game. With only three episodes outside of the finale in which he actively played in the traditional game, Chris will doubtlessly rank as one of the most controversial winners in Survivor history, and certainly the biggest outlier.
For his part, early in production on Edge of Extinction, executive producer and host Jeff Probst spoke with The Hollywood Reporter and offered the following preview of the season’s potential narrative structure: “One of the things that I was saying to the producers is we have to evolve how we tell our stories, and if you look at an episode of Survivor from a structure standpoint, we’re pretty traditional. We tend to establish where we are, why we’re there, what the story is, and then whatever’s changed as a result. We get out and we go to the next scene. But there’s no reason that we can’t treat Survivor like any other kind of murder mystery drama in terms of how we structure and edit.”
“We don’t have to spend five minutes of screen time at Extinction Island. We just have to tell the story in the most dramatic and entertaining way. So you may find our structure changing into a situation where we’re at a tribe camp, and then we pop over to Extinction just for a moment, and then we pop back to the original scene back at camp. We want to continue to break down the walls. We’re just telling stories. We want to tell them in whatever way is most compelling and works.”
Minutes after the live Survivor finale in Los Angeles, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Chris on the phone about his historic win, some of the controversies surrounding the victory, why he stepped into the ring against Devens, and more.
How are you feeling? This is pretty crazy!
A little out of left field, isn’t it? (Laughs.) A little out there! Man, what a twist. What a shock. It’s been crazy. I don’t think there’s ever been a Survivor winner to not be in the final eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven or [original] six, and then in the final episode, has to prove why he’s deserving of winning the million dollars. I’m still trying to get through this. It’s crazy. I have a lot of support, but it’s pretty surreal.
It’s unprecedented. You’re a winner unlike any we have seen before. Chart me through your journey from when you were out on the island and came up to this final shot to get back into the game and win it all.
I mean, you saw it. The Edge of Extinction was so, so hard. You can’t relay that as well across the screen. There isn’t as much drama about the utter boredom. It’s tough. But from a mental standpoint, breaking that down, you need to be totally okay with the person you are. I spent a lot of time out there. You saw my journey. I was pretty hard on myself when I got voted out. I was trying to figure out what happened. Being on the Edge and coming to terms with losing, coming to terms with this Survivor experience, I had to get to a place where I was happy with whatever happened on the day we got back. I was just totally cool. I was happy with any outcome. I’d had an unreal Survivor experience. Joe was competing right next to me, and Joe is really good at challenges, so am I going to win this thing? (Laughs.) Maybe not! But if I do, it’s going to be great. I was smiling all the way through that challenge. I was totally at peace. I let the nerves settle and the balls ended up going in. I was shocked. I was completely shocked.
The day you realize you have a second shot [to get back into the game], you start to think about how you’re going to play if you get back in. The plan I started hatching on days 24, 25 and 26 on the Edge of Extinction, when I realized that I needed to execute that — because I was a live player again, fighting for a million dollars — it was do or die. I had to swing for the fences every single time I took a swing. I had to hit a home run every single time. I took big swings and let go of control at the very end there. That was the only way I could have won: by taking Rick out in fire.
Clearly, that’s the big move of the season: you taking off immunity and diving into the fire-making challenge with Devens. Domenick Abbate talked about wanting to make that move, too. Were you inspired by Ghost Island?
Yeah, you guys are very intuitive. We didn’t even watch the finale when it happened. We watched the Ghost Island finale from a computer two days before we went out there to play the game. Talk about not wanting to be a passenger the entire season. There were some incredible players who wanted to be really aggressive, because they saw what passive gameplay looked like. They weren’t okay with that. Even me, going into this? Shoot, if I’m in that position, whether I win or not, I have to get to the fire and I have to make the ultimate sacrifice. There’s so much symbolism in fire in this game. The fact that that was my biggest move was pretty special.
It could have blown up and been the biggest disaster ever, but at that point, you were already voted out once before. What’s the big deal if you lose here? But if you win, you’re a legend.
Yeah. The logic there is pretty clear. You’re spot on. You have to do it. You have to. Look, I was really fortunate. I went from being the third boot to at the very least the sixth [place finisher], right? I got that far. I was really content. But like I said in confessional, I knew I wasn’t playing for second place. Who goes onto Survivor and says, “I really like this other person’s gameplay, so I’m not going to give it my all so they win.” I was really close with Devens, but at the same time, I knew he was so good and I knew that if I lost, it would give him the topping on the cake for a phenomenal performance this season. I was okay with voting for him to win the million — and I was also okay with beating him to get a shot to win in the final three.
You spent so much time with so many members of the jury. It’s an incredible advantage, bunking with the jury for so long. Did you feel good about your chances, heading into the Final Tribal Council?
You know, the smartest person out there on Day 35 was Victoria. Victoria knew the person who got back into the game had to immediately go out. It’s because they had such an advantage gathering information and gathering intel from people who would soon be casting a vote for a million dollars. That was part of the strategy [on the] Edge of Extinction. It could have gone two ways out there. People could have hated each other and it would have been very bitter and venomous because people would be forcing individuals to leave, so they could have a better shot at getting back into the game. The other side is be open and inviting to everyone out there and allow for natural conversation to come up and for information to be extracted based on those conversations. Everyone knew that on the Edge, if it wasn’t going to be me, it would be someone else. We all had an equal amount of information. Going back into the game, I knew I had a huge advantage. I knew exactly what I needed to do. Even though I hadn’t played, I talked to people.
One example was Wardog. I said, “Wardog, I have ideas for if I get back into the game. What do you think needs to happen?” He pretty much told me, “The first thing you have to do is lose. You have to lose the first challenge. You can’t win out. If you win out, you lose the game. It doesn’t matter if you make it all the way to the fire and you win every immunity challenge. We are not looking for that. We’re looking for strategy.” So I knew I had to lose that first challenge, and whether I was close or not, helping Julie get to the end? I wanted her to win because that would put me in a vulnerable spot, but it would also help me earn some favor so I could get on the reward with her. At that point, I already knew Rick had an idol. What I had to do was gather information about how Lauren and Julie were going to play that vote.
At Final Tribal Council, Gavin talks about how he felt it was unfair for you to come back into the game with an idol. What do you think?
Something that’s super interesting about Survivor — I believe someone has said this: “The game is always evolving.” I’m not in control of the twists that are thrown in. I just have to take what I can get and go with it where I can. The idol was a part of the platform, right? It was a part of the boundaries inside the court. It wasn’t an out of bounds play. Knowing that, whether it was fair or unfair? It was obviously a great advantage. It was to combat the historical trend of any person ever getting back into the game always gets voted out. Look at the history of Survivor; no one’s ever really made it to the end [under those circumstances] other than Rick and myself. It’s to combat that. It gives people a segue, but they have to be vulnerable and trust someone. For me, it was really social capital. What Rick said to me about loyalty and forgiveness? We developed and renewed our trust in each other. I loved hearing Christian Hubicki‘s take [on Rob Has a Podcast] about whoever gets back in the game needs to work with Rick. It’s the only option, because he’s the biggest take. I was smiling, listening to that, because it was my best option: work with him and then get to the fire. The fact that I gave it to him and not to someone else was coordinated.
You’re a Survivor fan. You know you’re going to be a controversial winner. Do you care, or does it not matter, because you won?
I’ve been around the community enough to know there are people who love certain players and hate certain players. I have such a strong community around me. [I’m newly married] and you know what it’s like, the first couple of weeks of your marriage, the honeymoon phase. I have so much going for me right now. The last thing on my mind is gathering the opinions of Reddit, you know?
Feels like a challenge, Chris.
I have a lot going for me. At the very least, I’m okay with whatever happens. Based on advice from previous winners, I didn’t do this for the haters. I did it for the ones I love. Whether I’m accepted or not? It’s okay. It’s totally okay.
Last one. Who did you win this for?
I won this… for Monica.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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