Rob Mariano’s win: the most satisfying, well-deserved, obvious victory in Survivor history

After four seasons of Survivor over 10 years, 117 days on various beaches, two final Tribal Councils, six CBS reality series, and four individual immunity challenge wins this season, Rob Mariano won Survivor and $1 million, plus the $100,000 fan favorite prize. (Rob and Matt took 76 percent of the vote for fan favorite, with Rob getting 40 percent to Matt’s 36.)

“They held all the power, but they didn’t know that,” Rob said during the reunion, summing up this season perfectly. His alliance never turned on him, and the jury all looked at Rob as the only possible winner: Phillip was too disliked, and Natalie only seemed like she was riding Rob’s coattails. Rob was so confident that going into the last Tribal Council where he could play his hidden immunity idol, he said, “I don’t even need the idol” and “I could take it home as a souvenir.” (He laughed, “God, I’m sick. I am so sick,” and of course played it anyway, not that it mattered.)

Rob has been getting the hero edit for weeks now, and arguably since the beginning of the season, so his loss would have truly blindsided us. “It was Amber that encouraged me to come back and try again. She believes in me,” he said, crying. “Whatever happens now, I’m okay.”

His victory is well-deserved and a satisfying way to end a really uneven season that was sometimes totally unsatisfying. That’s because Rob played a near-perfect game, as Jeff Probst said during the reunion, and I say that as someone who has disliked Rob’s game and personality in the past (he was surprisingly abrupt when I interviewed him). The real key was his social game. The jury was a little bitter (particularly Julie and Matt), but that ultimately didn’t matter.

Think about Russell Hantz–who was so perfectly positioned in the back row of the reunion bleachers, barely visible–and contrast his game in his two previous seasons with Rob’s game this season. Rob won because he developed relationships and those withstood Rob’s backstabbing his friends. Russell backstabbed people he had no relationships with at all.

To give Russell some credit: He was (for a few seconds, at least) mellow and different at the reunion, and even said, “I have to congratulate Rob; he played an excellent game,” shaking Rob’s hand. Jeff Probst did not ask Russell why he spoiled the show he claims to love so much.

The pre-reunion finale was relatively dull, with the editors working hard to both set Rob’s win up and conceal that inevitability from us. In the final immunity challenge, a pretty epic maze and puzzle, Ashley followed Rob through the maze, while Phillip and Natalie ran around confused, altogether a good metaphor for this season.

The first challenge was literally a balance beam and a puzzle that had them arrange 100 tiles in order from 1 to 100–and if that wasn’t easy enough, the tiles came grouped in bags that were in numerical order. Add a geyser of goo and you have a Big Brother challenge–actually, that show has more inventive challenges than this one. Anyway, Ashley won immunity, meaning that Rob had to send Andrea home first.

Andrea returned to the game a day earlier by winning the final Redemption Island duel, beating Grant, Mike, and Matt. Matt was on Redemption Island for 29 days, winning 10 duels, but didn’t win the (second) one he really needed to win. His attitude changed from the time when he almost quit, though he still said that “God deserves all the glory and all the credit.” Great, now shut up. Forgetting the content of what he’s saying for a second, it’s obnoxious because he just keeps repeating the same thing over and over and over again.

By the way, while he was still on the island, Phillip referenced conversations with his great great grandfather, telling us, “I learned that it’s okay to tell the world that I have a relationship with someone who’s been dead since 1870.” Matt has a relationship with someone who’s been dead for 2,011 years, so I think he wins that duel.

The most awkward part of the entire finale came during the reunion when David proposed to Carolina “you can’t bullshit me” Eastwood, who you may remember from Tocantins. That was literally the biggest blindside of the night, and she did not seem happy. Probst wrote that off as shock, but it seemed more like she felt trapped into saying yes. I hope I’m wrong.

That was so cheesy and uninteresting that it took away from David’s real accomplishment: delivering the best jury speech in a long time, perhaps even since Sue Hawk’s in season one. He addressed the jury and basically made Rob’s case for him ( “the best strategic game this game has ever seen”), which is perhaps why we didn’t get closing statements.

There was also no “fallen Survivor” walk, and although some are tired of that, I like the music, the cinematography, the reminder of who was on this season, and the comments that sometimes make me see those people in a slightly different light. Alas, there was none of that; the tribe didn’t even burn down their camp. Everyone just wanted to go home and forget this season, it seemed.

Other reunion miscellany: Phillip apologized to Steve for calling him a racist, and a colleague of Phillip’s confirmed that he is a former federal agent, although Probst’s lame interview didn’t quite get there so he had to confirm it during the break, leaving fodder for conspiracy theorists who have nothing else to think about. Phillip redeemed himself most by burning his briefs “with happiness and joy,” he said, adding, “I was never proud to wear plum-covered briefs.”

He still was Phillip, though, wrapping his bare chest in a red blanket for the final Tribal Council, for which he wore his feathered headband and gave himself credit for “the whole concept of stealth” but admitted Rob is “the mastermind.”

That image kind of sums up the whole season for me: Some surprises and highlights (Russell crying his way out of Survivor, for instance), and also a lot of obviousness and inevitability that sucked the drama and life out of the show–as did several choices the producers made, from weak challenges to not killing off Redemption Island after the merge.

And the worst part: Next season, as we learned in the season 23 teaser/preview, we have it to look forward to again. Yes, Survivor South Pacific will be filmed in Samoa (again) and featured Redemption Island and two returning cast members (again). Redemption’s return, okay, but we do not need two more returners to take the attention and game away from the new cast members.

That announcement was a disappointing cap to a great final few moments of an okay finale of a so-so season. Survivor has slumped before, so I have faith it can find its way again.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.