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A strong Survivor ends with a weak finale and a terrible jury (twist)

Survivor Kaoh Rong was hyped as brutal and punishing, and from the ear worm to Caleb’s collapse to Joe’s exit, it has been physically challenging. But starting with the ads that aired last December, I was worried that would mean a strategically weak season.

That was not the case at all. It may not be one of the best seasons ever, but Survivor 32 ended up being a strong season overall, with some exceptionally dramatic moments and interesting game play throughout. At least until the finale.

Right after the jury voted, Jeff Probst gave Tai a moment to release Mark the Chicken and say goodbye. Had Mark flown into the fire at that moment, having survived 39 days, that would have been a good metaphor for what happened during the finale.

A strong final four that all could make different but equally strong arguments for why they should win. The person with the least-impressive resume, however, won $1 million. And then there’s this, too.

Of course, Michele is not a terrible winner, but Julia laid out why Michele wasn’t a great winner, noting that she “just got to slide through without strategizing” for more than half the game, and was nothing more than a number in the votes until the oust-Julia vote, “the very tail end of your game.” So someone who started playing at the very end took the win.

Of course, whoever earns the jury’s votes deserves to win, because that’s the game, and Michele earned that $1 million, but still, ugh. And this jury was particularly terrible. More on that later.

A winner’s edit? In the finale, sure.

Survivor, Aubry Bracco

Aubry Bracco demonstrates the expression I had after the jury failed to give her $1 million.

Some people have been convinced all season that Michele was getting a winner’s edit, but I really didn’t see that, in part because Aubry was so front and center so often, and her rocky journey but perseverance despite that was constantly highlighted. Michele was barely a presence until the very end.

Before final Tribal Council even started, however, I could see the show’s editing working hard to convince us that Michele deserved to win. First, after a season of Aubry confessionals, Michele was suddenly all over the place.

She explained, “I’m going to convince the jury that I didn’t get here by luck or by chance. I didn’t slide through; I made little adjustments here and there and fought my way to my spot here. And when I needed to win challenges, that’s exactly what I did.”

What did the editors include of what Aubry said? The case against her: “My game has been all over the map. It’s been like a potpurri of Survivor triumphs and mishaps,” she said, before adding, “while I might not have been the flashiest person, I was the woman behind the curtain making things happen.”

Next, compare all the compelling confessionals we saw of Aubry this season and Aubry’s near-silence during the final Tribal Council. Whether that was her performance, the lack of questions directed toward her, or the editing, it wasn’t an impressive final Tribal for Aubry.

Cydney, gone and then forgotten

Survivor Kaoh Rong, Cydney, immunity challenge

Cydney is a bad-ass who played a great game, but she was ignored during the Survivor reunion.

Earlier, the Cydney-Aubry alliance had one last celebration, a reward challenge meal following Aubry’s win, and then broke apart as each voted for the other. It was incredible how fast they each went from praising their connection to realizing now was the chance to get rid of a threat.

With Cydney aligning with Michele, and Aubry aligning with Tai, there was, well, a tie at the final four. No one would budge so Probst went directly to a fire-making challenge.

It was a tense battle, with Aubry pulling ahead early, and then—as so often happened with Aubry!—falling behind as her fire fell apart. But she got it going again and sent Cydney to the jury.

Cydney’s exit was emotional, as she talked about wanting to win the money to help her mother with basic necessities such as health insurance. She seemed hurt and betrayed, but of course, she also betrayed her ally.

While Cydney’s mother got a few emotional moments of screen time during one of the live segments, Cydney herself was completely ignored during the finale, despite being a bad-ass player who would be been a fantastic winner herself.

I’m used to Jeff Probst ignoring successful women and focusing on the bros, but it’s just insane to have skipped over not just the fourth-place player, but someone who dominated during so much of this season. That’s just wrong, period, and was another disappointing part of the finale.

The big twist: a jury member gets voted out

Survivor, Neal Gottlieb, merge

Neal Gottlieb, screwed by Survivor once again.

After Cydney’s exit, Tai acutely noticed that there was a difference after Tribal Council, as Jeff didn’t say the game was now in the jury’s hands.

A final two?!

No: Instead, there was a reward challenge to award a twist: “the right to vote out a jury member,” as Jeff Probst said.

The challenge was an unused option from the start of the season, and this seemed to me like a last-minute twist added because too many people left the game and they needed both a final three and three Tribal Councils in the finale. (Update/correction: Probst says, “No, we did not add it after due to medical evacuations.”)

Why? CBS likes final threes because it increases the action and content in the finale: one more challenge, one more person at the end. I’d love to see a final two once in a while if only because I really miss the final immunity challenge winner’s decision about who to take with them to the end, which is such a fascinating choice. That’s so much better than just someone making it to the final three and getting zero votes.

During a live segment, Probst said, “We’ve been talking about that for seven years and just waited until we thought the time was right, and clearly it looked like we were right since that was a dramatic move.”

Michele won the challenge and ultimately voted out Neal, a sure vote for Aubry and a persuasive player. That was the second time Neal got screwed by this season, first being medically evacuated and then spending the whole remaining part of the season waiting for his jury role, only for it to be taken from him.

Michele explained he “has the capability to be very persuasive, and their vote was not to go for me.” She obviously wasn’t persuaded by Aubry’s “clever,” to use Tai’s words, strategy to get Michele to dump Scot.

That seemed like a good move, as Neal bitterly said to her, “You came to this game thinking you were a bad-ass bitch but you’re more like a cute like a cute little puppy still suckling at the teat, and I don’t think you stand a chance.”

Oh Neal, that was not nice—nor accurate, alas.

By the way, since so much jury conversation—maybe even decision-making—happens at Ponderosa, Probst said Neal would be be “sequestered,” meaning no further chance to try to persuade the jury.

Vote off the whole jury, and the reunion

Survivor, Scot Pollard, jury face

Scot Pollard’s jury face

Nick started the jury proceedings with an obnoxious, condescending lecture trying to explain the jury’s thinking—i.e. childish bitterness—and insisting that some of the jurors wouldn’t even ask questions.

I’m thinking I would like the show to start enforcing jury questions—the grandstanding has gotten out of control, and seems useless if they’ve already made up their mind. Or maybe the show should just start requiring them to not talk about the endgame at Ponderosa, so that the only time they can talk game and confer is at that final Tribal Council.

In any case, Nick, Scot, and Jason were huge jury babies—no surprise, I suppose. Tai’s zero-vote third-place seemed evident from the very start of the proceedings. Michele’s emotional appeal seemed effective, but the jury also seemed to have its mind made up earlier.

The live reunion followed the typically frustrating format: a question to Michele, a few questions to Aubry, and then a lot of time on Tai, who was interrupted by Sia, the singer who now covers her face even though she’s previously been photographed, who shouted her way onto the stage. She gave $50,000 to Tai, and $50,000 to an animal charity, saying she’s a fan who noticed Sprint stopped sponsoring the fan-favorite prize. Probst disclaimed any knowledge of this grandstanding.

Then Probst spent time with Drew Carey to promote Monday’s Price is Right Survivor special episode. So little time on these reunions to talk to the cast when there are all these other bits and promos to get through. (During all this, I was rolling my eyes so hard they started to hurt.)

Probst also spent nearly an entire segment giving himself and the show credit for responding so well to medical emergencies, specifically Caleb’s, and that included yet another long clip pcakage. That was kind of like setting a house on fire and then bragging about how effectively you put it out, because letting that disastrous challenge run so long in the heat was simply a bad decision.

Of course, with all this scintillating content, there was no time to talk to most of the jury and definitely not to Cydney. No time at all!

Again, though, this disappointing three hours followed a relatively surprising and strong season, one that kept the entertainment coming. Bring on season 33: Millennials vs. Gen X.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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