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Survivor Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers comes to a twisty yet satisfying end

The final five on Survivor Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers: Devon Pinto, Mike Zahalsky, Chrissy Hofbeck, Ryan Ulrich and Ben Driebergen on the finale of SURVIVOR 35, themed (Image by CBS)

If you need a metaphor for Survivor Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, the final immunity challenge will be sufficient: a relatively straightforward game which fell apart every time it seemed like it was making some progress.

If you need yet another example for why this season, its players, and/or its editing frustrated me, look no further than Devon: a strong player with some game-changing moves who was handed a massive advantage to help him secure a spot in the final three—and then didn’t take advantage.

Chrissy told him that he’d be competing in a fire-making challenge against Ben, with the winner moving on. (More on this brand-new and apparently permanent-for-now twist later.) Devon started to practice, but broke the flint and gave up, taking this as a sign that he should conserve energy: Absolutely everything relies on my ability to make a fire tonight, so I’ll just lay here instead.

When it came time to actually make a fire, he couldn’t even get a spark to ignite. That was kind of the same thing that happened to Ryan in the final three; trying to convince the jury of his brilliance for finding a day-one advantage was about as easy as lighting wet branches on fire.

Though the finale was full of more Survivor Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers head-scratching moves and decisions, it also ended with Survivor records: Chrissy tied the record with three other women for most consecutive immunity challenge wins, while Ben played more idols effectively than anyone ever before, and tied for the number of idols found in a season.

That Chrissy went from throwing up in the first challenge to such repeated victories was impressive, and she made an exceptionally strong argument at the final Tribal Council. I was growing convinced she’d win, though it became conspicuous that Ben didn’t really have to make many arguments, which suggested the jury was already giving him credit.

Would Chrissy have beaten Devon if he’d made it to the final three, or if there’d been an actual vote? I think it’s at least more likely than her beating Ben. And Ben’s victory was made possibly only because there wasn’t a vote.

Ben’s win was deserved, but also the result of twists

Let’s start with this: Ben was a highly deserving winner—and not because of his story, though that was powerful and important for people to see. He continually saved himself, including in that final challenge, when he was clearly and obviously the biggest threat in the game.

The game changed this season by showering the contestants with idols and advantages, and Ben used those: three idols in a row, all successfully played to save himself and upend everyone else’s plans.

This final string of Tribal Councils, including last week’s, were all fun and dramatic to watch thanks to Ben.

I was especially impressed with Ben’s patience in the finale. Had I found an idol like Ben did, I would have been like I GOT THE REAL IDOL DUMMIES HAHAHAHA. Instead, he let them play their comical game of trying to convince him that they’d found the idol. Of course: Devon did suspect that Ben had an idol, and smartly changed his vote as a result, so Ben did appear to give something away with his behavior.

During the finale, Hannah from season 33 tweeted that while her season’s “finale genre was melodrama, this finale is comedy boardering on a full on circus. Love the genre change up to evolve the game!”

That helped me switch from rolling my eyes to laughing at what was unfolding, like the non-Bens convincing themselves that they fooled Ben. I didn’t need any help laughing at the physical comedy of Mike falling face first in the sand.

A new end to the game

For all of my complaints against the production, I don’t believe producers cheated on Ben’s behalf, as even some former Survivor players were suggesting on Twitter. But Ben absolutely did benefit from their decisions.

The new final four twist, for example, was designed in order to prevent a strong player from being voted out at the final four stage, as has happened so often in the past.

It worked exactly as designed, and Ben benefitted. He 100 percent would have been voted out without it. And he would have been voted out without other twists.

I think, however, that he deserves credit for doing the work, as he did with the fire-making challenge. He was the one who stayed up all night long to search for an idol, and his effort paid off. (I complain a lot about the idol vending machines, but that particular search was an excellent reminder of how the timeline is condensed, so we see a few seconds of searching, and then the find.)

The real question for me is this: Should a social game like Survivor eliminate someone without a vote so late in the game?

That’s frustrating, but it’s also not new. Cirie was eliminated last season because of all the advantages played at one Tribal Council, not because she received a vote. That core idea that every elimination should be the result of a vote has been eroding for years, especially with the introducing of twists.

Survivor has already changed; this was just a big step away from the original game.

The part of the twist I definitely like is the resurrection of the final challenge winner’s ability to select an opponent for the final Tribal Council, which is what happened in early Survivor when there were two finalists.

I also like and appreciate Survivor’s willingness to take risks. Yes, its choices are sometimes ones that don’t work, or don’t work for me. But trying something and risking failure—or risking alienating your core audience—is bold, and the kind of things most shows don’t attempt out of fear.

By the way: Probst said that will be part of the game moving forward, and former cast member Brian Corridan told me on Twitter that season 36’s cast was told about it by producers before the game started. I’m curious to see how that affects post-merge or even early game play, if at all.

An awful Survivor reunion with an emotional actual reunion

The finale had two well-constructed challenges and the worst-constructed reunion hour ever. It wasn’t even an hour: The show went from the final Tribal Council to the live reveal around 10:19, and by 10:22 Probst was still blabbing and summarizing and giving us more exposition.

Before reading the votes, he summarized each of the players and their journeys, even though the show had started with such a summary—and then after Ben’s win was announced, we got another recap of the season focusing on Ben, even though Probst just recapped Ben’s journey.

The three hours began live, and returned to the studio frequently, mostly for Probst to summarize what we’d just seen, in case we didn’t recall it from three seconds earlier, or to make a case for why Survivor—the show we’re watching—is a show worth watching.

And of course, he also interviewed the fans who were cast to be interviewed. In a twist, he interviewed a kid who was a fan of Ben, even though the casting call was for Ben fans 18 to 40 only.

Because we knew that seat-fillers had been cast to fit certain narrow parts, I laughed when Probst said, “You look like you gotta be a Chrissy fan” and “Are you a Ben fan?”, acting as though this over-produced talk show was entirely spontaneous and authentic.

Why talk to them and not the people we just watched for 14 episodes?

I did like seeing the audience react to that thrilling challenge, and I also appreciated that Mike and Devon got extended interviews during the actual finale, which was a nice way of including those interviews. But I have no idea why the production spent money flying the rest of the cast to Los Angeles only to have nearly them of all be entirely ignored. They were essentially props. I hope they had fun at the after party.

Despite the limited time—just about 35 minutes without commercials—there were even more recaps. The best part of the reunion was the actual reunion of Ben with three of his fellow veterans, plus the additional platform given to veterans with PTSD and Ben’s story.

In the United States, we’re good at giving lip service to our veterans and thanking them for their service, and terrible at actually helping them or even acknowledging the damage that their service has done to them and their families. So I’m glad Survivor gave PTSD further attention, but mostly grateful that Ben shared his story.

In a season that Jeff Probst himself said “started out a little cagey” and was “a bit of a slow burn,” it ended with a decent finale and a deserving, memorable winner.

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