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Survivor ends an exceptional season with a strong finale

When he was voted out during the first Tribal Council of the Survivor David vs. Goliath finale, Davie said in his final confessional, “I want to see a good season. I want to see somebody playing this game hard, hard, hard, because that’s what I respect.”

This season, I definitely saw both: This was the best season of Survivor in years, and easily one of my top 10 seasons, perhaps even top five.

That was thanks to its strong, universally likable cast and their willingness to play—sometimes hard, sometimes recklessly, but always entertainingly.

This season was so refreshing especially after a string of mediocre seasons in a row. (Of course, when Survivor is mediocre, it’s still fine, but seasons like this prove what it’s capable of, and set a high bar for other seasons.)

Mike White, Nick Wilson, Angelina Keeley, Survivor David vs. Goliath reunion
Mike White, Nick Wilson, and Angelina Keeley on the red carpet after Nick’s win on the finale of Survivor David vs. Goliath. (Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS)

The seasons’s winner, Nick, had one hell of an arc, going from possibly being the first person voted out to being the sole Survivor and $1 million winner. He was the last player standing from a tribe that was decimated but recovered and then was decimated again.

To cap off a strong game, Nick won all three individual immunity challenges in a row, with two dramtic come-from-behind wins. The third really mattered: he got to choose who he’d take to the final three (Angelina, of course) and who he’d send to a fire-making challenge (Mike and Kara).

Nick may not have been centrally involved in recent votes—and in fact, was frustrated about being outside of them, and about things not going his way—but he was credited by Christian as being a “genius” for orchestrating two of the biggest blindsides this season.

Why Christian voted for Mike, not Nick, is one of the great mysteries, and will perhaps be solved today in exit interviews. (Alison and Kara also voted for Mike; everyone else voted for Nick.)

There’s no one I would have objected to as the winner, but the final three still felt rather imbalanced. At the final Tribal Council, Nick’s competition acknowledge their weaknesses while Nick made his case even stronger.

Angelina, who was routinely mocked by the editing including in the finale, said she was referred to as “an insurance policy” by her tribemates, and leaned on the rice negotiation as a reason she should win.

Angelina did find the final hidden immunity idol, but it wasn’t really necessary. And her fake-idol fireworks created as much drama as someone trying to light a wet paper towel on fire; Alison knew the idol Angelina hid was fake, but played it just to be sure before she was voted out.

Mike White is witty and charming, and I loved the way he deflected Jeff Probst’s questions at Tribal Council. But he acknowledged his weaknesses as a player: “other people played better physical games,” he said, adding that he didn’t make any big strategic moves but instead, “I was the one behind the driver” telling the driver what to do.

But “the car went the way I wanted it to go” is not the way you convince a jury that you’re steering, and I think that’s why Mike didn’t win—plus he just had formidable competition in Nick.

Mike did have one final victory: he faced off in a fire-making challenge against Kara, and easily beat her despite his anxiety about it.

“The fire-making thing has always been my nightmare,” he said before that Tribal Council. “Something about making this fire in front of everybody and the jury is more anxiety-inducing than anything that’s happened up to this point.” Perhaps that’s because it’s actually doing something? ZING.

Ultimately, though, neither Angelina nor Mike had as strong a story as Nick did: His closing statement and argument was exceptionally delivered and rock-solid. If the jury really wasn’t decided going into that final Tribal Council, I think that sealed it.

Survivor’s challenges have challenges

Nick Wilson, Survivor David vs. Goliath, immunity challenge win
Nick Wilson after one of his three immunity challenge wins during the Survivor David vs. Goliath finale. (Image from Survivor via CBS)

Although this season was thoroughly entertaining, it did have some weak spots, including quite a few shitty rewards. From limp pizzas to a gross picnic, this cast got screwed. (The one helicopter ride they did get was cut out of the episode.)

After Nick’s first come-from-behind challenge win, he also received a reward: spaghetti. At camp. At the water well.

Two former Survivors commented on this trend better than I could:

The immunity challenges varied in strength. The second immunity challenge had a dramatic setting: the five players had to stand atop telephone poles in the water, where they had to first dip buckets into the ocean to fill a tube and raise a key.

The challenge began with Alison shaking so much on the post that she couldn’t stand still and interrupted Probst’s “Survivors ready!” She was the first to get her key and jump down, though Nick caught up yet again at the puzzle stage.

That puzzle, though, was sketchy: the middle section of Nick’s image didn’t line up at all; even allowing for understandable imperfection, this is not the kind of quality control Survivor usually has.

Even when the challenges weren’t great, they delivered some fun moments. The first challenge’s spaghetti reward really paid off, though not in the reward itself.

Nick chose Angelina and Mike to join him, and Angelina confided that she’d found the hidden immunity idol clue, but not the idol. Retrieving it required use of a ladder that was buried near the clue—a kind of bonkers twist that I appreciated. Earlier, Angelina had brilliantly faked a fall in order to cover for her extended time trying to use the ladder.

Nick and Mike agreed to help, and that created my favorite image of the season, because it perfectly encapsulated the way everyone played and had fun at the same time: Mike White, wine glass in hand, joining an idol search party.

Survivor pays attention to its own problems

Natalie Cole, Survivor David vs. Goliath episode 3
Natalie Cole during Survivor David vs. Goliath episode 3 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment )

Survivor is one of CBS’ most-popular shows, and it was put on the air by Les Moonves, the network’s former CEO, who was forced to resign this September after multiple women said he’d sexually harassed and/or assaulted them.

This week, CBS’ board of directors decided he wouldn’t receive $120 million in severance because of his “willful and material misfeasance, violation of Company policies and breach of his employment contract, as well as his willful failure to cooperate fully with” CBS’ investigation.

Although CBS also said that their “investigators also concluded that harassment and retaliation are not pervasive at CBS,” this is the same company where, just this past summer, a board member said, “I don’t care if 30 more women come forward and allege this kind of stuff. Les is our leader and it wouldn’t change my opinion of him.”

And also this week, Eliza Dushku wrote about being repeatedly sexually harassed on the set of a CBS show, and then retaliated against when she asked for it to stop: she was fired by being written off the drama.

Although CBS ultimately paid her the amount of money she would have made if she remained, $9.5 million, Dushku wrote, “In the settlement process, CBS used as defense a photo of me in a bathing suit, pulled from my own Instagram, as if this suggested I deserved or was not offended by the sexual harassment I experienced.”

Why am I mentioning these things in a Survivor finale recap? To start:

  1. Moonves personally approved every reality show cast member. He was actively involved in overseeing Survivor.
  2. As The Chicago Tribune’s Nina Metz wrote, Moonves “was paid more than $1 billion by CBS during a period of time when he did indeed have carte blanche to behave appallingly.”
  3. Survivor was produced at a network with an incredibly toxic culture. Read this thread by TV critic Maureen Ryan, which includes links to her extensive reporting on CBS’ systemic problems.

And all of this happened the very same week that Survivor acknowledged, for the first time, a few of its own problems.

In two separate moments—one in the game and one during the reunion—Survivor gave screen time to addressing its treatment of women, and especially women of color.

During the final Tribal Council, before Angelina and Gabby called out that just 15 percent of idols are found by women, Gabby congratulated Angelina for being the last female player in the game. Then Gabby said:

“I want to bring attention to the fact that women are treated differently in this game. If you are assertive, you’re seen as bossy; if you’re emotional, you’re seen as hysterical. And so I know you’re up against not only the difficulty of the game but issues that face us outside of the game.”

That’s exactly right, and bravo to Gabby for saying it.

That happens in part because of our society and culture; none of us may be responsible for patriarchy, but here we are living in what it created.

On Survivor, one of the reasons women are seen that way is the show’s editing, which reinforces stereotypes and treats women differently.

This season, the editing mocked Angelina repeatedly. Of course, she did some comical things! And made some bad choices! So does everyone. But men typically get less attention on it, or get a pass altogether.

Just read how the rice negotiation played out in real life versus what we saw on TV: the editors chose footage that mocked Angelina, rather than showing things like her discussions with the tribe.

At Tribal, Angelina explained some of her behavior, which again connects back to our culture, which demands more from women than from men: “As a woman and as a woman of color, I sometimes overcompensate. And so I’ve been told I sound interview-y, or maybe insincere.”

At the reunion, Probst said to Angelina, “I agree with you. I think that if a man had played the exact same game you played, we would have labeled him or commented on him very differently. 100 percent. You played an aggressive, smart game; you went for it.”

Then Probst cued up tape of Survivor labeling Angelina and mocking her game as neither aggressive nor smart.

He was trying to illustrate her lack of self-awareness, but the real lack of self-awareness here is Probst’s, not Angelina’s. Imagine for a moment that Probst had instead cut to footage of Angelina’s “aggressive, smart game” play instead.

For her part, Angelina again owned that she sometimes says and does funny things, and said she was yelling at herself on screen to stop asking for Natalie’s jacket, for example. She added, “You have to just have a good sense of humor about it.” It’s impressive that she does.

Later during the reunion, Jeff turned to Natalie, saying that his producers told him how upset she was with her edit. Natalie started with “Jeff, Jeff, Jeff.”

“I was portrayed as lazy, confrontational, probably the worst player ever, bossy—I own that one,” Natalie said. “I am such a fan of the show, I love the show, and therefore when I start to see it air, I couldn’t really celebrate being on the show.”

Probst told her, “that hurts my heart,” and Natalie pointed out that it was her heart that was actually affected by his team’s editing of her. This is not about Jeff Probst’s hurt feelings, but the fact that he immediately made it about himself says something.

Probst has the upper hand here, and so does the show, because they’ve controlled every moment of how we know these players. Their choices turn people into characters—and then we, as viewers, respond to those characters as if they’re people. I know because I’ve done this for years and years!

That perception is powerful—and causes viewers to treat the people they see on screen terribly.

Survivor also controls their contracts and checks, which could be a reason why zero people raised their hands when Probst polled them about their portrayals on the show. Natalie exclaimed, “What!” and then said simply, “They’re lying, Jeff.”

While there wasn’t exactly time for an in-depth conversation and distillation of these issues, Natalie’s conversation with Probst was the most interesting exchange I can remember at a reunion.

And I’m burying the lead here: Survivor did mention some of its biggest systemic problems, and the network and producers chose to leave Gabby’s critique in the episode.

What really matters is if the show will take any action. But saying it out loud is a start, and I’ll take that. A tiny step is still a step.

A short reunion, but one without the nonsense

Davie Rickenbacker, Survivor David vs. Goliath episode 2
Fan-favorite player Davie Rickenbacker on Survivor David vs. Goliath, episode two. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

While the live reunion didn’t start until 28 minutes into the final hour, it was far better than other live reunions.

Yep, Jeff didn’t talk to everyone, but there were no celebrity guest appearances; there was no promotion of the 91,851 reality series that CBS has coming in the spring, which were advertised during many commercial breaks; the rumored (stop reading TMZ, I implore you!) proposal didn’t happen; nor did all of the other nonsensical rumored things that I won’t repeat here.

There was a minimum of audience interaction, just a conversation with Zeke and his boyfriend, and only one moment with a kid. (Earlier, Probst told us that “We make this show for families,” which is very different than who he said he makes Survivor for before production on this season began.)

Jeff seemed to cut in in the middle of the episode less than before, and used one of those occasions to bring out fan-favorite Davie, who’d just been voted out. That was a perfect use of that kind of segment, and gave Davie a nice moment in the spotlight. Too bad the fan-favorite award has gone away.

We also got to see every jury member’s vote—immediately after the votes were read! Hallelujah. This season, it seems like someone started paying attention to all of the minor (and major!) complaints that some of us have shared over the years.

There was also a preview for Survivor Edge of Extinction, which I don’t want to think about right now, because I’m so thrilled with the 14 episodes we were just given.

“It was such a joy to watch you,” Jeff Probst said to the contestants before reading the final vote. I couldn’t agree more.

About the author

  • 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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