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Survivor’s car curse begins with Survivor: The Australian Outback’s final reward challenge

This spring, I’m recapping Survivor’s second season week by week, roughly 20 years after each episode premiered. Today, Survivor: The Australian Outback, episode 14, “The Final Four,” which originally aired Thursday, April 26, 2001.

“I’ve got one hell of a winning streak going. I’m just going to ride it as long as I can,” Colby Donaldson says after winning the final reward challenge of the season.

His prize for being first to finish an obstacle course of old challenges: a brand-new Pontiac Aztek. “Yeah! Now we’re talking,” he said, thrilled. “I just won a new car. I’ve never had a new car!”

And with this challenge, the Survivor car curse began. No one in the history of Survivor has ever won a car during a reward challenge and then won that season. (Rob Mariano did win the car reward challenge in Survivor: All-Stars, but lost that season—although the winner, Amber Brkich, also received a car thanks to Rob choosing her to go on the reward with him. But she did not actually win the challenge, so the curse held.)

In Survivor history, there will be 12 cars given as prizes for reward challenges, ending with Survivor: Fiji. While I don’t believe in curses—unless they’re put on someone by Sophia Petrillo—it is incredible how the pattern held up, even after contestants became aware of it.

Colby not only wins a car, but an overnight trip, with food and a shower and a bed in the back of the car. He also wins the companionship of Jeff Probst, who invites himself along: “we have enough grub—i’m gonna join you if that’s cool,” Probst says. I was waiting for one of the other players to say: Well, if there’s enough grub, how about one of us go instead of the person who’s eating three times a day at base camp?

Jeff Probst has yet another surprise: Colby’s mother. Like the visit from Sean’s father in season one, the early loved-ones visits only involved the actual winner’s loved ones.

Colby is thrilled, and the editors seem to be, too, repeatedly including him saying things that made my eyes widen, like about how much he’s missed “the touch and intimacy of loved ones,” and his comparison of his mother’s visit to “a conjugal visit if you’re a prisoner.” (Maybe Colby didn’t know what “conjugal visit” actually meant?)

Survivor: The Australian Outback's final four: Colby Donaldson, Tina Wesson, Elisabeth Filarski, and Keith Famie.
Survivor: The Australian Outback’s final four: Colby Donaldson, Tina Wesson, Elisabeth Filarski, and Keith Famie.

The reward challenge was Colby’s fifth individual challenge win, and then he won immunity, too. Since the auction, he has won every single challenge except one.

The closest this episode gets to broaching strategy is to talk about jury management, which happens at Tribal Council. Jeff Probst directly asks Tina about Colby’s wins, and after pointing out that he’s riding a wave of winning food rewards while the rest of them are starving. (This episode includes a weigh-in at camp, so we can see how much the lack of food has affected them. We’ll also see that when, in the finale, we cut from Australia to the live reunion.)

Tina tells Probst that “you have to admire someone” who can do that.

Elisabeth starts the episode saying, “I want to win this thing,” she gets voted out next. Tina, Colby, and Keith remain a solid trio, voting out the last member of the Kucha tribe. But we see no strategizing, and it’s so strange to see Survivor even acknowledge this: Jeff Probst tells them to “head back to camp to think about” their vote. Think about it! Not even “talk about it” or “try to convince each other.”

There is some strategy with the alliance of three, even that’s undercut a little. Keith goes on a walk to an absolutely stunning location, for which the helicopter camera is called out to film him, and Keith tells us, “the cards have been dealt” and “fate is inevitable.” What a weird thing to say in the middle of a game! And in this game, Elisabeth is the only person who could plausibly say her fate is inevitable—but even then, there was a chance, like last episode when Colby was so annoyed at Keith.

While there isn’t any kind of modern Survivor strategy, there is Jeff Probst doing color commentary during a challenge! He’s mostly encouraging, though: “slow down and think! it’s gotta mach the pattern underneath,” he says during the puzzle part of the reward challenge. Later, he tells players, “Everybody’s still very much alive.” So different than future Jeff Probst berating people for being losers who’ve fallen impossibly behind. And next week, in the finale, we’ll see who’s fallen behind in the eyes of the jury, and the car curse gods.

All of my Survivor: The Australian Outback episode recaps

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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.