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Survivor 41 finale: a streak is broken, and so was Survivor

Survivor 41 finale: a streak is broken, and so was Survivor

After a season that introduced “dangerous” twists, Survivor 41 ended with a relatively standard finale that set a record and broke a long streak: Erika Casupanan is the first Canadian and first person of Filipino descent to win Survivor, and the first woman to win since Sarah Lacina won Survivor: Game Changers.

Sarah’s win was in season 34, and aired in the spring of 2017. Six men have won in the three years and six seasons that aired since.

Erika won with a commanding 7-1-0 vote of the jury. But her win may be somewhat surprising because the editing this season failed her.

Survivor 41 winner Erika Casupanan at Tribal Council after winning individual immunity during the finale
Survivor 41 winner Erika Casupanan at Tribal Council after winning individual immunity during the finale. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

On the one hand, I appreciate not having a traditional winner’s edit, with many signs pointing at one or two players. The final three—Erika, Deshawn, and Xander—seemed relatively evenly matched, and certainly hadn’t been ignored, although of the three, Erika probably got the least amount of focus.

On the other hand, I’m not sure Survivor 41 showed enough of what to make a strong case for Erika’s win.

Of the show’s 41 winners, Erika ranks 34th in terms of the number of confessionals she received this season. As Rob’s Fact Checker pointed out, “The editing of Survivor systematically underrepresents women and POCs (especially its winners). … It’s easier to call a winner ‘deserving’ if they are shown on screen more often.”

As one small example, the finale asked us to feel the tension of Heather and Erika’s sudden estrangement following Deshawn’s “truth bomb,” and then Heather and Erika’s reconciliation, yet this season basically gave us no development of their friendship at all.

So yes, Survivor 41 did Erika a major disservice by highlighting her far, far less than the other two finalists, which is just another way in which Survivor failed this season.

But the finale did try to make up for that, and all signs pointed to an Erika win.

That includes her penultimate immunity challenge win, with an assist from the season’s final advantage, but it became clear that staying out of the spotlight was Erika’s goal.

At the final Tribal Council, Erika described her game by saying, “I was never out in front, but I was never quite in the bottom.” Danny told her, “I envy you because you played the game I really wanted to play and tried to,” and several members of the jury agreed. That was the moment I knew Erika was about to win the $1 million.

Survivor 41's final five: Ricard Foye, Heather Aldret, Erika Casupanan, Xander Hastings, and Deshawn Radden
Survivor 41’s final five: Ricard Foye, Heather Aldret, Erika Casupanan, Xander Hastings, and Deshawn Radden. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Xander, who may have gotten an edit closest to the traditional “winner’s edit,” questioned Erika’s ability to win. At the penultimate Tribal Council, he said “it seems that the jury doesn’t respect Erika’s game and they don’t respect Heather’s game.”

Yet the jury clearly disagreed with his assessment: Shan said, “I think that’s a poor read,” and Liana nodded.

Xander went on to say that “I feel like Heather is someone they’ve pinned as this goat, this person that’s been dragged to the end” (and went on saying cringey things like “frail lady” and “youthful vigor”).

What’s fascinating, though, is that Xander was actually describing himself in both situations: he was the goat who had no chance to win. Really!

For evidence, let’s turn to Danny .Besides confirming that he told Jeff Probst “the integrity of the game is at risk” because of the merge twist, Danny revealed in an exit interview with EW that Xander had no chance. This is what he said when asked about why no one was trying to flush Xander’s idol or get him out:

If you watch the jury and you hear what people say about him, a lot of people did not respect the game that he was playing. A lot of people thought that when he stepped out of the challenges that it was for show and it wasn’t because he really cared. So as the game goes on, you’re like, “This guy is not an issue. Why are we worried about the idol? A lot of people want to go sit at the end with Xander so they can explain how they played a better game than he did.” So it just became a non-issue, which is why I went to him and [said], “Hey, we need to vote out Heather.” We never thought about voting Xander at this last Tribal Council because he’s a good guy to take to the end and he can also help us beat Ricard. So it would have worked out for us two times.

Ultimately, based on that, I think Xander was best at delivering soundbites. He’s an editor and producer’s dream in the confessional, and very entertaining to watch. He won challenges and had advantages, and got himself to the final three, but he did not have the strategic or social game necessary to win a single vote.

Xander was as entertaining, enthusiastic, and performative as ever this episode. There was a moment during the finale when Xander suggested he’d blow up the game by playing his idol for Ricard, but didn’t; he played it for himself, even though all votes were cast for Deshawn and Ricard.

At the start of the episode, when the final five started over at a new beach, Xander said this was “perfect for me because I don’t need food, I don’t need sleep. I’ll eat my own adrenaline. The other people out here: I want them weak, I want them starving. They’re gonna be crumbling as I rise to the top.”

Yeah, no. Xander basically ended up with a light version of Colby Donaldson’s endgame, choosing the person who’d destroy him in the final vote—though for obviously very different reasons, and with a very different outcome. (Colby took Tina because of their alliance and his loyalty to her, and even admitted he probably couldn’t win against her, but also won three of the jury’s seven votes.)

Xander Hastings helps his tribe win the immunity challenge on Survivor 41, episode 3
Xander Hastings helps his tribe win the immunity challenge on Survivor 41, episode 3. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

Xander won the final immunity challenge, and decided to take Erika to the final three, leaving Deshawn and Heather to battle it out for the third spot with the fire-making challenge.

Speaking of that: I feel strongly that the fire-making challenge is a dumb twist, and we know that Jeff Probst literally added it to get men to the final three. It’s worked: a male player has won every single season since that twist was introduced until now.

However, this fire-making challenge was legitimately thrilling. Deshawn had a quick fire that went out; Heather caught up and her rope started burning, and it seemed like she was about to win, when her fire died down, the rope somehow still intact. Then Deshawn got his fire going again and both of their fires were equal, burning their ropes, and Deshawn’s burned through first.

As Mike Bloom pointed out on Twitter, this is pretty much a metaphor for Deshawn’s entire game: “Deshawn starts off strong, self-sabotages and nearly smothers his own game, then rallies and barely scrapes by with the skin of his teeth.”

But that’s why Deshawn also didn’t win. Shan said during the final Tribal that Deshawn’s game felt more like “temper-tantrums.” (By the way, I was surprised to learn Deshawn is 26; I looked up his age when he said he was young and has a lot to learn. He’s half Heather’s age, but I would have placed them both on either side of 40.)

The votes were revealed on location for the first time since Survivor: Borneo 21 years ago. That was because of COVID; the production didn’t know if it’d be possible to do a live reunion, and chose this instead of a Zoom vote-read.

It was a nice throwback, and the jury and finalists’ reaction to that final twist were pretty fun to watch.

The “after show” was less successful, because as much as Jeff Probst kept offering refills of champagne to the jury and finalists, they’d just all said basically everything they had to say during the final Tribal Council. They hadn’t watched the season, or had any time to process what just happened.

So it was kind of an empty 30 minutes, and honestly, so was the finale. It could have easily been 90 minutes instead of 2.5 hours.

The pacing was so, so slow, dragging on and on, with long, boring stretches. There were way too many talk show segments, just forced exposition in lieu of action. Again, I love learning about the players and their lives, and while I also think the idea of “show, don’t tell” is unnecessarily reductive, but at some point I was like, for fuck’s sake stop talking and do something!

The Tribal Council where Ricard was unanimously voted out was completely disconnected from the game, and just a biographical package. Again, some interesting and moving moments, including Ricard talking about how he was potentially missing his kid’s birth. (He made it home in time).

But it was yet another example of the wildly inconsistent editing, which swung between episodes packed with nonstop chaos that breezed past the players and focused on advantages and twists, and this glacially paced finale.

CBS’s early promos for Survivor 41 said “the monster is hungry,” and while the monster was never officially revealed, it’s clear to me know that it’s the producers and their insatiable appetite for creating drama—or at least, their lack of trust that their format, condensed to 26 days, would deliver interesting television.

They found a terrific cast full of big personalities, but made terrible decisions such as nullifying the result of an immunity challenge and leaving an elimination up to random chance. The end result was that there was far less reason to be invested, because the result of a challenge could be overturned at random. So ironically, in trying to make Survivor more dramatic, the production did the opposite.

Was this the worst season ever? No, but it’s down at the bottom. I think we owe the cast for rescuing it, because they navigated the chaos, delivering some great moments and a fantastic episode or two even among the chaos.

Was this a reboot of Survivor? Also no. It doesn’t matter how many times the producers or the cast say it, this is nothing new: it’s the continuation of a trajectory Survivor has been on for years, just accelerated.

I wondered if Danny’s sharp, in-game but unaired observation—that “that the integrity of the game is at risk when you are the host and you’re able to lie to the contestants”—may have caused the producers to at least adjust some of their plans for Survivor 42.

But with Jeff Probst teasing Survivor 42 as “the most dangerous version of Survivor ever seen,” with “crazy twists” and “risky beware advantages”—including more dumb phrases—I’m no longer hopeful.

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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.

Discussion

I value our community at reality blurred, which connects people through open and thoughtful conversations about the TV we’re watching and the stories about it.

Comment rules: My goal is for us to be able to share our perspectives and exchange ideas in a welcoming, supportive space. That’s why I’ve created these rules for commenting here, and by commenting, you agree that you’ve read and agree to them. Happy discussing!

Bonobonobo

Monday 20th of December 2021

I like Jeff Probst and I like twists and advantages and strategy.

But Erika's hourglass and Deshawn's "pick 1 of these 3 boxes" were total BS. Those aren't strategic twists. They are just weird & random.

I'm not sure about the unused low% safety dice throw saving mechanic offered to desperate players at tribal.

I think the "find 3 people to say this weird phrase" twist worked out ok.

None of these seem very well thought out, though.

Scott Hardie

Sunday 19th of December 2021

I'm shocked at how far apart my opinion is from Andy and fellow commenters. This wasn't the show's best season, but I'd put it solidly in the top third. Great cast, satisfying outcome, and really interesting conversations about non-game topics: racism and monolithic representation of minorities in media, parenthood and the loss of a father affecting the trajectory of a son's life, disability and the isolation & discrimination felt by the hard of hearing, plus faith and activism and aging and lots more. How often does Survivor feel this connected to the real world going on around it? How often does its cast feel this much like real people with real feelings, instead of mere players in a game?

The twists and the minutes wasted on them were annoying, yes, but they had a minimal presence after the halfway point. The scheming and social game between players that you all keep saying you want was what drove almost the entire back half of this season and the final outcome. The show cannot return to a true "back to basics" format because it grew stagnant without twists (the dominant alliance always picked off the outsiders, resulting in a boring predictable slog from the merge to the final five-ish), and while plenty of the modern game's twists don't work (I have no idea how DeShawn's "do or die" was supposed to affect the game; every twist should force some kind of strategizing), at least the show keeps trying to innovate and refresh itself. Plus, some of the twists this season worked well: Pairing off unfamiliar players on an island created new connections that had long-lasting effects, the "risk your vote/protect your vote" mini-game required trust in fellow competitors which is at the very heart of Survivor, and the "knowledge is power" advantage gave us a classic self-sabotage moment.

Erika was a deserving winner, successfully manipulating many votes without people realizing her influence until it was too late to stop her. If she didn't receive as many confessionals as a typical winner, was it racism & sexism in the editing, or was it a natural reflection of her strategy to fly under the radar? Other players were making bigger and more visible moves, so we needed to hear more from them at the time. We ultimately did hear plenty from Erika, who was an early standout in Luvu and continued to stay in the mix all season. (Notice how the show kept repeating her "lion dressed like a lamb" metaphor like a trail of breadcrumbs that would help us recall the path that she took through the game.) I agree that her mid-season "go back in time" advantage was annoying B.S. that should never have happened nor been treated like a bullet point on her "resume" at the end, but I don't hold the show's choice against her.

My advice to the show going forward: Keep innovating, but focus on twists that force meaningful choices instead of random chance, and make "tough but fair" your mantra when developing twists (for instance, no depriving the winning tribe of immunity again). Keep casting interesting people and showing us heartfelt conversations about substantial topics. And for Heaven's sake, design better challenges! They're the weakest part of the show now. Take some of that creative energy you put into twists and use it to freshen up the same old stale challenges instead.

Gregg Z

Sunday 19th of December 2021

Parsing Probst's comments, it sure sounded like they were going to jump right into filming season 42 immediately. And that's bad, because there would be no lessons learned from outside inputs, from network brass on down to the Survivor faithful (as an aside, JP always says the show is "for the fans," but he never seems to listen to the diehard's feedback). So I expect a re-do of Season 41 in terms of rules, curveballs and frustrations.

As far as a host, it was pretty awful viewing, but Mark Burnett's ill-fated, gimmicky "Pirate Master" reality show (lasted less than 1 season) had a wonderful host named Cameron Daddo, an Aussie actor and TV presenter who was a natural. If and when JP wants to spend all his time behind the camera, this would be a fine option.

BadMitten

Tuesday 21st of December 2021

@Gregg Z, yah they filmed S42 right after 41. Did you not see the teaser trailer at the end of the finale episode? Basically seems like we are getting a repeat of all the twists we didnt like in S41 (like you said they couldnt learn from S41 airing / the fan reaction)

JF

Friday 17th of December 2021

A disappointing end, but Erika just didn't have the resume necessary. This is why the audience should participate in the vote in some way.

Kyle

Monday 27th of December 2021

@BadMitten, Shh!!!! Don't suggest that. I'm sure Jeff would love to ultimately pick the winner.

BadMitten

Tuesday 21st of December 2021

@Bonobonobo, there's this game mechanic called the jury. The audience only knows that the producers/editors show us. By that logic should Jeff get up and vote at the end too? LOL

Bonobonobo

Monday 20th of December 2021

@BadMitten, how can you say the players see every aspect of the game? The whole point of the continuous blindsides is because the players DON'T know what's really going on. Only the audience knows most of the strategies, backstabbings and lies.

Maria

Saturday 18th of December 2021

@Patricia Powell, if you think Erika's "big move" was smashing the hourglass, you were definitely not paying attention. Erika’s biggest game move was creating an alliance from all the people who were on the bottom. She was the leading voice in determining strategy in who was getting voted out for almost all votes after the merge (ie. every time Erika wrote someone’s name down at tribal council, they went home, which is a perfect voting track record). She also won two individual immunity challenges, found a secret advantage, and made sure she wasn't seen as a threat by playing under the radar. By making strategic connections with just a few individuals, she never backstabbed/blindsided them, which earned her loyalty and admiration from many of the jury members who said they wished they had played the type of game Erika did. While the edit did not serve her as well as it should have, the clues were all there for anyone not blinded by the more boisterous/dominant personalities. In other words, if you missed Erika being a threat, her gameplay worked flawlessly. O

ColleenCanuck

Friday 17th of December 2021

@JF, she won fair and square. Don't let it bother you it's... TV! And Survivor have you picked every winner?

Erika

Friday 17th of December 2021

Season 41 worst season ever. This is my favorite show been watching since the beginning. Jeff probst inserted himself too much into the show. I disagree with the comments that the cast was great it was not a good cast. Messing with the format of the show was absolutely the worst. They need to go back to the original formula and stick with that. Since they've already at this point filmed season 42 there's no chance that it's going to be any better. I just hope they take everybody's advice and fix this by season 43 or they're going to lose me and a lot of other viewers. Survivor may not survive!