Survivor 43’s three-hour finale and reunion opened with a repeat of Jesse’s epic move at last week’s Tribal Council, and Jesse explaining what he did, voting out his number-one ally, Cody, and flushing Karla’s idol.
“The plan went perfectly,” he said.
But that was one Tribal Council, and there were two more between that and the final Tribal Council. With his cutthroat game play and willingness to express his emotional connection to the outcome of the game, would Jesse’s perfect plan and winner’s edit hold up?
Or would Cassidy, Karla, or Owen be able to outplay and outlast him? Sorry, Gabler: Everyone knows you always had no chance.
Except…I can’t even type it yet. Somehow the most-surprising—least-logical? most baffling?—thing happened at the end of a wildly inconsistent season, one that had some incredible moments (like that Tribal Council) and some real stretches of boredom.
The final five took a hike up the mountain to see the sunrise from the top of the island, where we heard from each of them, before seeing a montage of them throughout the season with the Survivor theme song under it. Ah, I miss that!
Gabler said “I think I’m hiding in plain sight,” and I could not tell if it’s the same footage we’ve seen before, or if he just keeps saying the same thing all season.
Karla, who was on a winning tribe and in control of pre-merge votes, admitted how her game had slipped, and she’s now “struggling”—strategically and physically. Owen pointed out that he basically had the opposite of Karla’s game: “My game started so poorly,” he said.
Cassidy told us she “made every single move correctly to get to this spot,” though she had no “flashy moves.” Jesse, with his flashy, “crazy move,” as he put it, “feels historic almost. Now, it’s like my threat level’s probably off the charts.” Indeed!
The fact that they had to start over at a new camp amounted to basically nothing, so we jumped right into more advantage fun!
The players got a word scramble, which Karla solved first, and went searching, limping down the beach. She was followed by Owen, who sprinted past her. (Jesse, Gabler, and Cassidy couldn’t/didn’t figure out the answer in time.)
Karla and Owen ended up at the advantage at the same time, and Karla got it first. She earned “a slight advantage” in the challenge, and took it as a spiritual sign from her wife. Owen was quite pissed at himself, and had the first of two mini-temper-tantrums of the evening, which Probst later asked him about at the reunion.
As the final five approached the penultimate challenge, Probst described them as “like warriors entering the colosseum for a battle.”
Alas, they were not there to fight to the death, but they also did not stand and hold a thing, so I’d count that as a win. Instead, the final five had to swim through an obstacle course, pulling a buoy along a rope until they got to shore.
On shore, the players had to hold tiles with letters in between and cross more beams, all while being blasted with exposition from Captain Describe What’s Happening. “This challenge is not over,” he said when only Karla was working on her puzzle and no one had any words.
Karla’s advantage was having one-third of her puzzle blocks already at the station, and while she made it to her puzzle first, everyone caught up.
“You want a spot at four because they can’t take you out,” Probst yelled. “You’re looking for the right words.” After he screamed that, I would have tried the combination of NO SHIT SHERLOCK.
Despite being crushed about losing the advantage, it was Owen who won immunity and reward, a mini-redemption for him.
He chose Cassidy to share in the reward at The Sanctuary, where they had an afternoon of steak, decided to vote out Karla, and agreed to join the Sanctuary family which just involves making an investment in themselves and buying merchandise which they can sell to their downlines and become millionaires. I made up the last part, but I’m still not convinced The Sanctuary isn’t something nefarious that will be the subject of a true-crime podcast in a few years.
Jesse seemed to learn toward voting out Cassidy, as a challenge threat, while Gabler wanted to take out Karla and Jesse, and Owen knew that Jesse is “going to get all the credit in the eyes of the jury.”
Karla, too, argued for a Jesse vote. “If they don’t see it, they’re dumb as hell,” she said.
But Karla also told Cassidy that pre-merge votes were “all me and James” and said she’d 1) tell the jury that and 2) not vote for Cassidy, and they set their friendship on fire.
And then Cassidy told Jesse that Karla was gunning for him, which may have helped change his mind, or maybe that was just misdirection.
What we knew, and the other players did not, is that Jesse still has Jeanine’s idol, and his last chance to play it was the first Tribal Council, so he’d be safe. He suggested he might do more than just play it for himself—”I’m gonna use it, I just have to figure out how to use it.”
He revealed it during the Tribal Council conversation, setting off a series of events that made this one of the more-interesting and more-dramatic Tribals of the season, last week excluded, of course.
“Is that my bracelet?” Jeanine asked from the jury, and then buried her head between her legs as she realized what’d happened.
Karla’s move was to first call out Jesse’s: “That is one of the best moves I’ve ever seen on Survivor,” she said, making the Jesse-should-win argument as a way to try to get him out.
“Would you like to dance, sir?” Karla then asked Jesse. “Let’s dance.” They stood up and stepped to the back to chat, and Jesse suggested they take out Cassidy. Then the others joined in, and had a few small conversations. While I am not a fan of whispering at Tribal Council, we heard most of what they said.
And while it was entertaining, it ultimately went nowhere: None of Karla’s arguments stuck, and she was voted out unanimously after casting her vote for Jesse.
“You ruined my record,” Jesse said when he and Karla hugged. She said, “I wasn’t going to let you have a perfect game.”
The final immunity challenge was the return of the stacking challenge, moving bowls through a metal structure and then stacking them on top, while trying not to move the structure and knock off the already-stacked bowls.
Probst said there was “a decent breeze” that could affect the stacks. “Can you withstand the wind?” he asked, and I assume he was referring also to his hot exposition air: “Day 25, season 43, you want to get to the end.”
It was a tense back and forth, with stacks swaying and bowls falling. Ultimately, Cassidy won—and won her third immunity. Shortly after, the wind blew her stack of bowls over.
After Probst put the necklace on her, Cassidy said, “I’ve looked up to so many amazing women that played this game, and now I’m just thinking: I might be that person who’s inspiring other little girls to come out and live out their dream. You can be a bad-ass and you can do it.”
“This could be a million-dollar necklace for me,” Cassidy said. It seemed like it going to be just that.
Cassidy’s choice was now who to sit next to at the final three, and who should makes fire. The only choice in my mind was, of course, is Gabler, who I thought had exactly zero chance of winning.
Likewise, fire-making seemed like the only shot at getting Jesse out, i.e. knocking out the player every knows is going to win if he makes it to the final Tribal Council.
“I’m one challenge away,” Jesse said, crying, “between me and a million dollars. Between me and being able to give my kids that security I never had.” But he seemed to realize he had an uphill climb.
Jesse’s Hail Mary was an attempt to convince Cassidy to give up her necklace and make fire, which was a nice try, but Cassidy swatted that down faster than a thing that gets swatted down fast.
That came up at Tribal Council, with Cassidy made a quick and compelling argument why she wouldn’t do give up immunity, having earned it and played a solid game. It came up again during the jury discussion—and for the jury to even argue that makes sense? Ugh!
Meanwhile, Gabler wanted to make fire to get credibility, and he got his wish. Cassidy chose Owen to go to the final three, which genuinely shocked me. Was she truly convinced Gabler could beat Jesse at fire-making, and Owen could not? That’s basically what she said later, and also that she wanted to prevent Owen from building his resume.
It was Gabler who defeated Jesse and won while setting a fire-making record: 4 minutes and 9 seconds. That Jesse’s game ended with fire is bullshit, though this dumb, dumb twist was basically designed to keep players like Jesse in the game, preventing them from getting voted out right before the end.
And with that, Jesse’s game ended. He was clearly crushed and upset, and the episode spent a lot of time on him after he lost. “Every day feels like do or die back home,” he said, before picking himself up and having his torch snuffed.
His emotion is understandable, though: What did he expect? His repeated and successful backstabbing of his allies ended in one of the show’s most spectacular Tribal Council moves and blindsides. That makes for a clear argument for winning, but not as clear a path to the end.
During the final discussion at Tribal Council, Cassidy pointed out that there were a “historical number of women voted out at pre-merge,” and thus she was proud to be sitting there.
It seemed to me like she was about to be the third woman to win Survivor in a row, especially because, as she pointed out, “I worked my ass off to be sitting here.”
During the jury conversation, things seemed to go well for her until the end, when they went a bit sideways: three of the five men on the jury and Gabler joined together to challenge an argument she made.
When Cassidy talked about taking out Ryan, he decided to have a quick conversation with fellow jurors about that: He turned to Cody and said, “I just have a quick question. You had mentioned that you had already planned my demise,” and then turned back to Cassidy and said, “not to discredit you,” while discrediting her. Then Gabler joined in.
Still, I didn’t see that moment as game-ending, and I expected her to win easily.
So when Jeff Probst read the votes, and Cassidy got the first vote, I thought: Would she get all of the votes except one?
Then Gabler got a vote. And another. And another, and another. And then Jeff Probst declared him the winner, becoming, at 52, the second-oldest winner in the show’s history, having earned seven of eight votes.
What?! Deep breaths.
Gabler, of course, deserves the win, since the jury voted for him. That’s how this works. And A+ for surprise, I guess?
But before the finale, in the piece about the pre-finale editing, I wrote this:
The question is whether Survivor 43 will have struck the right balance, illustrating the winner’s game and letting us get to know them over the season, instead of making their win seem like it came from nowhere.
This was definitely from nowhere.
In Jesse, the show would have the opposite: an obvious winner, someone who received a lot of attention and focus, from the editing and the other players.
In Cassidy—who the editing predicted would win—they had a player who was extremely consistent and won challenges, including the one that mattered most, and emerged as a stronger and stronger contender the longer the game went on.
But Gabler? Having him repeat that he’s “hiding in plain sight” and is an “assassin” all season is not a character arc, it’s a single, delusional-sounding note.
Gabler’s gesture to veterans brought well-deserved attention to those who served their country and suffering, yet it still landed weirdly for me. For him to give his $1 million (or will it be the after-tax amount?) away felt weird because Jesse—and the editing of him—made such a strong case for how much he needed the prize. For Gabler just being like “yeah I don’t need this at all” in the wake of that was awkward, even while being generous.
So how did this play out? Why didn’t the jury give Cassidy credit for her game? During the on-location reunion, the jury said Gabler swayed them with his answers.
Karla said the jury “created a checklist for each player,” and “Gabler checked most of those off.” Sami said, “We saw and heard from Gabler what we wanted to.”
But did we? Like last fall, when Survivor 41 winner Erika was failed by the editing, I think Gabler might have been, too. I’m glad to be surprised, even blindsided, but it still has to feel earned; I want to know how we got to that place.
For most of the season, Gabler looked, to me, like a final-three goat, bumbling around while the game was being played around him.
Clearly, his jury relationships were obviously much stronger than Cassidy’s—not even her BFF during the game voted for her, though in fairness, Karla told Cassidy that she’d 1) not vote for her and 2) turn the jury against her. But while the reunion had discussion of his friendships with, say, Noelle and Jeanine, the season did not focus on that in any significant way.
After all that, Gabler’s win wasn’t the most-shocking thing in the Survivor 43 finale. Toward the end of the reunion, there was a major bombshell, and I don’t mean the footage of multiple Survivor 44 injuries from next season’s preview.
The mind-blowing moment came when Sami revealed that—and you might want to sit down for this next part—he is actually 19 years old! Not 22!! If the editing couldn’t have shown us Gabler’s game and relationships, they should have at least given us the faintest hint that Sami wasn’t the age that he said he was!!!
Correction: This story initially suggested the vote could be unanimous, even though we saw two separate votes cast in the voting booth.
Clarification: The last paragraph was intended to be sarcasm, joking about the number of times that Sami mentioned his age during the season. I regret not making the joke more obvious and/or actually funny.