The Survivor Finale: ‘Perception Is Not Always Reality’ (Except When It Is)

For the first time ever, the Survivor finale included nary a dude. This is a pretty big deal, and certainly a turnoff for some of the viewers this season, especially those who felt that Troyzan’s torch should have never been snuffed (I know they exist because Troy mentioned how many of them had approached him on the street since he appeared on One World; then again, I can’t imagine approaching someone on the street to tell them that they deserved to go home, because that’s just rude). There was Sabrina, who managed to cling to her spot without making any enemies; Kim, who played the “ultimate strategic game” and even earned herself the most prized island badge, a shadowy mustache; Christina, who kept herself afloat merely by being so disliked that she made her opponents look good by comparison; Chelsea, Kim’s sidekick who wore a necklace bearing the words “2 DAWG” (it somehow honors her dad); and Alicia, who managed to tame both her abrasive attitude and her breasts in bondage bikinis by the finale.

From as far back as the merge, it was clear who was playing the best game (Kim), but as everyone who watches Survivor knows, playing the best game doesn’t always ensure a million-dollar check. I wanted Kim to win: She’d held on to an immunity idol for weeks without playing it, destroyed plenty of challenges, and was pretty bold in terms of her manipulative moves (but compassionate too — she deceived a decent amount of her competitors but never seemed like an asshole). The more clear it became that Kim should win, the more likely it seemed that her victory could be snatched away at any point during the last few days at camp. If she lost the final immunity challenge, she’d be toast.

On Night 36, after Tarzan’s departure, the women’s emaciated bodies floated back to camp to hover over the sand and deliver the usual lines about just how far they’d come. The only person who seemed at all troubled was Alicia, who knew that she’d taken a big risk by agreeing to send Tarzan home — he and Christina were her pawns, and now he was swinging from branches in some other, non-competitive forest. On the way to the tree-mail box, Sabrina and Kim discuss whether to get rid of Alicia (Sabrina’s pick) or Chelsea (Kim’s stuck on the fact that Chelsea will be popular with the jury, despite their close friendship). The tree scroll informs them that the immunity challenge will involve balance and memory, and it turns out to be a doozy: a balance-beam maze leading to a rope net with puzzle pieces that, once collected, will solve some combination locks. Have no idea what that means? Me neither.

Kim takes an early lead, as she usually does, probably aided by weighing nothing and having attained the agility of a daddy longlegs scrambling up a wall to eat a morsel of whatever it is daddy longlegs eat. (Human souls?) Alicia and Chelsea are hot on her trail, but Alicia flubs by untying the other contestants’ puzzle-piece-purses and giving them an advantage. Nevertheless, Kim and Alicia are the first to assemble their puzzles and get clues, counting skulls and words and sweating a lot because they’re almost done with puzzling for their entire lives. Chelsea claws her way back into the game, but Kim manages to solve the combination first and win immunity for the third time.

Kim and Chelsea wander off together following the challenge, and Chelsea makes a play to get Alicia off at the next tribal. Kim talking-heads that she could go either way, and man, her cranium has gotten so narrow from the starvation and total boss athleticism she’s been pulling for more than a month that you just hope she doesn’t think too hard, because she needs to conserve calories. At tribal, Jeff inquires about the vibe back at camp: scrambling? Paranoia? Last words for immunity-necklace-wearing Kim to try to curry her favor at the last minute? Nope. Everybody is way chill, which is rare for Survivor and a little bit disappointing. Does nobody need a million dollars? Are they all delusional? Apparently, only Alicia is (and, of course, clueless Kat on the jury who whispers that Chelsea’s about to bite the dust): She’s voted out, though she still seems to think she was the kingpin of the entire game. She is, however, a good sport, only regretting that she’d given up “her power” by voting Tarzan home and that Christina — you know, who she earlier compared with her special ed students? — was still in the game.

When the survivors return to camp, Kim apologizes to Christina for tricking her by telling her Chelsea was going, and Christina, of course, responds dippily and nonchalantly. Oh, whatever! We’re just on vacation, right? No stakes here! Kim and Chelsea then admit to each other that if Christina wins immunity, they will cry. Don’t worry, I think, she won’t. Christina will just spend the next immunity challenge wondering why this Club Med has no showers or inflatable pool toys, and why that nice dimpled gentleman named Jeff keeps making her complete puzzles. Chelsea opines that Christina is “definitely not well-spoken” and that it might be wise to take her to the final three instead of Sabrina. In that case, why do you care if she wins immunity?

More tree-mail arrives, heralding the long walk of forced sentimentality: visiting the torches of “fallen comrades” and trying to remember something meaningful about them before hanging their name tags on a teepee made of sticks and then lighting it on fire. Whale hat Kourtney! Cranky Nina! Matt, the chicken arguer! Jay, who was beautiful outside and inside! And Tarzan, who “grew on us”! And blah blah blah. The only moment I enjoyed in this long parade was when Leif, in his montage set to stirring music, meditated on how “we take fire for granted these days.” We really do. Remember when everybody was begging for fire in those first gender-segregated moments of this game? And it kept raining and looked so cold and miserable that I rubbed cashmere socks all over my body at home and cackled at the survivors’ discomfort, and then toasted marshmallows on the pilot light of my range and followed it with a tiny suckling pig and felt like the King of Spain? I remember that. Cool times.

On to the final immunity challenge, which involved guiding ceramic bowls balanced on poles through a steel channel and then stacking them on top of the channel itself without toppling the whole damn thing. Kim leads, no surprise there, but look who it is coming in close behind! It’s Christina! Why didn’t she pull out these kinds of stops earlier? It might have earned her some respect. It gets windy when Christina and Kim are on their eighth bowls, but the stacks remain intact and, though it’s close, Kim cinches it with her fourth immunity win. Chelsea calls her a beast, and I’m not going to make a mustache joke because Kim really has proven herself to be nearly superhuman. Christina asks Kim if she’s on the chopping block, and Kim answers her honestly (yup). Christina, having forgotten that she just came off as a sort of decent player for once in her tenure on Survivor Island, rolls over and accepts her fate, without knowing that Kim is second-guessing her decision and thinking that taking Sabrina to the final jury might prove to be a liability. Another opportunity lost for Christina.

This baffling laissez-faire acceptance follows Christina to tribal, during which everyone (including Christina) openly acknowledges the fact that Christina is going home, inciting Troyzan to rub his forehead as if it’s a magic lantern that will allow him to trade places with this clueless lady from Mars. Sabrina mentions the fact that it doesn’t seem like Christina really wants to win, which blows Kat’s mind (wow, Sabrina’s “a great speaker”), and Kim (perhaps sensing that this is making for terrible television) offers a vague suggestion that things are not always as clear as they seem. Yes they are, because Christina gets squelched. She says in her exit speech that she wishes she’d played more strategically; she could have played more strategically by taking advice from the sage old coconut crabs on the beach, or by using pebbles as fortune-telling runes. She was, in retrospect, the most boring person ever. Good-bye, lady. I wish you’d never been bullied or called a cockroach by Colton, but I’m glad to see you leave.

Day 39 opens with Sabrina crying on a log and reflecting on life, God, and the kids she taught in Brooklyn. She isn’t sure she wants this journey to end. That’s a surprise. Sabrina’s life in Brooklyn may not be paradise, but she probably has a change of underpants and a few good cheeseburger options. Kim, meanwhile, hopes the jury will forgive her for deceiving some of them because her boobs have vanished due to starvation. I think that argument might work! Chelsea still has her boobs, because they are man-made, perfect, and loyally stuck to her torso! After breakfast and champagne, Kim reveals that she recently got divorced and that this experience has helped her to regain her confidence. This would not be as powerfully pity-inducing other than the fact that, lest you’ve forgotten, Kim works in a bridal shop. That’s a First World problem for sure, but a pretty icky First World problem. Because I wanted Kim to win anyway, I let my mind wander to a place where she was locking herself in the dressing room, weeping and blowing her nose into a veil that she couldn’t afford to replace. “She really needs the million! She’s snotted all over the merchandise!”

Finally, it was time for the nine-person jury to listen to the final three’s opening statements and then skewer them with nasty questions, interrupting their answers with “STOP. STOP. That’s all I need to know. I SAID STOP. STOP TALKING.” Unfortunately, this was a very civil tribal council, though there were some sort of genuinely moving speeches about soul mates and open heart surgery. But first, the openers. Chelsea offers up a largely analytical, and maybe slightly cold, summary of her time on the island: She knew the importance of being part of a pair (with Kim), grew coldhearted by necessity when she voted out Jonas, and kept herself from fostering any emotional connections. Not necessarily the smartest way to approach a jury, but it’s not easy to go first in these situations. Kim took a warmer approach: She loves the game, views it like poker, and though she focused on strategy, sending so many people home took an emotional toll that was only offset by knowing that she was working toward getting money to change her family’s life back home. Very smooth. Sabrina, the caboose, said that she’d striven for balance throughout the game — choosing not to step up, not to appear to be in charge, and scaling back her physical abilities on challenges so as not to seem a threat (I knew it!). She also throws in that she’d been laid off two weeks before coming to Survivor, and unfortunately this doesn’t resonate as much as it would have if Chelsea and Kim had also made a play for why they needed the cash. It seemed a little bit desperate, when the other women had mostly built their arguments around the merit of their gameplay.

Jonas was first up, looking like he’d just walked off the set of The Descendants. In a cheerful and pleasant way, he pointed out that Sabrina really had sucked — like, really, really sucked — at challenges, but didn’t seem to have a question to give her. He just wanted to 411 that in. Chelsea (all the guys agreed that she was “the hottest of the season” — again, not a question, just a public service announcement) was asked about her boldest move (taking out Kat), and Kim was asked why she had voted Christina out. Kim said that she wanted to compete against the best. Nice answer. Christina, the not-best, was up next, and bizarrely asked Chelsea, “Why do you hate people?” to which she replied that she didn’t hate them at all, but had been playing with her head. You know, because Christina was playing with her thumbs. Jay, “stoked” for everybody, needled Sabrina about her lack of get-up-and-go, not just in challenges but around camp, and got Sabrina to admit that she was a crap swimmer.

At this point it was clear that this tribal council was moving like a sea slug and nobody was going to get insulting for a while, so let’s skip Mike’s boring chain of questions to Kim about what a blindside is (hello? We’re in Season 24? And you, yourself, were blindsided?) and head right to Tarzan’s three-part monologue. Part one, thanks to God for this wild and romantic adventure in his twilight years; part two, thanks to the ladies for allowing him to stay long enough to see his wife on this crazy island of beneficial microbes; and, finally, some weepy stuff about his wife that sets everyone off like we’ve all gotten tricked into watching Steel Magnolias with low blood sugar. Chelsea responds, though there’s no question, that Tarzan and his wife’s relationship showed her that love was real. Fine: It was stirring. FINE. IT WAS.

No way to top that, so Leif doffs his cap to the women and asks Kim why she sent him packing. Kim explains that she wasn’t sure if she could trust him, which he accepts. Alicia has no questions, just pats herself on the back and says the contestants are lucky to have voted her out because she would have won over “youse.” Troy has but one query: Which moment would Kim identify as the one she’d seized to demolish his chances? Get it right, she’ll secure his vote. Get it wrong, something cryptic like “one, two, gone.” Kim answers that it was when she took out Jonas. Troy sneers and indicates she’s answered wrong.

Speaking of sneering, I was waiting all evening for Kat’s jury speech, but it wasn’t what I’d thought it would be. Instead of stamping her feet a lot and blowing wisps of perfect blonde hair out of her face like an uncharming Sally Draper, she told the final three that they’d hurt her, and that she’d been “destroyed by” Kim, but that after two open heart surgeries (and another in her future), she’s learned that there’s no time to be angry and it’s “easier to smile.” These are very nice sentiments, but when did Kat come to this conclusion? Sometime between last tribal council, when she whispered that the remaining folks were a bunch of “bitches,” and when she took the podium to preach about forgiveness? I don’t want to be mean to someone with a sick ticker, but what exactly is up with that?

After this Probst-dubbed “respectful” tribal council, Jeff walked across the bridge that warps the time-space continuum and showed up months later and thousands of miles away in New York City for the finale-finale. (This whole thing was a finale, but now it’s really almost over. Except for the reunion. Which is an hour. And still it never gets old, it just gets, you know, gilded.) Kim Spradlin, now finally 3-D again, gets her well-earned victory with seven votes to Sabrina’s two (Troy and Leif were the lone wolves who didn’t mind that Sabrina never outplayed anybody). She also netted the viewer’s choice prize, because I’ll be damned if there’s been a better Survivor player in recent memory. All of the other survivors were trotted out at this point, looking different, as they always do, with the notable exception of Troyzan (who probably went right back to monkey-whispering — maybe those monkeys are the ones who keep walking up to him “on the street” and telling him he played the best game they’d ever seen). Probst confuses Matt and Mike (and so did I), which may have jarred Mike into answering some inane question with the phrase “In all fairety.”

Other questions were answered too: Why did Tarzan, the plastic surgeon, need the scrillz for his Jeep? He’s just cheap. Does Alicia feel bad about her special-needs comment to Christina? Oh, she feels way bad. She cries like she’s gotten a ton of heat about this one, understandably. But really, the only thing you need to know about the reunion is that Colton Cumbie was there, and that his shirt rode up and exposed his little precious gut, and that Bill, the object of much of Colton’s cruelty, looked like a zillion bucks with some fabulous hair and a suit. It’s just like junior high — the mean ones end up looking lousy when you run into them 10 years later, and the kind ones look like they’ve just come out of the makeover trailer on a network singing competition. Very satisfying.

So, Colton: Is he embarrassed of how he appeared on the show? Yes. Was he the racist jerk we saw on the show? Yes. Wait, no! Slip of the tongue there! He isn’t racist, he just played one on TV! He defends his general ugly behavior by saying that everybody talked about how boring this season was after he left (cringe-inducing), and then Jeff wanders into the audience to find Colton’s mom, Martha, whose body shakes as she apologizes for his behavior and laments the fact that he hurt a lot of people. I feel. So bad. For this woman. It’s Mother’s Day, she’s clearly tormented by having birthed one of the bitchiest and most ignorant contestants in Survivor history, and all Colton can offer is that lame hand signal of a heart from the bench, the kind that I generally associate with contestants eliminated early from The Voice. Leif and Bill both talk about how he’d insulted them (and the entire little-person community, and stand-up comics who work day jobs and then sweat it out onstage after their shifts), but Colton still seems clueless about who exactly he appeared to be in front of millions of people: not a fun villain, but a scummy villain. He knows he appears ignorant, but still seems to think that it was ignorant in a spunky way.

Oh well. Perhaps he’ll redeem himself next season, if he’s chosen as one of three contestants from previous seasons who were airlifted out of the game for medical reasons to return to duke it out with newcomers in the Philippines, land of sharks and poisonous snakes. (I’m gunning for a reprisal of Russell Swan — his was the most dramatic medical emergency I’ve ever seen; you could see his soul leave his body through his eyeballs. It was gnarly.) And, with that, I hang up my buff until next fall and get ready to lie in bed and have nightmares because the last image that was planted in my head before bed tonight was “sharks and poisonous snakes.”

Filed Under: CBS, Jeff Probst, Recaps, Survivor