The season finale of Survivor: San Juan Del Sur has come and gone, and we have a million dollar winner, as Natalie Anderson took the top prize as Sole Survivor, winning the jury vote 5-2-1 over Jaclyn and Missy. It was such an up and down, interesting finale, with plenty of good, bad, and weird moments to go around, but overall, the right person ended up winning, and I’m very content with the way it all panned out. So, for the last time this season, here are my thoughts on the finale, and the season that was:
- Natalie really had Jaclyn blindsided when her plan to get Jon out worked to fruition, and she was quick to snap at camp after Tribal. Natalie and her shared some harsh tones with each other, and for a second I got excited that there might finally be some bad blood to break up that happy group after they had to cannibalize, but by the next day there was no bad blood left to be found at camp. It was another one of what’s become a long line of letdowns on this season, as the final five proceeded without any real intensity or animosity going forward into the reward challenge. Without any animosity after the vote, it was looking like Natalie’s game to lose at that point.
- Keith won the reward challenge at final five, and in doing so won an advantage at the next immunity challenge. As an already beleaguered and famished Jaclyn was sent to Exile Island, Keith snuck away from camp to find out what his advantage was. Keith was met in the forest with a large table with an odd contraption on it that was to be the next immunity challenge. The trick of the challenge was to get a ball through a series of loops, lifts, and channels with only the support of a small wooden paddle. This proved to be a difficult task, as Keith spent hours trying to master the skill with limited success, but his hours long head start on practicing the maze of the challenge contraption paid dividends as Keith won a much needed immunity necklace, ensuring himself a spot in the top four. At this point in the episode, there really seemed like a nice underdog story being built around the likable Keith, who had now won three immunity necklaces, and I had high hopes for a potential Keith/Natalie show down at the final four immunity, for what might have been a million dollars. With the necklace in Keith’s possession, it was up to Natalie to see what she could do with her idol and her influence over Baylor, Missy, and Jaclyn, and she had yet another trick up her sleeve.
- Natalie had been so crafty this season, that even I, a self-described super fan of the show, hadn’t fully been able to realize the repercussions of some of her decisions until way after the votes. Take the Wes vote for example; I had no idea why she wouldn’t just let Jon leave the game with an idol in his pocket when she told Jon to save himself (yes Mr. Misch, that’s how it went down), but the next episode it became apparent she was attempting to craft the numbers to execute the blindside under her control, and not under Reed’s. I had very similar worries about the Alec vote, I thought flipping on a non-consequential player like Alec was crazy, and would only tip off the others to her lack of loyalty to the five, but once again Natalie knew better than I did how gullible and trusting her alliance could be. So after all of this, it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me than Natalie would turn on the one person I would have never expected her to, right? Wrong! I was completely blindsided and baffled by her play to use the idol on Jaclyn and vote out Baylor instead. I thought this was a bad move too, as I thought Missy would definitely not be ok with Natalie after blindsiding her daughter. But, then again that’s just a shame on me situation, because for me to think like that I would have had to assume that Missy is actually playing to win, and not just playing to hang around and annoy the viewing audience. After Baylor left, Missy went right back to praising Natalie for her big move, as if Natalie was her daughter too. It’s definitely not how I would appreciate a competitor reacting to a blindside of their ally, let alone their family, but in the end, it worked well for Natalie going into the final immunity challenge, as she had two strong allies to go up against Keith to make sure he couldn’t advance.
- The final immunity challenge threw a little bit of everything out there for the final four to overcome before they could lock in a place in the final 3. They had to race over and through a series of obstacles to retreat five bags of puzzle pieces. They had to race up a large ramp to get to their puzzle table, which would unveil the combination to unlocking their flags. This was a classic final immunity challenge, and with Missy not competing due to her ankle injury, it was a three person race. Jaclyn quickly fell behind in the athletic portion of the contest, but, much to my shock, came back strong on the puzzle and found her combination first. Despite a huge fall going down a pole to the bottom of the course, Jaclyn narrowly beat Natalie to her combination and unlocked her flag first. It was a stunning upset, since Jaclyn hadn’t won an immunity challenge yet, and didn’t even seem competitive in the early stages. With Jaclyn locked into the final three, there was a huge opportunity for Missy and her to make a decision on who they would sit next to in the final three. Watching the season on TV, I kind of just had to scream at them as they decided to keep Natalie and vote Keith out unanimously, as that was the moment that Natalie locked up the game. Natalie played an amazing social and strategic game, and I still can’t fathom how they could imagine that she was a better adversary than Keith in the finals, but it is a testament to the stealth of Natalie’s game. She got to the Final Tribal Council on Day 39 by being unassuming, by picking her partners and her moments carefully, and not being afraid of the big or unexpected moves. Going into the Tribal Council, I had no doubt in my mind that Natalie had it in the bag.
- Final Tribal Council was strange. I had expectations of tough questions, accountability, and emotion, but instead we got a whole lot of nothing, until the final juror at least. Jaclyn and Missy gave the speeches they were expected to, neither of them saying anything we didn’t know, and Natalie gave a solid speech, highlighting the fact that the other two made a real mistake not voting her out when they had the chance at final four. Of all the points made in the three opening statements, this was essentially the best argument for a win, because Natalie was able to show that she was the only player at the end with any real game awareness, a point conceded by Jaclyn at the live finale. When it came time for the jury questions it got kind of weird because…well, there weren’t actually a lot of questions. Jon gave an unexpectedly bad toss up question for Jaclyn, which was disappointing because he must have known she needed some help. Keith mainly just said he hated Natalie lying but didn’t have much else to say. Alec actually had the best juror questions of the night, asking Natalie what her biggest move was, and asking Missy how she thought she lived up to her “tribe momma” title. Natalie wisely, yet truthfully, discussed how voting him out gave her the numbers to control the game from there on out. Missy gave a predictable answer about how she controlled game pieces to vote the way she wanted, which was either an outright lie, or a straight delusion (I’m leaning towards the latter). Baylor added nothing intelligible to the discussion as she came up, so I’ll move on from her. Josh came up and directed a decent question towards Jaclyn, asking her if she thinks she made moves to get to the end, or if instead she was carried to the finals on the strength of her alliance mates’ decisions. Jaclyn adequately defended herself, and claimed that her solo move was voting him out just after the merge, but obviously Josh wasn’t buying that line. Wes threw a non-strategic question out about what it was like to play with a loved one, possibly just to get different perspectives from the ladies, but it didn’t offer too much to the discussion either. Jeremy came up, and talked about being a student of the game, but ended up rambling about Natalie balling out. It was weird, there were a lot of “Don’t be mad” utterances, and he clearly didn’t have anything much to say. So that all lead to the last juror, Reed, who put on what I believe to be one of the best monologues in Tribal Council history, alongside Susan Hawk, Erik Cardona, Brenda Lowe, and Corinne Kaplan to name a few. Reed did exactly what I needed someone to do; he eviscerated Missy for her weak, snotty, arrogant game play. In what was clearly a well-rehearsed overture, Reed likened Missy to the wicked stepmother in classic literature, making sure everyone outside her alliance was constantly made to feel inferior, and giving her daughter over-the-top preferential treatment and protection. As Reed put in, in the end she made the fatal flaw of “abusing the help,” and ignoring the fact that the outcasts would decide her fate. Reed was 100% on point when it came to his read on Missy’s game play, and the eloquence of his dramatic speech was so enthralling, that it single handedly saved the episode from being a bore. Bravo Reed, and thank you for bringing some pizzazz and justice to the end of a season dominated by missed opportunities, and weak understandings of the undercurrents in the game. It was literally exactly what I needed to have happen in order for me to feel happy with the ending of the season. And kudos to Reed for voting for Jaclyn to ensure she got second place in the pecking order. I’m not sure if anyone has ever voted for someone to make sure they at least got second place over someone, except maybe Vytas on the first Blood vs. Water season. It was cold, but it was the right thing to do, and I think it was one of the most interesting juror decisions I’ve ever seen. I sincerely hope they bring Reed back someday, he was such a fun player to watch, and after that performance, he goes down as one of the coolest players of all time in my book.
- So how will we view Natalie as a Survivor winner? I think Natalie’s legacy will be that of a fierce competitor who completely dominated end game strategy in a way that was unique. Natalie managed a successful vengeance plot, kept it under cover, and manipulated each of the last 5 votes with very little help from any alliance or accomplice. I think Natalie is easily a top ten Survivor winner of all time, maybe not one of the greatest solely because a wiser group would have seen her for the threat she was and shut her strategy down quickly, but nonetheless she gets all the credit for her dominance. Natalie as a character is very interesting, because for the first half of the game I couldn’t stand her, and was greatly annoyed by her preachiness and loud personality, but when it came time to play on her own, I was quickly won over by her game. It’s very unusual for me to be won over by a player I initially can’t stand, as I do tend to play favorites in my viewing, but I couldn’t help but be amazed by Natalie’s independence in the game, making the moves she wanted to happen solely on her own, and by her tenacity and eagerness to not only win the game, but dominate it. Natalie became one of the few Survivor players who have ever won me over after I initially disliked them, and I think that says a lot about her game. I’m a stubborn viewer, and I do carry some bias, but there was a point in time at this game (probably when Jon got voted out) when I could no longer hate on Natalie because her game was just so outrageously good. I think in time, Natalie will be remembered as one of the great winners of Survivor, who’s only real flaw was playing with a less than stellar group of post-merge players. I won’t hold that against her, but it will be seen in time if history may hold that against her, in terms of her legacy as a winner.
So there we have it folks, another season of Survivor is in the books, and I’ve had a blast blogging about it every week. The beauty of Survivor is you never really know how it’s all going to play out until it actually plays out, and even then you can still be surprised at peoples’ decisions, and strategies in the game. This was another unpredictable season of Survivor, and regardless of the strategy or lack thereof from the players, it was fun to watch, and fun to dissect as a critic. Coming up in February is a milestone for this show as it will reach its 30th season on CBS. The season will be called Survivor: Worlds Apart, and will feature three tribes divided by social class; white collar, blue collar, and no collar (free spirit). I’m extremely excited about this new twist, and I think it might be the closest Survivor has come to setting up a true microcosm of society as a whole. People in life do tend to be grouped into social classes to fight for their livelihood, and for Survivor to group people by their social castes will heighten the tense dynamics of people from different backgrounds trying to assimilate and work together. We shall see if these segregated tribes can show more interesting results than Cagayan’s ‘Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty’ concept, which answered no questions on what type of player does best. Will the white collar tribe be cut throat, and find their way to the top 1% of the season? Will the blue collar tribe be able to work harder and keep themselves entrenched in the game until the end? Will the no collar tribe use their free thinking and creativity to slip through to the end and win it all in the process? All of these questions will be answered in season 30, and I’ll be watching and giving my insight week by week. Until then, I guess we can all revel in Natalie’s success as the Sole Survivor of Survivor: San Juan Del Sur, and wait patiently for another two months to role by.