Well, it’s Survivor off-season again, and after finishing up my quest to watch all the seasons of Survivor I never saw last summer, I had a decision to make. Do I keep going with my Survivor Rewind series, or do I let it end at the goal I had? I was weighing the decision a little bit, but it wasn’t a difficult choice for me in the end; I was gonna keep on going with the Rewind Series. The first couple of seasons I watched, starting with the one I’m talking about today, were ones I watched more casually, without much of an eye for strategy or what it truly takes to win the show from Day one. In essence, I want to re-watch seasons so that I can see things differently, watch the show unravel knowing what’s going to happen, and looking for the clues of storylines to come as they unfold. So here we go, on with the Rewind Series, and first up is season 13, Survivor: Cook Islands.

Cook Islands was a very interesting point in the history of Survivor, not only because it was the first season I watched, but because it was the beginning and the end of many concepts Survivor tried, and the experimentation the show tried with this season has been met with mixed reviews and controversy. Survivor: Cook Islands was the first season to premiere the idea of a final three, a point that signaled a critical change in the strategy of the game. While the concept of a final three has been met with mixed reviews from super fans, it has worked out great over the years, and will definitely be remembered as one of the great things that the show came away with from this season. On the other hand, the producers of the show struck out dramatically on most of the other twists they attempted, and the controversy that surrounded their twists could have easily sunk the franchise, if not for the wonderful finish the season had. The show decided once again to split the cast into four tribes, a decision that went bad the season before, but instead of doing a split on gender or age lines, the show decided to split the tribes based upon race. I’ll go into the effects of that more below, but let’s just say the decision was not met well by advertisers, fans, or even the contestants. Luckily, the game ended up being very dramatic, if not convoluted, and the last half of the episodes provided some really great material for air. In the end, we got to witness one of the most exciting come from behind stories the show was ever able to deliver, and we got one of the most dramatic winner reveals the show had seen, or has seen since! Cook Islands may not be remembered too fondly by all fans of the show, but personally, I believe it’s one of the better seasons the show has ever had, even if only from a storytelling perspective. So, without any further ado, here are my thoughts on Survivor: Cook Islands:

  • From the beginning of episode 1, it became clear that the social experiment of Survivor had finally been taken to a new level, and many had to question whether or not the show had crossed the line with their new twist. The twenty contestants were divided into tribes, and most of them were shocked to see that they had been divided into four tribes along racial lines; the Asian-Americans (Puka), the African Americans (Manihiki), the Latinos (Aitutaki), and Caucasians (Rarotonga). Contestant Parvati Shallow said it the best during one of her confessionals; “Is that kosher?” No, Parvati, it really wasn’t, but I do get what Survivor was trying to do. They had been in love with the idea of splitting tribes based upon commonalities to control for people being singled out for one reason or another, trying gender and age a few times before. But, the racial divide was a bit more problematic, and that was obvious when reports leaked out that some advertisers were in fact pulling off the show because of the controversial nature of having a ‘battle of the races’ on the show, for lack of a better phrase. It’s not exactly certain whether or not advertisers dropping the show was all about the controversy, but it is certain that fans and contestants were a bit taken aback by the tribal divisions. Players in the game talked about certain pressures they had representing their race, especially the Manihiki tribe who were the first to lose immunity. Others struggled with the fact that the racial divide could be used to reinforce negative stereotypes (as discussed by Becky lee and Yul Kwon), while some players felt that they would be outcast for not fitting into traditional racial stereotypes (as discussed by early boots Billy Garcia and Cao Boi Bui). It turned out to be a very negative point of conversation, instead of the positive, inclusive discussion starter the producers thought it would be. Survivor appeared to learn it’s lesson after the fact from this debacle as we’ve only seen one season since that divided tribes among tangible contestant differences (Survivor: Nicaragua). Dividing tribes based on racial lines was just asking for trouble, and it really didn’t end up being impactful for television either, it was just kind of awkward. Cook Islands had a great story in the end, but the beginning started out quite awkward.

 

  • The game went along rather normally through the first couple of votes. The Exile Island twist added a little something extra to the season, as did an early swap and double vote, but the real action and the real story of the season started when there were twelve players left. The Raro and Aitu tribes had been relatively evenly matched since their swap, but Jeff Probst had an interesting twist to offer everyone left in the game. When he gathered the tribes for a challenge that day, Jeff Probst announced that he had an opportunity for everyone that could change their fates in the game. He offered everyone in the game the chance to mutiny and join the other team, if they felt so inclined. This was tried before once, back in Pearl Islands, and no one took the offer, but this time things went a bit differently. Candace of the Aitu tribe decided she wanted to play with her crush Adam, and good friend Parvati, and stepped off her mat to join Raro. With just a split second left in the ten second countdown, Jonathan Penner stepped off his mat and joined Raro alongside Candace, making the tribal divide very lopsided with Raro increasing to 8 members and Aitu decreasing to only four. It was easy to see Candace flipping on Aitu, she had this creepy little romance budding with Adam from their pre-merge game, which ended up in an odd little three way situation with Parvati. As disturbing as watching the three of them together was, working with them was an obvious strategic decision for Candace since they were the people she meshed with best. Penner, on the other hand, was hedging his bets that Candace was the person he could trust the most, something that wasn’t as true as he thought, and his flip was a bit more of an impulse decision that a reasoned strategic move. Still, the mutiny stands as one of the iconic moments in Survivor history because it dramatically changed the makeup of the game and created one of the most dynamic underdog stories of all-time with the ‘Aitu 4.’ The remaining members of Aitu, Yul, Becky, Ozzy Lusth, and Sundra Oakley quickly bonded around their underdog status, winning the last two team immunities in dramatic fashion. Raro proceeded to get rid of Brad, who lost the trust of his tribe, and Rebecca, who was weakest at challenges, before a ridiculous twist forced them to vote out a second member at tribal council without any real discussion. The twist saw Jenny, one of the better game strategists on her tribe, blindsided in a peculiar fashion, leaving Raro with the Caucasian coalition plus Nate remaining as they merged. So, the mutiny turned out to have an interesting impact on the game, but not quite the one anyone could’ve really expected. Raro gained strength in numbers, but quality ended up beating quantity, and the Aitu tribe became a well-rounded, tight group that conquered its way to the merge intact. And that was only just the beginning of their story!

 

  • Yul Kwon was unquestionably the leader of the Aitu tribe, and his cerebral style of play and leadership were crucial in helping his tribe succeed. In the second episode, he was selected to go to Exile Island, where he received a clue to the location of a hidden immunity idol. Yul masterfully figured out the location, based upon the clues, and found the buried treasure in the sand. More than anyone else on the island, Yul seemed to have a calm presence about him, always keeping his cool and thinking strategy, so him finding the idol was a really great thing for the season. At the merge, when the numbers advantage was clearly against the Aitu 4, Yul put together one of the greatest strategic pitches we’ve seen in the show’s history. Knowing Penner may be the most susceptible to flipping on his tribe, Yul began discussing the merits of Penner rejoining the Aitu alliance. The two of them had been tight before, so they began to discuss the game, but Jonathan claimed that the only way he would flip is if he knew he was working with the owners of the immunity idol. Later on, just before the first vote for the merged Aitutonga tribe, Yul came and found Penner as he was fishing and presented him the idol he found, asking him to rejoin their alliance for good. I might be biased because I’m a big Yul Kwon fan, but I think this was one of the most boss moves anyone’s made at camp on Survivor before; he took his time, studied reactions, and made the move at the right moment knowing he was simultaneously pledging allegiance and espousing fear. Penner felt as if he had no option but to switch again, helping the Aitu 4 vote out Nate in an ultimate betrayal. In that moment, Yul leveraged his advantage in the game perfectly to carry his Aitu alliance, once outnumbered 2-1, to a position of power with a clear shot at getting to the finals. Yul’s mental fortitude paid dividends, and gained him some serious respect from the jury at the end of 39 days.

 

  • Of course Yul couldn’t have lead the Aitu tribe by himself, and while Becky and Sundra performed well physically and socially in the game, it was Ozzy who often put his team on his back during challenges, winning immunities both for his tribe and for himself in the end game. Ozzy started the game out as this brash, cocky alpha male on the Aitutaki tribe, butting heads with Billy and pissing off Christina, who always referred to him as Oscar in her confessionals. But, once the tribes merged, and he was outvoted in the first tribal, Ozzy sunk into the background a little bit, employing the Rupert approach of staying needed by being a provider for the tribe. Once Aitu was decimated by the mutiny, Ozzy became an important factor for the tribe, as his strength and agility allowed them to dominate challenges, despite their numbers disadvantage. Ozzy was a young, likable guy, and he was able to forge friendships with Raro tribe members Nate and Parvati, who would end up voting for him to win in the final three. He may not have been the most strategic player ever, but he played the game with 100% effort, and dominated the individual immunities, earning high praise from his competitors, and a certain amount of fear from his own alliance. They discussed voting him out if the opportunity presented itself, but it never really did, and when they found out the game would end with the first ever final three, it was settled that Ozzy and Yul would go head to head with each other for the win, with Sundra and Becky competing in a fire-making tie breaker to decide who would be the third. A terrible, long fire making challenge, where Jeff had to stop them and give them matches basically put a nail in the coffin of the eventual default winner, Becky, essentially making the final three a final two, and leading to a very interesting final tribal council to decide just who would be victorious.

 

  • In the first twelve seasons of Survivor, we’d really never seen a final two where you had two really dominant forces that were playing to win in different ways. With this first final three, we got to see what would win out with the jury, the strategy of Yul or the physical dominance and survival skills of Ozzy. Questions came at the final three from the largest jury in the history of the show, with nine players deciding the fates of the finalists. All three players really put on great performances in the final tribal council, with even Becky putting up a fight when questioned about riding coattails. Yul defended his game admitting that he had to manipulate and pin people against each other, while Ozzy defended his lack of strategy brilliantly, and eloquently, citing his role as provider and warrior for the tribe. It truly was shaping up to be a clash between Survivor ideals, whether outwitting or outplaying would be weighed most heavily. During the live finale, the votes came in, and it was 1 vote Yul, 1 vote Ozzy, and it continued back and forth until it was 4-4 with one vote left. I have to admit, I was on the edge of my seat the first time I watched it, with my fingers crossed hoping Yul would pull it out, and even though I knew the result this time, I was almost as captivated watching that ninth vote this time. It was fun knowing that the winner wasn’t clear, that two people had gotten a significant chunk of the votes, but in the end, I think the correct winner was crowned; Yul Kwon. Yul was the mastermind behind the season, he dictated the action post-merge based on his strategy, and carefully pandered to the jury for consideration throughout the game. I think Yul goes down as one of the most cerebral winners of all-time, up there with Brian Heidik or Richard Hatch in terms of how he was able to control the goings-on in the game. Yul was masterful, and for somebody like me who loves good Survivor strategy, his game was wonderful to watch.

I’m really satisfied with my re-watch of Survivor: Cook Islands, it reminded me of a lot of the reasons why I fell in love with the game of Survivor. While I admittedly was shaking my head at the initial twist of the season, and some of the ridiculous mini-twists like the bottle twist or the hidden notes at challenges, the overall storytelling of the season, with the underdogs triumphing was wonderfully told and edited. I think watching this season a second time, nine years later has allowed me to truly understand the story of the season, from start to finish, something that’s hard to get or appreciate when you watch them one at a time without any prior knowledge of what’s going to happen. I really enjoyed the story of the Aitu 4, and moreso than last time, I really enjoyed the downfall of Rarotonga a lot. It all just made for a wonderful television show, and seeing Yul get crowned Sole Survivor brought me back to when I was first truly hooked on the show. Maybe Survivor: Cook Islands isn’t the best season Survivor has ever seen, but it is a compelling story with a lot of wonderful characters and twists along the way. Next up for me will be season 14, Survivor: Fiji, a season I didn’t really love all that much on my first watch. It will be fun to watch a show I didn’t enjoy much; hopefully I’ll be able to pick out a few things to appreciate to make it worthwhile. Until next blog, I’ll leave you with a few final thoughts on Survivor: Cook Islands:

  • I really struggled with Ozzy throughout this season, and I have on every season he’s been on since. He’s kind of considered a Survivor hero, and garnered a fan following on his first season, but I actually think he’s a villain. His time with his first tribe really made him look like a bit of a bully to be honest, he and JP both. Even though Billy was lazy, I couldn’t help but feel like JP and Ozzy were being a bit controlling in the way they lead their tribe. It put a bad taste in my mouth from the beginning, and even though I rooted for Ozzy to succeed because it would help Yul and Becky, I still never felt good about him the way it seems like I was supposed to, giving his end of game edit. Ozzy is such a larger than life character though, I’m looking forward to re-watching season 16 soon, solely because I want to watch Penner, Parvati, and he play the game again with a new perspective…I hinted at it earlier, but I really did enjoy Rarotonga’s downfall way too much. I think the dynamic between Candace, Adam, and Parvati was weird and awkward, and I really couldn’t come around to respecting any of them or the way they play. Adam is by far one of the worst alpha males this show has ever cast, he didn’t seem to get the game, and he had a creepy smile, and didn’t seem to work as hard as others. Candace was portrayed as kind of an innocent heroine, but let’s be honest; she betrayed her tribe and was a tad hypocritical at times. Then there was Parvati, who’s reliance on flirtation as a social strategy became an utter annoyance that repeated itself on screen every two years for the latter half of the 00’s. Finally, we had Nate, who’s cockiness and arrogance were far and away the worst of any of his tribe. It seemed clear he didn’t get the game either, and his blindside was one of my favorite moments from the season. I really disliked that group as players; they just sucked in so many ways and didn’t deserve to go to the end. I used to think Cook Islands was a hit because the Aitu 4 won, but now I’m wondering if it’s not because the Raro 8 lost…Jonathan Penner is one of the most interesting guys Survivor has seen. He’s opinionated, he has leadership qualities but doesn’t really take the lead, and he always walks the line between hero and villain, usually crossing into the villain category. Watching him closely from the beginning was a fun exercise because he really is a complex player. He thinks through his options and he works hard around camp, yet always seemed to erase the good things he did with just a few spontaneous decisions. Still, I really enjoyed Penner and I don’t think he’s the villain of this story, if anything he’s the anti-hero fighting the status quo and making the story what he chooses it to be. I appreciate a guy like that on Survivor, they’re playing the right way, and while they may not win, they’re the kinds of player that I love to root for.
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