Last Wednesday, Survivor: Kaoh Rong, 32nd installment of the grandfather of reality television, came to a close. It crowned its latest winner, 24 year-old bartender Michele Fitzgerald, a headscratching choice by the jury, given her lack of airtime and significant clues leading to her win. Before breaking down the finale, let’s do down memory lane before we analyze how the mostly invisible Jersey girl Michele won over the more popular underdog Aubry Bracco. I had not watched the episode until Sunday (our internet connection had been whacked for days), but #SurvivorFinale trended the night of May 18, and seeing the results on Twitter, I was initially confused because there was little to no build up to her win. After letting it sink in, I realized she wasn’t the first winner to receive a mixed bag of reactions.
There were six former Survivor winners who won under the same vein: Vecepia Towery, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Amber Brkich, Danni Boatright, Natalie White and Jud Birza. These six winners all made it to the end without making enemies, and instead made friends. They capitalized the fact the people sitting next to them at the Final Tribal Council are unwinnable. They remained under the radar for most of their time, and when it came down to the final vote, they shone. They gave what the jurors wanted, may it be humility, honesty or a healthy dose of ego-stroking, they got the job done: to garner enough votes to win. It does not matter if a finalist is good TV, a challenge beast and/or a brilliant strategist. Survivor is a [VERY] complicated popularity contest. I will explain how Michele fits in with these winners later.
Now back to the finale.
Mark, Tai Trang‘s pet chicken (named after Survivor‘s EO Mark Burnett) scowled while everyone was trying to sleep (kudos to Tai for convincing a group of hungry survivors to not slaughter the chicken for a month). While taking his animal friend from audible distance, Tai lamented about his now-powerless Hidden Immunity Idol, which was rendered useless when Joe del Campo was evacuated last episode in fifth place due to an enlarged prostate. With del Campo evacuated at final five, the last time a contestant can play a Hidden Immunity Idol, Tai was robbed of the chance to use it at least be safe for one more night. Meanwhile, Aubry mourned over losing another ally due to medical reasons (Neal Gottlieb, who was evacuated for multiple boils). She originally wanted to vote out the bodybuilder Cydney Gillon for her strength in challenges, but she believed it is in her best interest to stick with her to vote out Michele, who has not made any enemies within the jury, whereas they did. Michele, who remained a free vote throughout the merge, knew she was in danger. If I were Aubry, I would have targeted Tai instead, given his track record of last-minute vote slip ups, and he could be targeting me for all I know. Besides, Michele had been too passive for her own good, why not keep her around longer? I would rather eliminate someone who has more capacity to blindside me than a wallflower.
The final four competed for a Reward Challenge specifically designed to refuel their body coming to tomorrow’s Immunity Challenge. Aubry won, but was given a dilemma between keeping the food to herself, ensuring she will be the only one energized enough for tomorrow’s challenge, and taking someone to join her, which could potentially do a favor for someone and use the meal to privately talk strategy, ostensibly leaving out two other people who could also plot behind their backs. Aubry chose Cydney, denying Michele and Tai of any significant nourishment. While Aubry and Cydney gorged themselves with food, Tai and Michele considered their options. Michele wanted to vote Aubry if she loses the Immunity Challenge. Having reservations towards Aubry for several days for not following their supposed agreements over votes, Tai agreed.
The final four entered the next Immunity Challenge, not knowing it will be their last (more on that later). The challenge was very impressive. Production really knows how to pop ladders in a visually awing way. Aubry’s meal proved to be helpful as she gained an early lead, but completely struggled with the combination lock. Tai and Michele both caught up, while Cydney, ironically the most fit of the four, trailed in last (familiar story?). After a close race, Michele wins her first challenge, throwing Aubry’s plans to waste. Back to Cydney, she was just as well fed as Aubry, and that challenge performance continued the running joke (pun unintended) of athletes sucking at Survivor challenges.
With no other alternative, Cydney tried to butter Michele up to save herself and considered voting Aubry out instead, citing her respectable strategic game. Cydney also considered practicing making fire with the flint in the case of a tie (according to Survivor rules, if there are only four players left and a tie occurs, a fire-making tiebreaker would commence). Meanwhile, Tai returned to Aubry’s side, warning her of the possibility of a tie as well. With this said, Aubry was certain Tai could turn on her just as he turned on everyone on the jury. At Tribal Council, the 2-2 tie between Aubry and Cydney (Cydney and Michele vote Aubry while Tai and Aubry vote Cydney), materializes, pitting Aubry and Cydney in a firemaking challenge. Interesting to note that the two people who conspired the other day were pitted against each other. Aubry smoked the challenge (I finally admit, I love puns), while Cydney failed to even start a spark. Aubry predictably won, eliminating Cydney from the game.
Back at camp, Michele scolded Tai for voting with Aubry, which she described as “basically handing Aubry the million dollars.” The next day, Aubry congratulated Michele and Tai for making it to the end, but Tai reminded her it was only Day 38 (the game of Survivor ends on Day 39), and there likely could be another Immunity Challenge and only two will face the jury. Aubry was certain they will all do so. Day 38 comes along, the final three was shocked to compete in another challenge. To their shock however, Jeff Probst declared them as finalists, relieving them of their worries. However, the now-finalists were to compete in another Reward Challenge wherein the winner would receive the power to eliminate a jury member, thus denying that juror a seat at tomorrow’s Final Tribal Council (he or she would not be present or speak at Tribal Council and be able to vote for the eventual winner). Jeff explained that it could be played different ways, such as denying a fellow finalist a potential jury vote, or preventing a jury member to sway the entire jury to vote someone else. The challenge was to stack balls and stands (looking like a spine, think of a chiropractor’s worst nightmare) while on a narrow springboard. Michele won her second straight challenge.
Jeff presented a note to Michele, which she has to read aloud in front of the jury at Tribal Council. I guess Jeff would want to leave his hands clean out of this and let Michele deliver the news to one unlucky juror. This is a complete game-changer. At first I was indifferent, because making it to the jury phase of the game is an accomplishment, and to deny you that even when you already earned it would be a bummer. But hey, Survivor is on its 32nd season, and they had to do something to keep the show afloat (there had been few its and several misses when it comes to Survivor twists, but enumerating them would make this post longer than it should be).
Back at camp, Michele pondered her important decision. She was leaning towards Joe, an Aubry supporter, but Tai reminded Michele that Neal was as much of an Aubry supporter as Joe, but Neal could have the nerve to persuade the jury to not vote either of them, thus lessening their chances of winning. Later, Aubry, obviously trying to protect her votes, told Michele to vote former NBA player Scot Pollard, as he had the capacity to verbally slander them.
At Tribal Council, the unwitting jury members arrived, noticing none of the remaining players are wearing the Immunity Necklace, not knowing the curveball that awaited them. Michele informed the jury that one jury member will be denied a place at tomorrow’s Final Tribal Council, denying that juror to have any say as to who wins the game altogether. The jury was obviously not happy to hear this. Michele decided to take Neal off the jury for reasons stated earlier. Neal walked out of Tribal Council, but not before leaving Michele some scathing words: “You thought that you were a badass bitch coming out here but were more like a cute little puppy still suckling at the teat and I don’t think you stand a chance.” The scene cut back at the live stage, Jeff revealed that the twist was being talked about for seven years. For Survivor fans like me, 2009 was a memorable year for Survivor as it introduced the uber-villain Russell Hantz, best known to find idols without clues, dump away his tribemates’ water canteens and most of all, rub eventual jurors the wrong way, and the reason why the likes of his ally, Natalie White, win Survivor. Jury management is the hardest job a Survivor contestant would do, and I realized, this twist further exemplified that. Michele knew Neal would’ve supported Aubry 100% and gone an extra mile to persuade the jury to vote for her. With Neal’s final words, Michele knew she made the right choice.
Back at camp, Aubry was obviously bummed to lose Neal on the jury, certain he would have voted for her. Michele was confident she will be able to prove to the jury she had game in her despite their general opinion of her as a non-entity. Tai hoped to gain the respect of the jury despite his multiple episodes of flip-flopping, notably Scot, whom he blatantly betrayed by refusing to form the super-idol with him (the twist this season’s Hidden Immunity Idol was two idols, shaped like half of the yin-yang symbol, could be conjoined to form a “super-idol” which could be used after the votes had been read).
At the Final Tribal Council, Tai brought Mark with him, which became Tai’s only shining moment of the night, as he was mostly ignored or berated for his haphazard strategies (other fans say ESL was his problem, I disagree). Aubry was lauded for her transformation, from having early game jitters, shaking it off, and becoming a mastermind. Michele was chastised for being quiet for most of the game, where she admitted she struggled to get her footing but she ran with it when she did, building strong, subtle relationships. The jury voted, after which Tai released Mark. Jeff then takes the voting urn and walks away. Take note that Survivor: Kaoh Rong was filmed before its “predecessor” Survivor: Second Chance, so the chicken was likely to meet his end at the hands of the second chancers. If so, then rest in piece(s).
Much to the public’s confusion, Michele was declared as Sole Survivor with five votes, while clear fan favorite Aubry only won two and Tai with none. How did that happen? Let me explain.
Michele was one of the quieter players of the season. I believed she was going to win, just by looking at her profiles from Survivor Wiki and CBS.com. I even picked her for my Fantasy League (The Survivor Wiki holds its own fantasy games every season). But from week to week, she became more and more invisible. By the fourth week, I began giving up on her. While I sort-of could predict who wins just basing from the edit, as Michele’s lack thereof was indicative of her impending doom, but when she made a sound bite about Nick talking down at her by Week 5 or 6, she sassily said, “Bro, I know.” This was the time I took notice of her. True enough, as much as she lacked airtime, whenever she gets the chance to speak, she milked every millisecond. She was reliable in her confessionals. She waited til the time is right to strike. She may have sucked at team challenges, but she proved she can win individual challenges. The “As long as it’s not me” strategy has worked wonders for several Survivor winners and Michele is no exception. Neal may have blurted out negative analogies about canines (as former contestant Stephen Fishbach noted in his blog), he missed out one thing: Michele was an underdog. She didn’t need to call every shot to get the game in her favor. She did not need to be the winning side of every vote. She didn’t need to be a jittery mess before conversations like Aubry. Michele made genuine relationships before making alliances, whereas Aubry befriended her competition as contractual co-workers. Survivor is a social game. The winner is not determined by challenge performance or how much firewood one can carry. It’s the personal relationships that will get a survivor by. Is Michele an entertaining winner? By all means no. Did she deserve to win? By winning enough jury votes, yes.
To those saying Aubry was robbed because of a bitter jury, I disagree. In the game of Survivor, there’s no such thing as an “undeserving winner” but “bitter jurors” do exist. There were no two seasons where their juries voted exactly similar. Each juror vote for different reasons. Juror A would vote the best strategist, Juror B would consider challenge strength, Juror C would choose the one he related the most, and Juror D would vote for who has less blood on his/her hands. At the end of the day, it’s the jury who gets the final say, and it’s the finalists’ job to brush the jurors’ bruised egos in any way they can. This unpredictable nature of the Final Tribal Council is what kept Survivor alive for 16 years. I agree, bitter jurors exist, but Survivor finalists are basically competing against human nature so facing such jurors is inevitable.
That brings another great season of Survivor to a close. Looking forward to next fall for season 33: Survivor: Millenials vs Gen X!