Say what you will about this season of Survivor—the lackluster post-merge episodes, the relentless focus on God, the continued ways Redemption Island is affecting the show for the worse—but that finale was a very effective two hours of television. Reality shows are interesting in that the perceived quality is often based on someone’s personally desired outcome, no matter the skill in which the episode in question is crafted. Coming into this finale was an interesting experience to me because for the first time, I wasn’t rooting for anyone, so no bias accidentally got in the way of my perception of the episode. This is a good thing, because the episode itself was pretty great.
One thing well-produced competition reality shows can do almost better than any other genre is craft an effective narrative, and that is exactly what happened tonight. The entire finale was completely constructed as The Ozzy Show, charting a course for his ultimate redemption throughout. Everything was going his way, from his victory over Brandon at the final duel to his numerous strategy talks with Coach. It really seemed as if the Redemption Island addition was finally going to create a winner and validate its continued existence (even though in my opinion that itself would create a whole new string of problems), and every one of Ozzy’s talking heads and the swelling music supporting his journey supported this narrative. Ozzy was being set up to be Redemption Island’s crown jewel, the ace up their sleeve the producers have been waiting for. He even got cocky enough to accidentally antagonize Sophie to the point of tears at Tribal Council, a move that somehow seemed to put him in even more esteem with the jury.
But then that redemption didn’t happen. In the final immunity challenge, Sophie edged him out during the final puzzle, and the entire season’s redemption arc came crashing down. After somewhat insensitively crushing Sophie’s spirit the night before, her underdog narrative managed to overtake his redemption narrative right at the very last opportunity. The crushing disappointment of this moment for Ozzy was expertly rendered by the editors and producers, who keenly interviewed a still emotional Ozzy right after the final immunity challenge and cleverly just let the moment play out when Ozzy reacts to Coach, Albert, and Sophie celebrating his loss within earshot of the interview. It’s a tiny, silent, perfect moment, and from the beginning of the episode up until this, it was a pretty stellar episode of Survivor in general.
The thing that always mucks up Survivor finales is the final jury questioning. Somewhere along the line, it has become less of a chance to find out more information about how people played the game and more of a chance to berate the remaining players and tell them how awful they are as human beings. It was shocking and amusing when Sue Hawk did it back in the first season, but now, it’s just tiresome. Especially frustrating is how the jury questioning could do so much to offer clarity to the audience as well. Because of Survivor’s mandate to keep voting outcomes as secret as possible every week, we aren’t really allowed to know how most of the people in the final three played the game. Jury questions would be an incredible way for us to get more clarity; instead, we get arrogant Ozzy and self-righteous Rick. If Brandon would have actually let Albert answer the question about knowing if he was going to go home or not when he was voted out, maybe we would have more insight into Albert’s strategy. Instead, we have an idea he might have known but was lying, but we’ll never know for sure. For someone who is interested in strategy and how it ultimately helps or hurts a player’s game, this is disappointing. Thank goodness for people like Edna and Dawn, both sane and reasonable, if not necessarily enlightening.
We did get a little more strategy talk than usual in general tonight, but everyone’s logic was so circular and their talking head interviews so dishonest it was never easy to tell what was serious and what was simply someone’s delusions. Was Coach really ever planning on doing anything with Ozzy? He acted like it both in his conversations with Ozzy and his talking head interviews, but when it came down to it, he always made the choice for Ozzy to go. It’s hard to know if it was Coach’s own self-delusion driving his talking head interviews or outright lies. I believe he hypothetically might have wanted someone like Ozzy in the finals next to him, but his rational side simply couldn’t allow it to happen. Anyone seeing the bright smiles Ozzy got from the jury when they saw him with the immunity necklace would know taking him to the final three would have been a fool’s errand. In the end, it was likely Coach’s inability to separate this hypothetical “right” way to play the game from the actual way he was playing the game that cost him jury votes, and ultimately the game itself.
Perhaps the biggest delusion of the night, however, was Albert’s insistence he played a better game than Coach or Sophie. The audience isn’t privy to all game interaction, but his absolute confidence in his superiority seemed strange. Earlier in the season it seemed like he would be one of the power players, but as the game went along he never made one big move. Sure, he talked a big game every week, but then simply fell in line with the status quo. Albert’s strategy has been somewhat of an enigma the entire game, and an enigma it remains. But hey, at least he's confident!
In the end, it’s hard to know why the jury picked Sophie to win. Was it bitter feelings towards Coach? Belief she played the most strategic game? Was it her final immunity win that knocked powerhouse Ozzy out of the game? For all we know, they could have just liked her best. Although I didn’t have a personal rooting stake in the outcome, Sophie’s win is a perfectly satisfying ending to a somewhat awful season. Most of all, I’m just glad the episode showed that although Survivor can sometimes lose its way, it still has the capability of being truly compelling television. For a show with 23 seasons under its belt, that is a pretty amazing feat.
- Season 24 is Survivor: One World. Two tribes on the same beach! No mention of Redemption Island or returning players! This just might be interesting, folks.
- Ozzy wins the $100,000 audience vote. Yawn. But at least Probst cruelly faked out Cochran before announcing the news! Boo, nerds!
- Brandon’s mohawk wins the reunion, obviously. If they actually do a Hantz vs. Hantz season, though, I might have to abdicate my reviewing responsibilities.
- Probst’s obsession with Ozzy is predictable but still groan-worthy. Ozzy got far more screen time than Sophie, which seems unnecessary.
- I really want to read Cochran’s paper comparing the American jury system to the Survivor jury system.
- “He’s playing the game like he’s playing with God, but he’s not. He’s playing with human beings who are greedy and who want that money.”
- “I do have a Plan B: To win. Plan A: Win. Plan B: Win.”
- “I love a Viking reference!”
- “Generally in person, it’s positive. Then I got on the internet like an obsessive freak and everyone hates me.” Someone needs to send Cochran over here.