Early in Survivor’s 41st finale, Erika wins the first of two immunity challenges, and host Jeff Probst informs her that the steak reward she won is dinner for two. It’s a longstanding Survivor tradition in late-game rewards, with the producers putting contestants in a position to have to pick favorites and potentially make a strategic blunder. Will Erika pick Heather, her closest ally who isn’t speaking to her following Deshawn’s statements at the last tribal council, or will she look ahead to the next stage of things to try to build relationships with others?
If you’re a fan of Survivor, this is what was going on in your brain. But it was also going on in Fiji, as Probst outlines the stakes of Erika’s decision aloud lest we weren’t paying attention. It’s possible this isn’t the first time he has been this didactic in laying out the producers’ intentions in moments like these, but it stood out here because it is so representative of Season 41 as a whole. This year, Survivor doesn’t have a final five: it has a final six, and the sixth player is Jeff Probst constantly interjecting himself into the game whether we want him to or not.
It’s hard to write about this season of Survivor—which I’ve done twice previously—without sounding like a stuck-in-the-mud traditionalist, and I want to be clear that there are elements of this season’s endless string of twists and interventions that I’ve enjoyed. The finale starts with the remaining players turned back into castaways, sending them to an undeveloped island that forces them to return to a simpler stage of the game, and this is the kind of “twist” that feels like the producers creating a productive game environment as opposed to forcibly reordering the game. The conveniently-timed rainstorm adds a layer of killer fatigue to the last immunity challenge, and creates fewer spaces for the players to “settle” in the tense final days.
But it isn’t enough to revitalize a limp final five - and an even limper final four with Ricard predictably and rightfully removed as a threat when he loses immunity to Erika - that feels like a consequence of the way the game built to this moment. The show brings back its “childhood memories” montage for Xander to try to craft a glow-up narrative from scratch, and a close firemaking challenge between Deshawn and Heather offers some mild thrills, but everything about this finale feels untethered, floating in a cloud of the idea of Survivor rather than being rooted in the show’s potential.
This is clearest when Xander starts trying to handicap the state of the game as he holds immunity at final four and thus the power to decide who is joining him in the final three, and who is making fire. His decision to take Erika felt wrong to me as soon as he introduced it, but I realized I didn’t have a clear grasp on the jury’s sentiments about her, or how really any possible scenarios would play out. This could be productive for a thrilling conclusion if it was because the members of the jury are all conflicted. However, the lack of clarity comes from a lack of information, and so I wasn’t shocked when the jury raised their collective eyebrow at his summary of how they were allegedly feeling.
The inscrutability of the jury could be a byproduct of the shorter game time, where players had 13 fewer days to interact with each other, but my gut says it’s a byproduct of the amount of time producers had to spend setting up, executing, and exploring the fallout of twist after twist. Deshawn struggled early in the fire making challenge because he was smothering his flame, and the simple truth is that Survivor smothered its players. When Deshawn, Erika, and Xander sat in front of the jury as the final three, no amount of childhood photos or Erika’s pandering to my Canadianness could convince me any of them represent a meaningful or memorable Survivor narrative.
During that final tribal council, Danny tries to shape the conversation by suggesting Survivor is like a sport with different quarters. But while that might be true in a normal season of Survivor, this year wasn’t quarters like football or periods like hockey: it was the reality TV equivalent of Calvinball, where Probst was changing the rules so often that to expect any player to articulate a clear narrative of how they played within this game is unfair.
I’d be interested to know if any of you reading this felt like you were following the conversation during the final tribal council, because I realized as they were talking that I recalled almost none of it. When Ricard brought up Deshawn’s gameplay at the merge, I couldn’t tell you if Deshawn was right or wrong to claim Ricard was misrepresenting what happened. When Xander is pressed by Liana about a time when he acted based on social cues, and he sat there stammering trying to think of something, I honestly had no idea if it was because it never happened or because he just couldn’t think of something on the spot.
I emphasize this uncertainty because I feel confident that I disassociated from this season of Survivor to a historic degree, and it’s possible that this framed my perspective of the finale unfairly. But from chatting with other critics and fans of the show on Twitter, it doesn’t seem like I’m alone in this, and so it seems fair to say that there was an objective failure of narrative development.
The editors created some very memorable big moments—like the in-depth conversation about race in a historically diverse season or Xander and Liana’s advantage/immunity idol gambit at the merge—but they failed to make any of them actually matter. Both of those moments come up in the final tribal council, but they don’t actually connect to anything else, and the latter is a punchline as opposed to a conversation about strategy or gameplay. Survivor 41 wasn’t a game these people played: it was a game that played them, and us, and which feels destined to be one of the least memorable seasons and casts as a result.
Erika’s dominant win - Deshawn only managed a single vote, with Xander shut out entirely - made no impact, and the show’s bizarre choice to telegraph the on-island vote read and reunion for the audience at home meant we didn’t even get to share in their surprise. The vibes among the cast at the beginning of the “Survivor After Show” are actually very endearing, but I just wished that I could feel the way about this season as the players seemed to.
Quickly, the After Show devolved into the players recounting what we had already seen, with none of the insight that comes from seeing it play back on TV—the reunions are rarely thrilling television, but their complete ignorance to their edits makes it an utterly empty exercise, becoming the latest part of the season that felt like a fundamental miscalculation (even if this one was probably a contingency to guarantee a non-Zoom “reunion” with so much uncertainty around COVID).
So where does Survivor go from here? As with the—more concerning—fallout from the sexual misconduct in Season 39, the following season has already been filmed, meaning that any of the feedback Probst and the rest of Survivor’s producers have gotten from fans won’t have been taken into account. We’re forced to place our trust in the self-reflection of a man who has wholly embraced his increasingly Hunger Games-esque role in the series, and who seems very comfortable with what Survivor became this season.
There are bits and pieces of the “new Survivor” that were worth exploring, and which I’d like to see refined in future iterations of the game, but hearing Probst present Season 42 as a continuation of the experiment and seeing yet another dumb “Secret Phrase” situation doesn’t give me a whole lot of confidence that a judicious hand was taken in the short off-season. The only hope is that with another diverse cast, there’s a chance they can thrive in spite of what the game of Survivor is intent on being, but nothing about how Season 41 ended has left me optimistic about that possibility.
- Ricard’s swing into his emotional story—which the show largely ignored after introducing it early on—to try to save himself was at least a little calculated, so it was particularly annoying when the show’s music team played their new favorite “Look at how important and triumphant our storylines are” music cue that they debuted during the race conversation earlier in the season. It’s just trying way, way too hard, and is an unfortunate counterpoint to the great work orchestrating Shan’s inner song earlier in the season.
- In case you were wondering, Erika’s $1 million is roughly $1.22 million Canadian dollars at current exchange rates, although it will—unlike lottery/game show winnings in Canada—be heavily taxed. My condolences to Erika’s accountant.
- Even though I understand how it guarantees uncertainty and tension in a part of the game that often lacks it, I still can’t shake my distaste for the way the firemaking challenge was introduced to effectively rig the game in Ben’s favor, and in a season defined by production micro-managing the game that memory does not work in the show’s favor.
- I realize it might be a combination of budget and time and all of that, but I miss seeing a really large-scale immunity challenge in the final episodes that makes it seem like the end of a journey. The rope ladder/puzzle and block stacking/balance combo didn’t generate much interest.
- As I said, I really would love to hear from someone who was still fully engaged with this season for this finale, because I’m trying to understand the root of my disconnect. I’ve appreciated the dialogue we’ve been able to have in these check-ins, and as always I’m always up to discuss the show on Twitter.