In his speech at Final Tribal Council, Mike White compared the game of Survivor to seeking the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – and whether it was more valuable to find the pot of gold or enjoy the colours of the rainbow. All season, I’ve been blown away by the twists and turns of the game, the depth of characterisation of compelling and likable castaways, and editing that has been clever and cheeky one minute and moving the next. So although tonight’s finale may not have been the most unexpected result imaginable, was this season really about the pot of gold in a shocking ending? Or was it about the rainbow road that got us here – and the journey that still surprised and entertained us in its final rounds?
IN THE FIRING LINE
Coming out of last week’s Christian blindside, I felt as though the field was wide open. Although the remaining Davids in Nick & Davie had a good chance to win if they made it to the end, their numbers disadvantage against the Goliaths looked ominous – and with relatively even edits and compelling stories across the board, it seemed like anything could happen. However, as the finale kicked off, it seemed to settle into the ominous portent that those who had already been marked as threats would be the players in danger.
Alison had been scrambling ever since Alec went home, fighting to keep her head above water and barely making it by, week after week. Viewed as a threat to win, and with nothing resembling a majority alliance, she was looking grimly at the Grim Reaper’s snuffer and knew her best chance was for the Goliaths to unite against the Davids – the undeniable underdogs who could almost certainly beat any one of them.
On the other hand, Davie had only recently found the target on his back after his plan to blindside Nick had been fed back to his ally and helped arm the Goliaths against him. He’d been wary of a supposed Final Four deal with the Jabeni crowd, and he was right to suspect them – as we saw tonight, he was easy pickings for the Goliaths who sought to bolster their chances at victory.
Thus, the Final Six vote came down to a simple decision: which of the targets would go first. But the choice still held drama as Angelina and Mike found themselves in the swing position – able to either stick with their promise to Nick and eliminate Angelina’s rival in Alison or strike out on their own to work with Alison & Kara to eliminate the bigger danger in Davie. Fresh off his success swaying the Christian vote, Mike saw this as another opportunity to assert control on the game – and despite the move requiring a betrayal of his Rock Star alliance, it was a critical move for a player coming into his own.
Mike’s game has been a slow burn – easy-going at first and willing to follow the majority to insulate himself, and pulling his punches against his Goliath allies to instead take out David targets like Lyrsa, Elizabeth and Christian. Yet all of that manoeuvring put him into a position where he could dictate the endgame by cashing in on his accrued social capital. Due to his fame, Mike had an outside chance to win the game, but he played with determination and a desire to chase the game in its fullest. Pushing for Davie’s elimination to sever Nick’s power and open the door for a Goliath Final 3 was a fantastic move – and his ability to pull Angelina on side when she was hungry to take out her perceived enemy in Alison speaks to his ability to play a surprisingly manipulative game. While his social game wasn’t flawless (as evidenced by insulting Alison’s legitimate fight for survival as a loss of dignity), Mike managed to play with impressive strategy, utilising his cultivated relationships that earned a worthy 3 votes at the Final Tribal, and arguably worth more.
Thus Mike sealed the fate of another David and this was the end of Davie’s story – a strong player whose enthusiasm for the game persisted until the end but couldn’t overcome the hit on a marked man. As he departed the game, making a point that his vote would go to whoever could make the biggest play, he left Nick once again in shambles. Betrayed again, Nick found himself on the warpath, and he contemplated vengeance against Mike as he had with Christian. Rightfully, Mike too saw the value in eliminating Nick before he could get him or before he could win, but Nick had one clear path to the end through an essential Immunity run. The Immunity victories had been bandied about the cast all season, and Nick was able to break the mould to win three consecutive challenges to get himself to the end and allow him to regain some control of his game.
At the last traditional Tribal, the swing vote shifted to him, allowing him to stick with the Jabeni alliance who had just betrayed him and eliminate the dead woman walking in Alison, or alternatively, make a move of revenge against Mike by working with Alison and Kara. It was a tough decision, but ultimately Nick seemed to learn from burning his bridge with Christian. He made the smart decision to stick with the group with whom he had a pre-existing relationship and who posed less of a threat in challenges, and cut Alison, who had no loyalty to him and could be a more dangerous rival at the Final Immunity or Firemaking Challenge. Thus, Alison met her fate, unable to outrun the snuffer forever.
The choice served Nick well when he continued his winning streak, beating the iconic Simmotion challenge to secure his place in the Final 3 and determine how firemaking would play out. In what I expect to become the staple approach to this round of play, Nick cut short the pitches from his Goliath opponents and flatly informed them of his plan – he would take Angelina, and send Mike and Kara to fire. Going into the challenge, Kara seemed to be the odds-on favourite, but when her fire couldn’t catch, and Mike’s roared to life, she found herself heading to the Jury never having had a vote cast against her. Kara might not have played a flashy game, but this voting record is evidence of her superb social play – she was almost always in on the plan, but never the target, and she was charming, likable and persuasive. There’s a very real chance that she could have won out had the last few rounds of play broken her way, but alas, in this new era of Survivor, fire truly can represent life.
And with that, the Jabeni Three emerged as the Final Three. But before we get to the superb Final Tribal, we have to talk about the undeniable highlight of this great finale episode.
In the first episode, we saw Alison and Angelina by the Goliath well, discussing the gender discrepancy in Idols throughout Survivor history and agreeing to watch each others’ backs to hunt for the elusive advantage. We came full circle tonight, fulfilling the prophecy as Angelina found an Idol – and somewhat ironically, attempted to use it to theatrical effect against Alison. While not quite the feminist victory inferred – as Angelina’s singular Idol find does little to shift the statistics when the other six Idols and two Advantages of the season were found by men – it still gave us a riveting storyline through tonight’s finale and a great cap to Angelina’s larger-than-life narrative.
Finding the clue on the beach and instructed to use a buried ladder to scale the rock face behind the water well, Angelina’s Idol hunt became one of the most entertaining Idol hunts in recent memory. Between losing the clue and climbing the wrong part of the wall, trapping herself up a cliff, amping up the tears to cover her tracks and ultimately enlisting Nick and a sassy wine-toting Mike to aid her in tracking down the Idol, the sequence will surely go down in Survivor history. And yet even this was only the beginning, as Angelina’s use of the Idol managed to raise the stakes again.
Determined to use her Idol “successfully” and make a show at Tribal, she goaded Mike into convincing Alison & Kara to throw their votes onto her so that she could dramatically play the Idol and eliminate Alison. Already nearing a convoluted plan, Angelina also constructed a fake Idol for Alison to find – which, purposefully or not, she was able to witness firsthand. Was it a great strategy? Not essentially. But it emphasised one of the best things about Angelina as a character – her unbreakable self-assurance and willingness to swing for the fences. The season has been full of fascinating characters – but Angelina stands out among them as a force of personality with a will to play hard and delight in her schemes. Yet there was nuance even in her cartoonish villainy, as we saw her grapple with being ostracised and rebel against being boxed in by someone else’s narrative.
Even her Final Tribal Council was an unexpected joy. Sure, she pulled the rice card, and her exaggerated claim to have scaled a 100-foot cliff to find her Idol was perfectly in-character, but unlike female ‘goats’ of seasons past, she owned her game and argued her case nonetheless – and remarkably, the Jury applauded her successes. Gabby acknowledged the gender bias often applied to women, and the Jury were receptive to her reveal of her Idol find. Although it was unlikely that a vote was coming her way, seeing the Jury acknowledge the good in each of the Final Three’s games and respectfully hold them accountable for their flaws was a welcome shift in attitude compared to the vitriolic Tribals we’ve seen in the past that have unfairly lambasted divisive players – and particularly, divisive women.
THE FINISHING MOVE
On that note, this season’s Final Tribal was one of my favourites in recent memory. While I know the theatrics of bitter Jury speeches can make for iconic moments and tickle the fancy of some corners of the fanbase, I’ve often found them to sour the end of the season. I always prefer Juries who are hard-lined, honest and direct in their questioning without stooping to seek petty vindication. I also love to see a competitive performance from the finalists and this season ticked all the boxes without crossing the line into the dry procedural.
I’ve already discussed Angelina’s performance, but I was equally impressed by Mike and Nick. While they won’t stand in the pantheon of greatest Final Tribal presentations, both articulated their games and stories well. They presented their strategies clearly, acknowledging where they had come up short. Nick agreeing with John that his endgame had petered off after his brilliant moves at the merge using advantages and his ingenious minority split vote to take our John & Dan. Mike admitting that his strategy of keeping as many potential Final 2 deals on the table as possible was the reason behind his distance with players like Gabby. Both conveyed their personal journeys as Mike waxed lyrical about his pursuit of discovering what his motivation for playing was, while Nick clearly articulated how his tough background had helped shape him and guide him in the game. The Jury, too, was fantastic – engaged, open-minded and probing in their questioning.
It was a long Final Tribal, but an excellent performance all around. And while I had a sense that the season of David vs. Goliath would naturally end with David using his slingshot to take down the Goliath; I was genuinely uncertain of the outcome when the Jury moved to vote. Perhaps I’m too swayed by the edit, but between the even performance of the finalists and the openness of the Jury, I was prepared to see each of Angelina, Mike & Nick score at least one vote. And while it was not the case, it was exciting to see that the vote was not a blow-out, with Mike and Nick both rewarded for their excellent games.
CLOSING THE CHAPTER
I hope that the Survivor production team looks to this season as the goal – new twists and gimmicks might be a necessary evil to keep reinventing and evolving a show on the cusp of its second decade, but if each season can be told with such heart, depth and entertainment then Survivor will truly stand the test of time.
In all, David vs. Goliath is easily one of my favourite seasons of all time – and although I can be prone to hyperbole, it’s been a while since I’ve had so much joy week after week without fail throughout a US Survivor season. The creative storytelling and brilliant cast, the drama of the storms and the humour of jackets, the slew of unexpected blindsides and creative strategies. This season was remarkable throughout and stuck the landing with a satisfying conclusion and a laudable winner, deserving runner-up and a Survivor icon in the making in third place.
Mike’s analogy of the pot of gold and the rainbow read as an exclusive choice – you could either chase the gold or enjoy the journey. But por que no los dos? This season never skipped a beat through the fluid, unpredictable journey, and at the end of it all, the gold of a near-perfect season is an everlasting gift.