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Survivor: Edge of Extinction Episode 14 Recap – The Imperfect Game


Austin Smith recaps the season finale!

Photo: CBS

On the day of the finale, I had my seasonal flu vaccination and my immune response was intense as I spent the night in a fit of alternate shivering and over-heating. In my more lucid moments, I found myself wondering if what I’d just watched transpire on Survivor had actually happened. It was so bizarre that it could have legitimately been a fever dream.

But now in a state of restored clarity, I can assure you that it happened. It all happened. For all of the hand-wringing over Rick’s “obvious” coronation edit and his unstoppable trajectory due to Idols and Immunity wins, his narrative turned out to be the biggest fallen angel story since David Wright.  And one of the least impactful players on Extinction not only won the re-entry challenge but bulldozed his way to the Final 3 and won having only spent a total of 13 days playing the traditional game. In doing so, Chris effectively invalidated weeks of the season’s careful politicking conducted by the season’s traditionally stand-out players like Victoria and Gavin.

Edge of Extinction will undoubtedly live on as one of – if not, the – most polarising seasons in the show’s long history. The legitimacy and merit of Chris’ victory will be hotly contested. The theme of the Edge of Extinction seems destined to be maligned alongside Redemption Island and the Outcasts before it – despite its surprisingly warm reception in the halcyon days of the pre-merge. The over-saturation of Idols reaching an absurd zenith with late-game re-hiding and the egregious Extinction Idol in Chris’ bag will pour gasoline on the fire for those who feel that Idols and Advantages are eroding the complexities of social strategy that has been the show’s strength since the outset.

All of these things frustrate me and even as someone with a lot of patience for shows indulging their worst impulses, the events of this finale have me fearing that Survivor is devolving towards its self-destruction. And yet…  I still kinda enjoyed this episode? And this season?

Hold the accusations of blasphemy. I certainly hope that Survivor takes a big step back from the Edge and course-corrects to find a better balance between the traditional game and the excitement of the Advantage era. I would heartily endorse a return to a greater focus on human stories and a game governed by interpersonal dynamics, rather than a game of randomness predominantly governed by who happens to find the magic sticks or benefit from game-breaking twists.

S38 EOE

Photo: CBS

Nevertheless, weird isn’t always bad. Season 38 has certainly been weird, but I’ve enjoyed its absurdity. This finale feels like the first truly unpredictable ending in years and was a roller-coaster that kept me on the Edge of my seat. The season as a whole, too, was one of constant power shifts and fascinatingly complex gameplay driven by a cast of players playing competitively without crossing the line into aggressively mean. I would argue that this season holds up, week-to-week, as a largely entertaining journey.

The occasional trainwreck spectacle can be fun, and given Survivor delivering on an all-time great season with David vs. Goliath last year (largely due to its dynamic cast) it’s clear that the show can still provide a well-rounded season in this modern era. This season was an experiment, and I’m grateful for Survivor’s willingness to try something new, but I think it’s apparent to all that this experiment is one we don’t need to repeat. So I feel like the madness of the Edge will ultimately – hopefully – be remembered as a wild anomaly.

I could ramble about the possible implications and consequences of this season for pages, but there’s a whole episode of Survivor to break down, so let’s dip back into that fever dream of a finale.

THE FINAL SIX

With 16 of the 18 contestants still having a chance to win coming into this finale, it was clear that this was just about as insane as a Survivor season could get – but it was only the beginning. For Chris Underwood – of all people – to win his way back into the game after getting voted out on Day 8 and spending a subsequent 27 days on Extinction was a mind-blowing turn of events. Chris was hardly a major character even before he was voted out in the third episode – notably, his win makes him only the second Sole Survivor to not have a confessional in the premiere episode, following in the footsteps of Tina Wesson, the original “dog that didn’t bark” from The Australian Outback all the way back in 2001. Even among the first batch of Extinction castaways, I would have considered him to be the least prominent of the six, even with the seemingly one-sided feuds that Reem and Keith had against him. After Extinction became less significant in post-merge, Chris became even less of a factor, fading almost entirely into obscurity, until the finale.

S38 Chris

Photo: CBS

Before the season started, I pegged Chris as the “Joe” of the newbies based on his assertion of physical and survival skills which was a primary factor for why I picked him in the Inside Survivor winner draft and very nearly elected him my winner pick. He had the physical acumen to succeed, and he demonstrated that by narrowly beating out Joe, one of the best challenge performers in the show’s history, to earn his second chance. But what had initially impressed me about Chris – and disappointed me about his initial run on Manu – was that he was a decisive superfan who had aspirations to play an exceptional game. His lament over his foiled “perfect game” became his most significant story throughout his purgatory on Extinction, and now he found himself in a situation where had no choice but to play a perfect game if he was to have any chance at emerging victorious. He had to make every moment count.

Joining the Vata tribe – and in a surreal example of this season’s peculiarities, meeting half of the Final Six for the first time – he had to set to work to secure his path forward. If his competitors had any wits about them, he should be sent straight out the revolving door – particularly if the number one target in Rick continued his streak of Immunity – so he had to convert everything he had into a success. It’s fair to say that his time on Extinction with the majority of the Jury offered him an unprecedented advantage in knowing what the Jury would reward, as well as a bevy of information – such as knowledge of Lauren’s Idol gained through Kelley Wentworth’s loose lips. Yet Chris exploited this advantage for all it was worth, using his relationship with the Jury to twist his now-opponents’ perceptions of the state of the game and their own positions in it.

Chris and Rick

Photo: CBS

He immediately sought out the two players with whom he had had a prior relationship – and who had both played a hand in voting him out. He approached Rick and together they agreed to let bygones be bygones. They had buried the hatchet on Extinction, and now they could work together, agreeing to the Final Four. For Rick, someone like Chris seemed like a godsend. He had been without an ally for so long that any hope of one was a miracle, and he was eager to make use of it. Chris’ Idol added an extra layer, binding their destinies, as Chris chose to impart half of it to Rick in the same way that Rick had given his to David. Perhaps Rick thought the exchange of the Idol would forge that same trust as he had had with David – such that when the time came, Rick combined his Idol parts to protect David.

Now I have to say that this was the most infuriating part of the finale for me. I loved the Extinction Idol granted to Rick at the merge. I thought that the condition for him to give half to someone else before the first vote made for an intriguing restriction that provided the returnee with an in after coming back from the grave while still maintaining a need for them to save themselves. Yet repeating the same twist in the endgame was ludicrous.  When the returnee is coming back at the Final 6, being given an Idol that, if utilised correctly, would ensure Immunity at the Final 5, thus ensuring them the fire-making challenge, is far too powerful.

Chris already had the advantage of re-entering the endgame with the power of information – did he really need a production-manufactured safety net? Not to mention that, with two Idols already in play, this third Idol could realistically force another Advantagegeddon at the Final Five (RIP Cirie)! If production wanted to give the Extinction returnee a fighting chance to escape the obvious boot, perhaps an advantage at the Final 6 Immunity would have been a less egregious choice, but in my opinion, the returnee, no matter who, should have had to rely on their abilities to make it to the end. And if they managed to do that, it would make their victory feel a little more satisfying.

Idol

Photo: CBS

But while I’m frustrated at that production choice, I can’t hold it against Chris, who used it brilliantly. In his peace talks with Rick, he did his best to ensure that Rick’s Idol, flaunted at the last Tribal, was real. Come the immunity challenge, he offered aid to Julie, assisting her in beating out her nearest opponent in Rick. With the tribe salivating to eliminate the news-reader, it all but assured he would be the primary target – and thus would have no choice but to play his Idol, ensuring that he made the Final 5. Under these circumstances, with the confidence in Rick’s survival, Chris chose to give his half of the Idol to him – also trusting that Rick would give it back, based on their prior Final 4 pact, which would mean that Chris would have a complete Idol – so long as he could survive this vote.

And this is where we get to what I would consider to be Chris’ best move: his duping of Lauren. Approaching the other original Manu on the beach, he opened up to her to pitch that she was his best option for getting to the end. Seeing herself as the Ryan Reynolds to Chris’ lusty girlfriend, she bought his pitch – particularly as Chris once again exploited his Extinction knowledge to warn Lauren that she had no chance to win unless she played her Idol correctly and that that was what Kelley wanted her to do. With Rick vulnerable, and the clear plan being to vote Rick – and likely split the vote onto Chris in case of his Idol being real – Chris managed to convince Lauren to play her Idol to protect him. It was a Hail Mary of a move and one that really shouldn’t have worked. But by using every opportunity afforded to him, Chris was able to ensure his safety at Lauren’s expense.

For Lauren, I’m not sure how she fell for the “negative reverse.” She had solid endgame plans, having just moved mountains to keep Julie in the game over Aurora, and she seemed particularly close to Gavin. That was a potentially favourable Final Three, so trusting Chris and putting all of her eggs in his jacket (so to speak) seemed dangerous. Did she buy into his pitched narrative that her only path to victory was through a successful Idol play? Did she think that she needed Chris to beat Devens in a challenge to level the playing field? Though all might be true, it seemed like a short-sighted move that critically failed to recognise the threat that Chris posed. Lauren underestimated him, Chris took advantage of it – and it ultimately cost her her Idol (which even when played for Chris, didn’t actually save him from going home) and almost decisively led to her being sent home at the Final Five.

Victoria

Photo: CBS

So Julie had Immunity, with an assist from Chris, who was additionally rewarded with a steak dinner (suggesting Julie’s underestimation of Chris as a threat, and perhaps harkening back to her moral outrage at the thought of voting returnee Rick out at the merge vote). That left Rick as the obvious target, and Chris as the likely alternative. Yet Rick had an Idol, and Chris had the promise of security from Lauren’s Idol – meaning that the pair of Extinction returnees could control the outcome of the vote. So with Chris’ intel from the Edge, the target landed onto Victoria.

Was it unfair for Chris to be able to blow up Victoria’s successful under-the-radar game using information shared almost out-of-game? Completely – and I would argue that she was the biggest drive-by casualty of this season’s twists. Victoria was suspicious of Chris from the outset – his speeches about having no hard feelings if he was voted out immediately rang false – and she did her best to strike that same fear into her allies, urging them to ensure he remained a target.

Victoria played an exceptional game of manoeuvring with the majority while still maintaining a ruthless and independent edge, and up until the night she went home, she was in the same boat as Gavin having eluded the target at Tribal entirely. She was savvy and ruthless and that because of it, according to Chris’ testimony, that made her a legitimate threat to win. It’s entirely possible to imagine that if the game had run its course without a second Extinction returnee, and the big if of getting rid of the unkillable Rick Devens, she could have won the season. Yet the smart, subtle social game is no match for the game-breaking impact of twists and Idols.

Jury

Photo: CBS

On the one hand, perhaps that was Victoria’s shortcoming. With the modern age of Survivor having revolved around Idols for years, the ability to play with them – or effectively combat them – has been an essential tool and one that Victoria was never shown to engage in. Perhaps she – like her allies – should have managed Rick better earlier, dissuading him from having to rely on Idols for his survival, and thus making it easier to clear out the Extinction returnee when the time came. Of course, that’s pure hindsight speaking, but when Victoria’s game was undone by twists, it has to be considered if she could have managed them more effectively when she had the chance.

Perhaps more blame could be placed on Victoria and her allies bungling the obvious 2-2-2 vote on Rick & Chris, and leaving Victoria open to a 0-2-1 elimination if Rick’s Idol was real even before Lauren’s Idol for Chris came into play. Nevertheless, Victoria’s demise was an omen of doom for the remaining players – Rick remained a force to be reckoned with, but Chris had come in for the blindside and had proven Victoria right – he hadn’t waited on Extinction simply for the experience. He was playing to win.

THE FINAL FIVE

Let’s get this one out of the way. If it weren’t for Chris’ production-granted Idol, he would have gone home at this vote. He received a majority three votes at this Tribal – the numbers were against him, recognising his danger one vote too late. Granted, without the Idol tying Chris to Rick, perhaps events may have played out differently and Chris might have found some other way to dodge the target – perhaps earning Rick’s Idol play over Gavin – but it stands that the Extinction Idol, which he gained by no effort of his own, gave Chris a free pass to the Final 4. For me, this stands as the biggest blemish against Chris’ victory. His time with the Jury may have been the bigger advantage, but Chris’ opponents knew about Extinction and should not have underestimated its potential impact, particularly given that loser-bracket twists aren’t even a new twist for Survivor. The Idol, while preceded by Rick’s, offered security through 1 out of the 2 traditional voting Tribals the returnee would face – and it came wholesale from the production-planned twists baked into the game.

However, to Chris’ credit, the Idol was not a guarantee. He had to choose the right player to share half with at the Final 6 with the confidence that they would return it when the time came. So late in the process, anyone should have pulled a Zahalsky and thrown that Idol half in the fire. Even if Chris had been the most repulsive player in the show’s history and a reliable 0-vote finalist, there is no reason to leave an extra Idol in play at the Final 5. Yet this seems to be the decision where Rick lost the game.

Rick

Photo: CBS

Riding high off of his 5th consecutive immunity at Tribal, Rick set straight back to work. He got his hands on his fourth Idol – incidentally breaking the record for most Idols found in a single season. But even though his opponents were moments behind him, Rick still had further designs for them, having constructed two fake Idols bundled with his past clues for validation, and hidden them to distract his fellow castaways. Julie & Lauren fell for them, even knowing that Rick had just found a rehidden Idol at the Final Five, speaking to just how disappointingly Idol-saturated the endgame has become. Rick watched on in glee as his plan played out in an ironic echo of his (albeit feigned) outrage at Ron’s fake Idol granted to him. While misdirection is a powerful tool, and one that could have saved Rick’s skin if finding the real Idol had taken more time, leaving the fakes in play does broach into the territory of playing dirty for the sake of playing dirty. It becomes less of a self-defence distraction and more of a cruel prank.

But this is all to say that Rick found himself in a place of confidence. He knew he had an Idol, and he knew his fakes were in play, and so he felt confident in returning Chris’ half, thereby granting him his Idol to secure his spot in the Final 4 and fulfilling their agreement. But even in his state of confidence – why on earth did Rick allow his biggest competition to advance to the next round?

Ultimately, it seemed like it came down to an emotional decision based on relationships – and I wish the show had put more emphasis on this aspect of it. Rick felt so beholden to the relationship he had with Chris, his guilt over betraying him on Day 8, and their reforged bond on Extinction, that he felt as though he could not turn his back on him. Rick had fought tooth and nail to advance in the game as a lone warrior, able to cast aside his social game because other players had cast him out of theirs. But ultimately it was a social bond and the unwillingness to break trust that put the chink in his armour and left him vulnerable at the Final 4. That kind of interpersonal dynamic is what Survivor was built on, and it’s clear it’s still driving the narrative even in the twistiest of seasons, but I hope the show turns its attention back towards it in future – particularly in moments like these.

Chris and Lauren

Photo: CBS

Day 37 only continued to favour Rick as he emerged victorious in his fourth Immunity challenge (only one shy of the overall record held by the likes of Colby, Ozzy and Mike Holloway), and he now had an Idol burning a hole in his pocket. Julie & Lauren believed they were safe – to a degree, as at least Lauren recognised that three Idols returning into play at the Final Five seemed suspicious – and Rick and Chris knew they were. Thus Gavin was the only player on the beach who wholly felt vulnerable, and so Rick made the best use of his Idol as he could. Pulling Gavin aside, he offered to play it on him – on the condition that Gavin take him to the end if he were to win the Final 4 Immunity. It was a solid, if desperate, play on Rick’s part to curry as much favour as he could, but as Gavin admitted right away in confessional, he’d be insane to hold up his end of the deal and take the biggest threat to the Final 3. Yet Gavin had nothing to lose by agreeing to the plan – right now it was just about getting through the next Tribal.

Once again, a spectacle was made with the two fake Idols played and the two real Idols to follow, with Rick playing his Idol on Gavin as promised. Lauren, Julie, and Gavin had placed their votes on Chris, so for the second Tribal in a row, the result was entirely in the hands of Rick and Chris, and they chose to take out Lauren. Between the two women, the choice made sense – particularly in view of Chris’ insight from Extinction. Julie was perceived to be an erratic and less impactful player and thus less of a Jury threat. And although Lauren had not made a huge splash either, with her strongest move being saving Julie over Aurora at the first Final 6 (which wasn’t even public knowledge), she had a clear ally in Kelley on the Jury and was a more assertive presence in the game. But I wonder if the better move would have been to take out a player like Gavin who had played a game in the same vein as threat-to-win Victoria. Of course, this would have negated Rick’s devices to try to use Gavin as a tool at the Final 4, but in the hindsight of Gavin’s ultimate four votes from the Jury (notably, enough to win back in old school Survivor!), I think it may have been the smarter play.

Lauren

Photo: CBS

I know she has her fans, but I have to be honest – I didn’t see Lauren’s game as particularly exceptional. Solid, but mild. She hitched her wagon to strong returnee in Wentworth but never appeared to be the driving force in any of the decisions on Manu or Lesu. She fought hard physically in challenges and against the elements, but never quite emerged as a challenge threat. She found the season’s first Idol and protected it deep into the game, but then wasted it on a gamble to save one of the most obvious dangers in the game and it cost her the very next night. Admittedly, her social bond with Julie and her infiltration of the Gavin/Victoria alliance was impressive in the aftermath of Kelley’s blindside, and I’ll concede that she may have been playing a much stronger game than the edit gave her credit for. Nevertheless, she became victim number two in the path of Chris’ destruction and the last to fall to Rick’s six-Tribal immunity streak.

THE FINAL FOUR

We’ll cut to the chase on this one. Chris had returned to the game with a fire in his belly, and through a combination of luck and manipulation, he had made himself a force to be reckoned with in only a few short days. His victory in the Final Immunity Challenge – another brilliantly precarious spin on the stacking block challenge that remains the 30s’ best new challenge – secured an almost unfathomable possibility in a seat at the Final Three. The only trouble was who would be sitting next to him. Julie and Gavin could potentially pose a threat – especially as they held the auspicious claim of reaching Day 39 without, y’know, getting voted out – but it was undeniable that the favourite to win was Rick Devens. Chris had been among the Jury practically chanting the newsman’s name at previous Tribals. His comeback story was good, but it couldn’t compete with Rick who had a comeback story of his own as well as a lengthy underdog run in the post-merge.

Thus Rick had to be taken down, and Chris made the gutsy call to follow through on an idea posited by Domenick Abbate in Ghost Island. If you win the Final Four challenge and know that there’s someone you can’t beat at the end but could beat at fire, when do you choose to do battle? At the time, much was made of Dom’s choice not to face Wendell in an all-or-nothing fire challenge, and whether he made the right call in the wake of his narrow defeat at Final Tribal. Yet Chris had no qualms about the all-or-nothing approach. Much like Rick had been given the motivation to play more recklessly by the experience of falling short early, Chris, too, was playing with house money. And so he gave away Immunity and faced Rick head-on, ultimately emerging victorious as the immovable object to halt the unstoppable force.

Chris Fire

Photo: CBS

It was a gutsy call, but Chris was perfectly primed to take it. He had such a short time to build a case for the Jury that he needed to rack up every possible point in his favour, so taking an unprecedented gamble like this was necessary capper. In addition, it would serve to rob his opponents of that same accolade – if he had put Gavin or Julie up against Rick, and they had beaten him, they would then get to claim the Devens Defeat as their achievement, and that could make a difference. Even then, could they win out? Rick seemed destined for a slam-dunk victory at the Final Tribal, and he needed to be stopped – and from before the season began, Chris touted his confidence in survival skills. If he had the best chance to build the fire, then why should he take a risk and put his fate in less-skilled hands?

So once more, Chris made his mark and eliminated a frustrated Rick, who became the alternate universe Ben Driebergen – a showboating, Idol-happy underdog whose victory in the game would come down to fire. For Devens, it was nothing but smoke, and his hard-fought journey ended here. Rick was a polarising figure, and while I don’t agree with all of his tactics (particularly his neglect of the social game even before he was the tribe pariah), he played exceptionally well with the cards he was dealt. Like it or not, the current age of Survivor favours the Idol whisperer, and Rick exploited that to its fullest potential and supplemented that knack with an unexpected skill in the challenges. He played with charismatic enthusiasm and undoubtedly became this season’s star.

Rick

Photo: CBS

He may have been voted out pre-merge, just like our eventual winner, but unlike Chris, he had to scrap his way through ten Tribals compared to Chris’ two to reach that same seat at the fire-making bench. Would I have been disappointed by the obvious storytelling if he had been crowned Sole Survivor, sure, but excusing the excitement of an upset in the finale, I do think that Rick could have been a more satisfying – if thoroughly modern – winner given his bridging of the defining Edge twist and the standard post-merge game. I’m in the camp that enjoyed what he brought to the season, and I hope that when we inevitably see him on our screens again, we’ll get to see more of his human side and less of the Idol mania.

For me, what was most intriguing about Rick was that despite the showmanship, he was ultimately a highly emotional player across the whole spectrum. From his bridge-burning anger with the Lesus after being thrown under the bus at the merge, which threatened to tank his game and gave his ride-or-die David pause in giving him back the half of his Idol, to the positive, trust-filled relationship with Chris that spelt his demise, again due to that same issue of half an Idol…  Gee, it really does all come back to Idols with Devens, doesn’t it? Nevertheless, I feel like Rick is a more nuanced character than he seemed to be in the endgame of Edge of Extinction, and I’m curious to see how his story will be remembered once we gain some distance from the season.

THE FINAL TRIBAL COUNCIL

Day 39. One of the least expected Final Threes faces down the largest and most unconventional Juries in the show’s history. It was a hotly contested affair, with the results ostensibly up in the air. In the context of the non-stop excitement of the finale, it felt like Chris would have the edge. At each Tribal since his return, he’d made his presence known – a true dark horse in the race. But Gavin had a solid game to combat it – his gameplay may have been under the radar, but he’d survived a whole 39 days without ever having his name written down (much less get voted out) – and had been instrumental in executing major blindsides like Aubry, Eric, Ron and Aurora while also managing to recover from the loss of allies like Julia and Kelley.  Julie seemed like an outside shot at best, given her honest emotionally-driven game cast her in the mould of the oft-maligned mother figure in the Final Three like the Lisas, Dawns and Missys before her, but perhaps she could pull a few stray votes.

For their part, the Final 3 performed admirably before the sprawling Jury, who largely conducted their interrogation evenly between the finalists and avoided getting too personal (perhaps aside from Julia’s beef with her messy exit, in part driven by Julie’s breakdown at Tribal). Julie did her best to state her case, and her closing statement lent Tribal an articulate and compelling conclusion, but it rapidly became apparent that her chances at victory seemed thin. When her best examples of gameplay were her loosely seeded and opportunistically taken ship-jumping at Tribal at the Julia vote and her self-professed exploitation of her neuroses and vulnerability to build social bonds, it served to paint her as a player blowing in the wind, mostly ineffectual in driving her own plans. For the viewers’ part, we saw evidence of Julie’s game in her clearer moments – such as her bond with Lauren saving her from going home at the first Final 6 – but it wasn’t enough to turn heads next to a subtle, but consistent, game and a flashy surprise.

Final 3

Photo: CBS

Thus, it seemed like a battle between Gavin and Chris – evidenced early on by Chris himself attempting to call out Gavin (a tactic quickly shut down by the Jury). It was a battle of the traditional game – all social politicking and classic manoeuvrability evidenced throughout Gavin’s 39 days – versus the strange weird anomaly of twist exploitation in Chris’ game. Gavin had strong points in his favour, but even as Tribal progressed, I couldn’t help but feel like his heart wasn’t truly in it. Perhaps he had been too worn down by the threat of Rick over several weeks to have the energy to fight an unexpected new danger in Chris, particularly after the latter pulled away his last chance to make a big impact at the fire-making challenge. Maybe his recognition that home, family and his new wife were the dream bigger than Survivor had, while a completely admirable realisation, had taken his head out of the game at the wrong time. Perhaps it was just his even-keeled and softly-spoken demeanour or the apparent simplicity of his arguments in defence of his game. Where Chris had gusto, Gavin did not appear to match that charisma.

It’s tough to say, as it was a clear uphill battle for Gavin. Chris had the biggest possible advantage in the game – the ability to step away from the stress of surviving Tribal Council after Tribal Council while hobnobbing it with the Jury – and that left a large portion of the Jury partial to one of their own in Chris. Gavin would have to pull them away from barracking for their representative, and on top of that, Gavin had also crossed many of the Jurors. In the traditional sense, Gavin had a hand, directly or indirectly, in voting out every single member of the Jury except for Reem. In doing so, he had betrayed people like Eric, at the time one of his closest allies, and Aurora, who had trusted in their new alliance even after Gavin had denied her a Reward. Meanwhile, Chris had only voted out Reem, and the last three victims upon his return, leaving him with hands clean of the bloodshed of the post-merge game.

Gavin

Photo: CBS

Gavin played a solid game steeped in the traditional values of building social bonds and utilising them to advance. He admitted that he never had to worry about Idols or Advantages, such was the strength of his social game. But the trouble is that elements of Gavin’s game still don’t quite make sense in retrospect. His choice to vote out Eric still seems like a search for a Big Move™ more than anything else, and I’m still puzzling over his concession to Lauren’s push to keep Julie at the Aurora vote. In fact, many of Gavin’s biggest plays seemed to be initiated by others – Julia against Eric, Victoria, Lauren & Aurora against Ron, the entire tribe against Julia. Gavin might have been the one pulling the trigger in a lot of these cases, but he rarely seemed to be the one pointing the gun, and I wonder if this was the deficiency that became evident as he lay out his case.

Particularly in stark contrast to Chris, who in the few days since his return, had practically run the table. Chris laid out his game clearly and aggressively, pointing to his need to make the most of his short time in the game to compete with the full 39 days his opponents had had. He outlined his thinking behind each move clearly, including an excellent highlight of his manipulation of Lauren and her Idol. He spoke about his journey from Extinction, doing his best to validate not only his own game but the experience of every Juror who had suffered on that beach.

However, that’s just it, isn’t it? Was the Jury really that up in the air or were they always going to vote for the guy whose victory would validate the game they played on the Edge? Fans have long posited that Jurors tend to vote for the player that makes them feel good, someone that they can be happy losing to or someone who played the most similar game to their own. Why would it be any different for the Edge? Of course, this opens the can of worms of the twist itself – and despite Wardog’s assertion, the theme is on trial. The Edge of Extinction completely changes how Survivor works, and that means that this season, this Jury and this Final Three is almost incomparable to anything that came before. The Edge breaks the Jury system by allowing someone like Chris to have sat among the Jury for weeks – literally on the same bench as them at Tribal for the bulk of the game – building social bonds and earning goodwill outside of the constructs of deceit, betrayal and mental and physical exhaustion demanded by the prime game.

Chris

Photo: CBS

So is it a surprise that nearly every player who experienced Extinction voted Chris? Not in the slightest? Does it feel kinda violating to the whole concept of Survivor? Sure. But unfortunately, that’s the result of Survivor turning itself inside out with this twist. It’s why I don’t think we ever need to see it again – we know what it can do to one of the most critical parts of the game in the Jury vote, and despite it making for a raucous finale, it’s practically a foregone conclusion. Seeing the returnee from the Edge win over an Extinction-hardened Jury is not that different from seeing a large alliance pagong a small one or seeing the same guy Idol their way through consecutive episodes. It’s obvious, and obvious is rarely interesting – particularly once the audience knows it’s obvious.

What can we make of Chris as a winner? At the end of the day, he played an inarguably strong five days of Survivor after winning his way back into the game. But he also lost the game decisively before the first swap and was afforded a stack of advantages that aided his push to victory. But because of that inherent peculiarity, it’s nearly impossible to compare him to any of the winners who preceded him because the game he played and won is practically a different game. All that I can confidently say is that Chris makes for an exciting and unexpected winner to what I found to be an exciting and unexpected season. It’s fitting, I think. Chris spoke so often about wanting to play the perfect game that it’s almost poetry that he ended up playing the most imperfect winning game in Survivor history.

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THE END

Survivor is a show I hold dear to my heart. I suspect that anyone still reading this far into the article feels the same way. I appreciate if you feel like this season destroyed everything you love about it with its abominable addiction to twists and Idols. I also appreciate if you loved it for its absurdity, or its week-to-week excitement and unpredictability, or if you love it simply because you’ll love Survivor no matter what.

For my part, I fall squarely in the middle. I was thoroughly entertained by this wacky season, and I’ll take weirdness over banality on nearly any day of the week. But I’m also concerned by just how far it pushed Survivor to its limit and I hope it can guide Survivor’s production back to some moderation with its gimmicks, twists and advantages and hopefully encourage the retirement of any Extinction, Redemption or Outcast-like twist in the future.

But no matter how you felt about this season and what it could mean for the state of the franchise and the game and show we love, I hope that we can all agree that Edge of Extinction was the weirdest season Survivor has ever given us.


Austin is a 26-year-old hailing from Canberra, Australia. By day, he works by the light of office fluorescence. By night, he can be found swing dancing to Top ‘40s tracks (1940s, that is), playing board games, and enjoying life with his wonderful wife. His pedigree as a long-time Survivor superfan is evidenced by his Survivor-themed 11th birthday party featuring a gross food challenge comprising Brussel sprouts.



  • Daniel Bowiez Bouwmeester

    Chris survived two pre-merge Tribals, was blindsided for almost no reason by a supremely paranoid over-thinker (Wardog) despite his incredible performance in challenges, spent 9 nights on the Edge confronting those whom he betrayed and who betrayed him, failed to earn re-entry because Keith unfairly penalized him with extra ropes, then spent another 18 nights on the Edge, mending wounds, and then on Day 35 beat out 10 other players including Joe to return to the game, after which he played a practically flawless physical, social, and strategic game, accomplishing more in four days than anyone but Rick, including personally conquering him, Rick, his enduring rival.

    In a season of classic Survivor, Wardog would never in a million years have voted out Chris. He was the glue that held Manu together, for his elimination sent the others into a tailspin. He played by the same rules that all the other contestants played by (able to return, playing idols). And he was in equal measure disadvantaged (Keith’s ropes, and being sidelined from the game, staring at almost certain defeat for a month) as he was advantaged (able to return, and bond with the jury if he so chose). He made the absolute most of everything he was dealt… and that includes being on Wardog’s dysfunctional tribe rather than Joey Amazing’s summer vacation tribe…

    Although I’m not a religious person, Chris will now go down as the Jesus Christ figure of Survivor. He was strong-willed, and demanded perfection of himself, and proselytised about the lure and the danger of the returning players, like Kelley Wentworth. But Wardog, Chris’s closest ally, betrayed him like Judas, sending him to purgatory, after which he rose from the dead and descended upon the game like an immortal angel, where he displayed renewed, God-like passion, and instinct, and at the end, he warned the others about the folly of backstabbing and overstrategizing… and called for the game to remember the “importance of social capital that made the game so great and what we all fell in love with”.

  • Kai Lei

    Chris will go down in Survivor history as the worst winner ever. He played Survivor 13 days! Granted 5 days were great, but still 5 days out of 39. He didn’t play Survivor, he played Edge Of Extinction.

    • coastal_66

      Edge of Extinction was part of the game this season, whether we like it or not. Without a template, he realized that the best.

  • coastal_66

    Chris was not unimpactful when on Edge of Extinction island. From what we were shown, he tempered himself, received criticism without argument, and provided well for people who needed it. He played the game while there, which, from what we were shown, he did better than anyone else there, who were largely caught up in their emotions and personal trials.

  • coastal_66

    this is such a good write-up, btw. it pulls together the season’s themes and references, and shows that, even w the subversion of the game, it was still a Survivor season. Nice job.