Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, the season that exceeded expectations, leaves audiences confused in a fine but flawed season finale.
It had everything against it. A brutal location. Three medical evacuations. A successful returnee season to follow. Lack of hype and excitement from CBS. But like Leicester City winning the English Premier League, Survivor: Kaôh Rōng, the underestimated outsider that never stood a chance, captured the hearts of the public and exceeded all expectations. However, unlike Leicester City, Kaôh Rōng didn’t quite bury that final goal in the back of the net.
Last week’s medical evacuation of Joe Del Campo opened up a range of possibilities heading into the finale. The final four all had the capability of working with one another, or against one another. Throughout the merge, Aubry Bracco and Cydney Gillon had worked in tandem to control the majority of the votes, but they also recognized each other as threats. Cydney also had a tight friendship with Michele Fitzgerald and stuck her neck on the line to save her in the past. Likewise, Aubry had a close relationship with Tai Trang, but he had also grown closer to Michele in the previous episode. It was a dynamic and likable final four that seemed primed to deliver an exciting, unpredictable finale.
For the first 45 minutes of the episode, it was indeed exciting. Aubry had won a reward challenge and worked on cementing her bond with Cydney. The target was firmly pointed at Michele as the next boot until she came from behind to win a hotly contested final immunity challenge. Now, Aubry appeared to be in danger, with the rest of the tribe realizing she was a big jury threat. But once again, her psychic bond with Tai saved the day, forcing a tie between herself and Cydney and leading to a fire-making challenge at tribal council. These are all classic ingredients of a thrilling finale episode.
Cydney was not only one of this season’s best players but one of the most naturally gifted players Survivor has ever seen. It was, of course, sad to see her go this close to the end, but the finale still had momentum on its side. Once again Aubry had overcome another obstacle and pushed on forward, just like Kaôh Rōng itself had done all season long. But then it stumbled over the ball, and things got a little bit confusing.
Jeff Probst and production can claim all they want that the “jury twist” was something they had planned before the season, but one can’t help but think it was hastily thrown in at the end due to Joe’s evacuation and the number of days remaining. Instead of an immunity challenge and a tribal council to determine a final two, the show decided to introduce a game-changing advantage, one that allowed the winner of the challenge to remove a jury member. Twists are necessary to keep the show evolving and exciting. This one, however, felt fundamentally flawed and not interesting enough to warrant such a significant change to the rules.
It’s highly unlikely that Neal Gottlieb remaining on the jury would have changed the outcome, and his insensitive comments to Michele as he left didn’t make us sympathize with his plight. Regardless, allowing a player the ability to kick someone off the jury screws with Survivor’s most interesting facet – having to vote people out but still get their vote at the end. Getting to vote someone out, and then vote that someone out again, leads into dangerous territory where people don’t have to feel repercussions for their actions. Was it worth trying? Possibly. Should it be done again? Definitely not.
But that wasn’t what caused all the confusion. No. What left audiences baffled was the final result. Michele beating Aubry so handily, five votes to two, was to many people, completely out of left-field. It was not the kind of unpredictability people wanted. While those expert edit readers recognized the high chance of Michele winning the season based on her abundance of air-time, it was not something understood by a casual audience who had been set-up for an Aubry victory. As pointed out on the Purple Rock Podcast, even those reading the edit weren’t prepared for Michele’s victory against Aubry. You only had to take a quick glance at social media after the finale to get an idea of people’s utter bewilderment.
That isn’t to take away from Michele’s game. She accomplished what only 30 other people have managed to do. Even though she didn’t have a lot of control over the game, she made social bonds and pulled out formidable challenge victories towards the end when she needed to. For this jurors that was enough. The problem lies then with the story-telling. Without turning this into an Edgic post, it’s worth focusing on the edit for a minute. Usually, Survivor is edited in one of two ways: 1) Here’s how Person A won or 2) Here’s how Person B lost. In most seasons it’s clear what led to a particular result. That wasn’t the case here, and it’s what has created such a backlash, unfairly, against Michele.
There have been quiet, or social game focused winners in the past; Danni Boatwright and Natalie White come to mind. The difference between their victories and Michele’s is that it was very clear why their final tribal council opponent lost. Stephenie LaGrossa, a fan-favourite in her previous season, was shown as cocky and rude throughout Guatemala. Russell Hantz, despite his aggressive game-play, was also portrayed to be bullish and arrogant, and disliked by many of his tribemates. Even though those results also came with a backlash, especially Natalie’s win, it was easy to see why the other person lost. The problem here isn’t “Why did Michele win?” but rather “Why did Aubry lose?” The edit never made it fully clear why Aubry lost, and that is what caused the shock and confusion that is still resonating.
Was Aubry flawless? Of course not. She lost five jury votes. Her social bonds were obviously not up to par with Michele’s. But was that explained in the edit? Again, people who read deep into these things could point out the errors – her indecisiveness being the main one. It wasn’t clearly made, though. In fact, the opposite of that happened. Aubry was shown in control and her tribemates complimented her game, the same people that ultimately voted against her! Meanwhile, we saw little of that stuff for Michele until the end. In actuality, a lot of her bonds were hidden which is a shame given that her tribemates clearly well liked her.
On the one hand, it’s great that we went into a season finale without a clear winner (*cough* Mike Holloway). On the contrary, it felt like something was missing to explain the “how” of the result. But perhaps this was an accurate portrayal of what happened on the island. Aubry played a solid strategic game, but Michele had the better social game. There isn’t much you can do with that in the end.
Overall, Survivor: Kaôh Rōng was a season that was far more enjoyable than it had any right to be. It never let its unfortunate circumstances drag it down. It introduced us to some colorful characters, unpredictable gameplay, and of course, Mark the Chicken. Even though many are unsatisfied with the conclusion, it shouldn’t be held against the season as a whole. So long Kaôh Rōng.