Welcome to An Island of One, a new semi-regular feature here on Inside Survivor where contributors offer up their potentially controversial Survivor opinions and do their best to defend them.
Today’s hot take comes courtesy of Ty Owens, who believes that the controversial final four fire-making challenge has improved Survivor.
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Final 4 Fire-Making
Since its inception in Season 35, the final four fire-making challenge has been a source of debate for Survivor fans. Before this, the final four contestants held a traditional vote. If the vote resulted in a 2-2 split, the two receiving votes would go head-to-head in a fire-making challenge. But in Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, production decided to get rid of that first step altogether and go straight to a fire-making challenge at the penultimate Tribal Council. The winner of the final challenge decides who joins them at Final Tribal and which two have to face off in fire.
This, like all twists the show introduces, was highly controversial at the time and still continues to be a point of contention among Survivor fans. However, I’m here to tell you why it shouldn’t get all the hate it does and, in fact, how it has unequivocally led to more exciting season finales each and every season.
What’s all the hubbub?
There’s something to be said about the simplicity of the original Survivor game. It’s the same reason seasons like Survivor 41 have received critiques for too many advantages or too many twists. Fans love the pure gameplay and strategy, and a sudden twist, dumped on a final four like it was in Season 35, is anything but pure Survivor.
According to Jeff Probst, the change was implemented to give the perceived biggest threat a chance to make it to Final Tribal without a unanimous vote-out at final four if they failed to win the final challenge. This would therefore make for a more exciting finale and Final Tribal Council. If that was the intention, it has certainly achieved its goal.
Let’s take a look at each season since the final four fire-making’s introduction to show you how it has done.
Season 35: The Ben Show
Sure, purists hate it, but there’s another glaring reason the change was met with such disdain: it basically handed Ben Driebergen the win in HvHvH. In doing so, it also gave Chrissy Hofbeck one of the best non-winning seasons of all time.
Ben needed three successful idol plays in a row to get to the final four and was seemingly dead in the water after putting a letter upside down in the final challenge, opening the door for Chrissy to notch her fourth immunity win of the season. Along with the win, Chrissy received the season’s final advantage (however, in Chrissy’s case, I don’t think you can quite call it an “advantage”), introducing the new final four format for the first time.
Chrissy had an incredible story, having applied for the show for 16 years and overcoming early danger to become the season’s “challenge beast.” She led a strong alliance and probably would have had the win in the bag without Ben there to compete against. Forced to use the advantage, she chose Devon Pinto to go up against Ben in the fire-making challenge. But Devon came up short, therefore sending Ben into the Final Tribal.
Ben, a former Marine, had a great story of his own to tell. While the jury respected flashy moves like the season’s “Ben bombs,” the debate was whether “idol-ing” your way to the title of Sole Survivor is a more satisfying way of doing so than the way Chrissy got there. The way Season 35 played out left a sour taste in many fans’ mouths.
Fans maybe wouldn’t have such an intense hatred for the final four fire-making if it wasn’t for the controversial way it was introduced in Season 35.
Season 36: Would you really prefer a Dom landslide?
Even as the votes were being cast in Ghost Island, I had no idea which way things were going to shake out. But when Jeff returned from tallying the jury’s votes and said, “Alright, I’ll read the votes,” everyone’s jaw dropped, including mine. We all thought he’d be jet skiing the votes back to the United States like usual, but he was about to read them right then and there in Fiji.
Dom Abbate and Wendell Holland splitting the jury 5-5 with third place’s Laurel Johnson casting the deciding vote was one of the most exciting and unprecedented finales in the show’s history. Dom won the final challenge and pitted his biggest ally and biggest threat, Wendell, against Angela Perkins in fire-making. The former won the challenge and, ultimately, the season.
In seasons past, Wendell would have been a unanimous vote out at the final four, and Dom would have cake-walked to the title of Sole Survivor. At best, had Laurel stuck by her ally Wendell in the final vote, it would have been split 2-2, resulting in the same Angela vs. Wendell fire showdown we got anyway.
Season 37: Mike White deserved Final Three
Just like the season before it, David v. Goliath would have had a more lackluster finale if it weren’t for the fire-making challenge. The two favorites of the remaining final four were Nick Wilson and Mike White. Were it not for the looming fire-making challenge, both of them would be in a presumed win-or-go-home scenario. Instead, Nick won the final challenge, and knowing his odds were better in a sans-Mike final three, sent him to fire against Kara Kay.
Surprising himself and the jury, Mike won fire handily and cemented his spot in the final three. Ultimately, Nick won with a 7-3 vote, but without fire-making, it would have been a more lopsided (or possibly even unanimous) vote. Mike was one of the best players of the season, relying on his extraordinary social game, and deserved his chance in a final vote. He wouldn’t have gotten that in the old format.
Season 38: At least we got a Chris/Devens showdown
Edge of Extinction gets a lot of flak simply because of its premise, but it certainly shouldn’t get hate because of the finale. The season’s eventual winner Chris Underwood came back into the game from the Edge, won the final immunity challenge, and then, in the biggest move of the season, took himself out of the final three to take on consensus favorite Rick Devens in fire-making.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t want to see Devens at final tribal, and with fire-making ahead, at least we had hope that Devens could win his way there. Like Seasons 36 and 37, it would have been a foregone conclusion that Devens would have become the final jury member, leaving us with the same result that bothers the season’s naysayers currently. How boring.
It can certainly be argued that Chris didn’t have the resume to beat runner-up Gavin Whitson in the end without defeating Devens by his own hand in fire-making, but Chris’ strong relationship with the jury likely would have given him the victory anyway.
Season 39: A more exciting path to the same final result
If anyone has the right to complain about the final four fire-making, it’s Season 39’s fifth-place Janet Corbin. The main reason she was taken out at five instead of getting her chance at four was because no one wanted to compete against her in fire-making, where she excelled.
The thing is, no one would have wanted to compete with Janet at Final Tribal either. She was a huge social threat and would have stood a strong chance to win and likely would have been sent to the jury regardless of the looming fire-making challenge.
Ultimately, final four challenge winner Noura Salman sent Lauren Ashley Beck to fire against Dean Kowalski. Noura’s decision made sense, but her reasoning wasn’t so solid, which the jury was sure to point out. Had there been no fire-making, you could argue any of the remaining three would have been the next to go. But Lauren was the perceived biggest threat and was likely destined for the final jury spot, with or without fire-making. Remember, Lauren’s closest ally and eventual winner, Tommy Sheehan, was even gunning for her at the end.
Season 40: Cops-R-Us goes head-to-head
One of the highlights of the star-studded Winners at War season was the Cops-R-Us fire-making showdown between eventual winner Tony Vlachos and his close friend Sarah Lacina in the season finale. Would it have been more exciting to see Tony and Lacina both in the finals? Maybe. But that was never going to happen. Like Dom and Wendell before them, they both knew they couldn’t sit next to each other in the finale and expect to win.
When Edge-returnee Natalie Anderson won the final challenge, it was just a matter of which of the two cops she and Michele Fitzgerald would send to the jury. Under the old format, it would have been Tony, and I think robbing us of this Tony-Lacina showdown would have been a travesty. And Tony cementing himself as one of, if not THE, best to ever play was a fitting result for the end of a Survivor era.
Season 41: Best fire-making ever?
Whether or not you agree with the jury’s assessment of Season 41 having the “best fire-making challenge ever,” you can’t say the finale would have been better without it. Xander Hastings’ decision to bring Erika Casupanan with him to the final three was a peculiar one in hindsight. Incorrectly perceiving Erika as a non-threat, he sent Heather Aldret to fire to take out Deshawn Radden, who he mistakenly thought was his biggest competition.
Without fire-making, we would have likely seen Deshawn as the final jury member and a unanimous Erika win. You could argue that Heather and Deshawn would have teamed up to vote Erika, were there no fire-making, resulting in her and Deshawn going to a fire-making tiebreaker. But I have a hard time believing Heather would have turned on her biggest ally at that point.
Instead, Deshawn and Heather ended up competing against one another in the most closely fought fire-making challenges in Survivor history. It was back and forth as each competitor got fire and then lost it, flames rising up and dying out in a flash. In the end, Deshawn came from behind to snatch the win just seconds before Heather’s rope burnt through. That was exciting TV!
Look, I totally get it. The actual fire-making challenge itself isn’t always as fun as the one Survivor 41. But, the strategy behind who goes, who stays, and the results at the Final Tribal Council, have certainly made for better TV since the introduction of the final four fire-making challenge.
It’s understandable when fans have qualms with new twists and production’s “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” mentality at times, but the final four fire-making challenge shouldn’t be one of them. It’s here to stay and, ultimately, for the betterment of the show. So please re-direct your hate towards the Knowledge is Power advantage and Do-or-Die twist instead.