An Island of One – In Defense of Final 4 Fire-Making

Ty Owens shares his Survivor hot take.

Photo: CBS

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.

S35 Fire
Photo: CBS

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.

S36 Fire
Photo: CBS

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.

S37 Fire
Photo: CBS

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.

Photo: CBS


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.

Fire Making Challenge
Photo: CBS

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.

Photo: CBS

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.

Deshawn and Heather
Photo: CBS

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.

Written by

Ty Owens

Ty works for a housing non-profit, lives in Chicago, IL, and has been a Survivor fan since Season 2. When he's not binging Survivor and Survivor AU, he enjoys karaoke, playing softball, and taking his pup, Willy, to the dog beach. He also believes Millennials v. Gen-X is a criminally underrated season.

3 responses to “An Island of One – In Defense of Final 4 Fire-Making”

  1. I strongly disagree with this take. While I can see how in some instances the Final 4 Fire-Making might result in a more thrilling endgame than straight vote-out (such as in Edge of Extinction), overall it hurts most of the seasons’ endgames. If you want to look at how strong the endgame can be withnout this stupid twist, just watch the Australian Survivor.

    The thing is that in more cases, the intricacies of the strategy-driven vote-out is far more complex and compelling than a simple fire-making challenge. The HvHvH would have been a much more better season, had Ben ended up the fallen angel of the season and if we’d been witness to a showdown between Chrissy and Devon.

    In Ghost Island, I think there is a strong chance we would have gotten the showdown between Wendell and Domenick anyway, with Lauren sticking with her closer ally Wendell. I’d argue that watching Lauren struggle with the desicion whether she should give Wendell the shot at the win or prioritize her own chance (already very slim at that point) would have been much more interesting, and if she’d decided to vote with Wendell, the end-game would had been much more thrilling and Wendell’s win much more impressive. Had Lauren decided to vote out Wendell instead, at least we would had seen her finally making a self-interested decision and maybe without the split-vote in the finale the edit of the overall season wouldn’t be that atrociously imbalanced, making for a worse end-game but better overall season.

    Similarly it would have been more intriguing to see, whom of the duo of Mike and Kara would Nick and Angelina have deemed more of a threat and voted out. Or watching Tommy at least once being a cuthroat player and cut his closest ally Lauren before the finale. Or learning, whether Sarah had it in her to cut Tony at the end and break the streak of male winners to become the first female winner since herself (or watching her stick with Tony and then duking it out with him in the finale, which would be more epic than wathching them in the fire-making challenge).

    A big part of why Tony’s Cagyan win is so impressive it the fact that he convinced Woo to take him to the end – against Woo’s best interest. We don’t get these kind of moments any more because even when the winner of the last IC doesn’t take you to the end, you still have another way to get there on your own.

    Another reason why the final 4 fire-making sucks: there is a trend rising since the introduction of this twist, that the losing fallen angels get underedited – especially if it’s a woman (Angela, Lauren B., Heather, to a certain degree Kara and Devon as well). It is understandable – without being voted out there is no narratively satisfying way to show their downfall. It’s just pure bad luck, without any reason.

    So while I understand that the final 4 fire-making can produce some flashy TV moments, overall it hurts the game and the storytelling, making for an anticlimactic ending and damaging the season as a whole.

  2. I very rarely can’t see both sides of an argument but this just feels like an underdeveloped argument. Firstly, I think this argument has to compare the results of the seasons that didn’t have the twists to the seasons that do to imply that the outcomes are more satisfying or better tv. I also think this take requires far too many assumptions about what final tribal councils could have been, it also makes the assumption that the players in the final 4 would be in the final 4 regardless, but knowing that there’s a fire-making challenge at the final 4 just makes a strong player a target at the final 5 (like does David get voted out over Bret at final 5 in season 33 if they knew there was fire making at final 4, then does Bret win fire making and get to the final 3 and win? does Bret lose the fire-making and we have the same final 3 but without the conversation of Ken having to betray his ally because that’s what’s best for his game). Not to mention it doesn’t take into consideration that the show is edited based on the result of the season which would change based on a lack of fire-making twist and that is what makes the audience see a “satisfying” ending.

    To say something like “Mike deserved to be in the final 3” completely ignores Kara’s game and her potential to have made it to the final 3 and win–and potentially the mistake that Angelina and Nick would’ve made by voting out Mike over Kara. Had Kara made the final 3 and won, we’d have a completely different edit, maybe one that showed why Kara also deserved to be in the final 3, maybe the show highlights her relationships and physical strength, and how she never received a single vote. Maybe Kara and Mike team up and try and take out Angelina and it is Kara and Mike in the final 3 with Nick. Also using “Mike deserved to be in the final 3” as an argument pro-fire challenge but having Lauren, Sarah and Devon all eliminated due to the twist is inconsistent.

    The assumption that most of these seasons have a better ending than if there wasn’t a fire-making challenge is unfairly speculative based on your own interpretation of an edited show, there’s no sure way of knowing what would’ve happened because as the 34 seasons without the challenge has shown, it’s hard to predict the outcome of the game and that was always part of the excitement.

    To me, the fire-making challenge makes the finale less interesting because once the challenge is over at the final 4, it’s just people practicing making fire until tribal council. Sure a good fire-making challenge is intense but without the mandatory fire-making challenge, there have often been ties at the final 4 that have resulted in fire-making where it’s actually a tie-breaker and there’s no better way of deciding who will sit in that final 3. Fire-making seems like a loophole or something to me and even though I see some benefits to it, the cons heavily outweigh the pros and it needs to be tweaked.

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