Well. That was certainly a finale, wasn’t it? After a season of head-scratching gameplay and even more confusing editing choices used to show it, this season is wrapped up in a nice, neat bow… as the New Era Gabon of all things. Very rarely do we walk into a finale having a decent idea of who’s in the running, only for a massive plot twist at the one-yard line to throw everything we thought we knew into the gutter.
Normally I’d do a play-by-play here and then touch on the aftermath, but with the actual events of the finale being fairly straightforward up until the reading of the jury votes, let’s just address the alligator in the room. Mike “The Alli-Gabler” Gabler is a Survivor winner. And not only that, he played a nearly perfect game! He started as the cast jester nobody took seriously, even on Day 24. Still, along the way, somehow, this man pulled off the ultimate upset victory in one of the wildest endings ever, taking the title with seven jury votes to his name.
Seriously, what in the Gabon just happened?
However, to say I’m totally shocked would be a lie. Early in the season, Gabler assured us that no matter what his tribemates thought of him, he was self-aware of that perception and leaning into the kooky old man role for strategic benefit, hoping to be underestimated by his enemies. At the merge, he slayed his nemesis Elie and redeemed himself, pulling off a powerful immunity win before evolving into the All-Gabler, an underwater, under-the-radar assassin.
From there, he built trust with the rest of the merge tribe, hiding in plain sight as a sleeper threat with more strategic potential than he let on. Though he never pulled off any massive blindsides after Elie’s boot and never played any advantages, he stepped in at the final hurdle to defeat the obvious frontrunner and pitched a solid case at Final Tribal with charisma galore, telling the jury exactly what they wanted to hear.
The story of Gabler’s absurdist abstract art piece of a victory was there all along… hiding in plain sight. But like the cast themselves, we, the audience, largely wrote him off despite his cheeky warnings to avoid doing just that. And when the dust settled, and the votes were read on location, we got Gabler’d hard.
But let’s put a pin in Gabler’s big win to deal with how we got here.
Kicking off the finale, we have five people with cases to make. Gabler’s low on steam but not giving up, ready to pitch his assassin-style game to the jury. Owen’s been a one-man clown car all season but has the drive to play a perfect endgame. Jesse just made a massive move by taking out Cody and has an idol to get him to final four, so all that stands in his way is one little fire. Cassidy’s been with the numbers all season and won immunity a couple times, but she might need one big move to sell her case. And Karla, as beaten and bruised as she might be, is ready to fight for the win.
And Karla, despite having everyone and her own body working against her, manages to find the New Era’s finale staple: an advantage in the final five immunity challenge. Though Owen tries his best to beat her to it, he Charlie Browns it yet again, throwing a tantrum down the beach as he finally loses his temper. But redemption is in sight because Owen overtakes Karla in the challenge and clutches immunity, setting himself up with serious momentum. Choosing to take Cassidy to the Sanctuary for a steak lunch, he knows what needs to happen: Karla goes, then Jesse, and he takes the crown. Pitching to her a final three with Gabler as an easy goat, he’s got a steady game plan, but there are still three other people to worry about.
Back at camp, Gabler is depleted and bitter about being left out of the reward, but he has a plan: snipe Karla and Jesse and hope the jury can see his game. Yeah, there are not really any other plans to have here. If you’re not Jesse or Karla, you’ll want Jesse and Karla out. But the two targets have wiggle room with their votes. Jesse knows Karla could potentially beat him on Day 26 but has to weigh the option of keeping Karla around as an easier beat in both the final immunity and the fire-making.
And Karla herself isn’t hesitant to throw both Jesse and Cassidy under the bus to save herself. Once Cassidy returns to camp, Karla confronts her about the impending vote and leaves the conversation threatening to poison the jury against her once it’s clear that Cassidy’s targeting her. Cassidy’s having none of it, excited to finally send her last enemy packing as another tick on her resume.
At Tribal, Jesse whips out Jeanine’s idol, shocks the jury into submission, and manifests a Live Tribal as everyone starts whispering. Karla knows she can’t vote Jesse out, so all she can hope for is to convince him that Cassidy is the better target, grab Gabler as a third vote, and pray for survival. But Jesse’s made up his mind, and four votes take Karla out of the game as she ruins Jesse’s potential for a perfect game as her parting shot.
While Karla stumbled at the end and filled her game with holes as the endgame’s clear villain, she was one of the season’s stars and crushed it socially, physically, and strategically. She went out fighting, proved to herself and the audience that she’s got serious game, and delivered some great snarky confessionals as a bonus.
At the final four, it’s all about beating Jesse. Cassidy manages to dominate the return of Operation Balance Build, stacking her way into the final three… unless she wants to risk it all on an Underwood Maneuver and slay the dragon herself. But in what might be a game-losing move, she decides to keep the necklace and put either Gabler or Owen, both of whom are hyped to earn that last-minute credit, in a battle against Jesse. On the one hand, Owen might have a better shot at beating Jesse but could overtake Cassidy in winner equity. But Gabler, while he’s never been a fire-making god and has no energy left, shouldn’t be a serious threat should he defeat Jesse head-to-head.
Cassidy ultimately lets Gabler land the final blow, and he smokes Jesse in record time. And just like that, the frontrunner who dominated the entire season is gone. Left in tears as his dreams slip through his fingers, Jesse has nothing to be ashamed of. He was the mastermind of the season as well as its heart, and falling one day short of a masterclass win leaves him among many great players who found themselves in this same heartbreaking spot. Rob Cesternino, Jonny Fairplay, Cirie Fields, David Wright, the list goes on. As awkward as it is for this season to end without Jesse as its champion, his powerful story and massive legacy will be what people take away from Survivor 43.
And then there were three: Cassidy, Gabler, and Owen. You probably couldn’t pick a more absurd, random, and baffling group of finalists if you tried, but that’s the name of the game. Whether you respect their games or find them totally underwhelming, they did what 15 others could not. And someone has to take the win. But the jury has expectations. Owen’s got to defend his underdog game with passion, Gabler has to pitch his game as intentional and focus on his relationships, and Cassidy needs to show how she worked to survive so many votes and defend her safe play at the final four.
Final Tribal Council is an even battle from beginning to end. Gabler focuses on the trust he built, the alliances he joined and flipped on along the way, and uses the massive move against Elie as his crowning achievement while making everyone laugh with his usual Gabler-isms. Cassidy’s more focused on her statistics. She’s the last woman standing in a season where women seemed to have bounties on their heads and couldn’t work together to save their own lives, she knew where the votes were going every single time, and she won three immunities, including the one that sealed Jesse’s fate. And Owen, despite having little say in the actual votes, has an impressive underdog story about never giving up and articulates his narrative with humble confidence.
On the flip side, this final three is a total mess, and they have a few flaws to address. Gabler can’t just brag about his Ride or Die alliance with the Vesi guys when he fully intended to sit with them at the end and unexpectedly get his butt whooped. Cassidy can’t just claim to be this sneaky, cunning player when she was constantly targeted and didn’t have as much power over her fate as she thought, especially at the Ryan boot. And Owen can’t put all his eggs in the underdog story basket when the jury wants to hear about clear moves he’s made to get there, especially with Gabler and Cassidy being involved in most of the post-merge strategy.
At this point, you can cut Owen from contention. And while Cassidy might have more to speak of than Gabler in terms of talking points, she has a glaring hole in her game that Jesse is more than happy to point out: she had all the power to battle him in the fire challenge, but she let Gabler get that crucial credit instead. From there, Gabler has the momentum, countering Cassidy’s arguments against him as Cody and Jesse vouch for his role in the dominant Ride or Dies alliance formed to take out Ryan, defeating Cassidy’s final argument for the title.
Ultimately it’s Gabler’s charismatic speeches, involvement with the game’s biggest players, riskier gameplay, and fire-making masterclass that net him seven votes, while Cassidy gets one from James to give her second place. She put up a great fight for her solid game, and this result will be debated to no end, but her fatal flaw was trying to pitch herself as a strategic mover and shaker rather than a strong social player. She couldn’t claim any big moves for herself like Gabler could, so her attempts to frame herself as a strategic sleeper threat missed the mark. It’s a classic case of a runner-up not fully understanding and owning the game they played while the eventual winner emerges with an excellent performance to win it all.
Speaking of our winner, I can’t say I fully understand the logic behind each of his votes. Gabler rubbed people the wrong way and seemed to be a massive goat in the eyes of his fellow end-gamers, and yet here we are discussing Gabler’s near-perfect game. I’m sure the post-game deep dives will give us some answers, but regardless… Congratulations, Gabler. The man proved many people wrong, and I think on a Gabler-focused rewatch, you’ll see the game he played with much more clarity once you view him through a serious lens. It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t flashy, but it was functional. And Gabler let us know that every step of the way.
And that was… certainly a season of Survivor. Between the up-and-down momentum that followed up great episodes with baffling snoozers, the awkward editing choices that kept us in the dark about crucial game info while also pulling off impressive viewer blindsides, a cast that seemed impressive individually but lacked chemistry on screen, and this Gabon-esque ending with the winner heroically donating the million dollars to charity in one of the most heartwarming reunion show moments, the season is what it always was: messy as hell.
Sometimes the messiness was fun, but other times I was left baffled across the board, needing to wait an entire week to know how even the most simple votes were orchestrated. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the season being fairly straightforward, and production felt the need to spice it up with an overdose of false suspense. Or maybe they didn’t know how to handle a season where three random low-key players reached the end without any huge moves to talk about, so they threw their arms up and used the season as some experimental attempt at trolling the audience.
CBS posting a “You Just Got Gabler’d!” meme on Twitter after the winner reveal certainly has me considering the latter. Still, the season’s finally in the books, the aftermath of this strange season is upon us, and Survivor 44 is already being pitched as an all-time great season.
I know this season wasn’t exactly popular, and I doubt this ending will earn it too many more fans. Hell, I’m sure it’s landing near dead last in a few rankings as I write this, and not without reason. But considering we’ve had seasons with blatant sexual assault, players being outed, and other toxic behavior that went far beyond the game, I can’t say this is even close to the worst of the worst. It wasn’t amazing, but it’s ultimately a harmless, messy mixed bag of a season.
Hopefully production takes the right lessons from this installment, cuts what didn’t really work, refines what actually did, and keeps providing interesting casts full of compelling people who want to win in their own unique ways. Because if there’s one thing Mike Gabler’s shocking victory represents, it’s that anyone, no matter how impossible it might seem at any point in the season, can still win this game 43 seasons deep.