Before Heroes v Healers v Hustlers premiered, we were promised a dynamite ending – and it certainly delivered in this explosive finale. Between #BenBombs, gut feelings and surprise twists, it was a wild ride as we crowned a new winner with one of the most improbable paths to victory we’ve ever seen.
The slow-build, character-focused drive of this season had drawn me in, and with an uncharacteristically competitive Final Five heading into the final episode, I was thrilled to see how this complex narrative would conclude. However, I can’t deny that the ending rang a little hollow for me, cheapened by a deus ex machina twist in the final moments. Nevertheless, the story of this season, its winner and its competitors and their gameplay have made for a compelling roller coaster right down to the Final Tribal Council – and I am sure we will be talking about Season 35 for a long time yet.
This season sets a new record (one of many): 8 standard idols were found, 7 of them played, and 4 further secret advantages entered the game. But I want to get this part out of the way, because despite their integral part in this season – and contribution towards some of its best moments – the idol and advantage-fest is ultimately the least interesting part of the game. Idols and advantages are nothing but paper, rope, seashells and craft glue without the people who use them, and that is where this season shines.
So let’s talk about Ben – for the first of many times in this review. It’s true that Ben’s game will always be associated with his knack for finding idols, but his creative and ground-breaking approach to their use sets an intimidating legacy. For years, the rules have dictated that when an idol is played, it goes straight back into the game to be found again. Until this season, nobody used this to their advantage as effectively as Ben, who would play his idol freely and then immediately return to camp to dig up another, parlaying his Immunity across three consecutive Tribal Councils. While the constant flow of idols may have seemed contrived, this loophole has always existed – and it was Ben’s ferocity and determination (and his adversaries’ complacency) that allowed him to exploit it. Between his strategy of idol-cycling and an innovative pre-vote idol play, Ben has rewritten the playbook on idols and for that, he deserves commendation.
Ben worked hard to ensure his safety when his back was up against the wall – his social game had imploded, he was the only target against a united force and his challenge ability was wanting, and so he turned to the use of Hidden Immunity Idols. He used any opportunity his tribemates gave him to tear up the island in search of his next find and on Night 36, after playing his second idol and sending Ashley home, he stayed up through the night in search of a lifeline. His tireless work paid off when he found his third idol by the raft, and he played it perfectly – keeping it secret and playing into his opponents’ perceptions and schemes to divert their attention until he pulled the rug out at Tribal. It was dramatic, effective and it got him to the Final Four, where his fate would truly be in his own hands.
TRUST YOUR GUT
But while Ben was using his record-tying third idol to secure his safety, his opponents were left to concoct their own schemes. The first was the germination of a seed planted all the way back in Episode One, as Chrissy formulated a plan to use the dead Super Idol as a fake to trick Ben into believing she had already found the idol and demoralising him from wasting his time searching. It was a clever strategic ploy and may have been useful if not for the fact that Ben already had the idol in his boot. Instead, it was Ben who was able to pull the wool over the eyes of Chrissy, Mike and Ryan by playing up his disappointment – he was one step ahead, and in Survivor, that can be enough.
But not everybody was fooled, as Devon sensed that something rang false in Ben’s behaviour, and he threw his vote onto Doctor Mike as a safety precaution that ultimately kept him in the game. It was incredibly savvy and subtle gameplay from a brilliantly savvy and subtle player. If not for the one last twist, it may have gone down as one of the most brilliant winning moves of all time, conjuring up recollections of Natalie Anderson throwing her vote onto Alec instead of Keith to swing control of the game back into her favour in San Juan Del Sur. Devon’s ability to read the situation and listen to his gut instincts saved him and sent the dear doctor home in his place.
Mike was one of the most uniquely endearing characters to emerge from the season. Combustible and unpredictable, his questionable strategic game was unlikely to earn him the win, but his enthusiasm for the game of Survivor and unapologetic willingness to be himself were vital to the messy, raw and dramatic thrust of the season. It seemed only fitting that the player who made questionable idol plays and threw another player’s advantage in the fire – just because – would go out as a hostage shot in a standoff. Something tells me this will not be the last we see of the Good Doc Zahalsky.
DEUS EX MACHINA
But now the time comes to talk about the most controversial aspect of this finale – and perhaps the season: the Final Four twist. Ever since rumblings of this twist emerged, I was nervous that such a fundamental change to the endgame would upset the applecart. The only hope I held out was that the twist would become public knowledge before the Final Four, but it was a fool’s hope for that has never been Survivor’s modus operandi. The Final Three in Cook Islands, the surprise Final Twos in Micronesia and Cagayan, the Jury Elimination in Kaoh Rong – Survivor has a pattern of pulling a fast one on the castaways at the eleventh hour. So while there is precedence, the nature of this particular twist meant that the entire trajectory of the season ground to a halt and chucked a U-turn.
Without an idol and Chrissy, Devon and Ryan united against him, Ben knew his fate hung in the balance of the Final Immunity Challenge – which turned out to be one of the most gloriously nail-biting challenges in the show’s history (and as an aside, well-done to the challenge designers for this masterpiece – and for the beautiful roulette wheel puzzle at the Final Five). With an upside-down ‘U’ costing him the necklace, Ben’s hopes were dashed. As he wept in despair, his devastated tears were beautifully contrasted by Chrissy’s tears of joy as she celebrated her fourth Immunity win, tying the record set by Kelly Wiglesworth, Jenna Morasca, and Kim Spradlin. It was light and dark, high and low, elation and anguish – and it would have been a poetic end to the Marine’s battle. But although this is a game and not a script, an unexpected plot twist awaited.
Along with Immunity, Chrissy received the final Secret Advantage of the game – information that revealed a fundamental change to Tribal Council. Rather than Chrissy, Devon and Ryan being able to finally take down the ‘horror movie villain that doesn’t stay dead,’ they would be forced to hinge their games on a fire-making challenge. Chrissy would be able to bring one person with her to the Final Three, but the remaining two would have to battle it out over fire. She made the intelligent choice to share the information with her alliance, who agreed upon the plan to take Ryan – whose survival skills were non-existent – and pit Devon against Ben. Although forewarning and experience helped Devon to see a positive, it was clear that all three agreed with a previous Devon sentiment: “That is NOT an advantage.”
Instead of the Final Four amounting to a final reckoning where Ben’s inability to infiltrate a unified alliance would lead to a devastating close-but-not-quite downfall, he was now handed a second chance that his opponents had no way to counteract and that he himself did nothing to earn. If this had been any other season, Ben would have landed as a 4th place fallen angel, and it would have been Chrissy and Devon battling it out for the votes of the Jury. There is something that feels inherently wrong about this – but Survivor is not over until it’s over, and luck can turn the game on a dime. In this case, Ben got really lucky.
Of course, it would be wrong to assert that Ben’s seat at the Final Three was a result of luck alone. He still had to win his fire-making challenge, facing off against Devon who was practiced, prepared and was coming into Tribal with a clear mind ready to take down the biggest threat in the game. Ben was handed a lucky break by a twist in the game, but he turned the opportunity into a victory with his own hands and a flint, and for that, the twist cannot be held against him.
Nevertheless, I hope that this twist, if it sticks around, becomes public knowledge much sooner so that players can account for it in their strategy. A twist, an idol, an advantage – that’s only a canvas. It’s how the players use them, respond to them and innovate with them that makes an artwork.
But before we move on, let’s take a moment to eulogise Devon, who was perhaps the best player of the season. He expertly used his surfer-bro demeanour to slide under people’s radars, using their underestimation of him to gather momentum and allies and ultimately make crucial game moves. He was integral to the Rogue Knights’ flip on JP, he instigated the secret agent plan, he called Ben’s bluffs forcing him to play his idols and making calculated plays to advance himself to the Final Three. It wasn’t a perfect game, but it was a strong one, and in another universe, I would wager that the showdown between him and Chrissy at the Final Three would have been fierce.
THE FINAL THREE
And so we came down to the Final Three: Ben, Chrissy and Ryan. Although it felt evident that the battle would truly be a Clash of the Heroes, the Final Tribal Council became a battleground as the Jury Roundtable held these three strong players accountable.
Ryan’s story started off strong this season, but as his control of the game slipped away, so too did his chances. He played a solid game, but one that turned passive in the final stretch. Although I admire his gumption to come into the Final Tribal willing to argue his case passionately and amplify his merits to try to match his formidable opponents, I feared he would struggle to be taken seriously. Exaggerating and lying to the Jury can work when done well, but Ryan’s aggressive claims that he masterminded the alliance of seven and dominated throughout ultimately rang false. As he tried to assert the strength of his social game, Ashley called him out for never having strategic conversations with her, and when Ryan defended his decision by claiming Devon was his conduit, his arguments felt shaky at best. Coupled with his inability to defend his lackluster performance around camp, his strategies of delegation were ultimately seen as delusion and not the skills of a puppet master.
In the end, it came down to the once-friends, now-enemies in Ben and Chrissy. Ben had a strong resume, with his strategic and theatrical idol plays winning the approval of the Jury. Nevertheless, it was his social game that came under fire as Joe and Cole questioned his combative interactions with them. Ben’s social game was unarguably a strike against him, but he managed to deflect the heat well. His responses regarding his struggles to adapt to social interactions in the wake of PTSD and the devastation war had wreaked on him were powerful and moving, and he owned the struggles of his game.
Nevertheless, the ferocity that punctuated Ben’s against-the-odds scramble to the finish line seemed to dissipate in the final moments. It may be that the stronger aspects of his conviction did not make the edit, but next to Ryan’s argumentative tactics and Chrissy’s articulate assertions, he seemed mild in his demeanour. I feared that this diminished presence could damage his chances, particularly against his well-spoken competition, and the Jury noted it too – with Joe directly urging Ben to fight for it.
Chrissy, on the other hand, never stopped fighting for it. Chrissy played a great game – and was a phenomenal, compelling character. We saw her highs and her lows, her pride and condescension as well as her vulnerability and resilience. She controlled much of the middle stretch strategically, physically dominated the game as an unexpected challenge beast and capped it off with the best Final Tribal performance of the night. When questioned about her social game – an aspect that came under repeated criticism throughout the season – she directly addressed the matter by demonstrating the real-world connections she’d built to the Jury members. She defended her strategies as that of loyalty and conviction. She not only acknowledged her own Immunity wins but used the Jury’s commendations to also praise the strong performances of the other women, who collectively took out 8 of the 9 Immunity challenges. Well-spoken and unyielding, Chrissy also owned her flaws, admitting that underestimating Ben’s ability to continuously dig up idols was a gaping hole in her game.
Most importantly, Chrissy sold her narrative. For someone terrified of being labelled “the Mom” coming into the game, she owned that moniker by the end to point to herself as someone who was an everyday hero as well as a healer and hustler – someone who embodied the themes of the season and would represent its player best as the Sole Survivor. Selling a narrative to the Jury is crucial, but ultimately it fell short of securing a win in this particular Final Three.
In a 5-2-1 vote, Ben ultimately emerged as the Sole Survivor of the season, fighting from start to the bitter end for his family and his future. He may not be the best player to ever win – he faltered by getting petty and temperamental, and his victory will undoubtedly be criticised for his reliance on idols and his lucky break at the Final Four. But Ben was a deserving winner. He built strong relationships early in the game, he deceived and manipulated through his secret agent operation, he used the secrets of others as ammunition whilst keeping his own secrets to himself, and when the tide turned against him, he used every tool he could find and every lucky break he caught to push the boundaries of the game and keep himself alive. As a character, Ben emerged as one of the greats – three-dimensional, combative and humorous, aggressive and playful. For a season built on the strength of its characters, it seems only fitting that a complex figure such as Ben Driebergen emerged on top.
DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Thus, Heroes v Healers v Hustlers comes to its end. It’s not a perfect season by any stretch, as its severely under-edited supporting characters (Katrina, Roark, Desi & JP) and its deflating Final Four twist mar its overall reputation. But while the season may not land in the top echelon of Survivor greats, its complex characters (Ben, Chrissy, Mike, Lauren, Devon, Joe chief among them), undulating and unpredictable narrative and emergent game strategies see this season ultimately read as a success in my book.
And as we finish one chapter, we turn the page. And as we move forward, we go back. As Ghost Island resurrects the spectres, demons, and curses of Survivor past, the future awaits.
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