Survivor SA: Island of Secrets – Finale Recap – Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Cory Gage recaps Survivor SA finale…

Photo: M-Net

After 17 episodes of Survivor South Africa, only four players remain in the race for the million rand prize and title of Sole Survivor. The journey has had its ups and downs, and while it wasn’t the most exciting four months of Survivor we’ve ever seen, we’re here to crown a winner and end this adventure the right way. It’s finale night!

Act I of the finale is all about Laetitia—seeing how she’s on the outs and the supposed final three is already celebrating her elimination. More importantly, it’s about Laetitia’s intense hatred of Nicole that bleeds through the entire finale and sets the stage for the season’s climactic Final Tribal Council. “Actions speak louder than words” is said at least a dozen times in this episode, and while I hate using such an annoying cliché as the title of this recap, there’s no other title that would fit this finale.

Laetitia throws Nicole under the bus as a lying mother-Jacquer for agreeing to the plan to oust Rob with his idol. Okay, good start. Laetitia then pretends she’s innocent and asks Rob to take her to the final three instead of Nicole because Laetitia hasn’t lied to him as much. It’s a decent pitch with how focused on trust and honor Rob is, but come on, Laetitia was plotting against him too. Rob says he’s disgusted by Nicole and finally sees her true colors, but it will all come down to the Immunity Challenge to determine the final three. If Laetitia wins, the three have to turn on each other, and it’s clearly Durao who will be on the outs. If anyone else wins, Laetitia’s only hope is that darn vote nullifier, but a wall of three votes can never be broken by that advantage, so it’s all on her to win immunity.

The challenge is over rather quickly, making for a disappointingly brief final battle. Laetitia drops two stages in, then Durao, and finally Nicole, giving Rob his fifth necklace of the game and entering him into an elite group of physical players. With any chance of removing Rob gone like a fleeting shadow, Laetitia continues to pitch a Nicole blindside and gets even angrier with her to the point of flipping her a poorly blurred out middle finger. Honestly, Laetitia was the highlight of the finale, and I really wish we saw more of this Laetitia throughout the season. She’s a gem, and her meager edit disappointed me.

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Tribal Council isn’t a shocker. Laetitia is voted out 3 to 1 and doesn’t even bother wasting her nullifier, instead choosing to bring it home as a gift for a family member. Good. Now never use the twist at the final four again, please. Just imagine someone playing a great game, getting someone to join them at four and force a tie, and then nothing they did matters because someone played a broken advantage when you’re not supposed to have any active ones in the game. I’m fine with this thing existing in other rounds of the game, and I welcome it in that case, but keep it out of the final four. Keep it far away.

And there we have it: Rob, Durao, and Nicole are the final three. It’s not the trio I would have expected a few weeks ago, but they’re here, and they’ve earned it. Day 39 finally arrives, and everyone teases their pitches to the jury. Rob played a great game and wants to own it, to illuminate his moves for a jury that might not understand them that well. Nicole’s ready to own her lies and go for broke, hoping to win over people who clearly want her to jump into the sea and never return. And Durao is going to pitch himself as the “hard to die off” underdog who played the game the only way he could, by riding coattails to protect himself from being picked off like everyone else. All three pitches sound good to me, but what I think doesn’t matter. The jury is all that matters. And it’s finally time to let loose the hounds of hell on these people. Get some bandages and peroxide ready, people. It’s going to be bloody.

In the biggest surprise of the night, they ditched the new and “improved” Final Tribal Council format and returned to old school individual jury speeches. Whoever made this choice, just know that I love you because I also love jury speeches. The new format has its perks, and I like the en masse group attacks you can get out of it, but individual jury speeches can become iconic moments. Do you really remember anything that happened on Day 39 since Survivor US and other international seasons started using the new format? I sure don’t. It just kills the pacing and gives them an excuse to let three people speak for ten jurors while continuing to give under-edited players weak edits.

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I won’t get into every single jury speech because I have more to say about the season as a whole than the FTC in general, but overall: I liked it. We get some salty speeches with some memorably scathing remarks, some nicer comments about each finalist that didn’t just leave anyone out to dry, and a complex look at each finalist’s game that doesn’t feel like a trope display. And by that I mean nobody is just “the strategic one” or “the goat” in this case. All three of them have legit cases to be made for and against them, and even if the jury doesn’t give everyone a totally fair chance, it feels surprisingly competitive, no doubt due to the immense levels of character development and possible red herrings seen over the past 17 hours of TV this summer. 

Rob, by far, has the easiest case to make. Instead of waving the white flag and handing the money to Nicole, he comes out there and owns his moves. He goes through some of the more low key highlights of his 39 days—like figuring out Steffi had seen her loved one before the actual visit or using the Island of Secrets to control the rest of the game. These are two great points that undoubtedly win people over with his creativity. Rob faces some opposition from the jurors who feel like he played a safer game and never really had to overcome any major obstacles, which is a fair point. But Rob never had obstacles because he never allowed himself to. That’s the magic behind his game. He played it in a way that set up his easy pathway ahead of time, allowing him to cruise to the finals without breaking a sweat. It’s not a game I personally like to see in a winner because I’m in it for the story, and Rob’s story wasn’t that fun. But credit is due, and Rob’s earned a lot of it.

But that doesn’t mean Rob is going to just get the votes handed to him. Seipei and Steffi are disappointed with Rob’s “Amigo family” mantra since it was basically some transparent hogwash used to justify his moves against his own allies. And Mmaba isn’t a big fan of Rob’s game in general, calling it “meh.” That’s where Rob was always going to struggle: dealing with a jury that flat out didn’t like him or his tactics. He came off as arrogant, entitled, oppressive, and just sinister at times. All good traits for playing a dominant game, but it’s hard to pull off a win unless your competition is clearly on a lower level than you and can’t make a better case. And fortunately for Rob, that was the case.

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Nicole walks into Tribal Council losing almost unanimously. Even though the conversation centers around Rob vs. Nicole for the title, Rob has the clear advantage in every aspect of the game. He won more challenges, he made better moves, he had more control, and he built more useful bonds without totally trashing them on their way out. With Nicole on a full OTTN hot streak from Night 37 to the morning of Day 39, I didn’t expect her to pose a challenge to Rob. However, I was totally blown away by her arguments, enough to convince me to heavily consider voting for her if I was a juror. She drops the pageant queen act and owns her many, many lies—something I doubted she could do when the jury clearly wanted to hear it. She explains her game in eloquent terms, highlighting her role as the connective tissue to Rob’s muscles.

But you all knew it was coming: the backlash. It isn’t as bad as I expected because the jury seemed to get their emotions out on Steffi when she entered Ponderosa, but Nicole still gets ripped apart by Meryl, who attacks her logic that leaving her kids behind to play the game was a sign of bravery instead of pure selfishness. A few jurors aren’t happy with her apparent coattail riding either, calling her an enabler who played for others to win before herself. And of course, the moral justifications she made for all her moves come back to bite her, especially when the topic of hypocrisy comes up. But Nicole puts forth a valiant, resilient, and determined effort. Even if she didn’t win the game, her performance was shockingly good, and I would have thought she’d steal the win from under Rob’s nose if her edit hadn’t been so harshly negative in the rest of the finale. But in the end, she couldn’t help but tie her game into Rob’s, which indirectly complimented him and gave the jury more reasons to snub her.

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And then we have the biltong chipmunk: Durao, aka “Confusion.” Poor guy. That’s all I have to say. He and I knew his chances were slim, but I really wanted to see him pull at least one vote away from the Amigo finalists. He couldn’t really form a decent argument and even Mmaba, the person who made Durao’s case for him and had Rob’s blessing to do so, didn’t bother wasting a vote on someone who was drawing dead. 

His only real argument is “I was an underdog,” but you can’t really be a real underdog if you betray your fellow underdogs and become a turncoat. It’s why Laurel lost Ghost Island in a landslide despite being part of a massive underdog arc with the Malolo curse story line. Like Laurel, Durao enabled the dominant force on the island to pick off the stragglers and hoped they’d give him the win for merely surviving. But the jury doesn’t view it that way at all. Durao himself says that he joined Rob because Rob could protect him like a big kid helping out the weakling at school, which is just a terrible analogy. How is that supposed to garner respect? It just makes him look like a spineless follower who can’t stand up for himself. 

Like Nicole, Durao is unable to make a pitch that doesn’t incidentally praise Rob as well. But Durao’s a total sweetheart, and I hate that he became the first zero vote finalist in SA history. He didn’t play a great game, but I would have liked to see a pity vote go his way for providing some great comic relief during a brutal post-merge full of disappointing and uncomfortable moments.

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When the votes came in, I was completely stunned that Nicole got within two votes of winning. I expected an 8-2-0 at best, or even an 8-1-1 if Durao got Mmaba’s solo pity vote. But for Rob to come that close to losing to arguably the most despised player of the season, that was a shocker. She still lost of course, but the closeness of the votes says a lot about both finalists. Rob was not liked and probably loses if Nicole came across better to the jury before Day 39, because the game Nicole played was worthy of a win. If her poor jury management and pushing of out of place moral codes didn’t sour half the jury against her, she’d probably be a million rand richer right now and Rob would go down as one of the most infamous “robbed” losers ever.

But the closeness of the votes also shows how well Nicole performed. I’ve riffed on Nicole a lot this season for obvious reasons, but I’ve always defended her ability to play the game well in terms of making a web of social connections and recovering from her in-game blunders. I’m so proud of her for owning up to the nastier side of her game and dropping the people-pleasing pageant queen act even for a few hours. I saw the potential in her from the very first episode when she sold Lee-Anne down the river and cut her throat like an ice queen in the making. She just couldn’t embrace that role until the bus left the stop, and that’s what really did her in. It’s a classic case of too little, too late and it’s hard to turn a whole season of negativity around at the last minute.

We finally have a Sole Survivor after 18 episodes and months of watching the game play out: Rob Bentele, who will without a doubt go down in history as one of the most powerful winners to ever play. Five Immunity necklaces, total control for 95% of the season, an idol in his pocket for most of the game, control over the IOS, a masterful manipulation of personal bonds for his own benefit, and a dark side that helped him proceed like a cult leader hellbent on wiping out all who sought to overthrow him. I don’t think his jury management was as good as it could have been, hence almost losing to one of his assumed goats when she got loose from the pen and played to win, but the man got the votes and the check. That’s all that matters, and I doubt he’ll be losing much sleep over those four lost votes anytime soon. 

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Compared to the other SA winners, he’s clearly a step above the rest and probably won’t be topped any time soon. If Survivor SA returns, I can imagine the next group being incredibly wary of his archetype and making sure another Rob doesn’t start a new cult of personality. People like Rob typically don’t win Survivor because they’re usually targeted as physical threats after the merge and social threats in the pre-merge, but our Rob managed to evade those pitfalls with great social connections and some well-timed Immunity wins, playing a near-flawless game that only faced one obstacle: the jury. 

It’s not a game you can easily replicate, but I’d like to see someone try because Rob’s intense desire to utterly destroy the competition across the board was more compelling than watching someone drone on about options and big moves in a monotonous voice all season. Rob wasn’t a ho-hum winner whatsoever. His win might have been predictable and fairly by the book of Kim Spradlin, but Rob himself brought new life to the mastermind archetype, for better or worse. He was the supervillain winner we don’t see very often, and I can respect the warts-and-all edit he got.

And that’s Survivor SA: Island of Secrets. I’m just going to say it: the season was hit and miss. A solid pre-merge raised my hopes, only to have them dashed by a mediocre post-merge full of blue-balling and eye-rolling every week. The editors deserve all the credit in the world for salvaging the second half though, because while the gameplay itself was a big, fat dud and won’t be remembered in a couple months, the storytelling and characters were anything but. 

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Every single player had some role to play in the arc of this season, even the lesser developed characters like Laetitia and Mmaba. Nobody felt like a total afterthought, and I really respect that part of the craft. Too many players in these larger casts tend to be given nothing at all in other versions of the show, with Survivor AU recently breaking records by sending someone home without ever receiving a confessional and US Survivor regularly ignoring two or more people every season, only to drop them in the middle of the story without warning to create a jarring effect. Survivor SA didn’t waste a single person. From the first boot to the winner, you got to know every player in the game, where they stood, who they were like to an extent, and why we should care about them in the grand scheme of the season. 

As a writer, one of my goals with any work of storytelling is to give readers a reason to be invested in as many characters as possible. You don’t have to like them or even find them interesting to follow, but you need to know who they are. Survivor itself is a story just like any scripted media, and Survivor SA’s editors and story producers knocked it out of the park. They showcased the day to day action of the season in extreme depth while maintaining a perfect balance of depicting the reality of what took place on the island and crafting a dynamic narrative with twists, turns, red herrings, suspense, comedy, drama, and everything in between. Give this team a more exciting game to work with, and you’d have some world-class Survivor on your hands. Just watch SA: Philippines to see what I mean.

From this cast, there are quite a few players I’d like to see back. In terms of the pre-mergers, Tania and Nathan are the clear standouts. Even if they weren’t fantastic players, they were insanely fun to watch and would bring a lot of sparks to a hypothetical returnee season. The post-merge is where the ripest fruit is though. Rob could come back to prove his game can withstand stronger competition, Nicole can return to redeem herself and play the game without a moral code hanging over her head, and Durao could be a wildcard choice and add some much-needed humor. 

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Steffi’s last-minute push to defeat Rob could make for a fun rivalry if the champion agrees to play again. Mike has the upside of being able to bring new life experiences into a second season. Jacques is a no-brainer pick who definitely deserves another go after what he went through. Seipei getting snubbed would be a tragedy. Dante was a ton of fun and every season needs a good villain. And Geoffrey would be fun to see again if only for more of his amazing jury bench reactions. And that’s not to say the rest of the cast couldn’t be compelling returnees either, but in terms of big characters, this cast had plenty of them to go around if the All-Stars invitations ever get sent out.

With another season down and seemingly nothing Survivor-related on the South African horizon, I’m not sure what to expect from this series moving forward. The ratings were actually up 50% from SA: Philippines, so I’d be stunned if they didn’t renew the show for another season or two, especially with its international popularity at an all-time high with people around the world covering it. Nico himself said in a Reddit AMA a few months ago that it could be time for Survivor SA: All-Stars, and if that’s the route they go, I’d be all for it. They have seven seasons of characters to pull from after all. But no matter what they do for the hypothetical and currently unconfirmed Season 8, I think the show is in very trustworthy hands and whatever route they choose will be worth the wait.

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Covering this season was a ton of fun, and it’s easily the most invested I’ve ever been in a season. Do I wish the gameplay was less stale and didn’t force me to create hypothetical timelines for half the season instead of actually talking about the competition at hand? Yes. Do I think I look dumb for beating “Survivor SA is unpredictable!” drum for four months only to have the season spit out one of the most predictable endings possible? Yes. But going in-depth for 18 weeks allowed me (and hopefully the readers who stayed with me for the novel-sized adventure of a recap series) to admire the finer details of this season that I would have overlooked in the past. 

Survivor SA: Island of Secrets had some slack to pick up here and there, but for what they had to work with, we got a work of art that showed real appreciation for Survivor not just as a product but as a game and an epic adventure unlike anything else on TV. You know, what Survivor is supposed to be.

Until next time, thanks for reading my weekly essays and joining me on this journey through the mountains and valleys of Survivor SA: Island of Secrets. And remember: don’t forget to drink your Bio-Strath!

Written by

Cory Gage

Cory is a writer and student from Texas. He's a die-hard Survivor fanatic who's seen over 50 seasons worldwide, hosted his own season in high school from scratch, and hopes to one day compete on the show himself.

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