*SPOILERS OBVIOUSLY AHEAD*
I usually wait until Thursday morning to start these recaps, but I have so much adrenaline coursing through my veins that I decided to start writing this immediately after the finale.
WHAT AN ENDING.
An incredible finish to the biggest season in Survivor history. This season deserved a finale of epic proportions, and that's exactly what we got. Three jam-packed hours of challenges, strategy, emotional farewells, and finally a king getting his crown. Tony Vlachos has officially become Survivor royalty. If Sandra is the Queen, then Tony is our King. He just played a flawless game in a season of all-winners. He went up against the top competition in show history and just dominated them from start to finish. In my opinion, he is now the clear greatest player in Survivor history. The llama has officially become the GOAT.
That shirt makes absolutely no sense if you don't watch the show, but if you're reading this blog then I assume you get the reference.
I'm so glad Tony won. It was the only fitting end to this season. No disrespect to Natalie and Michele, who played solid games in their own right, but this season would've been completely soured if Tony didn't win. We can now officially put this season up there with the all time best. I'll talk more about Tony's legacy and this season as a whole later in the blog, but we'll start off with recapping all the action.
The Set Up
With a live, in-person reunion show obviously out of the equation, Survivor had to adapt. They shipped Jeff a "do-it-yourself" tribal council setup, and he streamed from his garage. They made it work. Jeff opened with a speech that felt like a president giving a State Of The Union. I'd vote for President Probst in a heartbeat. He hyped up the season and its players and then introduced everyone on the video call.
Unfortunately, that moment was the closest thing we had to a reunion show all night. But that's fine, because we were in for a loaded three hours of Survivor. Let's get into it.
The challenge was a long obstacle course with rope, beams, and digging. It ended with a puzzle where you had to get two balls in their holes on a balancing board. The challenge featured 14 players, everyone who had been voted out with the exception of Sandra who left the island.
Natalie, Yul, Wendell, and Parvati all had the advantage of skipping the fence obstacle to start at the post. Natalie also had two more advantages. She got to skip digging, and also had 1/3 of her rope bridge already assembled. Pretty huge advantages, and they ended up being the difference. Natalie struggled at first, but the multiple advantages kept her in it. It was coming down to Natalie, Wendell, and Tyson at the end. Natalie pulled it out and was able to rejoin the game after being the first person voted out. This seemed obvious. She had a great edit on Edge and gathered more fire tokens than anyone else. The advantages proved to be too powerful. It's really a shame that you got rewarded for getting voted out earlier, but it is what it is. Natalie did work her ass off on the Edge to get those tokens. I think the challenge would've been more entertaining if everyone was on equal playing ground though.
We then got some emotional goodbyes to these legendary players. Kim talked about embracing imperfection. Tyson discussed how much Survivor has been part of his life, but now he's just focused on being a father. Rob and Amber talked about how Survivor brought them together and how they now got to go out there and play again for each other and their kids. Amber mentioned how she felt like her win wasn't really "her" win, and it was just because everyone hated Rob. Ethan talked about being a literal cancer survivor and how Survivor helped saved his life. Jeff thanked them all for being part of the Survivor family. It was all very emotional. I'm the first one to make fun of waterworks on Survivor, but this was a different circumstance. This was 13 people who have had their lives changed by Survivor, likely saying goodbye to the game they love. They are all legends in their own right and we should thank them for the memories they've given us through the years. It wrapped up with an audio message from every player talking about how Survivor has impacted their lives. It was a really special moment.
Tony wrapped everything up with a confessional about how that all made him emotional, but just gave him even more motivation to put his foot on the gas to close this game out.
Merged Camp (Koru)
Natalie returned from the game and knew she needed to stir up some chaos. She told everyone that people on Edge think Tony is playing the best game and running the show. This, somehow, surprised people. It really seemed to strike a chord with Sarah. She didn't want to get to the end as Tony's goat just because she's a woman and he's a man, more on this later. Tony was worried that Natalie was about to blow up his game, but he tried to convince everyone that she's lying since there's no way to fact check her. It was clear though that Natalie's return to the game would be a disruption.
Final 6 Immunity Challenge
This challenge looked really fun. A cool obstacle course, a slide, and a unique puzzle. Despite struggling at first, Michele made up ground on the puzzle. She had won a challenge with that puzzle on her previous season. Even though the other players were looking and trying to copy her (Survivor really needs dividers or something to prevent cheating), she was still able to pull it out and win a much needed immunity.
Final 6 Pre-Tribal/Tribal Council
With Michele immune, the attention shifted to Natalie. Tony, however, feared that she had an idol. He remembered how Chris came back from the Edge in Season 38 with one and thought she might have the same. He was right, but nobody would listen to him. Tony wanted to split votes on Denise, but Ben refused to do that to "Mama D." Sarah insisted that Natalie doesn't have an idol. Once it became apparent that Michele was with Natalie and a 2-2-2 vote split wasn't possible on Denise and Natalie, he suggested that they put 3 votes on Denise (Tony, Sarah, Ben), Denise would vote Natalie, and Michele and Natalie's votes wouldn't matter. Tony really wanted to conserve his and Ben's idols until next tribal council to guarantee them spots in the Final 4.
In a cringeworthy confessional before tribal, Sarah said, "These girls don't have anything, so calm down dude. Guess who's in control? Sarah! Sarah knows what's going on!" She insisted that she built a close enough bond with Natalie, in one single day, that she would have told her if she had something.
At tribal, Sarah gave an emotional speech about gender bias in Survivor, still clearly upset over Natalie saying that everyone thinks Tony is running the show. She said how when a guy plays a cutthroat game with lies and big moves, he's labeled as a bad-ass. When a girl does the same, she's labeled as a bitch. She also mentioned how it was tough for her following Game Changers, feeling like she was a bad person for the game she played. But she now felt like that weight was finally lifted off her shoulders, and she won't be defeated by a gender bias. Jeff himself even admitted to showing a bias at times without even realizing it, as evidenced by him more often referring to guy players by their last names.
Overall, I think Sarah makes a solid point. Gender bias has been an issue in Survivor in the past. Women don't always get the same credit they deserve when they play great strategic games. Fans for years have accused Jeff of some gender bias, so hearing him admit that himself was a big moment. However, while I do think everything she said is true in general, it felt wrong to apply it to this instance with Tony and Sarah. People though Tony was playing a better game because he genuinely was. He was on the right side of every vote and didn't have a single vote cast against him, despite the huge target on his back. He led the charge on every vote and got rid of anyone who even mentioned his name. He also had the Sophie blindside that Sarah was not involved with. So while Sarah's message was right in general, it felt unfair to Tony to apply it to this season. Tony's game wasn't considered great just because he's a man, it's because he truly played an all-time great game.
It was time to vote. Natalie got up and played her idol. Tony was clearly upset, telling everyone "I told you guys." Sarah had a look of pure shock on her face.
This forced Tony and Ben to play their idols too, just in case. There were 4 votes for Natalie and 2 for Ben, all negated. With three people playing idols and Michele immune, only Sarah and Denise could be voted for. There would be a revote, and then a fire-making challenge if there was still a tie. I was a little surprised Michele and Natalie didn't vote for Sarah and force a tie, but everyone unanimously agreed to send Denise packing.
Denise Farewell: Denise should be really proud of the game she played. While it didn't end in victory, she still played a really strong game and made a deep run despite a lack of really any pre-game connections. She also will always go down in Survivor history as the Queen Slayer for taking out Sandra with her own idol. It was one of the most iconic moments the show has ever seen.
They got back from camp and Tony was upset that Ben and Sarah didn't listen to him. Realizing that another idol would be in play after three were used, Tony wasted no time. He didn't even wait until the morning. He stayed up, made a portable fire, and looked all night for one. Even though he couldn't find it, this was just more proof of him being on another level and willing to outwork everyone else in the game. Everyone else started their search in the morning, and Natalie ultimately found it. So despite being voted out first, her now worst case scenario was a fire-making challenge to get to the Final 3. Just another problem with the Edge.
Final 5 Immunity Challenge
This challenge had swimming, a ramp, a balance beam, and ended with having to toss two sandbags onto a table. Everyone seemed to be in it except for Michele who was straggling. It came down to Tony and Ben. Each had one bag landed and were all over the mark trying to land their second one. The editing was awesome. There were more music fake outs than I can ever remember in a challenge. I thought it was over like three different times. Eventually, Tony landed it and won his fourth immunity necklace.
Tony landing that second bag felt like the closest thing we've had to a sports moment in months. I jumped up and clapped in excitement. I felt like I was celebrating the Yankees hit a walk-off home run. I feel so bad for people who don't watch this show.
Final 5 Pre-Tribal/Tribal Council
Tony and Ben, two notorious idol hounds, were suspicious that Natalie may have found something since they were both empty handed. So Tony went to his old friend: The Spy Nest. He told Sarah to go talk to Natalie by the water well where Tony would be watching from the tree. Natalie wanted Sarah to come with them and vote Ben out. While they were talking, Sarah noticed an idol hidden in the buff on Natalie's wrist.
This was either an absolutely terrible hiding spot from Natalie, or she just wanted Sarah to see it. If she wanted Sarah to see it, I feel like she would've just told her. So my thinking is that it was just an error by Natalie. Tony jumped down from the spy nest when they left and said how he was up there for an hour and almost fell. Spy nest life ain't easy.
Tony, Sarah, and Ben now had a tough decision to make. Would Natalie play the idol for herself? Or would she want to make a bigger move and play it on Michele? But that decision didn't really need to be made. Ben had an emotional speech with Sarah where he basically granted her permission to vote him out. He said he'd understand if she wanted to do it to pad her resume and have a big move separate of Tony. Both were in tears as they discussed it. Ben basically said that having real life relationships with people was more important to him than winning this time around. Did Ben forget this is a game for $2 million? The cynic would say that Ben chose friends from a Reality TV show over $2 million. However, I also think it's possible that Ben just saw the writing on a wall. He knew he probably wasn't going to win. He seemed mentally and emotionally checked out after a grueling season. He didn't outright "quit" but he was clearly not fighting to stay alive. While Sarah did want a big move of her own, it would be hard to consider this "her" move considering it was Ben coming to her and basically saying "Vote me out."
At tribal, there was a deep discussion about what Survivor does to you. It pushes you to intense personal scrutiny. Sarah said it sometimes made her focus on the worst of herself and ignore all the good things she's done. But at the end of the day, everyone does grow from the experience. This season has especially shown what a draining process Survivor can be on a person. It was time to vote and Natalie player her idol on herself after some deliberation. Tony and Ben made the right decision in voting for Michele, but Sarah flipped and sent Ben home with a 3-2 vote. Tony was shocked and let out a surprised sound. Ben seemed very at peace with it. He hugged Sarah and told her he loves her. He hugged Jeff too and said "Time to party!" on his way out.
Ben Farewell: Ben caught a lot of heat this season from Survivor fans. A lot of people, myself included, were disappointed with his win in Season 35 and thought he was just saved by idols and the fire-making Final 4 twist. I wasn't thrilled to see him back this season and think he was in over his head for a lot of the game. He clearly rubbed some people the wrong way with a poor social game. However, I do feel bad that he seemed to get too much heat online. He may not be a great Survivor player, but he's still a military veteran and seems like a genuine person. Maybe for him, this game wasn't about becoming the greatest player ever and winning $2 million. He was on more of a personal journey to better himself as a human being, and that's fine. I think him sacrificing himself for someone else was a really fitting and satisfying way for his story arc to come to an end.
Final 4 Immunity Challenge
With time being rushed, we went right into the final immunity challenge. I would've liked to see what Tony said to Sarah when they got back to camp, but I'm sure she just explained her move and they moved past it. The challenge was one of my favorites ever.
I think it's the perfect final immunity challenge that really tests your mind and focus. It's the one I dream will be on my season. I knew this challenge would prove to be a tough one for Tony given his attention span. That proved to be correct. He dropped first, then Sarah. It came down to Natalie and Michele. Natalie showed some incredible Odell hands and beat out Michele to win final immunity. From first boot to Final Tribal Council.
Final 4 Pre-Tribal
Natalie's clear plan was to get Tony out. She didn't want to be sitting next him at the end. It seemed obvious that she'd save Michele and have Tony and Sarah go up against each other. Tony and Sarah were helping each other make fire in preparation of their battle. It was clear they wouldn't let this tear them apart. Michele, meanwhile, was also practicing and doing quite well. So Natalie had three options. Break up Tony and Sarah and pin them against each other. Have Michele go against Tony since she was doing very well making the fire. Or would Natalie pull a Chris Underwood by giving up her necklace and taking on Tony herself? It would be a big move that could impress the jury given her limited playing time.
Final 4 Tribal Council (Fire Making)
(Sophie wasn't at tribal council because she was sick. Can't remember that ever happening on the show)
Natalie decided to send Sarah up against Tony. Tony tried to say "Why don't you just go up against me?" but Natalie wasn't budging. I think you could tell this upset the jury from their reactions. So we were set for an epic showdown between two best friends. Two allies. Two cops. Two people who have played the same three seasons and have their Survivor stories interwoven together. It was perfect.
They fist bumped each other and prepared for battle. The winner would likely get two million dollars and be crowned the greatest ever. It was the most important fire in Survivor history.
Tony was the first to get a spark, but Sarah got out to a huge lead. Her flame was burning high and made its way the rope. I thought for sure it was over. Usually, once the flame reaches the rope, it's game over and it burns easily. But the Survivor gods didn't let it happen this time.
I'm still absolutely shocked that this fire didn't burn the rope. They must have made it thicker this time. All of a sudden, it died down, and Tony's grew. I was getting annoyed with Natalie cheering Sarah on and giving her advice. If she wanted to take Tony out so bad, she should have done it herself. Eventually, Tony's flame burned the rope and he won.
It was an incredible showdown and the best fire making challenge in Surivor history. Very back and forth and my heart was in my stomach the entire time. Tony and Sarah hugged and embraced each other in tears. Tony was clearly distraught that he had to take out his partner.
He was sobbing and apologizing, but Sarah assured him that he had nothing to apologize for. If one of them had to be taken out, it was only right that they did it to each other. She told him to go take care of business tomorrow, howled, and shouted "Come on T!" as she left. Overall, it was one of the best moments in Survivor history. I have goosebumps rewatching it. These two have an incredible bond. In Season 28, they made the Cops-R-Us alliance. Tony swore on his badge, but ultimately blindsided her on his way to a dominant and brilliant win. In Season 34, they both come back as "Game Changers." Tony was an early boot, and it was now Sarah's turn to play a dominant and brilliant game on her way to a win. This season, they were allies from the start and ran the game together. Their relationship clearly goes beyond the game and both said they would rather lose than soil that relationship. The fact that they went out battling in a fire-making challenge was the perfect way for their story arc to end. You couldn't script it any better than that. Just so awesome.
Sarah Farewell: Sarah cemented her status as a Survivor legend with her performance this season. She played unbelievably well in Game Changers, and while she didn't play quite the same game this time, she still showed what a great strategic and social game she has. Fourth place is nothing to scoff at in a season of all winners. It also seems like she's finally found peace with her last win too. She's a top 10 player of all time in my book. She fittingly got her snuff torched by finally being called by her last name, "Lacina, the tribe has spoken."
After a long 38 day journey, the final three got to enjoy the much coveted Day 39 breakfast.
I daydream about that Day 39 breakfast more than anything else in my life. All three players gave confessionals recapping their game, and I have to give credit to the editors for setting up really believable winner story arcs for all three remaining players, and Sarah as well.
Michele had the scrappy underdog story. She wanted to prove she belonged among the greats after getting a lot of criticism for her first win. She was on the bottom for a lot of the game, but scratched and clawed to stay alive. She said getting to Day 39 closed her wound from last time.
Natalie had a unique experience. She was the first boot but never gave up. She outplayed everyone on Edge and fought her way back in the game. She then continued to kick ass with idols and challenge wins when she returned.
Then there was Tony, who played one of the most masterful games in Survivor history. He had a huge target on his back but did a little bit of everything to stay alive. He was fun around camp and had a great social game. He won four individual immunity challenges, one shy of a season record. He found an idol. He called the shots on every single vote but one. And he didn't have a vote cast against him all game. Just absolutely incredible to put on a performance like that when you're playing with 19 other winners.
Final Tribal Council
There was a torrential downpour for FTC, which was just perfect. The format was the same as it has been recently, with there being three different portions for outwit, outplay, and outlast. I won't rehash every little thing that was said, but a few takeaways I have:
-I thought all three really had strong performances. Probably the best group FTC performance I can ever remember. Everyone pitched themselves and their game well. Natalie talked about outworking everyone on Edge. Michele talked about being the underdog. And Tony talked about all his spy nest and other antics to stay alive.
-It was clear Tony had a connection with the jury. Even if he wasn't answering their exact questions, he said things in a funny and endearing way. He basically said he didn't make any mistakes but did it in a way that didn't come off cocky at all. I also thought it was funny when he said he really doesn't do anything in life, not even travel, fancy restaurants, or watch sports. The man is just programmed for family, being a cop, and winning Survivor.
-I was disappointed in how bitter Jeremy seemed. He should not have been that bitter against Tony. Jeremy played a similar game in Cambodia and won unanimously for it. I get he has a great relationship with Natalie, but as someone who respects the game, he should have voted for Tony. Nick also seemed a bit bitter too, but he did end up voting for Tony to win.
-People were just amazed at Tony's game. How could he dominate everyone and not be targeted? He basically had a spell on people. I laughed when Boston Rob was just flat out like, "How did you do it?"
-The jury, especially Boston Rob, seemed disappointed in Natalie for not putting herself in the fire-making challenge. Her explanation of wanting to pull apart the alliance didn't make much sense.
-Tony got everyone laughing when discussing how the Edge really screwed him over with the extortion advantage and Natalie coming back trying to ruin his game.
-It ended with the jury praising everyone's game and telling them to be proud of themselves. They even got a standing ovation.
Another great moment in a season that had plenty of moments to remember. It was time to vote. Jeff got the urn and told everyone, "I'll see you in Los Angeles for the reading of the votes." It was sad to hear that. Nobody knew that it would come to this obviously.
It really sucked that this couldn't be live with a huge crowd applauding after every vote. This season deserved that, but they made it work. Also, it looks like Tony already spent that $2 million by the looks of his house.
The votes were read and Natalie got out to an early 4-3 lead. I was getting nervous. But Tony pulled it out getting 12 total votes. Michele did not receive any. Tony was officially crowned.
The four votes for Natalie came from Jeremy, Tyson, Parvati, and Ethan. Jeremy and Nat are obviously very close. Tyson was clearly moved by Natalie giving him an idol. Parvati and Natalie worked together a lot on Edge. And Ethan spent a lot of time there with her. I felt bad that Michele got zero votes. Wonder if she's pissed at Wendell for not voting for her. Personally, I think Tony played a perfect game and should have been a unanimous winner, but if anyone else was going to get votes, it should've been Michele over Natalie. Michele has now played multiple times and never been voted out. I hope she's not too hard on herself because she has shown she belongs. Natalie's game was so unique that it's tough to judge her legacy.
-What an incredible season. We've waited for an all-winners season for years, and it really delivered. Despite the Edge, despite fire tokens, despite old-school favorites exiting early, it still proved to be an extremely entertaining season. It came at the perfect time during quarantine too. It's tough to say where this will rank among all seasons. It had its flaws, but it still had so many memorable moments and we got an extremely satisfying and deserving winner. Everyone hitting the beach on Day 1, Boston Rob's playpen, Denise slaying Queen Sandra, the Adam podium idol, the family visits, the Final 4 fire-making, the spy nest, and Tony's incredible performance throughout all come to mind. But there's a lot more than that. This season had sky high expectations, and it met them.
-Tony is now the greatest player of all-time. I don't think there is a debate. The llama has become the GOAT. Him and Sandra are the only two-time winners. But Tony's wins have been infinitely more impressive than Sandra's. He dominated Cagayan. And he arguably dominated even more in a season of all-winners. The best mix of strategy and personality ever. It was impossible not to root for him. You can make the Boston Rob or Parvati debates, but the extra win for Tony (when playing less seasons) puts him over the top for me. He learned from his mistakes more than anyone in Survivor history. We officially have our Mount Rushmore of Survivor players with Tony, Sandra, Boston Rob, and Parvati.
-I hope we never see the Edge of Extinction again. I hate any twist that lets voted out players back in the game, and this one gave them advantages for when they did return. Just not fair. The Edge has gotten a ton of hate. Hopefully Jeff and CBS will listen and axe it. I get they wanted to do it to keep favorites "alive" this season, but it needs to be a thing of the past.
-I didn't hate the fire tokens. They added a unique layer of strategy to the game and didn't end up mattering too much. They definitely did not overshadow the game. It would be harder to implement them in a season with no Edge of Extinction, but I wouldn't be shocked or angry if they try it.
-I do wish we had more of a Survivor reunion. Luckily, they've been putting a ton of content on their YouTube page, including everyone from the finale reflecting on their game. You can check that all out here.
-As Jeff said, production on Seasons 41 and 42 are obviously delayed, but he was hopeful we can still get Survivor in the fall. I can't imagine not having Survivor on our screens for a year.
-I've been reading back on my season preview blog and seeing how my predictions fared. I did relatively well. Jeremy and Michele were my top winner picks. I had Tony ranked 11th and said:
"His target might be a little smaller this time around, but he'll still be viewed as one of the bigger threats. And I'm not sure that such a loud, reckless game can succeed in a season like this. He's mentioned that he knows he needs to play a more under-the-radar game this time, but can a tiger really change his stripes? I'll be rooting for my guy hard, but he's got a real tough road ahead of him."
Well, Tony did exactly that. He really did manage to change his stripes. He disarmed everyone early on building ladders and shark fishing, and then he kicked their asses later on.
-I went live on Twitter for an aftershow when the finale finished with Jeff D Lowe, Glenny Balls, and Jake Marsh. You can watch that here.
We actually had more people tune in than I thought. We might have to make that a consistent thing for future Survivor seasons whenever we get them.
-Lastly, just want to thank everyone who's followed my coverage all season along. I love this show much, and I love getting to talk about it. I'm happy to help give Survivor the shine it deserves. I love getting tweets from you guys saying that I got you back into the show and that you're loving it. It really is an incredible show. If you want to get more into it, I suggest following this quarantine binge guide I wrote a couple months ago.
-I plan to continue bringing some sort of Survivor coverage to you guys as we wait for our next season, I just haven't decided how yet. Maybe an old season rewatch, writing my own season, or getting some kind of quarantine season going, I'm exploring all options to see what will work best.
-Lastly, please buy a t-shirt.
I can't wait to win Season 43.