Well that sure was a finale.
The ending of Kaoh Rong has sparked a lot of discussion, fire, and an unfortunate amount of vitriol. While a lot of things went right for this season, in the eyes of the common viewer, a lot went wrong as well. It’s been quite a long time since a winner was this reviled- go figure it’s the social, under the radar female player that again invokes the rage of people who pretend they know better. Not to mention, there was a twist that many people, myself included, found absolutely abysmal.
The finale is hard to talk about without talking about the characters, so I plan to end this season the same way I started- ranking the characters and summarizing what I love about their stories now that we’ve been through the season with them. Still, I can’t pretend there’s not a decent amount to talk about with the finale. The three standout subjects of discussion were the Final 4 vote, the stupid goddamn twist, and Michele winning.
(I also considered writing a bit about the Sia appearance at the reunion, but I don’t need a full page worth of lolololwtf repeated over and over.)
As is typical in modern Survivor, the Final Tribal Council is absolutely negligible with no standout speeches- Scot makes a bit of a jackass out of himself, Nick utterly wastes our time for the last possible few seconds that he can, and Julia gets high off of herself a little too much. While the challenges were fun and I actually quite like Final Immunity Challenges that are great intimidating courses and mazes, these weren’t too standout. In between all that, there was more gamebottery in these two hours than there was in the entire rest of the season, merge episode included, which ultimately made the finale a bit of a slog. Still, we got three standout moments of discussion- some good, some bad, and some that have gotten way too ugly.
From the moment Greg Buis left the game fake-crying while everyone laughed at his antics, the jury has been the most important staple of the game. It’s the one twist that never changes. To win the game, there are two non-negotiable steps: survive until Day 39 and/or 39.5 and/or 42, and once you’re there, however many jurors you’ve helped put on the jury will decide who they want to win. If you want that person to be you, you have to win them over.
It doesn’t matter who they are, how asinine their attitude is, or what they want from you. You want a million dollars? Get them to vote for you. If they say two plus two is fish, get to fishing. If they’re rife with double standards, toe the line. Anything that you can do to win at least a majority of the jurors over (or with the stupid Final 3, a plurality) you need to try.
Thirty-one unique individuals have done this and in my opinion the jury is what made Survivor what it is. It’s infallible law by fallible people, bringing the human element full circle and giving consequence to people’s actions. If you understand the game, you’ve got to learn to understand that. From day one, Survivor was based off of human reaction and the flaws and perks of being human. It was never designed to be mechanically perfect like so many fans seem to want these days. They’re not Product Testers for the acceptable winner to the audience. They’re seven to ten human beings who have been dicked around or dicked over by a brutal game and just want to get a little closure by having power over the outcome.
I bring all this up because apparently Survivor has decided that the jury, the one thing that makes Survivor notable, needs some fixing. And I mean fixing in the worst possible way. To many, the twist presented in the finale, the jury member removal twist, is crappy but minor. For me, even if it is ultimately minor, it is really bad candor from production.
Ever since the days of Russell Hantz (which, coincidentally, is when production came up with the idea, go the hell figure) the jury system has been rife with attacks and condemnations for essentially being what it always was but this time against a production favorite strategist male and for a quiet, social Southern Belle. Essentially, when the fans got their way the jury was fine, when they didn’t, it was bullshit. Production took what Russell gave them (overzealous, overplaying big moves, overcompensating strategy, and a horrible social game and attitude) and made it the new law of the land, pushing an agenda of big moves, “deserving” winners, and explosive gameplay as the only way Survivor can be played. They used people like Rob, Tony, Ciera, and Kim for these purposes, simplifying a complicated, human game into one robots could play and get praise for.
Now, production fuels the anti-autonomy argument against jurors by adding a twist where if you don’t like what a juror is going to want from you, you can simply- poof!- remove them, wasting their time and taking their choice away from them because they aren’t doing what you want. That is a weak twist that undermines the game and is, in my opinion, an attempt to make jurors conformative to what production and the audience wants. Once the juror is out, they should not have to play Survivor still, and they certainly should not be the last boot. In no sane world should the final boot of a season be the 11th placer.
Even worse, this twist could have diminishing returns in future seasons. When future jurors make their human preferences even remotely clear, the twist could essentially badger them into keeping silent and conformed, lest they get voted off the jury for having their own opinions. Whether it’s there or not, it forces contestants into silence and indifference, and that quite frankly is bad TV. When a twist prevents people from emoting or causing conflict or drama, it is bad TV. It’s the same problem with dividing Cook Islands up by race- it puts a spotlight on the contestant and makes them more responsible to behave and stifle themselves, which makes the final product much more boring and much less relatable.
Ultimately, however, all of this is small potatoes to the fact that this twist is the start of production screwing with the jury structure- the one thing that makes Survivor unique and ultimately fair to anyone trying to win, and until recent seasons not just certain demographics. It’s the foot in the door to make the jury fit the audience’s expectations, when in reality Survivor is an emotional and moral challenge to its contestants and should be no less to the audience. The audience has had a problem lately with empathy towards contestants and players who don’t see Survivor how they do. If CBS wants to maintain a show with human qualities, realistic drama, and a central social experiment that they promised in Borneo, they leave the jury alone. Now, it feels like Survivor is succeeding in seasons like Kaoh Rong in spite of itself.
On a more positive note, the good elements of the finale were anchored by a surprise firemaking challenge. In some ways, this one was probably the most low-key fire challenge. It wasn’t predicted too much, but also wasn’t too shocking. The firemaking itself was relatively quiet and somewhat predictable in a way production couldn’t exactly fudge. Still, there were many reasons I loved it- not the least of which because of the two people competing in it.
From the post-merge on, Cydney and Aubry were presented as a tight pair. Though from two different walks of life, the similarities were rife. Despite Cydney being a bodybuilder from the cities of Georgia, one who attended public school and came from a background with less money (if the things her parents struggle with serve as any indication), and Aubry being an East Coast quirky nerd type who worked in Social Media correspondence and had some visible neuroses, the two of them were both highly educated women with a firm grasp on the game, similar social grace, and inner strength they cultivated that in many situations they wouldn’t get credit for. Because of this, the two played together and off of each other quite well, until they were far enough that they viewed each other as threats for similar reasons and went on the attack- a battle with respect and humility in an era rife with competitive cruelty and ego, but a battle nonetheless.
All of this culminated in a tie caused by each side’s secret weapons. Because Michele had been saved by Cydney’s campaigning before, she happily assisted Cydney in forcing a tie- even if you could debate whether or not it was in her best interest to aid Cydney. Tai, however, formed a tight bond with Aubry for more emotional similarities compared to Aubry’s mental similarities with Cydney. From Episode ten, in the face of the Super Idol, Tai bonded with Aubry for their same emotional struggles and perseverance in the face of them, and Tai began to make decisions with these bonds in mind. For the second time, he saved Aubry by forcing a tie rather than flipping on her. Thus, the firemaking tie went into effect.
Ultimately, Cydney rarely got so much as a spark. Her downfall at the hands of Aubry had admittedly more than a touch of hubris in it. The mistake made was not considering that Tai might play with his heart more than his head, and unfortunately her ally Michele didn’t expect it either (as far as we know). Thus, Cydney had little firemaking practice (as she didn’t step in to build the fire even as Alecia took five hours on it) while Aubry had at least some. The road wouldn’t be easy for Aubry, however, as she would find herself building two fires. The first, mere millimeters from burning the rope, receded and died out in record time, to her horror. Still, progress, failure, and progress was still more momentum than Cydney could hope for, as Aubry built two towering flames before Cydney could even get more than sparks.
Still, despite the two going on the attack against each other, their departure was with absolute grace and emotional weight. Before Cydney left, they shared one last embrace, Aubry crying with remorse and exhaustion, and Cydney insisting “It’s all love.” Cydney had a lot to play for- a family with financial struggles she wanted to repay, family members we would find represented every personal strength Cydney displayed or strived for. Still, even through her tears, she exited with absolute grace and, against the odds, became a revered Survivor legend in her own right.
Sending People into Fitz
You might have noticed my stance on juries and the nature of winning Survivor by now. To be completely honest I was tempted to copy and paste my pro-jury argument from two sections ago into this one, like Lemony Snicket explaining deja vu. Still, I don’t want to send you all through too many words and confusion, like Lemony Snicket explaining deja vu. Needless to say, my opinions all stand, and if my opinion on juries and victories stand, I will absolutely be defending Michele as a winner. She wasn’t my first choice- to be honest though I respected her as a person and character she was easily my last preference by default of a stunning Final 4- but she’s the choice we got, and I respect that.
To be honest, and I’ll get more into this with the cast ranking, Michele is someone I respect more as a character knowing she’s won than I would as an entity otherwise, similar to Vecepia. In an era where five of the last six winners were complex, strategic men (with the one woman being also complex and strategic) the era of big moves was easy to cultivate. Michele flew in the face of that with some Danni-class social gameplay and only sporadically relied on heavy shifts- namely, being on board to stomp the shit out of one Nick Maiorano.
Michele shielded herself from Tribal Councils in the merge that she hypothetically would have had to face with multiple strong bonds, born out of people either appreciating her or underestimating her. She strikes a deal with the Beauty Women that binds them together as an unbreakable shield, but come swap she plays scared little missus with a condescending Nick who finds Michele perfect to guide around like a little sheeple (until the first vote Michele cast sends Nick out on his ass like a two-timing little mister).
Come merge, I would reckon Michele is probably the biggest social threat and biggest jury threat remaining. Everyone else is either odd and hard to stomach by potential jurors, outright unlikable and rude, or they ruin their social capital by overplaying. It’s amazing that she was one of the last two to get votes against her, it’s amazing that she was only targeted at all late-game, and it’s especially amazing that when she was targeted she had friends willing to save her- at the cost of their own game. If she goes at Final Six, Kyle is in the Final Four instead. As much as that makes me want to puke my spleen out, I still hold that he gets two votes at most, and the game is locked for one of Aubry or Cydney. Instead, they go to great lengths to keep Michele, and she responds by winning.
She stayed low when she needed to, took every step, small or large, she needed to get within spitting distance of the end, and when all else fails, she beat two Ivy League students coming in on a full stomach, one an actual bodybuilder, in the final immunity challenge with possibly the most cruel puzzle ever. She knew that to play each avenue right sometimes it was small adjustments, not big transformations, that got her ahead. Swearing loyalty to Cyd/Aubry by cutting Julia loose in the Final Seven gets her through the Final Six because Cydney saw her as loyal.
By the time she gets to the end, she’s so unlikely a finalist yet so subtle and respectable a player and so close and honest a friend that she snags five jury votes to Aubry’s two, in a season where Aubry probably beats most other people. Hell, she even snagged two of Aubry’s friends- Cydney and Debbie- despite neither having any bad feelings against Aubry like the three men did, because Michele simply made tighter, more loyal bonds with them.
Even if she did win by a bitter jury… pardon me, but why is that a problem now? People always speak of the “bitter jury” like a boogeyman, but I guarantee you many of your favorite winners won by bitter jurors. Cochran, because people were bitter against Dawn, Chris because people were bitter against Twila, Tom against Katie, Tony against Woo, the list is a mile long. You got your way before because of bitter jurors. Don’t cry foul now.
Really, though, I don’t feel like all of this justification is necessary. The fact of the matter is, the winner of the season fulfilled the criteria of Survivor needed to win. Whether you’re Kim or Sandra, or Mike or Bob, you fulfilled the criteria. The criteria was never “make big moves”, “have strategic control”, “win x challenges”, “say blindside and idols a lot” or “be x demographic”. It was, from episode one, get to the end and win the jury vote. Everything to do that is up to interpretation, and making it uniform is simply a false dilemma presented by modern seasons. Michele made it to the end and she won the jury vote. If that’s not cool with you, it quite frankly doesn’t matter. She did it.
Okay, I lied. The cast ranking is so massive that it’s going to be its own article. Hope to see you there!