Thanks for making it back, y’all!
Now that the meat of the finale has been processed- quite unlike Joe Del Campo’s- it’s time to get to the part I like best, talking about characters. As I did in the end of my pre-game assessments, I’m going to comparatively rank them as characters. For the most part, it was a very solid cast with only a couple of duds and jackasses. I consider it one of the better casts in Survivor history, and it competes with San Juan Del Sur for the best cast in modern Survivor.
Still, best to take the trash out first.
18th: Kyle Jason (6th Place)
This should shock about zero people who have spent more than eight seconds in my presence. Kyle is like… an anus car freshener. People seem to think it’s a functional product, but its function is making things reek with vague shittiness in the background. Some of the things you could use to describe Kyle you could describe others with. Scot’s also a douche, Nick also gives contrived, awful confessionals, and Anna also thinks she has the definition for playing the game. Still, Kyle has all of these at once, and all of these far worse.
Once Scot was gone, I think Kyle is revealed to be a Phillip-level narrator. Fake, overdramatic, unfunny confessionals, all laced with entitlement, bitterness, and ego. He has an overinflated opinion over an atrocity of a game he played, and that’s no improvement of the condescending, self-congratulatory sexism he showed early in the game. I think anyone who destroys supplies in Kaoh Rong after seeing someone nearly fucking die a week in is a villain at best, but he couples this with smugness in his abilities and a series of confessionals where he brags about how proud he is to hurt and torment people in his military and bounty hunter work- which, to be clear, his professions were never truly my problem with him, but how gleeful he is in his part to wreck lives. This makes his weak “daughter with autism” story feel less like a complex side to a negative person and more like the editors trying to excuse his nasty bullshit.
It is all just nasty-ass, with none of the natural fun brought into being a villain that I could at least give the excuse as being great TV. Kyle is nasty, and to top that off, no fun. I can’t stand him, and I won’t miss him. If I’m only in a handful of people who would have him in their bottom ten, I still stand by it. I cannot see myself as ever being swayed in this regard.
#17: Nick Maiorano (10th Place)
I liked him better when he didn’t exist. Giving him twenty-four-thousand confessionals at the merge was a huge mistake. He thinks he’s a hot, villainous character, but he has given me no reason to believe any part of his character is real. Okay, except for the douchebag way he talked to Michele like she was too stupid to write her own name. That, I believed.
#16: Anna Khait (13th Place)
Sometimes swaps are a grand mercy. Anna was a boring gamebot that the Cambodian deities had the good sense to shuttle out of the game by chance so the crazies and the idealists could play ball.
#15: Caleb Reynolds (15th Place)
Funny thing is I actually like Gondol. For me, it’s just that Caleb is more interesting for what happened to and around him than he is himself. On the surface he’s a decent Southern dude who’s good in the outdoors and gives a lot. However, Tai makes him better and bounces well off of him, and the medevac and health crisis that happened to and around him is some of Survivor’s most compelling shit to ever happen. Caleb himself, though, is quite overhyped in my opinion, and I feel like the audience praising him for not being as bigoted as he was in Big Brother is just embarrassing.
#14: Neal Gottleib (11th Place)
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I used to like Neal quite a lot, but it was always with caution. I’d seen his quite impressive stunts for gay rights before and during the season, and I really admired them, but there was always this under-the-surface fear that there was a good element of self-congratulatory behavior that masked some arrogance and subtle ignorance. I appreciate a good ally, but self-congratulatory allies bury their way under my skin and bug the hell out of me.
This is all to say, I appreciated Neal as a snarky supporting character with killer eyebrows who toed the line between natural and just composed enough. When he left, he left with a relatable story, and his medevac was quite sad in ways I don’t think were appreciated. Still, sometimes people can burn a good amount of goodwill late in the game for viewers, and Neal’s exit speech did it for me.
To be clear, I hate the twist and I feel for him that it happened, but Neal fired off a weak shot at the messenger that was condescending in ways Nick could only dream of, and by his own admission an “attempt” to be memorable on the way out. Even worse, he seems to scoff that anyone would even have the idea that his speech was problematic and could be taken as ignorant and condescending to the woman it was aimed at, which paints his very vocal, self-stylized stance with social justice as far more “warrior” than “advocate” which is not a good look on anyone. Therefore, he’s harder for me to enjoy now.
Also, since he seems to think (via his AMA) that the only people who could find the speech nasty or sexist are people who hide behind anonymous identities and/or are oversensitive, hi Neal, I’m Cameron Johnson, I’m a trans woman who asked you about how people perceived your speech, and needless to say your response and attitude are a giant disappointment. Nice to meet you.
#13: Darnell Hamilton (18th Place)
This is largely by default- there’s no one left in my opinion that was a true waste, but I wish that Darnell could have been utilized more to be the standout character he deserved to be. His early boot was tragic and a good indicator towards the bastardization that Kyle sees Survivor as, but his story was quite traditional. I would absolutely adore if Darnell returned and got to show the character and person that we all hoped for.
#12: Elizabeth Markham (16th Place)
In what factory do they assemble people like Liz? It’s kind of hilarious how robotic she came across as. Her overly verbose loquaciousness, her accidentally artificial emotion, and her innocent ego and overconfidence in her abilities made her a pretty great early boot and one of the more unique downfall characters, especially flanked by an absolute accident like Peter Baggenstos. I wouldn’t want to see her again, but she’s a standout humorous character.
#11: Julia Sokolowski (7th Place)
I’ve made it no secret that Julia has impressed me for someone in her age bracket, but truth be told I find the reaction to someone like Natalie Tenerelli more and more disgusting by the day. People invent new reasons to hate her and the things said about her are disgusting. I think I’d try and give credit to anyone her age for playing in a game besieged by what is often such a hateful fanbase, but I do really respect Julia for trying her best in a game where often your best is pre-determined for you by who you are.
She added a lot in the conflict mid-merge in what I think are the two best episodes. Her attempts to side with the sabotage dudes gave us a tragic situation where the split vote between the super idol trio was ruined and instead the women had to cut into themselves, and work miracles to save their games. Julia’s morph into a strategic villain was fun and unique for her archetype, and her final episode gave us the suitable downfall where her inability to be flexible contrasted greatly with Michele’s skill at weaving into the dominant alliance. Besides, she suggested murdering Tai’s pet as revenge- her, not Kyle or Scot or even Peter- like who the hell is this woman?
I will say she got frustratingly high on herself by the time jury rolled around. Her speech in favor of her best friend Michele is her condemning Michele for not being #strategical enough early on and for being too lucky when Julia had to have her ass saved numerous times before she became too much of a burden. Sure, she turns it around at the end, but she struck me as having an inflated self-opinion and too many similarities with the douchebros. Still, that’s more than I can say for many of her peers, and I appreciate that.
#10: Peter Baggenstos (12th Place)
I argue that some did “alpha dipshit” better than Peter, but only a select few- and almost no one less than Jason Siska did it more consistently. It’s hilarious that episodes one and two presented him as “in the right” only for episodes three through six to bury him so hard he ended the season on the opposite side of the Earth. It’s not like Peter didn’t keep handing them shovels, jackhammers, and the keys to an excavator. He was cocky, he was so image-obsessed, and every word out of his mouth was a downfall quote that it’s amazing he didn’t die from overdosing on stupid.
I mean, look at the people who demolished him. Debbie, Aubry, and Joe. Debbie, this crazy cat lady with a giant ego and and as many jobs as potential pets, absolutely stole and jerry-rigged his split vote plan against him. Then, Joe catches him trying to flip and intimidates him into submission despite being seventy-one and calm as hell. After Peter tries to fall back in line, Aubry throws him to the wolves with a legendary crossed-out vote that, while it hurt her, was a beautiful exclamation point to his list of embarrassing failures. The guy failed at Survivor with flying colors, and it was delicious.
#9: Alecia Holden (14th Place)
It probably isn’t really surprising that Alecia is sort of a self-absorbed asscanoe in real life, but it is disappointing. Still, you can suck and still not deserve the shit she got from Kyle and Scot. Her story arc from the easy first boot that was miraculously spared to surprising underdog to heroic defender who stood up for herself against the two douchebags was quite the emotional roller coaster. It’s no wonder that she was the first pre-merge boot to get the “March to Tribal” music used to celebrate the Cieras and Spencers of the world. Even though I approve of virtually nothing she says or does post-show, I admire her inability to take shit from people and her character was a lot of fun for the early stages.
#8: Michele Fitzgerald (Winner)
Again, Michele is not one of my favorite endgamers because of how rich the cast was by as early as the Final Nine. That doesn’t mean I love her any less- I think she’s fantastic. She isn’t as rich a character as her peers, and doesn’t have as much personal development as them, but I hold that every season with crazy, messy strategy needs someone simplistic, sneaky, and subtle to win to secure the cogs of the cuckoo clock. Michele’s beautiful, subtle strategy working in the face of absolute insanity makes her, to me, a satisfying winner and a great addition to the cast.
Scot pouring water on the fire? Give him the stink-eye like you feel silly for expecting more from him. Tai tries to throw you under the bus? Stand up for yourself while handing him more and more rope to hang himself with. Neal talks down to you on his way out? Shrug it off with an eye-roll and an unseen fuck-you that makes the macho jury swoon in their seats. Every time something crazy happened, Michele is the straight woman who visibly reacts in a way that ties the show down to Earth. I admire her as a player and she makes a fun season more fun with her presence.
#7: Joe Del Campo (5th Place)
What a lovable dude. Sometimes a little grumpy, often inflexible, but never closeminded and always classy. The guy provided a lot of good to the season as a supporting character. He helped develop Aubry’s character from in over her head to controversial leader he always supported. He provided laughs through his stubbornness and his challenge failures until his one what-the-actual-freaking-hell-y’all win that sealed his fate. And, dammit, I just admired the dude for his class and his support of the women. He stood by them with the super idol trio sabotaged camp, he didn’t condemn them for acting without him, he whooped the shit out of Kyle’s “no one’s playing the game” bullshit, and he left with kindness and respect, after playing on his own terms in a way that was never arrogant or judgmental- just how Joe Del Campo operates.
#6: Jennifer Lanzetti (17th Place)
Remember when I was so excited to see her play, insistent on her being a long-term badass who earns the love and respect of the audience? She was totally that, for 1.85 episodes… then at the end of her second one she destroys her game faster than anyone in show history and leaves that very night. Holy god, her implosion at the end of her term was glorious, even moreso when I divorced myself from my expectations from her. Embarrassing and hard to watch, sure, but fantastic TV. And that doesn’t change how she was the first bystander to point out what a dick the guys were, and anyone who goes through 36 hours of that goddamn bug deserves respect for their perseverence. It just so happens the badass Lanzetti season was sidelined by some otherworldly shit. What a god-tier pre-merger.
#5: Scot Pollard (8th Place)
I should loathe this guy more than I do. To be clear, I still don’t like him. I don’t approve of what he did, how he acted, or the behavior he showed. Still, I have to say… what a goddamn villain. Everything about Scot screams perfect antagonist. I mean, his physicality is perfect- seven foot tall baseball player whose knees go up to Aubry’s shoulder in Tribal, deep, deadpan, booming voice, and an assortment of wicked one-liners for any situation.
The guy shows more capability in Survivor than the average villain- he is outright scary with how he gets what he wants, post-swap especially. The lengths he’s willing to go to get his way are unnerving, and the way he treats and talks to people are unsettling. Still, I’d argue that the edit never excuses or tries to excuse his behavior, and it helps build him up as unstoppable. For awhile, I truly believed we would have to suffer through a season full of Scot- and the outside chance of him winning was scarily possible.
Then his downfall happened. It’s fantastic for so many reasons. One, because for all intents and purposes he does succeed in his evil deeds for so long. He ran To Tang, he dictated the swap, and the dark moves he makes after Nick’s gone sends the girls into fragments for awhile. Not only that, but he enters the final eight with a near guaranteed super idol that absolutely negates a vote-out, four numbers on his side, and a near zero percent chance of success. Hell, if he wanted to, he and Tai could both play idols normally with how they were attracting votes to themselves, then he’s in the final seven without Aubry and with a lot of power.
Then… he got greedy. He tried to save the idols by psyching the women out again. He dictated to Tai what he had to do, when Tai entered the alliance under the premise that he was equal, a friend just as tight as Scot’s day one ally. Then, at Tribal Council… he just wasn’t anymore. Tai being the one to deny him the guaranteed save, breaking a tight friendship made during the swap that almost made Scot likable, almost redeemed him, because it turned out Scot didn’t treat Tai with the respect Tai thought he would, that he expected Tai to break his morals for little in return… that’s a fantastic downfall in so many ways. It’s a top tier Survivor moment- I would easily put it in my top five moments in Survivor History, and it wouldn’t have been amazing if Scot hadn’t been built up not only as a villain, but an intimidating, capable one.
I feel like it’s weird to be a recapper on a site that promised appreciation and focus on characters often disregarded and also rank Scot Pollard, villainous NBA player, as high as #5 over the goddamn winner, but I stand by it. He’s an unapprovable jackwagon, but he makes the season better, and makes the accomplishments of all of the people I do like that much more amazing- whether that’s what he wanted or not.
#4: Aubry Bracco (Runner-Up)
I need a little bit of time, yo. The pro-Aubry, anti-Michele sentiment is too much even for me, and it’s been exhausting to have to talk down Aubry’s game just to drive in that every winner deserves to win for Christ’s sake. I thought no one would be as big an Aubry stan as I this season- even I was starting to concern myself with how big a fan I was of someone whose prominence didn’t kick off until late merge. However, as much as I believe Aubry didn’t deserve to win (cause… like, did she win a Survivor, Jean-Robert?) I still love her as a character and I see myself in her to a comforting degree- including and up to her not winning a jury vote because of the weaknesses her neuroses exposed in her, sad as that may be.
Still, I’d be lying if I said Aubry wasn’t impressive. For someone self-professed to be averse to making decisions, Aubry took the reins when she needed to and guided the season to the best of her abilities. It wasn’t always perfect- she cut close friends and didn’t remove the threats at the right time- but for a runner up I feel she was closer to winning than one might think. She earned the respect of her mentors, but not only that, her mentors were willing to see her as their new leader. When the odds were against her, she rallied in some remarkable ways, not the least of which was destroying a near-guaranteed super idol simply through the power of friendship. She wasn’t as strong a social player as Michele in general, but there are few things that will ever impress me as her turning Tai into a ride-or-die ally and saving herself from some impossible situations through it.
Aubry’s story is interesting in that it feels incomplete, for better or worse. She became a leader, and a good one at that, when it seemed like she could never do that. However, she wasn’t a great enough leader just yet to finish the job- good enough to show some admirable qualities and win some unlikely people over, but flawed enough to make some critical errors and lose the faith of others. Joe told her that he wants her to keep the faith in herself to make decisions like she did in-game, and I think that’s where the future of her story is- behind the curtain, as most takeaways from experiences like this are. I’d be interested in seeing if her story continues and progresses in a returnee season, whether like Parvati or like Shirin has yet to be seen. Still, not everyone gets the perfect ending, but no one leaves with nothing. Aubry is proof of that, and I have faith in her that she’s got nowhere to go but up.
#3: Cydney Gillon (4th Place)
Straight up, I just like everything about Cydney. I love her surface level of on-the-fly lightning wit, visible strength, composition, and intelligence. I love how just below the surface you can see what made her in a way that’s both subtler yet more clear than most. Things like the Ivy League graduate dictating her cases for her in ways far calmer and more intelligently than her brash body-building and quick-talking would indicate, and how you can see both the education and the home that made her in her behavior.
I’m thrilled that Cydney has gotten a lot of respect from the fanbase, especially thrilled that she wasn’t like the Female Misogynist she presented herself as pre-game (and in fact made friends with the neurotic geek warrior and gave her jury vote to a small bartender from the beauty tribe), and thrilled more than anything that she was on this season, and we got a figure like her for the fanbase. I adore her and I’m glad she’s part of the canon now.
#2: Debbie Wanner (9th Place)
Debbie had capacity to be horrendously awful. I was half-prepared for Phillip 3.0 from her. She was just kooky enough and alarmingly self-aware that the potential to be scripted was there. Instead, we got a character who managed to be both self-absorbed yet incredibly kind, both intensely flawed yet a positive for so many, very comedic and very tragic.
I’ve argued before that Debbie strives to bring out the best in other people, which may in fact be a strength informed by her flaw of being too self-aggrandizing. I get the sense that she’s all about helping others appreciate themselves as much as she appreciates herself, which might not be possible by human beings but is at least a better sentiment than most cocky people could have. Just watch her in the season between her kooky moments and her fifty-five jobs. Her interactions with everyone is almost entirely positive, even when it’s negative. Even when she finds Peter and Liz absolutely cocky, she wishes Liz good luck and tries to comfort Peter after the fact. For those she does have faith in, she praises their strengths and pulls them out of their weaknesses.
Her final episode is fantastic for this story. When the super idol trio starts wrecking camp, she absolutely refuses to back down or be intimidated, and her downfall comes at the expense of having too much faith in Julia, who betrays her with the other women who hope to avoid being the victims of a super idol. Debbie, perhaps the most vocal feminist, the mother hen to all of the remaining women, is sacrificed by them in the goal she stated that a woman wins the season, all because she refused to lose faith in someone who never earned it. It’s tragic, yet it sets up the downfall of Scot even more dramatically.
This attitude continues to the jury- she is only barely harsh on Tai, and despite not voting for Aubry, still praises her despite the betrayal Aubry made (and was just as complimentary of Michele off-screen). This is a good attitude that, along with Cydney’s vote for Michele, dispels the idea that Aubry lost because bitter juries are Satan- two people who liked Aubry just thought Michele was better enough at Survivor to win their votes.
Of course, there’s the fact that for the most part, a few forced lines aside, Debbie is quite funny. She has fantastic comedic timing, brass balls in the things she says, and the unintentional comedy is rife but generally natural. Not only that, but she brings out the funniest in the editors. The constantly changing Chyrons for her professions was fantastic comedy, as well as them dropping easter eggs to the trouble Debbie’s gotten herself into in real life (namely, her bragging about her ability to determine clean water when she got busted for fraud about how clean water was). Tie all of this together, and in my opinion she’s one of the most fascinating characters on Survivor history in so many regards.
#1: Tai Trang (Second Runner-Up)
Tai’s existence in Survivor is a series of little miracles. How did someone like Tai get lucky enough to make it past the beginning, get an idol, make the merge, make the finals, yet despite being a human treasure, play so badly he got zero votes? Even crazier, how does it manage to all come together into such a complex, complete character?
Tai making the end but losing the jury vote completes him as a unique character for me. It makes more sense than Dawn Meehan, who was given an artificial duality between “loving Mormon adoptive mother” and “strategic wicked hellbitch”. We see Tai lose the jury’s goodwill by playing in spite of his positive qualities, which would be enough to win many jury votes if they were on their own. However, someone along the way seemed to have told Tai that big moves are how you win Survivor (can’t imagine who that could be) and because Tai littered a world-class survival and social game with massive strategic misfires that often worked in spite of himself, he lost the respect of many of the friends he made as a player.
Still, to argue Tai is not a lovely person would be a disservice. Tai is genuinely a sweetheart. It’s clear to see why his personality would cause bizarre auteurs to give him thousands of dollars. He’s good to animals, has a respect for nature, tolerance and love for all sorts of different personalities, and the weaknesses he does have all tie into who he is at the center. When he says he has trouble trusting people he doesn’t have the right chemistry with, I can see the parts of his life (being an immigrant, being gay, being presumably Buddhist if F10 was anything to go on) that form that distrust. It doesn’t justify his mistakes or his accidentally rude treatment of people like Michele, but it fills in the blanks as a character.
Most importantly, Tai gives his all, and because his all is so intensely personal, emotional, and tied into who he is, that it brings a gravitas to Survivor, an epic intensity, that has been lacking since as far back as Palau. Tai is so invested that I feel like we get invested on his behalf, and because of that he creates intense, powerful moments. He sells the Scot downfall as much as anyone, his immunity win against Cydney was the kind of stuff even Rupert couldn’t make that epic, and his heartbreaking final speech at the end was the most powerful closing statement since Twila. Tai might not have said more than five words this season that he didn’t mean, and it gave so much to the season.
It’s hard to talk about Tai without getting repetitive because so much of the reaction he inspires from me is guttural, emotional, in ways I can’t quite explain. He makes Survivor matter in an era where it genuinely feels like he doesn’t, and what good fortune that he’s cast in a season already so intense and tragic. He’s probably the biggest fan favorite in years, surpassing what Joe, Malcolm, even Hantz could dream of, and for once it’s easy to see why. Tai is, in my opinion, a god-tier character, and I’m grateful he was on this season. He gets an intro shot for life as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- thank all the deities on Earth that I was granted the ability from RTV Warriors to not only recap Survivor, but start with this season. The last few months for myself personally have been times of sickness and of vast change and at times of emergency, but having this to anchor me, both the season and the position here, was a fantastic anchor. It’s one of the few places where I really feel the proof that my voice matters. I’ve enjoyed writing for y’all and I’m grateful that people have read it.
Now, at the end of this season, we begin the next. I’m excited to see what my next challenge i-