I admit it: I was dead wrong. And glad of it. More about which later.
When last seen on Thursday, the remaining Survivors had just sent a shocked Grant to Redemption Island. Returning to camp, Rob feels bad, but knows it had to be done. Grant was a genuine threat to win the remaining challenges, and would be a formidable opponent at a final tribal showdown.
The next morning on Redemption, as soon as the Prayer Breakfast is over, it’s time for the final Redemption challenge. I can’t help thinking Matt, with his stringy blond hair, black knee socks and chartreuse plaid bermuda shorts, looks like the offspring of a 60’s hippie and a 60-year-old cruise-ship shuffleboarder.
BALANCE OF POWER
Grant, Andrea, Mike (who’s won the last three of these) and Matt (who’s survived ten previous duels) have one last battle to see who returns to the game and gets the shot at the million. Each will have to balance a see-saw board with their foot to keep a ceramic vase on the other end from falling off. I’m thinking this is going to be a slam-dunk for Grant, the NFL pro turned yoga instructor. Isn’t that what yoga people do: stand stork-legged and meditate? After an hour, all four are still in the challenge. I honestly cannot imagine how, after over a month sleeping on bamboo, surviving on near-starvation rations of rice, they find the stamina. Much to his chagrin, Grant is the first to lose his balance. Matt falls out soon after. Mike grits it out for a while longer, but in the end, Andrea outlasts all three guys for the chance to get back in the game. The jury welcomes its fifth, six, and seventh members. Two to go and we’ll have the jury-box filled.
Andrea is greeted by her old tribemates with some awkward hugs. Back at camp, things aren’t much warmer. She knows she’s still on the outs, but she goes for her best shot: trying to convince Ashley and Natalie that this is their chance for a real power play, to take out Rob. Natalie’s response is very Scarlett O’Hara “Let’s just try to have a relaxing day and worry about that tomorrow.” Shouldn’t be a problem, Natalie and Ashley have proved themselves Olympic-caliber relaxers.
BETTER SAFE THAN SORRY
The penultimate challenge set-up is one of the easiest yet. Each competitor must run across a balance beam, collect bags of puzzle pieces and align numbers from 1 to 100. For some reason, the pieces aren’t even mixed up: the first bag contains 1-10, the second 20-40, etc. Andrea, Ashley and Rob are close, but Ashley gets her matrix finished first. That throws a wrench into Rob’s plans to get rid of Ashley next. Will she suspect and try to turn the tables?
The answer is a resounding “No.” Despite Andrea’s best efforts to sway the girls, even making up reports from Redemption that the outcasts have no respect for the girls and are saying they’ll vote for Phillip over them, Natalie and Ashley remain noncommital. Rob (to the camera) laughingly threatens to gamble and not to use the idol, even though this tribal is the last time it can be played.
At tribal, Andrea continues her efforts try to sway Natalie and Ashley, but they stick with Rob. Of course, he’s not so foolish as to risk not playing the idol, grinning as he hands it to Jeff with, “My mother always told me it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
At the time, it seemed foolish to me that Natalie and Ashley wouldn’t even consider Andrea’s suggestion that they band together and vote out Rob, but they revealed at the reunion show that Rob had shared with them right after the merge that he had the idol. They knew he’d be playing it, so votes against him would be useless. This is not to say that they couldn’t have made a blindside move against him earlier, but that would have entailed a huge risk. Grant and Phillip were extremely loyal to Rob, and the buddy system he instituted made it nearly impossible for more than two people to plot against him. Since Rob had gone to such lengths to keep the idol secret from Grant earlier (remember the switching of the clues), I doubt Grant had any inkling Rob had the idol. And certainly Rob would never have taken the risk of sharing that knowledge with a loose cannon like Phillip, who might have blabbed, either accidentally or on purpose.
Ashley’s return to the game is short-lived: she’s torch-extinguished and sent to join the jury.
It’s Day 38. And that means: March of the Fallen Comrades. You know, where the final four trudge along the cliff-top, collecting shields with the names of all the outcasts, saying insincere nice things about each before burning them in a bonfire. Since there are only Ometepes left in the game, it’s going to be tough to think of anything to say about all the Zapaterans ousted before the merge.
We’re not going to have a parade? It’s tradition! We can’t pick a winner without having the funeral pyre for the dear departed. Even though we weren’t privileged to share in this emotional rite, turns out they did have it: there just wasn’t time to show it in the final episode. I would so like to know what was said about the Troll’s humiliating early ejection.
The final challenge, which guarantees the winner a spot in the Final Three and a chance to convince the jury he or she is worthy of the million dollars, is a major toughie. The Survivors will have to race through a giant maze, collect four bags of puzzle pieces, race to the top of a pyramid and unscramble the letters on multi-faceted puzzle pieces to form a four-word phrase.
Rob races off to a head start, with Ashley following frantically following his every twist and turn. Phillip and Natalie are wandering around in a daze. They might as well be trying to tune in to GPS directions from outer space. Or maybe just Phillip’s great great gramps. Has there been a challenge in which Natalie hasn’t finished dead last?
Rob gets all his puzzle bags just moments ahead of Ashley and each begins trying to decipher the puzzle, each claiming to the other that they don’t yet “have anything.” Rob even suggests to Ashley that they collaborate. Yeah, right after hell freezes over, that’ll happen. Ashley almost immediately gets two of the words, “saved” and “only” and I’m thinking Rob is a goner. But somehow, that inner Mariano puzzle-master kicks in and he puts it together: “Only you are saved.” Prophetic. Rob, in the end, has saved himself. He’s so relieved (and no doubt emotionally exhausted) he starts to cry, but tough guy that he is, quickly gains control over his emotions and starts to beam. After ten years, he’s so close, so very close. Natalie, who still hasn’t found the first bag of puzzle pieces, runs up the steps to congratulate Rob. She’s crying, too, bless her heart.
FOUR TO THREE AND THEN HOME FREE
Back at camp, Rob faces a tough task: he has to order Natalie to vote off her bestie, Ashley. He waits til he and Natalie are out gathering firewood to break the news. Natalie is heartbroken, “I’d rather lose this game than lose a friend in Ashley,” but not so heartbroken she’d risk Rob’s anger if she joined Ashley in voting for Phillip. Once again we see Rob’s brilliantly thought-out strategy: he knows of all the people on his tribe, the two he most wants to be sitting with at final tribal are Natalie and Phillip. Natalie has been his little shadow for 38 days and Phillip has acted both insane and obnoxious. Ashley, though she’s been useless at camp, making zero contributions, has won several individual challenges and might have an argument to make to the jury, particularly to the Zapaterans who resent Rob’s dominance. As for Ashley, she still feels confident that Rob will be taking both her and Natalie along with him to the finals. Some people never learn…
There’s not much to be said at tribal council and Ashley is dispatched with very little fanfare. Looking on the bright side, she doesn’t have to go to Redemption, she’ll move directly to Ponderosa where they have hot water and eyebrow tweezers and hair products and all those other pageanty things the former Miss Maine has been deprived of for seven and a half weeks.
THE FINAL TRIAL AND TRIBULATION
Day 39 brings the champagne and orange juice, bacon and eggs, croissant and coffee breakfast. After dining leisurely, Rob suggests they paint the reverse side of the Murlonio flag back to Ometepe colors. And then the unthinkable happens. Phillip wanders up to the campfire, grasping in his fingers those vile pink panties that have been damaging our eyesight all season. Dropping them into the flames, he admits, “I have not been proud to wear plum colored underpants in front of millions of people.” It’s one of those times I’m so happy my television doesn’t have smell-o-vision. Even imagining it is disgusting.
Everyone’s planning their speeches for the evening’s final tribal. Natalie’s nervous. Rob tells her not to apologize for the way she’s played. Phillip announces he’s going to let the jury have it, “rub salt in their wounds for the way I got here.” Phillip also plans to boast about having had the constant advice and counsel of “somebody who died in 1870, my great grandfather Hallem.” You may also recall that great grampa is responsible for the bird feathers sprouting from Phillip’s noggin. Phillip completes his native-American ensemble by swathing hiself in a bright red trading-post blanket.
Rob has to be extremely tense over what to say to the jury and what they’ll be asking him. He knows how often in this game the jury is bitter, feels betrayed, and is unwilling to vote the money to the person whom they blame for their own downfall.
The jury arrives: David, Julie, Steve, Ralph, Mike, Matt, Grant, Andrea and Ashley. Jeff gives the finalists a chance to make an opening statement. Both Phillip and Natalie more or less praise Rob in theirs, admitting that they wouldn’t be sitting there without his help and protection. Rob uses his time effectively, expressing respect for the jury, suggesting that he might have had to play a different game if he’d been on the Zapatera tribe (when in doubt, flatterery is always a good choice to make).
I think it’s a fair assessment that every single member of the jury but David has an axe to grind. Julie is downright nasty, telling all three they’re terrible people and she’s sure Natalie’s parents are wanting to disown her for her behavior. Natalie is obviously hurt, but Rob whispers to her “Don’t worry, in a few minutes they’ll be all smiles.”
DO YOU LIKE ME?
Ralph is really bent out of shape and bitter. Pitifully, he addresses Phillip, “Phillip, do you like me?” Phillip practically falls over himself assuring Ralph that yes, indeed, he thinks he’s just the finest of fellows, what with all Ralph’s hard work around camp and all. Ralph is so pleased to have a friend, he later casts his important vote for his friend “PHILE.”
Steve are Julie are both very harsh towards Phillip, telling him he’s crazy and annoying and nobody wanted to have to be in camp with him.
Ashley is also determined to finally have her say to Phillip, but when she tells him to stop talking so she can, he has one of his vicious temper fits and starts yelling over her. Probst has to settle him down.
Grant of course wants Rob to explain why he blindsided him, and Rob says exactly the right thing (which is also the truth): that Grant was too strong a player and too well liked by the jury to risk having him in the final.
Mike gives the three finalists a chance to say how being in the game has bettered their lives. Natalie claims to represent her “generation,” which I’m sure sent every sociologist in America spinning in their Aero-chairs. Phillip brings up being the stealth-mode specialist again and Rob speaks lovingly about playing for Amber and his family.
David gets the last word, and his speech is to the jury. He points out how brilliantly Rob has played and tells them Rob is the only possible person deserving of the prize. I thought he was particularly perceptive in noting that in taking out Matt twice, Rob had sent a message to everyone in his alliance that straying from his plan would lead to their own doom. I like David: I hope he gets to play again.
After everyone has written a name and dropped it into the skull-decorated vote pot, Jeff announces he’ll see them in New York at the reunion. Nine months pass, and here we all are, in the David Letterman studio at CBS, transformed to tribal council ambiance. Let’s get to it. First vote Rob, then Ralph’s “Phile” vote, then four more for Rob and it’s all over. The Robfather has won a hard-fought and exceptionally deserved victory. Rob rushes into the audience to hug Amber and their two darling daughters. It’s taken him 4 seasons, ten years and 117 days but Boston Rob has won Survivor! And guess what! Later on in the reunion show, we find out he’s also won the Sprint hundred thousand dollars for “player of the game,” voted by the viewers.
Oh, and for those of you who might not have read some of Rob’s post-show interviews, he kept the secret from Amber ‘til the night of the reunion. He let her think he’d been voted out at four—she only realized when they were in the green room watching the finale that he’d made it to the top three. He said he really wanted to surprise her. He also in all in all the interviews I’ve read talked about how much luck is involved, but yet also so much work keeping your alliance members loyal and strong. Andrea at the reunion show particularly said that one of the things not really shown adequately on the show was how much time Rob spent individually with people getting to know them and be friends with them.
I was so convinced that Rob would get really close to the end and get knocked out. I couldn’t be more delighted that I was wrong. I was holding my breath all during that final challenge: that one he absolutely had to win! Probst said at the reunion that Rob played as close to a perfect game as he’d ever seen in 22 seasons of Survivor. I have to agree with him. Rob was awesome. And what made me root for him was that as hard as he was playing, he stayed cheerful and good-natured. And no one has ever been as entertaining in narrating what was going on in the game.
Finally, I hope all of you felt as much wicked enjoyment as I, watching Russell Hantz at the reunion, hunched down and glowering, in the back row of the bleachers while Rob got praised to the sky! Karma Karma Karma. Russell tried to get Jeff to make Zapatera explain why they’d throw a challenge just to get rid of him. No way was Jeff going there: I’ve read interviews with at least four of the Zapaterans who said they had no choice but to get rid of Russell, that he did nothing but sit around camp boasting about how much money he’d made from Survivor and would never have to work again and how many famous people were his “fans” and that he “ate twice as much as anyone else.” I’m sure he was well-compensated for this season and I’m sure they’ll have him back to Hayantz around again, but one thing is for sure: he’ll never be able to call himself “best player ever.” Not even close.
Thanks for joining us here at Fort this season! Sounds like 23 is going to be Survivor Groundhog Day: they’re going back to American Samoa (though calling it “South Pacific”, including Redemption Island for the rejects again (groannnnnn), and bringing back two former cast members to join the sixteen new ones. If God and Matt’s entertainment agent can agree on terms, I’m betting he’ll be turning up again. I get the distinct impression he wants another shot!
‘Til September, then, Survivor fans, “The tribe has spoken!”