Throughout the season, we saw Jason and Scot team up in a whirlwind of testosterone, brashness, and impulsivity to spin a hurricane of randomness into an otherwise deeply strategic game. When they were separated for a portion of the game, each of them became more quiet, thoughtful people; however, when they were together they decided on a “strategy” of chaos and intentional cockiness that might have in some ways kept them in the game longer than they would have been otherwise, but ultimately lost them any chance at winning the million.
For a game I deeply love, this is the real flaw: it’s usually a game which balances itself and this round, I don’t feel like it did. We’ve seen these types of bullying, brash players backstab their way into a seat at the final tribal council (Russel Hantz, anyone?), but then the goodhearted people who they voted out award the money to someone who played a more respectable or strategic game at the end of the road. That’s why the jury exists. That’s the heart of this game. What this checks and balances system doesn’t as well account for is what happens when these brash, salty people get deep enough into the game to end up on the jury looking for a reason to root for whoever they consider to be the underdog, whether being the underdog came from playing a calculating yet quiet game or resting on social skills and playing it safe. Some will shrug their shoulders and say "hey, that's the way it goes" and it's true--it makes sense that the same human factor responsible for balancing a jury could just as easily introduce a wild card difficult to account for, but it's frustrating. It's hard to see a great season end in such a flameout.
In my opinion, we saw this season ultimately come down to the social butterfly buoyed by lots of luck and recency bias win out over the brainiac nerd who managed to bounce back from setback after setback, grow as a person as she was pushed outside of her comfort zone, and blossom into a strong/capable player. For those who weren't watching, Michele (with 5 votes) managed to win at a final tribal council against Aubry (2 votes) and Tai (0 votes). For many of those watching the show, us who were shown more in the game than the players participating--though still through the rose-colored lenses of the edit--this was a decidedly disappointing outcome to a stellar season. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the women of the final four, as it seemed clear going into the end that the jury wouldn’t be compelled to vote for Tai.
The final four consisted of this season's unlikely power couple for the ages: Aubry and Cydney. These two women teamed up right when the two tribes merged and—having just met—saw past the labels which had cast them on separate tribes. Cydney was a brawn member and decidedly so: as a professional body builder, she sure looked the part. But what she didn’t tell people is that she went to UPenn where she studied psychology, making her a real triple threat—she’s one of the few players who easily could have been placed on any of the three tribes without objections. She made friends quite easily, creating strong bonds early on with Jason pre-merge, then Debbie and Michele post-swap, and finally with Aubry post-merge. Aubry began this game a timid nerd who suffered an emotional breakdown and almost quit on the second day, making her a clear fit for her brain tribe; however, over the course of the season we saw her blossom into a very capable player. She was a deeply compassionate person who didn’t form connections with many, but she was deeply loyal to a select few such as Neal, Cydney, Tai, and Joe. Cydney and Aubry formed an unlikely alliance at the merge which proved to be an unstoppable force in this game. In a season full of unpredictable twists and turns, the power couple of Cydney and Aubry orchestrated literally every single vote of the post-merge game, always voting for the person who ultimately went home.
The final woman to round out the top five was Michele. Placed on the beauty tribe initially, it was clear that Michele had some real social prowess. As a bartender, she’d made a career out of playing to her strengths, which were forming connections with people and keeping a positive, calm attitude amidst stress. While Michele did manage to win a few immunity challenges and chose a few smart people to align herself with, she was also dealt just as many lucky breaks as Aubry was dealt setbacks. Michele’s beauty tribe never went to tribal council. Michele’s swapped tribe never went to tribal council. This meant that Michele and her beauty tribe member (and close ally) Nick lasted the longest in this game’s history without ever attending a tribal council. If Michele’s merged tribe HAD gone to tribal council, it seemed quite possible that she was on the chopping block. She was the single weakest link on her tribe when it came to the group immunity challenges. In the latter portion of the game, she went on to win a number of challenges, but rarely solely on her own. She beat Jason and Scot to win the food at the 10th episode’s challenge. She AND Cydney narrowly beat out Tai and Joe to win the reward at the 11th episode’s challenge. She, Jason, AND Tai worked together as a cohesive team to win the 12th episode’s challenge. This meant that in three back to back crucial challenges, Michele ate heartily, a huge advantage. While the 10th episode’s challenge was a clear Michele victory based on individual merit, she only competed against two other players, strong men with poor senses of balance in a very balance-based challenge. In both the 11th and 12th episode’s challenges, Michele had luck on her side and was randomly placed on teams which were able to act cohesively. In particular, the 12th episode’s challenge was a completely blowout entirely because the other team had the almost literal handicap of having Joe, who was completely out of gas by this point in the competition.
Let’s compare and contrast their last few days on the island. Aubry had setback after setback, but still managed to hold tight to her alliances and use her connections with Cydney, Tai, and Joe to strategically set herself up for a whirlwind finish. It took a lot of work to get to this point, but meant that it probably kind of looked like she was coasting into finals. You could almost understand the jury seeing it this way and see how they’d want to reward Michele the underdog, the one who was never supposed to get into the finals because she was too likable, who managed to claw her way in there. Except for this simple fact: Aubry lost Joe so late in the game that the fact that she was able to scramble around to keep herself in the game is such a huge move near the end. She WON a challenge right near the end, but it was a reward challenge which doesn’t count for as much partially because it doesn't mean she gets to parade into tribal council and show off an immunity necklace to the jury. This marked her second reward challenge in a row where Michele and Tai were left alone on the beach. Both times, Michele finally tried to make some moves and put some strategy to her name and both times, Tai rebuffed her advances (vs. Aubry who was able to play Tai like a fiddle). However, Michele knew she was on the outs by this point and managed to win the crucial immunity at the final four that kept her alive in the game. Then, she went on to win the ability to vote someone out of the jury, making her the winner of the final two "immunity" challenges.
This is where the real trouble comes into play for Aubry, because there’s a long documented history of recency bias being at least partially responsible for who ultimately wins the game. In particular, I’m referring to if someone goes on a late game immunity streak or even if they manage to win one crucial victory. Consider Fabio, a player no one would have seen as a threat managing to win at the end when his immunity streak allowed him to push his way into a final three. Or Sophie Clarke, whose crucial final immunity challenge win against one of the most notorious challenge threats in history, Ozzy, managing to oust him from the game. Interestingly, these two Survivor winners almost perfectly dictate why Michele won (and why Aubry lost). Michele was very upbeat and likable as a person, which goes a long way in a game of Survivor where everyone’s paranoid, nervous, hungry, and sleep deprived. It was a huge part of way Fabio won his season. In my pre-finale predictions, I said that Michele’s path to victory was following in Sophie’s footsteps and winning at least one of the crucial challenges which put some of the control and power into her hands. On the flip side, I compared Aubry’s path to victory to be similar to Cochran’s, a similar nerd-to-champion character arc which lead everyone to root for the underdog. Cochran’s winning strategy included winning the final immunity challenge and resting heavily on his rags-to-riches story at final tribal council, a path Aubry didn’t emulate.
Michele and Aubry both played relatively under-the-radar games. Michele bounced from Nick to Julia to Cydney, sticking close until they became a target, letting them get cut loose, and moving onto another alliance. Aubry held Joe close as security and an extra vote, managing to work her close connections with Cydney and Tai to quietly orchestrate many of the big moves of the season; however, her downfall came from the fact that she was TOO quiet with her moves. The people who understood how big she was playing were either sitting with her at the end (like Tai), were too recently burned—no pun intended—by losing to her in a fire-making challenge to vote for her (like Cydney), or didn’t have enough respect from the rest of the jury to sway anyone’s mind (like Joe). To Aubry’s supporters, she played a stellar game. To those who weren’t close to her, they didn’t have enough information to see her big moves as HER OWN big moves. Michele, on the other hand, formed relationships with more people who ended up on the jury. She was obviously very close to Nick. She was obviously very close to Julia. Through Julia, she occasionally buddied up to Jason and Scot as she toyed with going in that direction alliance-wise. She formed a very close bond with Cydney.
It’s so frustrating to see a season with two strong, strategic women in the final four come down to the social butterfly winning. Yes she made some moves especially towards the end, but she in no way played a better game than Cydney or Aubry. It’s one of my biggest frustrations with this show, that sometimes it’s so hard to decide how a jury is going to vote, what they’re going to take into consideration. In game, it sure seemed like Aubry was winning the respect of Scot and Jason, who tried to bring her into their alliance and even said that she was basically an honorary brawn member for the way she had been performing in challenges. I assumed (as did Aubry, I’m sure) that Debbie would have had enough time to reflect on Aubry’s move to take her out as a necessary way to advance herself in the game, instead of staying stubborn and voting for someone else just because Aubry felt forced to vote her out. I more understand Cydney voting for Michele because Cydney was clearly close to both Aubry and Michele and felt very recently betrayed by Aubry, who was backed into a corner and forced to write Cydney’s name down and ultimately win the fire-making challenge that ripped Cydney’s chance at the final tribal council away from her.
On a season full of interesting strategy, fascinating character arcs and dynamics, and a number of truly strong, complex female characters, it was a disappointing finish to say the least. But hey, that’s part of what makes the game interesting—you can think you have everything figured out, but that human factor can always throw you a curve ball. In a season full of unpredictability, it seems somehow only fitting that we end up with a winner many didn’t see coming.