Airdate: December 20, 2017
Boots: Mike Zahalsky, Devon Pinto
Finalists: Ben Driebergen, Chrissy Hofbeck, Ryan Ulrich (5-2-1)
Quote: “Ben is like the bad guy in any horror movie. You just keep trying to kill him and he keeps coming back to life.” – Mike Zahalsky
Rating: 3 + Tier C (3) = 6
Over the course of the ninth season of How I Met Your Mother, we were finally introduced to Ted Mosby’s beloved, Tracy. Audiences couldn’t help but fall for this charming manic pixie dream girl, so it was deeply disappointing when she was killed off from a mysterious disease, diagnosed with a malignant case of inconvenience to the narrative. After nearly a decade of repeated reminders of how Ted and Robin were a terrible match for one another, Tracy was cast aside in order to bring that pair together.
How I Met Your Mother is clearly untouchable in terms of shows retroactively ruining themselves via a horrendously upsetting finale. But Survivor‘s 35th season, Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, ended on a similarly frustrating note, with the producers rewriting the rulebook at the last second with an awful format change that further emphasizes the gaping difference between Survivor the game and Survivor the TV show. It’s tempting to just slap this episode with a “1” rating and be done with it, but nah. It does feel very early to review it though, and maybe I’ll revisit it down the line after more time has passed and we’ve either seen more seasons play out with this finale format or it will prove to be a temporary folly the producers swiftly dispense (I’m hoping for the latter but banking on the former).
Is Ben the worst winner of all time? It’s hard to say. He made it to the finals and got the most votes from the jury, which is ultimately all that matters. Practically speaking, he showed more strategic acumen than, say, Fabio, and he didn’t make any individual move as aggressively terrible as Mike Holloway’s at the Worlds Apart auction. But his social game was lacking to the point where he was a unanimous target for four consecutive Tribal Councils, spared only because of hidden idols and an unprecedented game-altering twist. And for those who care about this sort of thing, he won exactly the same number of individual immunity challenges as Sandra Diaz-Twine.
I mean, technically, you could also say that Sandra won twice as many individual immunity challenges as Ben.
But I’m not going to fault Ben for using production’s stupid decisions to his advantage. I remember reading someone say how Ben would have been better off as the day 38 “fallen angel” because it would boost his legacy to see him fight so hard but come up short instead of obtaining a controversial win. His bank account has a million reasons why that line of thinking is ridiculous. And for every person up in arms over Devon and/or Chrissy getting screwed, there were a dozen who were thrilled with how the finale played out. If you’d told me halfway through the season that Ben was going to win, I’d have been elated. He was charming, vulnerable, and compelling, and how can you resist the idea of a former Marine winning a season that literally includes “Heroes” in the subtitle? Apparently the producers couldn’t.
Man, I’m sick of talking about this twist. I have more thoughts I’ll get to later, but let’s rewind to the start of the finale, where the other players sleep through Ben’s all-night idol hunt. Chrissy later admits this was a mistake, but it’s not the only mistake she makes here. She insincerely approaches Ben in the event that he wins immunity, asking if he’d be willing to duke it out in the end as strong competitors. When he flips the question to her, she makes it clear that this plan is contingent on him winning the challenge. Why? Why doesn’t she just tell him what he wants to hear? If he doesn’t win, it’s not like he can do anyth–
Chrissy ends up winning a pretty cool puzzle challenge and earns immunity and reward, bringing along Mike and Devon for a feast at camp. Mike sensibly suggests combing the area for any idol clues, which leads to one of the most simultaneously arrogant and useless plays in Survivor history. Armed with a worthless super idol from the first Tribal Council, the trio decides to show it to Ben to make him believe it’s the newest idol so he’ll give up searching for it. Putting aside how smug Chrissy comes across as she brags about both winning the challenge and possessing the idol to someone she believes is hours away from joining the jury, they paint this as a gesture of goodwill so that Ben doesn’t have any false hope of surviving Tribal Council. Keep in mind: it’s day 37. Nobody is making moves for the sake of being altruistic with two days to go. Of course, it’s all a moot point because Ben already found the idol, but still. This is one of those situations where, either out of hubris or overthinking things, a player makes a move that so defies game theory that anyone paying attention should immediately see right through it.
On the flip side though, this round produces a particularly impressive move from Devon. See, regardless of what Chrissy showed him, if Ben doesn’t have the idol, he should still look for it just in case it’s a setup. (I mean, what he really should be doing is strategizing with the others to try to finagle a way into the final four, but let’s just take a cue from the producers and forget about that whole aspect of the game.) He has a reputation for not throwing in the towel, and the fact that he so quickly accepts Chrissy’s bluff raises Devon’s suspicions. He decides to counteract the possibility of Ben pulling out an idol by voting for Mike. I’m not going to say it’s the most brilliant play of all time, but it wound up being the difference between staying and going that night. See, if Devon had voted with the others for Ben, all of their votes would have been canceled out, and Ben would have once again been in sole control of who went home. Because he voted for Dev–
…Sorry, I didn’t mean to mansplain there. I was just taking a cue from Probst, who steamrolls Chrissy at Tribal Council. As she starts to recap her successful day to the jury, Probst interrupts, “I’ll say it for you.” He recounts that she won her third straight immunity challenge, and when she picks up to add that she also won a reward, he interjects–to point out that she also won a reward.
“Hey, Martin, I’ll take it from here. This guy standing next to me? He’s got a dream.”
We say goodbye to Dr. Mike, a character who gave us a few fun moments here and there but didn’t really live up to his full potential. But shoutout to him for looking like a fool on national television in order to save some baby turtles.
Of course, that’s nothing compared to Pee-wee Herman’s heroics.
With Ben as the clear underdog–and no more idols to serve as a safety net–the stakes are high for the final immunity challenge, and it’s an incredibly suspenseful one. Normally I prefer the last challenge to be endurance, but this proves to be quite exciting. Ben comes close to winning multiple times, but alas, he didn’t get the memo that “Hnstlers” isn’t a word. Chrissy pulls off her fourth win, tying the record for most immunity wins by a female in a single season. This episode breaks the record for most times we are reminded of this fact. In addition to winning immunity, Chrissy wins a secret advantage in the form of infor–
“I’ve got this one. Chrissy wins a secret advantage in the form of information.”
Thanks, Jeff. The advantage is, of course, that she, Devon, and Ryan are not allowed to vote off Ben. Instead, she’ll get to take one of them to the final three, and the other two will duke it out in a fire-making competition to obtain the last slot. It may seem unfair, but it’s not really unprecedented. I remember I won an advantage in my third grade spelling bee, where I got to take the kid who ate his own boogers for lunch to the final round but I still had to face off against the home-schooled Indian kid.
Do you really need to ask for the language of origin every time, Ravi? Come on.
Chrissy shares the information with Devon and Ryan, and Devon practices for, like, eight seconds before breaking the flint and going, “Welp, I’d better take a nap.” At Tribal Council, the twist is revealed to everyone. Ben is ecstatic that he has a second chance. Chrissy tersely tows the line of not pissing off production by only indirectly voicing her displeasure. Devon seems eager to prove himself. And Ryan is like, “Hey guys, I’m here too.” The competition is not even close; Ben annihilates Devon. Like Silas after the Africa tribe swap and Cirie following her default elimination in Game Changers, Devon is a remarkably good sport, but wouldn’t it have been hilarious if Probst had brought him out in front of the live audience and Devon started saying how ridiculous it was? I hate these live bits in the finale to be honest; they really screw up the pacing, and how many nervous children and dull “superfans” does it take for the producers to realize these segments add absolutely nothing to the show?
Final Tribal Council utilizes the new format introduced in Game Changers, and I still have mixed feelings on it, but that’s not the twist I’m here to whine about, at least not in this review. It plays out somewhat awkwardly, and I have several questions. Why is Joe cheering Ben on so much when he admits Ben’s social game sucked? Why did Desi decide to show up all of a sudden, and is the reason she barely got any airtime during the season because she sounds like Kermit the frog with a head cold? And can someone get JP a bib? Because he constantly looks like he’s going to drool all over himself.
“I want to vote for Chrissy, but man, Ben is just a lot easier to spell.”
Surprisingly, I would say that the strongest performance from the three comes from Ryan, who was obviously doomed to third place but he holds his own pretty well. I wasn’t a fan of Ryan’s by any means, but I like that Devon brings their friendship/alliance full circle by voting for him to win. As expected, Chrissy is competent but disingenuous, spouting random facts like Cole’s ACT score and boasting that she connected with other players socially as part of her strategy, as though that’s supposed to be a good thing. Maybe it is in this era of the show, I dunno. Ben, meanwhile, is less aggressive than he’d been during the last couple rounds, sharing his emotional struggle with PTSD. I know a lot of fans hate this sort of thing, since it’s outside the game, but I say use whatever you can to get the win. The secret to winning Survivor is as simple as getting to the final Tribal Council and saying, “I watched my adoptive Albino great-grandfather shoot my three-legged transgender dog while my polio-stricken sister was in rehab for sex addiction.”
Sometimes it works even if you’re the one who shot the dog.
So yes, Ben wins Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hnstlers. As promised, because this review hasn’t already gone on long enough and you’re obviously just dying to hear someone complain yet again about this fire-making business, I’ll get back to that. But first, let’s refer to Jeff Probst’s explanation for why it was instituted:
This idea came about to solve a problem that has bothered me for years. If someone plays a great game and gets to the final four, it has always bothered me that the other three can simply say, “We can’t beat him, so let’s all just vote him out.”
What’s really ironic is that one of the biggest and most succinct arguments against the twist not only comes from Jeff Probst himself, it actually occurs in this very episode. At Tribal Council on day 37, he tells the players (emphasis mine):
It’s sort of the truth for everybody who gets voted out, is that in essence, they are blaming everybody else for killing their game, and yet that’s the point of the game.
This is a slippery slope that I would honestly blame on the eventual acceptance (begrudging or otherwise) of the final three as opposed to the final two, and the expectation that every season must end with a “good” winner. The institution of that format change in Cook Islands was an arbitrary abbreviation of the game, eliminating an entire round to protect popular players who nobody wanted to face at the final Tribal Council. It took all of one season for the contestants to outwit the producers and eliminate strategic audience favorite Yau-man Chan in fourth place in Fiji. This is essentially the exact same situation, and fans suspect that the fire-making twist will soon result in threats being eliminated in fifth place. But why would the other players be foolish enough to let them get that far? If someone fits the profile of a so-called satisfying winner, you should get rid of them right away. Don’t even let them make it to the merge; your tribe will get by without them just fine until an inevitable swap, and there is legitimate reason to believe the producers will assist players of a certain archetype.
All that said, after vilifying the producers in just about every paragraph here, I’m going to end by coming to their defense. Earlier I alluded to the difference between Survivor the game and Survivor the TV show. CBS is not getting ad revenue from companies overly concerned about the integrity of the game. Jeff Probst doesn’t get a paycheck if people stop tuning in, and while the show’s ratings have been remarkably consistent–albeit a fraction of what they once were–there’s absolutely zero downside to keeping viewers happy. It doesn’t matter how boring or unpleasant or unfair as Redemption Island, Worlds Apart, and Heroes vs. Heroes vs. Hustlers ultimately were, respectively. Most of the audience is simply glad to see Boston Rob, Mike, and Ben emerge victorious, regardless of what it took for them to get there. So when it comes to all these changes, I get it. I don’t like it, but I get it.
But when Survivor 52 airs in eight years with an all-male cast and ends with a jury of four voting between the final 16 and ties are broken by how many idols the producers inserted into your bag on day 3, don’t say I didn’t warn you.