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'Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers' finale recap: Secrets and surprises lead to controversial ending

Warning: This recap for Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers contains spoilers.

It’s hard to imagine now, but more than 17 years ago, when Richard Hatch was crowned the first-ever winner of Survivor, a lot of people were angry. OK, that part is not so hard to imagine: Hatch was a polarizing figure who had subjected the viewing audience to his bare ass cheeks for three months. What people were angry about was how Hatch won the game. Strategy? Alliances? Social manipulation? That sort of dastardly behavior should not be rewarded! The game was in its infancy; in fact, many people struggled to see the show as a game at all. It was supposed to be about survival, right? Who could handle the elements? Who could best provide for their tribe? Who could build a shelter and start a fire? Those were the traits a significant portion of the audience valued most. Hatch was, of course, masterful at those things too, but his lies and deception tainted his victory.

Flash-forward to today and those same people would roll their eyes at a castaway who refused to form an alliance. Lies and deception are commonplace — they are expected and even accepted. The majority of the audience now roots for the contestant that played the best strategic game. The person that outwitted the competition and made #BigMovez. It doesn’t matter if you constructed a beachfront condo out of bamboo and wrestled a shark to death. If you don’t have a #SurvivorResume, then don’t bother turning up to Final Tribal Council. It’s ironic then that this season came down to one of the most fundamental survival aspects of the show — being able to start a fire. But an ability once heralded as the representation of a true “Survivor” is now met with the same controversy as Hatch’s deceit.

Let me explain. In last night’s two-hour season finale of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, Ben Driebergen became the Sole Survivor and recipient of $1 million. But Ben would not have found himself at the Final Tribal with a chance to plead his case to the jury if not for a controversial new twist. When Chrissy won the final Immunity Challenge, she also received a Secret Advantage — instead of voting someone out like at a regular Tribal Council, she would be able to choose someone to bring to the end with her, and the two remaining players would fight it out for the third spot in a fire-making challenge. Ben went from dead man walking to having a 50 percent shot at making the finals, which he capitalized on by beating Devon.

Photo: CBS

If you were paying attention to social media as this went down last night, you would have seen the intense reaction from fans and former players alike. Some people were accusing the production team of rigging the season to force a Ben victory. Others argued that it took away from the core dynamic of the game, which is about the players voting one another out based on social and strategic skill. It was a far cry from the summer of 2000, where the game coming down to a fire-making challenge would have likely been celebrated as a moral victory. The game has definitely changed.



I have my own thoughts on this new twist and what it means for Survivor going forward. But before I get into that, we need to break down the rest of the action-packed finale.

THREE BLIND MICE AND DEVON

The first vote of the night involves a hilarious game of duplicity that sees Ben once again making fools of his fellow tribemates. Still public enemy number one, Ben finds his third idol in a row while the rest of the tribe are tucked up in the shelter sleeping. Ben is as dumbfounded as the rest of us when nobody thinks to follow him. When this is brought up later at Tribal, Chrissy states that it’s impossible to keep an eye on him 24/7, but honestly, there were times when the whole group has stood around talking about how Ben was out looking for an idol. If the man has already found two of the damn things, it stands to reason he is capable of finding a third, and so someone should be strapped to his back.

Things become even funnier after Chrissy wins her third Immunity Challenge of the season. She comes up with a plan to use her defunct Super Idol as a decoy so that Ben will stop looking for the real idol. It’s not a half-bad idea, except for the fact Ben already has the real idol in his boot. Chrissy gleefully places the dead idol around her neck and tells Ben not to waste any more of his energy. She even uses the note from Ryan’s pants-idol to legitimize her ruse. Ben acts defeated, skulking away with a glum look on his face. “He bought it hook, line, and sinker,” says Ryan. The group chuckle at Ben’s expense and toast to a well-laid plan. Ben, of course, is the one really laughing, having already found the idol and now no longer needing to pretend to be still looking. “It’s like a bunch of blind mice just running around bumping into stuff,” Ben says, as Mike literally trips and falls flat on his face on the beach.

The one person with suspicions is Devon. He doesn’t quite buy Ben’s defeatist attitude because it goes against everything the former Marine represents. Devon worries that Ben could be acting and actually has the idol in his possession. Despite the assurances from his alliance members, Devon sticks to his gut feeling come Tribal Council and throws his vote toward Dr. Mike. It’s a life-saving move because after Ben’s idol cancels the three votes against him, we end up with a tie between Devon and Mike. Chrissy and Ryan then save Devon on the revote. While the alliance should have thought about splitting the vote in the first place, credit goes to Devon for actually sensing something was wrong and taking the precaution to protect himself. Had he not voted for Mike, Ben’s lone vote would have sent him out in fifth place.

THE UPSIDE DOWN

With the latest Ben Bomb still reverberating around the islands of Fiji, the trio of Chrissy, Devon, and Ryan make it their mission to stop Ben from reaching the Final Tribal at all costs. There are no more idols in the game, and so at least that concern is out of their hair. But there is one last Immunity Challenge, and it’s a doozy! It almost makes up that rock draw challenge at the family visit … almost. It’s not particularly complex — players must stack letter blocks spelling out Heroes, Healers, and Hustlers on a wobbly contraption. Stacking and wobbling = crashing and burning. That happens A LOT in this challenge, as players go from the cusp of victory to sighs of exasperation as their blocks come tumbling down.

The editing is fantastic here too. There is an excellent montage of blocks falling as players wipe beads of sweat from their foreheads. It really helps ramp up the tension. Each player falters throughout the challenge, but no error is quite so detrimental as Ben’s. He has all his letters in place and locked, only for an upside-down U to be his undoing. In his attempt to fix his mistake he accidentally knocks the platform and sends all of his blocks tumbling to the ground. But everyone else is struggling too, and it allows Ben time to make a comeback. He once again has all his letters in place and this time the correct way up. But everything comes smashing down again when he attempts to lock it in. This gives Chrissy the opportunity to sneak in and claim her fourth and final Immunity win of the season.

It must be said that Chrissy is a beast in these competitions. This was the woman who puked up on the platform after the first challenge. She now ties the record for most Immunity wins for a woman. Not only that, but women won all but one of the Individual Immunity Challenges this season. But Chrissy doesn’t just win Immunity, she also receives the final Secret Advantage. I’m not entirely sure how this is an advantage for Chrissy? The note tries to explain that she has the power of “information” and can tell anyone she chooses about the new Final 4 twist. She decides to tell Devon so that he can practice making fire all afternoon while Ben remains blissfully unaware. But Devon breaks the flint and takes it as a sign that he should chill out and preserve his energy before the big showdown.

A LIFELINE

Chrissy unveils her advantage at Tribal Council to Ben and the onlooking jury members. Her decision to bring Ryan to the end is not a shock. He stands no chance of beating Ben in a fire-making challenge, and he’s also someone Chrissy has a decent shot of defeating in a jury vote. Ben, meanwhile, is pumped to have a new lease on life and is ready to battle it out as warriors with Devon. The fire-making challenge is surprisingly one-sided, as Devon produces nothing but sparks, while Ben’s pile quickly sets alight and he’s able to build the flame until it burns through the rope. It’s a disappointing end for Devon who proved to be a savvy strategist beneath his laid-back surf-bro exterior. Without this twist, Devon would have made it to the end with a very strong chance of winning the whole shebang.

A HERO’S ENDING

The Final 3 arrive at Tribal Council to plead their case to the jury. The back-and-forth conversational format of jury questioning is also back for another outing. When it was introduced last season, I worried that Jeff Probst might be able to influence the conversation too much, but he appears to take a backseat here and let the debate happen naturally. It definitely makes for a more engaging discussion as opposed to the traditional Q&A format, which became stale in recent years. It allows the finalists to properly elaborate on their answers and for the jurors to cross-examine. Under the old rules it was one-and-done and very rarely would Probst grant a follow-up question to a dissatisfying answer.

Desi opens up the discussion by wondering what Ryan did to get himself to the end, believing he was brought this far only because others thought they could beat him. Ryan gives a decent answer, talking about how he used the Secret Advantage from the marooning to form relationships with Chrissy and Devon and later used those bonds and his social skills to create the alliance of seven at the merge. Ashley is somewhat doubtful of Ryan’s social game given that he never took the time to have a strategic chat with her, but he claims that he used Devon to relay info back to Ashley, and Devon backs his old Hustler buddy up. That is something that would never have happened under the old format. You wouldn’t be able to have one juror question a fellow juror about a particular answer.

Photo: CBS

Joe pipes in to throw shade on Ben’s and Chrissy’s social games. He says they spent too much time focusing on idols and challenges rather than crafting relationships — which is kind of rich coming from the guy that tore apart a cake to look for an idol. But both Ben and Chrissy handle this grilling well. Ben talks about his battle with PTSD and how he is still learning to interact with people. Chrissy says that she can remember personal things about each person in the game. Joe puts her on the spot, and she impresses him by reciting information about how his parents divorced when he was young and how it put him off marriage.

It starts to become clear the choice is between Ben or Chrissy. Especially when Ryan argues that his lack of survival ability shouldn’t be held against him because he’s never done anything like this before. A few of the jurors correctly point out that neither have they and that shouldn’t be an excuse not to try. It makes Ryan look even worse when Chrissy talks about how she went from puking up after the first challenge to go on and tie the record for most Immunity wins for a female Survivor player. That stat is applauded by the jury, especially Ashley, who credits Chrissy’s fighting spirit and for representing the women in the game.

But ultimately, idols are deemed more impressive than challenge wins. Despite almost blowing his final statement, Ben is commended for his never-say-die attitude and ability to find idols, while Chrissy and Ryan are rightfully criticized for allowing him to find so many. Also, Ben’s background as the former Marine with PTSD playing for his family is a winning ticket. You could argue that such personal matters shouldn’t affect how one determines a winner of Survivor, but what is this game if not deeply personal? When Ben talks about his troubles with PTSD and wanting to provide a positive message to other military veterans, how can a juror not feel a personal connection to him? That doesn’t mean it trumps all gameplay; it just means that combined with his flashy idol plays and against-all-odds run to the end, it was enough to give Ben the win over Chrissy and Ryan, who also had compelling personal stories of their own but not quite on that scale.

TWIST — GOOD OR BAD?

Now before I end this recap, we have to talk about that twist. There is no denying that Ben was saved by the ultimate Hail Mary. Without that late-game twist, Ben would have been voted out in a 3-1 vote at the Final 4 Tribal Council. Simply put, Ben does not win this season without this new twist, and yes, that does somewhat taint his victory.

Does that mean the production team rigged the season for Ben? I highly doubt it. These twists are often thought up well in advance before the season even begins filming. If the note was scribbled on the back of a napkin and handed to Chrissy by a flustered cameraperson, then, yeah, that would have been suspect. It’s not so much that the twist was rigged specifically for Ben, but you could argue that it was rigged for his “type.” The twist was likely introduced to help the “best” players make it to the end. How many times have we seen strong competitors and fan favorites snuffed out on Day 38? Malcolm Freberg, Kelley Wentworth, David Wright, etc. Now those players have an extra lifeline. Don’t win Immunity at the Final 4? Don’t worry; you still have a fifty-fifty shot of making Final Tribal if you can win a fire-making challenge.

Photo: CBS

I understand the intention behind the twist. It’s the same reason the show introduced a Final 3 instead of a Final 2 in Season 13. The strongest players/fan-faves would often be voted out in third place, and when this happened to Terry Deitz in Panama, the producers had enough and decided to switch to a Final 3 in subsequent seasons. It worked in Cook Islands, when Yul Kwon and Ozzy Lusth both made it to the finals. But after that, it was back to normal, except instead of the strongest player being voted out in third place, they were gone at four. And so I get why this twist is here. It’s to give the ‘best’ players the greatest chance to make it to the end. I’m all for that and for trying new things to shake up the game. Also, people often hate a twist when it benefits a player they don’t like, but if it helped their personal favorite, they’d be declaring it the best twist ever.

The problem here is that none of the players knew about it. It was sprung on them last minute. While I don’t hate the twist like some people, I would feel much better about it had the players known about it from the very start of the game. That way, strategies could be formed around it. Players could plan in advance how to tackle it. Of course, what could end up happening in that scenario is that the biggest threat would be voted out at the Final 5 instead. That was clearly the worry here and why the show didn’t bring it up until the Final 4. But with Probst confirming that this twist is here to stay for the foreseeable future, that will eventually become an issue. Then what? How far will the show go to ensure the “best” players make it to the end? It’s a slippery slope that could irrevocably damage the show’s most fascinating aspect — the social and strategic game.

It’s funny that a season for which the majority of its run was relatively safe and predictable ended in such controversial fashion. I expect this twist to be debated among Survivor fans for years to come. Or at least until next season and whatever spooky shenanigans Survivor: Ghost Island has in store.

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