SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor finale ahead.
Twenty years and one week after Vecepia Towery won the fourth season of Survivor, the show finally crowned its second Black female winner as Maryanne Oketch bested retired firefighter Mike and pageant coach Romeo to take the title of sole Survivor. And while it's an outcome that was easy to spot for anyone who watched the season play out on TV, with Maryanne as a consistently central presence to the show even when she didn't seem central to a given week's vote-out, Maryanne's victory was far from a sure thing as the final three sat before the jury. Judging from the jurors' statements beforehand, it would seem they thought Mike had played the most impressive strategic game, even if he'd had to betray allies along the way. Hell, just a few weeks ago, Drea called out Mike as the obvious winner if he made it to the end… and then here he was at the end! Maryanne wasn't seen by the jurors as having played much of a game at all, or at least so they thought before the tribal council.
When Jeff Probst polled the jurors in the show's on-site reunion after the votes were read, a majority of them raised their hands that they went into that final tribal council leaning towards voting for Mike. Instead, Maryanne won by a 7-1 vote. Part of the reason for that was Mike committed the recurring Survivor sin of failing to own up to one's game. No matter how evolved Survivor jurors get, no matter how cheerful they are when they get blindsided, there's a part of them that's wounded and demands answers from the people who betrayed them. And while a finalist can get away with being a backstabber by clearly and confidently taking ownership of a devious game, the one sin it seems jurors won't forgive is playing a devious game while talking about playing an honorable one. Mike did just that, and although halfway through the final tribal, he realized he should probably pivot to some kind of contrition, by then he'd opened the door a crack for Maryanne.
Maryanne, by contrast, had to sell the value of a game where she didn't make very many big moves. She was seen as a reliable support vote for somebody else's plan. But Maryanne succeeded at the very thing that Survivor 41's Erika succeeded at en route to her victory: the power of a narrative. Winning over a Survivor jury is about telling them a story they'll buy into. And Maryanne's story was a great one: how she stayed low to the ground initially to avoid the fate of the other under-25-year-old players who were seen as too aggressive; how she secured her place in the final three by triangulating every angle of the endgame to ensure that everyone would take her there; how she kept an immunity idol hidden until the very end; how she overcame self-doubt and finally allowed herself to risk embarrassing failure to ultimately win. Maryanne told the story that the jurors most wanted to participate in.
One of the themes of these last two seasons of Survivor has been how much the show has evolved now that its players have grown up watching it. Post-modern Survivor players are more savvy, more appreciative of strategic play (even at their expense), and what this jury and the Survivor 41 jury have proven most concretely is that post-modern Survivor juries are willing — eager, even — to look beyond the obvious when they cast their vote. With Erika last season, that jury could have easily gone for golden-boy Xander and his immunity idol, or hustling DeShawn hopping alliances. Instead, they dug deeper to see the game Erika was playing behind all the flashier moves. Similarly, while Mike played the game with the most visible strategy, this jury was determined not to overlook Maryanne or Romeo's games just because they entered the finale as the goats. Romeo didn't secure a vote, but this jury didn't spend their time taking potshots at him as past Survivor juries have done to the designated no-votes finalist. They very clearly heard and responded to his defense of his game played from the bottom of the totem pole. They responded even more clearly to Maryanne's defense of her game of subtle moves and smart social positioning. For many years on Survivor, juries would line up season after season to reward strong alpha male after strong alpha male for leading their alliances by the nose to the end. Survivor is now being played by the people who watched those seasons, who watched the Monica Culpeppers and Tasha Foxes and Chrissy Hofbecks get short shrift and are now determined to seek out the game being played behind the game.
Did Mike deserve to lose Survivor 42 simply because his jurors decided they were looking for something less obvious from a winner this season? Probably not. But what this new generation of Survivor players is clearly telling us is that there's more than one way to play a winning Survivor game, and the person getting the votes is going to be the person who sells their version of the winning game the best. Maryanne did, Maryanne won, and Maryanne deserved it.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.