SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's episode of Survivor ahead.
The most heart-pounding and emotional moment of the Survivor 43 finale comes at around the midpoint of the three-hour episode, which isn't really what you want. Ideally, a Survivor season climaxes with the reading of the final votes and the declaration of a winner. Failing that, maybe it peaks somewhere during the final tribal council when some big moment tips the scales in favor of the winner.
That was not the case this season. The emotional climax of the finale came when Jesse — who had pretty clearly played the best and most dynamic game all season, and who at multiple times had emotionally made the case for winning as a way to secure his family's future — fell tragically short in the fire-making challenge and was eliminated from the game. Prior to that moment, we'd seen Karla get eliminated after spending the bulk of the first two-thirds of the season building herself up as the season's fan favorite. There was real emotional devastation in watching Jesse break down in tears after the show had gotten us so deeply invested in his story. But there was also the stark realization that — wait a second — either Cassidy, Owen, or Gabler was going to win the season.
To the shock of the majority of the Survivor audience, if a quick perusal of social media is anything to go by, Gabler ended up winning in a 7-1 vote after absolutely charming the pants off of the jury. Whether he actually played a better game than Cassidy, whose case to the jury that she'd been on the right side of every single vote and rode the changing tribe dynamics pretty perfectly went unheeded, is a matter for debate. The real question is whether it was possible to have gotten any satisfying winner out of this final three.
To be very fair and very clear: Cassidy, Owen, and Gabler all seem pretty great. They went out and competed in a terribly difficult game and, by hook or by crook, made it to the end, and for that they ought to be applauded. But it is an undeniable fact that they were the three least dynamic players of the five who entered the finale. They were probably the three least dynamic players of the season's final eight players, given that the three players most recently voted out — Cody, Sami, and Noelle — were all big characters this season. How did this happen? Why did his happen?
To have the final three end up at Cassidy, Owen, and Gabler after stacking the season's edit so heavily towards Jesse and Karla felt in many ways like the show pulling the rug out from under the audience. And taken in concert with the ways that the winners of Seasons 41 and 42 were edited, it feels more and more like a conscious choice in this new Survivor era. In the before times (before the show took a year off the air due to COVID), the biggest, most dynamic characters didn't always win the show, but the winners were almost always presented as part of a narrative that made sense once you looked back at the season.
Tina Wesson's triumph in Season 2 set the template for the way an under-the-radar win would be presented: never dominant but always a presence, and with a story that felt complete when all was said and done. These last three seasons have felt like the show's producers have shifted priorities to edit the show in a way that emphasizes pure surprise over a more visible — if predictable — narrative throughline. Season 41's Erika was severely under-edited, especially in the pre-merge stage, making her win seem like it came out of left field. Season 42's Maryanne was a more consistent presence, but she was rarely edited as an effective player until almost the very end.
Gabler's case at the final tribal council was that he was "hiding in plain sight," and while that turned out to have been the winning strategy on the island, that didn't mean the Survivor editors had to similarly hide Gabler and his story from the home audience. In weighting this season's edit so heavily towards players like Jesse, Karla, Cody, and Sami, it feels like the producers were trying to intentionally misdirect the audience to keep them from guessing the winner too early.
Admittedly, there's a chicken-or-the-egg scenario at play. Were Cassidy, Gabler, and Owen an unsatisfying final three because they were objectively less interesting players who didn't do enough to command the attention of the editors? Or do we think they were uninteresting because the editors didn't do enough to create narratives for them? If we believe the former, then we're saying Survivor 43 was unsalvageable from the start because the "wrong" players made it to the end. Reality TV can only craft a narrative so far, and you can't make your audience excited about players who aren't dynamic. But I think that sells Cassidy, Owen, and Gabler short, both as players and as people.
Once Wednesday night's finale entered that final tribal, it was like we'd started an entirely new season. Up until literally that moment, Gabler had been edited as a rather foolish character who poked around the island being an oddball and would occasionally give interviews where he seemed to vastly overrate his control of the game. At Tribal, suddenly we're hearing about his "alli-Gabler" strategy (where he'd dip below the surface to hide his threat level, like an alligator, see) and the "Ride or Die" alliance he had with Cody and Jesse. At most these two aspects of Gabler's game were mentioned once all season, and were certainly never given much in the way of narrative weight.
Cassidy's "be on the right side of every vote" narrative was underplayed all season, so that moment in the final tribal, where her belief that she'd swayed Ryan to vote in her favor was disproved by the jurors, didn't carry as much weight as it should have. More crucially, we never really got a sense of Cassidy's personal story, certainly not the way we did Jesse's or Karla's or even Sami's. So when she pulled out three immunity challenge wins when she needed them most, there was no emotional sway for the audience.
Owen's underdog story was definitely better depicted throughout the season, and if he'd won, you could make the case that this was probably the best way to tell his story, since he was so rarely on the winning side of votes. Still, it wasn't until the final episode that Owen's so-close-but-so-far narrative felt in any way important.
Ultimately, Survivor 43 might have been doomed from the start. Maybe Jesse or Karla had to win to make it all feel correct. Maybe there was no way for Gabler's journey to feel satisfying by comparison. But this isn't Big Brother, where the game plays out in real time and there's no way to craft a season-long edit. The castaways are there to give the show the raw materials, and it's up to the producers and editors to tell us a story that won't make us throw up our hands after the fire-making challenge and say "well now what?" Gabler winning the season was certainly a surprise that few people saw coming. Maybe that shouldn't have been the most important thing.
Survivor 43 is now streaming on Paramount+ and FuboTV. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer 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.