SPOILERS for the outcome of Wednesday night's Survivor finale ahead.
For a season of Survivor that touted — loudly, at the top of Jeff Probst's lungs — how much it was changing the game, the Season 41 finale hewed remarkably close to the format of the last ten seasons or so of finales, at least right up until the moment the winner's name was read.
The final five — DeShawn, Erika, Heather, Ricard, and Xander — battled it out through a pair of immunity challenges, two tribal councils, a fire-making challenge, and ultimately the final three made their case to an inquisitive (and occasionally salty) jury. This is how Survivor has ended its seasons since 2017, when the fire-making challenge was instituted. A small wrinkle came when Erika found an advantage to the first immunity challenge that gave her a leg up and ultimately the win, sealing Ricard's fate in fifth place, but even that's the kind of thing Survivor has done in the past. Afterwards, DeShawn eked out a win and eliminated Heather in what was surely the most exciting fire-making challenge in show history.
The only real swerve came after the jury cast their votes, when Jeff Probst revealed that — for the first time since Richard Hatch won the very first season in 2000 — the winner would be revealed right there on the island. This twist was likely instituted because the show was unsure whether a traditional live finale with an audience would be possible given COVID conditions, but the contestants themselves were certainly shocked, and when the votes were read, it was Erika Casupanan who became the first female Survivor winner in seven seasons, the first Canadian winner ever, and the first player of Filipino heritage to win.
To put it mildly, this outcome would have come as a huge surprise if you'd told it to anyone before this season's merge. Prior to that moment — when she was given the game-altering decision to reverse the merge-episode immunity challenge result — Erika was arguably the most invisible player on the island, given next to zero screen time, traditionally the kiss of death when it comes to trying to guess the eventual winner of the season.
But while Know-It-Alls like yours truly never saw Erika's victory coming, it came all the same. And with it, the realization that just because her game flew under the radar doesn't mean Erika wasn't playing that game all season and playing it well. Her near-unanimous victory reflected a jury that clearly respected the quiet game that she played early on followed by a series of shrewd moves and clever alliance-building that got her to the end, up against two men in DeShawn and Xander who'd been the beneficiaries of much, much more screen time.
Such disparities in screen time and narrative naturally lead some to wonder whether anyone got "robbed" of the victory. Were DeShawn and/or Xander more deserving and just got clipped by a bitter jury? Or did Erika play the greatest game we never saw?
Erika's original Luvu tribe didn't face a single tribal council in the pre-merge phase, thus avoiding the first six eliminations. Good news for them, since they all made the merge with the numbers to go far. The bad news was that this meant comparatively little screen time — although it could definitely be pointed out that if you knew Erika was your winner, she might have gotten some of the screen time allotted to non-winners like Danny or Sydney. We saw a bit of Erika itching to make a move, like when she tried to scheme with DeShawn to get Sydney out, but they never lost a challenge and thus never got the chance. (Also, in a foreshadow of DeShawn's later betrayal of Erika, he totally ratted her out to Sydney that time.)
After the merge, Erika benefitted from bigger threats like Shan and Evvie getting targeted, but Erika was also one of the people doing the targeting. She was the only one of the top three to have voted to oust the eliminated player in every tribal council she attended. Just because we hardly ever saw her alliance with Heather doesn't mean Erika was wrong when she told the jury about how the two of them managed to operate as a power pair without drawing anyone's fire. This is effective game play!
And in the most basic conception of who "deserves" to win Survivor, there is the fact that the objective is to earn the most votes on the jury at the end, and Erika did. Every single juror — including Danny, who voted for DeShawn to win — respected the game Erika played. At the final tribal council, she made her case for the win better than DeShawn or Xander, clearly and effectively laying out the narrative of her game. Winning that final jury vote is so often about giving the jury a narrative they can buy into. Xander wasn't able to convince the jury that he did much beyond coast on his hidden immunity idol all the way to the top four. DeShawn wasn't able to win over the multiple players on the jury who felt burned by strategic partnerships he betrayed. When Erika talked about her life outside of the game, walking into the boardroom and being mistaken for the intern, only to turn out to be running the whole meeting, she summed up her Survivor strategy in one concise, easy to translate metaphor.
Survivor, especially modern Survivor, can be a game of big moves. Viewers clearly love that. Jeff Probst does too. Xander made as big a move as anyone when he swerved Liana out of her "Knowledge Is Power" advantage. DeShawn made a big move when he dropped a "truth bomb" on Erika and Heather's alliance last week. But it's telling that this jury, one full of super-fans and gamers like Shan and Ricard and Liana and Evvie, all saw Erika's game full of small moves and quiet intelligence as worthy of the win. These are players who would seem to predisposed to favor the flashy Survivor games that made them fall in love with the show. They voted for Erika to win by a 7-1-0 margin. The right player won.
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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.
TOPICS: Survivor, CBS, Jeff Probst