Welcome to the post with the most obnoxious headline on the Internet today! I want to punch myself in the face! There’s a real Debbie Downer quality to that headline, right? Like, “Too bad you loved your mom so much, Ricky, because she’s dead now.” Harsh, but it’s also an accurate headline.
Don’t get me wrong: This has been the best season of Survivor since the pandemic. Almost every episode has had a huge surprise or an unexpected moment of excitement. The quitters were terrible, but I loved hating on them, and who doesn’t like starting generational warfare on their pop-culture website?
But it’s also a season that has seen someone who had been unanimously voted against successfully play their shot-in-the-dark, and the joy the audience felt for what was the season’s fan-favorite character pulling a rabbit out of his ass is hard to overstate. Unfortunately, Kaleb went home the very next episode, which we assumed would happen, no matter how much the producers tried to change the player dynamics to avoid that vote.
Somehow, however, this week’s episode managed to top that. Not only did they bring back the Survivor auction for the first time since 2015 with all sorts of fun wrinkles, but it gave us the best tribal council of the season. It was an episode where everyone knew that Jake — the Massachusetts’ lawyer — would be voted out. He took a big risk last week trying to save Kaleb. It didn’t work out for him, which left him at the bottom. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t win immunity, and he couldn’t find an immunity idol to save himself, either.
When a player is all but certain to be voted out, the producers nevertheless endeavor to put together an edit in which it appears that there’s at least another possibility so that Tribal Council is not a complete snore for the audience. They tried it last week, for instance, when we all knew that Kaleb would be voted out. The only surprise was that Jake followed through on his effort to save him even though we all knew that Katurah would chicken out.
Many of us assumed we were being given a similar edit this week in which there was talk of maybe ousting Kellie instead of Jake, even though that possibility didn’t seem that likely. Jake spent most of Tribal defeated, knowing that he was about to be voted out, while Kellie remained equally confident that she would survive another vote.
To everyone’s surprise — Kellie, the audience, but mostly Jake — the players ended up voting out a stunned Kellie, who had been blindsided so badly that she could barely bring herself to get up and leave. It was a stunning vote largely orchestrated by Austin and Drew.
But neither Austin nor Drew will win, although Drew may make it to the end. Neither will Dee, who — along with Austin — seems to be the biggest threat remaining. But this is Survivor. Strong players, likable players, and smart players get voted out. It’s why Kaleb was ousted two weeks ago. It’s also why Bruce — who is increasingly unlikable — is still around and will continue to be.
Bruce may make it to the end because he’s that unlikable, and no jury member will vote for him (except maybe Kellie), which makes him an easy person to keep around. Jake was used as cover to oust another popular player in Kellie, but he won’t last much longer, either. Surviving a big vote makes you a liability. The next two out of four votes will probably land on Dee and Austin because no one will want to go to the end with them, no matter how much they might think they’re running things. Julie is the Tribe’s mom and, therefore, unlikely to survive to the end because everyone loves her. They will feel really bad voting her out, but they’ll still do it. Katurah will go down so that the remaining players can save Bruce, because — again — everyone will want to go to the end with Bruce because he’s unlikable.
That leaves Kendra, Drew, and Emily to go to the end with Bruce. Between Kendra, Drew, and Emily, I feel like Drew loses in the fire-making challenge, leaving Kendra, Emily, and Bruce in the final tribal council. Who wins in that scenario? Probably Emily. Is it because she’s the best player? Absolutely not! Is it because she outmaneuvered everyone? No, but she is great at following everyone else’s lead, even when it means voting unanimously with the tribe against her strongest ally, Kaleb.
But, the only enemies that Emily has made are all Lulu, and none of them except Kaleb made it to the jury. The only person left who dislikes Emily is Bruce, who will probably be sitting next to her. Emily also has a decent story, the kind that plays well with Survivor juries: She survived even after everyone else from her tribe was voted out, and despite being a hugely obnoxious Karen in the first days of Survivor, Emily commendably learned to adapt. She grew and evolved. She Cochran’d. She may not have orchestrated any big moves, but she did align herself with the right people — Austin and Drew — and by consistently voting with the majority, she avoids alienating anyone.
Emily, unfortunately, is the prototypical winner of Survivor over the last 15 or so seasons: Mediocrity rises to the top. It’s true today, and it’s been true since I wrote about this phenomenon 10 years ago. There are no more winners like Boston Rob or Parvati anymore because they are too good at the game. There’s a reason, meanwhile, why we don’t remember most of the recent winners: They usually won because they weren’t memorable and therefore could fly under the radar. Flying under the radar without accruing enemies is the key to victory.
It’ll be a disappointing finale. It has been for the last several years. Fortunately, it rarely dampens our enjoyment of the season.