By Thorin N. Tatge
Some have said it was a disappointment, an anticlimax, that it was too predictable and at the same time what they wanted least to happen. For my part, I have found the previous season finales of Survivor to be so wonderfully unpredictable that I was capable of being surprised even at the actual outcome, a victory which ran exactly along Brian's designs. Let us not forget that expectations are nothing if we expect to be wrong about them, and therefore accept that sometimes things must go just the way they appear to be headed if we wish at other times to enjoy the thrill of surprise. And is there no satisfaction in seeing a plan well wrought and executed? Is there any rational gamer who cannot appreciate the merits of an player's technique even if it means a formulaic endgame? I think the appreciation is there, but clouded in resentment over the victor, a man whose personality seemed all too well suited for this game, but all too poorly suited for the public who will shape the way his future career is impacted by his participation in Survivor.
Brian Heidik. Used car salesman. Schemer. Beaten husband. Porn star. Seller of understanding, alligience, friendship. So-called Richard Hatch of Season V, only with an extra layer of confidence, for better or worse, layered on. When Richard gloated about his performance, he seemed to say "It's so funny that everyone knows I'm in charge of the game, and yet nobody can get it together to stop me." When Brian gloated, the message was "Of course I'm in charge of the game, and of course nobody can stop me. That's just the way it is." Like Vecepia, he maintained his high morale through daily affirmations. Vecepia's affirmations were written to God and kept secret in a journal; Brian's were for and about himself, and delivered to the camera.
In the wake of Brian's victory, we were given a reunion show which, despite being hosted by Jeff Probst, who did a pretty good job of asking relevant questions, was the most disappointing to me--and judging by the number of writers who stated throughout the season that they felt the key ingredient missing from Survivor Thailand was a lasting, genuine friendship, I imagine others feel the same way I do. Jed and Stephanie, the two least interesting players to watch, remain close friends after the game. Jake, Ken, Penny and Erin will likely always share a bond. Were there any strong Chuay Gahn friendships that lasted? Maybe Brian and Clay, who aren't the most heartwarming pair imaginable. If there are other bonds, it wasn't obvious from the contestants' post-show interactions. Chuay Gahn was the more harmonious tribe during the game, but its harmony fell apart if it was ever truly there to begin with; Brian saw to that.
I could discuss Brian's strategy, except that it was probably quite similar to what in fact happened. He won Ted's loyalty early on general principles, but forsook him when he discovered that someone less likeable than Ted was after his friendship. This motivated Brian to make a speech about shifting gears and to plan the rest of the game around getting to the Final Two with Clay. He was a bit too obvious about this betrayl, but there was nothing Ted could do, in no small part due to Jan's indecisiveness. With four left, Brian and Clay convinced both Helen and Jan that they were voting off the other, a move they'd probably planned in advance. This demonstrates the value of keeping around people like Jan, who are not only unimpressive enough to win many votes from the jury should they get that far, but also wishy-washy to the point that no one can make any use of them in a counter-alliance. Witness Sean Kenniff from Season I. This is yet another parallel between the strategies of Brian and Richard Hatch.
FOR THE RECORD
Now for some statistical observations about the season as a whole as it compares to past seasons...
Things which this season has in common with the others:
It turns out I was wrong last week when I compared the letter-hunt obstacle course to the olympiad challenges we've seen thrice before. That happened this week instead, and it was a good one. It's a shame two of the competitors couldn't make it past the second stage for most of the contest. Helen looked horribly frustrated and told us later she was angry, as she should be for being unable to make such a short distance on a balance beam. It shows us how much lack of nourishment affects equilibrium. Still, she seemed to be concentrating too much on each step. She might have been smarter to just take a wild leap when she was halfway across and hope to land on the beam headed in the right direction, since two steps would probably take her to the end. Waiting seemed to just make her problem worse, and stuffing the wicker ball into her shorts was just silly. It can't have weighed enough to unbalance her with it in her hand.
Anyway, it was a fine challenge aside from the lopsidedness of it. Putting the gross food item at the end was a nice touch, since in theory it might have brought down someone able to speed through everything but squeamish at the sight of a spider. But the item they chose probably should have been worse. Given how hungry the remaining survivors were, some of them might have mistaken the spider at the end of the course for a reward.
There isn't much to say about an obstacle course, so we turn to the final "belly of the whale" challenge, which featured perhaps the coolest design ever. It was one of the endurance family (how long can you stay up) that crops up at least once in each season, but different than any before. The contestants were required to stand in a stressed Thai position--knees bent, lower legs straight, palms up at chin level, neck straight--for as long as they could without dropping the coins between their fingers. Again, a great challenge was spoiled by below-average contestants. Brian's relaxation technique was great, and you could see that from the answer he gave Jeff, while Jan and Clay described what they were looking forward to doing after they got out. It was clear who was in his game.
On the other hand, no one could have expected Jan to win this. If it had been another totem pole like in Seasons I, III and IV, she might have beaten the younger men like Kim Johnson did, due to will and a lower center of gravity, but the actual position was hell on her aging body. She hung on valiantly, but after she left there was no contest left. Clay just gave up, knowing that Brian would take him into the Final Two. He even asked just after Brian had won, "Are we still good?" to which Brian answered in the affirmative. I wonder how long Clay would have lasted if he'd been fighting to stay in the game. I also wonder how Helen would have done at this challenge. The biggest shame is that we didn't even get to see the contestants dropping their coins one by one in finger-tensing agony. Jan and Clay just gave up and dropped all their coins at once. Way to spoil the drama, guys. It might actually have been easier for Jan to hold on if she'd dropped all the coins from one hand so she could relax that part of her body a little more. But maybe holding on tight was the best way to affirm her desire to win, up until the point when she knew she couldn't win anymore.
Then there was the final council before the jury, which in a sense is a challenge. It's a formal competition for results--the biggest result of all, really, and as Jake pointed out in his affable way, it's tough to be in the hot seat. Most commentators have said that Clay blew it during the final council. My own assessment is more even-handed. I think Clay was a little sloppy in his response to Erin, careless in implying that anyone would have done the same things he did to get that far, and a wimp when it came to Helen's question. But his opening statement was straight and effective, his answer for Penny was top-notch, his answer to Jan was the best he could do, and he was no less than honest to Ted and Jake. He didn't make too many mistakes at the council; he just wasn't able to cover up the ones he'd already made. Brian, on the other hand, was pathetic much of the time he spent in the spotlight. Has anyone noticed that like the classical liar, Brian rarely uses the word "I" when he can help it? He talks with the impersonal "you" a lot and also relies on the passive voice. In his opening statement he said things like "There was a focus on positive leadership" without saying whose focus it was. He answered Jan and Erin well and Jake decently, but he bombed with Penny, and he jumbled up his answers to Helen, Ted and Ken so much that it was painful. It was like his strategy was to keep trying different answers until he gave them the one they wanted. Sadly, with Helen and Ted this strategy was enough to work. I think if the jury had voted for the winner on a sliding scale instead of with single votes, Clay would have won. He was more popular overall. But Brian... well, Brian was the gamer, and he knew his game.
Jeff was the person who really shined in this finale. He made some great speeches throughout the show which, while kind of obvious, were useful recaps and not too repetitive, and he was especially interesting to listen to during the belly of the whale challenge. He brought out some interesting comments by pressing the issue of why Ted was voted out, served as a good moderator for the final tribal council, and did his level best to keep things moving in the reunion show, despite the use of too much overused footage. I wish I could give him Best Gamer, but since I can't...
Best Gamer: Brian. He won both challenges, kept his cool most of the time, deceived Helen, fast-talked Jan like a pro (oh wait--he IS a pro!), kept his alliance with Clay and saw his long-term strategy through to the end. He was far and away the best gamer of the series on many levels. Is he is a good man to play games with? That's another story.
2nd Best Gamer: Clay. Sticking with Brian was definitely the way to go for Clay to reach the winner's circle. Enough people were against him that he couldn't have done it any other way. He came in second on both challenges and held his own decently against the toughest jury Survivor has ever seen. And after all that he wasn't a sore loser.
2nd Worst Gamer: Helen. She didn't see it coming; she trusted Brian too much. Granted that Clay and Brian were convincing liars when they told her Jan was on the way out, but Helen had too much in her to go so easily. She didn't press hard enough with Jan. She fell too easily off the balance beam, just as she fell too easily out of the Final Four. And while some harsh words were called for as a member of the jury, in my opinion Helen went too far. At least she had the integrity to separate her grudge with Brian from her final vote, even though there was no precedent requiring her to do so.
Worst Gamer: Jan. Last place in both challenges, clueless about the course of the game, all too willing to give up any chance of winning. A funtioning robot, as she put it. Jan was a pawn in this game, and while she deserves a certain amount of pride for making it to third place, she was a little bit of a hypocrite for telling her students never to quit at anything they do. For practical purposes, Jan quit before she was gone at all.
Brief final assessments of the sixteen survivors' skill as gamers (not to be confused with their worth as people, which even a pretentious essayist like me is unentitled to judge).
John: A cipher.
Tanya: Too fragile to rely on.
Jed: A shooting star with lots of potential.
Ghandia: A heavy risk-taker.
Robb: Great at the fun games, not so great at the people games.
Shii Ann: Weak in some areas, strong in her own way.
Erin: Not interested in games.
Ken: A hard driver.
Penny: Crafty and intelligent, but not so much at games.
Jake: Willing to try his best at anything.
Ted: Solid and dependable.
Helen: Tough and determined.
Jan: A flop.
Clay: A demon, for better and for worse.
Brian: The man with the skillz.
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