John Cochran is now an official winner of Survivor, the game he's studied religiously for more than a dozen years.
The recent Harvard Law School graduate defied the odds, winning four immunity challenges to earn a spot among the final three beside Dawn and Sherri.
Virtually no one—especially the shy, insecure Sole Survivor himself—could have predicted that he'd claim the million-dollar prize. Before his surprising winning streak, the scrawny self-defeatist said at the final Tribal Council, he satisfied only a third of the requirements of Survivor's "outwit, outplay, outlast" motto.
But through his strong alliances, bold strategy, and unlikely challenge wins, Cochran did outwiit, outplay, and outlast his competitors, and was crowned the champion of the show's 26th season.
He wasn't the night's only winner: Malcolm Freberg took home the $100,000 prize for Fan Favorite, just squeaking past Brenda in the voting.
The Fans vs. Favorites finale opened with a shocker: Minutes after blindsiding Brenda, another castaway was sent home. Erik Reichenbach became dizzy and disoriented during Tribal Council, and it wasn't due to surprise over Dawn and Cochran's cunning plan. Before the final five left for camp, Jeff Probst brought in the show's physician to check out the floppy-haired former ice cream scooper.
It turned out that his desperate, fruitless climb up a towering palm tree in search of a coconut wasn't just a stunt: The doc said that Erik's body couldn't compensate for his starvation state, and not enough blood was going to his head. With EMT Eddie calling the play-by-play, the medics administered IV fluids to try to rehydrate the fallen Favorite, but it was too late: After 36 days, Erik was medically removed from the show.
In moments, the game was once again turned on its head. Suddenly Cochran and Eddie, whose very likability had painted huge targets on their backs, had a one-in-four shot.
Cochran's odds improved even more when he won his third challenge—and was rewarded with an advantage in the final immunity challenge. (A similar advantage with a rope had enabled him to outlast the others in a previous contest.)
The bespectacled brainiac was the first castaway to build a tower of tiles to a designated height. Although his "house of cards" collapsed several times at the outset, he didn't give up, and once again Probst declared him the unlikely winner.
Back at camp, Cochran privately crowed about being the "challenge beast," and tried to gauge where he stood with his partner.
"Every day I get to see a new freakout from Dawn," he noted. "Fortunately, today was leaning toward the catatonic breakdown."
In the final immunity challenge, Castaways climbed upward to a platform to retrieve three bags of puzzle pieces, returning via a water slide. So what was his advantage? Not having to untie the knots on his set of bags. He'd already begun working on his puzzle before the others returned with their pieces. Yet Cochran's lead suddenly evaporated as Dawn quickly assembled her own standing jigsaw.
(While Cochran soon caught up, Eddie struggled to attach a single component. Guy never stood a chance.)
Against all odds, Cochran won his fourth individual challenge, and a place among the final three. Now he had to decide who to take with him to the end: Sherri (who?), Dawn the human waterfall, or Eddie, the "chauvinistic, 23-year-old idiot."
Eddie campaigned by revealing his plans for the million-dollar prize, should he win it: He wanted to open a combination dog shelter and bar.
Before the jury, the others pleaded their case to earn a spot beside Cochran in the final. Dawn asserted that she'd maligned herself with much of the jury, Eddie said he'd never really played the game, and Sherri said she'd made core alliances. Sherri voted for Eddie, Eddie and Dawn voted for each other, but Eddie's was the last torch snuffed. "You're the one person who could beat me," Cochran said as he cast the deciding vote.
The next morning, the remaining trio celebrated with a hearty breakfast, which served to dry up Dawn's tear ducts for the day. As Cochran contemplated the big night ahead, he recalled a college paper he wrote, an analysis of Survivor from the point-of-view of a super fan.
"Sorry, Harvard," he grumbled, "you haven't taught me much about how to address a jury,"
The last Tribal Council began with opening statements from the finalists. Dawn argued that strategy had been her priority, with Cochran as her ally from the beginning. To play the game like football, said the otherwise sweet and generous mom of six, she had to be ready to tackle. Brenda glared at her.
No one listened as Sherri (who?) rambled about her resume, and Cochran was predictably eloquent. Then the jury took over.
Malcolm ignored Sherri, and told Dawn he was her best friend. He said she'd have his vote if she'd step up and own the "cold-blooded," ruthless way she played the game rather than playing the mom card.
The jury erupted in giggles when Sherri asserted she was playing the game.
They also collapsed in laughter when Phillip fired Sherri from Stealth R' Us. He dissed Dawn's disruptiveness, and called Cochran a "class act." (Does he still feel this way after seeing all of Cochran's private interviews, I wonder?)
Erik slammed Dawn for betraying Brenda and called Sherri a "seashell on the beach"; then, in another Survivor first, a finalist told a jury member to sit down and shut up. (Erik complied.)
Michael questioned Dawn about why Cochran wasn't also on the receiving end of all the jury's hate, and she took credit for him making it this far. His response: "If I hadn't become your therapist, you wouldn't still be in this game."
Reynold called Dawn disingenuous and fraudulent, and she thanked him for the insight. When he asked her to return the favor, she called him chauvinistic, funny, and vulgar.
Andrea insisted she wasn't bitter and said it was "awesome" to leave the game with the Immunity Idol in her pocket. She sympathized with Dawn, asked Cochran to compare himself to an animal (chameleon) and ignored Sherri (who?).
Finally, Bitter Brenda stood up. She took Dawn back to the day she rescued the wailing woman and her dental retainer. The blindsided babe tasted revenge when she persuaded Dawn to reveal the gaping hole in her lower jaw to the jury—and millions of viewers.
"I don't think I'm gonna win," Dawn accurately predicted before Cochran was named Sole Survivor, "but I think I'm going to be able to buy myself some new teeth."
While introducing Brenda, who appeared via satellite on the live reunion show, Jeff Probst said that Dawn "bit her in the butt" after literally finding her missing teeth.
The two women haven't spoken since they left the Philippines last year, and Dawn admitted that she has received so much backlash from aggrieved viewers that she deactivated her Twitter account. But it wasn't animosity or hurt feelings that kept Brenda away from the reunion—she's nine months pregnant with her first child, and she bared her belly to prove it.
The baby is also proof that Brenda won't be back next season, which many suspect is going to involve former players and their loved ones. In lieu of the reunion show's customary reveal about the upcoming location, Jeff Probst instead showed a single clue: a drop of blood falling into water. (Later, he showed a graphic with the title "Blood vs. Water.")
Is it too much to hope that one of the contestants is Boston Rob? The four-time player and Redemption Island winner was in the audience with his wife, Amber, herself a Survivor champ. In his trademark red baseball cap, Rob told Probst that he was there to present a gift to Phillip Sheppard, who inspired him to put pen to paper and publish his own "BR Rules," which he presented to the Specialist on stage.
What'd you think of the finale? Did the right person win?