The Survivor Finale: Jury My Heart In Samoa

Well, was it the Worst Jury Decision Evar!1! as many folks are crowing, or did the truly sneaky player deservedly get the spoils? That seems to be the big debate about last night's Survivor finale, which saw an all-time show favorite pitted against a nicer, more subtle player.

I'll just come out and say it. I'm glad Natalie won. Earlier in the season I would have told you that I didn't want Russell to win because he was an arrogant bully, a bit of a woman-hater, and a completely scrupleless player in a game that does, in the end, demand some amount of social grace. But now I'd hinge my distaste for Russell solely on that last point. Did Russell deserve to win the game if it was decided in a jury-less vacuum? Yeah, he probably did. But he knew from day one, as everyone else did, that ultimately a bunch of potentially pissed-off people were going to be the ones who decided to hand over the cool million, and he didn't seem to pay much attention to that. Natalie did and thus, in my estimation, played the game just a little bit more fully than Russell.

Or maybe, rather, she didn't play the game at all, which is, you know, one way to actually play it. She sneaked in there behind Russell, only darting her head out to get Erik voted off, and effectively used the bulldog as a blocker until she was at the one yard line and then tip-toed into the endzone for the win. It's definitely a more passive and less exciting strategy than Russell's big grand theatrics, but it certainly proved more effective in the end. She also managed to somehow distinguish herself from Mick, the other relative non-entity in the final three, which indicates to me that she did something else right. And, as I saw a commenter note on another site, Natalie was the reason Erik got voted off, and then Erik was (likely) the reason Natalie won. She somehow managed to turn a negative into a positive, and I suggest that there was definitely some skill at work there.

As much as folks might bemoan the fact that Natalie just rode those proverbial coattails, she wasn't the one pushing Russell to stick his neck out there and make himself a big, bald target. That was an active choice he made, and it bit him in the ass in the end. I suspect he could have played a quieter, but no less cunning, game and walked away with the million. But he was just too brazen and brash and boastful about his success and didn't seem to think that he needed to work for the jury's votes. Which clearly proved a mistake.

I guess the question then comes down to this: When is the game over? Is the game over when the last player is eliminated before the finals? If that's the case, then Russell was certainly the best player. But, as the rules of the game stand now, the only way to secure victory is to effectively sell yourself all the way up to the point when the last jury vote is cast. In that regard, Russell dropped the ball by 1) picking the wrong people to bring to the finals and 2) not doing much to win the jury's sympathy. Those are two enormous fumbles, and ones that do seem to tarnish the argument that Russ was one of the best contestants in the show's history. Best for the first 38 and a half days? Yep. But he lost it there in the all-too-crucial end stages. Natalie played a smooth, clean game of competent but unassuming team member all the way through the finale and, whether we agree with the format or not, clinched the jury—the show's most important elimination challenge.

That said, it certainly wasn't a terribly thrilling conclusion to what had otherwise been a cutthroat and nerve-jangling season. Brett made up for his general nobodiness in the end by throwing an immunity-laden wrench into Foa Foa's gears there for a bit. And, you know, he was really cute. So good for him. Mick began to look more and more pathetic as the final episode wore on—the kind of guy who never really had a plan and then tried to make that look like a plan. At least Natalie owned up to hiding behind Russell. Mick just tried to make his longevity seem like some sort of moral victory, which was a pretty weak play. I was surprised by shambling shambles Shambo's venom for both Mick and Natalie, and when I spoke with Natalie via satellite this morning she told me she was just as shocked. (Video on that brief interview ought to be forthcoming.) I thought Erik's emotional outburst was a bit silly, though effective. It's clear that this kid really thinks about the game, and it did make me wish he'd stuck around a little bit longer. I think he could have been exciting to watch as the days on the island winnowed away.

It was funny to see everyone at the Reunion all fattened and be-makeover'd. To be perfectly honest? I think I preferred some of them skinny. (Brett, I'm looking in your direction. Sigh.) I definitely preferred Natalie's island style, makeup-free and a huge tumble of hair messily piled atop her head, to her done-up pageant look during the live broadcast. And Russell deserved to lose for his bizarre outfit alone. That silly hat! I've never seen him look pitiful before. It was jarring.

Well, that's all I really have to say about that, I guess. Again, I can't complain about Natalie's victory—she got the votes, and that's the whole point—though I do understand the grumbling that, in a perfect world, Russell should have been given the crown and peg-legged off into the sunset with a million pirate doubloons in hand. But this isn't a perfect world! It's the delightfully, frustratingly, beguilingly imperfect Survivor, an adventure I think is still worth watching unfold, despite its obvious human flaws. Feel free to wildly disagree with me in the comments below.

Also? What do you think about this impending "Heroes vs. Villains" season? Mostly I'm curious as to how they make the value judgments about each player. Who's good, who's bad, etc. Essentially everyone's bad on Survivor, so maybe the Heroes team will just be old cast members who were the lesser evils. And how far back into seasons past do you think they'll reach? What if Kelly Wiglesworth showed up? That'd be something, huh?

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