Okay, yeah, we know: we said the same thing last season. To be honest, there were subtle improvements in Redemption Island this season. All the post-merge duels were actually pretty good, the limited use of multi-duels eliminated some of the previous season's RI bloat, and having only the actual winner of the duel stay in the game (as opposed to everyone but the last-place finisher) gave the duels a greater sense of urgency. These improvements, however, were not enough to overcome Redemption Island's inherent flaws as an insufferable, pointless, attention-draining bore. True, it could have been worse: had Ozzy just done slightly better on the Final 4 IC, he could have coasted to an easy jury victory, despite having already been voted out twice, and having only played Survivor for two days (and then, only at the challenges) since day 22.
But let's be honest: Redemption Island is indeed pointless. Four times, the winner of a re-entry duel has come back into the game: Matt, Andrea, Ozzy, Ozzy. And each of those four times, that person has been voted right back out again as soon as they were eligible (Ozzy briefly delayed this each time by winning an IC). That's not "redemption," that's procrastination. Or at least Purgatory. Apart from providing even more opportunities to show Ozzy spearing fish, what did Redemption Island really accomplish? Nothing. (Okay, it was cool to see Christine for a few more episodes after her boot, but still....)
And that's not even the end of its faults. Gone are game-ending blindsides, filled with emotion. In their place: a surprise boot, followed by mutual pandering/hostility opportunities between soon-to-be jurors and people still in the game. Gone: solemn marches out of tribal council into the blue-lit finality of the night. In: painful, tear-filled back-and-forths with Jeff Probst on the meaning of the experience, followed by forced incineration of buffs, and a hike into broad daylight. It's just wrong. Fire represents life, except at Redemption Island, where it takes your life, and your buff. (Okay, it was good on this one occasion only.)
On the one hand, it's rumored that next season, Survivor: One World, will be blissfully devoid of Redemption Island, which (if true) is worth celebrating. On the other hand, nothing in the One World preview suggested that Redemption Island won't be back in a later season. Worse yet, Probst's giddy goading of the audience to cheer for his repulsive Russell vs. Brandon concept suggests that not only could the dual-returnee format (which should never be seen again) return, but so could Redemption. Exile Island was fittingly killed off by Coach after Tocantins. Please let his third appearance do the same for Redemption. Please.
You could make the case (as SuperJude did) that Sophie deserves this prize. It's a consistent difficulty for Survivor's editors to show female winners more often than in passing, for reasons that are clear only to the editors themselves. But Sophie did at least get the "I suspect Brandon's hiding something" storyline in Ep1, not to mention a million dollars with which to console herself. Other people, like the guy America chose to put on Survivor (Rick, a.k.a. Moustache Man, a.k.a. Cowboy, a.k.a. this season's ICU! grand prize winner), were barely even seen. And he finished in fifth place! Rick's screentime shortchange wasn't the only one, though. The editors couldn't be bothered to show much of anyone who wasn't Coach, Ozzy, Brandon, or Cochran this season.
Part of the problem is the inherent flaw of the two-returning-players format. They're brought back because the producers and/or CBS think (rightly or wrongly) the audience wants to see them. The editors then feel obligated to show more of them, since they think the audience wants to see them. It's a positive feedback loop, which eventually gives you 20 minutes of Coach, even though you weren't all that excited about seeing him in the first place. Sure, it's quite possible that some players didn't say all that much that was worth putting into the show. But we shouldn't keep harping on Ozzy. He does catch fish, after all.
Still, we do question the wisdom of having 18 or more castmembers, when everyone knows good and well that only four or five of them will get any consistent screen time, and the rest will have to be content with occasionally being shown in a negative light whenever they're that episode's decoy boot target (see Ep4, "Everybody Hates Edna"). But what do we know about Survivor? We just watch it.
In a lot of ways, this was a good season for challenges. While the epic builds of the past were pretty much confined to the start and end of the season, the challenges (especially the duels) were a step up from Redemption Island's rut of "get bags, do a painfully simple puzzle." The puzzle avoidance did result in an overdependence on balance - pretty much every challenge until (the amusingly uncoordinated) Cochran became a juror involved balance, and then the puzzles came out in force.
But perhaps the mark of a good mix of challenges is that no one player dominates them all. True, Ozzy had two immunity challenge wins to add to his string of duel victories, and Christine's duel run preceded his own. But apart from Sophie's impressive three individual challenge wins, the rest were all one-offs: Dawn, Jim, Whitney, Coach, Albert, Brandon. Likewise, the pre-merge was a constant seesaw for dominance between Savaii and Upolu. Cochran may not have been The Chosen One of whom the prophecies spoke, but he did bring balance to the course.
Despite the strength of this cast, the number of winning "big moves" made in the name of strategy can be counted on one finger. And to be fair, the architect and operator of that sole maneuever (convincing Cochran to vote with Upolu at the merge) was Coach, and not Sophie. But it's Sophie who is the recipient of this season's overall Slitty Award for strategy.
Why did Coach not win the overall prize? While he made some tremendous strategic strides from his previous games, skillfully arranging a stable alliance of five from the first day, then guiding that group through to post-merge dominance, he also made some grievous errors:
So why was Sophie's strategic game superior, when, from the rare glimpses of it that the editors allowed us to see, it seemed to consist mostly of telling Albert to drop his semi-hourly cockamamie schemes? Here's another list:
All in all, while Coach was good (and far better than we had expected going in), Sophie was just better. And that earned her one million dollars, plus this season's overall Slitty Award. We're pretty sure we know which one she'll treasure more.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Sophie Clarke & the final six