1) It’s a fundamental aspect of human nature, I think, to resist endings
as much as we crave closure, we also hate to be reminded that everything – from our favorite TV shows to life itself – will eventually, inevitably, end.
And yet, all good things must – according to Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Troilus & Criseyde is one of the greatest works in the English language – come to an end.
Which means that I must overcome the inertia I am currently experiencing and put into words what I think and feel about Survivor: Blood vs. Water and the people who played it – some of whom I was fortunate enough to meet during my long weekend in the City of Angels.
Time for me to dig deep, accept that another season is in the books, and start doing what the rest of you are doing: thinking about the newbie castaways of Survivor: Cagayan.
So here it is, my faithful readers, the final Baker’s Dozen of the season.
2) Tyson is a worthy winner – but the jury’s still out if this was a top-tier victory.
A column or two ago, I mentioned that Tyson’s edit reminded me of Boston Rob’s in Redemption Island – from his commanding control of his alliance, to the discovery of idols and winning endgame challenges, the parallels were endless and eerie. Tyson, to be fair, wasn’t quite as dominant as his mentor, but he was up against significantly stiffer competition; Boston Rob was surrounded by sheep, while Tyson had the clichéd task of herding cats.
So why do I resist immediately speaking about Tyson in the same hushed, respectful tones we reserve for Hall of Famers? Three reasons: first, he’d HATE that... second, I believe there should be a waiting period before enshrinement (I’m looking at you Cochran; you played a great game, but time is necessary to provide perspective)… and third, because half-and-half season formats are problematic: Tyson’s win was predicated on having bigger returnee threats around (Aras), crushing the loved ones in early challenges (inevitable), and having the newbies unable to see the strategy right in front of them until it was too late.
How, then, can Tyson prove himself any more than he already has? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but he’s gotta play a fourth time: when we eventually get an All Winners or “Legends” season, Tyson’s gotta go out there – and if he wants to be considered one of the game’s greatest, he’ll have to make a deep run. If Blood vs. Water is the last time that he plays Survivor, though – which I think is highly likely – he will cement his legacy as a more successful and entertaining version of Coach: a guy who, in his third time out there, finally put it all together.
If you think, having read what I just wrote, that I’m not being fair, or feel that I don’t like Tyson as a player or a person, nothing could be further from the truth: I’ve been singing Tyson’s praises all season long, and given his triple threat status, if Tyson were to play against a murderer’s row of Survivor superstars, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see him join Sandra as a two-time winner.
3) Speaking of winners, as I was writing about Tyson, I realized that we’re six seasons removed from an underwhelming Sole Survivor
(Fabio, in Nicaragua).
Since then? Boston Rob (yes, Redemption Island sucked, but Boston Rob did what he was supposed to do – which is easier said than done), Sophie, Kim, Denise, Cochran, Tyson. An impressive – and impressively diverse – group of winners, don’t you think? Just looking at that list reinforces my faith that no matter how much they meddle with the formula, the players who get to the end and win are, more often than not, pretty darn good at the game.
And Tyson is better than good – he may very well be great.
Let’s hope that someday – perhaps someday soon (Season 30?) – we’ll find out.
4) Before moving onto other players – and other seasons – three final thoughts on Tyson:
** For me, the best moment from the jury questioning was when the three finalists were asked who they would vote for. Gervase and Monica said Tyson… and Tyson, astutely sussing out the point and purpose of the question, said Monica. In that moment, Tyson could have made crucial mistake and given Gervase some credit for the moves they made together; instead, he suggested that Monica was more worthy, thanks to her immunity challenge wins. This was hardly the deciding factor – Tyson had the game wrapped up long before the final Tribal Council – but it proved once again that Tyson was on top of things every step of the way, and he was playing the game even when the game was pretty much over. Impressive.
** I had two diametrically opposed reactions to Tyson’s tears: on the one hand, they seemed manufactured, a calculated attempt to gain sympathy and empathy from the jury; on the other hand, they felt so very, very real. Eventually, I gave up trying to decide which of these two reactions would prevail, instead reconciling them; as always, contradictory things can be true, and in this case, the tears were fake and real, real and fake. On a metaphysical level, they’re symbolic of Tyson as a player; being thrice-forged in the Survivor fire, Tyson is a reality show construct, someone and something that is both fake and real. He is who we see on the show: snarky, arrogant, and rude… fun-loving, focused, and sly. He would also adamantly deny that who we see is who he is – and he’d be right about that. Those tears – which were triggered by his feelings for Rachel, but were also evidence of his exhaustion as well as a sign that the dam of disbelief had given way and that he was on the precipice of acceptance, validation, and redemption – Tyson knew they were coming, and he welcomed them, both because they would get him one step closer to his goal, but also because they were real, they were his, and finally, after three seasons and 81 days, there was no reason to hold them back anymore.
** So many of the Blood vs. Water players consumed the Dozen this season – a humbling surprise, truth be told – but I have no earthly idea if Tyson ever checked it out. In the event that he is, let me say this: Helluva game, dude – may your Coconut Banditry live on in the hearts and minds of Survivor fans for many seasons to come.
5) Monica earned the right to finish second.
There was a moment during the final Tribal Council when I truly felt for Monica: “Haven’t any of you met a nice person?” she asked, her voice quavering as she searched the eyes and hearts and souls of the jury for some understanding, some compassion, some sympathy. “What’s y’all’s goal?” In that moment, I finally got what I was seeking from her all season long: an empathetic connection with someone who walks this world wearing emotional armor. For a breathless minute, perhaps two, the visor lifted, her masks were lowered – and we saw what lies beneath. It was a moment of aching beauty.
But it wasn’t enough – and it couldn’t possibly have been. When so many jurors feel that they don’t know you – in a game that’s all about empathy, which is all about connection – you cannot win. Despite the innumerable conversations Monica had with each and every member of the post-merge tribe, none of them felt they understood her. Within the game of Survivor, there are endless hours of shared soul-searching – in the jungle, on the beach, around the fire – and yet not a single castaway had sounded the depths of her soul; if we cannot look into the eyes of another and see ourselves, then we cannot fathom the fathoms of the endless and stormy seas that shape our stories – and these stories are really one story because we’re all in this narrative together. I don’t know if Monica kept herself apart, or above, or away, but whatever the truth, whatever her path, she didn’t share the journey with her fellow travelers, which is why the jury was so relentlessly cruel.
One of the more revealing conversations I had during finale weekend was with a number of Monica’s One World castaway cast-mates. What they told me is that during their season, they felt the same way about Monica – they didn’t feel like they knew her, because she was always making everything about them. She cooked, gathered, cleaned, and washed, and the other players kept wondering, “Who is this person? No one is this nice! Is this her game – or is this who she really is?” It was only later – when they had been able to spend time with Monica outside of the game – that they realized that Monica is, in fact, one of the nicest people they’ve ever met. This is indeed who she is: kind, thoughtful, generous. It’s not calculated. It’s how she’s wired. And in a world that could use more kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity, this is a good and great and wonderful thing.
Could Monica, as a Survivor player, learn a thing or two about empathy? Absolutely. Sometimes, Survivor turns people into versions of themselves they can barely recognize, and I think – given how baffled and damaged and hurt Monica was during the final Tribal Council – this is one of those times. In the end, I’m going to take the One Worlder’s word for it that Monica outside the game is everything Monica inside the game finds herself unable to be: warm and welcoming and wonderful.
And that Monica I’d really like to meet.
6) Gervase is a really nice guy who – despite ample evidence that Sunday night wasn’t going to end as he’d hoped – was optimistic about his chances right up until Probst pulled the pieces of parchment out of the urn.
About halfway through the season, I had Gervase pegged as a potential winner – he was saying all the right things during confessionals and at Tribal Council – but the moment he decided to go to the end with Tyson was the moment that he lost the game. I understand why he made that choice – it was his most certain path to the Final 3 – but it utterly annihilated his opportunity to make a compelling argument once he got there.
A lot of pundits and pontificators are suggesting that Gervase played a great social game this season, and I agree with them: in general, it feels like the other players enjoyed his company, and he was adept at stitching up the ragged edges that existed after a player was cut from the fabric of the tribe. Having spoken with Gervase this past weekend, I totally understand why the castaways embraced him: it’s impossible not to like the guy. He’s high energy, engaging, and endlessly charming.
And yet, I think that the connections Gervase made in the game were far shallower than they needed to be; on a deeper level, his social game was flawed: despite getting repeated reminders that Tyson was seen as the alliance mastermind, Gervase either didn’t know – or more likely didn’t accept – how others perceived him. A social game like Survivor demands that players face a number of uncomfortable realities all at once: how they see others, how others see them, and how others see themselves… and at the heart of it all, they have to see themselves clearly, objectively, and without judgment. It is hard – impossibly hard – to peer through all of these prisms simultaneously, and yet that is what the game demands. So few players can do it over the course of 39 days – indeed, it’s remarkable that anyone can do it under those conditions – so the fact that the read Gervase had on the game, the players, and himself was distorted by ego and fear and hope isn’t surprising in the least.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m thrilled that Gervase got to the end – I enjoyed watching him all season long – and I hope that now, or once he’s had enough time and distance to put everything into perspective, he understands the way and the how and the why of his third place finish.
7) Now that I’m finished with the finalists, some quick thoughts on the Finale:
** I love that Tina returned to the game – but I hope we never find out if the jury would reward someone who emerged from Redemption Island. Ozzy almost pulled it off, and Tina was one challenge win from forcing the booted castaways to decide if she was worthy of the title. The return of Redemption was a net positive this season – the drama was almost worth the disruption to the rhythms of the game – but if a player ever earns the title of Sole Survivor after being voted out, that player is instantly the worst winner the game has ever seen.
** Gervase and Monica should not have gone along with Tyson’s plan to play the idol at Final 5. Everyone involved knew it was unnecessary – there was no way Monica was going to flip – which means that Gervase and Monica had to ask themselves, and each other, what purpose this farce would serve. The answer to that question? It would make Tyson look good (he protected his partner), make Gervase seem weak (he needed protecting), and make Monica appear spineless (not only would it look like she was outmaneuvered by Tyson, but given that she didn’t vote for Gervase, the jury would conclude that she passed up yet another opportunity to make a big move). The only person that this helped was Tyson – which is why Gervase and Monica should have told him, “Keep it as a memento so that you don’t have to buy it at auction.”
** I loved seeing Tyson and Gervase talk about the possibility of Monica winning, first because I enjoy when players think through each and every permutation, however unlikely the scenario; and second because Tyson was using the pronoun “us,” making Gervase feel like a co-contender. Small words can have a huge impact: inclusive pronouns can pave the path to victory.
** Sometimes, I just don’t understand the editing logic: why try to convince viewers that Monica was seriously considering Tina’s plan to force a tie at Final 4? Monica wanted Tina to go home at Final 5, and at least part of her reasoning was that Tina bullied her. And now we’re supposed to buy into the possibility that Monica wants her, and not Gervase, in the Final 3? Silly editors.
** I agree with Probst – and Ciera – whole-heartedly: No one should ever play for fourth. I’ll take it a step further: Castaways shouldn’t play for second or third, either. Gervase and Monica chose to get to the end rather than have a chance to win… and that’s why Tyson is a millionaire.
** As much as I hate giving Mr. Irrelevant any air time, here’s my reaction to Colton’s AARP comment: What a sad, damaged, and insecure person he must be. I know it’s pure folly for me to say this, but please, Probst, put your foot down: Colton should never play again. There are players we love… players we hate… and players we love to hate. And then there’s Colton, who is none of these things. He’s bitter and a quitter and his moment in the Survivor sun should be over.
And now some quick reactions to my encounters with castaways during Finale weekend:
8) The cast of One World is really cool.
With three members of One World returning this season – Monica, Colton, and Kat – it’s hardly surprising that so many of their fellow players were in town for the Finale. What surprised me was how close they are, and how gracious they were with fans – such as yours truly – who were eager to hear their stories. While I understand why some folks can’t stand the season, it’s impossible not to like these players as people. Jonas was thoughtful, Troyzan was funny, Jay was photogenic – and all of them together were generous with their time and their stories, which made for one long and delightful night in the lounge of the Universal Hilton.
A special shout-out to Matt Quinlan, who, back in early 2012, was the first to embrace the Baker’s Dozen; he helped open a lot of doors for me, and for that I will be forever grateful. When you meet a lot of Survivor players, you can’t help but wonder why and how they stood out from the rest of the casting hopefuls; that’s not the case with Matt: spend ten minutes talking to the guy (this was the first time I had seen him in person), and you immediately understand why he was plucked from obscurity to play our favorite game. The man is a force of nature. My favorite moment from my conversation with him (and his impossibly sweet long-time girlfriend): When I mentioned a One World secret scene in which he was gouging a new hole in his belt because of his dramatic weight loss, Matt pulled off the belt he was wearing – right in the middle of the lounge – to show us that improvised belt hole: yep, he was wearing the self-same belt, and there it was, a tiny gouge in the leather that had been hacked there by a machete. What are the odds? And yet it was that kind of night.
9) The members of Blood vs. Water couldn’t have been nicer.
** I ran into Katie at the cast hotel, and in five minutes I experienced more personality from her than the editors gave us all season. What a delightful young woman – captivating and engaging. Given what she and her mom are enduring right now, I was especially impressed with how upbeat – and yet contemplative and grounded – she was.
** I didn’t get to speak with him for too long, but Aras was amusing and insightful – the guy simply understands Survivor better than just about the rest of us put together. I found it particularly fascinating listening to him speak with Cochran (who, I was thrilled to find out, is a reader of the Dozen); two winners swapping stories is an experience not to be missed. Fascinating.
** Candice and John were afterparty superstars; Candice went out of her way to say that she’s grateful for all of the people who blogged about the season (from Jeff and TDT to all of my old cohorts at RHAP), and John was so animated and honest about his experience in the game that I can’t help but want to see him play in a season that isn’t dominated by returning players.
** For a guy whose young life has been heavily shaped by reality game shows, Hayden was surprisingly grounded and reflective. I mean, I understand why casting loves him – he’s even more handsome and charismatic in person than he is on TV – but he’s more substantive than that. (For more on the Big Brother winner – who had the quote of the weekend – read #11 below).
10) Perhaps the most fascinating person I met was none other than Vytas.
First, an observation that may strike many of you as peculiar but is no less true: Vytas is a really solid yoga instructor. As a novice yoga teacher myself – and someone who is about three years into his own yoga journey – I was eager to attend one of his classes while I was out in L.A. Given the underlying philosophy of what he said and did within the game, as well as what he shared about his views on life, I had a feeling that he would bring an authenticity and connectedness to his teaching – and he surpassed even my lofty expectations. (His classes aren’t for the faint of heart, though; his approach will challenge both mind and body.)
How refreshing, too, to have Vytas give me some constructive criticism at the afterparty. He had two complaints about my recent columns: one, that I shouldn’t be apologizing or eating crow (I believe he may have said, “own your truth” – something I endeavor, and yet sometimes fail, to do); and two, that Tyson, and not Hayden, was the Player of the Season. On the latter point, I was completely confused; in the moment, I didn’t recall having said such a thing. And so I searched the archives – and finally figured out where I had gone so wrong:
As many people have noted, there wasn’t a Sprint Fan Favorite this season (Sprint no longer sponsors the show); stepping into the breach, however, was Rob Cesternino (another one of my afterparty encounters – was great to see him), who invited Survivor fans to vote for the Player of the Season over at RHAP.
Here’s the problem: “Fan Favorite” and “Player of the Season” are two TOTALLY different things. And yet they’re somehow conflated into one award. Hayden is the sort of player who wins “Fan Favorite” – he made some high-profile late-game moves and shaped the season’s most memorable moment (the drawing of rocks) – and, had Sprint stuck around as a sponsor for one more season, Hayden would be $100k richer (one-fifth of his Big Brother haul!).
But to be clear, Vytas – and everyone else who thought I was a blathering idiot for telling people to vote for Hayden – I agree with you: the only person who can rightly be named the Player of the Season is Tyson “Kingslayer” Apostol.
11) Hayden introduced me to someone named “Jess” at the Finale afterparty – and now I’m trying to figure out who she is.
I got the sense from what Hayden was saying to her that she works for CBS and the Survivor production team; he was thanking her for a great season and assuring her that his overall experience was a wonderful one.
Anyway, when Hayden introduced me, it was clear that “Jess” was aware of the Baker’s Dozen… and her reaction, which was really little more than a facial expression, was a complex one, and really, what I’m trying to do here is better understand that moment. (Also, to be ruthlessly honest, I find it interesting that I have pinged on the CBS radar, even if the reasons for that might not be, on the whole, positive; as regular readers of this column know, I got into the Baker’s Dozen business at least in part because I want to play the game, and step one of that process is to get noticed, whatever the reason.)
And so I turn to you, my readers: If you know “Jess,” do me a kindness and point her to this column – and tell her that I’ve included the message I would have sent, had I possessed the foresight to ask for her email address last Sunday:
Andy Baker here, writer of the Baker's Dozen – Hayden introduced us on Sunday night.
Your expression when Hayden told you my name was... enigmatic. Bemused, to be sure. Mildly annoyed, too, perhaps. It was certainly a moment of recognition – for both of us – that you knew who I was and that I, in turn, knew you knew. Just thinking about that moment makes me smile even now.
Anyway, I just wanted to reach out and say that the reasons you know the column, and why Hayden didn't need to explain who I was once you heard the name – I hope that they're not all negative. I understand how and why the CBS production team might not be thrilled with me (both because of the content of my column and my endless efforts over the weekend to attend the finale), but I hope you know that the reason I write about Survivor is because, deep down, I care about and respect the show and the people who make it. I could be writing about any number of things – I worked in your industry for almost a decade as a creative exec and writer – but the Baker's Dozen is, in the end, a labor of love.
It's true what Hayden said: I write with honesty. What I say is never meant to be mean – just filled with truth, my truth, not "The Truth," because truth is an endlessly subjective thing. The end result is material that in one form or another triggers the sort of response that Hayden had: "There were times when you weren't very nice to me and Kat and I wanted to punch you in the face. But then I'd think, yeah, you know, he's right. And then there were other times I was like, 'Yeah, Baker, you rock!'"
I have a feeling that anyone within CBS who's even aware that my blog exists wants to punch me in the face from time to time, but hopefully there are moments when y'all think I rock. In the end, it's no accident that so many players have responded so positively to what I have to say – in my years of writing, I have discovered that only truth resonates quite that way.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that it was a pleasure to meet you. Truly. I wish only unbridled success for you and the rest of the Survivor production team, and I hope that our paths cross again somewhere down the line.
All the best,
12) I love that Survivor: Cagayan is an all-newbie season, but I’m gonna reserve judgment on the Brawn vs. Brains vs. Beauty construct.
While I love the three-tribe format – which worked beautifully in Survivor: Philippines – I worry about the intrinsic casting constraints that the categories bring with them. I imagine that in each tribe, we’ll get an even gender split, and I fear that at least one man and woman will be a stereotypical representative of the tribal cliché. One need look no further than Big Brother 11 to see just how reductionist the casting process can become when they’re attempting to embody tropes rather than search for the best players available. And it goes without saying, but the best players fall into more than one category; here’s hoping that the players who make the merge are double or – dare I hope for it? – triple threats.
(By the by, if you’re wondering whether or not I’m disappointed that I wasn’t cast on the “Brains” tribe, the answer is yes.)
13) I shall end with an earnest and heartfelt thank you…
… because I deeply appreciate the fact that you’ve been reading my column this season, particularly in light of my abrupt departure in the middle of Survivor: Caramoan. Meeting players is cool and all, but interacting with fans is what this is all about. If you didn’t read what I write – and, for some of you, sharing comments below – I would be just another Survivor obsessive bellowing into the abyss wondering why no one responds.
I don’t know yet if I’ll be writing about Survivor: Cagayan – this column consumes a lot of time, and there’s other stories to be written, other tales to tell – but there’s a good chance I won’t be able to resist.
If I’m back in February, I’ll let you know – and I hope you’ll join me.
It’s been fun.
That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – if you’d like to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below!
Andy Baker is a Survivor blogger who wants nothing more than to get a back rub from Jeff Probst the next time he's thinking about quitting his column. Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius