This season was filled with big personalities, strong players, surprise (apparent) power shifts, and attempted coups that fell apart. There were underdogs who overcame adversity, and obsessive competitors who wrung every feasible drop of advantage out of their circumstances. Best of all, because this season remained unspoiled to the end (thank you, Cagayan cast and crew, for keeping your mouths shut), every step along the way carried the element of surprise. All in all, it was a great season, perhaps one of Survivor's finest ever.
In our view, Cagayan stacks up well against the likes of Heroes vs. Villains and especially Micronesia (which we're not that fond of to begin with), particularly because there were no returning players. As John Cochran noted on RHAP, these contestants performed with an authenticity that is often lacking when players are brought back after having watched themselves on TV for one or more seasons. The Cagayan cast's sincere reactions to the events as they unfolded made this season far more watchable than the semi-scripted confessionals and antics of a Phillip or a Russell or a Rupert or a Parvati back for their third, fourth, or fifth try. Furthermore, Cagayan wasn't saddled with unfortunate twists like Redemption Island (which dragged Blood vs. Water down post-merge). Cagayan did have its flaws, mainly an excessive number of hidden idols, especially the "Special" one, although we take a certain delight in observing that despite a whopping six idols being found, only four were used, and none of them erased a single vote. Even so, Tony deserves special credit for cleverly wielding his idols as a threat, even beyond the point at which they had expired.
In the end, much of the excellence of Cagayan resides in its impressive cast, 18 people who came out to play, and play hard (even relatively forgotten contestants such as Morgan had their moments). It's refreshing that Jeff Probst recognized and voiced this point at the finale, and we hope this is a sign that the show has taken this to heart, and will make every attempt to find similar players going forward. Another set of all-new players next season is a good start.
This was the most satisfying part of the finale. Tony played his heart out night and day for 39 days, and was more than deserving as a winner. He may even be the hardest-working winner in Survivor history. Tony's relentless, infectious enthusiasm for playing this cutthroat game overrode some of the minor miscues he made throughout the season. A lot of people claim in their Survivor pre-game interviews that they'll do anything to win the million dollars. Tony actually did it. Then he did some more stuff. Then, for safe measures, he did more.
Perhaps not since Richard Hatch in Borneo has a first-time player won while combining an over-the-top, ebullient personality with effective strategic creativity. Early on, Tony manufactured out of thin air a Cliff/Lindsey attempt to target Sarah, flipping the Brawn tribe's balance of power in his favor. He used the mechanics of the game to gain an advantage, pretending his camp-raid instructions required him to award a useless idol clue, then publicly pinned that on hapless Jeremiah (didn't work, but still a great try). He bluffed his way to power, vaguely referring to his "bag of tricks," then exploiting the secret powers of the Special Idol, keeping his opponents in the dark as to how it worked, and maximizing its usefulness.
He also built on previous successes: His spyshack may have borrowed a proven technique Sandra Diaz-Twine used to gain information in Pearl Islands, but Tony turned it into a continuing, concerted effort. Malcolm Freberg trademarked displaying hidden idols at Tribal Council as a vote deterrent, but Tony both doubled this up and extended it beyond the expiration date of the idols themselves. And he did all of this while exuberantly ping-ponging back and forth between his alliance with Trish and the useful extra votes of Spencer and Tasha. His game built on Survivor history, but the end result was still 100% Tony.
Woo surfs to second place
Despite Woo's laid-back attitude, his performance this season was surprisingly solid. For all the grief Woo has taken from fans and press for bringing Tony to the finals instead of Kass, we both understand and support Woo's choice. Taking the strongest competitors to the end is something Coach originally espoused back in Tocantins, and as a viewer, it's far more fun and interesting to watch that finally play out, rather than yet another recitation of the trite finals formula of a strategist plus one or two goats. Furthermore, from a strictly strategic sense, Woo's move made some sense: The jury was angry at Tony, and Woo should have (or at least could have) benefitted from that comparison.
He was giving the jury a clear choice - every juror that Woo had voted out, Tony had also voted against. They had been working in tandem since the swap, and Tony had far more blood on his hands from those votes. As was clear from the jurors' facial expressions leading up to Woo's decision, and subsequently their questions at the Final Tribal Council, they were indeed angry with Tony about those moves, and not with Woo. So it could have worked, and from some of those bitter screeds, it certainly seemed like it might have. Samoa is the obvious example of where that set-up paid off for the less-culpable finalist. In contrast, pitting himself against Kass in the finals would have been an apples-to-oranges comparison, since Woo and Kass only briefly voted together, so choosing Kass would have introduced far more variability. Woo was trying to win, and win on his own terms. That it didn't happen in the manner textbook Survivor play dictates was shocking, but also satisfying. He took a big risk, and it didn't pay off. This is what Survivor is all about, baby.
Kass: A defense of the attorney
While Woo has been criticized lustily for his choices in the finale, Kass has received the same treatment almost non-stop since the merge. And that's unfortunate, because she made huge contributions to the season, and has shown far better skills than her critics are giving her credit for. Just since the merge, Kass: (1) correctly predicted that at least one of Tony and LJ had idols, when Sarah insisted they didn't; (2) knew that she was on the bottom of their six-person alliance (or perhaps one up from the bottom, ahead of Morgan) at the merge; (3) correctly sensed that Spencer had found an idol; (4) was highly suspicious of Tony's ruse that his Special Idol was still in effect at Final Four. Kass proved she has an excellent ability to perceive and interpret changes in other people's behavior.
Clearly, this was undercut by Kass's apparently poor ability to perceive and interpret how other people view her behavior. Yes, she knew she was unliked heading into the finale, but for all the undervaluing of her game fans have done, she conversely seems to have overvalued it. Maybe she could have used those courtroom skills in convincing the jury to reward her underdog strategic game, especially against an opponent like Woo. But the jurors really didn't seem to like or respect her much, a point driven home by the editors and the hand vote at the reunion. This disconnect only serves to drive public opinion further from what should be the natural equilibrium viewpoint: Kass played reasonably well, albeit with some flaws, particularly in her social game. Flaws that Kass has owned up to, after the fact. Like Woo, Kass was, in her own way, playing to win, and that's all we can really ask for in a contestant. But, you know, let's just demonstrate our superiority by feigning outrage at her split-second middle finger flip.
Regardless of how winnable Kass's game actually was, it's still important to recognize how her penchant for bold moves at Tribal contributed to the exciting, unpredictable masterpiece this season was. Both Kass and Tasha have admitted that the decision to save Spencer and boot J'Tia was made at Tribal Council (and to hear Kass tell it, she made that call). Later, had Kass not turned on New Aparri at the merge, the Brains may have predictably Pagonged the new Solanas then the new Aparri stragglers. LJ would still be gone early post-merge, followed closely by Tony and Sarah. Morgan might have napped her way to the finals as Tasha's friend/goat. Would that outcome have been better? Seems unlikely. Furthermore, because Kass was playing fairly independently, Spencer knew he still had a chance to work with her, post-flip. It took a while to come together, but that also eventually happened. Flexible, shifting post-merge alliances were what made Philippines great, and what everyone was expecting from Cagayan's initial three-tribe format. Yet, had it not been for players like Kass and Tony, it might not have materialized here.
Spencer: hope for the future
We gave Spencer a bit of a hard time in this season's recaps, mainly because he was continuously inundated with praise from practically everywhere else, and we couldn't help noticing that for all his obvious knowledge of Survivor history and strategy, he was mostly unable to convert that into actually improving his position in the game. Spencer reached the final four, yes. But that was minimally through his own strategic chops, and far moreso by winning challenges and occasionally catching a break when Tony decided to vote off an LJ or a Jefra. To be sure, he was playing from the bottom of the power structure throughout the game, but even so, he was mostly unable to play his way out of it. Part of the problem was cautious gameplay: Spencer owned up to erring on the side of safety in his RHAP interview, particularly in not maximizing the potential leverage his hidden idol gave him. Instead, he took a more conservative tack -- concealment, then playing it for himself -- instead of bargaining, bluffing, and decoying votes with it. Presented with opportunities for bold moves, Spencer overthought his position, then decided against them. Perhaps not unreasonably, since when he did try bold moves, such as trying to convince Tony to force a tie at Final Four, rather than vote him out (which made a lot of sense), they just didn't work.
Part of why Spencer's attempted moves may have fallen short was his social game. Tony built solid relationships with people like Trish and Woo, allowing him to bring Woo along on a blindside, or with minimal repercussions, explain to Trish why she hadn't been in the loop. Tony's connections also gave him the necessary cover to keep a Sarah or an LJ close while he plotted their blindsides. In contrast, Tasha, Spencer's ostensible post-merge ally, said in her post-game interviews that she often felt as if she were playing alone. And at times, Spencer couldn't hide his disdain for Kass's gameplay after her flip, even when he knew she was the one person on the opposing side he could likely work with in the future. A lot of this was not Spencer's fault: the members of the Brains tribe were far more independent-minded and self-directed than the more loyal (team-oriented?) Brawn people. Spencer did manage to forge sub-alliances with Sarah, and with Jeremiah, it just wasn't enough to counteract Tony as he bulldozed a path to victory.
Thankfully, Spencer has shown impressive humility, self-reflection, and rational distance from his game, both in his final jury speech and in his post-game interviews. In doing so, it's clear he gets all of this. He's a better student of the game than even his bombastic Ep.1 opening confessional claimed, and when (as is all but certain) he returns to the show, watch out. Spencer should be a much bigger threat to win a future Survivor than he was this season, as experience, maturity (he was only 21 here), and more real-world skills following his college graduation should transform the Young Lad, and theoretically improve his placement the next time he plays. Or so we can hope.
Finally... the OP TP Idol - great finder, ridiculous twist
Jeff Probst loves to create both straw man support (via "impromptu online polls") and opposition to his unpopular Survivor creative decisions. Here, after near-universal audience dismay and criticism at bringing back the overpowered hidden immunity idol from Exile Island and Cook Islands, Probst tried not one but TWO dodges of culpability at the finale. First, he blamed it all on Tyler Perry, who gamely played along as the "chump who sends so many late-night texts to Probst (#humblebrag) with ideas for Survivor that Probst finally relented, and put this terrible, terrible twist in." Then, just as Perry started to figure out he had been set up, Probst dodged again, and created phantom support (via a highly suggestible live studio audience) for the ridiculous argument that fans were merely upset about the Tyler Perry idol "because Tony found it, instead of Spencer or Tasha." To which we say: Give it up, Probst. You're wrong, on both counts.
Fans and critics alike have lambasted this overpowered idol from the moment it was announced, which would be approximately three months before Tony was shown finding it on TV. So the fact that the underdog didn't find it had nothing to do with opposition to the concept. Moreover, if anything, Tony's finding it actually made the TP idol more palatable, because it gave Tony more playing room to make surprising, high-risk moves, such as the Jefra boot, or letting Trish get blindsided. Had Spencer or Tasha found it, Tony might have been idoled out at the Jeremiah vote, and we may have been left with something along the lines of a Jefra-Jeremiah or a Jefra-Woo final two. Yeah, Probst. Everyone would have loved that.
Furthermore, what's great about Tony finding this idol is two-fold: First, being Tony, he exploited every possible angle with it, keeping its unknown powers looming one Tribal beyond the point at which it expired. (We won't get into how fundamentally unfair it is to have a twist about which only one person has access to the rules, so ignore that for now.) Secondly, and perhaps best of all: like Terry Deitz and Yul Kwon before him, Tony never actually played this idol. So for now, it joins the Medallion of Power on the junkheap of poorly thought-through twists, where, we can only hope, it should stay.
Recaps and commentary
Exit Interviews - Tony Vlachos (Winner)
Exit Interviews - Woo Hwang (2nd place)
Exit Interviews - Kass McQuillen (3rd place)
Exit Interviews - Spencer Bledsoe (4th place)
Survivor: San Juan del Sur - Blood vs. Water preview information