Final episodes of Survivor have historically been a mixed bag. There was the compelling, surprisingly entertaining drama of the Survivor: Borneo finale, from Rich's cunning throwing of the final immunity challenge, to poor Rudy's slip and stunning dismissal, to Susan's rats and snakes diatribe. Oh yeah, and Rich defying the odds to win. Then there was the extended torture of the Survivor: The Australian Outback conclusion, which inexplicably went with a three-person format, giving Mark Burnett - apparently inspired by NBC's insipid Sydney Olympics coverage - an extra half-hour of space in which to pack extended "touching" memories of episodes past. About the only highlight was Colby's laughable honoring of his vaguely incestuous bond with Tina, bypassing a certain jury victory over Keith. And this one eschewed Borneo's live voting format, opting for a ridiculous "dramatic" sequence in which Jeff Probst flew the locked ballot box by helicopter from Australia to L.A., taking six months to arrive, and somehow landing in L.A. at nighttime, even though there was still plenty of daylight at this "live" event.
So did Mark Burnett learn from his mistakes, and recapture the drama of his first effort? Well... yes and no. Much of this episode was a carbon copy of the Borneo finale, but there were still tell-tale skid marks from S2 that didn't come out in the wash. The title was, after all, "No Regrets," so what could we really expect?
We open, in homage to the tradition of this series, back in the previous episode. Sort of. The four remaining Borans have just gotten back from voting out Teresa. We see Lex putting the immunity necklace on his torch, in exactly the position it was when the torch was shown in episodes 11 and 12, at times when Tom had immunity. Later, we see MamaKim hugging someone, and it's clear she's wearing the immunity necklace (as sharp-eyed viewers HCIsland and MommalovesherColby have noted). This is also a tradition of the series: showing "reality" footage out of chronological sequence. Artistic types might call this "foreshadowing." We prefer the term "false."
Anyway, as an homage to another series staple, everyone is whispering. Except Tom, of course, who is asleep. Clearly, the lesson here is that whoever makes the least noise in the series wins. Apparently the noise of Tom's snoring was lost on the editing room floor, but Lex is whispering animatedly to Ethan about Tom's betrayal of their alliance. MamaKim whispers quietly to Ethan about the same thing. Through it all, Ethan stands there stoically, uttering nary a peep. There's your action series hero, right there. Too bad there wasn't an episode 14: "Ethan stands around by himself and doesn't say anything." That would surely have boosted CBS's ratings.
Eventually, we move into day 37, the first day of the final episode. To tell us that we've made it, MamaKim informs us that they've now been there exactly five weeks, which to most people, works out to 35 days. Hastily, Mark Burnett rushes off to the production assistants, and tells them to toss out the multiplication tables challenge they had set up for today.
Suddenly, the omnipresent Dead Samburu Walking twister pops up, and we know either Tom or Lex is about to be booted. Since it's Tom, we once again get a bunch of footage in which Lex is portrayed as Evil Lex. Lex is paranoid, and takes Tom to task for his betrayal. Tom is forthright about his dislike for Lex, and fires back that the votes he picked up when Lindsey was booted were all Lex's doing. Just as it appears we've stumbled into an episode of Jerry Springer, the three guys are suddenly all friends again, and pledge to not vote against each other until the final three. To make up for their dispute, everyone hikes to the pile of rocks twenty feet away from camp. This is important, because it allows Mark Burnett to suggest that these people spent a lot of time interacting with the African environment, rather than sitting around camp 23 hours a day, arguing with each other. At this point, few viewers are convinced.
Finally, after avoiding actual action for the first twenty minutes of the show, word arrives that, shockingly, the first immunity challenge of the finale will be eactly the same as in the two previous series: the time-tested favorite, Fallen Comrades. This challenge allows Mark Burnett to hand-pick an immunity winner by asking trivia questions about former tribesmates that only one of the contestants could possibly know. Hearing this, a revelatory cloud darkens the clear blue expanse of Tom's mind: it's a mental game, and "I'm not that strong." True, Tom did none too well on the challenges requiring agility, either, but Tom is permitted only one revelation per day. Everyone comes to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, MamaKim might actually win a challenge.
At the challenge, they prove the accuracy of their self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody seems to recall Frank's Army rank. "Who was Frank again?" asks Lex, confused. "Was he really on this show?" Tom tries to cover for his lack of memory by putting his answers in the form of an illegible series of scribbles. When Jeff Probst picks up on this strategy, Tom explains "Ah writes the way ah talks. Ah ain't gonna change. Plus, ah'm drunk ag'in."
After seven questions, everyone is tied, except Ethan, who is one point back. So it all comes down to the final question: "What did MamaKim say to Kelly when they were whispering at the merge immunity challenge?" After this stumps everyone, they try another: "What color is MamaKim's favorite?" Sadly, everyone guesses this correctly. Time for one final try at getting MamaKim to win: "Kelly, who was closest to MamaKim, felt uncomfortable being partially dressed in front of the guys... does she have any piercings?" Shockingly, MamaKim gets this, wins immunity, and everyone votes against Tom. Even poor, intoxicated Tom, who is corrected by the producers, and is given a nice, clean ballot with the letters "LEX" neatly printed. In his final words, Tom pledges to spend the rest of his life as a peace-loving hippie.
Back at camp, the three remaining contestants are woken up by Jeff Probst a few short hours later. Somehow, despite his own warnings, Lex has managed to contract amoebic dysentery, and has taken the long hike with the shovel a dozen times since Tribal Council. Jeff informs them that times a-wastin', they'd better get moving, since they have to feign interest in Samburu tribal customs for a few hours, then stand on logs for a few hours more before Lex gets another bathroom break. But first, it's time to fill air space with haunting remembrances of the other 13 losers Lex will soon be joining.
After being greased up and jumping around for a while, the Survivors get to their final challenge, also taken directly from the Survivor 1 finale: Hands On the Idol, which involves standing motionless for hours at a time, holding onto a pole. Seeing this from the studio in L.A., Brandon curses under his breath, "Dammit, I was made for that challenge." So, it appears, was MamaKim. Exciteable, diarrhetic Lex quivers and twitches atop his posts. So does Ethan, until the cameraman vomits in front of him, and he leaps out of the way, taking him out of the game (we're mostly not making that part up). Ethan expresses mock disappointment at this development, then relaxes in the same assured confidence that Richard Hatch did after pulling out of his challenge. It's the retiree versus the guy who can barely stand up. He likes his chances, and resumes his usual activity of being quiet.
Three and a third hours pass, the temperature tops the century mark, and Lex is visibly straining against taking another dump. Meanwhile, MamaKim looks as if she's just pulled out the footrest on the Barcalounger. Eventually, the urge to purge is just too much for Lex, and the unthinkable has happened: MamaKim has won two consecutive immunity challenges, and she's going to the final two. And we stress the two part, because despite all the favorale editing Mark Burnett has been doing for her this episode, everyone in America knows that Ethan has this vote in the bag.
Still, for MamaKim there is the formality of actually going to tribal council and booting Lex. That and appearing to be upset about the decision, so that the jury inches ever so slightly more in your favor (that would be: one person considering voting for you over Ethan, versus none). So it's off to tribal council, and the only real question is: Will Big Tom continue the new jury member tradition of wearing a skirt to your first tribal council. Sadly, the answer is no. And after all the effort they went through to get Frank to participate! So, anyway, MamaKim goes through the motions of appearing torn over her decision, Jeff Probst goes through the motions of "tallying" her one vote, and Lex goes through the motions of taking the walk of shame. Luckily, there was a porta-potty at the end of it. Overcome with the dramality of it all, Brandon gently weeps.
Now we're entering the home stretch. We see MamaKim and Ethan milling around the camp. Unlike in seasons past, this stuff is getting auctioned off on e-bay, so they can't ritually destroy it. But we do get to see a lengthy exposition of their autographing of the water cooler. (In 20-20 hindsight, it's too bad the props from the first two series couldn't have been auctioned, and all of this stuff burned, but if selling these "artifacts" means some good can come from this series, we're glad the people behind the show came up with this idea).
Anyway, the final tribal council is approaching, and the outcome is obvious, so it's time for one more dose of misdirection, for old times' sake. KimP talks about how playing the game is important to her vote. This is a little mysterious, since KimP never visibly appeared to be playing the game herself. Lex swears that it's "anyone's game." By this he means, of course, Survivor 4. Meanwhile, back at camp, there's a lot of hugging and hand-holding going on between MamaKim and Ethan, and...
We politely cut to the Tribal Council. Ahem. Yes, well, it's important that the jurors take their responsibility very seriously here, because at least one person has to cast their ballot for MamaKim, otherwise the producers might have to resort to their usual tactic of slipping in old footage to make the vote seem dramatic. First, the two contestants address the jurors. Ethan announces he's achieved his goal of being nice. MamaKim levels her steely subliminal gaze at Frank, and says the jurors have helped her be all she can be, and made her an Army of one.
Next the jurors ask questions. Brandon's first up, and uncovers the depths of Ethan's confidence by asking him who he'd least like to see in the final two. Ethan, figuring he has a unanimous vote anyway, takes the bait and says simply, "You. Please vote for MamaKim. Someone has to." The rest of the questions fall along the lines of: "Please say something nice to make the people on the jury feel better about themselves." MamaKim meets these demands handily, laying it on extra thick for Kim P. Tears cascading down her face, Kim P says, "Oh, what the hell, I like your name, so I'll vote for you too." Kelly and Tom, however, will have none of it. Auditioning for a post-Survivor career in Hollywood, Kelly tries her best to quote Susan Hawk's rats-and-snakes speech while appearing sincere, later quoting The Graduate while voting. Tom, meanwhile, appears to have a beef with MamaKim's cooking, and doesn't care who knows it.
Finally, it's time for the actual voting. Jeff Probst reminds the jurors, and we're not naming anyone in particular here, Big Tom, that they have to vote for someone, not against them, this time. They cast their votes fairly uneventfully, except poor Kim P, who is stuck for several hours, trying to remember how to spell "Kim." Tom extends his assault on MamaKim's cooking to her strength, behavior, forthrightness, overall smell, and her ancestry. And a good time was had by all.
After a brief commercial break, we're back in camp to read the votes. Except the sound quality in camp is drastically different, Ethan has shaved, and he and MamaKim each seem to have gained about 30 pounds in the space of five minutes. Jeff Probst reads the votes, and in a stunning turn of events, which 30% of America had foreseen since at least the week before the show started, Ethan Zohn wins Survivor 3. Even though Tom, apparently cranky that he never got to eat Big Red, voted for someone named "Eathen." Bryant Gumbel, however, insists that someone named Ethan Zorn was the actual winner.
Mercifully, Survivor 3 has come to a close. We are at least given a ray of hope that Survivor 4 will be better. It appears, at least superficially, to have avoided the traps that befell the African edition: The contestants will be free to hunt and fish, and may actually be forced to, since they won't be given food (at least until the first reward challenge). They also won't be locked in a boma, as this Big Brother, whoops, Survivor cast was. Whether there will be any new challenges or twists to spice up the game play remains to be seen, but we can at least hope it won't be as bad as this was. Can't we?