As if there was any doubt as to who would win this season as we head into the Final Tribal Council, Survivor: Fiji's producers somehow convinced Earl to take one last hike up a mountain before the final trek to Tribal. There he majestically surveys his domain and reflects on the clean game he played, as his two competitors, Cassandra and Dreamz, scramble about below, looking like ants. It's not subtle, but it's effective. Earl is 100% going to win this. Don't worry, everyone!
Earl's most obvious strength is his social game. He's calm. He's friendly. He's hard-working. He doesn't come across as overly schemy. He nudges conversations along without seeming pushy and overbearing. He's the guy everyone wants to talk to, despite often being away from camp. He went to Exile Island a whopping four times, spending six days away from the game. Yet the second he gets back, everyone is always happy to see him. Even so, despite all these obvious positive attributes, nobody ever sees him as enough of a threat to vote him out ... except the Horsemen, very briefly, right before the Edgardo boot (then Mookie worries that Earl might have an idol, and the target shifts to someone else). Rita also voted against him at Ravu once, for reasons that were never explained. Still, for all the analytic measurements we try to make at this here website, all it really takes to win Survivor is to be as charming and personable as Earl. Also you need to get to the end, although having Earl's charm is a big help there. (Good luck figuring out what Earl's secret sauce is, let alone replicating it.)
One thing that may have helped him reach the end is also one of his oddest stats: how poorly he performed at individual challenges. We're talking historically non-competitive here. Earl's 35.7% Mean % finish (MPF) is the lowest this season, and the 21st-worst single-season performance in Survivor history (minimum 4 individual challenges). It's also the second-lowest MPF of any winner in their winning season, behind just sit-out queen Sandra Diaz-Twine's 30.1% in Heroes vs. Villains. This also carries over to tribal or team challenges. He did well in raw brawn group performances (chariot pulling, hauling stuff, various paddling) and with the meke. But when it's a spotlight situation — a head-to-head gross food bout, catching slingshot shots, or doing Sumo at Sea — Earl mysteriously always seems to come up short. Was he sandbagging? There's no way to know for sure, but if he was, his performance certainly helped defuse any lingering suspicions that he might be a physical threat, as Boo, Yau-Man, and Dreamz were.
It's also striking on rewatch just how surprised Earl was that he ended up facing Cassandra and Dreamz, instead of Cassandra and Yau-Man. Earl, Cassandra, and Yau-Man were a reasonably tight three, and Dreamz was a bit of an interloper, having been a double agent at the merge. It ended up working out pretty well for Earl of course, but in his first confessional after the F4 Tribal, he frets about how the jury (and Yau-Man in particular) will view him voting against his friend and ally. He was pretty clearly expecting, as he had said in earlier confessionals, that Dreamz would follow through on his end of the deal. (He confirms all this at the reunion.) Luck plays a part in every Survivor winner's victory, but this certainly helped Earl, and it really appeared to be an event that was completely out of his hands. He even encouraged Dreamz to follow through on the deal!
So it's interesting to explore the counterfactual scenario where Dreamz follows through on his promise, and Yau-Man is in the finals. At the reunion, Probst asks the jury if they would have voted for Yau-Man if he'd been in the Final Three instead of Dreamz, and 6 of the 9 jurors say yes (everyone except Michelle, Edgardo and Dreamz). These surveys are always a little suspect, and as Yau-Man was a massive fan favorite while the show aired, there's a lot of peer pressure to claim you were always in Yau-Man's corner. A key question here is the entire bro contingent except Edgardo (Rocky, Mookie, Alex, also Boo) claiming they would have voted for Yau-Man. (Edgardo was bizarrely hostile to Yau-Man at the time of his boot, so does this track?) Yau-Man was notable for the one key Survivor activity that beefy bros respect: Challenge wins. Earl clearly was not. This could be a case of the four self-styled Ozzys voting for Brad Culpepper in Game Changers. Whatever the case, it's unclear if Earl would truly have lost to Yau-Man. What is clear is that it's highly unlikely an Earl/Yau-Man face-off would still have been the 9-0-0 blowout Fiji is remembered for today. Maybe it could even have been a second straight nail-biter, like Cook Islands. If so, thanks a lot, production! (See below for production's role in the endgame.)
In the actual course of events, though, Earl's central Final Tribal argument is a really good one: He played a clean game (accurate); between his time on original Ravu and four trips to Exile he suffered a lot more than his two F3 opponents (also accurate); and he got to the end without being voted against (post-merge, at least) and without winning immunity. This perfectly encapsulates his strengths: People liked Earl, he seemed like a good guy, and despite those obvious red flags, there never seemed to be a good reason to vote him out. He managed his threat level perfectly.
Not bad for a guy who found out about being cast a few days before his flight left, and had never really watched the show since Borneo (apart from one episode of Cook Islands, right before leaving).
Survivor's bizarre post-game mistreatment of Earl
As great as Earl was this season, the show has kept him at arm's length. As he told the Black Voices of Survivor podcast at RHAP back in June, while certain superfan ex-winners can be seen in the audience at every finale, Earl has never been invited to one, despite living in Los Angeles. The show and network also made no discernible effort to use Earl's winning season to expand their audience beyond its mostly White, midwestern viewing base. Also, he's obviously never appeared on the show again, whereas Boston Rob has made two *more* appearances since winning on his fourth try. To be fair, Earl was (allegedly) invited back for Winners at War, but had to decline due to unforeseen circumstances surrounding the birth of his son around the time of filming. But that's pretty much been the extent of Survivor's outreach to one of their most game-adept former players.
Bizarrely, that stiff-arm treatment seems to have already started while the season was airing. It's hard to miss that while Dreamz certainly provided more "drama" this season, Earl was an absolute workhorse narrator, delivering entertaining soundbites and episode titles aplenty, from every camp and location in the game. (Come on Survivor, it's not Earl's fault your show blew the filming budget sending helicopter crews out to film him standing astride various mountaintops two or three times an episode.) Earl delivered the goods. He was a feel-good winner.
Yet at the finale/reunion show, Probst highlights Rocky (!) of all people as their dream confessional "go-to guy, who will give us something, no matter what the situation." Rocky! Most of whose content probably ended up on the editing room floor (or should have), because it was filled with anachronistically chauvinist, misogynist slurs. But don't worry, Probst later amends that to also include Lisi (!), whose content *also* seems better forgotten. Not to mention that after Earl's historic, clean-sweep victory, Probst talks to Earl at most briefly, and most of his questions are not about Earl's victorious game, but about his friendship with Yau-Man, and later about whether he believed Dreamz. (Cassandra, who also had some completely unexplored social strengths — she got every question right in the "know your tribe" coconut chop challenge! — just gets to talk about Dreamz.)
Speaking of Dreamz ... the Yau-Man/ Dreamz truck deal
Everyone remembers the outcome of the deal, because it's one of the biggest broken promises in Survivor history. It was surprising on rewatch, however, to see just how much pre-car-challenge buildup there was before the deal. Everyone can tell from the treemail that the Episode 13 reward challenge is going to be for a car (truck). Dreamz immediately (as Earl rolls his eyes) starts asking everyone to please give him the car if they win. Dreamz has never owned a car, you see. Because of this, he's never even had a reason to get a driver's license! (Apparently Fiji is still cool with him driving around in a massive truck loaded up with a heavy crate, while also pulling a trailer, because not having a license is just a minor technicality.)
So anyway, Yau-Man's deal offer doesn't come out of nowhere. Dreamz had more than raised the idea in the first place. As he noted in his exit interviews, Yau-Man didn't even want this oversized, gas-guzzling truck himself, since he's from the Bay Area and drives a hybrid. So it was a situation that really presented itself on a silver platter.
There's also a ton of important content in Episode 13 after the deal is made, showing how grateful Dreamz is for Yau-Man's gesture, how he intends to keep his word to set a positive example for his son (in confessional), and how he realizes shortly after making the deal that Yau-Man's intent isn't entirely altruistic: Yau-Man absolutely intends to vote Dreamz out at final four, after he hands over the necklace. So Dreamz's big push to preserve his own position in the game — while sticking to the letter, if not the spirit, of the deal — by voting Yau-Man out *before* F4 makes perfect gameplay sense.
It's refreshing that the show doesn't really take an editorial position on Dreamz's attempts at avoiding having to follow through. Sure, the audience audience has already been primed to root against it working, because Yau-Man has been a consistently lovable character, while Dreamz has flipped back and forth between relatably vulnerable and off-puttingly slippery. But the editors at least take the time to lay out Dreamz's logic, which is sound. Even the unfailingly nice Cassandra agrees with Dreamz's thinking. Fan reaction at the time, of course, didn't acknowledge this distinction, and turned hard against Dreamz. But from a modern rewatch perspective, Dreamz's attempted moves at F6 and F5 made good strategic sense.
Still, when he's finally forced to choose between torpedoing his own game by completing the deal vs. going back on his own promises to himself (made in confessional) at F4, Dreamz had clearly painted himself into a corner. Had he had a touch more Hatchian foresight, and "accidentally" not won that final immunity challenge, he would have had a much clearer moral position. You can't give Yau-Man the necklace if someone else is wearing it!
Right up until the challenge started, Dreamz seemed sincere that he intended to give Yau-Man the immunity necklace if he won it. Alas, Dreamz is above everything else a competitor. In the fireball challenge that was Ravu's only win, in the muddy ball-catching challenge where Cassandra choked Earl, in the digging-up-steps challenge stage where Boo sat out the first round, nobody else came close to matching Dreamz's performance. Dreamz couldn't bring himself to throw that final challenge. He couldn't let the old guy beat him. That would be like Marty McFly allowing someone to call him "chicken." So instead, Dreamz played himself into an unwinnable situation.
Dreamz didn't really seem to start considering going back on his word until shortly before Tribal Council. (And you have to wonder how much production nudged him toward this outcome during his confessional interviews.) Still, he did have one other option, although it wasn't a great one: join up with Yau-Man, force a tie, and hope for the best. That best case would be to target Earl (which Yau-Man wouldn't want) or Cassandra (which Dreamz wouldn't want). In the tie vote scenario, Yau-Man most likely wins at fire (he spent the entire season tending the fire), then wins the jury vote easily. So maybe it's not surprising that Dreamz didn't seem to consider it as a viable option.
Dreamz's choice, mostly taken away by the surprise final three
In isolation, Dreamz's decision to keep the necklace at the last vote before the finals seems like an obvious one. Of course he wouldn't throw away a guaranteed spot in the finals! But it's important to consider that when he agreed to the truck deal, as far as we can tell, everyone thought there would be another vote *after* Final 4, with the TWO remaining contestants facing the jury, as it had been in all prior Survivor seasons that had been aired before they played. This cast played before the Cook Islands finale aired, so none of them had ever seen a Final Three before.
All through the Final 5 negotiations with Boo, everyone is talking about a Final Two, even though it's Day 37, and it's unclear how they would remove two more people on Day 38. Still, Cassandra seems legitimately surprised when, on Day 38, Probst announces that the F4 IC is the final immunity, and that this season will feature a Final Three facing the jury. Even Earl seems to be a little surprised, because he points out that Dreamz now has an even bigger decision to make, because if he keeps the necklace, he's guaranteed to be a finalist, and have a shot at the million, as if nobody had considered that before. This seems like a fairly major factor.
That's because Dreamz's intended necklace handover to complete the deal was far less suicidal if this was a Final Two season. The same logic that Boo used at F5 works for Dreamz at F4: If Earl wants competition for Yau-Man winning the F3 IC, he should keep the now necklace-free Dreamz. But obviously that's moot if there are no further vote-outs. In an F3 season, the only reasonable option is to vote Dreamz at F4 if he gives away his necklace. Nobody's voting out Cassandra if she's otherwise a guaranteed opponent in front of the jury.
To be fair to Dreamz, he accepted the truck deal on Day 34. Again, without knowing in advance that the season had a Final Three, there's nothing math-wise that would suggest at that time that a Final Two wouldn't happen. So you can't really fault them for not anticipating it. By Day 38 and the final IC, the fact that there were four people left should have been a big red flag. But at that point, it was obviously too late for Dreamz to adjust the terms of his deal.
Dreamz even calls out this problem directly at the F4 Tribal Council: "What we didn't know was that three of us were going to be talking to the jury.... It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, and it sucks, Jeff." (To be clear: The problem here is not that production pulled a fast one on the cast and made a last-minute rule change, it's that they clearly didn't tell anyone about the Final Three ahead of time.)
So in this sense, Dreamz was screwed by an unexpected final four twist almost as much as Chrissy Hofbeck was in HvHvH. You just need to look at Dreamz during this Tribal Council to see how much it broke him emotionally. He spends most of it head-in-hands. After announcing he'd keep the necklace, and Probst tells everyone it's time to vote, Dreamz is visibly sobbing. Just sitting there, tears streaming down his face, ruminating in his own self-loathing, twisting in silent agony as everyone else went up to cast their votes. He probably realized at that time that he now had virtually no shot at winning the million.
Cannibalism may have been the theme of the season, but this was auto-cannibalism. Once again, as much as it's the hero narrative of Earl Cole, Fiji is also the tragedy of Dreamz Herd.
The saddest shot is after the vote, when everyone has already filed out to head back to camp. Dreamz finally takes off the necklace, places it on a stump, and leaves. He did hand over the necklace, but it was too late.
Clearly, after the vote, Dreamz is forced to come to terms with his decision, and tries to claim ownership of it. Most likely, he made the decision to play it all off as a game move while the Final Three were being transported back to camp from Tribal. His bravado takes over, and he denies having any regrets in a confessional filmed mere hours later. But that's clearly not what the Dreamz at F4 Tribal was thinking. Later, at Final Tribal, both Boo and Yau-Man see through this pose, and try to convince Dreamz to admit he had changed his mind. He rebuffs their efforts, and holds true to his clearly revisionist claim that he "always" intended to screw over Yau-Man, all the way through the reunion.
Had Dreamz just stuck to the truth, and reinforced what he'd said at the F4 Tribal, something along the lines of "I'm sorry, Yau-Man. I really was going to follow through, but the switch to a Final Three gave me no choice, and I just couldn't," Dreamz probably nabs a jury vote or two. Instead, Dreamz never admits it, and he comes away empty-handed. (Except for the truck, obviously.)
Stacy, the first of many idol victims
There were signs of life in Stacy at various points in the post-merge. She was the one who suggested shifting the vote to Edgardo, which ultimately led to the majority's successful dodging of the Alex/Mookie idol. But overall, she mostly seemed happy to follow others, so it's fitting that she meets her demise in Episode 13, when Dreamz - the same guy she had shunned back on original Moto - comes to her with a plan. Dreamz, also the same guy who laments that none of the schemes he's tried to pull off in the game have worked. She *had* been resigned to just being voted out at six after Boo won immunity, but this plan of Dreamz's might just pay off!
Naturally, it doesn't. Yau-Man plays his idol, all votes against him are voided, and Stacy joins the jury with just two votes against her.
This is understandably the idol play that cemented idols as a permanent fixture of the Survivor experience. A fan favorite contestant saved himself, in part through his own intuition that something was up (aided in no small part by Stacy herself predicting at Tribal Council that there would be "divisions" created by the vote that night). Furthermore, the victim was someone previously shown in an unfavorable light (when Stacy shunned Dreamz and Cassandra back at original Moto). Production couldn't have written a better script if they'd tried.
What's most impressive about the idols this season is the extreme range of the outcomes - from Yau-Man saving himself (temporarily), to the Horsemen imploding, to the CYA safety play with Earl's one at final five. The first two at least provided high-stakes drama, both were immensely satisfying. (It's mostly downhill from here.) Earl's third play doesn't do much, obviously, but the combination of the first two was a clear signal to the show that this new format for the idols — having to play them before the votes are read — was the correct one.
Until, of course, they forgot that 14 seasons later and brought back the old S12/S13 super idol, and blamed it on Tyler Perry. Then corrected the error again immediately after that.
- Overlooked fun bits: For unknown reasons, Stacy wore the immunity necklace to the Ep12 reward challenge (gnawing off bites of pork). Maybe she thought Day 31 (final 7) was the start of a string of back-to-back days of ICs/Tribal Councils, straight up until Day 39. Maybe it was an homage to Cao Boi, who insisted on bringing the tribal immunity idol to reward challenges in the previous season. Maybe she thought it might intimidate her competitors (she finished last). Who knows? But it's funny!
• OFB#2: after they are both eliminated in the semi-final round of the Episode 13 immunity challenge (ball on a rope/ balance beams), Earl playfully shoves Dreamz into the water. (They needed to swim over to the sit-out dock anyway.) Just a lighthearted moment between two future finalists, a throwaway moment, but still fun to see.
• OFB#3: Dreamz gets payback after the final IC. Earl drops out, bemoaning the toll the challenge has taken on his wrists. Before Earl can exit the water pit, Yau-Man also drops out, handing the victory to Dreamz. Dreamz high-fives Earl, who immediately grimaces, grabbing his wrists. Okay, maybe this is not so much fun as painful. Eh, it's all the same.
• OFB#4: At the reunion show, Probst starts talking about the Yau-Man/ Dreamz truck deal, and the audience begins to boo loudly. Immediately, Boo (seated in the front row) raises his hands and nods humbly, as if acknowledging vociferous praise. A hilarious way to step up for a fellow castmate. Boo's tenure on Survivor may have led to Russell Hantz, which led to Brandon Hantz, but he seems like a decent guy.
- Playing fetch: Every other final three just gets a morning 39 breakfast delivered at treemail. Fiji's all-Black final three gets to hike all the way up a mountain, read a treemail that says their food will be dropping from the sky, then sees a plane fly overhead and parachute the crate into the ocean. Cassandra can't swim. It's unclear whether Dreamz can. Earl is relegated to putting on the fins and retrieving it. Real cool prank to play on a bunch of exhausted people, Survivor.
- Christ, what an asshole: Alex loudly accuses Cassandra of either (1) lying, or (2) pretending to befriend Stacy, only to throw her away two votes later. (This, in fact, is pretty much what Alex tried to do when he attempted to swing her on what was ultimately the Edgardo boot.) Then, instead of listening to Cassandra as she attempts to correct him that actually, she voted *with* Stacy when Earl and Yau-Man idoled her out, he cuts her off and talks over her. "You are mistaken, Cassandra! I said stop talking!" Okay, then! He also goes on to berate Dreamz for lying, when he did a fair amount of it himself. For all this, he basically gets a verbal high-five from Probst at the reunion. What a smug, self-satisfied jerk. This atrocious overreach completely negates all the previous praise for his game expressed here. Alex has disappeared from the Survivor ecosystem since Fiji. Good riddance.
- Ach, back to the loch with you, Lisi: Lisi's Final Tribal "performance" may in fact be worse than Alex's, because at least Alex played the game hard while he was in it, even if he hypocritically chastised others for doing so. Lisi did nothing whatsoever, then gets all high and mighty, browbeating Cassandra for "being in over your head" (again, from Lisi!), asking Dreamz an insultingly basic math question, and shitting on Earl for voting out Yau-Man (when, again, there's no evidence whatsoever that this was Plan A for him). Some recruits figure out the game on the fly, and use their natural talents, empathy, and common sense to rise to the top. Earl is a great example of that. Others don't know the game coming in, never bother to learn what it's about while playing it, then deface the walls on their way out the door. That would be Lisi.
Between Alex and Lisi, these final acts take what was otherwise a really solid season, and leave a lasting stain on its memory. They're both simply awful spectacles, vestiges of a "reality TV" mindset that prized conflict and controversy, no matter how artificially manufactured, over narrative and (in competition shows) gameplay. This is something that Survivor has thankfully steered away from (with a few notable exceptions) as Mark Burnett's influence has waned. Alex and Lisi's histrionics make a strong argument that production did the right thing in doing away with these grandstanding monologues in favor of the current "open forum" Final Tribal format. The only real bright spots are Boo and Yau-Man, who use their time to offer forgiveness and project empathy to Dreamz, in an attempt to get a straight answer out of him. (Boo's attempt feels much more heavy-handed than Yau-Man's, but it appears to come from a place of sincere connection over faith, a bond the editors just didn't bother to show.) They were unsuccessful, but at least they tried.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes