The most confusing aspect of the Survivor: Edge of Extinction finale was, of course, the winner: Chris Underwood. Not because he was undeserving — far from it, his post-re-entry maneuvering was impressive and impeccably executed — but because the show, for unknown reasons, chose not to show him for the entire season, except in the finale.
All season long, the show has (mostly due to time constraints?) struggled with one of the fundamental rules of storytelling: "Show, don't tell." With Chris's edit, they flipped that dictum on its head, and went with: "Hide, and also don't tell."
What narrative sense could it possibly make to actively hide the season's winner from the audience? Final 4 firemaking was already the most dramatic it's ever been, as Chris made the daring decision to give up his immunity and a guaranteed spot in the finals, forcing himself to re-win his way in, via a do-or-die showdown with the presumptive winner, Rick Devens. That Chris then succeeded was an earth-shaking turn of events. Fans had complained for weeks that the season was boring because there was too much Rick, and it was obvious he was going to win. Then, after escaping the first two boot opportunities, Rick had was gone within a couple of minutes. And this new guy, Chris, who we'd just met this episode ... he was going to the finals, instead.
Maybe the intention was to cast doubt during the finale, after Chris re-entered the game? Make the audience think, "Who the heck is this tertiary character? We've barely seen him this season, so he must not be sticking around here for long." But later, when Chris landed his knockout punch with fire-making, that under-edit had a completely predictable side-effect: It made Chris's amazing accomplishment feel unearned. It stoked audience anger. Who does this guy think he is, coming out of nowhere to knock out the overwhelming favorite?
It's as if the show's editorial tone had spontaneously taken human form as Mr. Burns: "This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election! And yet if I were to have them killed, *I* would be the one to go to jail! That's democracy for you."
The numbers (in Buff's confessional count tally at Sucks) back up that Chris was massively underedited until the finale. He had just three confessionals total before he was voted out in Episode 3. Contrast that paltry airtime with literally every other pre-merge boot: Reem (2 confessionals/ 1 episode); Keith: (7 confessionals/ 2 ep.); Rick (11 confessionals/ 4 ep.); Aubry (15 confessionals/ 5 ep.); Wendy (17 confessionals./ 6 ep.). Every one of them received 2-3 confessionals a week. Chris? An average of just one. He had none whatsoever in the premiere (echoing Tina Wesson in The Australian Outback, as immortalized in TapeWatcherB65's classic Sucks speculation thread, "The Dog That Didn't Bark").
His airtime upon reaching the Edge declined even further, with just 7 confessionals in 10 episodes, and several of those were reruns of his previous ones ("I wanted to play a perfect game"). His 10 confessionals — total, over the entire first 13 hours of the season — were tied for the overall fewest, with Julia. Even Keith and Wendy, who had exited the game six episodes earlier, had over 50% more airtime. (Meanwhile, Rick had 51 confessionals in the same span.)
It's not that Chris is boring, or can't speak coherently about the game, either. Go back and listen to Josh Wigler's First One Out pre-game interviews with the Manu tribe. Or watch Chris's pre-game interview with ET Canada's Arisa Cox. Pre-game Chris is a dynamic, funny guy, and a superfan. He almost gives off a Malcolm Freberg-type player vibe. Read his exit interviews. He's knowledgeable and self-effacing. It makes no sense not to show him.
This narrative decision has to have been deliberate. Maybe it was intended to create doubt as we finally headed into final Tribal Council, as the third hour of the finale dawned? If so, that was perhaps ill-considered. Logically, as soon as Chris eliminated Rick, it was obvious he was going to win the jury vote. Chris had just spent the last 27 days on the Edge feeding and commisserating with 10 of the 13 jurors. Of course most of them were going to vote for him. They all knew him, even though the audience didn't.
So what was the point of burying Chris's edit? Was Survivor simply upset that their carefully laid scheme to hijack the endgame and deliver a win to a challenge beast who'd already been voted out — just as Ozzy almost did in South Pacific — had in turn been hijacked by someone who wasn't their preferred challenge beast who'd already been voted out? Were they were taking their frustration out on the winner, and by extension, the audience?
That's the only answer that makes sense, isn't it? Jeff Probst has described the overarching structure of this season as "more of a murder mystery." That's fine, but most mystery writers don't wait until the closing chapter to introducing the culprit as a character. (Even if "the dog that didn't bark" is itself a Sherlock Holmes reference.) In retrospect, the entire point of the season appears to have been to build up Rick as the murder victim. Again, that's ... backwards as to how murder mysteries are supposed to work.
Maybe all the flashbacks this season just made everyone confused about the order of the events they were supposed to be telling us about.
Please let the Edge be extinct forever
Regardless of the intent with the storytelling, let's at least agree on one general point from this season: Edge of Extinction as a twist was a massive failure. It was a great success from Chris's perspective, sure. But from the standpoint of the game of Survivor, where you have to (1) vote people out, and (2) convince those same people to now give you a million dollars, it completely blew up the entire concept.
From production's perspective, the format worked exactly as expected. It was designed to finally achieve what Redemption Island almost did in South Pacific: Allow a challenge beast — someone normally voted out around the merge — to swoop back into the game at the last second, win a couple of challenges, then take home the million-dollar prize. #JusticeForOzzy or some such crusade. Obviously that player was Joey Amazing, and the twist came within a hair's breadth of actually delivering its intended outcome ... except Joe just barely missed winning the re-entry challenge.
Instead a different challenge beast, Chris, completed the mission, rendering all the prior plotting, all of Rick's idol shenanigans, every Big Move, every blindside, everything ... completely moot.
Edge of Extinction was a frankentwist, combining some of the worst elements of previous ones to create an undead monster of a twist, one whose reanimation drained the energy out of the rest of the season. There was the not-telling-the-contestants aspect of The Outcasts in Pearl Islands (okay, that part actually turned out to be somewhat fun at the merge reveal). There was one person re-entering the game at the merge and in the finale, as in Redemption Island. There were all the generally inconsequential advantages (an extra vote, a challenge advantage that would work maybe 20% of the time, and the like) being sent into the game, which combined both the "secret advantage delivery" mechanism of HvHvH with the "we have this whole dumb island whose only purpose is as a place to occasionally find useless advantages, and also to film people sitting alone, staring wistfully into the distance" format of Ghost Island. (Although forcing Jacob Derwin to send the Legacy Advantage, the sole useful item there, to someone else was 100% in the spirit of the Edge.)
There were a few bright spots:
- Queen Reem: Ending each episode with Reem's caustic welcoming committee activities was far more entertaining than some bland Probst aphorism. Sure, Reem's hostility was terrible gameplay, and probably wasn't much fun for the other contestants, but it was really funny to watch. All the same, Ryan Brink & (SurvivorNZ winner) Lisa Stanger's objections are extremely valid: If EoE ever happens again, people will be cast in the hopes of creating another Reem, and that would almost certainly become a manufactured, artificial-feeling disaster. Perhaps the best argument for making this a one-and-done format.
- Seeing people reflect on their journey after being voted out: Some of these were insightful and touching, particularly Kelley's. This sort of content is usually delivered via the Ponderosa videos, and given the lack of time constraints there, is done in much greater depth in that format. Or, you know, it used to also be done in the reunion show, but that's now for a winner montage, plugging new CBS shows, seeing Cochran's audience cameo, and hyping the next season. Still, for fans who never venture beyond the show itself, it was probably a nice addition. Then again, Ponderosa was still better, so this is not a trade worth making.
Mostly, however, Edge of Extinction ranged from pointless time-wasting to actively undermining the game itself.
- Too many people, too little time: As we said in "The Problem of the Perpetual Premiere," keeping characters in limbo on the Edge means always having a huge number of stories to try to cram into the limited time for one episode. There were no episodes this season with fewer than 16 active contestants. That's the entire cast of a pre-All-Stars season, which is just silly. Because of that, plus the additional problem of having to explain to the audience how Edge of Extinction works, much of the pre-merge was a wasteland of dropped storylines and forgotten active contestants (most of Kama). Things improved somewhat towards the end of the season, when the active players dropped below 10. But for every good, clean episode where the Edge wasn't even shown, there were still ones where an entire segment was wasted on a scavenger hunt for a pointless advantage, or letters from the Extinctees' pre-game selves. Ugh. This generally did not leave enough time to explain constantly shifting alliances in the real game, which made the final product muddled, confusing, and frustrating. Then again, the re-entry player winning the season made all the in-game strategic maneuvering pointless, so ... whatever, we guess?
- The late-game re-entry is an abomination, just as it was when it was called Redemption Island: Jeff Probst swore this was different, but it wasn't in any meaningful way. Well, no. It was different in a very meaningful way: The late-game returnee came back armed with loads of information, and an idol. And still only had to survive two votes. Oh yeah, and actually won the game.
If the Edge twist had ended after the first re-entry point at the merge, that would have been fine. Still not ideal, but if someone who has been voted out can then return, reacclimate, and last an additional 20+ days, that's an accomplishment. Rick and Chris both came back into the game with a renewed sense of purpose and a nothing-to-lose attitude, which propelled them forward. That's a good thing, and it resulted in aggressive gameplay in both cases. Maybe there's something to that. But clearly, Day 35 is far too late in the game for that to happen.
Perhaps the biggest imbalance of power here is that when he re-entered, Chris returned to the game with an up-to-the-minute knowledge of how *every* juror felt about the five people remaining in the game. Chris knew exactly which people he needed to eliminate (Rick and Victoria), and had three shots in which to pull that off. From talking to Wardog, he knew he himself needed to survive at least one Tribal vote without immunity. He was also able to leverage his jury knowledge when enlisting people like Julie and Gavin and Lauren to help him.
Redemption Island was bad as a format, but at least there was no flow of information between the jury and Redemption. In South Pacific, Ozzy had no real read on what, say, Keith Tollefson and Jim Rice were thinking on Day 36, because he hadn't seen either one of them since way back on Day 24, and Ozzy himself hadn't been to any Tribal Councils since Day 22. He went back in with no idea what he needed to do, apart from win challenges and hopefully sway someone to his side. Ozzy didn't even have an idol! (Or a f***ing stick!)
In contrast, Chris had both a detailed game plan, and abundant tools with which to execute it, such as knowledge of Lauren's idol. Not only that, he had additional advantages over the players still in the game:
- As Probst said to the final three before sending them back to camp after firemaking: "Now, the power in thegame shifts to the jury. The same people you voted out, either directly or indirectly, are now in control." As with Redemption Island's late-game returnee, this was simply untrue in Chris's case. He voted out just three jury members: Reem, Victoria, and Lauren ... the latter two of whom were idoled out.
- Further amplifying that advantage, just as Victoria, Gavin, and Julie had never met Chris before when he re-entered the game on Day 35, Reem had never met Gavin or Julie. But she'd spent 31 days with Chris, many of which featured Chris keeping her fed with freshly caught fish. As was clear from the moment the firemaking challenge started, Reem was 100% voting for Chris in the finals, no matter what his anonymous ex-Kama competitors said or did at Final Tribal.
All in all, Edge of Extinction created a playing field that was even more heavily tilted in favor of the late-game re-entry person than was Redemption Island. Maybe some of that imbalance was accidental, but certainly parts were by design (such as the half-idol). To his credit, Chris still went all-out and maximized his second chance in the game, and probably did more than he really needed to for the win. Good for him. Even so, let's hope Survivor finally realizes what a ridiculous idea re-entering the game in the finale has always been, whether from Redemption or Extinction.
Now that someone has actually won the game in this manner (taking out a fan/production favorite in the process), let's hope Redemption/Extinction island is finally extinct. (Can we ditch F4 firemaking too, while we're at it?)
Chris as a winner: Better than you think
Despite only playing 13 days of the regular game, Chris was still able to put together some decent counting statistics, when comparing him against past winners. For instance, he won two individual challenges, which is more than 16 other winners achieved (not that challenge wins correlate with season wins). Despite only voting at five Tribal Councils, he still managed to vote out 4 people, which the lowest total among winners, but it's at least tied with Michele Fitzgerald in Kaoh Rong. He also extended the streak of winners playing idols, and adds to the group of recent winners who saved themselves by doing so (Mike Holloway, Jeremy Collins, Adam Klein, Sarah Lacina, Ben Driebergen). In that sense, along with laying low strategically until the very end of the game, he's very much a modern-day Survivor winner. Also, obviously, he became the first-ever person to give up Final Four immunity to compete in firemaking, which could well become a future trend. It's a shame the show couldn't be bothered to show him more.
Final records check-in
This season kicked off with a modest chance — mostly thanks to the four returning players — at changing up the Survivor record books (see our pre-season forecast here). With those four players mostly voted out quickly, those chances went largely unrealized. Except...
- VAP (votes against the player): The show never got around to explaining why David and Kelley were so intent on voting each other out, but their battle did have one clear side-effect: Driving up their career votes against (VAP) totals to near-record levels. Kelley was voted against 14 times this season, tied for #7 on the single-season leaderboard, and moved her career total up to sixth-most. And if you calculate "intended" votes against (the Christian Hubicki method), she rose all the way to #2 for her career numbers. David isn't far behind on all those leaderboards (11 this season), and Aurora (12) and Lauren (11) also made their mark. Yay?
- Joe's no-vote streak continues: Joe Anglim has now played 72 consecutive days of Survivor without voting anyone out. Admittedly, there should probably be an asterisk due to the Edge, but that time includes two straight pre-merges where Joe never went to Tribal Council, due to (mostly his) challenge prowess. The streak is still active, and it seems pretty unlikely that it will ever be topped, since among people likely ever to play again, the next-longest active streak is around 22 days.
- Challenges: Joe finished second in both of his individual challenge appearances, and in doing so, managed to not only retain his career Mean % Finish total, but even nudged it up just a smidge, from 84.4% to 84.5%. Whoo! Feel the excitement! Also, Rick won 5 individual challenges, and Gavin won 3, good enough to place both of them on the single-season leaderboard. (Rick's total also puts him on the career leaderboard.)
- Idols: Another season, another idol record. No surprise, right? We came in expecting Kelley Wentworth to run up her career vote-voiding record to unreachable levels, but instead, she was blindsided with an idol in her pocket. Still, the idol activity this season was far from idle. While Aubry also left the game with an unplayed idol, three different players (Rick, Chris, Lauren) were able to wipe out at least one vote with an idol play. Rick found and played four idols in total, establishing a new record for the most in a single season. (True, one was found in his bag, but at least he played it.) We look forward to next season, when someone will inevitably find and play five or six.
I can get a 20-foot-tall statue of my head too, WTF?
The best iteration of Exile/Ghost/Extinction/whatever was Debbie's brief exile in Game Changers, where in exchange for the disadvantage of not receiving a buff at the swap, she was able to spend time on a yacht with Cochran, AND choose an advantage from among three different options. It didn't distort the game structure, and picking an advantage required some strategic thoughtfulness. In addition, nobody suffered, and Survivor got to dip back into its past roster of memorable contestants for a one-off cameo. Wins all around.
So naturally, as the preview for next season shows, Survivor — as is its wont — will now take that good idea, that brief, sweet intersection between past and present, and repeat it for an entire season. Because just as every semi-popular 5-minute SNL sketch has to be turned into a bloated 90-minute movie, Survivor is constitutionally incapable of letting any good idea be used sparingly.
- Practice non-advantage: Aubry received the practice advantage for the final re-entry challenge. We saw her using that advantage to practice on the second, vertical rope obstacle. Guess who ended up in last place on the re-entry challenge, stuck on that exact obstacle (above)? Poor Aubry.
- The idol unexpected: Why did none of Julie, Lauren, or Gavin even suspect that Chris came back with an idol, when Rick had already played his two-part re-entry idol, very publicly? Had Rick previously claimed that he found it on the Edge, or something? A superfan like Gavin should have remembered the immunity necklaces Burton and Lill received in Pearl Islands, no? Just one of the many stories that didn't make the cut this season.
- Answer: Uh ... just about everyone? Probst at the final IC: "Chris has won a spot at the Final Tribal Council. All the way back from the Edge of Extinction, with a shot to win the game. Who would have ever thought that could happen?" (Seriously, we were expecting that person to be Joe, but we were certainly not alone in predicting this.)
- Please, no more mixed returnee/newbie seasons: Let's hope the open targeting of the returnees was enough of a deterrent that we don't see it again any time soon. (Except maybe next season, if Boston Rob and Sandra somehow end up as actual players, despite repeated claims to the contrary.)
- Rules question: When Chris took off the immunity necklace and gave it to Julie, shouldn't (technically) the power to decide who competes in fire-making also have transferred to her? There's no longer a note, as Chrissy received in HvHvH, so maybe there are no written rules about that. And since nobody intervened, the point is moot either way. But could someone raise a fuss if this move is tried again in the future? (This could also result in a hilarious chain of necklace gifts, with nobody actually wanting to wear it.)
- Additional host-in-waiting suggestion: Aubry's mid-jury pep talk to the finalists, commending them and encouraging them to keep fighting, was perfect. Can we nominate Aubry as replacement host, if Probst ever decides to focus exclusively on his behind-the-camera duties?
- And finally ... a two-word synopsis of the Edge of Exinction twist, now that we've seen it used through a full season:
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, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other Edge of Extinction Episode 14 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews: Chris Underwood (winner)
Exit interviews: Gavin Whitson (2nd place)
Exit interviews: Julie Rosenberg (3rd place)
Exit interviews: Rick Devens (4th place)
Exit interviews: Lauren O'Connell (5th place)
Exit interviews: Victoria Baamonde (6th place)