Both at the time it first aired, and on re-watch, the high point of this season in our minds was the final reading of the jury votes. Truly a suspenseful, worthy ending to an above-average season, capped by the order in which Jeff Probst revealed the votes, giving Yul an early lead, then letting Ozzy temporarily surge ahead, then tie, then fall short to Yul on the final reveal. Probst also performed admirably in hosting the reunion, addressing the social-vs-physical game dichotomy in the jury vote, and managing to work in every contestant, despite the whopping 20-person cast. He even adjusted on-the-fly to Yul's reveal that Becky indeed was far more involved in the strategy than was shown, and gave her a chance to expand on that. Maybe a bit too much dependence on Nate for what turned out to be meandering responses, but otherwise, it would serve the show's producers well to go back and re-watch this reunion themselves, to remind themselves that such things are possible. (And it was only 36 minutes of actual show!)
It's in your head... filler
The two-hour finale clocks in at a mere 1 hour, 36 minutes without commercials, and of that, fully 9:20 is Probst's opening recap of the previous 36 days' events (plus the title sequence). Followed by a 20-second montage of all the sea life that, miraculously, managed not to get caught and eaten by Ozzy. When the Rites of Passage sequence, which is six minutes itself, covers much of the same ground, it wouldn't hurt to scale back the opening recap. We're all for more Survivor, but if the finale is this action-poor (action-lacked?), why not split the three-hour time block in half, with a 90-minute finale, 90-minute reunion? Then you could have your superfluous Boston Rob/Rudy interruptions AND talk to every actual contestant.
The final five immunity challenge was epic in scale and fun to watch (at least until everyone got to the puzzle stage and the sense of which person was leading evaporated). It contained an amusing goof that may have gone unnoticed, though: When Ozzy comes back with his fifth puzzle bag, his flag, which Probst had just sworn could only be raised by the correct assembly of the most difficult puzzle in Survivor history, is already up. Oops. (Side note: This puzzle, or at least a very similar one, was used at the end of the Ep1 IC in Heroes vs. Villains. They're not exact replicas--the HvsV one appeared to have only three layers, but it's the same compass rose design.)
Ozzy, the challenge strategist
Even if it wasn't intentional, Ozzy's early final five IC deficit was actually a smart approach. In taking on the most difficult part of the course first, he guaranteed he wouldn't have to wait for someone else to finish it before completing it himself. Other parts (various nets, rope bridges, etc.) could accommodate two people at a time, or at worst be crossed quickly, but the moving-planks bridge seems like it could only be done by one person at a time, slowly. It's tempting to pick off the low-hanging fruit of easy bags first, but Ozzy's choice seems the most likely to pay off, especially with five people trying to cross a total of eight obstacles.
Bravo, Raro. Bravo
One of the main problems with this otherwise fairly good season is the absolute lack of worthy opposition to Yul's alliance. For all their return appearances, Candice and Parvati made very little effort to stir things up on their way to Ponderosa, beyond trying to torpedo Penner's spot first. Sure, Yul's omnipotent idol and the perception that Becky and Yul were inseparable probably didn't help, but it's sad that the only real campaign to do much of anything to break up the Aitu Four was Adam's weak-spirited, between naps, "Hey, uh, Sundra and Ozzy... I'm going home either way, so you wanna flush Yul's idol tonight? Maybe? Eh, never mind."
The birth of the final three
In hindsight, the confused looks and expressions of disbelief as the Aitu Four read their Day 38 treemail, informing them of their "final immunity challenge," were cute. As was their excited motioning when Probst confirmed that there would indeed be three people facing the jury. But really, was this that much of a shock? It was Day 38, people! Were you expecting two challenges in one day? A rehash of the bottle twist? Okay, that's not out of the realm of possibility, but still seems highly improbable. Then again, final three was completely unprecedented, so it was therefore also improbable.
Anti-climactic final four
Maybe hindsight colors the re-watch, but sorry, the ever-so-slight possibility that Yul might have given Becky his idol at the final four was really the best suspense the editors could come up with? Then again, that would have saved us the spectacle of...
The fire-starting tiebreaker
The editing of this sequence was brilliant, playing the entire thing up for the comedic purposes it merited. That, after 38 days, it took Becky a full half an hour to start a fire with matches, and Sundra failed even at that, using up all of her matches in the process, is simply embarrassing. On the other hand, Becky had a solid case that she contributed to the strategic decision-making, and by forcing the jury to endure this marathon of haplessness, this performance all but guaranteed not a single juror would vote for her. Becky made the right strategic decision in not using Yul's idol to reach the final three, then fell flat in her attempt to get there under her own power.
Again, as Brad brought up during his jury question, three of the jurors had limited in-game interactions with the final three. Brad, Jenny, and Rebecca's sole chances to talk with Ozzy came during Ozzy, Cao Boi, and Flica's invasion of the Raro camp. Rebecca, as far as we know, never talked to Yul or Becky, either, unless they did so at challenges. The late merge was the cause of this, which was in turn caused by the mutiny. While the mutiny certainly created an interesting story for the middle episodes of the season, it wasn't without cost. Furthermore, it would have been helpful to explore why Brad, Rebecca, and Jenny voted the way they did (Yul, Ozzy, Ozzy, respectively) at the reunion, since they had limited information to work with.
Jury duty, ugh
Yul did an impressive job in handling the jury, Becky did surprisingly well, despite receiving few direct questions, and Ozzy was hit-and-miss, but managed to hold his own. The jurors' attempts at Q&A, however, were mostly underwhelming. Example: Rebecca got a spectacular response from Yul, allowing him to talk about ethnic portrayals on TV, and how he would work to convert his win into expanded opportunities for minority representation in entertainment. Ozzy followed with an unconvincing "Me, too!", and received her vote. Adam seemed to delight himself, Candice, and Parvati (and few else) by calling the Aitu Four "boring." Candice demanded a one-word response from Yul. Brad, of all people, elicited the one big emotional moment, with Ozzy talking about his biological dad (a moment we'd forgotten). All in all, it felt like most of the jurors had already decided on their votes before the final Tribal, and were just showing up to kill time.
Taken as a whole, this was an enjoyable season on re-watch. A tight, iconic battle for the win. A compelling underdog story to get there, with likable, unique people to root for. And yet, for all Adam's complaints that the Aitu Four were "boring people," in fact (as is always the case with Adam) he had it backwards, and the post-switch Raro tribe was painfully dull to watch. As exciting as it was to watch the tiny Aitu tribe persevere in the face of an overwhelming post-mutiny Raro majority, that necessarily required the show to spend an inordinate amount of time in the Raro camp, where the post-switch social/strategic game amounted to picking some random non-original Raro each week, deciding they were suddenly too bossy or potentially disloyal, and summarily dismissing them. Everyone would sit or lay around a lot, nobody except Parvati and maybe Nate were particularly compelling narrators (at least until Penner re-joined them). And the season suffered in the middle for that.
Even so, a season as good as Cook Islands would be a welcome respite in current Survivor times, where the life of the game is slowly being suffocated under an avalance of unwanted twists and unwelcome pretend "characters" that exist solely for the purpose of camera time. Instead of rewarding semi-scripted behavior, why not bring back some of this season's colorful, authentic early boot characters instead (Cao Boi, Flica, Billy)? People who, like 3/4 of the final four, never got a chance to play a second time, let alone a third? Or, you know, the winner, at least, who played one of the most thoughtful, rational, positive games ever? Is that really such an unreasonable request?
Finaller final word
If he's still interested, Yul's efforts at increasing the visibility of under-represented ethnic groups on TV would do well to resume with Survivor. Counting Blood vs. Water, guess how many Asian-American men have been on the last ten seasons? Just one, Jonas Otsuji, who was barely seen on One World. How many non-Caucasian players are on Blood vs. Water? Two, on a twenty-player season, making the percentage even lower than on Gervase's original season, Borneo. Sorry, Yul. But hey, at least it has a whole mess of twists, right?
The Aitu Four, about to become the Final Four
Oh dear, Ozzy has been teleported five years into the future, and onto the Upolu tribe.
I've just gotta win this challenge. Seems plausible.
Penultimate challenge, listening to Probst
More people listening to Probst, Adam's last stand
Starting line, F5 IC
Adam, the lackadaisical Tarzan
Oh no! Ozzy is behind! How ever will he recover?
Dear contestant: You may have already won one Final Five Immunity!
Everybody's working on the puzzle, removing all sense of progress
Well. That certainly sucked.
Getting a necklace from the man in the yellow hat
Excited Ozzy seems a bit unsettlingly like Jack Nicholson in The Shining
Yul has a drinking problem
Sundra ensures that Survivor will never be syndicated on Fox News Channel
I'm gonna stir things up before I leave. But first, I'll nap.
I would seriously consider flushing Yul's idol tonight, but Adam suggested it, so... eh.
Oh, how quaint: This was back when they still pretended the contestants would paddle canoes to Tribal Council
Let's just skip to the vote and get this over with, Probst
I'd love to stay and chat, Jeff, but it's time to get wasted
Yul reflects on the achievement of having an all-Aitu final four
Sundra and Becky celebrate by sitting down, poking coconuts with machetes
Yul joins in the coconut poking, Ozzy remains a holdout
Dawn, day 38: Apparently the ideal time to wake and bake with the crew
It's called Rites of Passage, not Fallen Comrades, you guys. Look, it's right there on the map.
What? Final immunity challenge? What could this possibly mean?
Let's see here: there's one day left after today, four people left, and we can only do one Tribal Council per day. Hmmm.
Possibly real paddling to Rites of Passage?
Well, that was fun. Torches scorched. Check.
Everybody loves the Final Three! See?
Woo! Yeah! Standing still!
Probst gets an umbrella? Unfair
The man in the yellow hat does not change his clothes, apparently
The final three... contestants in the F4 IC
And that closes the books on the highest single-season challenge win percent of all time (74%)
Sundra... so close to the necklace
As is traditional, the men decide which of the women should go home
While the women sit on the beach, awaiting their fate
Yul offered me the idol, but I'm not a sneaky person. Not taking it.
The Aitu Four, now officially the Final Four
Aw, how cute, you guys. A tie. You shouldn't have. No... seriously, you shouldn't have.
All right, everybody seated, comfortable? Let's get started starting fires! Woo!
One minute in, no fire yet. Keep at it, ladies, victory is just around the corner.
Sigh. I need a raise.
After a mere hour with flint and a half-hour with matches: a flame!
It seems wrong to be snuffing your flame, Sundra, when you couldn't light one yourself. Oh well.
We look forward to your insightful questions, guys
Ha, the *Aitus* are boring. Good one, Adam.
Way to hold up your end of the deal for booting Penner early, there, Parvati
The better-fed version of the final three
Ozzy: Uh... why are you holding my hand, Yul?
The winner of Survivor: Cook Islands
Finally done hugging Ozzy and Becky, Yul heads to the audience
And we're going to talk to all of them! Even though in thirteen more seasons I'm going to claim such a feat is impossible.
Through some remarkable feat of engineering, all 20 contestants were able to fit on the stage. Including even Sekou and Billy.
Even Candice gets to talk, albeit to snuff the flames of Probst's desire for a post-show showmance
Which are revived when he finds 'feelings' between Nate and Parvati. Aww.
Seriously, bro, if talking to 20 people for 36 minutes is too challenging for you, I'm happy to give the host thing a shot.
Recaps and commentary
Exit interviews - Yul Kwon (1st place)
Exit interviews - Ozzy Lusth (2nd place)
Exit interviews - Becky Lee (3rd place)
Exit interviews - Sundra Oakley (4th place)
Exit interviews - Adam Gentry (5th place)