30 from 30: #21 – Survivor Introduces the Final Three

The Moment:

Survivor mixes it up and adds one person to final tribal council on Survivor: Cook Islands.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.


Why It Matters:

When Survivor started there were a few core game mechanics. The show started with two tribes, there was a merge, the jury was formed from those voted out after the merge, and in the end two people sat in front of the jury and argued their case to be the Sole Survivor.

Slowly, the show started to change some of these core mechanics. The first to change was the idea that the two tribes were separate when the show introduced the tribe swap. Then, in All-Stars and Panama, the game started with more than two tribes. But these were both pre-merge changes. Survivor hadn’t altered the show’s fundamental end game in twelve seasons. Then, in yet another example of the show refusing to stagnate, Survivor decided to have three people argue their case in front of the jury in Cook Islands.

When the final episode, started there were five contestants left. But one of them was this dumb-ass:


So fairly quickly, we were down to just the Aitu 4.


Ever since the Aitu 4 took control at the merge, it seemed like the win would go to either Yul or Ozzy. One seemed the obvious brawn and the other seemed the obvious brains of the tribe- I say “seemed” because Emma would kill me if I neglected to mention Becky’s role in Cook Islands. This is for you, Emma! (Editor’s note: Yul was all six-pack abs and rock-hard pecs, and Matt just referred to Ozzy as the obvious brawn. The views expressed by Matt on this topic are not necessarily the views of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast.)

There was nothing the show wanted more than to see Ozzy and Yul face each other in the finals. And for the first time, before the final four immunity challenge, the show announced that there would be a final three facing the jury, not two.


Yul had his idol,


Ozzy won immunity,

ozzy immunity

and after a detour through the most exciting moment in Survivor history (“We’re going to matches!”)

fire challenge

we reached the final three. Yul, Ozzy, and Becky would get to argue their case to the jury, and the producers got their preferred showdown. And also Becky was there.


The Impact:

The impact of having a final three was immediate. After having only one close vote in the final tribal council over the previous 7 seasons (All-Stars), Cook Islands saw perhaps one of the most interesting choices for Sole Survivor the show has ever offered. Ozzy vs. Yul was the quintessential Brains vs. Brawn choice (Editor’s note: Or Brainy Brawn vs. Ozzy) and the jury rewarded Yul (rightly) for his control of the social game by a 5-4 vote.

Ozzy vs. Yul was the exact scenario that the show wanted to see when they expanded Final Tribal from the traditional two people to a final three. The show had tired of seeing strong players voted out at final three, and thus seeing one strong player drag a weak player to the final two (or, even worse, two weak players making final two). A final two without two strong contestants deprived the last 30-40 minutes of the finale of the type of suspense and entertainment that the show wanted. By expanding to a final three, the producers were trying to engineer a Yul vs. Ozzy scenario. And it worked!

In fact, it worked so well in Cook Islands that only three seasons since then have gone back to a final two: Micronesia, Tocantins and Cagayan. And since two of those seasons featured blowout wins, they did nothing to disabuse the producers of the notion that a final three was more likely to produce a competitive final vote for Sole Survivor.

Of course, the Survivors themselves have merely adjusted to the final three by trying to take two goats into the finale, and have frequently proven adept at this. In today’s game, final four is the new final three, and close votes since Cook Islands have typically been choices between either an uninspiring final three:

Gabon final 3

or an outright horrible final three:

nicaragua final three
Also an outright horrible everything else

When two strong choices have appeared in final tribal council, the jury has typically worked out beforehand which one they prefer and thrown all (or almost all) of their votes to that person (China, Caramoan).

Image copyright: A poster on Emma’s wall.

So the final three may not have solved the problems that producers were trying to address, but it has become the show’s new normal. And it’s all because the first time they used it, it worked like gangbusters.


What Else Made the List?

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