Colby Donaldson snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when he chose to go to the final two with strategic threat (and eventual winner) Tina Wesson rather than presumed goat Keith Famie.
|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:
Why Colby? Why did you choose the last possible moment to stop focusing on winning the game? For 41 (!) days, Colby was dominating challenges, controlling votes, getting along with people at camp, being handsome as fuck. Then, after revealing how well he got to know his fellow castaways by winning the Fallen Comrades challenge at the final three, he had the win within his grasp. All he needed to do was vote out his popular, respected, strategic partner Tina and breeze to a win against the universally disliked Keith. But suddenly, Colby had different motivations.
We all have our own theories as to why Colby didn’t vote out Keith, some of which have come from him after the fact. Be it him not wanting to damage his brand by being “another Richard Hatch” or Colby not being strategic enough to overcome his sense of honor, it’s a decision that’s shaped the way we’ve thought about Colby ever since. He had victory within his grasp, and then let it slip away.
It’s interesting how the perception of the move and Colby has wildly changed over the years as Survivor has evolved. At the time, he was celebrated as a hero, proving that for some people, there are things that mean more than winning a million dollars.
Ten years later, the show would nominate it for “Dumbest Move in Survivor History”.
Obviously, his two subsequent appearances have done a lot to dull the shine on Colby, put I think modern sensibilities judging his decision have contributed the most. I get the sense that the modern perception of Colby is that he was merely a challenge beast, unconcerned with strategy, too nice to get the job done. Which simply isn’t true. During The Australian Outback, Colby was probably the closest thing they had to a game bot. He frequently divorced himself from emotion to vote out people he liked (Elisabeth, Rodger), blindside former alliance partners that were no longer useful (Mitchell, Jerri), and always, always focus on the next challenge.
Prior to the merge, he wasn’t willing to concede defeat had Ogakor lost the final immunity challenge (that never happened due to Michael Skupin’s medevac) and went into the merge down numbers. At the merge, he forcefully turned himself into the meat shield to deflect attention from Jerri and Keith (both of whom would have lost the shitty tiebreaker that eliminated Jeff Varner). Even turning on Jerri early was a strategic move, as she was a far more dangerous player than the inert Elisabeth and Rodger.
But all of that has been washed away in the 15 years since The Australian Outback, all because Colby decided to go up against someone who could beat him in the final two rather than someone who decidedly couldn’t. Well, that, and “Superman in a fat suit”.
Ultimately, why Colby voted out Keith instead of Tina is irrelevant for the purposes of this list. On a personal level, given the public sentiment around the previous season, I think you can even justify it. No, this list is concerned with how that decision shaped Survivor. And it did. Irrevocably. Unfortunately for Mark Burnett, Jeff Probst, and Rosie O’Donnell, Colby’s decision didn’t ensure Survivor finals would become iron-sharpens-iron, may-the-best-person-win affairs.
Instead, the enduring influence of Colby’s decision was for anyone with a passing familiarity with Survivor to never, EVER pull a Colby and take someone to the end that could beat you.
Colby’s well intentioned, loyal gesture unwittingly gave birth to the concept of dragging a goat to the finals. Two if you can manage it. 40 million people tuned in to see the handsome cowboy who had been dominating the most obvious parts of the game lose to a worthy competitor. Many of them thought “that sure was cool. But you know what’s REALLY cool? A million dollars”.
From then on, the only reasons why players don’t follow the “take a goat to the finals” strategy have been:
- They are so far ahead that it can’t possibly matter and might draw more ire than it’s worth (see: Kim, JT).
- There are no goats that are part of their alliance (see: Yul, Amanda).
- They have a poor understanding of what a goat is in terms of jury votes (see: Russell, Russell again).
- They ARE the goat, and thus can only pick who they want to lose to (see: Kim Johnson, Sugar, Jaclyn).
- They are Woo Hwang.
Otherwise, you ride that goat or goats to the end and win. If you have a mutual partnership with someone your equal or better (like Colby and Tina), there’s generally an unspoken acknowledgement that the deal ends at the last tribal council prior to the jury (like Malcolm and Denise). But whatever you do, you do NOT pull a Colby Donaldson. It’s not like they’re giving out Schick Quattro commercials to Survivors anymore.
What Else Made the List?
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Co-host of the Purple Rock Survivor Podcast and the Canadian of the group, Andy has been watching Survivor continuously since the very beginning and likes to treat that as some kind of virtue to lord over others.
Favourite seasons: Heroes vs Villains, Cagayan, Cook Islands, Palau, Winners at War
Favourite players: Boston Rob, Kim Spradlin, Tony Vlachos, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Yul Kwon, Rob Cesternino