It’s time for another edition of Fan Friction, a series of essays where one of our columnists writes an ode to one of their favorite Survivor players, while defending them against any potential naysayers (both real and imagined). This isn’t a place to be fair and balanced. This is a chance to let your fan freak flag fly. Mike Hirsch is here to address slander directed at Earl a couple weeks ago. Shame.
Why He’s Great
“Earl’s playing by himself, man!”
–musician and noted prognosticator Stevie Wonder, “Do I Do”
Earl Cole is kind of amazing. He came into Survivor: Fiji as a last-minute casting addition two days before filming, with no prior knowledge of the show. On the surface, this seems like it would put him at a disadvantage, but Earl’s intuitive understanding of the game and his innate charisma helped him quickly be recognized as a leader, and moreover, a leader who was never in any serious jeopardy of being voted out (by my count, he had a grand total of one vote against him the entire time out there). Earl Cole didn’t just win Survivor: Fiji; he made winning look like a walk in the park.
Earl played Survivor exactly like I would want to play the game: like a master chess player, aware of the placement of all the pieces, thinking ahead several moves, but never so far ahead that he lost sight of the current situation. He kept a calm demeanor in the face of adversity, and always managed to think clearly and explain his position lucidly. He knew exactly when to make suggestions, and when to go along with the plans of others. He was funny, smart, charming and handsome: the exact four qualities I would definitely bring to the show.
Once he found himself in a good position, Earl may have relaxed a bit, but he never let himself get too comfortable, too blinded by power, and managed to retain his likability in scenarios where others would have come off as cocky. He played the game with a degree of integrity in a way that didn’t come off as annoying. He managed to make just enough moves, at the right time, to make it to final tribal. And, once at that final tribal, he got every single vote! He was the first unanimous winner in the show’s history, which is a remarkable feat. Also remarkable: in the reward challenge that ended up being basically a slam-book against Stacy, Earl was picked as the person they would most trust with their lives.
Everyone out there just plain liked the guy. And, keep in mind, this is the 14th season of Survivor. People knew how to play the game by this point. Someone like Earl – an obvious threat to win based on his leadership and strategizing abilities – shouldn’t get too far after the merge, and should be a huge target the whole time he’s out there. And yet, he wasn’t. It’s a testament to his skills that he never even got a vote in the post-merge game.
Also, Earl had to play with Rocky. In what universe is that a good time?
Haters Gonna Hate
But Yau-Man, Man
There are some out there that think Earl would have been nothing without Yau-Man. And while Yau-Man was an integral part of their alliance, their marriage was one of equal footing. In the early stages of the game, Yau-Man’s alliance with Earl kept both safe considering their tribe kept losing immunity challenges, and they conspired together with the clues they had received at Exile to find the immunity idol buried at camp, with Earl twice leading the rest of the tribe away from camp in order to give Yau-Man time to dig for it. Yau-Man, in turn, would later repay Earl by telling him one of the clues for finding Alex’s re-hidden idol. Yau-Man and Earl trusted each other, and supported each other, and yes, Yau-Man was an important part of Earl’s win, but nobody gets to the end without a little help from others (except Mike Holloway). And, keep in mind, Earl knew that getting rid of Yau-Man at final four was the right move. On top of that, he justified the move and placated Yau by telling him at final tribal he had to do it, or Yau would have won.
“Ah ha!” you may have just exclaimed. “Even Earl admits Yau-Man would have won!” Well, there’s just one problem there: Yau-Man didn’t win. And that’s due to Earl. Earl could have forced a fire-making tiebreaker at final four. He didn’t, because he understood that doing so would have been a very bad idea if he wanted to win the game, and you know who makes choices like that? Great players.
Everyone Else Was Awful
“So, ok, Earl was fine, and Yau-Man was great, but it’s not like they had a whole lot of strategic competition.” To that, my imaginary friend, I say a derisive “Pah!”
Sure, this season had its fair share of duds amongst the cast, but there was more strategy than you might remember.
In the early goings, when Alex was in a great position, he actually went around to everyone in his alliance and tried to get them to treat Cassandra and Dreamz (who were outside of the alliance) better, so that when they got to the merge, Cassandra and Dreamz would be less likely to flip. Alex wasn’t successful, and Dreamz and Cassandra did flip eventually, but Alex definitely had the right idea. He wound up playing rather poorly once the numbers weren’t in his favor, but he had moments. His last halfway decent idea came when it seemed obvious that Earl’s alliance would split the vote between Mookie and Alex in case one of them had an idol (an admittedly dumb plan fostered by Boo who thought either Mookie or Alex was clever enough to find an idol without any clues), and Alex thwarted the split by simply voting for Mookie.
Cassandra, Dreamz, Stacy and Edgardo all also showed in several instances that they too had strategic chops. Cassandra and Dreamz, for example, both recognized the need to not wait for final four to try and get Yau-Man out, while Stacy and Edgardo realized if you know someone has an idol and the plan is to vote for them, it’s a better idea to steer the vote towards someone who maybe, you know, doesn’t have an idol? That may not seem like such a bold plan now, however Fiji was the first season where the idol had to be played prior to the votes being read, so the notion of flushing out idols hadn’t fully taken hold by this point.
All of these players had the wherewithal to play Survivor well, and Earl still managed to outmaneuver them.
He Was Left Out Of The Initial Attempt to Get Yau-Man Out of the Game
Yes, yes he was. But that was due to Earl’s perceived loyalty to Yau-Man. He didn’t get indignant though. He shored up his alliances, got himself back into a strategic position, and at the next tribal, wasn’t targeted. It helped that he had a hidden immunity idol, but it wasn’t necessary to play.
Ultimately, Earl was someone who came into Survivor and found that he was perfectly suited for it. He identified the right people for his alliance, and stuck with it for as far as it could take him, able to read the room all the while. He set himself up so he was headed into the Final 6 with a bunch of shields and Stacy, and played with an easygoing attitude that masked a shrewd thinker, and he exhibited an inordinate amount of patience in all stages of the game. When talk rolls around to having former players return, Earl is always the person I’d like most to see come back. His ability to play a good game in a low-key, not flashy way would serve him well, as would his ability to quickly adapt to a whole variety of scenarios. He’s a great winner, often unjustly overshadowed by the general dumpster fire that is Fiji’s reputation. You could say that I have found my Survivor soulmate, and his name is Earl.
Actually, I’m pretty positive my Survivor soulmate is the perennially injured Boo. I’d be a much, much weaker, whinier, more wounded Boo. But, we should all strive for greatness.
Mike Hirsch first started watching Survivor at the merge episode of Borneo, and was hooked through Fiji. He then stopped watching until his wife got him back into the show for San Juan Del Sur, and he dutifully caught up on his missed seasons. He hasn’t seen a movie in 20 years.
Favorite seasons: HvV, Pearl Islands, Tocantins, Cagayan, Cambodia
Favorite players: Earl Cole, Sandra Diaz-Twine, Kelley Wentworth, Boston Rob, Jay Starrett