- Day 38: Immediately after the credits we go to the final immunity challenge. It’s the iconic final challenge from Survivor: Fiji, where you lie on an angled board holding on to a rod while water pours from above, making the board slick. It’s such an iconic challenge I’m taken aback it’s never been repeated until now.
- Taking a page out of the Australian Survivor playbook, they bring in the Final 3’s loved ones: Dino’s fiancée, Marian’s mum, and Shane’s mate.
- With less mass than the others and clothed from head to toe in I assume cotton (less slick than bare skin and synthetic performance fabric)—and most certainly needing to win this challenge—I initially thought Marian might do the impossible and win an endurance challenge. But after 28 minutes, two increases in board angle, and a commercial break, Marian drops out first. Shane goes next, and Dino wins a spot in the Final 2 and the right to choose who to sit next to.
- Marian says that whatever the outcome they’ve all won. Shane says they compete all-out in the challenges but won’t cross personal lines just to win the two million. These are themes both will return to again and again.
- Everyone has heartfelt one-on-one conversations, we see Marian deal with the inevitable, and after a rather perfunctory tribal council, Dino does the not-insane thing and votes out Marian.
- Marian was the designated strategist of the Full Package, but her social game was on point too. To the extent that Dino’s decision was difficult, it was because Marian had reached across alliance lines and bonded with everybody who wasn’t shutting her out. Her bond with Dino over their love of the game was almost as strong as her bond with Shane, with whom she spent two seasons as a tight two. In her first season, Marian was already a great strategist, but her brashness and gleeful “villainy” turned a lot of people off (whether or not she did or said anything that would have pissed anybody off if she were male or not very young at the time is left as an exercise for the reader). She was a better, more rounded player the second time, arguably the biggest star of the season, and while she wasn’t able to solve her end-game dilemma (little chance of winning an F3 endurance challenge and even less chance of getting taken to the end), she made it as far as she was likely to.
- Day 39: After the final morning breakfast we get some confessionals of Dino and Shane talking about how they’ll approach the jury. Both use charcoal from the fire to write down notes to help organize their thoughts and recall everything that happened. Soon we’re off to Final Tribal Council.
Final Tribal Council
- Opening statements: Shane says that in the military he learned how to interrogate people and tear them down, and that it took years of therapy to get over that and he vowed going in not to use those methods in the game. He thanks Tejan, Killarney, Steffi, and Marian for the various ways they made him a better person. Dino says that he felt out of his depth on an all-returnees season, given that he went out in the pre-merge his first time. But as the game progressed, his self-doubt faded. He says that Survivor is a social strategy game with a survival element, and that he focused on building bonds in the early going so he had the social capital to make moves. He then reviews the “progressive Survivor” game he played with his various tools, including the opposite-tribe idol that he was gifted. He then pulls Shona’s fake idol out from under the fire pit. Finally!
- Dante says some nice things to Shane, then quarter-Murphys Dino, saying that he although he sounded the alarm about Dino from the beginning of the game, he couldn’t get the rest of the castaways to act, so he hoped he (Dino) could show them what he saw in him.
- Felix basically asks what they’re proud of about their game. Shane says that he’s proud of the way he went toe-to-toe for two hours in the mud pit with Felix, who is two decades younger. Dino talks about going to his old prep school and telling the kids about his experience on his first season of Survivor, and then about his journey of gaining self-confidence and resilience this season.
- Meryl says that there was much talk about the “Dino demeanor” at Ponderosa, but notes that his body language is much different tonight. Dino says that at tribal councils he was leaning into his reputation for paranoia as a tool. No question for Shane.
- Steffi says nice things about both Shane and Dino, saying that the former has her heart vote and the latter her head vote. She asks them to convince her one way or the other. Shane says that he intended to play the game hard and cold-blooded, but his daughter convinced him he needed to soften his edges. That’s why he played a low-key game, wore the togas, pretended to hate being called “Pops”, etc. Dino says he can’t make the heart argument to Steffi because it takes time and they played so little with each other in the game. But he says that he just faced the same head/heart dilemma in voting out Marian, so he knows how tough it is and how painful it is no matter what choice you make.
- Phil quarter-Murphys Dino. No question for Shane.
- Tejan complains once again about not being taken on the car reward, having come so close to winning the car in his first season (which, as I noted at the time, is not what happened) and being so desperately hungry this time around. Dino easily parries this, saying that the people he did take on reward had just gone on the previous reward but gave up the food to bring blankets back to camp, and that taking Tejan would mean screwing one of them. No question for Shane.
- Killarney, after noting that she chose to be open emotionally this time after being closed off in her first season, asks the finalists when they made a heart-over-head decision. Shane talks about his relationship with Tejan throughout the game. He said that people were basically making fun of Tejan for being so hungry, and that didn’t sit right with him. Shane says he would sneak Tejan food because although he (Shane) was losing weight, he knew Tejan must be suffering because he was so lean. Dino acknowledges that he played the game head over heart, but that in real life he leads with his heart, and that made it hard to play the game he did.
- Toni preambles for quite a while, apparently giving what would have been her opening statement if she had made it to the end. Finally she asks them what they learned about themselves over the course of the season that they can apply to their real lives. Dino talks about turning down the negative voice in his head and turning up the positive voice. Shane talks about how he’s been in a bad place for a couple of years, and how “you people” have restored his faith in humanity and re-awakened positive things in him.
- Marian initially rebuts what Shane said in his opening statement about getting thrown under the bus by her at the previous tribal council. Then she essentially asks Dino why he didn’t honor their final two deal. He says that after seeing his fiancee at the immunity challenge, he had to choose his real-life number one over his in-game number one. Then he breaks down telling Marian how devastating it was to do even though he knew it was that he had to do. Then Marian asks both of them the bottom-line question: Why do you deserve the title of sole survivor? Shane says had to fight tooth and nail with nothing (i.e., no trinkets) and had to get to the end on relationships (and also he’s got 20 years on some of them), and ultimately on honest and virtually no lying. Dino says he knew coming in what he had to do to get to the end, and he did it in a way that did Survivor justice.
- All in all, this was a pretty low-key FTC. Shane clearly knew he had no shot, barring some kind of meltdown by Dino, so he didn’t try some kind of desperation Hail Mary (being nice and respectful to the jury while the other person fumbles away the win has worked before on Survivor SA). Dino also seemed to know that he didn’t need to gain any votes, and could only lose votes, so he played it close to the vest. For its part, the jury mostly had their minds made up going in, but they liked and respected both finalists so nobody was looking to blast the one they weren’t voting for.
- The jury votes and Nico reveals that he’s going to read the votes right there. But first he brings in Dino and Shane’s loved ones again. The votes come in: Dino, Shane, Dino, Shane, Dino, Dino (the soundtrack goes into overdrive trying to manufacture suspense), DINO. Dino Paulo is the Sole Survivor. Steffi and Killarney voted for Shane, everybody else voted for Dino.
- Except for the lack of a studio audience and the fact that it was shot on Day 40 rather than broadcast live months later, this is the closest we’ve had to the traditional reunion show in any Survivor franchise since the Island of Secrets reunion in September 2019, almost three years ago.
- The reunion segment was 32 minutes long without commercials, about as long as the traditional US Survivor reunion show. And yet unlike Jeff, Nico somehow found the time to give every single castaway their due, calling on each multiple times. I guess it helps when there are no kids in the audience to talk to or CBS shows to promote.
- The reunion was delightful, if a little light on the drama since this cast all like each other so much. I definitely think it’s better to give the finalists a day to eat, bathe, and decompress a little.
- The car curse is broken! The first returnees season curse is broken!
- About the latter: I think it’s a near-miracle that not a single cast member wore out their welcome or revealed a regrettable new side of themselves the second time around. Everybody played either approximately the same as the first time (Pinty, Tevin, Thoriso, Toni), better (Seamus, Dante, Marian), or dramatically better (Meryl, Steffi, Phil, and of course Dino). Maybe Tania went from being delightfully cranky to just plain cranky, and of course Chappies and PK disappointed, but only because somebody has to go early. But those are really minor quibbles.
- If I was certain about one thing going into the season, it was that, by forcing Shane and Marian onto the same starting tribe (because of the pre-merger/post-merger tribe division), one or both of them were doomed to an immediate exit, as it would simply be too dangerous to let them steamroll the pre-merge again. Shows what I know.
- Shane, I think, wanted to play a quieter game than in Season 5 and wait until the end game to strike (or maybe he just lost the will to play; he lost a lot of weight and his first season was an abbreviated 27-day version). But if so, he waited too long and his moment passed. In retrospect, once Dante was voted out he should have realized that he was number four in an alliance of three and then rounded up Tejan and Killarney to form a misfit toys alliance to counter-balance both Full Package and No BS. There was some movement in that direction but it didn’t really gel (Killarney said in her FTC voting confessional that she should have trusted Shane more).
- Dino, what an incredible journey. From falling in the fire early and somehow not getting voted out because his bandaged hands made him useless in challenges, to drawing votes onto himself in order to idol out Dante (the only correct idol play of the entire season; it was Phil’s fault Shona went home), to forming the unbreakable No BS alliance while at the same time using the other two members as shields, to winning the two million rand AND a car AND a cruise (the other castaways were notably less happy for Dino about that one), his game had it all. Gotta love it when the nerdy superfan wins.
- Last week I questioned the wisdom of running two two-part episodes in a row so close to the end, and I was wondering whether adding 6+ episodes to the usual Survivor SA episode count was in hindsight a mistake. I still think the extra episodes slowed the momentum of the season way down, but now that I’ve seen where it was going, I believe it was by design. At Final Tribal Council, Dino and Shane both discussed the head/heart dilemma, and the agony of the final few votes, even when there was no question of who needed to go. By slowing way down, we really got to feel the emotion of it all.
- Similarly, it’s clear that production made a conscious decision to be transparent about the deliberations leading up to each tribal council. In doing so, they sacrificed the surprise (to us) of each blindside (and there were so many…), but in exchange we really got into the heads of virtually everybody casting a vote, as well as a string of what were essentially heist movies. I think the trade-off was more than worth it.
- It’s particularly interesting that Survivor SA chose to so heavily emphasize the emotional aspect of the game, especially toward the end, since the show has been criticized (not without merit) for being too game-botty relative to the other Survivor franchises.
- I’ll have to sit with this season a bit more, but right at the moment I think it ranks up there at the top with Survivor SA: Philippines and Australian Survivor 2 (thus making it one of the best seasons of Survivor overall). It lacked the wild twists and turns of those seasons, mainly for the reasons I just noted (and also it lacked the hilariously terrible gameplay of a Season 6 Marthunis or a Season 8 Anela), but in exchange we really got into the hearts and minds of these fabulous players.
- So that’s a wrap on the season. It’s a real shame that whatever deal to make international Survivor available on Paramount Plus fell through, and that M-Net chose to air the season in such an audience-unfriendly way, because this was a season all Survivor fans everywhere should have seen and loved. Thanks to those of you who persevered, and especially to my co-recappers Barbara Anderson and Something Quirky.
Assistant Dragon Slayer began watching Survivor in 2013 with Survivor: Caramoan, but continued to watch the show anyway. He is up to 59 seasons and counting (43 US, seven Australia, five South Africa, two New Zealand, two Japan). So there.
Favorite player from each country: Cirie Fields (US), Luke Toki (Australia), Santoni Engelbrecht (South Africa), Lisa Stanger (New Zealand), Sakiko Sekiguchi (Japan) [and Maryanne Oketch (Canada)]