Twenty eight iterations in, Jeff Probst and his team delivered a season for the ages, a masterfully edited commentary on the state of the show that echoes through the annals of Survivor history. I’m not merely being hyperbolic with my opening to entice readers. Survivor Cagayan will be remembered fondly by the fandom; and it well should be for reasons beyond its return to an all-newbie Final 2 endgame format. Through the parallels drawn to everything that came before, the story of Cagayan casts a critical shadow on the contemporary approach to the game.
The most obvious similarity to the past that this season featured was Tony’s version of Russell Hantz. I label it a version because there was one important difference between Tony and Russell that secured Tony almost all the jury votes—a lack of malice. Though Tony still lied unnecessarily, bullied, and found nearly every Hidden Immunity Idol possible, he didn’t burn people’s socks, bury people’s belongings, and denigrate “dumb girls.” He believed that every action he took was a necessity to win the game, and that perspective in itself is not harmful.
What caused Tony to walk the dangerous line of paralleling Russell is his idea that bestowing the island with a surplus of lies is part of “what is necessary to win the game.” In other words, he held the assumption that the game is a bad thing. This assumption is shared by many people (fans and cast alike) and the editors often highlight it to make a point about “overplaying.” Russell used it as a rationalization for all of his dastardly deeds. Chase Rice used it as a defense at the Nicaragua Final Tribal Council for his wishy-washy play as he continually told the jury, “It’s Survivor.” The refrain ultimately brought Chase a loss in the vote for the same reasons we saw it implode Kass’ chances of playing an effective game this season.
Much can be said about Kass’ performance this season. What’s most interesting is the intersection of her strategy and the edit. There’s no doubt that her strategy propelled her all the way to a third place finish. She sensed she was at the bottom of her original alliance and jumped ship. However, from that point on she faced a problem. How could she make sure she wasn’t on the bottom of her new alliance in the same way the most famous turncoat in recent memory John Cochran was in South Pacific? If the edit is to be believed, it was by sowing chaos. Here we find the Russell-esque malevolence that was absent from Tony’s gameplay.
Kass was continually portrayed as vindictive and erratic as the editors selected confessional after confessional where she heralded her own superiority in the game and life. Pre-merge, she recited the flawed zombies theory of Redemption Island by saying the Brains, her original tribe, found their zombies in the Beauties post-swap. In the final episode, even when her edit softened and humanized her, she asserted that no one has integrity in the game. Ironically, it was one man’s edit of integrity that cost her a spot in front of the jury. Kass was portrayed as the greatest goat in the history of the show to drive home how much of a mistake Woo made when he decided to sit next to Tony instead of her.
Amid all of the large personalities, blindsides, and editing tricks, it could be easy to forget that Woo delivered one of the greatest Final Tribal Council performances ever. While he confidently and clearly explained his actions and the reasons behind them, his opponent absorbed blow after blow with a look of helpless despair. However, one of the things that makes Survivor great is that actions always trump words. It matters what you write on the parchment, not what promises you make. While Woo’s integrity and argument were extremely admirable, his strategy is only ever going to win against a player who is extremely inactive or extremely malevolent. Kass understood this fact when she told him he was the Fabio, the winner of Survivor Nicaragua, of the season.
The editors asking us to link Woo to Fabio is as clear of a demonstration of how they shape our perception of the story as we’ll ever witness. The similarities between Woo and Fabio are obvious (minus Fabio’s immunity win streak). They’re both intelligent and laidback Southern California guys with a physical and psychological strength. Do you know who else that description applies to though (minus Southern California)? Woo could have just as easily been compared to Ethan, the winner of Survivor Africa. In a certain light, this season is essentially Africa except that Ethan won final immunity and took Lex to the end. It definitely would have been Africa if Kass had been a second faster in the final immunity challenge. There was no way she would have chosen to sit next to Tony while facing the jury. Except, we wouldn’t have seen it as Africa, but Nicaragua, where Woo slid to the victory thanks to everyone else’s overplaying. The editors were making this connection to situate this season in the contemporary culture of the show. Knowing this approach helps us to understand the peculiarities of the story.
Like in Blood vs Water, the apparently strongest winner’s story disintegrated seemingly out of nowhere. In that season, it happened at the merge, and the boots of Aras and Vytas were supposed to be the big moves that defined Tyson’s win. In Cagayan, Spencer’s story hummed along until the final episode when it suddenly dropped out. Let me be the first to admit to being shocked at a vote-out for the first time since Samoa, nine seasons ago. Up until Probst turned that final vote around at the Final Four Tribal Council, I was sure it was going to be a 2-2 tie that led to a fire-making challenge. Instead I sat slack-jawed and contemplated the significance of Spencer’s huge edit. Then he capped off the final Tribal Council by addressing the jury and it all became clear:
“I need to talk to you all [the jury]. Love him or hate him, Tony played his ass off out here. Woo tries to excuse his passive play on not having idols and Tony finding three idols. Why do you think Tony found three idols? It’s because he looked more than everyone else combined. Tony was behind every great strategic decision. He blinded his alliance to what was going on around them in the game like a puppet master. He took a slew of goats deep. Put some on the jury. He took one to the end. Tony played with a ferocity this game very rarely does see. And so, when you put pen to parchment tonight, vote for the only guy sitting there that actually played this game and played it in a way that honors it.”
Spencer represented the lifelong fans of Survivor in both character and story. Character-wise, he is someone who grew up on the game, loves it, and knows its history. Story-wise, his narrative was what most of the fans always root for, the underdog fighting the odds to pull out the improbably victory. As we all know, he was unable to pull out that victory, but his speech defined the season by telling us how we’re supposed to understand Tony’s victory.
The jury voting for Tony over Woo wasn’t an issue of personality. It was an issue of activity vs passivity. As Spencer noted, Tony asserted action in the game, finding idols and spearheading blindsides. Woo, on the other hand, while playing a measured and respectable game, didn’t initiate anything, even when presented with the opportunity to make big moves by players who rightly wanted to eliminate Tony. The editors wanted us to see Tony as having “played with a ferocity this game rarely does see” and “honor[ing] it.” More importantly, they wanted to situate Tony in Survivor history.
Spencer is the latest of three speeches delivered to the jury to end the Final Tribal Council. The previous two were given by David in Redemption Island and Erik in Samoa. Any speech made to the jury by another jury member pleading one of the finalist’s cases will always echo Erik’s because he was the first to do so and his words were meant to explain Natalie’s foundation-shaking victory over Russell. Likewise, David’s speech honored what the editors wanted us to consider a righteous game as Boston Rob dominated in a season that saw Russell’s divisive tactics fizzle out early. That result seemed like a foregone conclusion, however, and David was just speaking what was generally accepted.
In contrast, Spencer’s speech was much more like Erik’s, pulling back the curtain on a shrouded edit. In the final episode, Woo and Kass were edited as winners. Kass was humanized in a way she hadn’t been all season. Woo was compared to a previous winner. Over the season, Spencer had been built up as a winner, constantly commenting on everyone else’s poor moves and showing his determination. In the end, these portrayals by the edit were a double, triple, and quadruple bluff to masterfully hide Tony’s win and again point out the flawed ideas behind Russell Hant’z negative approach to Survivor.
Tony’s intent was never to prove his dominance. He just wanted to win. The difference between those two approaches is subtle, but important. One requires that you hurt people to make them acknowledge your greatness. The other requires that you do what’s necessary to reach your goal and not feel bad about it. Maybe Tony lied a bit much due, but he certainly didn’t play like Kass. The difference between those two players was put on display in the final episode as Woo chose between them for his Final Tribal Council opponent. Woo’s choice was built to be our choice, so if we take anything away from Cagayan, it should be the difference between them.
Survivor has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted almost every other reality show because, though it is a highly edited narrative, its base concept reflects reality more than any other game. It is a constant discussion of morality. When, if ever, is it right to lie? How assertive should you be in pursuing your goals? How much respect should you treat other people with? Survivor Cagayan raised issues of integrity and aggression and the fine line you have to walk to maintain both and be successful.