Wednesday, May 13 was not my birthday. It was not Christmas. Yet on that day, I found myself grinning ear to ear for three hours as I watched this legendary finale. It is not hyperbole to say that this was the greatest finale ever, and this season certainly ranks in the top 5.
After Nick Wilson’s demise, there were only 5 castaways remaining. Denise Stapley had the biggest move of the season in slaying Survivor’s only 2 time winner in Sandra Diaz-Twine. She wore the mantle of Queenslayer proudly, but did little else throughout the game. Michele Fitzgerald had been on the bottom the whole time. She had been fighting and clawing her way through, desperate to prove that her first win was earned. Ben Driebergen was Tony and Sarah’s loyal ally, who was willing to go to the end with them. Sarah Lacina had been playing a masterful game of social manipulation. She also makes up one half of the greatest alliance in Survivor history, Cops R’ Us. The other half is the unicorn himself, Tony Vlachos because no one else has played his style game and won, and for good reason. In his first season, he just went full speed the whole time. That mentality got him voted out early his second time around. For Vlachos 3.0, patience was key. He waited to make a move in order to lower his threat level, and then took control of the game. Was it for good? You’ll soon see.
The saga began with the Edge of Extinction challenge. One player would return. Because Natalie Anderson had so many fire tokens, she could buy all 3 challenge advantages and an idol for if she won, as well as one for Tyson Apostol. She needed all three of these advantages, as she only beat Wendell Holland (who had no advantages) by a hair to return into the game.
After the challenge, we had to say goodbye to the people on Edge. It was a tearful goodbye, as players like Tyson Apostol, Amber Mariano, Rob Mariano, Parvati Shallow, Kim Spradlin and Ethan Zohn were legends and have had a lot to do with Survivor’s success over the years. Every fan owes a debt of gratitude to these castaways, and for that reason, it was incredibly emotional.
Immediately after returning to camp, Anderson went to work. She told everyone that Vlachos was the imminent threat to win in the end, hoping it would get people to target him. Tony was scared of Natalie and argued to Sarah that as the Edge of Extinction returnee, she’d have a lot of friends on the jury, so they shouldn’t let her get to the end. Lacina agreed somewhat, but she took what Anderson said to heart. She knew that she had played a great game, but realized that perception was everything and that to beat Tony, she’d have to make more moves. She thought that the jury saw Vlachos as more impressive because he was a man and she is a woman, as women often get the short end of the stick in regard to Survivor jury votes.
This was a tricky situation, as she was simultaneously right and wrong. She is right in that women had a much harder time winning the game, and were less likely to win when they got to the end against a man that they had worked with. This wasn’t always the case, however, with an example being Tina Wesson beating Colby Donaldson in Survivor: The Australian Outback. But that was season 2. Since Survivor 20, only 5 women have won, and since 25, only 2. In that time, there had been examples of women being blamed more than men for making cutthroat moves. Dawn Meehan in Caramoan (26) was the target of a lot of hatred after playing a great game. She lost unanimously to the man she worked with in John Cochran. The part that she was wrong about was her claim that this was what is happening here. Tony has plainly played a better game than Sarah, which is something that she recently admitted on twitter. This is why the jury favored him over her. Again, this was a tough subject, and Jeff Probst admitted later that Survivor hasn’t always treated this perfectly.
Michelle Fitzgerald and Natalie Anderson were now on the outs, with their only way to advance being one of them winning immunity, as Natalie had an idol. FItzgerald struggled initially, but then put on one of the all time impressive challenge performances. She kicked down the tower she built as she won, which was a callback to what she did after the challenge that won her her season last time. Michelle has immunity, Natalie has an idol. Things were getting interesting.
Back at camp, Tony wanted to split the votes, just in case Natalie had an idol. If they did that, Ben and he could save their idols for next week, and even if Natalie played her idol, Denise would go home. For some reason, Driebergen and Lacina rejected this idea, as they were convinced that Natalie didn’t have one. This was odd, as only 2 seasons ago Chris Underwood came back from Extinction with an idol. Michele and Natalie got together and planned what to do with Natalie’s idol.
At tribal, Sarah brought up the sexism point again. She made a lot of sense, as she stated that all the people that Jeff called by last name (Mariano, Cochran, Hatch, Hantz, Penner, Dietz) are men. She asked Jeff to call her Lacina, and although she made a mistake in her read of Natalie, she certainly earned it.
Tony was proven right when Natalie played her idol. Now, Ben and Tony had to play theirs, which left them vulnerable at final 5. Natalie and Michele had voted for Ben to go home, so there were no votes cast. The only people available to go home were Lacina and Stapley after this. The others had to re-vote, and Denise Stapley was sent home. This was interesting, as Natalie and Michelle could have forced Lacina to go to fire against Denise, but they thought they had a better chance of getting Lacina to work with them next round.
When an idol is played, one is put back into the game. All the players knew this, but Tony put it to use. He waited until everyone was asleep and looked for the idol in the dark, using a portable fire on branches to light his way. He looked all night, but found nothing. In the morning, everyone joined him in the search. When it was all said and done, Vlachos was not the one who found it, but instead Natalie Anderson. She immediately shares it with Fitzgerald, and they look to the upcoming immunity challenge to lock in their place in the final 4. Tony wins immunity, though, which messes up their plans.
Back at camp, Natalie has a conversation with Lacina about the upcoming vote, and in that conversation, Lacina sees her idol in her buff. Tony also sees it, as he was hiding in the spy nest. The two on the outs want Ben out, as he is the clear favorite in the final 4 firemaking challenge. At this point, it seems like it’ll be a classic guessing game as to whether Natalie would play the idol on herself or Michelle. However, Ben has grown very close to Lacina. So close, in fact, that he offers Lacina the option to vote him out as a resume point for the jury. This was an incredibly selfless and commendable act by Ben, but it didn’t make a lot of strategic sense. Lacina flipping to vote him out would seem like a masterful move from Anderson and Fitzerald to convince her, not on Lacina’s part. Also, a loyal ally like Ben is much more useful in the game than out of it. Keeping Ben here would have guaranteed her spot in the final 3. Nevertheless, this was an incredibly sweet and heartfelt moment. At tribal, Lacina makes the decision to go along with Ben’s plan and sends her friend home.
And then there were 4. Natalie Anderson, Michele Fitzgerald, Sarah Lacina and Tony Vlachos. Each of them had an argument to win, and each of them had already cemented themselves as fantastic players. Natalie won immunity, which put her in the final 3. She could now take one person and force the other two to make fire. She wanted Tony out, as he was the biggest threat to win in the end. As soon as they got back, they all began to practice making fire. Michelle was the best by far, but Tony struggled. They played mind games, and it was amazing to see these legendary players try to intimidate each other.
At tribal, Natalie chose to neither put herself in the challenge nor put Michele in. She opted to send Sarah into battle Tony, as she wanted to guarantee that one of them would go home. It was one of the closest fire making challenges ever, and Tony ended up winning. But that wasn’t the end. That started the most, and I repeat, the most emotional moment in Survivor history.
Tony didn’t celebrate for an instant, as he immediately embraced Lacina and started bawling. This was so impactful because it was so earned. These two have played together 3 times and have formed a genuine friendship that went outside of the game. Earlier, I said Cops R Us was the greatest alliance of all time, but it was also the best 3 season arc in Survivor. They went from partners to enemies to partners once again, and it was beautiful (and heartbreaking) to watch. Lacina went home, but she proved that she was one of the best Survivor players ever, regardless of her gender. When she got voted out, Jeff called her by her last name, which is the ultimate sign of respect in this game. This gave me goosebumps.
Now, we come to the final 3. Anderson, Fitzgerald, Vlachos. Back at camp, they get to enjoy their Day 39 breakfast. They prepared for the final tribal council, and man, was that compelling. Their games were all very different. Tony dominated the strategy, Natalie dominated Edge of Extinction, and Michele was the ultimate underdog that fought all season to get to the end. Natalie had a bit of a disappointing final tribal, and Michele was incredibly impressive. Tony was solid, and the jury had a tough decision to make.
And then Jeff read the votes, with every Survivor fan on the edge of their seat. Michele got 0 votes. This was unfortunate, as she played a really good game and did a good job of explaining it. She had nothing to be ashamed of, as she proved anyone who didn’t think she deserved her first win wrong. The second place finisher was . . . Natalie Anderson with 4 votes. That meant that the winner of Survivor 40 and second 2-time Survivor winner was Tony Vlachos!
It was a masterful game from Tony, and he is truly worthy of being crowned the greatest of all time. It was maybe the greatest season ever, and Survivor superfans like me all across the globe owe CBS a debt of gratitude.
In a time of isolation and uncertainty, this show brought smiles to our faces and joy to our hearts. I could not be prouder to call myself a fan of this show, and to cover it for The Academy Life.
Tune in this fall for Survivor 41!