It was not a great night for farm animals on the Season 41 Finale of Survivor. First there were no goats to be seen heading into the Final Three which is quite typical. Then, what looked to be a lamb ended up tearing off its skin to reveal itself as a lion…a lioness to be more precise.
Yes we just witnessed the 39th player to ever win the title of Sole Survivor…the first winner of the “new era” of the show (drop the “4” keep the “1”)…the first Canadian winner…and the first female winner in the past seven seasons, Erika Casupanan. The 32-year-old Communications Manager from Toronto, Ontario didn’t quite fly under-the-radar, but rather was heavily underestimated by those reading the radar reports. This “lamb” ended up not being sacrificial nor could she be silenced at the end. She only received two votes against her the entire game and only had one vote against her for the win (that lone Deshawn vote cast by Danny).
Erika‘s journey to the end was unlikely, and few might have predicted that she’d not only sit at the end but could win. She didn’t really even factor into the game until the sixth episode, having been on the winning Luvu Tribe for the first five. During that sixth episode, she was unceremoniously dumped at Exile Island, which removed her temporarily from the “game” back on the main island and severely hindered her chances at assimilating with her new tribe. Jeff gave her the hourglass “reverse time” advantage while she was there, which – let’s face it – was a no-brainer for Erika to use, as it most likely would have been used by anybody in her position. She then shockingly went on to win three Individual Immunity challenges on her way to the Final Three, where she was selected by Xander to take a seat with him in the Finals and escape having to compete in the tie-breaking fire-making challenge. I say “shockingly” only because that’s part of Erika’s overall charm: You just don’t see her strengths until it’s too late and she’s already devoured you whole. This was on full display at the Final Tribal Council, where Erika (with the help of Ricard on the jury) was able to successfully persuade the rest of the jury as to how good her game actually was, despite few being privy to it while it was happening.
The three-hour Survivor Finale (of which roughly 30-40 minutes was saved for a Survivor-first “After Show”) was an exciting finish for all intents and purposes, marking an end to what has really been a whirlwind of a season. First, we couldn’t wait to see Survivor back on our TV screens after the pandemic robbed us of new seasons in the Fall of 2020 and the Spring of 2021. But when Season 41 finally came back guns-a-blazin’ with a new format and packed full of new ideas and energy, many fans balked. Our touchy political climate had some “cancelling” the show after the iconic yet inconsequential line “Come on in guys!” was changed to simply “Come on in!” And as if fans of the show had never heard of Immunity Idols, Super Idols, tribe swaps, Exile Islands, Medallions of Power, extra votes, Idol-nullifiers, steal-a-vote, Fire Tokens and/or Legacy Advantages, people were up-in-arms that Survivor 41 had introduced too many new advantages, too quickly. In the midst of the pandemic, I understand the need of wanting the comfort and familiarity of the “Survivor We Know,” but those that REALLY know the game realize that twists and turns – to quote one of the skeletons in the SNL David Pumpkins sketch – well, they’re “part of it.”
Not all advantages will be well-received, but if nothing else, Survivor has been very good at recycling in and out new ideas that keep the players on their toes. What shone through this season in a major way though was this simple truth: It’s all about the cast. That’s right, all of the advantages in the world or no advantages, a season of Survivor is only as good as its cast, and Season 41 featured one of the very best, most diverse casts in the show’s history. I was put-off in the beginning of the season when flashbacks were used (another new format shift) that showed many of the contestant’s back-stories. It seemed as if they were trying to make us like everyone. Well one thing that I’ve learned while watching Survivor 41 is that although a good Survivor “villain” is fantastic to have as part of the show, it is not a vital ingredient to the show’s success. Season 41 proved to me that you CAN have a cast made up of people you want to root for, who all seem like good people, who cannot be boiled down and compartmentalized as simply “snakes” or “rats” as Sue Hawk famously stated. I genuinely liked this group, and actively rooted against none of them. The real-world issues that were brought into the show felt necessary and helpful, and I’m simply left feeling positive after experiencing this season. Positivity, these days, is more valuable than gold.
Heading into Finale, we all knew that only Heather couldn’t win. Our acutely-trained eyes know from watching the season that she didn’t have enough screen-time or story to be named the Sole Survivor. But even Heather’s story played out in a satisfying way. Yes, at 52-years-old, she was the oldest female in the game, but her storyline seemed to be that of the Survivor “goat,” and this time it does NOT stand for “greatest of all time.” There always seems to be a Survivor goat that at a certain point, other players decide they want to take to the end for an easier victory at Final Tribal. But Heather fought. Her fire-making tie-breaking challenge against Deshawn was legendary, as far as fire-making Survivor challenges go. Some may hate that this is part of the game at all, but there was no denying the drama and the excitement of watching Deshawn’s unlikely come-from-behind victory.
Speaking of Deshawn, what a journey. He left it all out there, and at times was the most charismatic player in the game or the most grating, depending on the day and the situation he’d find himself in. But he never stopped. And talk about an improbable road to the finish. He was seen as the most volatile of the African-American alliance that was formed, yet somehow outlasted them all. He miraculously survived the “Do or Die” challenge by selecting the right unmarked box. He ended up making it through that fire-making challenge and even earned himself a vote for the win. He, like many on this season, could easily be asked back to compete in a future season.
While there was not a goat, there was a sad third place finisher, who received zero winning votes. That person this season was Xander, who actually played one heck of a game even though he wasn’t perceived to have done so from his peers. Did you know that in Survivor’s 41 season history, there has been a Final Three now 26 times? and of those 26 times, there have only been FIVE instances where each member of the Final Three received a winning vote? That means that 21 times, the third place finisher received zero votes. Even in the five instances where they did receive a vote, the third place finisher has never received more than just one vote. This is damning proof and a key part of the argument in favor of going back to a Final Two instead of Final Three. That even as good as Xander played, it wasn’t enough to even land one stinking vote.
I did love that from the viewer’s perspective though, this was a great Final Three, representative of the season that we had just witnessed. I liked the final twist that Jeff Probst gave them, of reading the final votes live on island, returning us to our Survivor roots where that hadn’t happened since back in Season 1. While the actual reading of the final votes felt a little underwhelming when compared to getting that live studio audience reaction, I loved loved loved the After Show discussion as opposed to the ham-fisted Live Reunion Show that we normally are subjected to. There were no distracting celebrities or former Survivor players in the audience, no contestants pitching their latest business ventures or dressing to impress. It was just a raw discussion of the game that had just unfolded. I was a little surprised that Jeff didn’t circle back to the ground-breaking alliance that had been formed between Shan, Danny, Deshawn and Liana, or why any of them ultimately voted for Erika to win the game (for the record, Danny did cast that winning Deshawn vote). There was lots of talk among them of crowning an African-American Sole Survivor, but did they mean anyone else but Deshawn? I would have liked that topic to have been revisited. For that matter, we got little insight from any of them as to why exactly they cast their winning votes for Erika. Even still, I think I’d take another Survivor After Show instead of another Live Reunion Show any day.
Before I wrap-up my thoughts on this season as a whole, I must talk about Ricard. It was pretty obvious he was going home when he did during the Finale, but I like the send-off that he got. And I loved too how Jeff reminded us that many of the greatest to play the game could NEVER win Survivor. Now Ricard may or may not rank as one of the “greats” but he was definitely one of the most formidable players out there this season. And if you don’t believe me, just look at how his reputation and influence over others ended up affecting the overall outcome. Early on during that final jury discussion, Ricard vouched for Erika, admitting that the rest of the jury had not seen her great gameplay the way he had. Now of course, Erika won the game on her own accord and she was determined and utterly convincing in front of the jury. This is not being said to slight Erika in any way. But Ricard’s power of influence over the jury was palpable. The other jury members may not have voted for Erika to win because of Ricard, but he may have at least opened them up to the possibility of considering her the winner, and it worked.
I could see Shan, Deshawn, Ricard, Naseer, Xander and even Danny asked back for a future season. That’s a heck of a crop of players to have been produced from just one season. If this is the future of casting on Survivor, count me in.
It’s no surprise that the preview for Survivor 42 (which was shot last Summer and will debut in Spring 2022) doesn’t give us any new gimmicks, or themes, or additional hype…it simply is going to be another season of Survivor, with an all-new cast. The cast, you see, is the draw. We’ll all get caught up in the twists, enraged at the changes that are undoubtedly coming, but in the end it won’t quite matter if the new cast isn’t up to snuff. If they are, it will be another good season. If 41 is any indication, Survivor can and will survive the changing TV landscape…it is after all, the greatest reality-competition show of all-time, and has adapted as much over the years as the players who play it have had to. Like Deshawn making fire, never count it out.
Season 41 Take-Away. Like always, I’ve had a great time recapping and discussing my favorite TV show with all of you. Thank you for once again reading, commenting, sharing and showing your support. I hope to be back recapping Survivor 42 in the Spring and I look forward to hearing all of your thoughts on Season 41’s Finale (comment below!). Also stick around for my updated rankings for “most memorable” Survivor seasons and my “All-Time Winners” list, updated through Season 41…it is no easy task comparing this season to past seasons, but I’ll do my best (and if I don’t I’m sure you will all let me know).
Stay safe out there, care for one another and have a Happy Holiday and New Year! We’ll see you on the other side.
Erik Reichenbach DabuDoodles Art. A BIG heartfelt thank you to Survivor legend Erik Reichenbach for his amazing contributions to this column all season! All of Erik’s work as well as past works can be found and purchased on his site, DabuDoodles.com, and I urge you to support this amazingly talented former Survivor player!
TELL US – WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE FINALE? WHERE SHOULD SEASON 41 RANK ALL-TIME? AND WILL YOU BE WATCHING SURVIVOR 42 IN THE SPRING?
[Photo Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton/Robert Voets/Timothy Kuratek/Jeffrey Neira/Michele Crowe/David M. Russell]