Survivor 43 Finale Episode Recap: The Greatest Move In Survivor History

“Expect the unexpected” is usually the go-to phrase of Big Brother, but it sure can be applied to what was a wild, emotional finish to Survivor 43.

Heading into Wednesday’s three-hour Finale, it was Jesses game to lose. He had been the season’s puppet-master, its “silent assassin,” and had just pulled one of the biggest moves of the season in blindsiding his ride-or-die, Cody (while also flushing two Idols from the game). He did all that in plain sight of the jury, and his credentials sky-rocketed. In terms of his “Survivor Resumé,” Jesse was nearly over-qualified to be the Sole Survivor. Best of all, he headed into the Finale with a hidden Idol still in his possession, one that guaranteed his spot at Final Four and ensured he could not be voted out of the game. He was either going to be the clear winner, as one of the Final Three that would get to address the final jury, or he was going to go out after losing a fire-making challenge. Jesse – a reformed gang member who wore his heart on his sleeve this season, especially when discussing his family back home – just had one fire-making challenge between himself and a million bucks.

Karla was the night’s first victim…a woman who represented such awesomeness all season long, who a few short weeks ago seemed to have the game wrapped around her stitched-up finger. Owen had won his third challenge of the season, and Jesse still could have won the final Immunity Challenge to land himself in the Final Three. But it was Cassidy who took home the most important challenge of the season, her third win as well. There was no way in hell that she was going to bring Jesse to the end, and she ultimately decided to take the hapless underdog Owen – this season’s “Charlie Brown” – with her to the end. That meant that Jesse would need to win the fire-making challenge against…hmmm…wait…who’s left? We have Cassidy, Owen, Jesse and…

Gabler! Sorry, I didn’t see him there for a moment (he was hiding in plain sight!). Gabler, the real underdog of the season in that no one gave him a real chance at winning. He could have been his tribe’s first boot, and instead, he found himself all the way at Final Four, and nary one vote had been cast against him all season. Impressive. Cassidy underestimated Gabler, thinking that even if he were to beat Jesse at fire, Gabler wouldn’t stand a good chance at beating her. The viewers knew the great, under-the-radar yet highly-influential game that Gabler had played, but had the jury seen it?

Not only did Gabler win the fire-making challenge, he set a new record for the fastest-ever to finish it (just four minutes and nine seconds). Jesse never had a chance. And just like that, the game slipped through Jesse’s fingers. The viewing audience let out a collective gasp, and if you’re anything like me, you hadn’t even really considered that another contestant could win.

Jesse was given his props, complete with sad music in the background. He became overcome with emotion, and it permeated through the screen and all over Tribal Council. Jesse left it all out on the field. He should be proud. I know his family and his children must be.

Now normally, as a Survivor-fanatic but also as someone who writes about the show and has for 23 seasons, I’m always calculating – subconsciously, but also consciously sometimes – how good is this season? How does it stack up to past seasons? One benchmark that I always have used is that a Survivor season is only as great as its winner. The winner, sometimes, can make a good season great, or a bad season better. Conversely, a mediocre winner can knock a great season down a peg or two, or make a good season feel like a giant disappointment. The minute that Gabler won the fire-making challenge and after it dawned on me that Jesse was not going to win, I had figured that whatever ends up happening next, Survivor 43 just went down a notch. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Gabler, Cassidy and Owen…there have been worse Final Threes. But I just felt, in that moment, that there could have been no more satisfying a winner than Jesse for Survivor 43. Anything less was going to be a let-down.

Boy was I wrong.

After one of the least bitter and most thoughtful final juries in recent memory, Gabler became the winner of Season 43. The Sole Survivor. Mike Gabler, who at 51-years-young, is now the second-oldest Survivor Winner in history (the title of oldest still belongs to Survivor: Gabon winner, Bob Crowley, who won Season 17 at the age of 57). Perhaps most impressively, Gabler fell just one winning vote shy of the coveted “Survivor Perfect Game,” which means that a player wins the game without ever having a vote cast against them, and then wins by unanimous vote. The final vote tally was seven for Gabler, with James casting the lone vote for Cassidy (poor Owen finished with zero). The “Survivor Perfect Game” has only happened twice in 43 seasons (J.T. Thomas in Survivor: Tocantins and John Cochran in Survivor: Caramoan…with Survivor: Cambodia‘s winner Jeremy Collins carrying an asterisk by his name, as technically he had three votes against him that were voided by a hidden Immunity Idol). Gabler is now the fourth winner to fall just short of the “Survivor Perfect Game” by just one vote (having Sandra Diaz-Twine, Tom Westman and Earl Cole as company is quite an impressive feat).

He’s been quite the character to root for all season, but what came after his win was what left me speechless, and yes, in tears. Gabler, the heart valve specialist from Meridian, Idaho, pledged to donate his ENTIRE million dollar winnings to Veterans In Need Foundation, given in honor of his own father, who was a green beret. There was no doubt in his declaration, no second-guessing. It brought the house down and even Jeff Probst got emotional. To know that there is goodness in the world – and to find this out while watching a show normally associated with lying, betrayal and back-stabbing – was re-affirming. There are not too many people that would do what Gabler decided to do, but to know that a person like Gabler even exists is inspirational.

Cody called Gabler‘s decision, “The Greatest Move In Survivor History,” and I’d have to whole-heartedly agree.

Wiping the tears away and continuing with this Recap, the instant Tribal Council after-party that followed Gabler‘s win and big announcement gave us many memorable moments. Cody has forgiven Jesse and they are forever going to be close friends. We learned that you can once again bid on several items from the show at, and apparently you can say whatever you’d like to Jeff Probst‘s staff of interns by emailing your thoughts to We got our first look at the next season, Survivor 44, which premieres on March 1st, 2023. It looks bananas, with a medical situation and some truly eccentric personalities (one dude was going on and on about how excited he was to poop in the ocean). We’ll regroup and do it all again starting next March.

Survivor 43 really was one of the nicest casts I can remember. There were zero sour grapes and only love and admiration in abundance. Here I thought there couldn’t possibly be a better winner than Jesse, and then the Ali-Gabler popped his head out of the shallow water and completely took me by surprise. In these tumultuous times, Survivor 43’s end felt like a much-needed gift…an inspirational jolt of goodness that I didn’t know I needed.

Ultimately, this was another great cast…if nothing else, the “new era” of Survivor that started last Fall is marked by its tremendous casting. But how good was this season – or should I say – how “memorable” will it be as time goes by? And where does Gabler rank on my list of all-time Survivor Winners? You may be very, very surprised by my answers. Look for my two season-ending lists posting soon: “Most Memorable Survivor Seasons” and “All-Time Survivor Winners,” updated through Survivor 43.

A big thank you to all of you whom follow, comment, like and share this Survivor column. Another big, big shout-out to Erik Reichenbach, for contributing to these pages such fantastic artwork this and every season of Survivor. Erik is such a talented guy, and if you didn’t know you can help support him and take home some of his amazing artwork on his site, I suggest you check it out. So thanks, Erik! For all of you, Erik’s final piece of the season will show below (if you don’t see it, that means that it will be added shortly, so check back!):

“Winner In Plain Sight”

Art by Erik Reichenbach –

I hope everyone enjoyed this season as much as I did…we’ll be back in the Spring!


[Photo Credit: CBS/Monty Brinton/Robert Voets/Timothy Kuratek/Jeffrey Neira/Michele Crowe/David M. Russell]