CBS

Everyone Cries Fowl On Survivor's Season Finale

One of the final four takes home the $1 million prize, and then things get pretty bonkers. But you wouldn't expect anything less strange from a season whose most memorable character was a chicken.

Cock-A-Doodle-Duplicity

This has been one of the toughest seasons of Survivor ever, Jeff reminds us (as he has at the beginning of almost every "Previously on" segment for several weeks now), and we are finally approaching the conclusion. Who will it be? Michele, the loyal ally who's been betrayed by pretty much everyone? Aubry, the scrappy underdog? Cydney, who's been juggling multiple alliances? Or Tai, who's been struggling to balance his head and his heart?

On Day 36, Mark threatens to wake the group with his incessant crowing (wait, Mark really is a male chicken? why the hell didn't these people eat the rooster first?), so Tai takes him for a walk to talk strategy. Tai believes he and Aubry are solid, but that's pretty much all he's got in the way of allies, given that Mark doesn't get a vote. He reaches out to Aubry as soon as the rest of the tribe's awake, and he further suggests that Cydney should be their third, although Cydney and Michele seem to be leaning toward an all-female final three.

A reward challenge, of the typical obstacle-course-and-puzzle variety, occurs. Jeff promises that the winner will receive a meal to fuel him or her for the rest of the competition. Aubry solves the puzzle fairly quickly, or so she thinks, but several aborted attempts enable others to NEARLY catch up, or so the editing would have you think. Once she's victorious, Jeff gives Aubry the option to bring a friend along, noting that doing so might give an opponent the chance to beat her in an immunity situation. Aubry selects the physically strongest person -- Cydney -- noting in confessionals that she intends to do exactly that: make the strongest person stronger to ensure immunity.

Steaking Your Claim On Immunity

Over steak and mashed potatoes (which, shockingly, both devour without one thought to Joe's digestive issues), Cydney and Aubry debate the merits of voting for Michele versus Tai.

Over coconut and mango, Michele proposes an alternative plan to Tai, although everyone acknowledges that a lot hinges on who wins immunity.

Speaking of immunity: this particular challenge has keys, and balls, and poles, and things to climb, and, of course, a puzzle. Aubry takes another early lead, but she blows it in the final stage, and Michele ends up winning the necklace. Not to break the fourth wall too much here, but a certain segment of the rabid Survivor fanbase has been insisting for weeks that Michele's preponderance of out-of-nowhere, not-too-interesting confessionals means she's definitely winning...and that sound you just heard was that segment of the fanbase collectively orgasming as we're treated to a shot of Michele triumphantly karate-kicking the puzzle.

Tai Forces A Tie

Over picturesque stock footage of some monkeys flashing their balls, Aubry and Tai weigh their options. The best plan, Tai says, is to vote for Cydney and force a tie, although Aubry notes that, given Tai's previous history of betraying everyone he's ever worked with, maybe having him as a BFF is not the greatest plan.

For Michele and Cydney's part, they're a solid bloc, and they agree that Aubry's the biggest threat to win in the end. "I don't need to practice making fire, do I?" Cydney asks Michele, pondering the possibility of a tied vote, and Michele assures her that she does not: they'll get Tai to vote for Aubry. When Michele floats this plan to Tai, he's shocked, given that he voted for her twice in one Tribal Council, but obviously he's on board, he says, since it's not him.

Or is he? The vote comes out tied: two for Cydney, two for Aubry, and neither Michele nor Tai is budging, so it's fire-making time...right after these messages.

Cydney Flames Out

Jeff lays out the rules: whoever makes the fire burn high enough to burn through the provided rope will stay in the game; loser joins the jury. Aubry gets a fire going pretty quickly, while Cydney struggles even to get a spark, but there's a tense moment or two while her structure falls over before it can burn long enough to catch the rope. The best part of this entire challenge is watching Neal and Joe's reaction shots from the peanut gallery: every time Aubry does something good, or Cydney's fire fails to catch, they are not shy about showing their approval, and they stop just short of leaping up and whooping for joy when her rope finally burns.

Cydney's exit is surprisingly emotional, as she tearfully tells the assembled spectators she'd hoped to make a difference in her mom's life with that million dollars. I'd imagine this immediately makes Neal and Joe feel like shit.

Back in the studio, where the live reunion show begins at 10 PM, Cydney's mom is equally tearful as she reports to Jeff that she's very proud of her daughter, and Jeff yells at the camera a little bit to remind us that the live reunion show is comming up. (It should be noted that we are three commercial breaks in and this is the first time Jeff has shamelessly plugged the reunion show, which demonstrates uncharacteristic restraint on his part.)

Let's Talk About Dexterity

Aubry's amazed that she pulled off the tiebreaker challenge win, and frankly, so is Michele. The final three gather their thoughts: how will they address the jury tomorrow? But wait, Tai observes, Jeff never said anything about addressing the jury. Michele insists that there can't possibly be another challenge, but Tai is not so sure.

Surprise! Tree mail the next morning reveals that there is, indeed, another challenge. And surprise again: "Immunity is NOT up for grabs," says Jeff. They ARE the final three. So what's all this challenge, then? They're voting someone out, he says, just not one of them: the winner gets to invoke a little Survivor voir dire and strike a member of the jury.

The challenge itself is the "dexterity" option that nobody chose all the way back at the first immunity challenge: the Survivors have to build a tower out of balls and connector pieces. Everyone's balls are repeatedly going to drop (hee), Jeff notes -- it's just a matter of who can get all six of their balls stacked up first. For what's basically a bastardization of Jenga, with comparatively low stakes (considering what they thought they'd be playing for), it's surprisingly tense, and it comes down to the final piece. The jury-striking honors will go to Michele, and apparently she also gets the honor of trying to explain to the jury what exactly is happening.

Neal Gets Real

After the final three Survivors hug each other with relief over the fact that none of them will have to screw each other over, Michele starts pondering what she's going to do about her jury strike. She assumes Joe or Neal is the best person to strike, but she wastes a tremendous amount of time overthinking: who definitely ISN'T going to vote for her, who's got the ability to sway others with a Clarence Darrow moment, what choice could make her look stupid on national television, etc.

Jeff calls a special Tribal Council just for Michele to use her advantage. Michele notes that bouncing ideas off of her competitors gave her a certain amount of insight as to who they think is on their respective teams and who isn't. In the end, she votes to boot Neal from the jury.

Neal still gets his chance to throw some shade at Michele on his way out, though: "I don't think you stand a chance."

Back in the studio, Jeff says they'd been talking about trying out that twist for seven years. He adds that there'll be an unexpected guest at final tribal council, and my first guess is that it's going to be something lame like Mark the chicken, although if the unexpected guest is Mark the chicken and he's the refreshments, my esteem for this overblown hyping goes way up.

You Don't Get A Plus-One To Final Tribal Council, Tai

In light of Neal's harsh parting words, Michele's feeling pretty good about her decision, though Aubry notes that he probably isn't the only one with a few good barbs to throw.

On the final morning of their journey, the Survivors are given a mirror and scale, all the better to weigh their strategies and self-reflect, or something. Of course there's also breakfast. Michele notes that she won the right challenges, voted with the right people, and has learned a lot about herself. Tai thinks the key to winning the game is in convincing Scot not to be mad at him. Aubry proclaims herself "the woman behind the curtain," and notes that she's got an uphill climb ahead of her, argument-wise.

The final three (plus Mark the chicken, evidently the "unexpected guest" though not the refreshments) file into final Tribal Council, and once Jeff delivers his opening remarks, we cut to commercial. (Worth noting: the first commercial is for Chick-Fil-A.)

Ladies And Gentlemen Of The Jury...

Nick kicks off the jury speeches by condescendingly telling everyone what they have to do in order to win the respect of the jury, but apart from him and Scot (who spends his jury speech stumping for Michele, because there's always one of those in the crowd), most of the jury members seem to ask some pretty great questions. Moreover, almost all of the votes actually DO seem to be up in the air. When Jason asks Tai why he betrayed him, Mark starts flapping and clucking to the point where Tai can't actually finish his answer, but for the most part, everyone also gives pretty great answers.

Jeff gives everyone one final chance to plead their case. Aubry's argument boils down to "one time I won a reward challenge"; Tai, misty-eyed, invokes a Vietnamese proverb about water hyacinths; Michele, also misty-eyed, says that she believed in herself.

And The Winner Is...

Following the votes, Tai is allowed to say his final farewells to Mark, since everyone's pretty clear on the fact that U.S. customs is definitely not going to let him into the country. Even Jeff bids Mark adieu on his way off the set, which is weirdly touching.

Back in L.A., a year and change later, it's now time to read the votes: Aubry gets two votes, Michele gets the rest. Guess there was something to that fan theory after all.

Reunited And It Feels So...So...Um...

At the reunion, Jeff gives a little bit of time to the winner and the runners-up, but most of the rest of the proceedings don't necessarily have much to do with the season of television we just watched. At one point, a random person in a Sia costume rushes the stage (wait, no, that is the actual Sia, according to Jeff) to give an exorbitant amount of money to Tai and the animal charity of his choice. A few seconds later, Jeff passes the mic to Drew Carey to tout next week's The Price Is Right/CBS Reality crossovers. Oh, and we also spend a little time on medical evacuee Caleb, who allegedly made it through his harrowing heatstroke ordeal with no permanent damage, but is now sporting an immense hi-top fade that's making me wonder.

Oh, and next season's theme will be "Millennials vs. Gen X," which I'm sure will provide a nuanced portrait of the generation gap.

Normally, you can give the reunion a pass, but since I'm pretty sure you're not going to believe me that any of that happened unless you see it yourself, I must insist that you watch.

Verdict

Perplexing winner aside, this character-driven circus of a finale/reunion marks an appropriate sendoff for a character-driven circus of a season. There's no reason to sit rapt for three solid hours, but if you've been at all entertained by any of these jokers at any point, there's plenty here you aren't going to want to miss.

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