Screen: CBS

Out-fling, Out-sting, Out-dead-fish

The results of the fan vote for Survivor Season 31’s all-star cast are revealed. ...Oh yeah, and someone won Season 30 too.

Still Short On Will Power

Previously on Survivor: everything that happened throughout the season...well, it happened. Now, granted, they're breezing through it a little more quickly than usual (we get five minutes instead of the standard ten), but the traditional rehash is still kind of tedious.

Which brings us up to Night 36 on Merica. As the tribe walks back in from Carolyn's triumphant idoling-out of Dan, Carolyn giddily talks about how much fun it was to orchestrate a blindside.

Rodney summons Sierra and Carolyn, indignant about the fact that his so-called alliance-mate had an idol and didn't tell him, thereby demonstrating precisely why she didn't tell him. Not that it matters much: the alliance of four is very much back in effect. Mike may have thought he got something going with Carolyn on this vote, but with no more idols left in the game, everyone's objective is now to get rid of Mike.

The game's final reward challenge is yet another traverse-and-obstacle-course-and-retrieve-some-puzzle-pieces kind of thing, but the stakes are considerably higher this time around: the Survivors' loved ones have come out to cheer them on, and the winner will get to take his or her loved one back to camp, plus he or she will get an extra advantage in the upcoming immunity challenge.

The designated Loved Ones come out one at a time: Carolyn's husband, Mike's mom, Rodney's dad (Rodney refers to Rodney Senior as "bro" because of course he does), Sierra's dad, and Will's wife (also known as the more talented half of the karaoke act that took Jay Leno by storm). Lots of tears. Lots of hugs. Lots of total disregard for how terrible these people must smell.

Will, galvanized by seeing his wife, actually takes an interest in a challenge for maybe the first time in this game, but even though Jeff Probst charitably says that Will's got a shot, he really doesn't. This one, like every other challenge in recent memory, belongs to Mike.

Is "Fourpeat" Even A Word?

Mike's mom joins the Survivors at Merica Camp, and almost immediately, Mike pulls her aside and spills his guts. After days of being persona non grata, it's surely nice to have someone to talk to who won't shun him. It's been "battle after battle after battle after battle," he tells her.

Mike and his mom investigate the challenge advantage: the challenge involves navigating a giant maze while blindfolded, and he and his mom will have thirty minutes to check out the maze before the challenge. The thirty minutes goes by pretty quickly, and at the end of it, Mike doesn't feel any more prepared than he did going in. Mom believes she was a crappy maze guide who let her son down, though she knows he'd never admit it.

This is a classic challenge that Survivor's been cycling in and out for a good decade-plus, but it's a little entertaining, given that it's always fun to watch blindfolded people groping their way around a bunch of crotch-level barriers.

It's a tense, neck-and-neck struggle to the very end. Wait, no it's not. It's the other thing. Mike is done with the challenge before anybody else hits the halfway point. But even though he's just snagged his fourth consecutive immunity win, he knows it's no time to rest on his laurels: "I know that if I lose the next one, I'm going home. But you know what? I'm a blue collar. I like having my back against the wall."

Happy Trails To The Barrel Rider

Since Mike just won't cooperate and lose a challenge already, the dominant alliance has to vote out one of its own again. The schism seems to occur along gender lines, with Carolyn and Sierra gunning for Rodney, Rodney and Will gunning for Sierra, and Mike in the middle.

Sierra appeals to Mike on the basis of their early collaboration, I guess hoping that he'll forget all the times her alliance treated him like garbage since those days. "At this point I have done everything in my power," she says.

Rodney invites Mike for a cuddle in the hammock, and Mike levels with him: his name's being thrown around. But Rodney's not going to appeal to Mike's better nature: "I don't play that. I don't kiss no man's ass, bro," he says. "I'm just gonna lay down the facts and say, whaddaya wanna do?" The facts, as Rodney sees them, boil down to a choice between Rodney "the vulgar asshole" and "Sierra the sweetheart." Which one serves Mike better in the finals? Rodney swears on the soul of his late sister that he won't double-cross Mike.

At tribal council, Rodney, never one to mince words, blows the vote options wide open. Sierra defends herself by pointing out that she's great in challenges and works hard around camp, which certainly helps people to see her as nonthreatening.

When Sierra's ultimately voted out unanimously, she chooses to take it as a compliment.

Slippery Slide To Victory

The final immunity challenge involves -- what else -- traversing an obstacle course to collect puzzle pieces. This one, at least, is a little complex, with a giant staircase and a waterslide. It's incredibly physically grueling, especially considering that the Survivors haven't eaten or slept properly in over a month.

The winner...are you guys sitting down? It's Mike.

Since this is getting pretty repetitive, Will does his best to interrupt the monotony with a long inspirational speech. "Never in my forty-two years of living have I been tested like this," he says. He asks if he can have the honor of putting the necklace on Mike, which is less about celebrating Mike and more about Will taking the final possible opportunity to make it all about himself.

Mike, to his credit, waits for a confessional to gloat and perform his weird gyrating happy dance one final time.

Because we have all been very patient and well-behaved, Jeff Probst -- live, not at the Survivor camp -- rewards us with a visit to the green room where all of the hopefuls for the upcoming season are assembled. At least he's aware of the real reason everyone's tuning in tonight.

Mama Said There'd Be Votes Like These

Will and Rodney congratulate each other on a game well played. "What'd I tell you?" Rodney says. "It's you and me to the end. Best buds." He assures Will that Mike is 100% on board with voting out Mama C.

That makes sense to Will: "If you're going to win a million dollars, you don't bring someone who's nicknamed 'Mama.' Because everybody likes mamas." This is possibly the most astute thing Will has ever said about the game.

Mike promises Carolyn that he won't be voting for her. He explains that he was all blue, all the time, until his blue-collar tribemates turned their backs on him. It's payback time tonight: getting rid of Rodney would mean Mike's the last blue-collar survivor standing. "It's poetic justice," he says. "Maybe I'm making a million-dollar mistake, but I'd rather lose to Mama C than be known as the guy who just took two goats to the end and won."

But since Rodney and Will are an unbreakable voting bloc, the best Mike and Carolyn can do is force a tie. Mike urges her to go practice making fire, since that's been the typical final four tiebreaker. Carolyn heeds his words and spends a good two hours failing at making fire. Things are not looking good for her, and not even a super-intense pep talk from Mike helps. But maybe she'll luck out and the tiebreaker challenge will involve something that isn't fire -- maybe PowerPoint presentations or agile scrum methodology.

We Didn't Start The Fire (For 45-Plus Minutes)

At Tribal Council, Mike likens the tribe dynamics to a family: "A dysfunctional family, but still a family." He adds that Carolyn's a threat to win, but Rodney doesn't do anything around camp, so the vote is very much up in the air.

Mike is grinning like a dog in a Dentastix ad as the votes are read. Two for Rodney, two for Carolyn. It's a tie, and as predicted, they're going to a fire-making challenge.

Fortunately for Carolyn (but unfortunately for the viewers), Rodney turns out to be as terrible at making fire as she is. They each break several pieces of flint over the course of the challenge, though fortunately, Jeff's learned his lesson from that time he had to give people matches, and he's brought along a substantial supply of extra flints. Rodney breaks a flint at minute 20, and another at minute 21.

After around 53 minutes, both Survivors do actually get a flame going, but Carolyn's burns brighter and longer, and Rodney's game is toast. (I am frankly shocked that this segment isn't played out in real time; it feels about an hour long.)

Rodney, embittered, thinks he could have easily won. Mike is a particular target of his vitriol: "He's a scared little baby, he's a silly redneck, and he's gonna get what's coming to him."

It's very nice of Jeff Probst not to want this to be Rodney's swan song. From the empty reunion stage, he shows us an extra clip of a confessional Rodney made ten minutes later, in which he expresses surprising self-awareness. He went on Survivor to escape problems at home, he says, and on reflection, he realizes that he's calmed his demons and is ready to move on after the death of his sister.

The "Thrilling" Conclusion

Over the traditional Day 39 breakfast, the final three toast their triumph. Will borrows a confessional from someone who actually has some passing familiarity with the game of Survivor: citing self-awareness and inner strength, he muses on the difficulty of pleading his case to the jury. Carolyn tells the camera that Survivor has been her dream for fifteen years, and she's pretty sure this season had more hardcore gamers than any other. Mike still tries to make it all about collars, given that each original tribe is represented among the final three, and he observes that it's likely going to be a pretty close vote.

"This is where the rubber meets the road," Jeff Probst says to introduce Final Tribal Council, and he's not kidding -- this is one of the zippiest Final Tribals ever. I'm rating this a Watch, but watch carefully, because if you blink, you might miss this thing. Nobody's opening or closing statements are shown, and each jury member gets about ten seconds of spiel, whether it's questions (like Hali's question to Carolyn about whether playing the mother role was a disadvantage in the game, or Will's question to Rodney about his methodology for keeping it real), or statements (like Jenn's rousing speech about how those who don't vote for Mike is an idiot and can't consider themselves true fans).

Dan has no questions either: he mostly just wants to rip into Mike, but Mike's heartfelt apology seems to catch him off-guard, and in the unprecedented rebuttal Production lets him have for some reason, he admits that it feels genuine.

Shirin goes last, and true to form, her speech is emotional and deeply personal. The fact that Mike had her back when Will cut into her was the most meaningful moment of her game. She made her first million by age twenty-five, she says, but the real million-dollar moment of her life was the knowledge that she could now stick up for herself with confidence.

Of course, Shirin then switches gears to compare Mike to a feces-slinging howler monkey, Carolyn to a stealthy stingray, and Will to a dead fish. And in a head-to-head Survivor battle, she says, stingray beats monkey and monkey beats dead fish. Carolyn played the best game, she says, and Carolyn could definitely have her vote. She finishes with a flourish by quoting Sue Hawk from the very first season of the show: "Let it be the way that mother nature intended."

Dan, of course, can't let Shirin have the closing superfan moment. He agonizes over his vote for way too long, banging his head on the table in exaggerated frustration.

We are well past the days when Jeff pretended to be sole custodian of the votes and carried them by hand from the Survivor set to the reunion set over many long, adventure-filled days. Let's dispense with the pleasantries and cut right to the votes: Mike. Will. Carolyn. Mike. Mike. Mike. Winner of Survivor: Mike. You don't say.

Reunited And It Feels So Meh

When Mike invokes his #1 BFF, Jesus Christ, Jesus gets a much bigger round of applause than half the Survivors do.

The good news about the reunion is that Jeff Probst is so fixated on the suspense of revealing the results of the vote for the Season 31 cast that he forgets to ask his usual barrage of useless questions to random fans, celebrities, and children in the audience. The bad news is that he also forgets to ask questions to pretty much everyone but Mike, Joe, Rodney, Will, and Dan.

The sole interesting moment: Dan finally does get out what sounds like a genuine apology to Shirin. Of course, Jeff cuts off what might have been a truly heartwarming moment in order to castigate Dan for trashing the show in the press and air five minutes of tedious raw footage in order to prove that Dan wasn't just a victim of bad editing...and then Dan's back to that same old rationalizing, backpedaling blowhard we had to deal with all season.

The second half of the reunion is given over to a drawn-out reveal of the Season 31 cast. Shirin and Joe will get a chance to return, as will an interesting cross-section of Survivors from Season 1's Kelly Wiglesworth on up through Jeremy and Keith from Season 29.

Verdict

Survivor doesn't always go out with a whimper rather than a bang, but the sheer inevitability of Mike's win, coupled with the anticipation surrounding the Season 31 cast reveal, really takes the wind out of this finale's sails. Tune in for the final tribal council; the rest is just noise.

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