The 33rd season of Survivor, Millennials v.s. Gen X (MvGX from now on because I am not going to keep typing that, twice is enough) ended this Wednesday with an exciting and emotional finale that capped off an exciting and emotional season. As a whole, this season has been universally praised as it has had something that any Survivor fan can enjoy. New-school strategy fans can enjoy the hectic strategizing between the various “trust-clusters” and the “evolution of the game”, and old-school character moment fans can enjoy the season-long narratives of growth and the interpersonal relations that developed between contestants, particularly the relationships of Jay and Adam, and David and Ken. The season also had numerous moments that made for excellent TV, including the most-emotional family visit in recent memory, and the crazy tribal councils and #blindsides. As a whole, I think this season was great for the longevity of the show and will easily fall into most fans’ top half of seasons. I genuinely think this is the most universally liked season since Cagayan, and with so many positives going for it, how would it not be? It doesn’t suffer from Cambodia’s hyper-focus on strategy, San Juan Del Sur’s slow pre-merge and (in my opinion) disappointing boot order, Koah Rong’s slew of medevacs and controversial winner, or the unpleasant character moments in World’s Apart. Some might even argue that this season is better than Cagayan, as Cagayan’s edit is focused on two main players after the merge and while it has many great moments, the time between those moments tends to drag on. MvGX could even easily be considered the best post-Heroes v.s. Villains season of Survivor.
And yet, something about the finale feels unsatisfying to me. And I am sure I’m not the only one who felt this way. But why? We have a really powerful and emotional narrative in our winner, a fake idol play, at least one likable runner-up depending on who you ask, and a great growth narrative for the final juror. This is the first final 6 in a while that I have felt that even half of the people remaining could have a shot at winning. On paper, this finale should have been incredible. It was exciting, emotional, at times fun, at times dark. As someone who takes a lot of pride in selecting a winner before the finale, it was refreshing and exciting to be wrong about my own winner pick. But once the names were read, the winner was announced, and the finale drew to a close, I felt kind of indifferent about the result. As if something just did not sit right with how the story came to a close.
In order to explain why the ending did not feel satisfying, we have to look at the story of the season as a whole, and this involves analyzing the edit of the season. Now, the way I analyse the edit is different from many online Survivor communities. “Edgic” (a combination of edit and logic) is a widely used system that takes into account tone, visibility, and complexity of characters in each episode, in an attempt to identify a winner based on patterns observed in previous seasons. Most of the time, this system works great and can identify the winner right before or around the merge. Koah Rong is an excellent example of the success of Edgic; the winner was constantly visible and giving their take on the flow of the game and its strategy despite being essentially irrelevant to anything going on for the majority of the pre-merge. While Edgic is effective, it is not perfect. MvGX, Gabon, and Cagayan are big examples of Edgic not being able to identify a winner. Almost no one was picking Adam to win this season, and David was the front-runner to win for pretty much everyone. But as we know, Adam won and David lost, and the Edgic communities were not only wrong, but had written off Adam weeks before the finale.
Now, the way I analyse the edit has less to do with recognizing patterns of past winner’s visibility and tone, and more to do with trying to figure out the stories that are being told about the season and about its characters. While visibility is important, a player isn’t drawing dead because of a lack of visibility if the content they are getting is meaningful. Natalie White is an excellent example. She may have only had a handful of confessionals and stood in the shadow of Russell Hantz the entire game, but that also WAS her gameplay. She was able to articulate that she was going to be nice to everyone while letting Russell bulldoze his way to the end, and she knew he was going to underestimate her until it was too late. In Samoa, we knew both why Russell lost, but also why Natalie won. Natalie winning was not telegraphed through visibility or tone, since she had almost nothing in terms of screentime. But what she did have fit with her story, and made sense in the context of the season.
So, if I didn’t use Edgic, was I able to see that Adam was winning? Absolutely not. Adam’s win defied both Edgic and my own “story telling” analysis. Which by itself, is fine. It is easy when watching a season to put on blinders because you are rooting for a particular player to win, or are so convinced in your winner pick that you refuse to see any alternative. But after Adam won, I went back through the season and asked myself, “Can we see why Adam won based on his story and the questions during Final Tribal Council?”Here is where I was stumped, and I believe this is where my dissatisfaction with the end of the season comes from. Before I get any further, I would just like to say that I do not think Adam was not deserving of his win, or that he is a bad winner, or anything like that. I also don’t want to disrespect him playing for his mother. I don’t want to imply that because Adam won, the season was unsatisfying, because that isn’t the case. I believe that because of the way Adam’s story was told that the season’s end was unsatisfying. I also think that Ken’s loss was just as poorly told as Adam’s win, and this combination took the wind out of my sails when the results of the season were read by Probst.
For me, as soon as Ken voted out David, the storytelling of the season completely fell apart. Ken’s story in the beginning of the season was incredibly strong. He was the poster-child of the Gen X tribe in his hard work and old-school loyalty driven gameplay, and was able to form a bond with David over their shared “weirdness.”While Ken wasn’t the most strategic guy, he was able to give insight into the early moves of his alliance and was a driving force of the narrative for the early episodes alongside David. David and Ken were the biggest power couple of the game, and it was repeatedly stressed how important their bond was, and their alliance was unbreakable. It is worth noting that for the first 6 episodes, Ken was a front-runner to win from an editing analysis perspective. One of the major themes of the season was growth, and Ken enlightened the audience of his struggles growing up with and overcoming his social awkwardness, nervous tics, and speech impediment. An obvious theme of the season was the differences between the generations, and Ken had a confessional early on about being true to his generation, but not underestimating the Millennials. Ken’s early edit and story was fantastic, and I was convinced he had it in the bag since the second episode, it seemed that easy.
And then Ken fell off the face of the planet for 4 episodes straight with zero confessionals and almost zero screen time. This wasn’t an immediate deal-breaker for Ken’s chances, but it was definitely weird. If Ken did win, you wouldn’t think he would be absent for weeks, and if he didn’t win, why did he have such a great pre-merge story? Then, the “Testing Will’s Loyalty by Taking a Page Out of Coach’s Book in South Pacific Fiasco” happened, and Ken was done as far as winning was concerned. But with the main front-runner out of picture, and most other contenders having already been voted out, who was supposed to win this season? Many turned to David, as while he had a terrible first episode, he grew to be a respectable player with control over the game, and was a serious threat to win. While no one with a growth edit had won the game before, no other player made sense as a winner, and David was mostly a default choice. But his alliance was able to maintain momentum going into the Final 6, and before the Final 4 tribal council, it looked like the Final 3 was going to be David, Hannah, and Ken, with David winning, Ken maybe getting one vote from his ally and friend Jess, and Hannah maybe getting one vote from Michelle, if that. Ken would have been chastised by the jury for enabling David to control the game and for being too loyal of a follower, and Hannah would have been berated for playing the middle too hard and being too neurotic, not unlike Aubry from the previous season. While this outcome would have been predictable by that point, and David’s story would have been a first for a winner, there is a first time for everything. It would have been satisfying, and from an overarching narrative perspective made sense.
Except, this wasn’t the reality that happened. Ken decided to vote out David at Final 4, and went to the end with Adam and Hannah. At this point, it was obvious that Adam would win, as his edit was the best of the remaining finalists, and his story was the most complete. Given Adam’s story, and by extension his mother’s story, I wasn’t surprised that he received every single vote from the jury. Even if he never mentioned his mother’s lung cancer, he still would have won with the majority of the votes. So why was this outcome less satisfying than reality where Ken never votes out David, where David beats Adam in a fire making challenge, and where David receives 9 if not all 10 of the jury’s votes?
This is due to the fact that while Adam had the best edit and story of the remaining finalist, it wasn’t exactly good. Adam spent the beginning of the game as a Spencer-like narrator, an intellectual Survivor super-fan that mostly talked meaningless, obvious strategy and the goings-on of camp life. Once he found his first idol, his role shifted into the emotional family-oriented story teller, and he gives us insight into his mom and her condition. (For those of us who already knew that Adam’s mother passed away, it gives Adam’s story a heartbreakingly dark twist to it. At least we learn during the reunion he was able to give his mother some last words, and I am very happy Adam was able to tell his mom that he won and be there for her final moments.) The theme of playing for one’s family comes into play at this point, we later learn of Michaela’s family and that she is playing to put herself in a better place in life than what has been typical for her family. We learn that Jay is playing for his mother, and Adam and Jay develop a powerful bond over this later on despite their rivalry (or maybe because of it). We eventually learn that Ken is playing as a single Dad and wants to give his daughter a better life. This becomes Adam’s main narrative for the rest of the season, and he would have received this storyline regardless of how he placed. However, when Adam’s story is not about him playing for his mother, it centers around him backstabbing and screwing over pretty much everyone else in the game. When he votes out Figgy and “betrays” Taylor (despite them being in opposite alliances pre-swap), he begins the start of his warpath to the end. The first two episodes of the merge that set up Taylor’s downfall make Adam look downright terrible, and after the reveal that he knew about Taylor’s stash of stolen food, no one really trusted him anymore, and he fell into the background as the war between Zeke and David began to escalate. After Zeke was voted out, Adam made a lot of failed attempts to vote out David and never was able to succeed. Despite what Chris would try to lead us to believe during Final Tribal, Adam didn’t have much to do with Ken’s decision. If anything, the edit wants us to believe that was Hannah’s influence, but I think, and exit press from Ken supports this, that Ken made the decision on his own, as he knew he couldn’t beat David, and at least had a shot of winning with Adam.
We have established that Adam’s gameplay was not amazing, and that he was not trusted much by his own alliance members at various points in the post merge, based on what the edit and narrative are trying to tell us. And yet, at Final Tribal Council, most of the Jury made a big deal about building a resume, and making big moves, and controlling the game, and tried to give Adam credit for things that he ultimately had nothing to do with, or failed to do himself. If anyone should have gotten credit for David’s boot it should have been Ken, but Adam got the credit. From reading exit interviews from Jury members and other supplemental material outside of the broadcasted episodes, it was shown that Adam had lots of personal relationships with the members of the jury and that he was well liked. If this was the case, why wasn’t it shown in the actual episodes? The only instance that comes close is Jay’s relationship with Adam, which while complex, seems more tied to their shared reason for playing the game than Jay actually liking Adam.
Now, if Ken was responsible for taking out the Goliath that is David, why didn’t the jury care? They made such a big ordeal over making big moves and many pointed out that David was a threat to win the game. Yet, Ken gets no credit from the jury. In fact, the very impactful decision to vote out David was pretty much glossed over after it happened, with only one question from Jess that really was specific to that move and how Ken felt about it. As an audience, I feel as though we did not get any emotional catharsis for this really big move. Ken and David were the biggest and most loyal pairing in the game, and one cut the other at the end, and the narrative just…didn’t care? Why build this up for an entire season if one will betray the other and then not show the two players reconciling that? Instead we get one comment from Ken saying that his alliance to his daughter is number one over anything. We never hear how David feels about it. From a gameplay perspective, Ken played a loyal game the whole way through until he couldn’t anymore, and everyone on that season knew it, Jeff knew it, the audience knew it, its very clear. The jury has mixed feelings about Ken in their questions; some outright ignore Ken, others say they respected Ken the most for voting out David, others try to take the credit for David’s boot away from Ken, some are disappointed that a man preaching loyalty betrayed his closest ally. I think Ken answered everyone the best he could given the circumstances, and he made a good case for himself. The narrative supports that, he has been shown to be able to be strategic, he has shown to care for his daughter, he has shown that he has had trouble with his shyness, he has shown to be a complex and likable character, and it is puzzling that Ken receives zero votes and that the jury seems so against Ken despite doing what they all wanted to do themselves: vote out David.
Well, it’s puzzling if you are only watching the show. Looking at supplemental interviews, we see that most people didn’t really like Ken, and that he was too unrelatable and waxed poetic about loyalty and honor too much for people’s tastes. We get a small view of that with the Will incident. But Will’s confessional about Ken being arrogant and holier-than-thou is the only instance of any real negativity towards Ken that is in the narrative. Ken otherwise has a very positive edit, and his large stretch of being a non-entity is his only real flaw. But if Ken was so disliked, would it be hard to show a few confessionals of people saying that Ken is weird, or that he is hard to live with? We see that Hannah is neurotic and we can understand why she received zero votes. It was obvious she played the middle too hard and that she was perceived to be an erratic and untrustworthy player. The audience’s perception and the perception of the player’s are the same for Hannah, and so her narrative makes sense. The audience has a positive and sympathetic perspective of Ken, and his edited story hits a lot of the themes of the season, but the jury had a very negative perception of Ken, and the disconnect between the two really negatively impacts how the end of the season is viewed. Adam had a negative perception, if a sympathetic one, to the audience for most of the middle chunk of the season, and yet on the island he was obviously perceived incredibly positively. The jury (other than Jay) did not know about his mother’s condition, whereas the audience is privy to this information the entire time.
This ends up being an exercise in how twisting the edit further from the truth can really negatively impact and otherwise incredible season. I am not really sure why Ken was not shown in a more negative light. Perhaps it was to have a player that could theoretically win against Adam, being built up as the Monica to Adam’s Tyson. Adam being shown in a negative light could be attributed to trying to obscure the fact that he wins and to muddy up the otherwise glowing amount of positivity and sympathy he receives due to the storyline with his mom. Whatever the reasons, these decisions to artificially build suspense and drama in the final moments take away from the complexity of what could have been, and have a truly great season fall flat 3 inches away from the finish line. I think that, if told properly, Adam’s win and Ken’s loss could have been a very complex and compelling narrative that still could have fit within the constraints of the season. With the way that the story has been told, it feels as though it was written for David to win, and at the last second was killed off with Adam winning by default. Nothing would have had to change within the storytelling to make David’s win feel satisfying. Hannah would stay the same (her ending story is the only one that really makes sense among the finalists anyways), Ken would ultimately be too loyal for his own good, and David, the guy who everyone was saying would win, would have won, and the story would have had a clean ending. Instead, while our true ending was more dramatic, it did a lot of disservice to the stories that had been told prior to the season for the sake of keeping us in suspense.
Sometimes, suspense isn’t what the audience needs, sometimes we just want catharsis.