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Baker’s Dozen: Snuffing the Torch on Survivor Philippines

Lisa Whelchel, Mike Skupin and Denise Stapley: The Survivor Philippines Final 3

Nope, Nope, Yep

For any Survivor season, this is the hardest column to write. I could blame my inertia on the fact that a post-finale wrap-up is all about reflection rather than speculation (I prefer a balance of both), but the truth is simply this: To post this blog entry is to acknowledge that the season is at an end. That’s easier said than done; after thirteen weeks and over 50,000 words, saying goodbye to these characters and the journey they shared is alarmingly difficult. And, yet, it must be done…

… so here’s a list of things I learned during the finale, the reunion, and my time out in L.A., where I had the chance to meet, and talk with, a few of the players.

1) Realization #1: Denise is a worthy winner.

To me, Denise is the anti-Kim Spradlin – and yes, I mean this as a compliment. If Kim played the ultimate alpha female game, then Denise was the epitome of the beta woman: While some people, myself included, took her to task for never taking control of the game, one can’t argue with her ability to position herself well in all three of her tribes. She was never an overt leader, but she was an EXCEPTIONAL follower; she worked hard, connected with the other castaways, and rather than flying under the radar (a common criticism of her game), she made sure other players were pinging hard on the radars of those calling the shots. Denise had no interest in being Othello; she was having far too much success playing Iago.

Here’s the thing about Denise: I had the good fortune to speak with her the day after the finale, and, within ten minutes, I WANTED TO VOTE FOR HER. If there’s one facet of Survivor which doesn’t fully come across on screen, it’s charisma. Sure, a guy like Malcolm pops on screen – thanks to wit, charm, and sex appeal – but the allure of someone like Denise is based on more subtle factors: body language, eye contact, interpersonal warmth. In a game which is all about relationships, Denise – through a combination of who she is and her training as a therapist – truly knows how to connect, swiftly, palpably, undeniably. I came away from our conversation with a much stronger sense of why she won in a landslide: On a show where so many cast members can feel fake and fabricated, Denise is as real as it gets.

Yes, Denise had a fair bit of luck (Dana’s medevac, Tandang’s post-merge implosion, and Penner turning down Mike and Lisa’s Final 3 deal, to name just a few). Yes, she didn’t make a signature strategic move (the sort of thing purists could point to and say, “Look, she’s just like Kim/Parvati/Sophie!”). And yes, one can fault her for being willing to take Malcolm to the Final 3, only turning on him when he wouldn’t commit to her (her check would have had one fewer zero on it had they sat next to one another at the FTC). But the narrative of just about every Survivor winner contains qualifiers like these, don’t they? (And for the record, Denise has owned each and every one of these flaws in her game during her post-finale interviews.)

So what if Denise didn’t pitch a perfect game like Boston Rob 4.0, or a no-hitter like J.T. or Earl? She kept herself in the game, and when it mattered – such as when she cut Malcolm loose at Final 4 – she found a way to win. Denise earned her victory – all six of her votes were cast FOR her, not against anyone else – and in light of everything that we now know (thanks to a number of enlightening post-show interviews), I think that the jury made a wise choice, and perhaps the right one.

2) Realization #2: Skupin has every right to be disappointed.

I’ve heard and read a lot of hurtful things about Mike over the past week – foremost among them that he’s “delusional” if he feels he should have won – and I have to say that I just don’t understand the hate. No need for me to rehash all of the arguments I’ve made in this blog about why I felt, and still feel, that Skupin deserved more love from the jury. To me, it all comes down to this: The choices Mike made led directly to the elimination of almost every jury member. The fact that the players Mike outlasted didn’t like him didn’t surprise me; the fact that they didn’t respect him did.

From his exit interviews, it’s clear that Mike lays the blame for his loss squarely at the feet of Ponderosa. In the early aftermath of the finale, I agreed with him: The jury felt united – pro-Denise, anti-Mike, and Lisa-indifferent – in a way that would be all but impossible had the players been sequestered individually. But upon reflection, while I agree that Ponderosa is a problem, I don’t think it was MIKE’S problem.

So, if not Ponderosa, to what can we attribute Skoopin getting only Carter’s vote? That would be because…

3) Realization #3: Perception matters.

To don the cape of Captain Obvious once again, what we see on the show doesn’t fully reflect the experiences of the cast members; viewers get the omniscient narrator point of view, while every player peers through a first-person lens. Their perception is limited by what they see and hear, while ours is distorted by what the producers choose to show us. The end result of this experiential dichotomy: The characters we watch are not necessarily the castaways that the players, themselves, know.

From what I can tell, the Denise we saw on the show is pretty close to the version that her tribemates bonded with: hard-working, non-threatening, and socially savvy. The same can’t be said about Lisa and Mike, however. To us, Lisa was a confessional champ who had a deep understanding of the game; to the other players, she was an emotionally turbulent endgame goat. To us, Mike was playing hard physically and strategically; to the other players, he was a “bumbling” 50-year-old kid (“Carter in 30 years,” to quote Malcolm).

Now, I’m not saying we didn’t see the negative side of both Lisa and Mike; obviously, we were shown the former’s endless ocean of tears and the latter’s propensity for self-injury. My point isn’t that there wasn’t reason to believe that they’d lose; I’m simply suggesting that we were shown, perhaps, too much footage which gave us hope that they would win. The edit was shaped to preserve episodic drama and endgame doubt – goals I fully support, of course – but I think we can safely say that our perception of the Final 3 was far different from that of the jury.

The primary perception problem for Lisa and Mike is that the other castaways didn’t watch the show; they truly had no way to know what Lisa and Mike were up to and no reason to believe that they were analyzing, thinking, and plotting. On the island, the perception of Lisa and Mike – by those who knew their in-game personas better than we ever could – is that they were, as Penner so memorably (and insultingly) put it, “oxen”; rather than being seen as manipulative masterminds, they were perceived as, to borrow from a certain antagonistic Brazilian, “morons” and “idiots.”

(Lest you think I’m being too harsh here, remember, I’m talking about how the jury members saw Lisa and Mike; my opinion of the two second-place finishers is decidedly different from theirs. At one point, I felt that the game was Lisa’s to lose, and if you’re a regular reader of this column, you know that I was a season-long Skupin supporter. Anyway, I wonder if the jury members have a better opinion of Mike and Lisa now that they’ve seen all of the edited episodes. I’m guessing that Denise would still win if they voted again today, but I’d like to think that Mike and Lisa would get more respect for their approaches to the game.)

A few weeks back, I gave Penner a lot of grief for not showing enough empathy, and it’s only fair that I point out that Lisa and Mike are guilty of the same sin; Penner couldn’t see that everyone thought of him as a threat, while Lisa and Mike were unaware that the other players thought of them as goats. Had Lisa and Mike better understood how their fellow castaways perceived them, they could have attempted to address the issue; indeed, they needed to broadcast to the jury members that they were controlling the game, rather than blindly trusting that the members of Dangrayne could see it for themselves.

To do so is risky, of course – to be overtly alpha is to put a massive target on your back – but it’s the only way to make sure that the jury sees you the way you wish to be seen. If you don’t have the jury’s respect, you cannot win; to get their respect, you have to show them that you’re playing the game. One key component of this: Castaways must establish their endgame arguments throughout the 39 days rather than save it all for their opening statements to the jury. Final Tribal Council is a time when you remind the jury of what they already know, not attempt to convince them of something they don’t want to believe.

But I digress – most egregiously. This is what happens in season-ending columns: I have so much to say that I start to ramble. Back to my point about perception.

In the end, what matters most to the jury isn’t what the Final 3 claim to have done, nor what those players actually accomplished over the course of the game. What the members of the jury care about more than anything is how they FEEL about the finalists. Unfortunately for Mike and Lisa, where viewers saw three players worth voting for, the jury saw only one.

And that has everything to do with perception.

*****

Time to speed things up a bit… I need to go holiday shopping for my wife and son, and you’ve got better things to do than read 5,000 words about a season that ended over a week ago!

*****

4) Realization #4: Story matters.

Lisa’s Story: “I ran, and fell – repeatedly. I learned a lot about myself. And yeah, I was a child star – what of it?”

The Jury’s Reaction: “You forgot ‘cried.’ It rained out here for 21 straight days. But your emotional monsoon lasted 39. No votes for you – other than from a bitter R.C.”

Mike’s Story: “I played as hard as I could, and in the end, I outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted all of you. As a returning player, I had a huge target on my back from day one, and yet I’m sitting here in the Final 3. And I’m the guy who put all of you on the jury.”

The Jury’s Reaction: “Ummm, we don’t remember any of that. Carter’s going to vote for you, but only because he’s not sure how to spell ‘Denise.’”

Denise’s Story: “I went to every Tribal Council and survived. Sure, I had Malcolm and his idol as a post-merge shield, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that he’s sitting over there with you guys. Oh, and if you don’t give me the million, I’m going to tell everyone all of the sex secrets you shared with me while we were out there.”

The Jury’s Reaction: “Winner!”

5) Realization #5: Malcolm is this season’s defining player and breakout character.

In this column two weeks ago, I suggested that Malcolm, if he faltered in the F4 Immunity Challenge, would become another Ozzy.

On the surface, the comparison is fair: Had Malcolm been able to balance that silver ball, he would have been crowned Sole Survivor, just as Ozzy had South Pacific locked up if he hadn’t choked away the final challenge.

But the truth is, Malcolm is a far more well-rounded player than Ozzy. Sure, Ozzy probably has the physical edge (in the “I can hold my breath for an hour” sense), but Malcolm is significantly more strategic. And while Ozzy has been known to rub his tribemates the wrong way, Malcolm, thanks to his impeccable social game, was beloved by all (including my six-year-old son, who cried inconsolably when Malcolm was voted out).

So, all apologies to Malcolm for pointing out the situational parallels (“Must Win at F4”), rather than outlining a more substantive gameplay comparison; as this season’s defining player (his was the best overall game) and breakout character (the producers, editors, and camera all loved him), and as a guy who was a fan before he was a favorite, he deserved better. My act of contrition is to offer this: Were Malcolm and Ozzy to square off in a future season, my money would be on Malcolm. (Is there any doubt that the Survivor producers are considering doing precisely this?)

Ah, but before I close the book on Malcolm’s performance in what was, for me, a top-ten season, there is one more area in which Ozzy and Malcolm’s Survivor identities intersect:

Malcolm will play this game at least three times.

6) Realization #6: Only three of these players will ever come back.

Malcolm, obviously. (As far as I’m concerned, he can return as often as he likes, despite the fact that returning players take potential spots from wannabe newbies like me.)

Denise will return in an All-Winners season. I’m convinced that such a season will happen eventually, and when it does, they’re going to need strong women like Denise. I don’t know about you, but I can see Denise teaming up with Kim and Sophie and doing a lot of damage.

And Abi will be invited back as a villain. (NOOOOOOOOOOO!)

Could Penner play a fourth time, and Skupin a third? Possibly. But at the moment, I’m not feeling it. (I’d be fine with it, personally. Penner, his petulant Tribal Council speech aside, was a great narrator, and Mike, having learned some tough lessons this time around, would make for a great redemption story – and we know how much Probst likes those.)

What about Lisa and Jeff, you ask? I doubt it. Celebrity stunt casting won’t work twice.

Malcolm, Denise, and Abi – two out of three ain’t bad.

7) Realization #7: Bitterness endures.

I was shocked to discover that, even though the show finished filming almost eight months ago, there’s still a fair bit of intra-cast animosity:

Artis, as those of you who follow the players on Twitter know, is still angry with Skupin. Was it the collapsing shelter? Was it Mike not living up to Artis’ expectations of a returning player? Or was it something more substantive? I don’t know where the truth lies, but one thing’s for certain: I don’t see these two burying the hatchet any time soon.

Abi has spent a fair bit of time rehabbing her image, and she’s clearly on better terms with the rest of the cast than she was while they were in the Philippines. But residual resentment remains: Abi made their lives a living hell out on the island, and they’ll never fully forgive her for it.

And R.C. – man, oh man, is R.C. angry with just about everyone. The version of R.C. we saw in the Ponderosa videos – wounded and betrayed – is, from all reports, only the tip of the bitterness iceberg: R.C. was, and is, unable to let the game go. Hopefully, the finale gave R.C. the catharsis and closure that she needed… but somehow, I doubt it.

8) Realization #8: It’s a shame we didn’t see more of Dawson.

She messed with Jeff Kent’s mind. (“I’d hook up with a basketball player… a hockey player… a water polo player… a jockey… but a baseball player? Please. I have standards.”)

She stalker-smooched Probst after he snuffed out her torch.

And she one-upped herself with her amorous assault on Mr. Dimples during a live national broadcast.

I think I speak for all of us when I say that Dawson would have been BRILLIANT post-merge television.

We were robbed.

9) Realization #9: The Survivor producers should give the Final 2 another shot.

As we headed towards a finale with four players left, there was a lot of speculation that we might have a Final 2 for the first time since Survivor: Tocantins. As it turns out, we were wrong, but is it just me, or were fans pretty excited by the possibility of having two, rather than three, players facing the jury? Here’s hoping that Burnett and Probst were paying attention and that they will give us an “Old School Survivor Season” sooner rather than later.

10) Realization #10: The Survivor family is pretty cool.

During my weekend in L.A., I had the good fortune to meet several Survivor luminaries, most memorably Yau-Man (highly intelligent and endlessly amusing), Parvati (quick-witted and keenly charismatic), and Rob C. (we finally met in person, and just like on the podcast, he’s thoughtful and self-effacing).

By the by, I share this not in a “Hey, look at who I got to talk to!” sort of way – I find that kind of thing to be extremely distasteful – but rather to encourage you to attend one of the charity events (such as Gillian Larson’s “Reality Rally” in Temecula, CA) at which you can meet many of your favorite players. I’m sure that you would discover, as I have, that the Survivor family is exceedingly warm and welcoming, and that the former castaways, whether they were booted early or made it all the way to the end, are really interesting people. Which is why they ended up on the show in the first place, right?

Anyway, just thought you might like to know that I had a blast conversing with the castaways – and I’m sure that you would, too.

11) Realization #11: Some twists aren’t worth trying.

A Final 4 Immunity Challenge DO-OVER?!? That’s RIDICULOUS. I don’t care that Malcolm had to earn it, and I REALLY don’t care that it didn’t have an impact on the ultimate outcome of the game. IT SIMPLY SHOULDN’T HAVE HAPPENED. When someone first suggested it, everyone should have LAUGHED.

NO TWIST SHOULD HAVE AN IMPACT ON THE FINAL 4 IMMUNITY CHALLENGE.

Okay, I’m glad I got that off my chest.

12) Realization #12: Penner’s speech was utterly unnecessary.

If the jury members are to be believed (and why wouldn’t we take their word for it?), Denise had locked up enough votes for victory long before anyone stepped foot into the Final Tribal Council. Speeches, questions, answers — none of it mattered. R.C. and Carter were going to do their own thing, but everyone else was united in their support of Denise as Sole Survivor.

In light of this, is there any way to see Penner’s grandstanding as anything other than snide and self-indulgent showmanship fueled by frustration?

Going into the FTC, Penner knew that if he had taken Mike and Lisa’s Final 3 deal, he and Carter would have been in the spot ultimately inhabited by Malcolm and Denise, and Carter would have been the Malcolm-level target. In all likelihood, then, had he joined forces with the two players he called “oxen,” Penner would have won the game. That would make anyone mad, methinks.

And yet that doesn’t excuse his behavior.

Given that nothing Penner said would alter the course of events, he had a choice: He could admit defeat with dignity, or he could be a loquacious loser. Sadly, Penner went the latter route. He didn’t need to expose Lisa’s past (even if, as Penner insists, Probst encouraged it), but he knew it would be good theater to do so. There was no purpose to shredding Skupin other than to earn the applause of jury members who harbored, but did not express, similar sentiments. And there was no reason for him to call Denise a “bitch” other than to make sure he insulted everyone.

Before he ever said a word, Penner knew that Denise had already won the game. Penner, indulging his baser instincts, just wanted to rub it in. This says a lot about Penner, of course, and none of it good.

I suppose the kindest way to frame this is to suggest that Penner simply wanted to put his stamp on the season and become a latter day Sue Hawk. He wanted to make a memorable speech – to hog the spotlight one final time – and vent his frustration (with Mike and Lisa… and himself) while atop the soapbox. In that, he succeeded.

It’s a shame that this is what Penner wanted to achieve in the twilight of his Survivor career. I would have liked to remember him as a solid strategist and an eloquent narrator. Instead, though, thanks to this ill-advised tirade, I will forever see him as an entertaining opportunist.

13) Realization #13: I’m already looking forward to Fans vs. Favorites II.

I have seen the cast spoilers (like Rob, I don’t mind knowing the names of the people who will be playing; what drives me nuts is when folks talk about how the game unfolds), and let’s just say that I have some pretty strong opinions about the composition of the Survivor: Caramoan cast. I’m already chomping at the bit to start writing my pre-season breakdown, both because of who is playing and because Probst himself has said that FvF II is just as good – or better! – than Survivor: Philippines (sure, this could be promotional hyperbole, but he was right about this season, wasn’t he?). February 13th can’t get here fast enough, and yet it will be here before we know it – see you then!

That’s it for this edition of The Baker’s Dozen – thank you for reading my blog this season, and a tip o’ the buff to my fellow bloggers Sarah Freeman (YES! I WON! YOU AND GLENN ARE MY OXEN!) and Glenn Holford. If you want to keep the conversation going, leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter (@GetOnSurvivor).

Andy Baker

Andy Baker is a Survivor SuperFan who blogs about reality television, teaches English, studies psychology, and prepares tirelessly for his eventual appearance on Survivor. More From Andy Baker »


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