Season 42 crowns a winner, but even more impactful is how the experience shaped this diverse cast and what they learned from one another, and about themselves.
At its core, “Survivor” has always been a social experiment. With new efforts to emphasize more representative diversity in its casting, the show is finally living up to its full potential.
We’ve already seen a powerful discussion about race – highlighting the show’s checkered past with representation – and tonight’s season finale punctuated why it’s so important.
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And it’s not just important for the under-represented demographics and races to see themselves on the screen; it’s important for white people to see them as well. It helps break down social prejudices and reveal the humanity inside of everyone.
While this was an exciting and unpredictable season finale with five remaining Castaways battling it out for a spot in the Final Three and a shot at the million dollar prize and title of Sole Survivor, this season has been about those bigger, cultural moments.
The race discussion, which occurred after two Black players were voted out back-to-back and made up the entirety of the Jury at that point, took up nearly an entire episode. Jeff Probst and the producers knew that this was the moment that mattered most, and they were right.
After the battle was over and a crowned winner, Probst again punctuated that point by asking the Final Three what they learned about themselves, and it was illuminating in so many different ways.
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Coming into the night, the competition was down to Jonathan, Lindsay, Maryanne, Mike, and Romeo. Already, this was a diverse group of competitors. At 58 years old, Mike was the oldest contestant this season by a full decade. Maryanne was the youngest woman.
Lindsay and Jonathan were the strongest physical competitors, with him the largest man out there and her among the smallest women. The fact they both made it this far is incredible. And then there’s Romeo, the smallest guy, underestimated at every turn.
At the Final Five Immunity Challenge, Mike picked up his first win, beating Lindsay by a single puzzle piece, leaving her scrambling to save her life in the game. The biggest threat to win if she made it to the end, she knew her back was against the wall. Ultimately, Mike kept his word to Maryanne, giving her his Hidden Immunity Idol, and Lindsay’s torch was snuffed.
In a truly shocking final Immunity Challenge, Mike fumbled the ball right out of the gate – it’s that twisting, ball-dropping challenge that gets increasingly more difficult as more balls are added. Mike faltered with just one ball, with Maryanne shortly behind him.
That left the unlikely pairing of Romeo and Jonathan battling it out. And then, in the biggest upset of the night, Romeo emerged victorious, gaining all the power. He gained the power to pick who sat next to him automatically at the Final Tribal Council, and which two had to battle it out over fire.
In the end, it was the two big guys who’d partnered up early on, knowing full well that they would be targeted after the merge, and it was Mike who pulled off a victory over Jonathan – finally, someone had slayed the competition beast !
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Just like Season 41, this was not at all a bitter Jury. We weren’t expecting it as there was so much love and respect from each of them as they left the game, and that continued. At the same time, this was very much an undecided Jury.
Taking out raw emotion and anger and bitterness leaves you with people genuinely wanting to make the right decision. More than so many other seasons, this was going to come down to how well the Final Three pleaded their cases and, more importantly, owned their games.
As the Final Tribal progressed, it was looking more and more like Mike was going to win this. No one was going to vote for Romeo because that Immunity Win was probably the first thing he’d done all season. As for Maryanne, they knew so little about her beyond the bubbly, youthful, naïve persona they’d been living with for 26 days.
To his credit, Mike finally – after some thinking – owned up to the disappointments of his game, but in doing so, he also suggested that it wasn’t as strategic for him to play up his honor and integrity as the Jury had hoped.
Everything for Maryanne changed when she revealed her Final Five strategy, which included the only secret that remained a secret all game: the Hidden Immunity Idol she never played.
She could have played it for Lindsay at Final Five after Mike played his for her, but she knew she wouldn’t be able to beat Lindsay in the end. It was the fact that she had that back-up plan, assuring her place in the Final Three that far in advance while working to not have to play it that impressed the Jury.
She explained her complex strategy and all her moving parts so brilliantly that Tori had no choice but to verbalize how impressed she was even before they voted. And it was in that moment that you could feel the energy of the Jury changing.
It wasn’t even close. Mike got one vote to win, but Maryanne got every other vote to become the second Canadian winner (after Erica last season), second woman in a row after a long streak of men, second Black woman ever, fifth Black player, and one of the youngest winners ever.
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One of the sweetest exchanges came before the final Tribal Council when the Final Three took a look at one another and appreciated the diversity they represented. Romeo is a gay Latino, Maryanne is a young Black woman, and Mike is an older white man. None of those three would be considered likely winners, and yet that’s who made it to the end.
What they represented weighed in to their answers when Jeff asked them what they take away from this experience aside from bug bites, scars and cash prizes.
For Romeo, he had to adapt almost immediately because he said he never expected to have to play his entire game from the bottom. He learned that no matter what life throws at you, you never give up.
The fact that he hung in there is why he was in that position to win the Final Immunity Challenge, a huge accomplishment for anyone. By never giving up on himself, he suddenly found himself (at least for a moment) in the most powerful position in the game. Perseverance is everything.
He also talked about how empowering it was to come out there and, for the first time in his life, live openly and comfortably as a gay man. Meeting fellow contestant Hai, who was already out, was a huge inspiration for him to stop hiding who he was, stop allowing disapproval from his family dictate how he felt about himself.
That growth as a human being, becoming comfortable in his own skin and finally accepting and embracing his true self was – he argued – even more powerful than winning a million dollars. We’re pretty sure he’d have taken it, though.
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Maryanne came out the goofy, laughing, chatty, quirky, weird kid, as she described herself, but she learned that those traits can be assets. She went from her tribe ready to get rid of her just to quiet her down to winning the game, and she never compromised who she was.
During that earlier conversation on race, she spent how eloquent and thoughtful she could be, as well as compassionate and intellectual. Honestly, they should have seen the threat of letting her get to a Final Tribal at that moment, but Romeo even said he brought her because he felt she had no strategy.
Maryanne’s other big moment of personal growth came when she didn’t save Lindsay. Knowing full well it would kill her game to save Lindsay, she admitted she almost did it anyway for fear of losing that friendship.
After having lost people in her past, including more recently, due to lies or whatever other issues, she almost allowed her emotions, insecurities and fears cost her this game.
She even admitted her tendency to push people away before they can hurt her as a protective measure. But she learned through this experience that she doesn’t have to do that.
As for Mike, what he learned was two-fold, and why representation is so important for cishet white people, as well as people of color. He pointedly noted that by experiencing an entire season with people half his age, he learned he could engage with them, he could “hang” with the kids, and he could still be open to learning from them.
We don’t know Mike’s exposure to LGBTQ+ people, but he had Hai and Romeo out there, we don’t know how much deep exposure he has to Black culture or Asian culture, but there were so many people out there for him to learn from and he opened his heart to all of them.
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One of the sweetest moments was when Omar, who used a prayer mat Maryanne weaved for him from palm fronds, shared his religion to Mike, who was genuinely fascinated, curious and totally respectful about.
Exposure and experiences outside of our small world are the key to human harmony, and a more diverse “Survivor,” which creates such a heightened microcosm of society, creates even more opportunities for that kind of learning and growth for everyone.
American is not straight white people, with a few other representative groups, but that’s how many reality programs had been building their casts for years and years. It was probably never malicious, but it did cause those early ousters of the few people who were different.
If everyone is different from one another, it forces contestants to look for other reasons to vote someone out.
Now, if we could just convince “Big Brother” to go back to more diverse ages instead of all young, beautiful people who look good in a bathing suit, that should share in what Mike and “Survivor” spent this season; older people can totally “hang” with the young kids, and even beat most of them!