Survivor: China: Finale and Reunion Recap

To give you an idea of how bad a contestant I would be on Survivor: I get exhausted merely from watching the two-hour finale and hourlong reunion show. The final four reflecting on their journey, the tribute to the fallen Survivors, the endurance challenge, the agonizing decision of who to take to the finals, the grueling interrogations at the final Tribal Council, Jeff Probst asking our burning questions (and leaving some unasked) at the reunion show — I’m left feeling drained and a little overheated and queasy. It’s as if parking myself in front of the TV and shushing my husband for three hours is as close to being in a marathon as I’ll ever get.

Amanda wins the reward challenge (which involved forming a bridge to collect puzzle blocks to assemble into part of a miniature Great Wall … otherwise known as just a big wall), and gets a meal of pizza, beer, soda and brownies. She can eat it by herself, invite one person, or invite two people (so whatever she chooses, someone will be left out). She chooses to just invite Todd because she doesn’t trust him and wants to have a chance to chat to make sure they’re both still committed to sticking together. (The life lesson here: Be untrustworthy, and people will give you food.)

There’s a lot of fear and debating in this episode about who can be trusted and what’s the best strategy to follow. Is Courtney right in thinking that Todd is really a “slippery little sucker” only out for himself? Is Todd justified in his fears that the women will “go all girl-power” and get rid of him? Will Denise’s self-fulfilling “I’m at the bottom of the totem pole” prophecy come true? (Um, yeah — it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

The final four go on the “tribute to the fallen comrades” trip, lighting firecrackers on the torches of those who had been voted out. I always love it when the players try to say something about someone from the other tribe who was voted out early, like Todd’s comment about Chicken — “With a name like Chicken, how can you not be cool?” If you can’t think of anything to say about someone, just use a variant of the Smuckers slogan to say something about their name.

The final immunity challenge involves balancing porcelain dishes on the end of a pole, with the contestants adding more dishes one by one. With sweat dripping from his beard, Todd is the first one out of the challenge, and Courtney is the second, even though you’d think her waitress experience might have given her an edge. Denise talks to Amanda about making a deal, but Amanda says she wants to battle it out (at this point, Amanda is very cool and calm and happy with her upside-down rice bowl placement, whereas Denise is sweaty and wobbly and grasping for a plan).

Amanda wins the immunity challenge and now has to face the difficult task of deciding who to vote against. In trying to convince Amanda to keep her, Denise says she needs this — after this game, Denise will just go back to her $7 an hour lunch lady job. Unfortunately, Denise’s circumstances are precisely why Amanda shouldn’t want her for the final three — the jury might well be sympathetic to her — so it probably backfires for her to play that card now. Denise also reminds Amanda that Amanda had previously told her “I’ve got your back,” which isn’t really a specific promise, but Denise is trying everything now.

Well, not quite everything — Denise’s answer at Tribal Council to the question of why the others should keep her is “I don’t know why they shouldn’t vote me out.” Oh, Denise — you’ve got to be ready with two answers in this game: “Why I wouldn’t win the money” (argued to the people deciding who to keep in this game), and “Why I should win the money” (argued to the people deciding on the winner). And so Denise is voted out.

While at Tribal Council, Denise mentioned Amanda’s “I’ve got your back” statement, and when Amanda answered that she didn’t say that regarding this vote, Todd’s face reacted in an “Ooh — burn” kind of way. I didn’t think it was a huge deal, but Probst asked about it and Amanda felt put on the spot. Afterwards, Amanda accuses Todd and his “burn”-face of calling her out at Tribal Council, and Todd apologizes and says he didn’t mean to make her look bad. I thought perhaps this was a brilliant move on Amanda’s part, trying to make Todd more cautious with what he’ll say in front of the jury at the final Tribal Council, but there’s no further evidence that Amanda’s brilliance reached that level.

Amanda’s mood brightens the next morning, with the discovery of food left for the final three. She dances around happily, and her butt blur dances with her.

At the final Tribal Council, the main arguments of the final three are:

* Amanda: I aligned myself on Day 1 with Todd. After the merge, I wanted to keep in the game those people who I could beat in physical challenges. Throughout the game, I sometimes had to vote against people who weren’t expecting it. Sorry ’bout that.

* Todd: Yes, I lied and backstabbed. I came in here as a fighter and strategized every step of the way, and I’d ask that you please keep separate my relationship with you, which is real, from my backstabbing game-playing. I’ve been a huge fan of this game, and this has been a dream come true.

* Courtney: I was 95 pounds when I started this game, and it was a hugely physical game. I was surprised every time I didn’t get voted out. But I found a way to stay in, and I know my big, honest mouth has rubbed people the wrong way, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

James says that he’s not going to be a “bitter Betty,” so he throws Courtney an easy question about what was a good moment for her in the game. (Her answer had to do with surviving the first challenge she was in.) James, I would never mistake you for a Betty. And even if you gave me permission, I don’t think I would ever call you “Betty” to your face.

Jean-Robert looks at his choices of who to give a million dollars to, and asks, “Can it be anyone besides you three?” He never thought Courtney was deserving to get to the end, and Amanda and Todd backstabbed him. Todd explains that he was strategizing the whole time, and once Jean-Robert started his own strategizing about getting rid of James, Todd felt he had to take out the biggest strategic threat: Jean-Robert. Todd’s answer (and ego-stroking) is so good that James laughs out loud about how Todd actually shut Jean-Robert up.

Amanda uses the “I came up with the plan to kick off James” answer for both Peih-Gee and Erik’s questions about how Amanda strategized or took risks. Erik says he thought the idea of blindsiding James was a bit of a no-brainer, but he later says he can understand Amanda’s struggle to be honest.

Frosti gets all third-person with Todd (“Why do think that your game play deserves a vote from Frosti?”) before flirting a little with Courtney (“Courtney — what’s up? How you doing? You look great.”).

Jaime seems to think that if she talks aggressively and lawyerly, people will once again think she’s smart. She wants each person to say why the jurors shouldn’t vote for the other two, and her cross-examination of Courtney is unpleasant to watch (“So he deserves a million dollars more than you do — is that what you’re saying?”). Amanda says she thinks Courtney was ungrateful and Todd lied more than he needed to, and Todd says that while Amanda and Courtney were strategic, he was strategi-est.

Denise sees Amanda and Todd as liars whose consciences need to be cleaned. She can, however, respect Courtney’s honesty (keep in mind that Denise had yet to watch the tape of Courtney saying to Todd that Denise “doesn’t deserve [to win] just ’cause, you know, she sucks at life.”).

We see Jaime vote for Todd, Erik for Amanda, and Denise for Courtney. Frosti kisses his folded vote, which probably means it’s for Courtney, or it’s some odd ritual he has with paper. Jean-Robert tells the camera, “You just stole a million dollars — well-played.” We find out later that this is a Todd vote.

Jeff reads the votes at the reunion show, where the Survivors are for the most part well-dressed, a little fatter, and have smooth, shiny hair. Courtney looks less like Winona Ryder and more like an ’80s rocker.

Amanda finishes in third with one vote, Courtney gets two votes, and Todd sees his Survivor dreams come true, as his four votes win him the million dollars.

Things we learn at the reunion show:

* Todd had thought through what type of people he needed — someone solid to align with (Amanda), someone small and not threatening in challenges (Courtney) and the strong guy (James).

* Amanda says James looked to his bag three or four times before deciding not to play an immunity idol before he was kicked off. Probst calls James not playing an idol “the biggest blunder in the history of this game,” and James thinks he would’ve at least made the final three had he played it.

* Denise decided not to flip to Peih-Gee and Erik’s side because she thought she’d finish no better than third with that scenario anyway, so she may as well stick with Todd and Amanda.

* Courtney says her amazingly fat-free body is not due to an eating disorder.

* James says the reaction he’s gotten back home about his Survivor experience has been nice, mostly from “kids and older guys.” Oh, and women, too. He relays a story about two women lingering after a funeral James was doing his gravedigging duties for. They eventually realized “It’s him! It’s him! It’s Survivor guy!” and they took post-funeral pictures with him.

* Denise didn’t get her lunch lady job back after returning from the show. The school felt her TV appearance was too distracting, so she’s a janitor now. Probst brings up Courtney’s comment about Denise sucking at life, and Denise says yeah, Courtney already apologized and they all love each other. Probst reveals later on in the show that during a commercial break, producer Mark Burnett decided to give Denise $50,000.

* Jaime and Erik are dating each other. Probst points out that Erik mentioned his virginity on the show and asks him if that’s still the case. “Of course,” he says.

* Probst asks Chicken if the experience was worth it. “Yes,” he says. “If I didn’t win the money, I’d want to go first.” Interesting theory. I’m guessing he’s not going to be one of the All-Stars.

* James wins $100,000 through a “Player of the Season” fan vote. (Denise and Peih-Gee were the other top vote-getters.)

What we don’t get to find out:

* If Peih-Gee and Jaime thought that throwing a challenge was a good idea when they got rid of Aaron, why was it not still a good idea when it came to getting rid of James?

* Does Courtney still love her Frosti?

* What was Todd’s family’s reaction to Courtney complaining about his sister’s “convenient miscarriage”?

* And, of course: What about Amanda’s butt? It wasn’t mentioned at all. I feel cheated.

I have about a month and a half in which to train for watching the next season of Survivor, set to debut Feb. 7. It takes place in Micronesia, and it’s “Fans vs. Favorites” — fans of the show compete with former contestants, at least one of whom is from the Survivor: China season.