I will try not to be smug in this recap, but I have the feeling I won’t be able to help it. I’ve been pulling for my man John Cochran for quite some time. To some degree, all of Caramoan’s favorites had scores to settle or reputations to redeem from their previous seasons: Dawn Meehan battled her tear ducts, Phillip Sheppard tried (and arguably succeeded) to get some respect, Brandon Hantz made a futile attempt at impersonating a sane guy, and Erik Reichenbach was out to prove he wasn’t some double-dipwad who would get labeled a sucker for the second time for giving up his immunity. Can you say Survivor seasons have themes? Because if this one did, it would have been a distinctly high school motif: the popular, good-looking clique that excludes and titters about the outcasts, the embarrassments of dorky nicknames (hey there, True Grit), spring break–style sunburns, and the sexual tension of hookups that never were (I’ll bet Eddie gets pretty busy after his dog-bar speech, though). If Caramoan had been a movie, it might have been Can’t Hardly Wait or — if you were feeling like going on-the-nose with it — Revenge of the Nerds. There is ultimately nothing so satisfying to me as seeing the person who gave the most eloquent confessionals and had the indoorsiest complexion win a game involving so many different kinds of athletic and social maneuvers. Cochran struggled so much in his first season on South Pacific that it was often uncomfortable to watch; as a result, he was bullied, sometimes even reviled (at one point he was called “disgusting”), particularly after flipping on his alliance. He seemed both over- and underprepared, rich with theories but really poor on everything else required to win. He was the 13th castaway kicked out, but the whole time it was apparent that Cochran was in a panic, and maybe even not terribly proud of his performance. What a comeback.
Cochran’s timing this season was so impeccable that he wasn’t identifiable as a threat until it was too late. He always made a move before one was made against him, but he didn’t offend anyone into becoming his enemy. He was a good listener, skilled at dragging information out of the other tribe members and convincing them to do what he wanted without them being aware they were being manipulated. He was subtle. Though his win was largely because of strategy, you have to give ol’ spaghetti legs props for the obvious training that came before he arrived in the Philippines, because despite his advantages — and I admit that not having to untie knots in the final immunity game was pretty significant — he was a sort of solid athlete. Cochran’s obvious joy at being on Survivor again made him less prone to losing patience with anyone as publicly as the others did, and his kindness to Sheppard in particular probably counted for a lot more than just Sheppard’s vote. He was so sympathetic that he didn’t even have to do much damage control when he was questioned by the jury. He kept it real, acknowledging his ambition and defending his game play, and told his former competition to go ahead and tear into him. He knew he was going to win and didn’t seem to have any regrets about how he’d gotten to the final three. It’s not that surprising he got a unanimous vote, because judging by the final tribal, Cochran’s game was socially flawless.
After we get the “this season on” treatment to be reminded of all of the titillating events of Days 1 through 36 we find ourselves back at camp after the last tribal council. Erik sits down in some leaf litter and clutches his head, which is spinning quickly enough to require medical attention. Dawn mistakes Erik’s condition for shock at the vote, but we know it’s much more than that because suddenly Jeff Probst is kneeling beside our emaciated friend. Is he always just there? Drs. Joe and Jen are summoned to the scene and diagnose Erik with the deadly sounding condition of a “starvation state” with a comorbid “body has reached a certain point.” His pulse is like two over zero, so he’s hooked up to an IV drip while he continues to be monitored. He wants to go back to camp, but Dr. Joe nixes that idea and says ominous things like “right now, he’s going down.” With that in mind, everybody hangs out forever talking about what Erik’s exit will mean for the game, and I’m just thinking that they’d better get this guy to the hospital because all he can say is “I’m just dizzy, it’s spinning” and his ribs look like a broken wine bottle under his skin. Erik was also voted out fifth last time and has to be more bummed than he’s letting on about withering away with only three days left, but whatever tummy troubles he was having during this game required immediate attention.
Approximately one second after everyone issues meaningful good-byes and Erik is taken to the emergency room to have life injected back into his body, the remainder of the tribe is buzzing about how exciting it is to be in the final four. After “exchanging a few sad pleasantries about the state of affairs,” Cochran in particular is ready to make his next move, which is to target Eddie under the assumption that he’ll win the next immunity challenge and have major sway. They huddle up and shake on a final three consisting of Cochran, Sherri, and Eddie, but obviously at this point that kind of gesture is nonbinding.
Tree-mail arrives and announces a rewards challenge, which probably would have been an immunity challenge if they weren't down a player. The tribe members are psyched for food, undoubtedly due in part to being spooked by Erik’s collapse, but they’re playing for an advantage in the immunity challenge instead of fried chicken. To win, the players must steady a balancing board with one hand while simultaneously building a house of cards with the other until the structure’s high enough to reach the line. It is the kind of challenge that gives you tremors by proxy: Each of the four contestants gets progressively shaky as he or she gets closer to the mark, and each experiences at least one massive card demolition when only a hair away from winning it. I think Cochran’s house fell down three times, but bizarrely, he was the only person whose hands weren’t visibly wobbly. He bests shaking Sherri and wins the advantage, probably in part because he was making the all-powerful disappearing-lips concentration face. Wear it and it will never fail you.
This is Cochran’s third individual challenge win, so I guess he can get shirts made with Challenge Monster or Challenge Beast or whatever he wants emblazoned on them, and wear them with pride. Congratulations are doled out back at camp before Sherri tells Eddie that she’d rather be in the finals with him than with Dawn. She elaborates to camera, citing Dawn’s propensity toward playing “the sympathy card” and saying, “Nuh-uh, I’m not sitting next to that.” Dawn is asking for 20 minutes of reassurance from Cochran in a very high maintenance way. “Unfortunately today [Dawn’s] leaning more towards a catatonic breakdown,” notes Cochran, who is completely over these kinds of high jinks. On “Day 37, she should be paranoid” and cut out assuming that she’s on the fast track to the final three. Cochran wisely shields Dawn from these frustrations.
More tree-mail arrives and informs everybody that they’re due for their ceremonial tribute march for the fallen soldiers of Caramoan. Sometimes these montages really strike something, some melancholy/motivational Olympics Opening Ceremony note of importance, but this time it’s all kind of a snore. Nobody even remembers who Allie was at first, though she voice-overs that she will always treasure the friends she made “for life.” Burrrrned. Brandon gets to crow that he was “the author of [his] elimination” while Dawn recalls him as a person whose “personal life got too difficult to manage,” and of course Corinne chimes in to tell us she “was going to flip for a gay and three hotties, that’s Corinne Handbook 101.” Obviously The Specialist’s pink manties get a nod, with Cochran calling playing with Sheppard a “surreal” experience. That’s diplomatic. Then they set fire to everything and hang around watching the flames eat the souls of the losers with whom they shared their island paradise. I bet Eddie’s really missing his blondes right now, because it’s all sort of romantic.
The final immunity challenge is scaling stairs up a three-story tower, untying a puzzle bag, sliding down a slide with the bag and repeating until all three bags have been retrieved. Then the contestants have to use their puzzle pieces to build a fire puzzle. Cochran’s advantage is that he doesn’t have to unknot his puzzle bags at the top of the stairs. He takes an early lead (obviously), but Jeff warns him not to “squander” his big advantage — no pressure though.
Sherri lags up at the bag apex for a long while. “You are building a PUZZLE in the shape of a FIRE,” says Probst with a little Walken inflection. Cochran’s head start vanishes when Dawn becomes The Puzzlemaster, but he’s able to kick it into gear after a few pieces find their grooves, and he wins the challenge. Probst fawns over Cochran’s individual wins for a while as the victor stands there looking chuffed. He brings his swagger back with him, considering whom better to bestow with second place, emotional Dawn or Eddie, the “chauvinistic 23-year-old idiot?” Sherri is a no-brainer; everyone seems to have decided long ago that she can’t win and would be a great addition to the finals. JC finds it “lonely at the top.” Dawn’s pitch to Cochran is predictably Dawn-like (crying, sentimentality, beating herself up afterward to camera because she “doesn’t feel like [she] deserves to do good”), but Eddie gets right to the point — the jury only likes him because he’s “an idiot,” which he then proves in a confessional plotting out how he would spend his theoretical winnings: by opening up “a dog, kind of like, shelter kennel playpen area attached to a bar” because “if [he] could open a bar and you bring your dog there, it would be unbelievable.” This was already perfect, but it was made even more sublime by the immediate cut to Eddie standing around with Cochran with a blurry mark over his exposed pubic hair. What a doof. Cochran is still wondering if Eddie or Dawn is a bigger threat, and though Eddie has friends on the jury, we’re all apparently pretty hung up on Dawn’s six adopted children.
At tribal, Erik waltzes in with the jury, still very thin but definitely alive, which is a relief. Probst recounts Erik’s spincident for the benefit of no one, then asks Cochran about how good he feels. Cochran responds that he previously believed himself only able to meet a third of the requirements of “Outwit, Outplay, Outlast” — so, you know, pretty good. Dawn makes a case for sending Eddie home because he’s “so likable,” but Eddie claims his lack of strategy (he only voted one person on the jury off) makes Dawn a bigger threat. Poor Sherri feels so alienated by her low-status position that she actually jumps in to defend her gameplay (“everybody seems to forget”), but it’s Eddie’s time to exit.
In the morning, there is a breakfast basket with mimosas, and Dawn is feeling confident, though I’d bet she stuck with plain OJ and her new high is just the afterglow of a good sob. Being in the finals with Cochran is “like a storybook ending.” Cochran, however, is in full law-student mode, freaking out on a stump in the woods and composing his jury speech. When it’s time for the final tribal council, it will really only be a question of whether or not Cochran chokes.
Dawn’s being served side-eye as soon as she opens her mouth to give her address: Her strategy was to choose one ally to take to the end (Cochran), to be in control of her own game, and to give herself permission to be an asshole when called upon (“this is football and I have to be willing to tackle”). Sherri’s speech starts off shaky (did you KNOW that she was a successful businesswoman with 75 employees?), but then gets worse when she freezes up for so long that time starts going backward. Erik’s head is in his hands. It’s terrible. She recovers and finishes semi-robotically (“I had to get in and integrate with each one of you, and I think I did that very successfully”), and finally it’s Cochran’s turn. He talks about his “13 years of passion,” his Survivor “obsession,” and how he had channeled his social anxiety into supplying Dawn with daily therapy sessions, also mentioning how he had ruthlessly lied to and deceived people because that’s how you play your best game. Bam!
The questions start rolling in: Malcolm makes a point of only addressing Dawn and Cochran, giving Dawn advice to own up to her backstabbing moves and telling her that she’ll get his vote if she fights hard enough. He asks Cochran what Cochran got that he ain’t got, and Cochran responds that his own insecurity helped him stay tuned in enough to demolish his opponents (“I can’t imagine you [Malcolm] being insecure”). Eddie makes fun of Dawn for her emotional fragility, then basically asks Cochran on a date with the rest of the Three Amigos to a bar. Phillip retracts Sherri’s Stealth R Us ID card, jabs at Dawn (a theme) for being paranoid, and then implicitly hands Cochran his vote with a side of the crispy rice.
Erik, who has apparently been oozing with fury for a while but keeping it completely under wraps, unleashes on Dawn, telling her that they “had something so powerful” but that she crushed it by turning on Brenda, before turning his wrath on Sherri, who in his opinion had been “a seashell on the beach.” Sherri must realize she has nothing to lose (or win) at this point, so she bosses Erik back into his seat. Michael, playing devil’s advocate, tried to give Dawn a chance to redeem herself by asking her why Cochran isn’t being vilified as much as she is when they played a very similar strategic game. Dawn responds by saying that she’d taken on more responsibility, a statement with which Cochran obviously disagrees heartily (the relationship was “symbiotic”; her paranoia was “crippling” to the alliance). Reynold airs out his problems with Dawn (“overemphatic” hugs; he finds her to be “disingenuine”), then asks her to describe him using three adjectives to determine whether or not she can be honest/a dick. She calls him chauvinistic, funny, and vulgar, and then he forces her to inform the jury that she kicked their asses in the game, and she liked it. She does.
Andrea breezes in to ask Cochran what animal he would describe as fitting his game (a chameleon), then briefly honors Dawn with some sympathy, which I hope cushioned her for what came next. I guess Andrea truly wasn’t bitter; how boring. Brenda asks Cochran how he could have voted her off after she gave him the family reward, to which he replies that he has a “sociopathic ability” to differentiate between the game and his emotional life, so while he’d be happy to repay Brenda for the gesture back on the mainland, kindness isn’t currency on Survivor. Then she turns to Dawn and things get really intense. Their bond, so strong. The betrayal, so painful. Now, Brenda explained, Dawn must take out her false teeth to prove that she wouldn’t have actually quit as she had threatened when her teeth sunk to the bottom of the lagoon. It’s such a bizarre request, and she delivers it so insistently. Dawn claims that she wouldn’t have left, but Brenda is not satisfied. “Let them see you like I saw you that day. Take out your teeth, Dawn,” she says. “That’s my thing, Dawn.” Dawn resists (“yeah, I’m not going to do that”) but eventually breaks down and agrees to “humiliate [her]self,” taking out her bottom retainer to reveal her empty spaces.
Boy, was this low of Brenda. It was a stark image, maybe partially because you had to confront your own secret desires to have seen Dawn without her teeth when she was hiding from the cameras in the middle of her freak-out. As soon as you’d seen it, you realized why Dawn had wanted that to stay private — it wasn’t gruesome or anything, but you felt immediately what it would be like to not have your bottom front teeth, and to want to hide this, and then to be all but forcibly exposed. Sometimes in tribal council, you see a person become totally unhinged by the effect the game is having on them. Even when they’re kicking it at the Ponderosa, they’re isolated and completely consumed by the game, and it shows. Brenda doesn’t seem like a superjerk — and, though she’s sure spunky, Corinne doesn’t either, despite her history of scathing jury questions — but this was a superjerk move.
The votes are cast and a storm sweeps in to carry us away to Studio City, present day, for the big reveal. Everyone is looking less emaciated and like they’ve showered eight times a day since returning to civilization. Sherri and Dawn already know the score — Dawn’s just hoping for enough money to buy new teeth :E. Cochran wins allllll the votes, greets his family (including grandma and a hipster), and gets dubbed “maybe the most unlikely winner ever” by Probst. The guy who started out as a fan and then became a favorite has won the whole damn prize, and it feels good, a vicarious win for fans everywhere. In the reunion, we learned that Brenda, now pregnant and appearing only in satellite form, was up against Malcolm for fan favorite, but your mom’s boyfriend and The Bold and the Beautiful actor and friend-of-Grantland Malcolm snatched it away from her. I suppose that answers the question of who will pick up the Three Amigos tab at the dog-bar later on.
Next season! It’ll be the dramatically titled Blood vs. Water, possibly pitting contestants against their family members, which has already sparked at least one equally dramatic casting rumor video. Until next fall: Rest up. You done good.