Who's gonna win "Survivor"?

Surprisingly, the nicer guy -- or gal -- is going to finish first. But in this crowd, that's not saying much.

Published August 23, 2000 7:31PM (EDT)



Here's why:

Among other things, "Survivor" was a tabula rasa. You could see anything in it. To some the island intrigues called up memories of high school. The more mature saw office politics. The Manichaean pointed to the Darwinian overtones. The optimistic saw it as a chance for people to work together, the pessimistic as a true test of Machiavellian politics.

In its own way, the show undercut at least part of each of these expectations as time went on. Most notably, for some reason the castaways found few reasons to work together or, with one exception, to plot together, either to support or to save themselves.

The fittest weren't really rewarded. The residents barely hunted or fished. The group's attempts to build a shelter were pathetic and ultimately abandoned. The last few days on the island saw the remaining survivors cold and hungry as they ate plain rice day after day and sat without adequate shelter during torrents of rain.

And while the island's chief schemers are still around -- good evidence that scheming works -- their success was more the result of their victims' haplessness than any great vision on their part.

As we noted early on, our pet metaphor for "Survivor" was that of the chess game. The winner will be someone who was both a strategist from the beginning and a student of the show's endgame.

Once the two original tribes -- the Tagi (Malaysian for "scheming") and the Pagong (Malaysian for "dead meat") -- came together, the endgame began. The new tribe -- called Rattana, or "place where the Pagong lambs are led to the slaughter" -- would continue to vote one person off the island each week, until two survivors were left. At that point, the previous seven ejected castaways would return to vote to award the $1 million prize to one of the two finalists.

It's plain that the better liked of the last two contestants -- or at least the less disliked -- is going to get the prize. The trick is to get to the end with someone nastier than you.

Right now there are four castaways left -- Kelly, the erratic river guide; Richard, the tubby corporate trainer; Sue, the conniving truck driver; and crusty Rudy, the septuagenarian former Navy Seal.

Of these, Sue, Richard and Rudy have been the core of an alliance, rooted in the Tagi tribe, that has systematically voted everyone else off the island. Kelly was a member as well, but has strayed enough to now be marked for death by her former compadres.

The alliance's work has not been an attractive thing to see. You wouldn't want to be a real castaway with the likes of Richard, the self-satisfied nudist. And it's difficult to cheer for people who lie as cheerfully as these three do.

But after a few weeks of watching the clueless Pagongs allow themselves to be voted off one by one, you have to give Darwin some credit: The members of the Pagong tribe are gone -- extinct -- because they lacked the wherewithal to combat something that was well within their power to halt.

It is instructive that after a few prunings of the old and the infirm in the beginning, the older and smarter survivors have systematically laid waste to their youthful fellow castaways. Gone went Greg, the alleged Ivy League graduate. Gone went the comely Colleen.

Gervase bragged that he basically didn't do anything -- bye-bye, Gervase! Sean refused to join a competing alliance -- bye-bye, Sean!

So pathetic were the nonalliance members that, with one prominent exception -- a week in which Richard garnered a few worrisome votes -- alliance members never received significant votes for banishment. Instead, the dim Pagongs turned on one another.

It's pretty plain that in the first half of Wednesday night's two-hour final episode, Kelly will be voted off the island.

That will leave Rudy, Sue and Richard.

Rudy is toast. Neither Sue nor Richard will want to be left at the end with Rudy; his crusty plain-spokenness might be endearing when set next to the vicious Sue or Richard. Besides, it is clear Rudy was never a ringleader and has not engendered the resentment that Sue and Richard have.

Nor did he parade around the island nude, his big white ass a beacon shining over the South China Sea.

It would be easy for the last seven rejected castaways to toss the million his way.

Sue and Richard will have no choice -- they'll vote Rudy off and then take their chances with each other.

With a show like "Survivor," which is edited out of available footage by CBS, you can never be sure you've seen the whole story. But from what has been broadcast, it seems as if Richard is much more disliked than Sue.

So Sue should win.

The immunity challenges -- the winner of which each episode is protected from ejection that round -- could disrupt this scenario. If Kelly gets immunity in the penultimate round, then Rudy will go first. She'll then be marked in the final round.

The last immunity challenge introduces the element of chance into the final award. The winner moves into the final round and gets to pick who will accompany him or her there.

The chances are still two out of three that Richard or Sue will get immunity and move together into the final round.

But if Rudy, say, gets immunity in the last round, then he'll probably opt to face off against Richard, and Rudy should walk away with the million.

What this really means for diehard "Survivor" watchers is that, thankfully, it seems as if there's little chance for the dreaded Rich to win.

But one other feature of the endgame that might favor him must be noted. The two finalists -- say they're Sue and Richard, as is most likely -- get a chance to plead their cases before their jury. It's possible that Rich could use this forum more nimbly than Sue.

In fact, given the Pagongs' searching chuckleheadedness, you can see the discussions now. "Hey, Rich was sort of a nice guy," Gervase is saying. "He caught us a fish once ..."

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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