And here's to you, Mrs. Johnson!

"Survivor" surprises again! Big Tom blows it; Lex takes a walk; and Brandon snarls one last time for the cameras.


Jeff Stark
January 11, 2002 8:46AM (UTC)

When Tolstoy wrote that unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way, he was really saying that happy families are boring.

The same thing goes for individuals -- not necessarily the ones that you want as friends or to fall in love with, but certainly the ones you'd want to read about or watch bumble through Africa on a diet of corn mush and Jeff Probst.

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The "Survivor" producers know this.

One of the things that's made the third season of "Survivor" such a drag is that there hasn't been enough of the kind of conflict that makes characters grow and change. Tonight, on the two-hour final episode, we'll see a last-ditch attempt to show us one who did.

And then at final Tribal Council that transformation will drift away, like so much elephant dung at a watering hole.

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We'll revisit some forgettable moments, and see survivors whom we've already banished from memory. We'll share some canned emotions, watch Big Tom make an ass out of himself on a scale that dwarfs his previous attempts, and be shown once again that you can take the boy out of the bar, but you can't take the bartender out of the boy.

But we won't get a story that will justify the 15 hours we've spent watching the show this season.

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In the end, we'll have a new "Survivor" winner.

And we'll feel like losers.

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Four survivors remain. The former members of the Boran tribe have made it this far with the advantages of their personality traits.

Tattooed Lex is still around because his brute force wins immunity challenges and his predatory paranoia rooted out potential enemies.

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Soccer stud Ethan is strong and nice, offending no one.

Big Tom the goat farmer is homophobic, objectifies women and holds a grudge, but he's managed to make it this far because he keeps his word and he's a world-class buffoon. No one takes him seriously.

And passive 56-year-old Kim J. has been essentially ineffectual since Day 1 -- but that makes her non-threatening. Along the way, she's agreeably done what she's told, which either makes her a great strategist (and it did get her this far) or a good little soldier (passively acquiescing in the dirty deeds of the men she's thrown in with).

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But, of course, we're expecting to see her booted off tonight's show first.

In a sense, only now are we really understanding the strength of their alliance, a pact that has been casually mentioned and alluded to, but seems now to have been under-emphasized by the show's editors in order to spare us a gnawing sense that we could see exactly how the show would play out.

But here we are. The stars are out, the animals are on the prowl and the survivors are congratulating themselves.

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It doesn't last.

Lex is pissed at Big Tom. Last episode, you'll remember, Teresa told Lex that Tom was working against him.

Lex is driven into the kind of rage that makes him mix metaphors. We're guessing that he's going to say something about slitting throats or cutting off heads.

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"I'm not going to let myself be naively be brought to slaughter," says Lex.

And Lex actually matches up both ends of a metaphor as well, mentioning a puzzle and puzzle pieces.

Lex takes Tom out of camp. We see a whirling dust devil.

Lex asks Tom if he told Teresa that he could not be trusted.

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Tom says no, and then, in an off-camera interview, says that Lex should have expected the votes against him:

"If you're gonna run in the front with a white horse you're gonna be shot at," says Tom, stealing one of Lex's lines, but managing to make it make sense.

Lex is pissed, but not that pissed. What we really want to know is if he's pissed enough to mix one last metaphor.

"I would not feel right about cutting him off at the knees," he says, "because on a couple of occasions he has fallen from grace."

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The four decided to make a customary hike up the rock formation near their camp. It provides the helicopter a breathtaking shot of the final four up on top.

The image feels very familiar.

Did we see this last season, or did we see it on one of those posters that you can order out of airplane catalogs?

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Lex provides the accompanying inspirational message:

"It kind of gives you a different perspective on things, and you just can't help but think about stuff."

We knew he was middle-manager material.

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When the survivors come back they get a torch announcing the next immunity challenge. It's going to be one of those trivia quizzes about their fellow players.

"What's your name again?" asks Ethan.

Dry humor is not one of Ethan's strong suits.

He's not the only one with deficits: "It's another mental game," says Big Tom. "I'm not that strong in that game."

Lex predicts that Kim is going to be good at this game.

This is what the "Survivors" producers do too often -- throw up little red herrings. Kim J. is no Kelly Wigglesworth; she hasn't won a challenge of any sort yet.

Jeff Probst, King of all Hyenas, meets the four survivors at the Tribal Council set. The Jury of the Damned awaits. (The jury now includes Brandon, Kelly, Frank, Teresa and the younger Kim.)

"Ultimately, this is a game about relationships," says Jeff. "And the final vote will come down to the relationships you have formed with the members of the jury."

(Ultimately, it's about marketing, as the prominent sneaker logo on Kim's hat reminds us.)

There are eight questions.

No one knows what rank Frank achieved in the Army.

Tom guesses "Lieutenant Private."

Mental games are not his strong games.

Ethan guesses "Colonel." For those who get their information about Army rank from "M*A*S*H," this might seem plausible, but a colonel is a fairly high rank. Frank is as likely a colonel as he is a senator.

Turns out he was a staff sergeant.

All know that Kelly listed "manipulating men" as a hobby on her application. The camera cuts to her as she shrugs and rolls her eyes with the kind of coquettish charm that could definitely score her a Saturday morning date at a Friday night frat party.

The next question busts everyone but Tom. He's the only one who remembers that the vile Lindsey was the first contestant to hit a target in the bow-and-arrow contest.

God, that feels like months ago to us.

Everyone identifies Teresa's kids in a photo. She beams.

Everyone knows Jessie was a deputy in Orlando, Fla. Remember Jessie?

Us neither.

Now Jeff wants to know who has a tattoo of a black widow spider. They get an extra point if they can identify the location. Everyone knows it's Brandon, and Lex and Kim know it's on his back.

We're not sure what to make of this. Does this mean Brandon kills his boyfriends? That he's poisonous? Or that he made the same kind of decision about tattoos that he made back when he was married to a woman?

You know what they say about tattoos: Everyone gets the one they deserve.

Everyone knows the names of gun-nut Frank's kids. One of them is, of course, "Sage Hunter."

In the final question, Kim wins by knowing that Kelly is the only female survivor with no piercings, including her ears.

Yes, we did say, "Kim wins."

It's her first immunity victory. She's overwhelmed.

This screws everything up for the boys. They have to eat one of their own, and it really doesn't look as if they'd prepared for this eventuality. Like us, they probably figured it would be a cold day in the bush before Kim J. won a challenge.

They were sort of like hyenas preparing to feed on a wounded zebra, who get a good kick in the snout from a hoof when they least expect it.

Jeff doesn't give the group much time to digest this new state of affairs. He sends them off to vote immediately.

We notice Ethan hanging over his ballot. He can't seem to make up his mind. We can't see what he's written, but he says, "You have carried me all the way."

Big Tom takes the fall, three-to-one.

We don't understand the thinking. Why would Lex or Kim chance facing off at the end against Ethan, who's got smoldering good looks and, as far as we've seen, offended no one on the show?

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It's dark when we come back. Jeff Probst has a torch. It's 4:30 in the morning.

Jeff looks really comfortable with a torch.

He rouses everyone from sleep.

He finds out that Lex has spent the night going to the bathroom. He had bad runs, and he woke up 12 or 13 times. There's a suggestive shot of him putting on new shorts that we try to block out of our minds.

A spectacular sunrise helps, but only a bit.

We like the idea of Lex with dysentery, though.

The sun is up when Jeff stops. He tells them they will be going on a traditional tribal journey.

We groan.

They will hike a path marked by the torches of their fallen comrades. They are to reflect on their impact. Then they will join an African tribe for a ritual "rebirth."

"This is for you," Jeff says. He calls it a "final rite of passage."

We leave the room. We've seen a "Survivor" salute to fallen comrades before. We know what's coming, and we have a deep desire not to see the footage of Big Tom yanking the tick out of Lindsey's ass again.

When we consult the tape later, we see exactly what we feared: Flashbacks, many of them in slow motion, accompanied by inspirational New Age music and quotes.

There's Diane with the map, and Jessie talking about how hard it is, and Carl complaining about the lack of tap water.

Now Linda about growth and wonderful Africa. Silas carrying a goat.

And, yes, Lindsey having a tick pulled out of her ass, bent over in pain yelping, and the "Survivor" cameraman doing his best to get a shot down her shirt.

Ah, the memories.

Now Clarence applying war paint. Kelly getting rolled over by the giant boulder.

Now Brandon on his physical ability: "No one will ever take me for granted again."

Ah, the self-delusion.

Then there's Frank about the therapy of isolation. Kim P. bouncing up and down. Teresa winning a challenge.

A half-naked Big Tom flapping up and down in slow-motion.

Ah, the body fat.

Kim J. wipes away a tear.

She, Lex and Ethan come upon a tribe of Africans in full regalia. They're decked with beads and jewelry.

The tribe starts chanting and jumping up and down. They pull the three survivors into the dance.

We see slow motion shots of Lex, Ethan, and Kim doing a weird chin-extension dance, eyes closed in quasi-mystical revelry.

The whole scene is uncomfortable. And we figure Lex at this point must be going through some changes, digestive-systemwise.

Remember that Paul Simon record that kind of felt like he was exploiting a bunch of "exotic" world musicians in order to reinvigorate a floundering career?

Or imagine a bunch of yuppies hanging out in a Native American sweat lodge.

And some college students shadowing a swami in Northern India.

Plus some bearded men howling at the moon and getting in touch with their inner wolves.

It's worse than all of that.

In fact, it was hard to have a critical response to the whole scene. The only thing we could think of was how much this tribe pulled in for agreeing to appear in a cheap game show that probably doesn't even air on their continent.

We hoped they soaked Mark Burnett and Co., but we have a feeling it wasn't much. We hope it was more than a case or two of Mountain Dew.

It may be the tackiest thing "Survivor" has yet broadcast, which is saying something.

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The final immunity challenge follows the blasphemous hike. It's one of those "Hands on a Hard Body" challenges. The three contestants have to stand on stumps and grip an idol with one hand.

The show ratchets up the stakes by putting the three in an uncomfortable position this time -- they have to keep their feet on two separate small stumps, and then lean over to grasp the totem.

It looks extremely uncomfortable, made worse by the still-rising sun, which ultimately drives the temperature up to the high 90s.

It's fun thinking about Lex. Life is hell sitting in your living room with diarrhea. We think amusedly at what he's probably been going through thus far this morning.

But Ethan is the first to falter. He stumbles and grimaces and shakes and even stumbles. He's obviously having a tough time.

After two hours and 46 minutes he yanks one foot off the back stump. He doesn't even seem to understand what happened.

Lex looks queasy. Kim looks blissed out. She's calm and doesn't appear fatigued at all.

Finally, after three hours and 21 minutes Lex falls. He palsies in pain.

Kim wins, her second in a row! It's a remarkable victory, considering that she's always been more of a liability in physical challenges and she's absolutely trouncing two of the strongest competitors of all.

She fully understands.

"The final immunity challenge was not luck, was not being nice, was not any of the things I had done so far," says Kim. "That was something that came out of inside of me -- something that I have not seen, maybe ever."

Is this starting to look like a story to you?

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Now Kim has to make a decision. Will she take to the final round the likable Ethan or the disagreeable Lex?

It seems like a no-brainer to us. As we're fond of saying, the object of "Survivor" has always been to be the second most disagreeable person in the final vote.

From our position, the only problem with taking Lex to the final round is that he could make a strong, rational case that he played the game better than Kim and thus deserves to win.

Call it the Richard Hatch factor.

If she picks Ethan, on the other hand, she will be showing the Jury of the Damned that she cares about making sure that the good guy gets to the last round.

That's what happened last season when Colby brought Tina along.

Colby became an example to us all.

He also came in second.

Kim is torn apart. She calls it "probably one of the biggest decisions in my life" and "one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."

We're thinking that she can't have had a very hard life out there on Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Lex and Ethan are taking it pretty well. Neither one vies for Kim's vote. They both sympathize with her.

Kim says that she thinks both of them represent a threat in the final vote.

We cut to tribal council.

Jeff points out that Kim, "a 56-year-old grandma" kicked the young guy's asses. Ethan and Lex both tell Jeff that they just couldn't win.

Kim says that she hasn't made up her mind.

In his defense, Lex tells her to vote her heart. Ethan reminds her to vote what feels good.

They're no help at all.

Kim is crying as she writes a final ballot.

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Lex, the evil, paranoid, overly tattooed weirdo, is out.

Lex and Ethan hug.

Ethan sits back down and nuzzles into Kim's armpit, right in the same place we watched her daub elephant-dung spiked water last week.

That's special.

Brandon, in the jury, wipes away a tear.

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"Lex thought he deserved it," says Kim. "I'm not sure that Ethan thought he deserved it, and maybe, ultimately, maybe that's what made the decision easier."

On their final day at camp -- abandoned in total disarray -- the two final survivors initial their water tank calendar and head out.

We watch their long walk to the final Tribal Council. It's intercut with interviews with each member of the Jury of the Damned.

Interestingly, Kim J. calls Ethan an "introvert," which on the show thus far is something that has only been alluded to -- by Ethan.

Lex says that they both deserve to be where they are. All said, he's a pretty good loser.

But he's still a loser.

Yay!

Teresa says that she likes and respects both of the final two, but she's bittersweet about not being there herself.

Boy, isn't this so nice? Two nice people are in the final round. Their competition has nothing but compliments. Doesn't this make you feel good about the human condition?

"There's a lot of revenge involved in tonight ... Not so much revenge as satisfaction. I don't really care for one of the people up there tonight, and I'm going to get to vote against him and that's the ultimate satisfaction for not liking someone."

Thanks, hair-gelled Brandon!

Frank says something about loyalty and how there can only be one "Survivor."

We think he's thinking about that cool movie with the guy with the swords.

"Highlander," right?

Big Tom says he already knows who he's voting for, and he warns us about a trick question.

Kelly, who seems to be going a little heavy on the eye makeup, has all the grace of Brandon. It's still all about Kelly. The final two include two people who have voted for Kelly in the "Kelly debacle," as she calls it. "I just want to see fireworks."

We do, too, but we figure from her they're not going to be too spectacular.

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The last tribal council starts off with an "Oprah" moment.

Kim, in her appeal to the jury, says that she can't appeal for votes; she's a winner no matter what happens!

She reminds everyone that she's the oldest person out here, and she says she's learned from each one of them. It's very classy.

There are many tears.

Then it's Ethan's turn. He says he came to Africa with a goal: "To go home with my integrity and prove that good, honest people can go far in the game."

It's an interesting tack because he's essentially telling the jury that he's more principled than they. Then again, if you were in the jury, you could imagine that you too were principled all along and you want to reward someone for the same achievement.

It's a good speech, rippled with a subtlety that he probably doesn't even intend.

Time for questions. Each member of the Jury of the Damned gets to ask a question and make a statement.

Brandon is first. He says he "honestly" doesn't know who he's going to vote for, which of course contradicts what he said minutes ago.

Brandon has decided that he will choose based on which one likes him best. But he also has the presence of mind to know that neither one likes him the best.

We have to admit that he might have a better understanding of this game than we thought.

Brandon asks whom the final two would like to see sitting next to them.

Both, astonishingly, pick Lex. For Ethan, it's because he's the strongest competitor. For Kim, it's because Lex was supportive. (Somehow this support has to do with recognizing that she is 56.)

Now, Brandon wants to know who deserves it least.

Ethan looks him right in the eye: "You."

!

It's one of "Survivor's" best moments.

Kim says Tom, because she doesn't think much of the way he treated women.

Lex wants to know what will be each survivor's "first selfless act." Kim says that she wants to "look into the Wamba project" and cites some AIDS statistics.

Ethan, lamely, says something about working with inner-city kids. We remember that moment when Ethan said the thing he missed most about the States was his couch. It's one of those statements where you just want to ask what kept him from doing it before.

And we like Ethan.

He has the cutest hair, and great teeth, too.

Frank is up next. He has a perfectly composed question asking them the five characteristics that survivors need to win.

They offer five one-word answers: Willpower, integrity, love, respect, etc.

Kelly is up next. She starts off telling them that she didn't want to see either one of them in the final round. She was "disappointed" by Kim, but she praises her for finally voting Lex the hell off the bush.

"Though you totally sold me out," Kelly says. "I hope you know that part of your success comes at my expense. If you think you did this with integrity, don't flatter yourself."

Kelly's a nut, but it's a good point.

Then she turns on Ethan. "This game is about making relationships, and I sure didn't see you trying to make one with me."

She asks them to pick a number between 1 and 1,000.

Kim says 3. Anyone familiar with numbers games knows that all Ethan has to do is choose 4. Ethan is not familiar with numbers games, and picks 860-something.

Sigh.

Kelly is proud of herself. She meant to deliver an incendiary speech, but she ended up with something closer to voting with the alphabet than a scorcher about rats and snakes.

Kim P. is next. Who did they learn the most from? The least?

Kim J. says, surprisingly, her. She admires her for walking out on her wedding and for her forgiveness.

Kim P. breaks into tears.

Kim J. learned the least from Tom.

She's really picking on Tom.

Ethan says he learned a lot from Teresa, and he learned the least from Kelly.

Tom gets up. It's his final chance to not come across to a worldwide audience as a big Southern buffoon.

"If a hyena came through camp and eat our mush, and after he eat it he licked his heiny, did he do it because of animal instinct, or to get the taste out of his mouth?"

It's a question far less funny than Ethan's straight-faced attempt to answer it in all seriousness. "If I was a hyena ..."

Kim says the hyena was just cleaning his hind end.

Teresa: "If you could take back anything you said, what would it be?"

Kim wishes that she hadn't jumped to conclusions about Kelly. Ethan wished that he didn't accuse Frank of a rogue vote.

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The vote begins when we come back.

Brandon is up first. He goes to the voting booth and says that he came tonight to vote for Ethan, contradicting what he just said minutes ago again.

But now he's not going to vote for Ethan because of the personal jab, and because he thinks it's cool to vote for a 56-year-old. He rambles on and on about how tacky it was for Ethan to insult him like that. Actually, it's just Ethan demonstrating smarts: He knew he didn't have Brandon's vote, and took a safe shot.

Then Kim P. comes up and says that she too changed her vote. She too remarks on Kim's 56 years.

What is it with all this 56 crap?

Our dad is 56 and could still ride a bike over a mountain to kick our ass.

Tom goes off on "the weak one." He really goes off. He face is red and he's practically spewing saliva as he talks. By the time he stuffs his ballot into the pot we think that boil on his neck is going to burst.

And to think Kim thought he was sexist.

Kelly does a quick scene from "The Graduate." Is she making a weird crack at young Ethan and older Kim? The number was 568, the room number in her favorite movie. 568 is closer to 860 than 3, so Ethan may be lucking out.

If her agent could have seen it, he would have advised against it: The reading might get in the way of some really solid commercial offers.

Jeff goes to tally the votes.

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We come back for the final time. Something about Teresa looks strange. Ethan's beard is different. We notice there is no wind. And Jeff's voice is really weird.

Forget it, we think.

But then Jeff asks a weird question: Do they have any last words, anything to say now that the votes are in?

Why now, we're thinking?

Kim says that she was scared, and she tried to hide that. But he pumps her, and he gets an inspirational story out of her.

She was proving something to herself.

That's something that happens in a story: character development and resolution.

Now Jeff's voice is echoing.

"Let's get to the vote," he says.

Ethan and Kim hold hands.

They get two votes each.

Then one for Ethan.

Then one more.

Ethan wins.

He jumps up, and we hear his whoop, and then cheers.

Wait.

Cheers?

The camera pans back.

They're in a studio!

This is a sound stage! A recreation of the tribal council set. Complete with little grass huts and everything.

See, last year, there was a big production where Jeff Probst supposedly arrived at a studio via helicopter.

This version was far more seamless. The differences were very subtle.

It's the kind of trick that supposed reality shows and documentaries generally don't like to play, recreating "reality" in a place so false and fake.

Then we remembered. This show isn't about reality. It's about stories, and editing and manipulating situations to get the best story.

And even then, this version never really got one worth watching.

Kim, our character who made such a transformation, lost to the guy whose expressed goal was staying exactly the same.

For the second year in a row, a survivor had a chance to go into the final two with an unattractive challenger, and chose a nicer one.

And lost for her trouble.

Lex and Probst make a big deal out of the fact that no one makes the finals of "Survivor " in an accident, but we disagree.

Niceness is, well, nice, but you should play the game to win.

On the other hand, one of the piquant charms of "Survivor" has been to gauge precisely the characters' muddled thinking. None are brainiacs to begin with, and this is compounded by the mental tricks dehydration, malnutrition and bad hygiene play.

Did Kim kick Lex out blindly? Or did she think that he really was a great guy and thought others felt about him the same way? It's possible Kim did some number crunching, and figured out that she would have lost even bigger against Lex.

Kim? Number crunching? Nah.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The camera pans down again. There is a beast lurking nearby -- a beast far scarier than the hungriest lion in the bush.

It's Bryant Gumble, the chuckle-headed host of CBS's morning show. You know, the one with Julie Chen. He's ready to host a post-finale reunion show.

He gets the final say:

"We're live in Los Angeles."

Nothing good can come of those words.

(Jeff Stark)

Back to the "Survivor: Africa" home page


Jeff Stark

Jeff Stark is the associate editor of Salon Arts and Entertainment.

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