Survivor China: The Greatest Final 3 Ever?
After finishing a rewatch of Survivor China, I wanted to write about a season that had me entertained and delighted the entire way, putting a good taste in my mouth compared to the Big Brother and Bachelor content coming through my television lately. As a whole, Survivor China is a strong season with a ton of memorable competitors and solid gameplay. What propels this season is it has multiple players who are excellent confessional-givers. Sometimes good players aren’t great confessionalists, and it will bring a season down because you’re not entertained by them and don’t want to follow their stories. Survivor China doesn’t have that problem as Todd, Courtney, Peih-Gee, and James kill their confessionals.
The season does make me a feel bit awkward with some of the Jean-Robert stuff, where he is pretty clearly crossing the line of sexual harassment/assault towards some of the girls, and as a whole, is a bit of an ass. Making matters worse, other players excuse his actions, telling the girls to ignore it/think about the game. Despite this, it’s still an enjoyable season once you get through that stuff. What I want to talk about is the Final Tribal Council.
The Final Tribal Council of Survivor China consisted of winner Todd Herzog, runner-up Courtney Yates, and third-place finisher Amanda Kimmel. Todd was not only a deserving winner but probably ranks within the top-half of all-time winners and is maybe in some people’s top 10. Although he ranks so highly and was the rightful winner, I also believe that Courtney and Amanda were both worthy and deserving winners. Had they presented themselves differently in front of the jury or had one or two things play out differently, they could have walked out on top and not too controversially either. The actual vote ended up 4–2–1, where it easily could have been 3–2–2 or 3–3–1. It matters because, in the last ten seasons of Survivor, the 3rd Place finisher has only received a jury vote once (with more eligible jurors than China). I will note that the fire-making twist introduced in Season 35 has likely been the main reason for this as the player who wins the final four immunity challenge is likely to take a “goat” with them. Regardless, an FTC with 3 people in contention is always more exciting and adds more overall intrigue. China having three legitimate contenders had fans engaged, where each juror question and response had fans keeping an internal mental scoreboard trying to guess where the votes were going. The pre-jury phase is the salad (take it or leave it), the jury phase is the steak and potatoes, and the Final Tribal is the dessert. Whereas a season like Redemption Island was giving out Breath Mints, China served up a five-layer cheesecake with a scoop of ice cream. Now, I want to reflect on each of the three players’ games, why they deserved to win, why they didn’t, and more.
If you talk about Survivor from an on-paper perspective, Amanda played an unimpeachably strong game where she followed an incredibly simple and direct path, with a couple of critical plays and achievements that in most seasons would deserve a win. One of the primary faults for her is the fact that her game had almost no resistance. Early into the game, Amanda had an alliance with Todd and Courtney. The men in the tribe also valued her as the strongest female. Despite being a 5'11 athletic and fit female with model looks, they still didn’t target her once the individual phase began due to James getting perceived as the most significant physical target, Jean-Robert acting as a pariah, and the former Zhan Hu members being easy to pick off as they were in the minority.
For her accomplishments, she heavily pushed to blindside James at Final 7 before allowing him to idol his way to the final immunity challenge (a move others had wanted to do but had been hesitant). She also won the final two immunity challenges, arguably the most important ones. From a loyalty perspective, her alliance took it to the end. While she could have made a more significant move by voting out Todd at the Final 5 or Final 4, there was fear that Denise would have garnered sympathy votes in an FTC, and also, taking out Todd at F5 makes her easily the biggest target should she not win the final immunity. Also, Todd would have likely targeted her as a jury member and uplifted his top ally, Courtney. Amanda made pragmatic moves that guaranteed her a spot in the Final Tribal Council. She was unwilling to risk that 100% guarantee to higher her chances of winning by making riskier moves/going for more blindsides. Yet, we have the power of hindsight, and Amanda had a realistically decent shot of winning regardless of making those big moves, so to fault her for not making those plays is a bit too harsh.
Amanda’s biggest fault was her inability to present and sell herself to the jury. She really could have walked up and explained to everyone how for 39 Days, she always knew where the votes in Tribals were going, never received a single vote against her, had a core alliance she stayed loyal to, and flat out won out in the end. Amanda outplayed, outlasted, and she didn’t even have to survive; she thrived, if anything.
They do not make cast members like Courtney Yates anymore. Hell, you could argue they never did before her as well. Courtney was lucky to be on a dominant Fei Long Tribe as she could float as one of the numbers of a bigger group, picking off the opposing Zhan Hu, and then tacking on for blindsides of Jean Robert and James. However, if the Fei Long Tribe had an underdog (and you know Survivor loves it underdog stories), it had to be Courtney. From the jump, Courtney got labeled as one of the weakest players in the game due to her entering the game at probably under 100 lbs. The First Tribal council she went to was a toss-up between her and the other tribe member labeled as the weakest. Her early connection with Todd saved her and ultimately was the difference between making the Final Tribal and being an early boot. While Courtney wasn’t a physical threat, she still won one individual immunity, which is more than James and Jean-Robert combined; two people who complained about her inability in challenges earlier in the season.
Courtney’s strength was her overall social game and incredible character judgment. While Courtney did get on a few people’s bad sides, she always made the right choice on who to play with/against. From the jump, she created a tight bond with Todd, and together, they were always able to socially navigate through the game, having tons of physical meat-shields in front of them, and even Courtney having Todd as the person with blood on his hands.
During a late-game rewards challenge, players had the power to distribute “arrows” to whatever player they wanted, and Courtney’s arrow amount was 12 out of a possible 20 arrows. Literally, everyone in the end-game had some trust in Courtney, and even she smartly gave an arrow to every player, even Peih-Gee, even with there being a bit of animosity between the two. She also had a cute friendship/flirtmance with Frosti, where she was able to use him during the Jean-Robert blindside, and then, when her alliance wanted him out, Courtney was able to disconnect and vote him out. Sadly, she didn’t get his jury vote, which would have made the actual vote a 3–3–1, and then I’m not sure if they would’ve made Erik revote (he was Amanda’s sole vote) or had Amanda break the tie. Maybe not voting him out earns her his jury vote, but not voting him out would have put a target on her.
Like Amanda, Courtney failed in the Final Tribal by not selling herself enough in the game and not taking ownership of more moves. Even if Courtney entered the game without a strategy, she is inherently a very savvy player and human. Courtney’s game on China reminds me of a lot of Michele Fitzgerald’s game of Kaoh Rong. I’d be happy to live in a world where Courtney is a Sole Survivor.
I think Todd is one of the greatest ever to play Survivor, probably in my top 10. Yet, I’m not sure if his game on China was a Top 10 winning game, but the man himself had such a high-level of strategic gameplay and overall self-awareness from day one. Todd is someone who knew all the plays in the game days before they happened. He wasn’t someone who saw the alpha males as threats; he saw them as big gullible shields that he could easily cut off later in the game. The guy knew where all the votes were going and could sway the game’s tone/power in the direction he wanted. Early in the game, Jean-Robert called him out as a massive strategist, and Todd still played on, even earning Jean-Robert’s vote after blindsiding him when he had threatened Todd earlier in the season saying that if Todd wrote his name down, that he’d never get his jury vote. With all this, had I been playing the game, my vote before the actual Final Tribal Council would have likely gone to either Amanda or Courtney.
As fans of the TV show, we get to see Todd’s confessionals, and we got to see him being in control of the game from the jump. However, part of the mist and having that type of command in the game, you can’t stand out too much. Even then, when he did stand out, it was for blindsiding allies or pushing down any of the opposition trying to get his alliance to flip. That’s why I don’t think Todd’s winner’s game is as impressive as Todd the individual. The game player wasn’t the same person to the jury that we got to see forecasting the game from the beginning. It isn’t Todd’s fault, but it’s an inherent part of the game. Likewise, it’s part of why juries can easily reward people like Tony and Tyson; their games inherently speak for themselves as they are almost always visible. Todd would be a massive threat in any season, but it wasn’t always visible for the players in China. If anything, they saw him as more of a rat than a mastermind, and Todd had to prove otherwise. That’s why Todd’s performance in the Final Tribal Council is, to me, maybe the most impressive sales pitch by a finalist who proved to everyone in the game why they deserved to win.
At 22 Years Old, Todd carried himself with the poise of Meryl Streep and the face of Elijah Wood in front of the jury. He explained why he played the game the way he did, why he lied at times, took ownership of his moves, and even shut Jean-Robert up. His Final Tribal performance should be a must-watch for anyone planning to play Survivor one day. Swaying one vote can be the million-dollar difference. Down the lines, if we ever get a Winners at War 2 or merely a Legends Game, I’d love to see how an older Todd adapts.
Modern Survivor-style is vastly different from the games played by Todd, Amanda, and Courtney. The modern-game is uber-fast with tons of tribe swaps, idols, advantages, twists, and blindsides. Yet, I can’t help but feel that these three players represent both the era they played in and the era that exists now, arc types that would get followed for years to comes. There’s a bit of Todd Herzog in players like Nick Wilson and Adam Klein. There’s some Courtney Yates in Michele Fitzgerald and some Amanda Kimmel in Cydney Gillon. I feel like in this era where we get “Beauty v Brawn v Brain” and “Blue Collar v White Collar v No Collar” themes, this final three is almost like the picture frame of what producers want the end-game to be.
All three players came to finale night, fully unsure of the results, all thinking they could win, and all thinking they could lose. We never get to see that these days as the third-place finisher always looks tuned out, and even the second-place finisher usually also can tell where the votes are going. While the Winners at War trio was iconic as a whole, most knew it was a two-horse race between Tony and Natalie, and even then, Tony was the clear winner. I just hope one day we get a Final 3 like Survivor China again.