Last Wednesday, Ralph got the short end of a duel and became the fourth member of the jury, while Matt, Mike and Andrea continue to cling to hopes of getting back in the game. And speaking of the game, Rob and Grant targeted Ashley as being the biggest potential troublemaker, and there was some truth to that, as she petitioned both Rob and Natalie about getting Grant out. And she would have been the next to go had she not inconveniently won immunity, leaving Rob no chose but to turn on his right-hand man, Grant. The numbers are now equal: four players still in the game, four players with (presumably) one final shot to get back into the game.

It all ends tonight. Which means one final duel, two more immunity challenges, and two more contestants sent to the jury box. Rob still holds an HII, which he found many episodes ago and to which there have apparently been no further clues given to make his tribe-mates wonder just what the hell is going on. Unless he wins immunity tonight, he will have to play it, and thus retain his stranglehold on the game. Should be exciting.

After a lengthy summary of the season, and opening credits that feature contestants’ names and faces for the first time since Week One (I think), we rejoin the game at RedIsle, Night 35. Grant smiles through gritted teeth about the turn of events that sent him there, wondering if it was Rob or Phillip who “betrayed” him (actually, it was both). All of RedIsle’s current residents are a little surprised to see Grant, but Andrea gulps because she now knows that the final duel will pit little ol’ her against three strong guys.

Simultaneously, at Murlonio, Rob is feeling the pang of having to send Grant – who he seems to sincerely consider a friend – to RedIsle, and even though he still considers himself a “cold, calculating player”, having to do what seems necessary to win still does get to him at times. And this, folks, is why Boston Rob is a better player than Russell Hantz; he never once overlooks the human part of the equation. And though he worries about who might emerge victorious from the next duel, he maintains that Ashley is still next on the chopping block.

The next day, Matt’s in good spirits, having done a complete 180 from a few days before. To him, RedIsle has become home, and considering he’s spent all but seven of the 36 days there, that’s understandable. He says he’s let go of all the anger and bitterness that came with being blindsided twice, and is still at peace with whatever God has laid out for him. Tree-mail brings very expected news: one more duel, with the victor returning to the game and the other three joining the jury. As they boil their remaining rice, they reflect on their time there. Mike’s been there for two weeks, and is glad that “Redemption Island purgatory” is ending.

Duel #11: Matt vs. Mike vs. Andrea vs. Grant. The final duel is a test of strength and balance; the duelers must place one foot on one end of a device resembling a teeter-totter, on the other end of which is a large ceramic vase. They must use their foot to hold the other end steady, for any vibration or movement may be enough to topple the vase onto the stone floor of the arena. Last one standing rejoins the game, and I’m glad to see that this is not a challenge that puts Andrea at a disadvantage.

So, without Rob and Co. in attendance, the final duel starts. All the duelists use their right legs to balance the beams, striking a pose not unlike the dudes in Captain Morgan commercials. After 40 minutes, Grant tries to stretch out his cramping leg muscles, and isn’t able to do it without smashing his vase. He, ironically, becomes the first Ometepe on the jury. After one hour, Matt and Mike are looking sweaty, and Andrea looks pretty good. She tries stretching her leg, but is able to avoid the tragedy that befell Grant, though her vase does wobble slightly. Matt takes his eye off his vase to watch hers, and that momentary lapse is enough to topple his own vase, thus ending his incredible winning streak. (Damn. What an anticlimactic end to an ultimate struggle for survival.) A few minutes later, both Andrea and Mike are using their hands to hold up their legs. But that can only work for so long, and Mike’s vase topples. Andrea becomes the unlikely winner, and Mike becomes the fifth ex-Zapaterian on the jury. Wow. I would not have called that. I’m happy for Andrea, but I’m dubious that her status with Rob and the others will cause them to rethink their strategy.

The perfect word to describe Andrea’s return is “awkward”. The others didn’t especially want her back, and she knows it. They offer her congratulations on her victory, but she also knows full well that unless she goes into game mode immediately, her stay will be short-lived. So she immediately goes to work on Natalie and Ashley, telling them that some of her fellow duelers (she names Matt and Ralph) were considering voting for Phillip for the million dollars, which isn’t true, but go for it, Andrea! They seem to listen to her, especially when she adds that Rob cannot be trusted and is clearly bent on taking Phillip to the end. The girls are in the majority now, and Rob has got to be worried. Natalie’s loyalty to Rob is going to be the key in the next two TC’s.

Immunity Challenge. Day 37, time to get it on again. In this challenge, the players must race across a balance beam and collect a series of bags that contain a total of 100 number tiles, which they must place in a 10x10 square in numerical order to win. Rob has the clear advantage in strength and motivation, and takes an early lead, with Ashley nipping at his heels. By the third bag, she’s overtaken him. It is nip-and-tuck at the end, but Ashley edges out both Rob and Andrea to win immunity again. Good news for her, bad news for Andrea. If female solidarity can break through Natalie’s loyalty, Rob may be in trouble… if not for the fact that he still has an HII.

Rob makes no secret that it will indeed be Andrea, which he almost regrets given her pleasant demeanor and helpfulness. But then, he also knows she is friends with Matt and the Zapaterians, so that makes her a threat. Ashley, meanwhile, makes Natalie promise her that it will be Phillip in the next TC and not her. Phillip watches from afar, and later discloses the girls’ discussion with Rob, while the girls’ watch with prying eyes. So the boys go confab in private, while Andrea continues to pitch Ashley and Natalie on voting out Rob or Phillip. Andrea confesses that she will be voting for Rob, and the girls can choose to join her or not. Rob interviews that he knows exactly what time it is, and the only question remaining is if he trusts Natalie enough to keep his HII in his pocket or not.

Tribal Council. The now seven-strong jury takes their spots. Jeff opens the Q&A by asking Rob how this game compares to the other ones he’s been a part of in terms of paranoia. Rob says it’s pretty high, and that he’s been part of many discussions about strategy. Phillip adds that he’s been in “undercover mode” – which elicits a chorus of badly-stifled giggles from the jury – about relaying his opinions about the girls’ huggermuggering to Rob. Ashley confirms that Rob indeed has a target on his back, not just because he’s the clear-cut favorite but because of who he is. Andrea adds that the jury is not comprised of dummies, and that Rob is an easy choice to win because he’s the only one who has employed any strategy, while everyone else has just obeyed orders. Even Natalie admits that Rob is a huge threat, but Rob retorts that Andrea is just as big a threat, and she proved it today.

Voting time, and Jeff announces that this is the last TC that the HII may be played. Andrea indeed votes for Rob. Jeff collects the urn, and Rob indeed plays his HII. No surprise there. Out come the votes. Rob. Andrea. Andrea. And… Andrea. Again, no surprise there. And let me say this final word about the whole concept of Redemption Island: is it a good idea? Could any player voted out once reasonably be expected not to be voted out again straightaway? I don’t know. They may use RedIsle again next season, and perhaps things will turn out differently. At least next season, the contestants won’t have to contend with Boston Rob’s 20-story-high brick wall. And then there were four. Phillip expresses his admiration for Rob keeping his HII hidden all this time, and for playing it at the right time.

Immunity Challenge. Day 38, and we go right into this season’s final IC, which is usually one of the toughest challenges there is. Here, the players must race through a giant maze, collecting colored bags of puzzle pieces at four separate locations. Then they must climb the steps of a giant stone pyramid and assemble th oddly-shaped pieces so that they spell the phrase “Only You Are Safe”. God help Rob if Ashley wins. The maze proves to be a humdinger, with a lot of dead ends. The dramatic music plays as the quartet vies for a guaranteed spot in the Final Three. Ashley tries to follow Rob through the maze, and Rob’s attempt to lose her prove futile. Phillip and Natalie look like deer in headlights, and it becomes a two-person race.

Rob mounts the steps a few seconds ahead of Ashley. Rob runs into trouble and actually asks Ashley for help. Ashley feigns ignorance, and she is able to get “only” and “safe”, but is unable to get the rest before Rob figures it out and wins immunity for the final time. Good for him, he totally deserves it. The other three congratulate him, utterly convinced they will be going with him. One of them is definitely wrong. Rob tearfully says that he’s reached his goal, and that he’s done his best, but that his work isn’t done. His #1 problem is convincing nine jurors to award him a million dollars after his wife Amber already won the same prize.

Not much to say about the pre-TC strategy. Rob unwaveringly tells Ashley that it will be Phillip, and I’m sure he’s told Phillip it will be Ashley. Ashley is confident that it won’t be her because if it was her BFF Natalie would tell her. So basically, it’s all on Natalie. Natalie would rather vote out Phillip, to be sure, but a 2-2 is really not what anyone wants, because that would mean anyone could go home (except presumably Rob), and Natalie would probably rather vote Ashley out than risk that. Rob reminds her of that, as well as the fact that Ashley seemingly got close to many of the Zapaterians who now sit on the jury. Still, turning on Ashley now weighs heavily on her; she made a true friend despite not seeking friendship.

Tribal Council (redux). Jeff asks Ashley if losing immunity by a nose could conceivably have cost her the million dollars, and she says it may very well come to that. Rob says that having won immunity, the best strategy is simply to take to the finals the two people you think you have the best chance of beating in a vote. The unpredictability of juries is something you can never truly predict, as Rob attests to the fact that he’s been in this position before and never prevailed. Jeff asks Natalie if she pled her case to Rob, and she replies that she trusts Rob’s word to keep her to the end. Phillip realizes that he never won one challenge, and that means he’s a prime candidate to go with him. Ashley admits that she could definitely be a threat to Rob… which is not something you want to admit to right now, I think.

Voting time. Phillip votes for Ashley, decrying her lack of work ethic. Ashley returns the favor, grinning that at long last she gets to write his name down. Rob’s and Natalie’s votes remain hidden for now. Jeff collects the urn, and out come the slips. Ashley. Phillip. Ashley. And… Ashley. And that is that. The jury is complete, and Rob has now successfully called every shot since Day One. Rob has just officially played the best 36 days in Survivor history. All he has left to do is win.

Day 39 starts with Phillip getting all introspective, thanking his forebears for guiding him to the end, and other quasi-spiritual claptrap. He says his plan – the one he’s been sitting on that will guarantee him victory – is to remind the jury just why they’re on the jury and why he’s not. To which I reply, “WTF?!” Yeah, antagonize them by calling them schmucks and losers. They’ll easily write you a check for that. Sigh. I really didn’t want him in the Final Three, because now I have to listen to him answer nine juror’s queries with nine versions of the same long-winded story.

Tree-mail brings with it an ice-bucket with a bottle of champagne in it as well as a crate of foodstuffs. They make some mimosas and toast each other (wait… isn’t Natalie underage??) and tuck in, savoring the taste of victory. Rob expounds on the last 36 days (117 days total in four seasons), and wonders just how to play to this particular jury. The last time he made the finals, he tried reticence as a strategy and it backfired. This time, he tells Natalie, he may tell any jury member that gets up in his grill to “kiss his ass”. Of course, he’s telling her this hoping it’s a strategy she will employ, while he does the exact opposite. Then, with a humorous bit of ceremony, Phillip decides to deposit his Tidy Pinkies, which have pretty much had it, on the ashes of the fire. Thank God those things won’t end up on eBay.

Final Tribal Council. I’ve just noticed something: this season, the producers apparently decided to omit the final-episode ceremony wherein the Final Three collect and burn the torches of the eliminated players, reminiscing about their impact on the game while we get a few images of their time on Survivor. Again, I don’t know if they are simply doing away with this practice (which has been going on since very very early in the show’s history), or whether they just decided to give it a miss this time. Whatever the case, I rather liked that bit. Anyway, the Final Three take their spots while the nine jury members file in for the final time. Lightning ominously strikes the horizon in the background. An omen, perhaps?

At least the format for Final TC hasn’t changed. Leading off are opening statements, as the Final Three plead their cases to the jury. Natalie opens by saying that she played the best game she could, and that her biggest strength was her social skills. She adds that it was her alliance with Rob and her loyalty to same that was the reason she made it through. (Which kind of puts one point in Rob’s column, but whatever.) Natalie then says that if they voted her the winner, she would be the youngest winner in Survivor history. She has been advertised as the youngest person ever to play the game, so that would be an ironic twist.

Phillip – who has once again adorned his head with those stupid-looking hawk’s feathers - says his initial strategy was thrown out the window the moment Rob stepped off the helicopter. His first instinct was to vote Rob off at the first TC, but when that didn’t happen, he went to Rob and apologized. He, like Natalie, credits Rob for his presence in the Final Three. Phillip then continues to butter up Rob by calling him the “mastermind” who successfully decimated the Zapatera tribe. Rob smirks, and so does the jury. Another point for Rob.

Rob starts off by thanking everyone for letting him play against them, particularly his former tribe-mates. He states that he played a good physical game, having won four individual immunity challenges, and that he was a hard worker around camp. He reiterates that he made very strong alliances, both with his original Ometepe Six as well as sub-alliances within that. Then he tells the jury that none of that really matters now, because it’s all in their hands now. He goes on to say that Survivor has been a huge part of his life, having given him fame and notoriety for nearly a decade, but that the game doesn’t define him. For him, it’s all about his wife and daughter, and he hopes that in the jury’s eyes, he played well enough to win. Good tactic: humble, yet assertive.

Lightning continues to crash nearby as the jurors are called, one by one, to ask their questions. First up is Andrea, who starts off by calling Phillip a weirdo. (Hee.) He then asks that given his rather schizoid personality, who is the “real Phillip”? Phillip rather coldly replies that the reason that she doesn’t know him is because she never took the time to do so. He adds that if she doesn’t know who he is, then he can vote for someone else. (Well, if you insist, dumbass…) Andrea then asks Natalie why her “borderline creepy” relationship with Rob caused her to turn on her BFF Ashley. She replies that the game is not about friendship, and ultimately she chose Rob’s experience over said friendship. Andrea has no question for Rob.

Ashley starts by telling Phillip that she has no questions for him because she’s sick of hearing his voice, and that surviving 38 “torturous” days with him has taught her the value of patience. Yowch. Ashley then vents on Natalie for not keeping her word about letting her know she was in danger, and Natalie coolly replies that the decision to vote her out was brought to her mere minutes before TC, and that she was the logical choice because she was such a big threat. Ashley calls that “sad”, and then tells Rob that she doesn’t want to know him anymore because he’s such a deceitful person. Whatever, bitch. Didn’t like you before, don’t like you know.

Grant chooses to probe the origins of the alliance between Rob and Natalie. Natalie says that Rob approached her at the very beginning. She imagined a similar conversation occurring between Rob and Grant, and then points out that Grant’s ousting was not a surprise given what a huge threat he was. Rob basically says the same thing, adding that he was afraid, despite their friendship, that Grant would “kick his ass” if they went to the Finals together. Grant seems disappointed that such a scenario will never occur, but leaves it at that. Good man.

Ralph then drawls that Natalie was basically a non-entity in the game, unable to blow her nose without Rob’s say-so. He also points out that Natalie never once spoke to him during their time together, and when she starts to reply that there was a reason for that, Ralph finishes her sentence… “because Rob told you not to.” Ralph then stupidly asks Phillip why he didn’t put an entire chicken-ful of feathers on his head, and Phillip responds that the two he’s wearing were the only ones he found. Phillip then actually displays some grace by complimenting Ralph on his work ethic and his humor, and states that if they had been on the same tribe, they would have been friends. Yeah, I can kind of see that.

Matt’s one question is, unsurprisingly, for Rob. He calls Rob a “conniving, duplicitous person”, and wonders just how, after four seasons, ten years, and 117 days in the wilderness, he can keep it together. Rob replies that who he is in the game is nothing like he is in his real life, and goes on to state that he successfully convinced everyone in his alliance that they were going to the end with him, which is a harsh way to play the game but a necessary evil if you’re going to win. Matt gets one last dig in by telling Rob that everyone he betrayed has a hard time understanding who he really is. Now, THAT’S harsh.

Julie states that the three finalists should be displaying more humility than they are, because none of them played a “respectable game”. She then asks Natalie if she thinks her parents would be proud of the way she played the game, because if Natalie were Julie’s daughter, the answer would be “no”, for the simple fact that Natalie was basically Rob’s indentured servant the whole time. Then, without letting Natalie answer, Julie tells Phillip that no one on the jury likes or respects him, and asks if his son would be proud of him. Phillip, of course, responds that his son would be very proud of him, and then throws in a “to hell with you” for good measure. Finally, Julie tells Rob that she hopes that he raises his daughter to not accept being treated the way he treated Natalie. Yikes, that’s some bitterness right there.

Mike states that through Survivor, he was able to strengthen his faith in God (nodding towards Matt), and make some “incredible friendships”, as well as find some inner peace. He asks each of the finalists if they’ve learned anything about themselves that they will take home with them besides honing their deceptive skills. Natalie says that, being fresh out of high school, she found out that she possesses an inner strength and toughness that she never knew she had, as well as an appreciation for the love she and her family have for each other. Rob answers that he has learned that at this point in his life, the time for “playing games” is over, and that henceforth his total focus will be on his wife and daughter, and that this will definitely be his final go-round on Survivor. Phillip says that he learned independence, something he’s been struggling with since been a teenager and having to raise a son on his own.

Steve congratulates Rob and Natalie (but not Phillip) on making it to the end, and credits Natalie for outplaying him despite being nearly one-third his age. He calls Rob a “warrior” for withstanding 117 days of the game when he barely made it through 31. Finally, he tells Phillip that he feels sorry for him, and calls him a “shameful, sorry man”. Jeez. How’s that victory-guaranteeing strategy working for you now, Phil?

Last up is David, who states that he has no questions or statements for the finalists, but instead has something to say to his fellow jury members, and that is Rob unequivocally deserves to win. Basically, Phillip is an asshole and Natalie is a stooge, and Rob controlled every single aspect of the game. He ruthlessly enforced his will on his alliance to the point of subjugation, and the penalty for even the slightest whiff of disloyalty was a one-way trip to RedIsle. He calls Rob’s game “brilliant” and “the best strategic game that anyone has ever played” on Survivor, which is what I’ve been saying all along.

Then, after one final commercial break, the final vote commences. Mike votes. Matt votes. Julie votes. David votes for Rob. Steve votes. Andrea votes. Ralph actually votes for Phillip. Ashley votes. Grant votes. And that’s it. Jeff collects the urn, announces that they will reconvene at home, and then abracadabra, there they all are, clean-shaven and well-dressed, sitting in front of an applauding studio audience in New York City. Looks like the Ed Sullivan theater, where they do the David Letterman show, but I could be wrong.

Jeff congratulates Rob, Natalie and Phillip for their accomplishment, and states that even after 22 seasons, it’s hard to appreciate just how tough a game Survivor. But it’s late in the morning, let’s get on with the foregone conclusion already. Jeff removes the urn’s lid, and out come the million-dollar slips. Rob. Phillip. (Those were David and Ralph’s votes.) Rob. Rob. Rob. And… Rob. He has done it. Boston Rob Mariano has achieved his decade-long dream. Despite his occasional smarminess and arrogance, he really seems a likeable guy, the kind of guy you’d want to share a beer with, or have your back in a bar fight. I will take him at his word that he will forego any more reality TV, because I think we’ve all had our fill of him. Enjoy being a husband and daddy, Mr. M. You have earned it.

I’m not going to recap the entire reunion show, because most of it is just recaps and filler, and I’m really freakin’ tired right now, so I’ll just give you the highlights. Phillip chose to keep his cool the whole time rather than get on his soapbox any more, thank God. He also patched things up with Steve. Matt cut most of his blond locks off and now looks like Jesse Spencer from House. Russell is still bitter about his ousting but graciously congratulates Rob, and says that yet another return to the game is not out of the realm of possibility. And if you were wondering whether Phillip really IS a former Federal agent? He is. And my hopes that Matt would win the $100,000 at-home viewer prize were dashed, as he was narrowly defeated by Boston Rob. It was revealed that David became involved with a former contestant, Carolina Eastwood (the first player voted out on Season 18, Survivor: Tocantins, and David took the opportunity to propose to Carolina, and she accepted. Awwww.

Finally, a glimpse at next season. It will be entitled Survivor: South Pacific, and it seems to be an exact replica of this season. Sixteen new contestants, two returning players, and once again, Redemption Island will be a factor. Will I watch? Probably. Will I recap it? Unsure at this time. After a game has been played to absolute perfection, it’s often hard to muster up the courage to keep going, and whoever plays next season will have the impossible task of following Rob Mariano. Until then, thank you for bearing with my long-winded synopses, and take care!

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