**I want to preface this article by saying that this will be written from a fan perspective. As the world’s foremost reality television expert, I know that admitting a preconceived lack of objectivity before a piece even begins is usually a major faux-pas, but in this case, my prevalent love for Survivor is so apparent and obvious, that not fessing up to it would be a disservice to the reader.
NEW YORK – It’s hard to believe that in the same week the inaugural Survivor winner, Richard Hatch, was released from prison, the series that made him famous incredibly crowned its 18th champion.
In a truly shocking finale which saw its dramatic conclusion take place at the Ed Sullivan theater in New York City, James “JT” Thomas Jr. was awarded the $1 million prize on Survivor Tocantins over Stephen Fishbach in a 7-0 vote. Earlier in the evening, former SWV member Tamara “Taj” Johnson-George and Erinn Lobdell saw their torches snuffed.
The Tocantins season itself will be remembered for its record number of blindsides. Almost every tribal council after the merge saw the victim completely stunned at the result, with each evictee believing that they were safe when really no season before has been as deceptive. This was especially interesting considering the fact that both finalists were considered to be good guys.
Really, the reason this season will be remembered for the unique relationship shared between JT and Stephen. Their early alliance combined all the elements that are necessary to do well at the ultimate game of social interaction. JT brought the physical strength and common sense. Stephen was the underground puppetmaster eliminating people at will while never seeming to take any of the blame. The way that I saw the final episode shape up is that the jury was being forced to choose between giving the money to the player that won everything (JT) or the one that was responsible for strategically getting the pair to the final two (Stephen).
Ultimately, the fact of the matter was that Stephen was the major underdog going into the vote. The jury knew that JT needed the money, Stephen’s moves were more subtle (and required watching the show to fully appreciate since they couldn’t really be seen by the players live) and that Fishbach took more of the heat for the eliminations of Brendan, Tyson, and Coach. What I found truly more fascinating was why both players decided to keep Erinn over Taj in the final four. Both believed Erinn would be easier to beat which made absolutely no sense to me, considering that the entire jury was made up of her former Timbira tribe members. My feeling was that no matter how much they disliked Erinn, they would vote for her out of original tribal loyalty considering she was their last person standing and would ensure that Timbira won the game instead of the Jalapao minority.
This was the question that I was determined to get to the bottom of on the red carpet immediately following the show. I asked JT about the decision to keep Erinn.
“Immediately at the merge, everyone at Timbira wanted to get rid of Erinn. They hated her. They didn’t like her. They knew she was on the outs and Joe set-up a relationship with Erinn on Exile which allowed us to kind of know where she stood and how she felt about her tribe. Also, everyone that we voted out was upset because Erinn made it farther than them. They just did not like Erinn and I knew that by keeping her around, it would really help us and she was the one that turned on them. She was the one that put them where they were at in their eyes.”
I told JT that what I found to be the most interesting aspect of the final episode was when Erinn said to the boys that every tribal council had gone the way that they had planned. I asked him if the main alliance on the show was really him, Stephen and Erinn and not Taj like it appeared.
“Taj was in our plans the entire time, but she was very good at laying low. We definitely wanted Erinn to believe that she was leading the escapades so we let Erinn believe that she was calling the shots as much as possible. We never really considered Erinn in our alliance.”
Personally, I believe that taking Taj to the finals was a sure thing because all you would have to do is argue that she already had money (from her singing career as well as being married to ex-NFL star Eddie George). JT disagreed.
“We definitely thought about that and she was liked. Did you see? She was in the top 3 for fan favorite. People liked Taj. I was more worried that Taj was going to win the immunity challenge and Erinn was the worst at immunity challenges. Taj and Stephen had a tighter bond that Taj and I did and I didn’t want Taj and Stephen to end up in the final two than me not?”
I asked if JT was scared that Taj would have been a bigger threat than Erinn would have in a Final 3 endurance competition.
I asked if he was surprised that it wasn’t an endurance challenge as has been the case for most of the Survivor final 3 challenges.
“I was very surprised. I was fixing to hang on to a pole or balance or something. I thought this was going to be a long day and when I saw it and I found out that it was hand-eye coordination, I was so happy because those were two people that I thought that I could beat in any hand-eye coordination. I was very excited for it to be the balls.”
Erinn Lobdell said that she played up the fact that her former tribe hated her to try and get JT and Stephen to take her to the end.
“They were concerned that clearly there might be loyalty to me. JT and Stephen have had a hand in voting out a lot of people. Every single one of them was at the hands of JT and Stephen so I mean definitely there was a potential threat with me sitting there in the final two, however, I played up the fact that these people did not like me and it was easy to do because they didn’t,” Erinn said. “I had formed some friendships that I will take away from this but I didn’t have a single alliance. To the point where when we merged, my tribe knew I was going to flip and they just didn’t care. They had written me off so early that why on earth would they hand me a million dollars? I drove that point home over and over.”
Stephen said that Taj was a bigger threat at the end than she is being given credit for which had played a significant role in his decision.
“I also thought I could beat Taj in the finals. I think Taj would have gotten more votes than Erinn would have,” Stephen said. “Taj had really strong personal relationships. She was a really devious strategist in a way that definitely comes off in the early part of the show. Even the fact that you never caught her talking to us, that’s smart strategy. Most people give away their alliance just by hanging out with their friends.”
What I also couldn’t understand was why Erinn chose to vote for JT when her final two pact was with Stephen. When JT picked his buddy to go with him for their power breakfast on the last day, I was positive that Stephen would at least receive her vote. Erinn explained why she flipped to me in detail.
“Stephen and I had definitely said that we want to sit next to each other in the end. We thought it was evenly matched and had a shot against each other than we would with JT. We also had the conversation, that if it’s not you or not me, you also have my vote because he is going to clean house. We sat there, we shook on it,” Erinn said. “We said that we would give each other a sympathy vote regardless of how we feel about everything. It was the obvious thing. I am going throw you this bone because you’re not the one that put me on the jury. JT’s the reason.”
Erinn told me two things happened that changed her mind completely.
“The first was that on the night we voted out Taj and I am nervous because they’re feeling terrible and so I am talking and talking. That’s what I do. When I don’t know what to say, I say everything I can. I am just going on and on. Then I resort to the hairstylist trick of ‘let’s talk about you.’ So Stephen goes to do his interview, and I am sitting there with JT and I said, ‘so if you win, what do you do with the money?’ I knew what everyone’s plans were but we never talked about it. He says to me, ‘my little sister is 15 and my other sister’s got like seven youngins, and I am the first person in my family to graduate from college so I want that for all of them. 8 kids in college? That’s mostly all of it. And I might buy a truck.’ And I was like ‘alright.’ I am going to give it to this guy that went to Yale? That clearly has a great education that is clearly going to be very successful anyway? The wheels are turning on that already…”
Erinn also said that she was swayed by Stephen’s terrible final jury performance.
“Stephen, I love you, but you shot yourself in the foot. They prolonged that shot of me about to write my vote. It took me so long that I was prompted. They really had to say ‘write your vote.’ It was a tough decision. But ultimately it was one that I was happy to make. But coming home and seeing the show, if Stephen had said, if he had taken credit for the things that he did.’ He tried so hard to say ‘we did everything together.’ If he had taken credit for some of the things he did, I would have handed him the million dollars.”
To me, Erinn raised an interesting point. I don’t think that I have ever seen a finale where the result was in doubt up until the final vote was read. Last season, we all knew that Bob was going to win over Sugar and Susie. It was a no-brainer. I thought that this one was as well since it seemed to be all about JT from the very beginning but as the show went on, Stephen was the one who was shown calling each move, despite his insistence that each play was decided upon equally. And therein lies the rub. That was what we saw on the show and the point that the final three were raising to me was the fact that they didn’t have the luxury of seeing the confessionals before they voted. I asked Stephen if he thought his game received the respect that it deserved.
“I hope so. JT was also a real good strategist out there. I am not going to say that he wasn’t. We worked together on strategy all the time. One of the things that I hear all the time from the jury is that they say that they had no idea that I was being strategic at all. We thought that you were JT’s goofy sidekick. And that was a role that I had gone and set out to play and apparently I played it too well,” Stephen said. “And you can tell that in all the press. It was like ‘what is this goofball doing here?’ ‘JT, you’re the perfect man, your only flaw in the world was that you’re friends with Stephen.’ Even hearing that, I knew I couldn’t win at the time.”
At the end of the day, the Tocantins will be remembered for being quite similar to Gabon. Despite featuring many more shocking votes, the end result featured likeable people. From a personal standpoint, I would have preferred to see Coach or Tyson up there, or even Stephen presented as a more evil chess player so that there would be some kind of good versus evil battle.
The one thing that I can say for the entire cast at large is that they were all willing to put the game in the past and let bygones be bygones. That’s not always the case and they are to be credited for it.
My expert opinion?
JT was a good winner and one that is tolerable. He reminds me of Palau’s victor, Tom Westman. A good strategist who won everything. Do I think the vote should have been unanimous? Definitely not. I think Stephen should have had Sierra, Erinn and Taj’s votes for sure. But with apologies to Mr. Fishbach, his final jury performance wasn’t my favorite. In his opening statement, Stephen talked about how much he had grown from the experience. The game isn’t about personal growth. If you want to do that, you can go on a John Locke-esque walkabout in Australia or some sort of midlife crisis camping mission. This is a game about strategy and social dynamics. I have never believed that it was about who won the most competitions or who can eat the most bugs. It isn’t about who needs the money more (sorry Erinn, I have to disagree with your position). It’s about who played the best. JT deserves it, but I think Stephen could have argued a lot better than he did.
Also, can anyone tell me why Taj and Erinn didn’t team up to take out the guys? Anyone?
All in all, it was a great finale.
See you in Samoa.
Tags: Celebrities, Survivor