During the final “Survivor Palau” tribal council, jurors were presented with two different theories of the game that seemed to encapsulate everything we’ve learned these past 10 seasons.
Tom Westman argued that he outplayed 19 other people, while Katie Gallagher reminded the jury that she’d outlasted everyone else. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the jurors were casually fashioning a noose for Katie while waiting their turn to ask questions, both she and Tom presented compelling arguments.
Thus, in a game that uses “Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.” as its motto, the real question was this: Who outwitted the others?
The answer, of course, was Tom, whose affability and fatherliness masked 39 days worth of strategizing, handing him an easy victory. Tom played the game aggressively, dominating challenges and turning his back on his friends when he needed to. “You tell lies or do whatever you gotta do to get ahead,” he said. But his likeability overpowered his duplicity, and in the end, that made him nearly invincible.
“You can’t beat this guy,” Katie said while the jury took turns verbally weed-whacking her. But Tom didn’t win just because Katie attracted less-than-friendly feelings from the jurors (Gregg warmly noted that Katie was “worthless,” “insignificant,” “embarrassing,” and “pathetic”; Caryn was much kinder and said Katie was simply “phony,” “cruel,” the “laziest person at camp,” and “bad at challenges.”)
Because of his game play, Tom deserved the win, but he is ultimately an innocuous choice. He’s strong, he’s hot, and he’s both a father figure and a firefighter who played the game as hard as he could. He was always prepared to deal with the consequences of his actions, unlike some of his fellow tribe members. He stabbed a shark with a wooden pole. What’s there to dislike?
Still, Tom was never a safe bet. Had Caryn allied with the other women instead of running to Tom to reveal their plans, Tom would have gone home a few weeks ago. Tom was viewed as a threat (heck, he won five of seven individual challenges and led his tribe to 11 victories out of 14 attempts). And let’s not forget the shark.
He also altered his strategy as necessary, much to the dismay of some jury members. As host Jeff Probst mentioned during the reunion, Tom applied game theory, making his best move based upon what he assumed to be the move others would be making. It hurt some of his friends, but took him to the end.
Real surprise wasn't the winner, but the win
Still, the real surprise of the “Survivor Palau” finale was not that Tom won, because he was the obvious favorite early on, but the way the pieces fell into place to ensure his victory during the last three days.
Of the final four, Jenn was in the weakest position, and seemed the logical choice to join the jury first. She did, but only after a game-changing series of events unfolded. First, Ian slipped and revealed to Tom that their bond was not as tight on Ian’s end.
With nothing to lose, Jenn went to Tom with details of her alliance with Ian and Katie, forcing a Tom-Ian showdown that ultimately led Tom to join Jenn and vote against his buddy Ian at tribal council. With Katie voting against Jenn, Jenn and Ian faced off in a fire-building tiebreaker challenge. Ian won and Jenn went home. That was a predictable outcome from a very unpredictable set of events.
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Even though Jenn’s departure left the alliance of three — Katie, Ian, and Tom — standing together, the day’s events were devastating to Ian. He was deeply and obviously wounded when Tom and Katie confronted him with the decisions he’d made in the game. Ian reacted emotionally, breaking down and getting defensive, and his fellow alliance members Tom and Katie stoked that ember until flames consumed him.
In the final immunity challenge, that weakness ultimately broke Ian down. Katie dropped out early, but Ian and Tom clung to masts atop buoys for a “Survivor” record of nearly 12 hours — 12 hours!
Ian gives up
Then, suddenly, Ian literally gave up. And he didn’t just jump into the water and quit the challenge, which would have been within the realm of understandable behavior. He actually quit the entire game, telling Tom that he’d step down only if Tom promised to take Katie to the final two. “I’ll give up the million to get back your guys’ friendship,” Ian said, and then hurled himself into the water.
Immediately afterward, Jeff Probst presided over yet another “Survivor” first, an impromptu tribal council. After confirming with Ian that he wasn’t just being delusional, Tom sent Ian to the jury, handing himself a clear victory in the game. (Other combinations — Ian and Tom, Ian and Katie — clearly would have left the jury with a more difficult decision at the final tribal council.)
More than a few people have quit “Survivor” over the years, and more than a few have made dumb-dumb moves in the game that they probably regret to this day. Ian is in a category all his own. He quit for friendship, for respect. That’s the most stupefying, admirably moronic move imaginable. Dolphin trainer Ian might have made the most idiotic decision in the history of “Survivor,” but he’s a noble idiot, one who clearly has his own priorities straight.
In five years, there have been 10 seasons of “Survivor,” and it came of age in its tenth season. Palau was full of firsts that featured a combination of extremely physical challenges and exceptionally forthright strategizing. While a perfect game of “Survivor” is impossible, this season came close to demonstrating flawless play, as one tribe slaughtered another and two people in particular — Stephenie and Tom — dominated the game physically and mentally.
But it may be remembered most because of Ian, the guy who gave up the game and possibly $1 million in order to gain something for himself.
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