For the second season in a row, a nice guy won "Survivor."
James "JT" Thomas easily beat Stephen Fishbach, becoming the show's second unanimous winner, and the second winner in a row to win both the jury's vote, worth $1 million, and viewers' votes, worth $100,000. His win over Stephen came despite the fact that, as Stephen pointed out, he and JT "basically shared a brain, and have made every move of this game together."
But the Alabama cattle rancher's victory over his unlikely friend, the corporate consultant from New York, was pretty much a preordained conclusion.
While JT and Stephen have been in control of the game for weeks, JT was universally liked and respected, as he played a strong social game, too. To top off his perfect game, JT won the final three individual immunity challenges, proving he'd outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted the other 15 players.
The final episode provided JT his biggest challenges, and those came as a result of the relationships he'd formed thanks to his warm personality.
First, he and Stephen bailed on Taj Johnson-George, their fellow Jalapao tribemate and ally from long before the merge. Taj was hurt, but admitted she "lost focus" and "underestimated" how much her allies wanted to win the game, and she was in the way of that possibility.
Similarly, JT and Stephen were in each other's way of winning, and thus faced their biggest decision in the game: stick with each other and risk losing the $1 million, or take Erinn Lobdell — the last member of the Timbira tribe — with them to the final two. Both believed Erinn would be easy to beat at the end.
The friendship remained intact, though, after JT won immunity and sent Erinn to the jury.
"You and I are going to be friends for life," Stephen told JT while having breakfast the next day, their 39th day and final day on "Survivor Tocantins," a meal they'd planned on for the whole game.
The $1 million breakfastThe previous evening, Jeff Probst mocked that, asking if breakfast "with your 39-day friend" was worth losing $1 million.
For JT, the answer was yes.
Their bond finally seemed to show some cracks during a dramatic Tribal Council, when Stephen and JT faced the jury and each argued why he should win $1 million. Usually the jury members try to show off and make their speeches about themselves, but this time, their questions had the effect of creating a wedge in between the two.
"For me to last this long has been a real struggle," Stephen argued to the jury, but JT argued that "growth is irrelevant."
JT also said that he "risked a million dollars" by bringing Stephen along, and said he might be "that dumb fool that mixes morals with millions."
Things became tense when Stephen told the jury, "I never took the weasel way out" with his votes, citing the way he'd voted for Coach, while JT voted for Erinn so as to not turn on Coach. Stephen said that he had to "bear the moral burden" of their decision, which JT avoided.
Things got uglier when Stephen said, "let's air our laundry," and argued that JT wanted to vote Taj out back when they were still part of the Jalapao tribe. When JT objected, Stephen said, "You've been slandering me all night."
"I just feel like a fool, man," JT said, apparently regretting his decision to take Stephen to the end. "Come on, now," Stephen said.
That's about as tense as it got, though, which is to say it wasn't very tense at all.
JT admitted during the live reunion that his anger at Stephen was an act designed to solidify his standing with the jury, and said he knew that "it's hard for someone to take me on." Today, they're still close friends, as they said at the live reunion.
And Stephen was the first person JT hugged after Jeff Probst read the votes.
Taj best summed up JT's victory, arguing that no one ever proposed voting for him and his name "just never came up because he was too sweet," and said, "you just can't find anything wrong with him."
Part of his smart game play was that he never let that manifest itself as cockiness or arrogance — pretty much the exact opposite of this season's larger-than-life player, Benjamin "Coach" Wade.
Coach was the opposite of shy, always talking himself up, but JT never came close to that. There's a reason why JT outplayed and outlasted Coach, who never would have won against JT, Stephen, or Taj — or arguably, even Erinn.
Sometimes, the smartest player isn't the person who constantly says they're the smartest player, but the one who just shows his true self through his actions.