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Earl Cole won “Survivor Fiji” after receiving all nine of the jury’s votes, the first time in the show’s history that the winner has swept the jury.
While that was an impressive feat, and while Earl clearly deserved the win thanks to his smart strategy, strong friendships, and effective alliances, this season will really be remembered for two controversial, game-changing moves made by two players in the season’s final two episodes.
Reality show gameplay is often excused with three words: “it’s a game.” However, these televised games are played with real people, real lives, and real emotions, not with plastic pieces on a cardboard game board, and that complicates everything. That became extremely clear as the show approached its dramatic conclusion.
The drama began in the second-to-last episode, when 54-year-old Yau-Man won a truck in the reward challenge. He immediately offered the prize to Dre “Dreamz” Herd, who was desperate for a vehicle. In exchange, Yau-Man asked Dreamz to give up individual immunity, assuming Dreamz won it at the point in the game when there were four players remaining. Although host Jeff Probst pointed out that there was no way Yau-Man could enforce such a deal, Dreamz agreed, saying, “I promise to God.”
Once the group was down to four players, Dreamz knew that if he won and then gave up immunity, the others would vote him out. In order to try to save himself, he first tried to get the tribe to vote out Yau-Man so he wouldn’t have to fulfill his promise. That did not work.
After winning individual immunity at that critical moment in the game, Dreamz said, “my game plan is to give Yau the necklace, and whatever happens tonight, I’m happy.” He said at other points that he wanted to set a good example for his son.
Defending his betrayalWhen the time came at Tribal Council to hand the immunity necklace to Yau-Man, however, Dreamz ultimately decided to keep immunity for himself.
He later excused his broken promise with words that have been said many times on many reality shows: “Sorry I had to break my word, but, like I said, it is a game,” he told Earl and Cassandra, the other members of the final three. “It was just a game. That’s it.” During the reunion, he agreed when Jeff Probst said, “You tell your son, ‘Hey, it’s a game; you say whatever you want, it’s outwit, outplay, outlast, right?”
The decision, he explained, was pragmatic and strategic. “I knew if I didn’t do it I’d be on the jury right now, with no change at all of winning $1 million.” He added, “I have no regrets, and I think everything worked out perfect.”
But that’s not the way his fellow players saw it. For one, the nine members of the jury gave him zero votes, which isn’t exactly a perfect outcome. And they also attacked him ruthlessly at the final Tribal Council.
Final Tribal Councils on “Survivor” have unquestionably been emotional in the past, starting with the very first one, when Sue Hawk gave her now-immortal speech about snakes and rats. The whole jury seemed particularly nasty and angry this time, berating the final three players in a way unlike the show has ever seen before, talking over them and ordering them around.
Some anger was to be expected. Earlier, Dreamz turned on his alliance of four, and Alex, Mookie, and Edgardo were still fuming, even having been out of the game for some time. Others were upset with Dreamz for betraying Yau-Man; Boo even questioned Dreamz’s faith, saying, “I still believe in you, but I still believe you’re an immature Christian, and I hope that one day, you will be a strong Christian man and be able to tell the devil, ‘Dangle all the money you want in front of me; this Christian is not for sale.’”
While Dreamz didn’t refer frequently to his faith during the season, he did discuss his background. Dreamz grew up homeless and “spent most of his childhood trying to keep his family together and alive,” according to his CBS biography. While he shared that moving story with the others, as he said in the last episode, “I don’t do that for sympathy votes.”
His final argument to the jury was, however, based upon his character. His “charm,” which Jeff Probst referred to during the reunion, helped him backstab his fellow players and then befriend them again. It was a successful strategy that took him all the way to the final three.
Dreamz reminded the jury of this, and how much they liked him as a person. “The people that I did get to know, ya’ll know me, ya’ll know my heart, ya’ll know what I’ll do with the money,” he said. “Ya’ll know everything about me, pretty much, because I wear it on my chest.” He added that he hoped they’d give him the money, which “helps my life and helps me help other people.”
Dreamz did not pair that appeal with a request for the jury’s forgiveness, which many past winners have done, . Instead, Dreamz was just brutally honest. “This is this game. This game is based on cons, lies, and deceit,” he said.
He reiterated that during the reunion show, admitting, “I never told the truth, so I never wanted to start telling the truth.” Of his promise to Yau-Man, Dreamz said, “I never intended to keep it.”
Earl, however, also broke a promise to Yau-Man, although somewhat less directly; the two friends planned to go to the end together. But while Earl changed his mind and eventually voted Yau-Man out, he did what most “Survivor” winners do and made nice with the members of the jury who he’d hurt. In his case, that was Yau-Man, who Earl told, “You played the best game by far.”
But while Yau-Man was a terrific player, that statement was, of course, not true. In “Survivor,” the best player does not lose.
is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.