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‘Survivor’ final four: It’s anybody’s game

"Survivor Panama: Exile Island" started its season with four tribes, the first time the show has ever divided its contestants into such small groups. Going into Sunday's finale, there are four tribe members left, with one person representing each of those original tribes.

This season also introduced Exile Island, a place where one person was banished each week to live on their own. It was mostly a miserable existence, save for the fact that an immunity idol was hidden somewhere on the island.

Both of these elements, the smaller tribes and Exile Island, should have fragmented the contestants as never before, leaving them without allegiance to anyone except themselves. The exact opposite occurred, however.

After the four tribes became two, one of the two tribes, Casaya, dominated in challenges visiting Jeff Probst at Tribal Council only twice. After the merge, they stuck together and decimated the other tribe, La Mina. That happened despite the intense animosity between some of Casya's tribe members, who banded together before they realized they hated one another.

Showing the young ones how it’s doneThere was one person they couldn't vote off, however, and that was Terry.

Terry is a born "Survivor" if there ever was one. He's managed to win every single individual immunity challenge this season except one, and based upon his past performance, he won't stop until he's in the final two. But Terry is also the most effective and dangerous kind of "Survivor" player because he's smart and unassuming, although he has become increasingly condescending and confrontational as the pressure has built. Still, it's not a bad showing for the representative from the old men's tribe (he's 46).

Terry found the hidden immunity idol on Exile Island early on, but the irony is that he may never use it because he kept winning the regular immunity, thus having double protection.

When his tribe was being dismantled person by person, Terry could have easily handed off the individual immunity necklace to one of his friends, thus keeping that person around and, if they played it right, eliminating a Casaya tribe member. He did not, however, keeping it for himself and guaranteeing himself a place in the final three, at which point the hidden immunity idol becomes useless.

Earlier, Terry did try a little too hard to lure people over to his side, desperate to try to save his tribe and control the makeup of the jury. Had he known that he would win all individual immunity challenges, he could have been even more aggressive, using it to threaten his foes, or much more passive, not talking about it and focusing on making friends.

The latter might have solved part of his current problem, which is that the jury is made up of a majority of people who were on the opposite tribe and presumably don't like him. If Terry makes it to the final two, he'll have to convince his former enemies that he played the game better than the person sitting next to him, or maybe he can just lie to them.

‘Peace-loving warrior’The jury may not even hear arguments from Terry; first, he'll have to win the final immunity challenge, although his track record suggests he very well may do that. His biggest threat right now is Aras, who is also guaranteed a spot in the final three.

The CBS announcer called Aras a "peace-loving warrior," and while that may seem like a contradiction, but it describes him well.

He's always talking about "love and compassion," as he says, but he's hyper-competitive, often aggressively so. He finally broke Terry's immunity challenge winning streak, but if he doesn't beat him again, Aras is going to have to use his people skills to get himself to the final two.

He could also try to strategize, but that may not be all that helpful. Aras has spent much of the season appearing to be in control, but he's may not be. It's pretty incredible that in its 12th season, "Survivor" can still have contestants who fly under the radar. But that's what Aras' friend and ally Cirie has done.

Favorite among viewers?For the first half of the season, viewers became her confidant, and she let loose on the people she was being nice to in person.

Her comments were hysterical and sarcastic, and she clearly had a strong understanding of the people she was spending time with. In retrospect, then, it makes sense that she's been using that knowledge to work actively behind the scenes as her tribe has had to pick itself apart.

Even better, she seems to be doing this while letting Aras think he is in control. Exactly what has occurred behind the scenes isn't entirely clear to us, and may never be. "Survivor's" editors often keep viewers out of the loop both to surprise us and deceive us, and that both makes the show dramatic and frustrating at the same time.

However, Cirie may not make it to the final three; first, she has to beat Danielle in the Tribal Council tiebreaker challenge, which will conclude during the finale.

Defying the oddsHer opponent, Danielle, has defied odds to stay in the game this long. That's because Danielle is, as Jeff Probst told TV Guide, one of "the weakest players who've ever played the game."

Referring to the trio of Danielle, Courtney, and Shane, however, Probst noted that, "In the real world, when a group of weaklings like that get together, the whole group is weaker. But on 'Survivor,' they become a strong force."

That explains how Danielle has managed to survive, and now, in the final hours, she's gaining some strength. She smartly allied herself with Terry, although she couldn't convince him to hand over the hidden immunity idol and expose himself to the possibility that she'd betray him at Tribal Council.

She may continue to survive in the game, assuming she beats Cirie and makes it to the final three. She'd probably be the one that either Aras or Terry would take with them to the final two, but it's hard to imagine a scenario in which she'd win. Right now, though, she's playing hard.

The other three aren't exactly sitting back, however, so it'll definitely be a fight all the way up until the final vote. If nothing else, this season has been filled with intense strategizing and aggressive game play, and whoever wins on Sunday will be the victor of a hard-fought battle.

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