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‘Survivor’ finalists were consistent to the end

[Spoiler warning: Don't want to know who won "Survivor Guatemala"? Stop reading now.]

The turning point and most revealing moment of "Survivor Guatemala" came during the final immunity challenge. Balancing on swiveling platforms while hanging on to ropes, each of the final three — Rafe, Stephenie, and Danni — were forced to let go of one rope after one hour of teetering on the small piece of wood. Within seconds of letting go, each lost their balance and found themselves dangling from the last rope, flailing around in an attempt to keep their feet from touching the ground.

All three found support leaning against a pole. But that support didn’t last very long for two of them. Rafe was quickly eliminated after he grabbed the pole without even realizing he’d done so, and while Danni examined her nails and twirled her hair, Stephenie slid down the pole as tears slid down her cheeks. Clearly in pain, Steph’s body finally gave out, and she hit the ground.

After winning the most important immunity challenge in the game, Danni’s immediate response was to approach Steph and comfort her. “You’re the toughest girl I know, Steph,” she said. But Rafe, clearly distraught and emotional over his own loss, interrupted.

While Steph stayed crumpled on the ground, he sealed his fate in the game. “Danni, I want to release you from any promise you made to me about who you take to the final two,” he said, Steph’s sobbing audible in the background. “Take whoever you want tonight, I’m really serious about that, and I really mean it. Okay?”

Danni agreed, and then at Tribal Council, much to Rafe’s surprise, voted him out and took Steph with her to the final two.

Because Danni had played a cleaner game than Stephenie, she easily won the majority of the jury’s votes the next day and became the winner of “Survivor Guatemala.”

Here was the whole season wrapped into a few moments: Stephenie LaGrossa, the “Survivor Palau” cast member who was given a second chance, found once again that her strengths weren’t enough to keep her in the game. Rafe, the gay Mormon, played in the way he thought was most honorable and ethical, but was surprised to learn that he couldn’t trust anyone else to do so. And Danni, the underdog who always played as if she was the next person to go home, was still humble even though she’d secured complete control of the game.

Rafe gave up his shot at final two
Danni played an outstanding game, even though it wasn’t always apparent. Throughout the 39 days, the only person Danni really betrayed was Rafe, and she only did that, ironically enough, because he gave her permission to do so. Going into the finale, Rafe was the odds-on favorite to win, simply because he was more likable and more apologetic than Stephenie. Had he faced Danni in the final two, he might have still lost, but it was clear that the jury felt far more betrayed by Steph than by Rafe.

Ultimately, Rafe was either too earnest or too naïve to win. He did everything in his power to ensure a loss. After carrying Danni along to the final three, he unbelievably released her from their alliance, assuming she’d still stick with him. During his final tribal council as a player, when he still had a chance of being in the final two, he admitted that he “screwed over the same people” as Steph did, telling the jury exactly what he should have tried to downplay. After being voted out, and even during the reunion, he expressed genuine surprise that Danni didn’t take him to the final two, even though she made the only smart move possible, and even though he basically told her not to.

Just as he was surprised that Cindy acted selfishly and not altruistically, he again seemed baffled by the emergence of self-interest. But the game of “Survivor” is not like Ring Around the Rosie, where everyone has fun and claps at the end because there are no losers. Self-interest is vital to survival in the game.

During the final Tribal Council, Danni was accused, primarily by Judd, of looking out for herself by avoiding everyone else, by literally “skating” her way through the game rather than playing aggressively. But, man, that was an unfair accusation, man. Even though Danni was outnumbered by an opposing alliance, she never gave up, strategizing covertly and successfully convincing Steph and Rafe to turn on their alliance. That helped to keep Danni in the game—and, ultimately, to win jury votes in her favor, since the jury’s ranks were increasingly filled with people Steph had betrayed.

Still, even if Stephenie hadn’t played aggressively, Danni may have won. That’s because this was Stephenie’s second chance at “Survivor.” Although she repeatedly expressed surprise that she made it to the final two, many of the other players were star-struck by her from day one, giving her an unfair advantage.

More significantly, she was an excellent resource since she’d played the game before; at those first few Tribal Councils, her tribe realized that keeping her made much more sense than keeping a physically and mentally weak person.

Thus, instead of voting her off immediately, her tribe let her stay, and the alliance she helped form quickly became dominant and propelled her to the very end. Still, Stephenie started on an uneven playing field. And the jury, save for Bobby Jon, may have rewarded Danni for lasting to the end as one of them, a person without an advantage.

Danni knew when to say she was sorryFor all the producers’ attempts at changing the game by introducing various twists, the return of Bobby Jon and Steph included, the game still stayed grounded in interpersonal conflict. For the most part, contestants were voted out because of their own behavior, not because of the new game elements.

And there were many minor twists this season, from the initial tribe switch-up to the “curse of the car” choice that Cindy had to make. There was also the auction that offered both time with loved ones and an advantage in the next immunity challenge, which Danni smartly purchased for $200, essentially buying herself an all-important immunity win.

That may have helped her in the game, but ultimately, Danni Boatwright won because she did exactly the same thing what each of the most recent “Survivor” winners have done: She apologized for her behavior.

While Steph mostly defended herself and her backstabbing actions during the final Tribal Council, Danni literally repented. “I do ask forgiveness” every day, she said, when Judd suggested she go to confession. Her answer impressed even Judd. And when people hear what they want to hear, people like Danni (and, before her, Tom and Chris) win.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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