Sophie won Survivor tonight because the season’s best player, Coach, made the crucial mistake of overvaluing Rick’s likability and undervaluing Sophie’s challenge badassery. There came a point bizarrely early in the game when it was inevitable that Coach would make the finals, but he didn’t clinch the loss until he brought Sophie there with him. There were only 2 people in the top 7 who could’ve beaten Coach. He rightly took out Ozzy, knowing full well that the adventure-seeking king of Redemption Island would slay the final vote. But not taking out a strong and smart strategist who played a quiet and simple game is a cliche downfall in the Survivor finale; Coach said it himself, it was his game to lose, so he lost it.

And while the results were less than perfect (I liked Sophie okay, but I really did want Coach to win), the most interesting thing about the finale is always the jury speeches and the live reunion.

This year’s jury speeches were the usual bull crap of bitter self-righteousness. I was expecting better from Jim, whom I’m convinced is a better player than he seems to be; he’s held on to his anger at Cochran far too long and, though his was one of only 3 votes that rightly went to Coach, he’s smart enough and a big enough fan of the game to know that resenting the top 3 for beating you is the mark of someone who doesn’t have the head for Survivor. Rick, Keith and Whitney? They performed as expected, but I was hoping for a little more game perspective from Jim. Dawn was as expected, in a good way, because she’s who everyone should strive to be like (thanks Sophie, for that line). Edna, on the other hand, was kind of great at final tribal council. She wasn’t interested in lecturing the final 3 or trapping them with accusing questions, instead she laid down the law with the rest of the jury, pointing out what all real Survivor fans know: you signed up to be deceived, don’t be bitter and just reward the best gameplayer. The fact that she then voted for Sophie over her long-time ally Coach was a bit surprising but she had the right spirit.

The other person who, far more predictably, got over his bitterness decently was Cochran. He didn’t deliver the way I wanted him to at final tribal but he made the right point as he cast his vote for Coach, pointing out that if you looked past the honour act (more on that in a minute), he played a pretty great game, and that’s always the person who should win the million*. A lot’s been said about John Cochran over the course of this season and a lot of it’s been pretty unfair. There are those who were disappointed that he wasn’t a mastermind, considering he’s a Harvard student who’s studied the game like it’s his law textbooks (probably more intently, actually), but those people forget that even Boston Rob wasn’t Boston Rob his first time round. Survivor‘s intimidating, especially for a super fan, and it takes time to figure out how to play it like the pros we’ve come to measure everyone against (there’s a reason returning players have been doing so well against newcomers). The kid got tongue-tied and scared and star-struck, that doesn’t make him a bad player and it certainly doesn’t make him a bad guy. On his second go-round, when he’s not quite as desperate for each and every day he can get on the island, Cochran’s game WILL step up, he just needs to get his head screwed on right. Then there are the people who are upset Cochran flipped on his tribe. If you’re upset because he betrayed the group he was arbitrarily placed with on day one and therefore was assumed to have loyalty to, is this your first time watching Survivor? Because I don’t think this is the show for you, you’re missing the point. If you’re upset because it was SO OBVIOUS that he wouldn’t be able to move above 7th place within Upolu, please try and remember that the only time the tribes see each other is at challenges, Cochran had no way of knowing he was joining a cult until he’d already drank the Kool-aid. If you’re upset because the move meant that Dawn was left stranded with very few options and probably wouldn’t win after that- then I feel your pain, because Dawn’s awesome and I would have liked to see Cochran try a little harder to work with her and maybe flip Albert. But seriously, sometimes the best player in Survivor history gets voted out 8th because things just didn’t go his way (here’s lookin’ at you season 20), Cochran’ll do better next time.

Now, on to the honour code, the real issue of the season. Let’s start with Coach. Cochran’s right, he played an excellent game this year, something that would have gotten a lot more respect if he hadn’t talked so much about playing with honour (and, for heaven’s sake, if he would just stop giving his word “as a Christian man”). Because the truth is that unless you can 100% win your way to the end (which isn’t possible, because Ozzy couldn’t do it, which means it cannot be done), it’s impossible to keep your hands completely clean. An alliance that can go unbroken has to consist of no more than 3 people, which isn’t enough to control the numbers and make it to the end, so it can’t be your only alliance. It is impossible to play Survivor well within an unforgiving moral code. Good people have played it, and won it, but at some point they all have to turn their backs on someone, at least once. And that’s what Coach tried to do this year, be the best person he could be without playing a stupid, nonstrategic game. I actually think he succeeded at that. It’s a shame, really, that the legacy of this season will probably rest in the ways religion was seen to be manipulated, because I honestly believe that Coach never meant to be hypocritical or manipulative in his invocation of God. I think in sharing his beliefs with a tribe who happened to intensely believe as well, Coach’s ideals got elevated and the moral bar placed impossibly high. In all earnestness, Coach just talked too much about the man he’d like to be and the way he wished the game could be played, and his literal-minded tribe couldn’t understand, then, when he had no real way of being that much more than the man he is, playing a game that gives you the option between being good and being successful.

Which brings me to Brandon, the last man on earth who should ever be playing Survivor. Just FYI, for the purposes of this paragraph I intend on ignoring is creepy and sexist behaviour towards Mikayla, his terrifying emotional immaturity and his upsetting fundamentalism, because I’ve already covered those, I think they’re a product of his environmental upbringing more than anything and they’re somehow actually not relevant to the point I’m about to make about who I think Brandon is. Steel yourselves… I think Brandon’s a good guy. No, I really do. I don’t like him much, I certainly never want to actually meet him, but I think goodness comes down to intention and all Brandon wants is to be a good guy, and so, as often as he may fail, I think he somehow is. But here’s the trick, I actually don’t think Russell’s a bad guy, and somehow we’ve gotten locked into a Hantz mythology in which Russell is the embodiment of all the evil that threatens to grip Brandon if he doesn’t fight his darkest urges. Really? The re-writing of Russell’s Survivor history actually drove me more crazy than anything else this season. He was a good strategist, that was all (not an evil mastermind, or a mastermind of any kind really, just a good strategist). Russell didn’t spend his time yelling and screaming and hurling insults, he spent it convincing people of things that aren’t true- that’s very different. I may not be remembering correctly, but I don’t recall Russell making anyone cry, I don’t remember him telling anyone that everyone hates them or him lying about anything beyond minuscule Survivor loyalties, really (he pretended to be poor and that his dog died in Katrina, he did do that, but freaking Johnny Fairplay pretended his grandmother died and we didn’t care this much!). I don’t think Russell has a Survivor legacy, memory of his gameplay seems to have largely faded (for the record, he was a strong player who fooled people well and was always loyal to at least one person, though both times I think his partner in crime deserved to win over him- Natalie and Parvati), what Russell has is a mythology- a reputation that gets whispered about and tossed off like a curse word, based in very little fact, compiled upon itself. He himself seems to have lost sight of his own failings as a player and that arrogance doesn’t help the cause, but it isn’t enough to merit the abusive way the show treats him. Nothing made my thoughts on Russell clearer than the moment in this season’s reunion when Jeff asked Russell to critique his nephew Brandon’s gameplay. His response was to Brandon: “I’m uncle Russell, that’s how you know me. But I’m also Russell from Survivor. So I can not say anything if that’s what you want, or I can criticize your strategy”. Does it not occur to these people who see Russell as the embodiment of evil that evil would never offer to be quietly supportive instead of stake its claim as the superior player? All season, Russell has watched as his nephew attempts to play the game he loves the way it is absolutely not meant to be played. I appreciate Brandon’s desperation to stay honest and “good”, but he shouldn’t be doing it on Survivor, it’s a game that requires moving people like chess pieces, a game that his uncle worships, and a game Brandon himself has very little respect for; it requires more than he was willing to give it, so he shouldn’t have been playing. But it’s still absurd and, frankly, heartbreaking that Brandon’s family would turn on him for choosing the path of straightforward survival over playing a smart strategic game (the ultimate Survivor virtue), but that’s not because his game was anything but obnoxious to true Survivor fans, it’s because no one should be persecuted for the way they choose to play Survivor. It’s a reality show for crying out loud, it’s not a greater metaphor, no matter how hard Jeff tries to pretend it is. Brandon’s disastrous strategies were laughable, not criminal, and Russell’s were impressive (and temporarily, not ultimately successful), not villainous. What Brandon did wrong was assume that Russell did something wrong. He went on that show proclaiming that he was going to “clear the Hantz family name”, right some wrong that simply didn’t exist. I get that the kid is fighting against a family that pushes him to succeed at any cost (did you see his father?!), but the incredible judgement just needs to end. Russell loves the spotlight and he really loves the game of Survivor and what he believes to be his untouchable strategic approach to the game, and I’m sure that had a lot to do with him showing up to that reunion, but the proudest, most defensive, most in need of defending player in Survivor history was asked to offer his expert strategic analysis after a season that literally compared him to Hitler and instead of attacking, he looked right at the well-intentioned but misguided young boy who is nothing if not ashamed of his uncle and offered, as “uncle Russell” to not say a word. People, you may not like him, but that does not a villain make. Russell’s not the nicest guy in the world, and Brandon’s not the smartest, but neither deserves to be treated completely without compassion, and for inexplicable and opposite reasons, they both are, which is just not okay by any standard of “goodness”.

*just a side note, this show is more than a decade old now, it’s about time they upped the prize. This isn’t Big Brother where a little public embarrassment and a lot of boredom earns you a fun social experiment and a shot at $500,000; Survivor is freaking hard- these people starve and work their fingers to the bone and put themselves in harm’s way for challenges- and to actually win the game takes unbelievable social abilities, insight into the human psyche and the sort of moral compromise that can really eat at a person. And all they get is one lousy million MINUS TAXES?! Come on CBS, cough it up, would ya?