mother of the year

We Give Our Vote to Carolyn

She’s Felicia. Photo: CBS

This season of Survivor, its 44th, did not open on sweeping oceanfront vistas of Fiji. Nor did it begin with the classic imagery of flames over the show’s logo or footage of the cast arriving on the island by boat. Instead, it opened on a shot of a contestant, “Carolyn – Drug Counselor,” confused by the notion of giving a reality-TV confessional and arguing about it with an off-screen producer: “So I’m just, like, talking?” She seems truly baffled by what is literally the most normalized, expected part of any reality show.

“Yeah, to me,” says the producer. It’s extremely uncommon to hear a producer talk back on Survivor, a “social experiment” that doesn’t typically show its hand this way. “Pretend it’s just you and me, shooting the bull.” Her face is a cartoon mask of bewilderment. She fidgets, she breaks into laughter. She is either an alien who has never seen a TV show before or the world’s realest, most relatable reality contestant, reacting the way we all would to such a strange situation. Or she’s both. It’s a brilliant editing move starting the season off this way. They wanted us to underestimate Carolyn, to see her as comic relief. Because what we were actually watching was the birth of a Survivor legend.

On Wednesday night’s season finale, Carolyn Wiger of Minnesota made it to the Final Three. She was the only finalist to receive zero votes, losing to alliance member Yam Yam. And look, we’re happy about Yam Yam’s win. He was entertaining from start to finish, played a great game, and is the first openly gay Sole Survivor since 2007. However, like pop star Sia, who symbolized her love by giving Carolyn $100,000, we know the real star of the season was Carolyn. We do not have $100,000, so instead we are granting Carolyn a purely symbolic and ultimately meaningless vote. Here’s why.

Heart on her sleeve but also tricks up her sleeve?
The kooky lady has a storied history as a Survivor archetype, beginning with the show’s very first vote-off: a kooky lady named Sonja whose name was misspelled “Souna” on one of the votes. Among this tribe’s illustrious representatives are Kaoh Rong’s Debbie, whose inconsistent claims about her previous jobs defined her edit, and Island of Idols’ Noura, who had an incredible ability to say many words without saying any believable ones. Carolyn was clearly cast within this mold: The narrative Survivor plunked on her was “emotions versus strategy,” as though we live in a world where things like that could possibly be dichotomized. She cried openly when she was overwhelmed, screamed with joy at her and her friends’ victories, and gave enough screen-grabbable silent reactions of side-eye and annoyance to keep Twitter fed.

Her frustration screeches during challenges were feral and hilarious:

But look at how happy she was to have found a giant crustacean claw!

Despite these outsize reactions, Carolyn was sneaky-smart and usually one step ahead. She found the Tika Immunity Idol without anyone on her case and strategized by forming alliances and orchestrating a blindside. Like Yam Yam, she could tell when people were lying to her and expressed how hurt she was when it happened, making them wary of doing it again. Most of all, she let everyone’s low expectations of her work to her advantage, bringing her all the way to the end, when those who knew her best (Yam Yam) had to alert the group to what a threat she truly was. It was remarkable to watch someone who could have been the butt of the joke reveal herself as a savvy gamer and gripping character.

She came for the dudebros and won …
In episode five, Carolyn won a reward challenge alongside bros Danny and Brandon, whose physical strength and competitive attitudes made them strong contenders in physical challenges. Together, the three went to Sanctuary, “where good things happen” — Danny and Brandon bro-bonded, getting bro juice all over the place, and completely ignored Carolyn the Kooky Lady. From that point on, the two were on Carolyn’s shit list, and their hubris meant they didn’t see it coming when Carolyn played a part in orchestrating both of their downfalls.

…Including Jeff Probst
During tribal council in episode 11, Carolyn revealed that she doesn’t sleep; she’s up every hour, strategizing and thinking through scenarios. A few minutes later, Jeff registered her annoyance with Danny and told her she should get some sleep. Rather than laughing in the kiss-ass way most contestants do, Carolyn remained stone-faced. Jeff went, “Are you mad at me now?” Dead serious, Carolyn answered, “Yes.” It was a glorious moment for any woman who has ever been called too emotional by a Jeff type. And it actually ended up working out for her: She smiled, called the situation out as awkward — and Jeff told her he likes that she speaks her mind. He knew he was dealing with a star.

Tika Three? More like peak TV
Carolyn’s story is part of the season’s overarching underdog narrative, the one that led to Yam Yam’s crowning as Sole Survivor in the finale. Of season 44’s three original tribes, Tika was the scrappiest, facing early setbacks like the untimely elimination of their team’s strongest challenge beast due to a medical emergency, followed by a bunch of lost challenges. But Yam Yam and Carolyn formed a quick friendship built on their loud personalities and sense of humor. Sweet baby boy Carson then joined the fold, casting aside his fellow youths, and the Three Stooges outwitted and outlasted an entire cast of traditionally athletic players to make it to the Final Four. Yam Yam and Carolyn’s friendship had some edge to it — he could get annoyed with her emotional intensity, and she could feel betrayed when he plotted with others — but it made their friendship feel deep and real.

And the way Carson would go to the ends of the earth for her (and she for him, playing her Idol to save him in a way that made her vulnerable at a key moment in the game) was adorable and sometimes extremely unintentionally funny.

She turned Frannie into a Stannie
After Frannie’s boyfriend, Matt, got voted out, Frannie’s primary relationship in the game became Carolyn. Frannie was wildly into Carolyn’s commitment to being herself, rightly finding it inspirational. Survivor is currently obsessed with strategy, but this adorable bond showed that the best part of Survivor will always be the relationships.

Sober legend
A survivor in every sense of the word!

She threw a Roblox-themed birthday party for her ugly dog 
Not a part of the show, but she seems like such a great mom to her human son and blind, incontinent dog, Kramer.

We Give Our Vote to Carolyn