19 months later, we finally have a new Survivor winner.
Congratulations to Erika, the Luvu queen from Toronto. The self-described “lion that dressed like a lamb” is a deserving Survivor champion. Her win is profound for a few reasons: She’s the first Canadian, first person of Filipino descent, and she’s Survivor’s first woman to win in seven seasons. And her gameplay is just as worthy of praise. She dominated the final few days on Survivor.
Before her victory, the finale begins on a familiar note: the fallout of a Deshawn-induced controversy. At last week’s tribal council, Deshawn dropped a “truth bomb” that Erika may not take her bestie Heather to final tribal. It didn’t go over well, and now Erika is frustrated with Deshawn while Heather has “no comment” on how upset she is with Erika. (Spoiler alert: They resolve their tensions.)
Unfortunately for Ricard — the biggest threat — Deshawn’s drama isn’t enough of a distraction. Tree mail delivers a clue to an advantage for the upcoming immunity challenge. Erika finds it and wins the first of two immunity challenges remaining. This is her second solo immunity win, but it’s the nail in the coffin for Ricard’s game.
Xander briefly toys with the idea of giving his immunity idol to his bromance partner. He doesn’t go through with it, and Ricard is sent to the jury. It seems unlikely anyone would’ve won against Ricard, so his exit makes strategic sense. Still, it’s a bad move for Xander to play with the emotions of the newest jury member.
Fortunately, Xander wins the final immunity challenge, though it might be more baggage than it’s worth. He’s guaranteed a spot in the final tribal council, but he can only bring one player with him. This leaves the remaining two players to compete in a fire-making challenge for the third spot in the final tribal. Xander chooses Erika to deprive her of another chance to add to her resume. The fire-making challenge is unexpectedly the best part of the episode. Deshawn and Heather face off in a rousing match that honestly has more excitement than CBS Monday Night Football. Deshawn bursts out with an early lead only to have Heather surge ahead, but it’s not enough as Deshawn comes from behind to win by just a matter of seconds. Heather is the final juror.
The next day Deshawn, Erika, and Xander head to the final tribal. It’s a strong trio with no clear winner; each would be a fitting champion. Once they enter tribal, the equal footing quickly dissipates. While Deshawn played a lively game, his resume is weak, and the jury is filled with contentious relationships. Xander has the nuts and bolts a Sole Survivor needs, but he fumbles selling his story. His reason for saving Erika from fire-making is meandering, and his belief that the jury favors Heather’s game doesn’t make sense.
Meanwhile, Erika’s superb performance at the final tribal mirrored her gameplay. She comes in with two immunity wins, the hourglass twist and having orchestrated several major vote-outs without becoming the scapegoat. She did all this without a huge target on her back, and she got Shan voted out, who was the only person who saw the game she was playing.
She deploys a similar wait-and-pounce tactic at final tribal. While Xander and Deshawn initially field many of the questions, Erika dominates the latter half with her answers. It’s subtle, but it’s a sign of smart negotiating to end on a high note just before the jury is set to vote.
As Probst notes in the reunion show, her crowning moment is her anecdote of spending ten years walking into boardrooms as a communications manager where professionals incorrectly assumed she was an intern. Her strength and intelligence may be measured and subtle, but Erika played with a quiet confidence the show doesn’t always center. We now have an international, self-aware winner, after seasons of bombastic contestants and men living their Tarzan fantasies.
Her win will most likely be debated, which is unfortunate. The discourse over her edit has already started. Last week, Survivor alum Stephen Fishbach said he wasn’t certain Erika would win given her lack of a strong edit this season. Except for her interest in voting out Sydney, we barely heard from Erika pre-merge, largely because Luvu never went to tribal council.
Some on Twitter have noted the lack of backstory for Heather and Erika’s friendship and why it merited such a heartwarming reward feast. Still, Erika’s final days felt like they received more screen time than many of her competitors, which hadn’t been the case all season. Was Survivor trying to overcompensate? Possibly.
There are two ways to look at Erika’s edit: The first as a disservice to the great game she played, which Erika said left her “unrootable” in an Entertainment Weekly post-win interview, and the second as a sign of the continual change that Survivor has been undergoing all season long.
“At the end of the day, I won in a commanding lead, so who knows, maybe the edit is a signal to people to kind of let go of their existing beliefs of how Survivor normally needs to go and let go of their systems and really just be open to the twists and terms that the game gives the audience,” Erika told EW.
There is validity to edgic theories and how screen time informs who the winner is, but on the flip side, it’s exciting to see a new version of the series that isn’t so predictable. Not knowing who will win makes it a fun TV show to watch, and ultimately Survivor is a TV show.
Earlier this week, Survivor: South Pacific winner Sophie Clarke reflected on her edit. “Usually with winners, especially female winners, they want somebody to be loveable,” she said. “I do have a little bit of an insecurity that maybe I just wasn’t that lovable. I didn’t give them enough loveable content to be able to frame the winner that way.”
Erika had a similar reflection. “So there were moments where I’d think, ‘Oh my gosh, am I going to be destined for a lifetime of having to defend my Survivor win even though I came home so proud of myself?’” she told EW.
For all the efforts Survivor put into representation this season, it fell victim to the classic belief that visibility is liberation. If Survivor is genuinely interested in treating women, queer people, and players of color with the same reverence it gives the likes of its leading men, then it needs to take a serious look at changes off-screen. Because Erika and Sophie didn’t really play similar games, but their winner’s edits are more aligned than the warrior narratives given to the likes of Parvati Shallow, Sarah Lacina, and Kim Spradlin. It’s about time that Survivor realized that physical strength isn’t the only type of fortitude.
Having a woman of color win with subtlety and nuance is a far greater achievement than brute force. The jury realized this, so why couldn’t Survivor?