It's a rare reality-show finale that leaves me smiling and feeling content, but with Danni, Stephenie, and Rafe constituting an entirely deserving final three on Survivor: Guatemala, it actually took me a few minutes to find something to whine about. (Well, other than the fact that our regular columnist, Dalton Ross, is on assignment tonight, meaning we'll have to get by without his delightful reviewing skillz.) And then it hit me: How can any of these people claim to be true Survivors when they never had to gag their way through the traditional Survivor challenge of Swallow the Unsavory Local Delicacy?
Sure, Danni somehow remained physically and mentally strong while wasting away to the same weight as my five-year-old nephew. And it was nothing short of miraculous the way she managed to overcome a numerical disparity of six (post-switcheroo) Nakúm to one Yaxhá to outlast Judd, Jamie, Cindy, and Lydia. But if she never had to chow down on a half-formed bird fetus, or fight back her rising bile while gnawing on a fetid calf intestine, does she really deserve $1 million?
I'll begrudgingly say yes, only because on tonight's finale, Danni (along with Steph and Lydia) made me reach for the Tums with no help from Mark Burnett by pulling a charred chicken carcass from the ashes of a Mayan sacrificial ceremony they'd witnessed a few hours earlier, then greedily devouring it. Having Rafe object to the fowl act only made the moment that much more genius, as did food-obsessed Steph remarking, ''There's a dead chicken over there that's cooked to perfection!'' and wondering aloud if a ''a prayer of forgiveness or something'' might be in order to appease the Mayan gods.
(The ceremony also yielded the quote of the night, from Rafe: ''Steph's like, 'Did they kill it, Rafe?' And I'm like, 'Steph, they just ripped the chicken's head off and threw it in the fire. It's a dead chicken.' '')
Given the women's lack of cultural sensitivity (and disregard for the dangers of feasting on poultry that's been left sitting for hours in the Guatemalan heat), how awesome was it when that vicious thunderstorm came swooping down? For a second, I thought Rafe might've locked up victory by currying the favor of the Mayan ancestors, but then I remembered nothing annoys me more than when folks suggest that the results of network reality series are somehow part of God's master plan. I mean, if you truly have faith in a higher power, then it would seem logical to me that you'd figure he or she's got better things to do than to tune in to CBS every Thursday evening and breathlessly await Jeff Probst's weekly cry of ''Survivors ready? Go!''
Anyhow, if anyone was favoring Rafe in the immunity challenge that followed the chicken sacrifice, it was Survivor's producers. Seriously, the minute Jeff mentioned that the maze-ing race ended with a puzzle challenge, you knew the gay Mormon was going to crush Steph and Danni. The only surprise, in fact, was seeing Lydia's delighted expression when she climbed the ladder with all her pieces seconds before the challenge was completed. I know Rafe and Steph probably messed up by choosing to keep Danni over the spunky fishmonger, but when a contestant proudly boasts during tribal council that ''I did not win anything since day one,'' she needs to pack up her belongings, including the blow-dryer and hair product she must have had secretly stashed somewhere in the jungle. (Oh, come on now, you all saw the way her complicated, sweeping 'do didn't move for 37 days.)
Lydia's exit, though, may have inadvertently led to Rafe's demise in the game: Undoubtedly this season's strongest physical competitor, he was just a shade too confident that he'd make the final two no matter who won the endurance challenge, leading to his absentminded slip of the hand.
What he didn't count on was the fact the contest was ''weighted'' in Danni's favor: Given how emaciated she'd become over the course of the season, the final test resembled what you'd get setting a sack of potatoes (Rafe), a bag of rocks (Steph), and a pile of feathers (Danni) onto three wobbly pedestals. Clearly, the lightest load is going to have the smallest effect on the pedestal's equilibrium. Steph, however, tipped the balance in her favor by struggling valiantly as she lost and then weeping dramatically, inspiring Rafe to tell Danni she no longer had to honor her promise to take him to the final two. Poor Rafe seemed genuinely surprised when Danni wisely chose the generally disliked Steph to face the jury with her.
Was Steph's use of waterworks as strategic as the time last season when she persuaded Janu to remove herself from the game? If so, then more power to the big-hearted Jersey girl. I know a lot of folks who've been kvetching loudly about Steph's lies to the members of the Nakúm alliance. But if this were football, nobody would object to Steph's tackling an opponent. And in the game of Survivor, duplicity is perhaps the most essential skill of all. Knowing that, how can any fan of the show fault her for doing it, and doing it well? And how can Judd (or Jamie or Bobby Jon or Cindy) not respect the fact that they simply got outplayed?
To me, no one was more hypocritical or less amusing at tribal council than Judd. You know he so wanted to deliver a Susan Hawk ''snake-rat'' watercooler moment, but his ''the only thing you should be starving for is my vote'' was both embarrassingly rehearsed and too clever by half. (The only criticism I can offer up about Steph is that based on her appearance at the reunion special, the woman should not be allowed near a makeup table for the rest of her natural life.) Far more memorable was Rafe's emotional assessment that Steph was ''the ultimate Survivor,'' followed by his excellent advice that she use her closing statement to outline the reason she was more deserving than Danni.
While I have to give Steph credit for being refreshingly honest and admitting that she'd backstabbed during the game, she never did exactly articulate why she deserved to beat Danni. And maybe, on some level, it's because she didn't. Whereas Steph often seemed to be using Rafe's road map, Danni's seldom-recognized strategic planning was some of the best Survivor has seen: Aligning with the Nakúm members to vote out her buddy Gary? Demonizing Cindy's perfectly reasonable decision to keep the car — or should I say Torrent, since the word was mentioned some 347 times during the course of the episode and the pre-ad-break promos? Twisting Judd's smack talk to turn Steph against her No. 1 ally? Convincing Rafe she'd take him to the final two even if she knew he'd defeat her? And then flipping the script by coldly kicking him to the curb at the last possible second? She may not have swallowed a live insect, but Danni masterminded all those other steps to bring home the championship, one-upping her beloved Kansas Jayhawks in the process. Come to think of it, CBS should consider stealing Danni from radio and hiring her as an on-camera sports analyst. After all, there have been far less appealing reality-show has-beens who've scored a 16th minute of fame. Maybe it's time for someone who's smart, honest, and appealing to make the leap as well.
What do you think? Do you respect the game played by the three finalists? Who came off best and worst in the last tribal council? And who would you most like to see again on TV?