Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“You need willpower, strength, integrity, intelligence and a little bit of luck.”
– Ethan Zohn, winner, Survivor: Africa
“Everyone loves an underdog story,” Malcolm said earlier this season. On Sunday night, Survivor: Philippines came down to one big question: Who was the underdog that was telling the story?
Two sets of underdogs were dog-fighting for dominance. Mike Skupin and Lisa Whelchel were tails among lions: outcast at the bottom of Tandang, the dominant tribe. Malcolm Freberg and Denise Stapley were heads among sheep: leaders of Matsing, a tribe that every week went to the slaughter.
Through great play and good luck, Denise emerged as the alpha – winning the title of Sole Survivor, the $1 million prize and the Final Fishy.
Denise Wins Survivor
How did she do it? Straight out of the gate, Denise used her empathy and curiosity to build bonds with everybody, from a day-one friendship with Zane to a season-long alliance with Malcolm.
“I listened and I observed,” she said at final tribal. “Being a therapist is what I do. And some of that is appeasing … I couldn’t not bring it into the game.”
Like some Marvel comic action hero (The Spectacular Honey Badger?), Denise also had disproportionate speed and strength. Matsing was by far the weakest tribe, and Denise often found herself competing head-to-head against 20-something male jocks. If she didn’t anchor her tribe, she certainly held her own.
That combination of social skills, physical prowess and a dogged work ethic made people love and respect Denise. Early on, Russell Swan predicted that if Denise made it to the final tribal, the jury would stand up and applaud. The full force of her charisma never really translated through the screen. But you still got the sense that she was really nice.
The other big thing Denise had going for her was Malcolm. If Denise had a weakness, it was that she preferred to slip through the cracks of the game and not build her own structures. Her ally Malcolm, however, wanted to guide. Denise often found herself swimming comfortably in his wake.
That worked out particularly well at the final four. On any other season, the beloved challenge-beast mom would be the big target. (See: Holly on Nicaragua). But with even-more-beloved Malcolm around, Denise got a pass.
Did Malcolm blow it when he didn’t commit to Denise at the final four? If they’d made a pact, would Denise have forced a stand-off against Lisa and Skupin? We can never know for sure. Personally, I suspect Denise would have voted out Malcolm anyway, the same way she voted out Carter instead of Abi. Loyalty in Survivor‘s a nice ideal – but not worth a million dollars.
The entire season came down to that last immunity challenge. Had Malcolm won, the underdog story would have been his. But he didn’t.
Nowhere was the issue of storytelling more important than at final tribal, where the three finalists laid out their narratives. Denise talked about how she survived every elimination. Lisa, usually so focused at tribal, had a meandering opening in which she discussed her growth as a gamer. Skupin argued that he was an early target and had to fight harder than the others.
A series of weak questions concluded with a bombastic performance from Penner, who was clearly delighted to have the cameras on him for another moment, where he exposed Lisa’s TV backstory. To her credit, Lisa never flinched.
In the end, the jury felt that Lisa and Skupin didn’t really do anything. Denise’s epic journey of surviving every tribal was unmatchable. The vote came 6-1-1, and the Spectacular Honey-Badger saved the day.