Chris Underwood won the million dollar prize and title of Sole Survivor

Stephen Fishbach has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. He is the host of the podcast Paraphrase, where he interviews writers about the openings to their novels. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenfishbach.

“Ultimately, the person that wins and deserves to win is the person that gets the majority of the jury votes.” — Natalie White, winner, Survivor: Samoa

In a shocking finale, Survivor just awarded a win to a guy who barely played Survivor.

Sales manager Chris Underwood was the third person voted out of the game, when his allies turned on him at Manu. After 28 days on the Edge of Extinction, he fought his way back, won the million dollar prize and title of Sole Survivor, and most importantly, takes home the Final Fishy.

On paper, it seems impossible, even insulting. The signature challenge of Survivor is how do you vote people out of the game, in such a way that they’re willing to vote for you to win. Chris didn’t have to do any of that. Rather than having to betray his tribemates, Chris spent a month feeding them, healing wounds and building bonds. And what does that mean about the past 10 episodes of the show? Were they all just a pointless waiting room for Chris’ march to victory?

But in his short time in the game, Chris managed to craft a compelling Survivor story, accomplishing more in three days than many players do in 39. And that turned out to be enough.

Chris Underwood
Credit: CBS

Chris’ Return and Lauren’s Idol

After Chris fought his way back from extinction – beating out Joe by inches – he dominated the strategic conversation at camp. He set himself up as an information broker – “I’m not as mentally there as I was in the beginning, and I’m not as physically there at all, but I do have information,” he said. He used his access to the jury’s perspective to shift the target onto Victoria. And he quickly healed his old rift with Devens and built bonds with Lauren.

He also told Lauren that he knew about her hidden immunity idol.

“This [tip] is from Wentworth,” he told her. “‘Lauren has to play her idol correctly, either for herself or for someone else [emphasis his], to have a big enough move.’ ”

It was a sales technique, Chris later explained, a “negative reverse” where you make the other person feel like you’re even more vulnerable than they are.

Incredibly, Lauren did it. At the final six tribal, Lauren played her idol on Chris, though he didn’t even need it. It’s an almost incomprehensible moment. How could someone, basically guaranteed a spot at the final four, sacrifice that safety to protect the guy who’s just spent a month hanging out with the jury?

Indeed, none of the players seemed to see Chris as a game-destroying threat. Instead, they all treated him as a strategic tool. Julie brought him on reward. Devens gave him back his half-idol.

The only way to rationalize these moves is to think that the players all assumed that Chris was dead in the water, that the jury would never award someone a million dollars for 13 days of gameplay.


Rick Devens

Chris was particularly helped by the fact that the contestants – and indeed the season – were so singularly focused on Rick Devens. Devens dominated the game’s attention for its second half, with four immunity wins, multiple idol plays, and a seemingly limitless bag of quips. The jury actively cheered him on at every tribal. The contestants too applauded his game, as they struggled desperately to eliminate him.

Survivor: Edge of Extinction
Credit: Timothy Kuratek/CBS via Getty Images

Devens has been one of the most polarizing contestants in the show’s history for fans. But everybody in and out of the show knew that if Devens made the end, Devens was going to win. As a result, when Chris came back into the game, he was seen more as a tool to take out Devens than as a threat in his own right.

So while Devens’ wild run may be overshadowed by the shock of having an EOE winner, let’s take a moment to appreciate how close he came – just one fire-making challenge away from a victory.

Chris’ Crazy 3 Days

Chris made the most of his short time in the game, crafting a Survivor resume in three days that dwarfs what many people accomplish all season.

“I had to play the biggest possible game with three days that I could possibly play,” he said at the Final Tribal. “So I flushed an idol on my first vote, played an idol correctly my second vote, won an immunity challenge on the final day, and then biggest move of the game by far, give up my necklace to earn my spot back into the game by making fire against the number one competitor in the entire season. And that’s the best that I could possibly do. There was no other scenario.”

That’s a pretty freaking stellar point! His clutch decision to give up immunity to face Devens in the fire-making challenge had the dual goal of both eliminating his biggest threat and allowing him to claim that he made the season’s biggest move.

At the Final Tribal, Chris argued his case vigorously. Yes, he spent 28 days on the Edge of Extinction, but how is that functionally different than Julie’s 17 days of immunity at Kama? It’s a fantastic point – that nobody is always driving strategy, and what matters most is what you do with the time you have.

You certainly can’t blame Chris for his win. He didn’t design the Edge of Extinction twist, he just maximized it. And most crucially, he didn’t vote for himself.

The jury was likely already inclined to vote for an Edge of Extinction returner. Not only did it fit the theme of the season, but it would give meaning to their own struggles and suffering on that bleak isle. Chris just had to give them enough of a reason to vote for him. His wild three-day run did just that.

As crazy as it is that the guy who barely played Survivor won Survivor – I almost found myself rooting for him. He played his heart out, and did everything he possibly could.

Gavin and the Soul of Survivor

Julie was largely dismissed by the jury. Her case that she used her emotions strategically mostly generated eye rolls.

But Gavin gave Chris a real fight, arguing the question about the true nature of Survivor.

“If you’re going to talk about classic Survivor, it’s about surviving 39 days. It’s not getting voted out on day eight, then coming back on day 35 and having a chance to win this game,” he said.

And then later: “I built the social bonds to get me through this game. Being over there, you don’t have to worry about anything. You don’t have to worry about someone backstabbing you or blindsiding you. I’d love to reconnect with Eric and Aubry and all these people that I’ve done my wrongs to.”

As Devens noted, so much of the game is the fatigue of the game. The challenge of Survivor is less about the physical deprivation than the mental exhaustion. It’s the constant paranoia, the constant hustle to stay ahead of the votes, an unrelenting 39-day sprint where literally every action you take – from how much food you eat to how much you sleep to what conversations you have – is being judged. And when Rick Devens asked the assembled group to raise their hands if they never received a vote, only Gavin was able to do so.

(Though a counter-argument might be that meant Gavin was never a threat worth voting out).

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In some ways, the debate between Gavin and Chris comes down to a question about the soul of the series.

Is Survivor a show about social politics, dodging and weaving through power structures, keeping your alliance intact and picking off the other groups? Or is it about taking the best advantage of twists, of playing the idol at the right time, of flashy spectacle and big moves?

I’m on Team Gavin for this one, but maybe that makes me a misty-eyed old timer. The season’s jury – and perhaps the show itself, as it pushes forward to evolve in a shifting television landscape – was Team Chris.