Timothy Kuratek/CBS(2); Monty Brinton
December 18, 2014 10:20 AM

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

“So I did what I had to, I made huge moves, I dug around for the idols to make sure nobody else had them, and I won challenges when I absolutely had to. Everything I did was strategic, nothing was out of malice, and I’m here – day 39 – because Rachel made that sacrifice.” – Tyson Apostol, Winner of Survivor: Blood vs. Water

In a humdrum season, we actually have a great winner.

On Survivor‘s season finale Wednesday, Natalie Anderson plotted and finessed her way to a million dollars and the title of sole survivor.

Throughout the season, the game (and the airtime) was dominated by the alpha male “J” players: Josh, Jeremy, and Jon – even John Rocker.

But Natalie was always at the sidelines, finding the cracks and pushing her game forward. She became the queen of the medium-sized move – finding ways to advance herself without drawing too much attention.

Early on, for example, she noticed the Hunahpu men were in disarray and rallied the women to vote out Drew. She volunteered to go to Exile Island with Baylor, and built an alliance that lasted the entire season. She made a stealthy hit on Alec and solidified an alliance with Keith. Plus, she flipped the game against Jon.

Natalie also showed a savvy ability to make friends and influence players. Everybody seemed to genuinely like her. When her chief ally Jeremy was blindsided, she quickly rejoined Missy’s alliance.

On Wednesday, Natalie made one of her biggest moves of the season – she played her idol for Jaclyn, and voted out Baylor. By doing so, she accomplished two things. First, she took control of her game. Instead of relying on Missy and Baylor to take her to the top three, she made herself the hinge of all the alliances.

Second and perhaps most important – she demonstrated firsthand to the jury how hard she was playing.

Final Tribal

Natalie’s a great winner, but the Final Tribal Council was one of the worst in the show’s history. Missy actually claimed the Survivor jury’s decision was harder than that of a jury in a murder trial. Natalie couldn’t pull together a rousing argument for why she deserved to win.

But where the finalists were bad, the jurors were worse. They gave mumbly speeches praising their loved ones or their favorites. Baylor’s speech boiled down to “love you mom heart heart heart,” and all the swelling orchestral music in the world couldn’t make it feel meaningful. Jon tossed Jaclyn a softball asking her to name her biggest move.

Then came the hard-hitting questions. “I just, uh, I hated the constant lying I don’t know what to say. That’s the way I look at it,” opined Keith.

Jeremy tried to give a rousing speech praising Natalie in the classic David Murphy mold. (You remember – the one where he gave testimony to the Redemption Island jury about how Boston Rob is the greatest human being in history?) But all he managed to get out was, “Clearly, Nat balled out. Like you gotta – you gotta just give it to her. She balled out. So give her credit, you know what I mean? Don’t be mad.

The only high point was Reed’s extended metaphor comparing Missy to a fairy tale wicked stepmother.

As I can attest, however, the jury is one of the hardest parts of the game. After 39 days of carefully crafting every single sentence you state and move you make, suddenly the game is completely out of your hands – and you’re met with a hostile crowd of the people you betrayed.

Natalie managed to present the key moves that validated why she deserved to win.

More important than the answers to her questions, was the clear fact of her brilliant gameplay.

She was awarded 5 of 8 jury votes. And she wins the highly coveted Final Fishy.

Tune in to the PEOPLE Magazine Awards on Thursday, airing at 9 p.m. ET on NBC

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