The Survivor: Tocantins and Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance blogged season 32 for PEOPLE

By Stephen Fishbach
Updated May 19, 2016 11:00 AM
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Monty Brinton/CBS

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on

Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging aboutSurvivorstrategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

“I call it ‘being cool.’ Just not ticking people off.” –Judson “Fabio” Birza, winner, Survivor: Nicaragua

On Wednesday’s Survivor finale, Michele Fitzgerald took home the million dollars, the title of Sole Survivor – and, most importantly, the final Fishy.

The finale – like this entire crazy season – was filled with explosive moments. Aubry’s fire almost extinguished itself at the final four. There was Neal’s bitter exit when he was pulled from the jury. And of course, we said a tearful goodbye to Mark the Chicken.

But the episode ultimately belonged to Michele, who won challenge after challenge and made a passionate argument to the jury that she wasn’t just another hanger-on.

More than a Number

Michele’s biggest challenge was to explain why, after weeks in the shadows, she deserved the win. As Julia put it, “You were the weakest link on the Beauty tribe, and in the first half of the game you got really lucky then the merge happened, and you became a number.”

Neal made the same point in his vicious parting words: “You came into this game thinking you’re a badass bitch, but you’re more like a cute little puppy, still suckling at the teat.”

Neal’s words had all kinds of canine comparisons, but he missed the most accurate one: Michele was an underdog. As a former juror myself, I know that the jury roots for the little guy. Michele just needed to give Jason and Julia and Scot enough of a reason to write her name down.

She admitted she came into the game weak and attributed part of that to being on the nebulous “Beauty” tribe. But, she said, “When I figured it out, I think I was able to excel in it.”

“I believed in myself and I trusted myself and I remained happy and positive,” she said, in her tearful closing words.

It was enough.

The Geek Warrior

Michele’s major competition in the finale was Aubry, who described her game as “a potpourri of Survivor triumphs and mishaps.” Aubry had a slow start this season, with an early game breakdown that allegedly almost saw her quit. But as the season progressed so did her skills, until she and Cydney were together calling every shot.

As Debbie put it, she metamorphosed from a “neurotic nerd” to a “geek warrior.”

Aubry had a superb Tribal Council, fluffing Debbie and challenging Michele’s ignorance.

Most importantly, she owned her game. “After the merge, I was on the right side of every single vote,” Aubry said. “I got to be the person people came to make a decision.”

The third finalist, Tai, struggled to explain his erratic strategy. As often happened throughout the season, just when Tai needed to be most eloquent, he choked. He seemed to realize that he needed to justify his Scot blindside, but he could never find the right words.

Worst of all when Debbie asked Tai if he had multiple personalities, he denied it. Don’t you know Debbie of all people is going to respect multiple personalities?!

I think Tai was really hurt by not being a native English speaker. Survivor is a highly verbal game, and that’s especially true at the final tribal, where you have to somehow answer questions thoughtfully and eloquently while placating a lot of angry jurors. I could barely do it in my native tongue on my season; I can’t imagine trying to go through that in French.

So Tai, welcome to the No Votes club!

RELATED VIDEO: Survivor‘s Tai Trang Talks About What He Thinks Happened to Mark the Chicken!

A Surprise Twist

The big surprise in the episode was the final twist, as the contestants competed for the right to remove a jury member.

Some fans hated the twist. One friend told me: “There’s a sense that it’s unnecessarily cruel to take away the one thing one of these jurors are still here for. Fans are also worried about how that could crush someone’s chances in the end.”

I thought the twist added a nice strategic wrinkle. The power was a real prize worth fighting for, but not something that would rob a truly deserving player of a victory or a spot at the finale.

(A challenge advantage, which gives a contestant an almost unbeatable advantage in a subsequent immunity challenge, is more unfair to the other players – and drains the finale of drama.)

Plus removing a jury member is the ultimate test of social dynamics. How do you remove the perfect juror? Michele got it just right tonight.

What Makes a Winner?

There’s already a little backlash against Michele’s victory, with some viewers claiming Aubry was robbed.

But winning Survivor is only rarely about being the “best” Survivor player, whatever that means. Survivor is a game filled with luck, with vendettas, with the vagaries of human emotion. It’s about being likable to the right people at the right time, winning crucial immunities and somehow connecting in just the right way.

The best comparison I can think of is to a large poker tournament. Top-notch poker players almost never win the World Series of Poker. There’s just too much luck involved. However, they do outperform other players on average and often wind up at final tables.

Michele got the right hands, at the right moment, and played her cards perfectly. As she summed up her own game: “I made little adjustments here and there and fought my way to my spot here. And when I needed to win challenges, that’s exactly what I did.”

And regardless of whether you’re happy with this season’s victor or not, in the end we’re all just water hyacinths. We floated along with this season for a while, and while we say farewell now, we have some great memories.

Survivor: Kaoh Rong airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.