'Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers' Crowns Ben Driebergen as Season 35 Winner

And the season 35 Survivor winner is ...

Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.

Erik Reichenbach is a former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.

“Winners keep fighting. Champions keep persevering.” — Bobby Jon Drinkard, Survivor: Palau

Tonight during the finale of Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers, military vet Ben Driebergen won the million bucks, the title of Sole Survivor – and most importantly, the Final Fishy.

Survivor: Triple H was a season of records. Ben tied the record for most immunity idols found in a season, and played more hidden idols correctly than any contestant ever. Finalist Chrissy Hofbeck tied the immunity record for women – and is 17 years older than Kim Spradlin, the next oldest person to hold that record. (The other two, Kelly Wiglesworth and Jenna Morasca, were both in their early 20s.)

Perhaps even more notable than the contestants was the evolving structure of the show itself. The season was marked by having the most idols and secret advantages in any season ever. There were nine idols – seven of which were played, and four of which had game-changing impact. There were three secret advantages – Lauren’s extra vote, Devon’s invalidated vote, and Chrissy’s opportunity to “pick a finalist.” (Four if you count Ryan’s “pass an idol” advantage.) Perhaps most contentiously, there was the giant twist at the final four, where the vote was replaced by a fire-making challenge. More on that below.

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Ben’s Path to the Finale

Even early in the season, Ben played a strong game. He avoided the drama on the Heroes tribe. While his ally Alan was strip-searching JP, Ben was building relationships, notably with Chrissy and Ashley.

But it was really at the merge when Ben became the center of everything. He and his Hustler ally Lauren were the swing votes between the Hero-Hustler alliance and the Healers. Wisely, they chose the Hero-Hustler group, and for the next three votes, Ben was “King Arthur” of that core alliance. At the final nine, when Lauren decided to form a Core 4, Ben played secret agent, gulling Chrissy and Ryan into complacency.

Even then, Ben seemed like an obvious winner – a likable military veteran who was part of every alliance. His allies realized that too, and started to plot against him. They didn’t count on Ben’s super-powered ability to move through foliage undetected. Ben overheard their conversation, blew up his alliance, blew up another alliance, and ended with his back against the wall, the primary target at every subsequent vote.

That was when his game kicked into overdrive. Ben went on an incredible run of finding and playing three consecutive idols. Even as the entire tribe was working for his elimination, Ben somehow managed to stay alive.

“He has a ferocity that transcends this game,” Dr. Mike said. (This interestingly echoed Spencer’s tribal council speech about Tony Vlachos in Cagayan: “Tony played with a ferocity this game very rarely does see.” Ferocity. It’s so hot right now.)

At the final four immunity challenge, Ben almost eked out a victory, but an upside-down U scuttled his chances – a reminder of how tiny the difference can be on Survivor between victory and defeat. The immunity loss looked like it might cost him the game.

But a final four twist changed everything. Rather than letting the contestants vote, immunity-winner Chrissy instead could save one person. She chose Ryan. That left Devon and Ben to compete in a fire-making competition, and Ben won his way into the final tribal.

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A Fire-Making Flameout

Like many Survivor fans, I disliked the fire-making twist (though I didn’t hate it as much as some, and I could probably even be convinced into accepting it). The entire premise of Survivor is that the contestants systematically vote each other out of the game until the end, when the power shifts to the jury. Forcing the players to make fire removes the social element of the game at a crucial moment. While the show has experimented with more and more twists and advantages, these always function against the core idea that at the heart of every Survivor elimination is a vote. Outside of medical evacuations and quits, I believe Devon is the first person ever sent home without a vote.

(Both Cirie and Varner were eliminated last season without votes, but in those situations the votes were both formalities that Jeff yadda-yadda’d away. Ian in Palau wasn’t formally voted out, but that was really a quit. And yes, a number of final four tribal councils have ended in fire-making, but those fire-making challenges were tiebreakers after the contestants had already voted.)

I assume that producers implemented the twist because the player voted out in fourth place is, like Ben, so often one of the most threatening players. That’s not to say this twist was made up to save Ben, as some angry fans have speculated. But it was probably created to save players like Ben – players like David Wright, and like Kelley Wentworth. It’s the same rationale for why they implemented the final three in the first place – to give contestants who play hard all season long a shot at making their case to the jury.

I’m glad the producers are experimenting, even if I don’t always agree with their choices. After 17 years, they have to find ways to keep the show fresh. And the final four vote – sandwiched as it is in the first half of the finale – is the vote I’d most be okay with changing. It’s either a down-the-line vote against one of the season’s best players, or a tie that turns into a fire-making challenge anyway.

But Survivor isn’t about giving the “best” player another shot at a deserved win. Every season’s winner is merely the person who through a combination of luck and skill managed to sneak their way into day 39 with two other people who the jury liked even less.

I think I probably speak for many Survivor fans when I say I love the show not because my favorites always win, but because often they don’t. Seeing people play their hearts out and come up short is just as powerful as seeing them eke out a victory. I like Survivor more than scripted television because, just like real life, the endings aren’t tied in a bow.

I love Survivor because of the inherent drama in the game itself. Twists like this final four fire-making may give us a more satisfying winner – but they take away from the deeper satisfactions of that game.

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Final Tribal Council

Of course, every Survivor winner benefits from lucky breaks – either format twists or a perfectly-timed challenge. Ben’s presence in the final three dramatically changes the final tribal council.

The new jury format, which debuted last season, once again kept the final tribal fast-paced and interesting. It’s a reminder to fans who are furious about the fire-making challenge that the producers’ willingness to tweak the format can also bear spectacular results.

Once again, it was fascinating to see the jury try to gauge what actually constitutes a good game. Is it important to foster sincere relationships, as Desi suggested? Or are those relationships only meaningful insofar as they serve a players’ game purposes, as Cole said? These are the questions that contestants and jurors debate when playing the game, and one of the most exciting parts of Survivor is that every season, the new jury gets to decide the correct answer for itself.

Interestingly, the three finalists each seemed to embody different strategies for winning. Ryan argued that his social politicking advanced him; Chrissy was an immunity beast; and Ben had his streak of idols.

Ryan struggled most in making his case. Because he often served as a consigliere – “the guy behind the guy” – many of the jurors didn’t have direct strategic relationships with him. His claims that the big alliance of seven “was actually my idea” didn’t resonate with a jury who probably all thought they came up with the idea, too. It’s a reminder to future players to have strategic conversations with everyone. Secretly controlling the game is great until the final tribal, when your very secrecy works against you. Ryan’s only vote came from Devon, which is yet another reminder to never underestimate a bromance.

Meanwhile Chrissy had a fantastic tribal performance. She argued that she built sincere social bonds with the players and, when Joe called her out on what seemed like a hyperbolic overstatement, she shared the roots of his fear of commitment. (Did anybody else flash forward to the awkward conversation Joe is going to have tonight with his girlfriend?) Chrissy talked about how she grew from the woman who was puking in the first challenge to an immunity champion.

She also played aggressive defense. When Ryan tried to undermine her social bonds, she shot him down, “Ryan, just because your body is present doesn’t mean that other people always have a relationship through you.” And, after Ben discussed his war service, Chrissy – knowing that the jury wants to feel good about their winner vote – made the case that moms are heroes too.

Ben Survivor artCredit: Erik Reichenbach
Erik Reichenbach

(I only wish Ryan had had the chance to make a “bellhops are heroes” speech.)

Chrissy also made a compelling point that I’d never heard before, that the winner of the season is a representative for the entire cast. Like all great politicians, she tried to make a victory for herself into a victory for all of them. “Moms are not only heroes. But we are also healers, and we are also hustlers. So in a way my game and who I am is all parts of that,” she said.

But nothing that either Chrissy or Ryan said could take away from Ben’s aggressive game and his history of military service. After multiple tribal councils where the jury saw the majority alliance wave Ben goodbye only for him to pull out another #BenBomb, Ben could truthfully say, “I took every opportunity and never quit. The only one that was going to save me was me.”

Meanwhile the jury, like the viewers, had to wonder why the majority alliance didn’t follow Ben more closely and stop him from finding more idols.

Ben also was the only person in the final three to send every person to the jury. Ryan and Chrissy had been left out of the JP blindside, and of course it was Ben’s solo vote that sent Lauren home. Even Devon, who received no votes in his elimination, was sent to the jury by Ben’s fire-making prowess.

(While technically Ben voted for Dr. Mike during the JP blindside, he was still a core part of that move.)

Even so, the jury felt that Ben gave a lackluster performance, to the point that his old rival Joe urged him not to give up. That all changed when he spoke powerfully about how the show was helping him move past his traumatic experiences in the military, and how he wanted to give hope to other veterans.

“If I can be labeled a hero for showing all those vets it can be done and there is happiness, you’re going to have to work hard for it, but you know it can be done,” he said.

The jury voted 5-2-1 in his favor.

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