Stephen Fishbach analyzes the South Pacific finale

Credit: Rob Kim/Landov

“Dragons die. But so do dragon slayers.”
– George R. R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire

A big part of Survivor is performing best when it matters most. Sophie may have had a passive game all season, but a crucial final immunity win that kept Ozzy from the end and an excellent performance at the final tribal earned her a million dollars and the title of Sole Survivor. Most importantly, it also earned her the Final Fishy.

Sunday’s Survivor started off like the climax of a monster movie. The remains of the Upolu tribe huddled in terror on the beach as a beast emerged from the sea – a beast with gorgeous hair and a surfer drawl. And he would stop at nothing to win his million dollars.

The last act of Survivor: South Pacific could be titled “The Rise of Ozzy.” After a season of solid gameplay, the Upolu three almost had their victory snatched from them as Ozzy won his way back from Redemption Island, into the final four, and was a hair’s breadth from making the million.

But Sophie’s final immunity win – coupled with a little creative morality on Coach’s part – put Sophie, Albert and Coach in the final three.

As final tribal wound down, my entire viewing party fully expected Coach to win. After all, Coach dominated the strategy and the social dynamics of South Pacific. He was responsible for the defining move of the season – pulling Cochran over to Upolu. And his earnest self-appraisal and humble apologies to the jury seemed like just the balm to soothe their wounds.

But it turned out that Coach didn’t do enough. After a season full of Christian hyperbole, the jury just couldn’t forgive him. Sophie did a superb job of being the un-Coach – contrite but not smarmy. When Whitney blasted her character, her self-assessment seemed honest and sincere. Possibly the best moment of the final tribal came when she cavalierly remarked how Upolu had really found its hidden idol, days before they told Brandon about it – another one of Coach’s lies coming unraveled. Oh, and also when she called Coach a “young girl.”

Sophie was the rare woman who made her mark through challenge wins and smart play – not by flirting with the boys. Yes, she played a passive game. But as she obviously knew very well, keeping the pecking order intact placed her squarely at the end with two goats. Passivity was for Sophie a means of control. She exerted her influence in subtle ways that might not have been as TV friendly as a big blindside.

Returning Players
The two returning players were part of the problem. Gamers like Sophie or Albert might have been more extroverted strategists if given the chance to develop gameplay on their own. But as Boston Rob did last season, Coach and Ozzy sucked all the air out of South Pacific, dominating their tribes.

If nothing else, this season will hopefully end the mismatched scenario of pitting returning players against a new cast. Every single time that’s happened, at least one of the vets has made the finals – in Guatemala, Micronesia, Redemption Island, and South Pacific. Half the time, they’ve won.

Ozzy and Coach were both clapping themselves on the back for having made it to the end despite being returning players. But the fact that both were in the final four shows what a tremendous advantage veterans have. There’s a huge learning curve to Survivor. Coach was breaking alliances while the rest of Upolu was still struggling to make fire. So it’s no surprise that Sophie’s best strategy was to jump onto Coach’s back and hold on tight. Not trying to rock the boat for its own sake – as Albert repeatedly did – was the smartest move she could make.

Oh, and hey, on that note: Welcome, Albert, to team No Votes! We’re glad to have you.