Tonight is the season finale of Survivor: Caramoan – Fans Vs. Favorites II. It will mark the end of the 26th game played by US competitors, and the 25th winner will get a million dollars. Across the more than a dozen years, game winners have won based on cunning and guile, strength and determination, opponents doing the work by embittering the jury and other more ephemeral reasons.
The problem inherent in ranking Survivor winners is that there is not clear-cut definition of what it takes to win beyond “make it to the end and get the jury to vote for you.” More than in most competitions, Survivor players have to pull from a pool of resources so wide and deep it’s nearly impossible to categorize them all. Due to all of the variables, a list of “greatest winners” is impossible to write completely objectively.
That being said, here’s my completely subjective and biased choice for my 5 favorite Survivor winners of all time.
5. Vecepia Towery Robinson – Survivor: Marquesas
Vecepia’s win at the end of the fourth season of Survivor was monumental for the franchise. A huge number of people, fans and other players alike, felt that she was completely undeserving of the victory. Throughout the season, the character of Vecepia was shown to be somewhat abrasive, weak in challenges, lacking in strategy and part of a minority alliance. She embodied everything a Survivor winner isn’t.
Survivor is a game that showcases a lot of skills, but the one skill it absolutely relies on is manipulation. What stands out about Vecepia’s game is that she exploited that to the nth degree. She often spent time quietly observing the other players, recording everything she learned about them in a notebook. She never emerged as a leader, but she played in a season famous for chopping off the head of anyone that tried to be too controlling.
Vecepia changed the definition of what it took to be a winner, by expanding it to those that were previously considered without hope. The fall of the Rotu Four broke the game, to the delight of everyone. Although many, if not most, of the characters on Survivor: Marquesas were bigger and more memorable than Vecepia, she worked behind the scenes to make sure they were playing her game. In the end, she cut off Kathy’s head by striking up a deal with Neleh that she lifted straight out of the Hatch Playbook, practically assuring her victory.
4. Todd Herzog – Survivor: China
There are few players that have won the game that know as much about the game as the winner of Survivor: China, Todd Herzog. He went into the game with a plan (“I needed a second person who I could trust from day one. I needed someone smaller than me. I needed to be friends with a strong guy. I had all of these people in my mind that could help me get here and I can’t believe it worked.”) and then carried it out to perfection.
Every winner has to have a little bit of luck to get to the end, but Todd was able to leave as little to chance as possible. Not only did he get his hands on the immunity idol as soon as he could, he immediately gave it away to the strong guy in his alliance. Later, he got rid of the same strong guy just before it was too late.
His great gameplay got him to the end, but what earned him the win was his stellar performance at the Final Tribal Council. Although Amanda choking and Courtney’s poor performance and grating attitude certainly helped, he worked Jean-Robert Bellande like a thief stealing gold from a dragon, and walked away with a hard-earned and much deserved million dollars.
3. Sandra Diaz-Twine – Survivor: Pearl Islands, Survivor: Heroes Vs. Villains
The only two time winner, Sandra took lessons from Vecepia’s performance in Marquesas and turned it into a true art. In Pearl Islands, she amped up the “abrasive” meter to eleven, laughed at her own miserable challenge performances, cursed at people, sabotaged things, and made life entertaining for everyone that watched. Then she walked away with a cool million.
After the season was over, a lot of fans attributed her win to the fact she faced Lil in the finals. She returned 13 seasons later, played an even more abrasive game, performed even more miserably in challenges, and walked away with a second million and the statistically best record of any contestant when it comes to wins.
Although her 2-0 record is likely to last a long time, I don’t think it’s untouchable. I also think she’s unlikely to win a 3rd victory, as her “under the radar” gameplay is too well-known to returning players. However, her second win proved that she not only knew what she was doing, but she could repeat the performance under completely different circumstances with a drastically different field of players.
Except Rupert. Sandra’s always got his vote.
2. Chris Daugherty -Survivor: Vanuatu
Do I place him so high on the list because he’s a fellow Ohioan, or because of his awesome game? I’ll admit to a little of both, but mostly it was due to his awesome game. From day one, Chris was destined to lose the game thanks to not being able to walk across a balance beam. A crafty alliance saved him until the merge, where he again was under threat as every other male player saw their torch snuffed in succession.
Thanks to Chris’s masterful manipulation and a late-game challenge run, Chris was able to secure his spot in the finals, taking Twila with him. Still an underdog and facing a jury composed primarily of women, he talked them into giving him his vote anyway and cashed his check with a smile on his face.
For a large part of his stay on the island, Chris was forced to play an individual game. He withstood punishment and endured ostracism, but ended up proving to be just too damn likable. The most recent season of Survivor (Caramoan) has sparked some debate about whether being “likable” is actually dangerous or not. Let the debate be put to rest – Chris Daugherty proved that likability is absolutely instrumental when it comes to that last great fireside chat everyone has.
1. Yul Kwon – Survivor: Cook Islands
I’m not going to bury the lead here – I think that of every winner Survivor has seen, Yul Kwon had the skills to win on any season he would have been cast. His use of (or lack thereof) the immunity idol was masterful, allowing him to maintain a stranglehold on voting decisions. He manipulated Penner at precisely the right times in precisely the right ways. Perhaps most telling is that his jury management led him to a victory over Ozzy, in the one season that Ozzy was at his most dominant and likable.
A mastercut of all of Yul’s screen time could be used to conduct a master class on political theory. Even though he was never in any real danger of getting voted out thanks to early idol rules (which have changed, thankfully), he was able to make it to the end with his alliance intact even though they were the underdogs.
Yul is the prototype that Survivor loves. He’s physical enough that even though Ozzy was the season beast, Yul was always instrumental in getting things done. He’s one of the most intelligent people that ever played, but never used that to be truly condescending or arrogant – if anything he used it to humble himself in front of other players. He played every other player by figuring out not only what they were thinking, but what they would think after he made his moves.
I don’t want to discuss all the other winners, but I do want to finish with two notes. The reason that Hatch isn’t on the list can be summed up in much the same way I did for leaving Borneo off of my Top 5: Survivor Seasons.
Kim Spradlin didn’t make the list for a completely different reason – I haven’t rewatched her season yet. A lot of people are calling her the Greatest Of All Time, but I wasn’t impressed with the season when I watched it the first time, so I can’t agree with that. I do plan on revisiting it, and if the rumors are true then this list will change. Until then, however, I’ll leave it like it is.
Feel free to disagree in the comments.