So the 23rd (!) season of Survivor is in the books and the 22nd Survivor champion has been named. Where does Sophie Clarke stack up against past winners of the show? As someone who has already written way, WAY too much about Survivor, let's analyze her victory…
The three main criteria in my previous 'best players ever' post was to judge the winners by the manner in which they won their season, their so-called skillset and the likelihood of them winning Survivor again should they make a return appearance. By all of these standards, Sophie did a more than solid job.
How she won: an old-fashioned Survivor gameplan of getting into an alliance, sticking to it to the very end, and then getting yourself into a sub-alliance within the larger group that would get to the final tribal council. Given how solid the Upolu alliance ended up being (thanks in large part to Brandon and Coach's religious hectoring), Sophie basically had this thing wrapped up the moment the Upolus got Cochran to flip and give them the numbers advantage at the merge.
Now, I say 'basically had this thing wrapped up' unless Ozzy had, of course, gone on an immunity run and gotten himself into the final three, since obviously he would've won going away in yet another example of why the Redemption Island gimmick is stupid. But if you had never seen Survivor before and judged this season solely by how the show was being presented and edited, you would've thought Coach would be the winner by a landslide. If the show was to be believed, Coach was the one that swung Cochran (who was no doubt a bit starstruck by dealing with a Survivor icon), which ended up being the key turning point in the game. Coach was also by all accounts the 'leader' of the Upolu tribe, kept them in a tight group with no thoughts of flipping (besides Albert's half-assed plans) and all things considered, played a terrific game.*
Except….well, Coach is a terrible Survivor player. We know this and the players in the cast know this. I find it hard to believe that this guy who was an utter and total clown for two seasons suddenly flipped a switch and became a poor man's Boston Rob in his third try. Instead, I find it MUCH easier to believe that what we saw on the show wasn't *really* what happened, but instead was another example of Survivor's increasingly piss-poor editing. The producers' favourite quartet of Coach/Ozzy/Brandon/Cochran took up at least 85% of the screentime this season since they were the ones with the biggest personalities that the show wanted to highlight as the 'stars' of the season. This isn't to say that Survivor hasn't always been edited with an eye towards producing a heightened reality of the show, but at least in past seasons they weren't so obvious about it.
Anyway, getting back to Sophie, it was clear that her strategy was to get in an alliance filled with goats. You had Coach, the living Survivor joke. You had Rick, the nearly-invisible cowboy who was all about loyalty and was thus the perfect fourth wheel in an alliance. You had Edna, loyal because she had to be and also seemingly ignorant as to her low standing in the tribe. You had Albert, who was so transparent in his desire to curry jury votes and be seen as a real mover and shaker and it lost him everyone's respect. And then you had Brandon, the borderline-psychotic who seemed to be on orders from God to be a loyal tribe member. It seems like Sophie would've won in just about any final-three combination of this sextet, though Rick (who seemed well-liked, if low-profile) might have drawn enough votes in a Rick-Coach-Sophie scenario to force a tie in the final vote, which, if I understand my Mayan calendar correctly, turns Jeff Probst into a pillar of salt and triggers the end of the world.
* = I believe that Coach fell into his success in this series purely by accident, since if he'd had any sense of what he was doing, he should've won this thing going away. The fact that Coach was so adamant about having Sophie in the F3 was stunningly bone-headed, on par with Russell believing the likes of Natalie, Sandra and Parvati were all 'easy to beat' in a jury vote. Had Coach been in the end with literally anyone in his alliance other than Sophie, he wins since the rest of Upolu was Goat City USA. You could argue Coach saw the value in keeping Sophie and Albert since they were the alliance's only chance of beating Ozzy in a challenge, but that ignores the fact that Upolu basically gave Ozzy two byes at Redemption Island by having him face Edna and Cochran. If you send Sophie against Ozzy at one of those last two RI challenges (particularly the vertical Rubik's Cube thing that Edna lost), she stands a more than good chance of beating him there and preventing him from ever re-entering the game. If Coach was smart, he would've had Sophie voted out at F6 and thus ensured that either she or Ozzy would be out for good.
Skillset: Good at both physical and mental challenges; winning that last challenge and ousting Ozzy literally clinched Sophie the game. Loyal, within the Survivor context. Shrewd about making moves or, perhaps more accurately, when NOT to make moves, as Sophie realizes early on that she was in a pretty strong situation and thus never joined in Albert's crazy plans to shake up the game. Great poker face, since apparently she isn't religious but was able to fake it enough so as to not be cast out by Brandon/Coach/Albert as a heathen.
Her alleged weakness would be her "condescending" personality, as Whitney put it, and the fact that she apparently came off as somewhat entitled. To this end, Sophie's little crying spell at the F5 tribal council actually helped her a lot, since it brought back the curtain a bit and made her seem more human than hypocrites like Albert and Coach. But really, Sophie's "condescension" actually makes me think more of her as a player since she still won. The golden rule of Survivor is to make sure you're at the final tribal council alongside players who aren't as liked and/or respected as you. Survivor's iceman, the Dexter-esque Brian Heidik, knew he'd eventually have to stab his allies in the back to make it to the end, so he made sure he was in the F2 with the even-more-unlikable Clay Jordan. In Sophie's case, even if she wasn't quite aware of how her attitude was coming off to the other players, it ultimately didn't matter since she positioned herself to be at the end with Albert and Coach. An "it's just business" attitude is much preferable to a jury than Albert and Coach's two-faced, "I play this game with honour but sorry guys, I'll have to vote you out anyway" attitudes.
(And AGAIN, as Cochran noted while voting for Coach, had Coach just owned his gameplay, he still might've won. Had Coach said, 'I turned your perceptions of me from previous seasons against you and got to the end,' he would've won a lot more respect as a strategist. Why the hell am I talking about Coach so much? Damn, this slanted Survivor editing is even getting to me.) Could They Do It Again?: If Sophie ever plays this game again, I think she'd stand a very strong chance of making another deep run. An underrated factor to Sophie's success is that, if you read her post-game interviews, she's basically the female Cochran. She's a big Survivor fan except, unlike Cochran, she was smart enough to not wear her fandom on her sleeve and actually prepared for the game, whereas Cochran seemed stunned to realize that Survivor took place outdoors. Sophie is also smart enough to adjust her game a second time around, based on how she perceives she's being perceived by her new tribemates.
Sophie's MO this time was a blend of the Amber/Natalie Strategy (be seen as the good cop next to a more outwardly aggressive and less likeable player) combined with Heidik's cool detachment. That's a hell of a combination. Going back to my initial ranking of Survivor winners, I can't put Sophie in the top tier of Sandra/Parvati/Brian, but I'd definitely slot her amongst Tina/Earl/Chris in the next tier of champions. That's no worse than #7 all-time and perhaps even as high as fourth. Very impressive for a woman whose screentime was largely shafted in favour of yet more goddamn footage of Ozzy climbing a tree.