Survivor was in need of a good season. After the terrible Nicaragua season and the back-to-back mediocrity of the two seasons with the Redemption Island gimmick, the show went back to basics with NO Redemption Island, NO returning cast members and an old-fashioned Survivor gimmick of all men vs. all women to start the game. The only new twist was having both tribes share "one world," i.e. both camps were on the same beach. While this twist was abandoned after the first four episodes, it definitely had an impact on the final result, which I'll explore later.
And, finally, the show was in need of a good winner. Fabio was one of the worst winners ever, Boston Rob's dominating win in the first Redemption Island season was undermined by the fact that it was his fourth time and he was playing against starstruck newbies, and while I was a big fan of Sophie's win from last season, I seem to be in the minority. (Attention to all the Sophie-haters: when you say Sophie was undeserving, what you're really saying is that Coach was the rightful winner. Think about that for a second…do you really want to put yourself in the position of arguing that friggin' COACH was a worthy Survivor champion? Come off it.)
In Kim Spradlin, Survivor got not just a good winner, but one of its best-ever winners. She joins Earl and Yul in the pantheon of Survivor winners who weren't just dominant winners, but also universally-liked in their victory. (Tom and JT aren't on this list since Tom got some flack for brow-beating Ian and JT's stock dropped after his clown shoes performance in Heroes vs. Villains.)
How She Won: As Survivor casts more and more people who aren't true fans and don't appear to have even seen many/any past seasons, the show has definitely reverted back to the old pattern of players getting in an alliance and more or less sticking with it all the way to the end. It's a tried-and-true strategy of victory and while it's sometimes not terribly interesting to the viewer to watch, the vast majority of winners won because they were in some sort of an alliance. Also, "Pagongings" are only dull if the ones you like are being picked off. In this case, I was rooting for the Kim/Sabrina/Chelsea alliance to hold, so seeing them pick off the men and the dead weight in their alliance was quite entertaining in my eyes.
Kim took it a step further by not just being in an alliance, but by running the alliance, being the unquestioned strategic head* of the group and yet still didn't just win the game, she didn't even appear to be in any real trouble. Troy, for all his own stupidity, at least figured out that Kim was the biggest threat and tried to rally everyone to vote her out and improve their own chances of victory. It was a perfectly logical argument but it failed because Kim had everyone in her alliance convinced they were going to the end with her. (And because nobody wanted to go to the end with Troy because he was an asshat.) It's rare that the alpha of the group actually wins Survivor and even rarer that they do so without even taking a few hits.
* = sorry Alicia, you weren't the mastermind. The Survivor editors got some great comedic mileage out of showing Alicia's boastful interviews immediately next to her being easily manipulated by Kim. Alicia was so worried about being "Tarzaned" that she didn't even notice she was "Kimmed."
Between making deals with everyone, winning individual immunity and having the bonus of the hidden idol, Kim covered her bases masterfully. Heck, the HII didn't even come into play since Kim was so dominant; she didn't bother using it at the final five when it was her last chance to do so. It was really a superlative all-around performance.
Kim, it should be said, enjoyed two big strokes of luck within the game. I'm not knocking her for these since luck is a huge element of any Survivor victory, but they should at least be acknowledged. Firstly, Kim benefited from the male tribe's all-time idiotic decision to give up the immunity they had ALREADY WON in order to go to tribal council and vote out Bill. Baffling. There's no other way to spin it than the guys were simply cowed into doing it by Colton, since he had an idol and actually knew something about the show, so all the guys shamefully went along with both killing themselves in the game and, to boot, abetting some thinly-veiled racism. That was the moment when the male tribe was dead to me and I started rooting for the women full-on, by the way. Interestingly, I would say that this move was completely derived from the "one world" concept. I think the guys were confident in giving up immunity since they still felt they could beat the women after seeing them up-close with their half-assed camp, freezing, starving and literally begging the guys for palm fronds and fire. Had the women been on a separate beach and still been something of an unknown quantity, I doubt the guys would've been so cavalier about giving their advantage in the game. Had the women gone to TC that night, Christina likely would've been voted out, which would've obviously changed the whole complexion of the game given how far Christina ended up going.
The other big stroke of luck was that virtually all of Kim's alliance stayed together in the tribal swap. Had Kim found herself in Monica's position (with dead-weight Christina and easily-swayed Alicia) on the other tribe with four guys, she would've been in trouble, though she did have the HII to still help/save her. While the favourable tribe swap helped Kim, she took it a step further by aligning with Jay and Troy, convincing them that they were in a new alliance with her and Chelsea and ultimately getting Jay/Troy to vote off the other men. If the tribal swap was a winning lottery ticket for Kim, getting Jay/Troy to flip was like taking those lottery winnings and investing them in Apple stock circa 1985. You could argue that Colton's medical evacuation was also a stroke of luck for Kim but I doubt she would've had much difficulty in getting that prejudiced dipshit out of the game.
Skillset: Basically everything. Kim didn't just win challenges, she won a wide variety of challenges --- puzzles, willpower, hand-eye, or just straight athleticism, it didn't matter, Kim could compete and win. On top of everything else, Kim was well-liked, treated everyone with respect and had what Sabrina described as the magic ability to make everyone believe her. Admittedly, this was kind of funny to hear from one of Kim's allies since, y'know, you'd think it would occur to Sabrina that this was an awfully dangerous quality in an opponent, but Sabrina ended up in the finals anyway, so no worries. Kim was well-liked, well-respected AND a tough competitor in every way. If you had to draw up a perfect Survivor player, it might well be her. I'm hard-pressed to think of one mistake Kim made in the game. I guess maybe taking Chelsea and Alicia on the reward challenge instead of Kat, though that ultimately didn't really seem to harm her, and it could be argued that Kat's bratty response to being left out helped turn the tide against her and made it easier for Kim to get her voted out down the road.
As if this wasn't enough, Kim also gave the best possible answer to why she didn't employ the 'goat strategy' and take Christina to the end over Sabrina. Kim's answer was, essentially, "I think I played the best game of anyone so it shouldn't matter who I'm sitting with here at the end." Boom! I wish Probst had handed Kim a microphone so she could've dropped it. Out of context, that's quite the cocky answer, and yet in Kim's case, it was just matter-of-fact confidence.
Could She Do It Again?: Citing the precedent of Tom in the Heroes vs. Villains season, one would think that Kim's incredible performance in S24 would immediately make her a target in any return season. That said, in a vacuum, if you turned back time and put Kim into another season of Survivor with a new cast, I still think she'd do very well since there's reason why WOULDN'T do well. Her athleticism would definitely keep her safe in the early rounds of voting, and then post-merge, she could more than hold her own in individual challenges and no doubt also shift some votes with her manipulative abilities. If the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist, Kim's greatest trick was being right out there front and centre, existing as a massive and obvious threat to win Survivor and yet she was never in trouble. What small problems that did arise for her, she dealt with them creatively and efficiently, i.e. instantly turning Troy against Mike or instantly convincing Alicia that Tarzan was trying to play her.
So where does Kim rank all-time? Going back to my original list, I'll place her fourth. Sandra and Parvati have an advantage in that they've played multiple seasons and been successful multiple times, and Brian Heidik…
…well, this is an interesting debate, so let's give it its own paragraph. Essentially, I still rank Heidik slightly ahead of Kim because I think it's harder to win the game if you're an asshole. Brian had to work harder to hide his natural douchebaggery and, as well as he played, he would've lost had he not perfectly arranged to be at the end with the only guy in the cast (Clay) more unlikeable than he. Now, some might argue that it's tougher to be a GOOD person and win Survivor, since other players are more inclined to vote you out if they think you'll impress a jury. Yet, knowing jury dynamics, it's clearly easier for a nice person to win a vote --- at the end of the day, a juror on the fence can stomach voting for a "hero" more easily than they can vote for a "villain." Then again, there's no way Brian would succeed in a return appearance on Survivor, whereas Kim has a pretty good shot. I'd love to hear any more takes on the subject, since Kim vs. Brian is a real tossup in my mind.