So Michele Fitzgerald, to this extent, seemingly had this one in the bag. She succeeded at the most basic level of any Survivor, which is that nobody seemed to have anything bad to say about her and everyone respected her game. (Well, everyone except Neal, though as it appropriately turned out for a man in the dairy business, his opinion was a moo point.) Her only challenge would be in getting to the end, and thanks to a couple of well-timed immunity victories and perhaps an even better-timed medical evacuation, she cracked the final three and got her name on the cheque.
With this all being said, let’s explore why I can’t put her in anything above the lower tier (say, bottom half) of Survivor winners, which is either a failing of either Michele herself or of the show’s editors.
How She Won: Interestingly, she essentially played the same game as Tai and Cydney did, except she called much less attention to herself — Tai couldn’t help but be a focal point given how he’d won the extra vote, the hidden immunity idol and his ‘super-idol’ potential, and as Jason pointed out in his jury speech, Tai didn’t really take advantage of any of those, uh, advantages. Cydney essentially made her flip too early and instantly ticked off Jason and Scot, though I would’ve been curious to see how she would’ve fared in the F3 had she beaten Aubry in the fire duel. Maybe Cydney then also wins the ‘eliminate a juror’ challenge* and takes out a surefire Michele vote (probably Julia) and then it’s anyone’s guess as to who Aubry/Neal/Joe all vote for on the jury.
* = while I enjoyed the uniqueness of this F3 twist, I’m probably okay with not seeing it again. The whole point of the game is to win over the majority of your vanquished players, so I’m not keen on a twist that gives you a virtual cheat code past one of those jury obstacles. Needless to say, I would’ve vastly preferred just a classic final two. Let me reiterate again that Survivor should bust out a F2 every few years just to keep players on their toes, even if the show insists on having a F3 as the primary format for the final tribal council.
When it came to actual strategizing and voting people out, Michele did seem like more of an ‘extra vote’ rather than a key decision-maker due to her attempts at trying to play the middle at all times between the competing Brawn and Brains alliances. Here’s where I defend Michele’s play a bit because there’s no rule in Survivor that insists you need to have a game built around BACKSTABZ! and BLINDSIDEZ! like you’re a crazed Russell Hantz or something. Playing the middle is actually quite a smart strategy to deploy if you can pull it off, so kudos to Michele in that sense.
On the other hand, it seemed she less ‘pulled it off’ than ‘was kind of a leftover.’ It could be argued that if you’re playing in the middle, you’re less a member of two alliances than you are without an alliance, and Michele was able to avoid attention since there were bigger threats attracting attention. I really question, in hindsight, the decision to vote for Jason instead of Michele at F6 — I think the group was more worried about having the loathsome Jason go on a challenge run to the FTC and leaving one of them out than they were about the possibility of Michele getting to the FTC and actually winning. Obviously Michele was far more popular with the group at large than Jason, who seemingly would’ve garnered Scot’s vote and that would’ve been it. Tai had the right idea in trying to swing the vote Michele’s way, though he had no power at the moment since everyone was afraid of his hidden idol.
It could be argued that Michele was a “lucky” winner since she won such a weird season, with three players getting medi’vaced with injuries (including poor Joe at the F5). Joe’s departure was perhaps the only one that clearly benefited Michele since it seemed like the stars were aligning against her in that vote if she didn’t win the immunity challenge. But really, every Survivor victory involves some luck — Michele is far from the only winner to perhaps get a boost from someone getting injured, or to benefit from a fortunate tribal swap. Fun Survivor trivia note: Michele only had to actually cast *six* Tribal Council votes in the entire game thanks to all the injuries and her original tribe’s immunity wins. She and Nick didn’t even attend their first tribal council until Day 22, for pete’s sake. Simplest concept in the game: avoid tribal, you’re safe.
Skillset: As noted, Michele was a pretty good challenge player (particularly when it came to puzzles and balancing) and most of all, she simply just seemed to be well-liked. This presents Survivor’s editors with a bit of a problem, since the unfortunate lesson the show seems to have learned in the post-Russell era is that the “ideal” way to win Survivor is with big moves and TV-friendly blindsides. I’ve made this observation before and I’ll say it again, it’s a lot easier to promote a crazy vote or an idol play than it is promote “tune in at 8pm on CBS to watch people treat each other decently!”
Even after 32 seasons, the show seems to have difficulty with players who win via low-key social games. I feel like Michele will join the likes of Vecepia, Danni, Natalie White and even two-time champ Sandra Diaz-Twine in the ranks of winners whose victories will be underrated or even undermined by many Survivor fans. Hell, I myself have guilty of this in my old rankings of Survivor winners, as since I’m largely limited to what I’m seeing on screen*, I’m forced to give rather a shorter shrift to winners whose path to victory is so under-edited by the show. It’s quite possibly not a coincidence that all of these “underrated” winners are women, since Survivor as a whole tends to struggle when presenting its female players beyond simple archetypes. And to be fair to the show, men are also often slotted into the same boxes again and again, though at least when a man wins largely on the strength of his social game (i.e. Ethan), we’re inundated with scenes showing how the male winner is the nicest guy in the world.
* = I perhaps should’ve waited a few days to write this post in order to read some of the post-show scuttlebutt. For instance, were Aubry and Tai also well-liked but Michele was just that much more popular (a JT over Fishbach scenario), or was there perhaps some ill sentiment towards one or the both of them on the jury? After Jeremy’s win last season, for instance, lots of information emerged about how widely disliked Spencer and Tasha were amongst the jury. Woo was a beloved fan favourite to the casual viewer, but to the S28 cast he was seen as untrustworthy due to an alleged incident where he hid out in a production tent and snuck some food. (This wasn’t included on the show since Survivor avoids fourth-wall breaks whenever possible.) Tai getting no votes at all surprised me, though for all I know, perhaps he was a new Rupert or Sugar, a “fan favourite” who’s actually hated within his own cast.
Could She Do It Again: Like I wrote about Vecepia, Danni and Natalie in my winner rankings, I immediately want to see Michele play again simply so I can see more of her game. Though perhaps I’m making the wrong comparison here, and Michele is actually a properly-edited Jenna Morasca. Jenna’s blowout win in S6 was Survivor’s first WTF result among fans, who were gobsmacked that the woman presented as a do-nothing mean girl so handily whupped challenge beast and slight weirdo Matt “Greg The Alien” von Ertfelda. As it turned out, Jenna was actually quite pleasant and popular within the tribe, yet the editors lumped her in with Heidi as part of the “mean girl alliance” since it better fit their narrative. Jenna, as you might recall, won a couple of big challenges late in the game to clinch her victory…sound familiar?
As least with Michele’s win, the show actually acknowledged on-air that she was popular and a social threat, so it didn’t come out of the clear blue sky. And since popularity is ultimately the name of the game on Survivor, it wouldn’t shock me if she won another title in a return visit. “Girl who didn’t do anything” is a great way to fly under the radar, just ask Sandra.