And after 39 days and sitting in every single Tribal Council, Denise won the million-dollar prize and the title of Sole Survivor.
Before announcing the vote, however, Jeff Probst called for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Newton tragedy — offering a sober perspective on what it really means to “survive.”
So “Survivor” is just a game, but Denise outwitted, outplayed and outlasted her way from the bottom to win.
Here’s how she got there …
Skupin compares voting Abi out to having a tumor removed. Malcolm complains that he was thrown under the bus, “with compliments,” again when Abi pointed out how dangerous he was. Unlike Abi and Lisa, Skupin believes he has a “better story” than Malcolm and can beat him in the final three.
The Castaways compete for a surprise advantage in the final immunity challenge, racing through an obstacle course to collect three bags of pieces to complete a dragon puzzle. (Coach must be hugging himself.) In a tight race, Malcolm just beats Denise to claim what could be a million-dollar prize.
Everyone feels defeated after their toughest competitor wins the advantage. Denise, whom Malcolm considers his greatest threat, does some preemptive scrambling, first campaigning for a commitment from him to take her to the final three and then persuading Lisa and Skupin to vote him out.
Lisa worries that Skupin isn’t “level-headed” and he reiterates how much he needs to win immunity.
The gang pays their respects to all their former competitors, from “insane” Zane to Abi.
Malcolm reveals his advantage — a second chance in the contest to balance a ball on a cylinder of wood between two handles. It doesn’t matter: He is the first to drop the ball, twice, in the second round. Denise is the next to go, then Lisa — Skupin wins immunity.
Skupin and Lisa reassure Malcolm that he’s going to the final three with them. They confab with Denise, who swears that she will vote for Malcolm instead of trying to split the vote. Skupin spouts some nonsense about “honor” in beating fellow “warrior” Malcolm, Dragon Slayer-style. (Another shout-out to Coach!) But Lisa vows to do “whatever it takes” to keep Malcolm out of the final three.
Denise and Malcolm dance around the fact that their original alliance has been torn asunder in the final four. Lisa compares her alliance with Skupin to an “open relationship,” pointing out that their votes haven’t always been in sync. Skupin says Malcolm’s got “favors for life” for rewarding in the loved ones challenge, and Lisa says that would have to be a “million-dollar favor.” Malcolm says Denise is the most dangerous in the final vote, because she’s never had to flip on anyone. Lisa admits straight out that she has “no reason” to take Malcolm to the end.
And he’s not going. Denise joins the others to vote off Malcolm, who becomes the last (very resentful and bitter) jury member, congratulating Denise on her million dollars before Jeff snuffs his torch.
Final Tribal Council
Denise argues that she’s the only one who’s survived every single Tribal Council, asking the jury to respect the fact that she outwitted, outplayed and outlasted the others.
Lisa admits she made a mistake in not following her heart, but is proud that she learned, grew and threw a heavyweight punch to knock out Malcolm.
Skupin gives himself props because he lasted this far as a returning player with such a huge a target on his back.
Artis refuses to congratulate the “holier-than-thou” finalists for betraying their word. Instead of asking questions, he just says, “Karma is a b****.”
Carter, on the other hand, does congratulate the trio, but asks Skupin when he turned on him. His father figure noted how “selfless” he was and because of that he had to go.
Pete calls Lisa’s voting a “Judas situation,” clearing up that she didn’t know Artis was going home. Denise explains that she was forced to play a much more strategic game than the others.
R.C. says she identified Lisa as a threat from day one. She then giggles maniacally asking Skupin whether he knew she was going out on Day 19. Then she giggles some more.
Malcolm is up next, saying for the first time he considered writing Lisa’s name down. Then he commands Denise not to “nod” and criticizes her “appeasing” style. He’s not pleased when she points out, “I’m sitting here and you’re standing there.”
Jeff Kent asks Skupin what kind of guy he is out of three options, who insists he made things happen. Lisa denies his criticism that she spent the game “floating in the middle.”
Abi says her heart is broken after being called the most unlikeable person in the tribe by the finalists, and asks them to justify why they deserve her vote. Denise apologizes if Abi was “truly traumatized or demoralized” by her comments.
Penner has the final word, offering his heartfelt congratulations before continuing the tradition of “smart people asking tough questions.” He’s definitely the toughest of the jury, but doesn’t really ask any questions. Instead, he says Denise has shown the world she can be a “b****.” He then contrasts to his near-record of votes against him to Skupin receiving zero votes thus far, adding, “You may find you have a perfect record after tonight.” Ouch. Finally, he outs Lisa, revealing to the surprise of most that she was a TV star on “The Facts of Life” and considered “America’s Sweetheart.” His parting shot if for the group: “One of you has ridden the others like oxen and now you will be led to the slaughter.”
R.C. votes for Lisa, Penner votes for Denise, praising her “nearly flawless game,” Carter proves Penner wrong, writing down “Skoopin.”
But it was Denise who received the majority of votes — with presumably only Carter and R.C. voting against her, since those are the only votes Jeff revealed at the live show.
Lisa won a consolation prize though: “America’s Sweetheart” won the fan-voted Sprint Player of the Season prize of $100,000 (or $60,000 if you apply Jeff Kent’s IRS math).
Do you think Denise deserved her victory? Did Penner’s revelation hurt Lisa in the end?