On his first day on the island, pasty-white John Cochran burned so badly it was painful to look at him. All season he built on the image of Cochran the geek, the beta male who could never compete with the young bucks. Except that he started winning physical challenges, mental contests, strategic tests and, on Sunday, $1 million.
In an unanimous vote from all eight jury members, Cochran was voted winner of "Survivor: Caramoan," the 26th season of CBS' veteran reality show.
"It feels incredible ... I'm kind of speechless,'' said Cochran, a Harvard law student who wrote a thesis for the college on the strategy of "Survivor." It was Cochran's second time on "Survivor," after competing previously on "Survivor: South Pacific."
Immediately after the win, he was asked by host Jeff Probst what advice he would give to players of the game.
"You have to be calm without being complacent, and be vigilant without being paranoid. It's a constant tightrope balancing act."
Cochran was joined in the final three by Dawn, a mother of 6 children from Utah who was known for her tears this season; and Sherri, a fast-food franchisee from Idaho.
The three-hour season finale had more of the dramatic turns that have marked the show all season. The opening credits had barely rolled before skinny, shaggy Erik was keeling over. The doctor was called out, and made the call that Erik's dizziness and shallow pulse meant he could no longer compete in the game.
So in the first five minutes of the show, the final five was down to four. Next to go was Eddie, the grinning, goofy firemen from New Jersey who had managed to linger in the game with no discernible strategy or success in any of the challenges.
Still, Eddie hadn't made any enemies and that was worrisome enough for Cochran, who won the final immunity challenge, to swing the vote against Eddie.
"You're the only one who can beat me," Cochran said of Eddie.
"If I would have gotten to the final three, first place was mine for the taking," said Eddie, which is not true and just as clueless as he's been all season.
And then it was on to the most delicious part of the entire season, where the final three are questioned by the jury of players whom they have vanquished.
Poor Sherri was insulted over and over again by the jury members, some of whom didn't even bother to ask her a question. She was treated as an inconsequential third wheel next to power players Dawn and Cochran. By the end of the questions, one could see she knew her game, however far she had come, was over.
"You never did anything in this game. You were a seashell on the beach the entire game," said shaggy dog Erik, who had recovered enough from his swoon to bare his fangs.
"I don't need your vote,'' retorted Sherri. "Obviously I'm not going to get it. So you can sit down."
A lot of the jury members chided Dawn for all her tears and mental shakiness this season. They asked why she thought she was a contender in the game when she seemed so vulnerable all the time.
"I think a lot of the emotion had to do with how hard it was for me to be duplicitous," Dawn told the jury. "I wanted to be in control of my own game ... I had to give myself permission to actually play the game. ... I had to come out reminding myself this is a game for $1 million. It's football and I have to be willing to tackle."
A bizarre moment occurred when super girl Brenda, one of the late casualties of the show, asked soul-sister betrayer Dawn to remove her bottom teeth. Brenda felt she had a claim on those teeth, after swimming to the bottom of a pond a few episodes ago to retrieve them for hysterical Dawn. Brenda thought that good deed meant something, but was shocked to see Dawn's vote against her a round or two later.
I rather hoped Dawn would say no, but she finally did pull out her plate and showed her bottom gap. It didn't get her Brenda's vote though.
And in a development which makes you wonder how much lag time there is between leaving the island and the results show, Brenda had to make a satellite appearance on the post-season show because she is hugely pregnant and couldn't fly to California. She was still kind of holding a grudge against Dawn despite Probst's sister-bonding prods.
When Cochran defended himself to the jury he described how he has watched every episode of the last 13 years, wore a "Survivor" bandana in high school and wrote a "Survivor" newsletter before later doing his thesis on the show.
"This is the culmination of 13 years of passion for 'Survivor,'" he said. "This is an obsession. The fact that I am here is surreal and an honor."
"I've lied along the way, I deceived along the way, and I'm proud of it and I want to own it," he told the jury.
This was Cochran's season, and he earned a rare unanimous win from a jury of his peers. A recent law school grad, he was asked if being a lawyer was in his future. He said no, he wanted to be a writer, that he had the gift of gab.
In the post-season show, host Probst asked Cochran what has changed for him in the two seasons he's played in "Survivor."
"Accepting my eccentricities as part of me, instead of being an embarrassment," said Cochran.
Notes from the post-season show: Malcolm was voted Sprint player of the season by viewers and won $100,000; Malcolm also has appeared on a soap opera; the 27th season features a spooky promo of red liquid dissolving in water and will be called "Survivor: Blood vs. Water," airing in September.
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