‘Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X’ Finale Recap: An Emotional Ending

Warning: This recap for the “Going for the Million Bucks” episode of Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X contains spoilers.

“We’re going to prove a lot of people wrong about their misconception of millennials,” Adam Klein said back in the very first episode of this topsy-turvy, passionate season of Survivor.

After what is perhaps the most heartbreaking yet emotionally satisfying end to any season, Adam, the 25-year-old homeless-shelter manager who was playing for his sick mom, was crowned the latest Sole Survivor and winner of the $1 million prize. Throughout the season, Adam has proved to be an intelligent, determined, sometimes blundering, but ultimately good-natured and respectful young man. He didn’t steal food, or “mack on chicks,” or talk in bro-code. He transcended the negative millennial stereotypes. I mean, just imagine if Taylor won this season — we’d be talking about Mason jars right now!

Was Adam the best player this season? That’s debatable. He had mishaps along the way: wasted two idols, had poor post-tribal bedside manner, and he foolishly trusted in Taylor. But he was always able to recover from his mistakes. He masterfully played the reward stealer to his benefit. He won immunity, he found idols and advantages, and he connected with people on a personal level. Based on the jury’s questioning, the vote was swinging in Adam’s direction way before he dropped the bombshell about his mother. That didn’t change anything, it just affirmed their decision.

But how did we get to Adam’s win?

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

The episode starts after last week’s tribal council; Jay is annoyed that he was duped into playing his idol and is now left “bare and naked” (I think that’s a different show). But as always, Jay is willing to “fight to the death.” Bret, meanwhile, can’t believe no one is taking out David, “the biggest threat in the game.” He says keeping David around is like Navy SEALs finding Osama Bin Laden and letting him go. Bret, the new host of When Similes Go Too Far.

David, in an attempt to “create chaos,” decides to make an impressive-looking fake idol with beads and trinkets he’s collected throughout the game. More impressive is that he makes this thing in the dead of night, in the dark! Bin Laden was never this good at arts and crafts! He even goes so far as to paint a coconut and plant the idol inside it, knowing that the idols this season are marked.

With the bait laid, David just needs a gullible little fishy to bite, and sure enough, the next morning Jay spots the painted coconut while out walking with David and Ken. After they’ve gone, Jay runs back to smash the coconut open and rip out his prize, gleefully bragging about how he’s safe, and the others are “fools” for missing it. “Can’t take the pirate out of this game,” he boasts. Jay, they took the pirate out back in Episode 3 — his name was Paul.

Ken also has an advantage, except his is real. It’s Day 36, and like a kid waiting to find out what Santa brought him on Christmas morning, Ken is finally allowed to open his legacy advantage. The advantage is that he’ll be automatically immune at the next tribal council. Thanks, Jessica!

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

In the first immunity challenge of the episode, players must race through an obstacle course and retrieve a bag of tiles; they must then use the tiles to complete a combination lock. Once they solve the combination, they’ll release a key to unlock puzzle pieces in a bat puzzle. The first person to complete the bat puzzle wins immunity and a juicy steak dinner. Side note: A bat puzzle is what Bruce Wayne completes as he commutes into work on the subway.

Jay takes an early lead, but he forgets to cover up his combination lock, which allows the other players to copy his answer and catch him up. It proves a costly mistake when David is able to finish the puzzle first.

Jeff lets David pick two people to join him on his steak reward, but before he can name them, Jay interrupts and announces that he’s using the reward-stealer advantage that Adam gifted him at the family visit. Jay now gets to pick his steak-mates, and he chooses to bring David and Adam, hoping to sway their votes. He argues that he can be used as a shield and that even if he goes on an immunity run, he’d take them to the final three.

David seems onboard with the idea, knowing that once Jay is gone, he becomes the next target, and back at camp he convinces Hannah that voting Bret might not be such a bad thing. But Adam is reluctant about keeping such a big threat like Jay around, recognizing that Jay will most likely beat him in the end. Meanwhile, Bret and Jay compare notes on how they’ve both been targeting each other. This cast, on the whole, has been very lighthearted when it comes to gameplay and betrayals this season. That two players can just sit and laugh about the fact they’re both coming after each other is very refreshing.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

Despite Jay’s best efforts, the Fijian winds aren’t blowing his direction, and at tribal council, when Jeff asks if anyone would like to play an idol, he stands up, talks some trash, and hands his Etsy idol over to Probst. Jeff reveals this is NOT a hidden immunity idol and throws it into the fire (dude, do you know how hard David worked on that thing?!). Jay is shocked, but to his credit, he takes it in great spirits, laughing that his tribemates got one over on him.

Ken also plays his legacy advantage, assuring his safety. Not that it matters, because five votes send Jay packing. “Go ahead, Jeffrey,” he says before his torch is snuffed, and he leaves the game how he started, with a huge grin on his face. Another character who proved more than his archetype — a surfer bro with heart and charisma. More Jays and less Taylors in the future please, Survivor gods.

No time is wasted before getting to the next immunity challenge, where the players must maneuver a buoy through a set of obstacles, and then use handles to carry puzzle pieces across a teeter-totter. The first person to finish the word puzzle wins immunity. The answer to the puzzle is “Not a Participation Trophy.” No lie. Ken is able to win, correctly spelling “participation” right on the first attempt, unlike his mishap with “maillennial” last week.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

Returning to camp, Adam is dead-set on voting out David, and of course Bret is onboard; Bret has been onboard for getting rid of David since the first episode! But Adam is worried that there might be an idol still in play, so he feigns stomach pains and excuses himself. I employed a similar tactic to get out of P.E. class at school. Lo and behold, there is another idol in the game, and Adam finds it. It doesn’t look as beautiful as David’s, but at least it’s legit. Don’t waste it this time, kid!

While Adam is away faking stomach cramps and digging for idols, David approaches Hannah and Ken and suggests voting out Adam. They agree that both Adam and Bret need to go and they don’t care in which order. Then, in an unwise move, they let Bret in on the plan. Bret relays the info back to Adam, but Adam tells him not to worry; he has the idol and David, for sure, is going home. But then in what almost seems to be an attempt to outdo each other in stupidity, Adam also makes an unwise move, informing Hannah about his latest idol find. I guess it’s one of the knock-on effects of a game where everyone is so open with each other all the time.

It’s a problem for Adam because Hannah has been playing the middle. She can go with Adam and Bret and take out David, or she can reveal the idol info to David and Ken and vote with them against an unsuspecting Bret. Hannah enjoys having the power, saying that in this tribe full of men, she “wants the lady to make the choice.”

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

At tribal council, Adam and Bret continue to point out what a big threat David is to win. Adam claims that David has this amazing story of transformation. “Day 1 he was scared of birds,” he says, with David adding, “They did chase me.” Again, another lighthearted, comical moment in such a tense stage of the competition where these people are fighting for their survival in the game.

Before the votes are read, Adam plays his idol for himself, thinking that he’s assured his safety and David’s exit. But, in this season of unpredictability, Hannah decides to vote with the David/Ken tandem, blindsiding Bret and leaving Adam and the viewing audience puzzled why she left David in the game. “The flipper flips again,” Bret says, before congratulating David on winning $1 million.

Returning to camp, Hannah defends her decision to Adam, telling him she didn’t see another path to the end because she would have lost Ken’s trust had she voted out David. Adam is blown away. Same, Adam, same.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

In the final immunity challenge of the season, players have to navigate ceramic bowls through a wire frame which they must then stack on top of the precarious frame. The first player to stack 13 bowls, or the person with the most bowls stacked after 30 minutes, wins immunity.

The wind quickly becomes the biggest factor in this challenge, blowing over each player’s stack before anyone can reach 13. Nobody can complete their stack after 30 minutes, so the two players with the joint highest stack, Hannah and Ken, face off in a five-minute showdown. Whoever has the most bowls stacked after five minutes wins. It’s a close battle, but Ken is able to clinch it, 7-6, earning his fourth immunity win of the season.

Back at camp, David says he has faith in Ken’s loyalty and that at worst, the vote will be a 2-2 tie, and he’ll have to compete in a fire-making tiebreaker challenge. It seems a reasonable guess. Ken has remained loyal to David throughout the season; there’s no reason to think otherwise now. But Hannah believes she can persuade Ken to flip. At least that’s what Adam is hoping. Otherwise he’ll have to start practicing his fire-making skills too.

While Hannah tries to convince Ken that they don’t have a chance of beating David in the finals, David tries to force Adam to flip on Hannah. Adam tells him there’s no chance he’s going to do that because he can’t beat David either way.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

At tribal council, Adam tells Jeff that his main goal at the immunity challenge was to ensure that David didn’t win. David compliments Adam’s game but says his own game was better; Adam likes that David can finally admit it. Jeff compliments Hannah on how far she’s come and grown over the course of the season. Ken declares that he’s not going to change at this stage.

The final four cast their votes. It seems like we’re going to fire … wait. Ken voted David?!

That’s right, Mr. Honor and Loyalty, Ken, flipped on his closest ally, voting with Adam and Hannah to take out the game’s biggest threat. Hannah must have had a persuasive argument, or she slipped something into his coconut juice.

With David gone, we are down to our final three, who after indulging in their Day 39 feast, must face a jury of their peers and convince them why they deserve the title of Sole Survivor and the $1 million prize.

True to this season, most of the questions from the jurors relate to the gameplay — who made what move, why was this move made, why was your approach to the game the right or wrong one. There isn’t a lot of bitterness on display, which can often be a common theme among Survivor juries.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

Ken says he played an old-school game that involved being loyal. Cue shot of David. Hannah talks proudly of her strategic game and how she was responsible for putting everyone on the jury. Adam believes he played a combination of Ken’s and Hannah’s games. He thinks Ken was at times too rigid and that Hannah flipped so much that people didn’t know where they stood with her, while he only flipped when he had to, and took a back seat when he needed to avoid the target.

Jessica calls out Ken for preaching loyalty and then voting out his No. 1 ally, David. Ken tells her that David was his No. 2 alliance and that his daughter is his No. 1. Cute story, but afraid that isn’t going to be enough.

Will says he has more respect for Ken now that he voted out David than he ever did when he was droning on about integrity and loyalty. Will also wants to know why Adam and Hannah voted out Bret. Adam says he wanted David gone that vote, and that Hannah “went rogue,” which he thought was a big mistake. Hannah defends it, saying if she voted out David she’d lose Ken’s trust. Hannah is making some solid points but is starting to get defensive and shouty.

Zeke talks about the “evolution of Survivor strategy,” which I’m sure Jeff was rubbing his hands in glee about. Zeke doesn’t believe that Ken evolved the game, so he asks Adam and Hannah what they did in that regard. Adam tells him that he intentionally kept threats around so that he could make it to the end. Hannah talks about “trust clusters” (still not gonna make that happen) working together until they needed to turn on each other. Hannah and Adam also bicker back and forth over who deserves credit for what move. While Hannah certainly influenced the direction of many of the late-game vote-offs, I think her problem was perception. She was unable to see how she was coming across to others, and that’s what cost her here.

Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment
Photo: Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

David is last up to ask a question, and he wants to know how the game changed each of the finalists. Hannah talks about how she started off the game terrified, unable to make decisions, but 39 days later she knows she can push through anything. Ken talks about how he grew up as a socially awkward kid and still struggles interacting with big groups of people, and how this game has helped him overcome that. Both relatable stories that might clinch a win in any other season, but not against Adam, who lets the jury know that he’s been playing for his mother who is battling stage IV lung cancer. He tells them that even if he doesn’t win, that making it this far and achieving all he has is something that he can share with his mom and family.

Good job I stocked up on Kleenex.

The votes are cast. Jeff Probst collects the urn. And we cut to the live studio in Los Angeles, where the cast is sitting, all glammed up, ready to hear Jeff reveal the winner. He starts reading the votes.

Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam … you get the picture. Adam wins with a unanimous vote in a genuinely cathartic moment to top off a solid season of Survivor.

Adam Klein is crowned Sole Survivor, on the two-hour season finale, followed by the one-hour live reunion show hosted by Emmy Award winner Jeff Probst, on SURVIVOR, Wednesday, Dec. 14 (8:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured (l-r): Hannah Shapiro, Ken McNickle, and Adam Klein. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS

This finale is proof why Survivor is so successful and still wins its time slot every Wednesday after 16 years. It can still deliver drama and emotion unlike any other television show (reality or scripted). The format has remained relatively the same since the first season (as has Jeff Probst’s complexion), yet each season is different because of how the castaways approach the game. This season, Adam approached the game as a “super-duper fan” but also with the black cloud of his mother’s lung cancer looming over his head. His mom was in his thoughts with every move and decision he made.

It’s why the increasingly ridiculous themes ultimately don’t matter. As I said back in September, themes are just fancy decoration, used to entice casual viewers and lapsed fans. And the theme this season was perhaps Survivor‘s most ridiculous yet; basically the live-action equivalent of a Twitter argument. Which generation is best?! The Millennials, with their participation trophies, or the Gen Xers, who invented participation trophies? (Sorry, Baby Boomers, you weren’t invited — a crossword puzzle challenge wouldn’t translate well to TV.)

While some cast members certainly fell into generational stereotypes (*cough* Taylor), the majority, like Adam, proved to be more than their predetermined taglines. The result was a cast of players who were open emotionally and willing to flip back and forth across generational lines, taking to the game with great gusto, which created a compelling, fluid season of Survivor.

Side note: During the reunion show, Adam revealed that his mother passed away an hour after he returned home from filming, but he got to tell her that he loved her and that he won Survivor. He also announced that he’d be donating $100,000 of his prize money to Stand Up 2 Cancer for lung cancer research. You can donate here.

Where is Survivor going next?

Photo: CBS Entertainment.
Photo: CBS Entertainment

During the reunion show, Jeff Probst announced the theme for the 34th (!!) season of Survivor. No, it’s not Left-Handers vs. Right-Handers vs. Ambidextrous; although if the show keeps going, I’m sure we’ll get there eventually. It’s Survivor: Game Changers, an all-star season featuring 20 former players, including Michaela Bradshaw, Tony Vlachos, Tai Trang, Cirie Fields, Ciera Eastin, Ozzy Lusth, and Sandra Diaz-Twine. The season premieres March 8 on CBS.

Happy with the winner? What did you think of the season overall? Who are you excited to see return next season? Let us know in the comments below!