It was one of the most shocking results in “Survivor” history: Mike Gabler claimed the million dollars and title of Sole Survivor. After dominant players Jesse Lopez and Karla Cruz Godoy fell short, the heart valve specialist from Houston was able to best the likable and challenge dominant Cassidy Clark and Owen Knight with the jury. It has left “Survivor” viewers surprised and, in some cases, outraged. But he did tell us he was “hiding in plain sight.” So stop whining. I think he’s a worthy winner of the game I’ve loved for 43 seasons. And here are five reasons why Mike Gabler deserved to win.
1. He wowed the jury
In a game of increasing twists, advantages and idols, “Survivor” is a complicated game. But for 43 seasons the way to win has remained incredibly simple. You only need to do two things: get to the end and get the most jury votes. Gabler was the only player who could do those things. There is no doubt in my mind that Jesse and Karla would have easily beaten Gabler with the jury. But, they both failed to get there. Karla played a hand in her relationship with Cassidy fracturing, and had her idol flushed at the final six. Jesse found himself tethered to a big jury threat (Cody Assenmacher), forcing a big move that ultimately made him a target. Gabler was able to outlast these threats by not overplaying his hand.
2. He knew the plans
Before the tribes merged, Gabler was asking people to vote for him and annoying sleeping tribe mates with palm fronds. But from the merge on, he played brilliantly. When the tribes came together Gabler successfully targeted Elisabeth “Elie” Scott. Her departing words to the tribe were, “You all see what trusting Gabler will get you.” It was then the “alli-Gabler” went beneath the surface and let other players make the big moves. He built strategic bonds with most of the players, which meant he nearly always knew the plan.
With so many people factoring Gabler into their end game, he was given a lot of information. And it was often what he didn’t do with that information that was most powerful. He quietly said to Karla that Cody and Jesse were too close. Then the next episode, he planted a seed with Cassidy and Jesse that Cody and Karla needed to be taken out (they ended up being the next two boots). He summarized his strategy well in that penultimate episode: “Most people don’t see the game I’m playing. The best assassin doesn’t show up at the castle with an axe saying, ‘I’m here to kill the king.’ He or she slips into the kitchen, puts a vile of poison in the king’s bowl and leaves.”
3. He saw his place
In the final episode when Jesse was planning to take out Cassidy, Gabler told us, “Right now I think I want to be sitting next to Cassidy and Owen at the final three. I think I’ve got a better story to tell than either of those two.” In hindsight we know this was an astute read. It’s so important in “Survivor” to understand where you stand in the eyes of the jury. Who you can beat and who you can’t. Gabler’s observation here is a contrast to Cassidy, who sent Gabler into fire because, “I think if he did beat Jesse, that wouldn’t be enough for him to take the win from me.” Gabler understood where he stood, while Cassidy was underestimating Gabler. Owen seemed to also underestimate Gabler, but realized he might struggle to win over the jury. In a game where there is nothing more important than awareness, Gabler had it. And Gabler was able to get to the final three with Cassidy and Owen.
4. He made a case
With no clear frontrunner, the cases the three made were as important as ever. Owen showed good awareness, but unfortunately his “Charlie Brown” narrative highlighted his lack of success. Cassidy had some accomplishments to pitch but was rebuked for taking credit for taking Ryan out of the game. Cody and Jesse believed that was their move. Whoever was correct, when it comes to winning “Survivor,” the perception of the jury is reality. Gabler talked about a stealth approach which allowed the big threats to take each other out. It gave himself agency while allowing the jury to own their moves in the game. With the Ryan Medrano vote, he said he was in on Cody and Jesse’s move, rather than taking it away from them. Cassidy and Owen did not argue horribly and they both played games to be proud of. But Gabler told a story that aligned with the jury’s understanding of his game and clearly articulated a strategy. Plus, it honored their role in his journey to the end. He did really well here.
5. He had a story
Gabler was not my favorite “Survivor” player all season long but I do appreciate what his win represents. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of “resume” talk on Survivor, where players make moves for the sake of moves. Gabler made a move where he felt he needed to in ousting Elie, but his win seems to be more representative of a story than a resume. Flashy moves were less important than his understanding of the people he was playing with. He did not win as many challenges as Owen and Cassidy, and he drove less votes than Cassidy did with Karla. But he found a way to navigate his way to the end and win. The fire making challenge was important, but his story of “the silent assassin hiding in plain sight” was more powerful.