I’m always giddy when a new Survivor season is on the horizon, and this season, the anticipation was even greater. Over the past weeks, I’ve geeked out about Survivor’s eagerness to embrace its own history and breathe new life into its lore, and I’ve also grown attached to this group of new hopefuls thanks to the stellar pre-season coverage.
So when these castaways formulated their first moves, and we finally got a clearer glimpse of how the rumoured relics of Survivor past would be incorporated into the game, all under the watchful flaming eyes of Tribal Council, I looked on with fascination and devastation as this ruthless game claimed its first victims. Although an imperfect episode, the premiere of Ghost Island has made one thing clear – this game and its players are not holding back.
THE FIRST TO FALL
We have to begin with the biggest story of this premiere: our very own Jacob Derwin’s brief but memorable journey inside Survivor. Joining the ranks of Garrett Adelstein and Tony Vlachos as double-episode premiere victims, Jacob’s plight was an alarming lesson in how not to play as a superfan. I had high hopes for the music teacher as he came into the season, particularly as his likable charm had won over his castmates in the pre-season. But all that promise came undone in a series of questionable choices that culminated in an unceremonious boot.
Right from the outset, Jacob found himself on the perimeter of his muscle-bound tribe, but instead of pouring his efforts into teaming up with other outsiders like Donathan Hurley or seeking to integrate into the kumbaya tone of his tribe, he instead committed a cardinal sin of the early game. In his desperation and neurotic panic, he veered away from the social game in favour of (literally) gambling his chances on advantages. Be it disappearing on conspicuous idol hunts, resorting to sock rice to check for clues or trying to pull off a suspicious fake idol scheme, Jacob put a target on his back as an erratic and dangerous player. There is no doubt he was only saved from being the first one out because Naviti banished him to become the first resident of Ghost Island.
For a moment, it seemed like the reprieve from camp might help Jacob find his bearings and a new path forward, especially as he contemplated the value of building connections via the advantage he willed to Morgan Ricke on Naviti. However, as soon as his far-fetched scheme of bluffing about a fake idol came to fruition, the downhill slide continued. While his honesty about the conceit of Ghost Island was a smart decision, his announcement of his fake idol publicly (without the supporting evidence of the official idol papers), ended up undoing whatever goodwill he may have been able to muster by being forthright.
As de facto leader Brendan Shapiro saw straight through the ruse, others also felt wary of Jacob’s ploys. It was a no-brainer for them to keep him in the firing line, merely side-stepping his play by easily splitting the vote between him and James Lim, whose bungled diving contributed to a blowout loss at the Immunity Challenge. With his options running low, Jacob began attempts to build a coalition by uniting the underdogs against the alphas of the tribe in anticipation of a swap. Although his opening up prompted Stephanie Johnson to consider siding with his scheme against Michael Yerger, Day 6 is pushing it when it comes to forming your first allies. Sure enough, he was hung out to dry and found himself on the bad side of the snuffer.
I am genuinely heartbroken for Jacob – as a fellow indoor kid, it’s easy to imagine myself in his shoes. Jacob was an enthusiastic character that I would have loved to see find his footing in this challenging game, and he wasn’t the walking disaster his brief story might suggest. There were kernels of game sense in many of his ideas – checking the rice, the need for a convincing narrative about the mysterious Ghost Island, the idea of targeting one of the bigger guys based on an (accurate!) prediction of a tribe swap. The trouble lay in Jacob’s ability to execute his ideas without seeming sketchy and his inability to earn social capital, and that’s all it takes.
Like the world’s worst motivational poster, Ghost Island taunts its guests with the threat that “One bad decision will haunt you forever.” But in the case of many castaways, including Jacob, it’s not one big mistake that undoes them – it’s all of the little ones.
Case and point – our actual first boot, Stephanie Gonzalez. Charismatic and physically strong, Gonzalez could have certainly succeeded in this game, and it’s hard to pinpoint precisely what mistakes led to her ouster. After all, she would have been safe from harm had Malolo not been forced to find a new target when Jacob got out of jail free. Perhaps it was just that she was outspoken and earned the ire of the alternative target Donathan, who in turn threw her under the bus. Maybe it was that, like Jacob, she had struggled to assimilate into her tribe in those first few days. Perhaps it was that she came out of the gates too hard – and while I don’t believe her invocation of a game of Tribal Whispers caused her elimination, it certainly reconfirmed her tribe’s suspicions that she was there to play hard. Perhaps she just got unlucky. Most likely, it was all of these little things in some small part that saw Gonzalez become the first one out.
For both our premiere boots, falling so short of the Survivor dream is devastating. Nevertheless, both left everything on the table in their fight to stay in the game, and it’s better to make your own choices and see them fizzle than to let others make the decisions for you.
THE FIRST TO PLAY
And there are plenty of decisions left to be made, with a number of other competitors making choices that fall all across the spectrum.
Stephanie Johnson came into this game as a wildcard, but after two votes, she’s emerged as a player to watch. Keenly aware and unassumingly persuasive, she played an essential role in dictating the outcomes of both votes. When Donathan threw Gonzalez’s name out, it was Stephanie who championed his cause and deconstructed the “keep the strong” narrative that pervaded the majority’s rationale. With a similar effortless persuasion, she was able to appeal to Jacob’s desperation to play both sides of the fence to ensure she was in a strong position moving forward. Her friendly, trustworthy persona also allowed her to gain sole access to the truth about Jacob’s time on Ghost Island as he spilled the beans about the Legacy Advantage, which provides her with ample ammunition moving forward. With a seemingly close ally in Jenna Bowman in her pocket, Stephanie is in a solid position, toying with soft power in Malolo – and nobody is seeing the moves she’s making just yet.
On the other end of the spectrum – and on another beach, Domenick Abbate’s game is undoubtedly pinging the radar. There’s an honest charm in the way he opens up to his tribe at the start, and he managed to use the cover of darkness to dig up Andrea’s cursed Immunity Idol. But his blunt criticism of Chris Noble’s leadership at the opening challenge and his growing paranoia are beginning to draw a target to his back. There’s no question that Domenick is playing the game hard – but, like Jacob, the seeds of good ideas are wasted on high risk, low reward machinations. I’m still not sure what he has to gain from lying to Chris about having an idol only to turn around and show him a fake by passing it off as real. Chris himself smelled a rat – his surprising perception skills putting themselves to good work and I suspect it’ll only be a matter of time until Domenick’s “Fugazi” idol makes its way to Ghost Island 2.
Speaking of Ghost Island, what of its second resident? Donathan definitely made his mark in these opening episodes, endearing himself with his naïve excitement as a Kentucky boy takes on the big world. I always appreciate the opportunity to see genuine personality in character-focused stories, and Donathan is as genuine as they come. He may not be in the best position in the game, pinpointed as a weak link in the chain, but he still managed to dodge a wild target at the first vote. Although his hesitation to pick up the slack in the second Immunity Challenge clearly contributed to his tribe’s loss, Donathan embraced the growth narrative presented by Jeff and was rewarded with a trip to Ghost Island. There’s something pure about Donathan’s story – but the question does remain whether or not he’ll be able to make the right game decisions when it counts.
One of Survivor’s biggest struggles is how to balance sprawling casts and big characters. The episode gave us glimpses of other strong contenders. Brendan’s harmonious leadership of Malolo and his perceptive reads of Jacob. Chris’ similarly perceptive gameplay particularly as he bonded with fellow Floridian Sebastian “Sea Bass” Noel. Wendell Holland’s natural charm and casual defence of his allies. Morgan’s strong instincts to keep her advantage secret (a good plan unknowingly foiled by Jacob). Others hinted at their stories. Kellyn Bechtold’s self-reliance and determination. Michael’s honour and strength. Laurel Johnson’s social and strategic thinking. Jenna’s loyalty. Desiree Afuye’s quiet strength. James’ apologetic frustration. But others were barely even seen – Angela Perkins, Bradley Kleihege, Chelsea Townsend and Libby Vincek were practically absent, and it’s a shame to lose their perspective or a sense of their approach to the game. I hope that as the numbers dwindle, this cast comes clearer into focus so we can share in the victories and lament their mistakes.
However, at first instance, I’m optimistic about this cast. It’s clear that this group of castaways are going to leave it all on the table in their gameplay but are also willing to be open, human and flawed, which makes for a nice balance. And even with the added complications of this season’s advantage-heavy twist, I’m hopeful they’re going to give us a good mix of players and an enthusiastic game.
THE FIRST GHOSTS
So what of the mysterious and eponymous twist? What about Ghost Island itself?
It was fortunate that one of the biggest fans became the first to experience the museum that is Ghost Island, allowing all of us at home to marvel alongside Jacob as he geeked out over snuffers and idols of seasons past. The art design of this season is wondrously over-the-top and the series’ celebration of its own lore has me giddy with nostalgia. I love every minute of it – especially the implementation of its twists.
I, like many, was deflated by Advantagegeddon, and although I was eager to see this season pay homage to the past, I was nervous about how the introduction of a myriad of authentic idols and advantages would work in practice. I’m still cautious, but I like what we’ve seen so far. Upon arrival at Ghost Island, the exiled castaway must break open an urn in the hopes of the chance at earning a relic of the past. Jacob was lucky, Donathan was not – and this slow trickle of advantages should hopefully help to keep the idol-creep from feeling too overwhelming.
Furthermore, the fact that obtaining the advantage still requires risk is an intriguing premise, forcing the castaways to the brink of making their own “one bad decision.” In the opening game of chance, Jacob was presented with a choice: risk losing his vote at his next Tribal for the possibility of gaining power. It was fortuitous that the Survivor Gods were in his favour, granting him Sierra Dawn Thomas’ Legacy Advantage from Game Changers. However, the twist came with a caveat – and I appreciated that the powers of these cursed objects appear to be linked to their history. For the Legacy Advantage to gain power, Jacob had to choose to share it with the right person – precisely what Sierra had failed to do. Similarly, the distribution of unplayed idols at tribe beaches, such as Andrea’s pocket idol from Caramoan found by Domenick, is an elegant evocation of the theme. It’s a poetic premise, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR
With such a jam-packed premiere, I feel like I’ve barely had the chance to scratch the surface of what promises to be an intriguing season. We may have lost our resident blogger in a flurry of blows, but hopefully the remainder of the season will be worth that sacrifice.
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