Questionable choices have arisen throughout the pre-merge, but the suboptimal gameplay to this point has been far from iconic. Tonight, though, Ghost Island made good on its promise – “One bad decision can haunt you forever.”
It’s been brewing since Day 1, and it was no surprise that the rivalry between Chris and Domenick reached its peak at the merge episode when the two battering rams finally attended Tribal Council together. We expected the heated confrontation and the scheming to marshal troops. But what wasn’t expected was the tone: while Domenick (and his right-hand man Wendell) were painted as dangerously strategic and rational players, Chris became almost a parody of himself. It’s been a while since Survivor has given us a “downfall” episode, where a player implodes their own game only to be voted out in a humiliating blindside. With a character as ridiculously colourful as Chris Noble, his departure would have been guaranteed TV gold regardless, but when it came on the back of some massive strategic blunders and a cursed advantage, on top of his already blustering personality, it was a storyteller’s dream.
THE NOBLE ONE
Chris Noble was, for lack of a better way to describe it, something else. An un-ironically self-absorbed male model who spends his time one-upping his tribemates, asserting unearned leadership and dropping verse at any opportunity while also showing just enough accurate perception and emotional pathos to give his character light and shade. Chris was a standout character of the season, and while it’s a crying shame to lose him for the sheer entertainment value his laughable but endearing bluster brings, at least he went out of the game in a blaze of glory.
So let’s talk about the beautiful disaster that was the Downfall of the Noble One: A Tragedy in Three Parts.
Chris was reasonably well-positioned coming into the merge. His feud with Domenick was no secret, but he had allies he could draw upon. His bond with Angela seemed strong after their experience on Naviti 2.0, where Domenick and Wendell had made an attack against her. He had connections forged with various Malolos across the swaps, and he was served up an opportunity when Domenick again turned on Naviti at the last vote, ousting Bradley which could have led his abandoned allies Kellyn and Desiree to join up with Chris. He also held an overwhelming Naviti majority – 8-to-5 against Malolo. On top of all that, he drew the lucky buff to win a secret expedition to Ghost Island where he claimed JT’s Hidden Immunity Idol. And that was as good as it got for Chris.
The first big misstep in Chris’ merge game came when Wendell enforced a peace summit between Domenick and Chris, intended to calm the battle so that Naviti could stick together for at least one vote and extend their control over the dwindling Malolo numbers. But when Dom and Wendell pitched him on the truce, Chris broke a cardinal Survivor commandment: when someone asks you to work with them, you should always say yes. Chris was right to remain distrustful of Domenick, and he didn’t have to buy what they were selling to placate them with an agreement to work together, but to so brazenly refuse to even consider burying the hatchet, Chris sealed his fate by solidifying Domenick and Wendell against him. Noncommittal behavior has doomed many a Survivor player, but it was only the first part of Chris’ demise.
Next up: Chris’ myopic crusade against Domenick. As had happened once before at the first swap, his tunnel-visioned determination to eliminate his archnemesis threw away strength in tribal numbers for the blind pursuit of his own goals. Furthermore, his overconfidence in his ability to persuade his tribemates led him to openly campaign against Dom, playing follow-the-leader right after the Immunity Challenge. Instead of colluding in small conversations, Chris led the entire tribe – 10 other players – to the well where he outlined his plan to split the vote between Dom and Wendell. It was not a plan without merit, but so blatantly strategizing against a player he believed had an Idol completely threw away any opportunity to blindside Domenick. It also lacked the subtlety that individual strategy sessions can provide – what might have been a persuasive argument for his long-time ally Angela is not going to be the same as what will sway the unaffiliated or sympathiser players like Michael, Laurel and Donathan. It also reconfirmed him as a domineering, bossy and inflexible player – and his scheme seemed to have fallen apart before it even got off the ground.
Finally, the piece de resistance. The moment where the season’s talk of curses was finally realised and JT’s Game Changers Idol claimed another victim in the exact same way. When presented with the opportunity to sneak away from camp to an evocative torch-lit Ghost Island in the dead of night, Chris made the bold and strong decision to go and claim the Idol waiting for him. His decision to push his luck in the game of chance was a more questionable choice. Losing a vote in a tribe as large as the 13-strong Lavita is far from a doomed outcome, but knowing that the conflict between him and Domenick was reaching breaking point, and there was a high likelihood his name would come up at Tribal, it seems that pressing luck was an unnecessary risk when he could just take the Idol, play it at the next vote and ensure his safety. Instead, Chris ended up losing his vote in a critical Tribal Council – and only extended the life of his Idol for one more Tribal that would never come.
I cannot, with any rhyme or reason, figure out what led Chris to not play his Idol at Tribal Council. Domenick and Wendell left no doubt that they were voting for him, and when Domenick played his Legacy Advantage but not his Idol, that should have been a massive red flag. Chris’ Idol was only valid at two Tribals, was there much to gain by saving it? Perhaps he rationalised that with Domenick safe in the game, he’d need the Idol at the next Tribal, but whether it was a consideration like this or sheer overconfidence, the Idol had other ideas in mind. Once again, it punished its finder at the very next vote, eliminating them with an unplayed Idol. It was a massive and almost incomprehensible blunder and a record-setter as he becomes the first player ever voted out without ever casting a vote themselves – but this blunder ultimately elevated the tale of Chris Noble to the stuff of legends. I doubt this will be the last we see of Chris on Survivor, but until then, let’s hope he’s hard at work at Ponderosa scribing a magnificently cringe-worthy rap for Final Tribal Council.
THE COLD WAR
This episode was all about the self-destruction of Chris, but it also served as a massive narrative point for the men on the opposite side of the battle lines. I’ve regularly questioned Domenick’s gameplay this season, as his overzealous decisions seemed to plant a minefield before him, but tonight, it all came together as he executed his move brilliantly. For Wendell, it was an even more impressive night as a player who has been consistently shown as a strong social player got the opportunity to put those skills to excellent use.
Off the bat, Wendell’s urging to conduct peace talks between the warring parties was a great play. Naviti had a lot to gain by sticking together for a vote or two, where they could dismantle the Malolo underdogs before going at each others’ throats. However, when Chris shot it down, his adaptability in committing to taking the problem player out gave him – and Domenick – the freedom to assemble their path to victory. From one perspective, their safety was all but guaranteed – with three Immunity-granting advantages between them – but in the end, they didn’t need any of them. Domenick made the right decision to burn his Legacy Advantage now, when he knew he was a target, rather than saving it for the Final Six when anything could happen, but ultimately, the pair had what Chris did not: a convincing social game.
Whereas Chris aggressively demanded a tribe-wide move against his opponents, Dom and Wendell took a more measured approach. They spoke to their allies like Donathan and Laurel in quiet moments, and they held open discussions with more undecided votes like Jenna, Libby and Sebastian, putting their arguments on the table decisively but ultimately leaving them to come to their own decisions. At Tribal, too, they ran rings around Chris by framing their perspective of the feud as one where they owned their mistakes but ultimately lay the blame for the feud at Chris’ feet, suggesting that they’d always been willing to stay loyal and Chris had been the one to break rank. Even as they voted, their successful approach to gameplay came through. Domenick as the brash mad scientist with crazy schemes as he loudly announced his vote for Chris, while Wendell articulated the social shortcomings of his adversary and culminating in one of the best voting confessionals of recent memory as he tore apart Chris’ rapping skills.
It was a successful night for the duo this time, but with their target now sitting on the Jury, they’ve become the tallest poppies in the field. Although they’ve still got ammunition in their belts with an Idol apiece and strong allies in Donathan and Laurel, it would be very easy to see this season go the way of San Juan Del Sur wherein the feuding alliance leaders get taken out one after the other as the subtler players seize control of the game…
We saw hints of this in this week’s episode, as the rest of the cast reared their heads momentarily to frame their views on the major conflict and their strategies going forward. Laurel and Donathan seemed to clearly back their allies Domenick and Wendell, while their fellow Malolo Michael just tried to keep his head down. But it was a surprisingly insightful week for Jenna and Libby as this pair weighed up their options: Chris might be a more annoying presence around camp, but he was honest and loyal, whereas Domenick was a sneakier and smarter player. Seeing these women, to this point relegated to supporting roles, discussing such an important decision bodes well for their games moving forward.
Similarly, the women of Naviti also demonstrated a willingness to make sure that they came out on top. When it became clear that a simple Naviti-strong vote was unlikely, Kellyn, Angela, Chelsea and Desiree concocted an alternate scheme to still keep their starting tribe numbers and take out a Malolo. With Chris trying to split votes and Dom and Wendell going after Chris, it appeared that the numbers could be diluted enough for them to take control. Once again, Desiree put the name and argument on the table, suggesting that Libby was a dangerous player who was social and easily over-looked and could be a good target to take out. She and Angela cast their votes for Libby while Kellyn and Chelsea ultimately voted Chris, so the plan didn’t come to complete fruition, but it appears that this foursome could become a force to be reckoned with.
Everybody is focused on Domenick and Wendell after this vote, but I have a feeling that it’s going to be the players in the wings that will truly run the rest of this game.
WRAPPING IT UP
There was so much more to talk about with this episodes – the stunning night set on Ghost Island, great editing tricks like the parallel conversations and confessionals of Chris and Dom, some clever cinematography, and a great original endurance challenge among them – but I can’t go on forever. This was easily the most exciting merge episode in the last few years and a standout in a season that seems destined for an epic conclusion. The playing field is wide open – and I suspect the next few weeks will be a bloodbath as these players jockey for control.
The cold war is over, but the game has just begun.