Welcome to the first, official Fork in the Road column everybody! Overall, I thought this was a great two-hour premiere. This cast seems hungry and ready to play, with a good mix of personalities. Some that will warm your heart, some that will make you roll your eyes, all blending together for what will hopefully be an exciting season. Plus, the lid was finally lifted off of Ghost Island for the first time, and we have a clear sense of how it’s going to work. I’m very eager to see how it’s going to play out!
Before we begin our journey through the Ghost Island trail, I want to set up the format of this here column. I will move through the episode chronologically, stopping down any major Fork in the Road, offering a little insight as to whether the players are treading safely or treading dangerously based on the decision that they made. Along the way, I will also plant some Signposts, things or moments that I liked or didn’t like that aren’t really tied to one major decision point.
With all of that out of the way, let’s begin!
Fork: Opening Challenge
First of all, I really liked the concept behind this opening challenge. Anything that forces players to make big decisions early on is always fun, especially when they don’t have much information beyond first impressions. Sure, the setup of who gets what based on who wins got a little befuddling, but the main crux behind the decision here was, do you go all in to receive the maximum benefit or do you cut your losses so that you’re not in a massive hole from the jump?
As for the actual decision makers, you couldn’t have asked for two better opposing mindsets. Brendan, apprehensive at first about being chosen, appears calm and steadfast throughout the whole challenge, giving encouragement and guidance as a good gym teacher would. On the other hand, you have Chris, instantly volunteering to be the guy and has no doubt in his mind he’s read the room correctly and made the right picks. Yet, when the puzzle starts to get away from him, the panic creeps all over his face, and I could tell he was going to pull that lever. It was only a matter of when, and I think that’s the right decision. Especially with how little rice the tribes are getting this season, hanging onto that fishing gear is your best bet at being competitive with the other tribe, so Chris made the right call cutting bait when he did.
Signpost: I loved the visual of having that lever there as the symbol of forfeit, making the puzzle pieces collapse onto the ground. It’s the little details like that that makes Survivor so great.
Fork: The Power Struggle at Naviti
Domenick made a curious choice when the challenge wrapped up (not the first time that’s going to happen in the episode). Raising his hand and saying “Yes, I would have done things differently” is, of course, going to draw attention when you’re calling out a guy with an ego the size of New York City. Fortunately, I think Domenick’s got the charm to wriggle his way out this situation, but that doesn’t stop Chris and Sebastian bro-ing down and drawing up his demise. The Noble One and Sea Bass make for an amusing pair here in the early going. Hopefully they can cause enough ruckus before one of them gets taken down in an unsuspecting blindside.
Fork: Jacob’s Early Onset Paranoia
Hands down, Jacob was the star of the night, these first two hours built towards his demise, and the show wasn’t that subtle about it. That’s okay though, every now and then I love what I like to call an “Obvious Blindside,” where the show lets you in on who’s going home from early on and then presents all of the evidence along the way. It’s like watching a beautiful painting being created in real time. That was Jacob’s story as it unfolded over these two hours.
I feel for Jacob; I think he’s probably the guy that a lot of superfans look at and go “I can relate to this guy.” So, it can’t be a good feeling amongst the fans when their guy is immediately on the outs of the tribe, the absolute horrible dread that Jacob must have felt goes without saying. It’s his worst nightmare come to life. Deciding to go into idol hunting mode on Day 2 is the first domino that leads to his demise. Sure, the better move would be to try to reintegrate with the group, but wouldn’t we all be looking for the idol if we were in his shoes (or lack thereof)?
Signpost: Shout out to Jacob’s monkey socks, they were quite adorable.
Fork: Wendell’s Flexibility
I just wanted to throw a little love Wendell’s way after he handled the brewing Chris/Seb vs. Dom feud on Naviti. This is an excellent example of how the small decisions on Survivor can have just as much impact as the big ones. By just suggesting that Sebastian keep his mind open on the subject of getting Domenick out, he can now move information freely and not get caught with a lot of heat for it. Some really promising social chops on Wendell, that’s for sure.
Fork: Jacob’s Ghost Island Gambit
I want to give Jacob some serious credit for the stunt he pulled after the immunity challenge. Walking into that challenge, he knew he was a dead man if his tribe lost, but thanks to some quick thinking he found his way out. Once Jeff said that somebody from the losing tribe was going to Ghost Island before the challenge, I bet you his superfan brain went into overdrive, recognizing pretty quickly it would be the winning tribe’s choice on who that person would be, and was already devising his exit strategy in the event his tribe lost. Once the possibility became a reality, he was able to execute on it pretty well. That’s where the praise ends, I’m afraid.
Once Naviti had bought into his trap, he needed to shut his other trap. By proclaiming “HA HA FOOLED YOU,” it just made it less likely that Naviti would be fooled again, and less likely to pick Jacob, probably just to spite him. If Jacob had kept his big mouth shut, then he probably stood a good chance of going back to Ghost Island, like he clearly was hoping.
Fork: A Graveyard Trek
There’s a lot to be said about this first trip to Ghost Island. First of all, the design of the place is so friggin’ cool. I would be right there with Jacob, geeking out over all of the artifacts and relics adorning the island. As for the actual mechanics of it, I agreed with pretty much everything production did in this first outing. Upon approaching the row of urns, Jacob smashed the first one, suggesting to me that he had to go in order. I think this is the right way to go, as opposed to people just picking one randomly – because you run the risk of all advantages being front-loaded into the season and nothing in the second half, or vice versa. Plus, I think it adds this cool sense of a video-game like progression to the Ghost Island treks that production has set up; Level 1 you get the Legacy Advantage, Level 2 is an unlucky level where you just strike out – like we saw with Donathan in the second hour.
Sure, this could lead to some accusations of fishiness by production if they switch the urns around based on who goes to Ghost Island, but I’m not one of those people. To get on my soapbox for a moment, I firmly believe that production does not rig the game for one person or another. They did not rig the game for Ben to win last season, and I believe that they do not want to compromise the integrity of a game they put so much time an effort into creating. As evidenced by the last couple of seasons, I think production trusts the groups of players they pick to put on a good show, so there’s no need to interfere. I may just be a naïve fool living in my own world on this one; I will believe it until I see evidence to the contrary.
As for the actual advantage up for grabs here, I think the Legacy Advantage is a good selection as the first Ghost Island item. We’ve seen the Legacy Advantage introduced in the first episode in its previous two iterations, so it makes sense to do it here. Sure, it doesn’t do Jacob any good for his immediate game, but I’m quite glad he didn’t get handed a free hidden immunity idol – that would have been too easy. Survivor is a hard and unfair game a lot of the time, and this forced Jacob into a spot where he had to rely on his wits and abilities to get out of a jam, rather than burn a free idol he was gifted. As for the decision to make Jacob gift the Legacy Advantage to somebody on the other tribe, I say if it doesn’t do him any good right now, why not give it to somebody on the other tribe? It will do that person just as much good as it will Jacob in the present moment. Plus, it gives him a chance to build a relationship with somebody on the other side, a nod to a theme from last season. I wouldn’t want every advantage gifted out to other people, but it worked here this first time.
Fork: First Vote Jitters
With the obvious first boot plucked out of the group, the Malolo tribe had to shift their criteria a little bit to determine who would be the first one out. A lot of times a vote in the pre-merge portion of the game comes down to strength versus loyalty, but this one came down to strength versus compatibility, with a nice mix of perceived threat added in, since this was the first vote and no loyalty had been tested yet. Even though he was looked at as physically weaker, I think Donathan emits a positive vibe that people just want to be around. Plus, he’s looking for any home right now, and that could be useful for a player who’s wanting to scoop up a loyal ally here in the early game. For the first vote, I tend to err on the side of keeping the tribe strong, so I probably would have been pushing to send Donathan home. But he’s already won me over on the TV screen, so I can imagine the idea of sending this starry-eyed Kentucky kid out first would be tough after spending some time on the island with him so that I won’t knock it too much.
END OF THE LINE: Stephanie Gonzales
So what did Gonzales do wrong? For these first votes, people are just looking for a reason, any reason, to vote somebody out. Sometimes, it’s just as simple as speaking up the loudest and inserting yourself into the conversation a bit too much. Coming back after a challenge and saying “everything would have been fine had you just listened to me” is never a good look, so that probably rubbed some people the wrong way. Plus, while Donathan is like the shelter dog people are looking to take home, Gonzales was more like a jungle cat on the prowl, more dangerous than Donathan just based on the qualities that probably make her successful in her everyday life, they just didn’t mesh well with the group. Getting up and whispering to people at Tribal Council was perhaps not that great of a call either. The vote was almost definitely locked in at that point, so there was really nothing she could do to change it. But if I were sitting at the first Tribal and somebody started whispering, that would make me super nervous about that person and only confirm that I was making the right decision about getting rid of them.
Also, Gonzales’ exit just speaks to how much luck is involved in Survivor. Jacob getting sent to Ghost Island and skipping Tribal was just a bad break for her. If Malolo could have sent Jacob home first, the whole butterfly effect kicks in and who knows how long Gonzales lasts. She’s definitely better than a lot of the first boots that we’ve seen over the years; she wasn’t egregiously bad, she just stood out enough for the axe to come down on her. Charming, pretty, athletic, she probably has a lot more potential than this performance showed. However, the spooky Survivor gods deemed her to be the first one out of Survivor: Ghost Island.
SIGNPOST: Just because Jacob went to Ghost Island doesn’t mean he’s the only guy who gets to geek out this episode. Morgan’s reaction to discovering the Legacy Advantage was very cute, and speaks to the variety of superfans on this cast.
FORK: Jacob’s Shell Game
Without having anything of real value to use from his time on Ghost Island, Jacob was definitely in a tight spot, but he had the right instincts on how to make it better. Truly a “make lemonade out of lemons” situation, crafting a fake immunity idol gave him something to play with to try and improve his position. Upon his arrival back at camp, however, is when that lemonade started to turn sour.
Being honest and forthright about information can be pretty useful in Survivor, so I can understand Jacob’s decision to be truthful about Ghost Island, hoping his fellow tribemates would appreciate his honesty. Unfortunately, the “one little detail” he was changing up in his story had a pretty big hole that the other players could see right through. Kudos to Brendan for demanding to see the note that Jacob would have gotten if he had a real idol, a move that future players should be prepared to combat in the future. Without the note, all of Jacob’s credibility was immediately shot. The other path he could have taken, the one that could have been more advantageous, is to speak the truth as little as possible. Nobody had been to Ghost Island yet, so he could have made up whatever he wanted. Tell them you got a clue to an idol but hadn’t been able to find it yet. Maybe that erases some of the fear of the unknown about Ghost Island if they think it’s no big deal, and they start to feel more comfortable around you. Then, you can use the truth as a thing to bond you to individual players, telling them what really happened to strengthen your bond with them. If all that fails, then bust out the fake idol as late as possible, preferably at Tribal. We’ve seen that last-minute plans are often the ones that stick, so if Jacob whipped out the idol at Tribal, he could have caused enough panic and confusion to get the votes off of him.
FORK: The Fugazi Idol
Over on Naviti, we got some more idol shenanigans, as Domenick found the first Hidden Immunity Idol of the season, in the dark no less, which was very impressive. On first glance, this guy looks to fill the Tony Vlachos role of aggressive East Coast schemer, so it’s not surprising he found an idol. What is a little surprising is what he decided to do with it.
First of all, wanting to clear the air with somebody to reduce personal tension is always tricky. You can have all of the best intentions in the world to be buddies, but if the other person is not receptive to your positive vibes, then it’s never going to work, which was the case with Domenick and Chris. As Domenick tried to get Chris back on the same page, Chris did not seem interested at all by the look on his face. His suspicion inevitably grew worse when Domenick told him he didn’t have an idol, then backtracked and revealed he did have one. Maybe he wasn’t done with his arts and crafts project yet? Domenick devising a fake idol and using that to show Chris, not the real one he already found, was an odd choice for sure; showing him the real one could have cemented their trust. However, this gives Domenick some room to do some pretty tricky stuff, namely passing off the fake one to him to build more trust without breaking a sweat that he’s handing off something that’s actually valuable. Chris right now has his eyebrow raised, but Domenick might be talented enough to pull off such move. I’d love to see him try.
SIGNPOST: I love all of the little spooky editing flourishes through the episode, from the ghostly whispers and agonizing guttural sounds to the flashback history lessons to previous seasons when somebody comes to possess a particular advantage. The editors are all in on the season as well, and I love it.
FORK: Donathan’s Dilemma
I wanted to touch on Donathan’s moment at the challenge, which wasn’t so much a decision as it was a crisis of confidence. First of all, I found Donathan to be a true delight in these first two episodes; he’s just a happy, positive guy that it’s hard to root against him. His story in this first night says to me that he’s being set up as one of the major characters of the season, and his moment at the challenge could speak to the crux of his arc on the show: finding the confidence inside himself to succeed. The moment at the challenge was all about his belief that he couldn’t dive down to unlock the buoys, despite swimming pretty well during the first part of the challenge. Even at the first Tribal, when he’s leaning out of the whispers that are going on, it shows that he’s kind of timid and potentially uncomfortable with jumping into the spotlight and seizing the moment. This could be problematic in the future if he’s ever faced with making a big strategic decision, especially if other players are relying on him to do so. I hope that we get to see a classic Survivor growth story with Donathan, as he blossoms into the person that has the self-confidence to hang with all of the serious gaming going on, and not just lean to the side.
FORK: Beauty and the Beast?
Once Malolo loses the Immunity Challenge, it just becomes a question of whether Jacob can beat the odds and survive his first Tribal. To his credit, he never stopped trying and looked like he was pulling something together. He deemed Stephanie his closest friend and therefore decided to spit the real truth at her, revealing the true nature of his Ghost Island gamble. At crunch time right before Tribal, he just needed to start throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck, so divulging information to strengthen any bond he can was a good line to throw out.
To Jacob’s credit, it looked to us that line was seriously being chewed on a little bit. After talking with Jacob, Stephanie brought this idea up to her new BFF Jenna, saying that they could grab the numbers to make it happen (blindside Michael). Ultimately, I think the two of them made the right decision, it’s best not to rock the boat with such an agreed upon boot on the chopping block. But I want to give Stephanie some major props for her play in both of these episodes. Between her wild, frizzy hair and bright, neon clothes, it looked like she could have been a lot to handle and an easy early target, but Stephanie was much more toned down than I anticipated and showed that she is here to play. Whether it was subtly guiding the discussion before the first vote, or using her bubbly personality to gain valuable info out of Jacob, she is here to play and could have some real chops to make a deep run.
END OF THE LINE: Jacob Derwin
Where did Jacob go wrong? If I could distill his game down to one thing, I would say he was put on a tribe he simply didn’t gel with, panicked, and frantically proceeded to dig himself out of a hole that was only deepening as the days went on. He managed to pull off a nifty move to get himself out of the crosshairs for the first vote but ultimately couldn’t dodge the target a second time.
That’s enough about where Jacob went wrong because I want to give him props for getting on the show in the first place. He was the new guy in the long line of “Survivor nerds,” an archetype I certainly identify with and root to do well every season. As I was watching the episode, seeing his game unravel before him and ultimately get voted out, I was heartbroken for him for sure. Then, knowing that I had to come here and write a (way-too-long) column about all his bad decisions made me uneasy, because I don’t want to kick a guy while he’s down. In the grand scheme of things, though, I’m just a schmuck on the internet who likes to thinks he knows what he’s talking, but Jacob is the real deal. He got a chance to play the best game in the world, something only a few hundred people in the entire world have done, something I doubt I will ever get to do. He went out there and lived the dream, tried everything in his power to stay, and for that, I say well done!
I’ve rambled enough for this week, can’t wait to see what the Ghost Island journey has in store for us in the coming weeks. See you all next week!
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