Survivor: Ghost Island

Historical Perspectives: Don’t Vote Me Out

Andy Pfeiffer travels back into Survivor history to look at how to escape a Pagonging.

When you’re in the minority and you’re being Pagonged, three more days might be all the difference in the world. If you can turn the tide on one vote, you can flip the entire game upside-down, and you might need three more days to be able to do that. In these Pagonging situations, sometimes one person won’t get that chance. Since no relic was featured this week, this entry of Historical Perspectives will focus on what Michael, Jenna, and especially Stephanie could have learned to avoid being the one whose torch was snuffed. Please also consult last season’s blog on Pagongings for more.


“Pagong” is a verb derived from one of the tribes in the very first season of Survivor. This tribe was genuinely confused as to what the word “Outwit” meant and was treating their stay on Pulau Tiga as a vacation akin to summer camp, giving each other massages in the mud volcano and relaxing on the beach. When a vote came around, everyone made individual decisions – and this came back to bite them come the merge when they thought Tagi had been doing the same. They hadn’t. At that Tribal Council, seven people got votes – something that will never happen in Survivor again, period. Four of those votes were for Pagong’s camp counselor, Gretchen, sending her packing. The rest of Pagong was furious to see Gretchen leave because “She was the best survivalist out here!” Clearly, they had no clue as to how she was perceived as the leader and voted out for that reason.

That one event defined the strategic elements of Survivor vote-offs – especially once each and every member of Pagong subsequently got their torches snuffed, the only deviation being an attempt on Kelly Wiglesworth foiled when she won immunity. To ensure their majority, even when Kelly got sticky fingers, the rest of Tagi piggybacked off of Dr. Sean’s “alphabetical” voting strategy to ensure Pagong after Pagong went home. Due to the good doctor’s attempt to inoffensively vote out the Pagongs first (Colleen, Gervase, Greg, Gretchen, and Jenna all had names earlier in the alphabet than anyone from Tagi), not one of them could have pleaded for another three days and be heard. The iconic nature of the subsequent removal of all five remaining members of a tribe embedded it into Survivor lexicon for an eternity, with “Pagonging” referring to the event where one alliance picks off every member of another alliance of equal or smaller size in subsequent fashion, often making for boring television.


In early Survivor, merge alliances were defined by the original tribes, with whichever tribe attaining the first majority achieving victory. In Australian Outback, Ogakor won out, despite it not being a successive order of voting out Kucha, because Kimmi opened her mouth and revealed that Varner had a vote against him, which led him to get votes at the merge when the tiebreaker was prior votes. This tiebreaker was shelved after Lindsey Richter was similarly screwed after the first-ever swap in Africa, which allowed the original Boran to have a 6-4 majority against a divided Samburu, making it easy to sweep the last four of Samburu after Lex’s paranoia died down. Marquesas had a solid Rotu majority at first, but a Pagonging of Rotu ensued once a faction comprised of Ma’aramu and the Rotu outsiders formed at nine due to the results of the notorious coconut chop challenge. The fake merge in Thailand allowed Chuay Gahn to dominate. It wasn’t until Amazon where nothing resembling a Pagonging occurred, simply due to the highly strategic nature of Rob Cesternino’s gameplay.

These first five seasons’ one-sided natures impact the modern game, as Survivor has evolved into show littered with multiple swaps every season that make luck more important than actual strategy. This was done to try and spice up the show, but it’s not working since it’s making it harder to follow. They don’t want there to be two distinct tribes at the merge like happened in Redemption Island, South Pacific, and One World, which produced some of the most boring and uneventful Pagongings the show has ever seen, two of which were fully unwatchable.



First of all, let’s be clear: Unless you played in Borneo, nothing you say at Tribal Council is going to have any effect on someone’s vote unless the entire place gets lit. People are deadlocked unless a Live Tribal goes down. Heroes vs. Villains had a single Live Tribal when Russell Hantz went down Jerri’s throat about voting out Danielle, which ultimately got Jerri to swing his way. In Caramoan, when Erik Reichenbach trolled everyone by saying that Malcolm and Eddie had to play those idols, the vote reverted back to the original plan from the Andrea audible – except for Erik, who voted for Fillup anyway. In Heroes vs. Healers vs. Huslters, the hysteria that ensued after Dr. Mike burned Lauren Rimmer caused multiple vote-flips during the whisper-fest. While Ben allegedly confirmed he had an idol to Chrissy, she and Ryan ended up voting for him anyway to ingratiate themselves into the majority. They knew that Lauren would leave as they desired, but it was voting for Ben that opened up their new final three alliance with Devon.

Erstwhile, pleading for people not to vote you out has never changed minds at Tribal. This seems to be the method of choice for recruits that have no idea what they’re doing. For example, Ashley Massaro in China should have scrambled before Tribal to turn the rest of the tribe against leader “Crazy” Dave Cruser, who most of them didn’t have much respect for, but instead tried to pin the target on him at Tribal by arguing with him. This did not work – it only exacerbated her target, and she was voted out. Stick to wrestling, Ashley!

For Ghost Island, none of them tried anything at Tribal since that had worked out so well before – for Naviti. Each of the three Malolos had their chance to plead back at camp, and all three took to doing so in different ways. Jenna entering a showmance with Sebastian, Michael by appealing to physical strength, and Stephanie by… mostly accepting her fate, given how her stay at Ghost Island prevented her from having the same opportunities to ingratiate herself to the majority. She did not take the chance she had to promise her loyalty like her allies did.


Whose behavior should Stephanie have studied in the past? Michelle Dougan is the most obvious choice, but Australian Survivor 2017 had yet to air when Stephanie was in Fiji – and Stephanie is enough of a superfan to watch that (it’s a Cagayan level masterpiece, by the way). Stephanie would have had to look further back to see people who, through their own doing, saved their skin in a swap and weren’t just like Rory Freeman in Vanuatu and kept for his strength over someone who made the leader, Ami, paranoid. She couldn’t have done what Julie Berry did on the other tribe that season since she has kids who would think their mother went crazy by flirting with guys – that was Jenna’s MO.

One case study here is Brian Corridan in Guatemala, whose absolutely brilliant “Operation Bait Blake” was both gripping television and life-saving gameplay. Down 4-3 in a swap, Brian decided to get the dumbest member of the majority, Blake Towsley, to continue to talk about himself in ways that irritated the others in his majority. All Brian did was subtly ask questions about Blake’s life and ask for stories. Blake would deliver the goods, telling tales that involved alcohol, pranks, delinquent behavior, and objectifying women. Brian wasn’t actually interested in them – he was more interested in having an excuse to sell Blake out to the others. And unlike Blake, Brian showed interest in being one with his tribe, which included joining a prayer circle despite being an atheist. Once they started waffling, Brian and his allies Gary “Hawkins” and Amy O’Hara convinced two from the Nakum majority, Danni Boatwright and Bobby Jon Drinkard, to flip on their moron tribemate for being too obnoxious. They were all more than happy to get rid of him. Let us hope that Blake has since learned how to treat a lady properly.

Stephanie could have done this same thing with Bradley, who she was annoyed by, even before Brendan left. While many of that Naviti majority would want to wait until a 5-2 split to blindside any of their own, Stephanie could expedite that if she gave reasons for Bradley to whine about things that weren’t the Malolo beach. She had this mixed reception from Bradley and, if Malolo truly felt he was an annoying whiner, she could have had him show that to his alleged friends. After that, all she needed to do was say something Brian couldn’t: “You know, you’d have a 4-3 majority even if you purged one of your own… just food for thought.” It certainly would have been better than just giving empty arguments.


Another critical example which used a different approach was one of the most legendary players of all time, Cirie Fields. In Exile Island, Cirie had the tag of “older woman” from the start due to the tribe divisions, but after a swap, she found herself on the block alongside her former tribemate, someone named Melinda. She got lucky that the target ultimately fell on Melinda, but helped her own case by encouraging an increasingly insane Shane Powers to quit – and reaped the benefits when he didn’t. She sat back, bonded socially but in quiet ways, and let Shane cause the Casaya tribe to self-destruct. By infiltrating the alliance ruling the tribe, Cirie’s name was never thrown about again until endgame because everyone liked her.

Stephanie could have used her budding relationship with Kellyn to butt into Naviti, the same way Jenna did with Sebastian. While the 24-hour Exile was damning to Stephanie, what may have already damned her was her lack of action before that staycation by hoping to win at Survivor Russian Roulette. Cirie was trying to infiltrate the Casaya alliance from the very beginning, before they ever went to Tribal Council. Her vote was a show of loyalty to Melinda – and all she needed to say was “I told Melinda I wasn’t going to write her name.” With that statement, Cirie says that her word can be trusted since it was just the two of them. Stephanie did not have that luxury. She needed to prove her loyalty by promising her vote before the previous Tribal Council. All she needed to do was say “I promise to vote for Brendan. You don’t need to tell me who you’re voting for. If you see my vote for Brendan, you can trust me.” This would have been much like the merge vote in Worlds Apart with the hinky vote for Hali.


Though she played a phenomenal game in the first six days, Stephanie Johnson didn’t do things that Jenna and Michael did to stabilize her position in the swap. Jenna flirted her way into the majority. Michael appealed to physical strength, trying to curb Bradley’s fears that he is a threat. Sebastian would have wanted to flip if Bradley insisted that his girl had to go. Stephanie had nothing she could do except find an idol or subtly provoke Naviti from within by exploiting the initial sides from their original tribe (Bradley/Kellyn vs. Chelsea/Des/Sebastian). She ought to have figured out that they might not have been as ironclad as they seemed. Had they figured her out, she was in trouble. Had they not, she might have blown the entire game open for both her and her Malolo allies.

Stephanie’s issues started before her new tribe went to Tribal. Instead of focusing on her own survival, she focused on all of Malolo surviving. When mixed with her perceptions as a social and strategic threat and then, on top of that, Des getting paranoid about her having an advantage, this made the writing on the wall as easy to read as a children’s book. Stephanie leaves behind a lesson that though you shouldn’t necessarily sell your allies from your former tribe out, you should at least ingratiate yourself into the majority somehow. If you do that, they’ll have a reason to keep you, possibly even over each other. If you don’t do that, they have no reason to keep you around, especially if you’re a threat, and you’ll find your funeral music playing over Jeff Probst snuffing your torch.

Written by

Andy Pfeiffer

Andy is a 30-year-old from Wisconsin, having an English major from UW-Whitewater. He has watched Survivor from the very first episode and can't go a day without running Survivor-related thoughts in his head. When he's not entranced by a computer at home or work, he's probably playing a video game or out and about somewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @IAmAndyPfeiffer.

2 responses to “Historical Perspectives: Don’t Vote Me Out”

  1. If her exit interview are to be believed, she did make really solid connections, specifically with Bradley and Kellyn. I think we saw how specifically Bradley and Kellyn refused to even enter strategic theoretical talk. I think this will absolutely come back to haunt them later when they might rely on needing to connect with Michael or Jenna after a swap or merge. Stephanie also talked about Michael and Jenna turning on her during her time on ghost island. I’m also of the opinion (although I haven’t seen anyone else bring it up) that they probably threw the last challenge. None of the original malolo had any role in the immunity challenge and Chelsea and the puzzle crew were outperformed. I think Kellyn was crying not because she failed her tribe, but because they already agreed Stephanie was going home.

    • Stephanie did not bond strategically with Bradley. She had mixed emotions toward him, if you’d notice in her exit press – she connected to him on a personal level, but not a game level. That doomed her. She could have used her relationships to infiltrate that alliance and work her way in with Bradley/Kellyn – and Kellyn would’ve been open to keeping her around had she done so. Had they targeted Michael, they’d have gained someone who owed them her life. Instead of someone who is clearly in it for himself and will shrug off being spared.

      I would not be surprised if they threw that challenge – it’s highly likely since Bradley and Kellyn were so good at prior puzzles. They just wanted to get rid of another Malolo and knew their bunch was more rock-solid, so it made sense to do that.

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