Survivor 41

Episode 1 Recap – A Breath of Fresh Air

What went down in Episode 1?

Photo: CBS

Oh! Why, hello! I didn’t see you there. Y’know, reader, it’s been a long 16 months since we’ve seen each other and discussed the greatest game, but we knew we’d be back! And you’re right here with us! We could only do this with you, there, reading along at home. Well, this season we’re going to lean into what makes reviewing Survivor fun—and that’s the danger…? I guess. Anyway, for you young readers, keep an eye out for the review within the review! Alright, ready? First article of the season. Let’s go!

So now that the fourth wall is obliterated let’s talk some Survivor 41! I’ve been waist-deep in international Survivor this year between the incredible and hyper-strategic Survivor South Africa: Immunity Island and the extreme highs and lows of Australian Survivor: Brains v Brawn, so it doesn’t feel like I’m breaking the drought. But there was something palpably energetic about returning to the original series after the longest hiatus in the show’s history. And the best part was that it didn’t feel like heating up old leftovers. It felt fresh, exciting and ambitious and largely focused in the right direction.

Overall, the season premiere of Survivor 41 knocked it out of the park for me. A very well-balanced edit introduced us to the entire cast. And allowing the two-hour run time to cover the first cycle of the game (rather than cramming two cycles in as we’ve seen before) gave the show time to luxuriate in its introductions. And right out of the gate, this is a cast I can’t wait to spend the next three months with.

The diversity of backgrounds and life experiences is so refreshing, and with the show borrowing Australian Survivor’s “flashbacks” to help frame these characters so that we’re primed to see them hit the sands of Fiji, we’re not shying away from putting those unique perspectives front and centre. It feels grounded and earnest, and I really hope that we continue to share in human moments throughout the season, especially between the players as they build relationships on the beach.

But this season is still embracing the game itself, throwing in a myriad of twists right off the bat: the changes to living conditions, the horrifically titled Savvy or Sweat Amazing Race detour challenge, the summit and prisoner’s dilemma wheel, the intriguing Shot in the Dark die and surprise double Tribal Council to pare the cast down to 16 players by episode 2.

There was a lot going on, but it all worked for me. And the space around the episode allowed these game mechanics to breathe and for us to see how the players reacted and interacted to these unexpected turns. I’m a little wary that this pace of game mechanics could be unsustainable in the long run once we drop back to shorter episodes, but as it stands, I’m optimistic.

S40
Photo: CBS

And I think that’s the best word to describe my perspective on the season opener as a whole: optimistic. The show is coming at Season 41 with fresh eyes. Yes, I miss the season having a subtitle (I may be one of the rare few who would have preferred they stuck to the originally planned Survivor: Dawn of a New Era). And I’m still a traditionalist who doesn’t love the idea of the 26-day game being so reduced compared to the classic length. But it was easy to let those quibbles fall aside as I watched the premiere.

Naturally, I have new quibbles. Jeff Probst turning to the camera at regular intervals feels incredibly hokey, and the game-within-a-game rebus puzzle is a whopping meh for someone outside the target demographic. But overall, this episode buzzed with enthusiasm. From Jeff and production (and I loved the transparency of showing the crew) to the cast themselves, the love of Survivor and the joy of getting to be a part of continuing its legacy was electric.

But a good vibe does not necessarily make for a great season. Thankfully the cast is off to a great start, diving headfirst into the game itself…

UA YOU? U, u… u, u…

This may not be CSI: Fiji, but this tribe killed it in the season premiere. Between JD Robinson coming in hot bursting with so much energy he nearly flamed out, Shan Smith rocketing to the top of the charts with her very own soundtrack, Ricard Foyé rising as a savvy and shrewd player while Genie Chen became the instantaneous heart of the tribe to Brad Reese “playing like it the Year 2000” and Sara Wilson meeting an unlucky early demise, Ua was an absolute delight. So much so that it’s difficult to choose where to start. But for a tribe that burned so bright, let’s stare into the rising star that is JD.

In the pre-season, JD came across as someone who’d fall casually into a Devon Pinto archetype. The “chill dude” with a secret mind for the game. Well, any notion of that perception faded quickly as Ua hit the beach, fresh off their victory at the Marooning that allowed them to bypass the Savvy/Sweat challenge and get right into shelter building and tribe bonding. Immediately, JD’s energy bubbled over, buzzing with the excitement of getting to play Survivor. And while that was dynamite for the confessionals, it didn’t make for the best first impression to his tribe, who found his vibe to be too intense for their overall energy.

Ua
Photo: CBS

This red flag was only exacerbated by JD getting randomly picked to go to the summit alongside Danny McCray (of Luvu) and Xander Hastings (of Yase). I love any twist that facilitates cross-Tribal dynamics, so this event was right up my alley. This twist actively facilitated a “get to know you” on a hike up a mountain and then immediately tested each player’s insight of the others with a prisoner’s dilemma. Protect Your Vote, maintaining your ability to vote at your first Tribal, or Risk Your Vote in the hopes of earning an Extra Vote. The dilemma? If all three players Risked, then nobody gets an Extra Vote and they are all penalised by losing their vote at their first Tribal.

Is there an ideal way to play this? I’d advocate to Protect. Gaining social capital through reliability is always good, and in these small tribes, your vote could be critical to proving you can be trusted in a tenuously forming majority. Plus, with nowhere to hide in a group of 6, any sketchy behavior can draw a target (as JD ultimately found, as he compounded his tribe’s mistrust of him with his ineffectual re-telling of his summit adventure). Plus, I’d argue that Protecting could better enable those cross-Tribal connections to flourish. As the only player to choose Protect, Danny could go to Xander or JD at a swap and note that his decision enabled them to gain their Advantage, which could yield fruit.

That said, the first vote in a tribe of six rarely comes down to a single vote, usually landing at a 4-2 or 5-1 clean majority, so is losing your vote going to actually change the outcome? Odds are, probably not. It may be more likely this season with the Shot in the Dark in play, but the players didn’t know about that twist when they were faced with this dilemma. Plus, an extra vote valid up to the endgame of the whole season is a decent boon if you can secure it.

There’s also the meta benefit of being able to deduce what the other players chose. Knowing that at least one player Protected, in order to earn the Extra Vote, or that all three Risked resulting in a lost vote. And there is some potential for leverage based on that information. It all gets pretty complex pretty quickly, but it’s no surprise that the younger, ambitious fans in Xander and JD took the risk for the Vote.

Ua
Photo: CBS

In JD’s case, it worked out. And he could need to use it in the near future given his initial mismatched energy followed by the suspicion of his story post-summit have left him on the outskirts. Ricard, especially, seemed wary of JD’s reliability, and Sara was similarly put off by him. In her exit interviews, she cited his overeager pitching of the “young people” alliance to be too intense and restrictive, compared to gravitating towards the people that made you feel comfortable. Both seemed eager to push the vote on JD.

However, it’s a testament to how quickly the modern game moves and how eager these players were to get into playing Survivor, that JD—the obvious target on Ua for the entire episode—ended up skating out of Tribal with not only an Extra Vote in his drawers, but nary a vote against him.

The loss at the Immunity Challenge put puzzle-makers Sara and Shan in the spotlight. It’s a tired trope at this point, but, unfortunately, one that erroneously persists, especially with more traditional players like Brad. He was focused on challenge strength with so much certainty that he put his foot in his mouth, telling Sara and Shan to their faces that he was going to vote for one of them. Sara seemed to be the target that rose, and her anxiety about the vote shifting onto her was palpable. Brad would have JD, and so it would be a case of where Genie and Shan landed. But Sara was so uncertain that a JD vote could carry through that she was weighing up her Shot in the Dark.

This Shot in the Dark twist is an intriguing addition to the game, taking the unreliable 50/50 coin from Winners at War and further decreasing its odds to 1-in-6 – 17% (or 16.7% according to Yase’s David Voce). If played, a player doesn’t roll the die (missed opportunity!) but instead draws blind from a bag in the voting booth. One chance, you essentially manifest an Idol; five chances, you’re still vulnerable. Not so bad… until you factor in that it also costs your vote to play the advantage.

Dice
Photo: CBS

I really like the design of the advantage on paper. It requires sacrificing a certainty for a very low chance of safety, so it feels like a good balance—not too strong, not too weak. It still requires a good read of the strategic and social game. Misplaying it could mean the sacrificed vote costs you the numbers you would have had (which was ultimately Sara’s reason for not taking the gamble, believing that her vote might be important to save her after the unpredictable Tribal). A really bad read could also mean you waste your Shot on a vote where you weren’t even in danger.

But I also adore the fact that everyone starts the game with one die. It distributes power evenly, leaving it to the players to determine how to approach a uniform advantage. Still, it’s not so intense as the “everyone starts with an Idol” twist that’s been discussed with varying degrees of satire in recent years. Could it become overwhelming or lead to an Advantagegeddon? Maybe But at least everyone will have had a Shot, and in the words of one Alexander Hamilton, you don’t want to throw that away.

However, as I mentioned above, Sara ultimately chose not to play her Shot. At Tribal, the vote seemed to shift into uncertainty as Ricard, Shan, and Sara began discussing flipping from JD to Brad, on account of his gaffe vocalising his voting intentions. This spiralled into a whisper train. And thank the Survivor Gods that we finally got subtitling on these conversations to allow the audience in on the on-the-fly strategy. The chaos gave Sara just enough hope that she might have the numbers (and hence need her vote to get through), and it seemed like it might have scattered the field a little, as Genie ended up throwing an errant vote on Ricard.

Yet, in the end, it was four votes on Sara, sending her out decisively. In many ways, it’s unclear exactly how Sara became the consensus target, especially as Ricard and Shan seemed close to her at first instance. I’m guessing there’s something we didn’t see, or it was just a case of Shan and Ricard determining that an “easy” vote over taking a risk to blindside JD (who may or may not have an advantage from the summit) or trust a last-minute flip to Brad to be secure.

S40
Photo: CBS

Regardless, Sara’s time was unfortunately short. She seemed like an earnest and eager player, and knowing she was carrying the weight of the loss of her grandmother to COVID was tough and relatable for many. But sometimes, a chaotic Tribal can lead to safer play in an effort to mitigate the chaos, and it seems like Sara got pincered in that situation.

But whose call was it? At the end of the day, it was Ricard and Shan who really sealed her fate. They would have been able to 3-2-1 Brad if they’d wanted to. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few shortcomings of this episode that we don’t really know why that decision was made. But what we do know is that Shan is as much a star as JD and seems to be in a far better position on the Ua tribe.

Bursting onto the beach with just as much energy as JD, Shan made sure to keep it contained to her devious hum-scored confessionals. Seriously, if that melody is not baked into the score for scheming scenes, it will be a huge missed opportunity. But Shan also prioritised forming genuine bonds with her tribemates, giving her a wealth of information and the choice of how to manoeuvre and helping to mitigate the puzzle-bungling target that locked onto Sara.

Shan was in nearly every strategic conversation we saw, including being at the centre of all the whispering at Tribal—the conduit between every faction. That’s a risky spot to be in, but she seems to be handling it with aplomb, gathering trust and confidence and preparing her to be able to play the cutthroat “mafia pastor” game she aspires to.

She played these opening days beautifully within her tribe, and she was a riot in confessional. And while cutting Sara feels a little out of nowhere given they seemed tight, Shan has the luxury of being tight with everyone. And keeping the most people happy is how you want to play this early game from her position. As soon as she flips a vote, like a Brad vote would have been, she outs herself and alienates the people she’s been working to build trust with. I hope we continue to see a lot more of Shan’s fun-loving but calculating gameplay. If I was giving out an MVP for the episode, I think Shan would get it (or at least be in hot contention with another stellar and similar player on Yase).

Speaking of…

YASE QUEEN!

Whereas Ua got off to an incredible start at the marooning, Yase completely fumbled by struggling to locate their final oar, setting them on an uphill battle through the episode. However, the biggest winner and loser both found themselves facing Jeff at Tribal due to the brutal double Tribal on Day 3. And for being such a mess in the opening minutes, the tribe managed to come together as a surprisingly cohesive unit come Tribal, where they were able to execute a swift, unanimous blindside against Eric Abraham.

Like Brad, Abraham seemed to focus on the challenges as the determinant for who should be at risk. Upon arriving at camp, he began to float the name of Tiffany Seely, accusing her of jumping off the boat too early, costing them extra eyes looking for the last oar. To my eye, it felt like Abraham was looking for a scapegoat, but it was evident to the whole tribe that no one person was responsible for their poor performance at the marooning. So, the tribe needed a group success, and in this case, it was taking out the squeaky wheel in Abraham, who was, unfortunately, one of the less featured players in the still very well-balanced edit.

Yase
Photo: CBS

However, Abraham’s elimination also seemed to be as much driven by his choice of targeting Tiffany. Liana Wallace and Evvie Jagoda had quickly formed a strong relationship with Tiffany and balked at the idea of voting her out, especially as a precedent predicated on challenge strength could easily morph from “vote out the weak” to “vote out the women.” Evvie (who uses she/they pronouns) especially articulated that they had a strong rapport with Tiffany and could envision working with her in the long run, so letting her go now was far from ideal.

Thus, Evvie and Liana set to work swaying Voce and Xander to their side. And while it ultimately paid off, Tiffany was no slouch and ensured she took time to search for a Hail Mary Idol—only to be staring blindly right at the mysterious “Beware Advantage” (hidden by Jeff in the opening scene).

Tiffany’s survival at the Tribal—alongside Genie not even being in the conversation at Ua’s Tribal—was a nice change of pace from Survivor tradition that has often seen older women take the fall early for “strength.” It speaks to the modern player that challenge strength is largely an arbitrary consideration given the variety of challenges and so many coming down to a puzzle equalizer.

What matters is relationships, alliances, and people you trust. That’s what Evvie and Liana valued, and Evvie, in particular, ensured that that’s what won the day. Much like Shan, they seemed to be perfectly positioned in the middle of the tribe, being brought into Abraham’s plan to vote for Tiffany as well as driving their own plan back against him. But perhaps even better than Shan, nothing they did seemed to make them obvious as someone in the middle of the tribe. While I have faith that both Shan and Evvie will be able to continue to flourish as the crux of their tribe, Evvie might be better positioned overall.

Yase
Photo: CBS

It also helps that Yase seems to now be the more cohesive unit. Despite Ua’s claims of kumbaya, JD is still a wild-card (who now knows it!). Meanwhile, Yase not only voted as one, but their tribe has been growing increasingly unified. After the marooning, the tribe were presented with a choice of how to earn the meager supplies they’d missed out on. They could either work together to solve a tricky triangle puzzle or send two tribe members to carry out mundane hard labour, carting seawater through a marked course to fill two barrels.

While Voce thought the puzzle would be the better option, allowing the whole tribe to stay together and avoiding burning energy on a menial task (an opinion I personally agree with; I would absolutely choose the puzzle), he quickly recognised that the tribe was leaning the other way. Even when that decision pushed him into the physical role of four hours of carrying water, he recognised that going with the flow was better for overall tribe unity. His work alongside Xander proved successful and solidified their reliability to the tribe.

In a similar vein, Xander beautifully managed the summit and the moral dilemma. Although he chose to Risk his vote, he returned to camp with his cards up, admitting that he’d put his own vote on the line for an advantage. But he cleverly framed it as a sacrifice for the tribe. Perhaps cashing in on the goodwill earned by the water task, he trusted he wouldn’t be targeted if his gamble didn’t pay off, but more importantly, he told the tribe that the Extra Vote would be something for the WHOLE tribe. The kind of advantage that could turn the tide at a swap or the merge. In other words, he turned a selfish play into a selfless one, and it’s that kind of attitude that helps permeate the apparent vibe of tribe unity going forward.

I’m really curious to see what happens with Yase moving forward, but if they catch a lucky break in the next few rounds, it feels like they could be well-positioned to be a solid block against the already fracturing Ua and Luvu.

LUVU BAE

Lastly, we come to the tribe that managed to avoid Tribal Council altogether while still managing to be the messiest. We didn’t get to see a whole lot from the tribe comparatively, particularly Erika Caspupanan and Heather Aldret, who were featured in confessionals but not hugely highlighted in camp life. But there was still a major division forming, perhaps the most extreme divide on any tribe.

Much like Yase, Luvu chose to take on the water-carrying challenge to earn their flint, and the task fell to Danny and Deshawn Radden. While they were able to complete the task, they also conspired to take a breather for a quick Idol hunt. While I’d argue that there’s nothing wrong with that sort of self-interest in a broad sense, it would have been a terrible look if it had cost them precious time to the point where they failed their challenge. It also was a betrayal of the tribe’s agreement to withhold strategy until the task was finished to not put Danny and Deshawn at a disadvantage while the other four bonded over shelter-building.

Luvu
Photo: CBS

And that latter point was the catalyst for the growing conflict on the tribe, as Naseer Muttalif spotted the pair slacking on their task for the tribe to pursue a selfish endeavour. He made the call to gather the others and inform them of the betrayal, while also suggesting that either Danny or Deshawn should be considered to be voted out first for violating the agreement. On paper, it’s a good idea to use that strategically against them, but unfortunately, the gossip swung back the other way.

Sydney Segal evidently formed a stronger connection to Deshawn and Danny and told them of Naseer’s revelation, which naturally led to them wanting to target him in return. With Luvu achieving a come-from-behind victory at the challenge, we have no certainty on how that would all shake out, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see that bad blood persist.

Danny and Deshawn inevitably bonded on the water task, and with Sydney seeming to be positioning herself with them, it would come down to Erika and Heather. Would they go with an easy majority, or would they risk a 3-3 split by siding with Naseer? Probably the former, but if someone finds an Idol, or if Naseer sees it coming and gets lucky with his Shot, then anything could happen. Regardless, while I like Naseer’s instinct to leverage that information as social currency, it may have been better to sit on it until he knew his tribe better and had a stronger sense of who he could trust.

Luvu
Photo: CBS

By throwing Danny and Deshawn under the bus, he immediately alienated two out of five potential allies. This feels especially problematic with Danny, who seems well-positioned as the “big guy” to become the default leader of the tribe, and who was ultimately steadfast enough to Protect his Vote at the summit. But the bigger issue was that Naseer also committed the same sin he accused them of committing—breaking the strategy embargo.

Does holding off on revealing that information mean it might be disbelieved down the track? Maybe. But I think that’s a better risk than revealing information now that could be turned back against him. I do hope Naseer is able to find a way out of this situation, though, as his eager enthusiasm might have gotten him in trouble, but it’s infectious!

ONE LAST WORD

Overall, this episode was a fantastic return to form and simultaneous evolution for Survivor, but it would be remiss of me to gloss over the discussion of “Come on in, guys!” In an effort to bring the show’s culture forward, alongside its diversity casting initiatives and new safety protocols, Jeff raised the question of whether the gendered term “guys” should be dropped or replaced in his catchphrase. Ultimately, following Ricard vocalising his tribe’s reflection that the term could be considered exclusionary, Jeff agreed to amend the phrase.

As an outcome, I fully support the change. While “guys” is commonly utilised in mixed-gender situations and many people find no issue with the term (as voiced by Evvie on the show), there are also many people who do find it uncomfortable, misgendering, or offensive. Inclusive language benefits everyone—full stop.

However, I have felt increasingly disappointed about how this change was implemented. It was clearly something on Jeff’s mind, as he admitted once Ricard raised concern. If production were conscious of the term potentially causing harm, why not just change it of their own initiative? Or if they wanted to poll the cast, do it pre-game and with a degree of anonymity? By ambushing the players with a question that could be deeply personal, and could also paint someone as the villain quashing a 20-year tradition (as evidenced by the disgusting vitriol being thrown at Ricard on social media), Jeff put the players in a vulnerable spot for the sake of making a moment out of something that should have just been done out of respect.

Additionally, the question was asked of the players in-game, amongst the first thing they did upon starting playing. By making it part of how the game begins, it could have disastrously impacted any player who spoke up, as whatever they said would have inevitably impacted their fellow castaways’ first impressions of them.

That all goes to say that I am grateful for the show looking for ways to improve its inclusivity. Seeing three distinct queer stories in the premiere was exemplary of this. But in its efforts to improve, the show should not be making its contestants responsible for those decisions. If production or Jeff recognises something needs fixing, then fix it, even if there’s no fanfare.

NEXT TIME…

Survivor 41 is off to a great start, and while it might not have been flawless, this breath of fresh air surprised me. It might not have the epic 20-years-in-the-making quality of the season that preceded it, but as we advance into a new era of Survivor, it’s clear that the cast and crew are energised and ready to celebrate the game and the show we keep coming back to year after year. And if the quality of this opening instalment is indicative of what the rest of the season holds, then we are in for an absolute treat.


Written by

Austin Smith

Austin hails from Canberra, Australia. By day, he works by the light of office fluorescence. By night, he can be found swing dancing to Top ‘40s tracks (1940s, that is), playing board games, and enjoying life with his wonderful wife. His pedigree as a long-time Survivor superfan is evidenced by his Survivor-themed 11th birthday party featuring a gross food challenge comprising Brussel sprouts. Austin writes Inside Survivor’s episode recaps for both Survivor US and Australian Survivor.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *