In one of the first confessionals of the season, Maryanne Oketch compared the beginning of the Survivor experience to the giddy feeling of riding a rollercoaster. Nervousness and excitement mix together as you strap in to ride the peaks, drops, and twisting turns of the course laid out ahead. It was so fitting a metaphor that it earned the episode title, for this premiere truly was a roller coaster.
While a delightfully fun romp, for the most part, it also ran through some devastating tonal dissonance with Jackson Fox’s unexpected exit and ultimately stuck the landing with a somewhat straightforward, if historic, Tribal Council. Was it the best ride in the Survivor amusement park? No. But is it one I’m excited to ride again next week? Absolutely.
I came into Season 42 with pretty middling expectations. While I largely enjoyed the feel of 41, there were certainly some big missteps in both the production of the game and the choices in the editing booth. While I’m still holding my breath on those fronts, I was surprised by how quickly the cast won me over with their unabashed enthusiasm. Although I’ve enjoyed the dramatic, sometimes dour, tone of the current season of Australian Survivor, the sheer glee of the 18 contestants was so palpably refreshing.
And for all of its many foibles, the casting is the thing that US Survivor has absolutely nailed these past couple of seasons. The eagerness of every person on the cast to play Survivor immediately invests the viewers through that vicarious excitement. But the commitment to a diverse cast opens the door for so many unique stories to be told.
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Right out of the gate, touching on the impactful life experiences of Jackson sharing his story of transitioning gender. And the journey of reconnection with his parents in the midst of the tragedy of his mother’s illness was beautiful and so meaningful at a time when positive trans representation is needed more than ever. But the beauty of diverse stories didn’t stop there—from Maryanne wanting to represent the weird kids even as her family didn’t get her investment in the show, to Swati Goel’s hippie-nerd-in-the-military journey, Rocksroy Bailey’s role as a stay-at-home dad, Drea Wheeler’s drive to compete in spite of her visual impairment, to Daniel Strunk’s story of overcoming childhood leukemia and finding joy in Survivor to get him through.
Many more hints and teases of the wealth of varied experiences of this cast came through, much like they did in the first few episodes of Season 41. While I’m sure the people will get swallowed by the twists at some point, the transparency and vulnerability of the cast are what connects me into the season every time.
What I loved about this premiere, even with its flaws, was that the game mechanics thrown in from the start were both fresh and familiar at the same time. But in all cases, delightfully fun. Revisiting some of the twists of last season, such as the Ship’s Wheel summit and the return of the Sweat vs. Savvy challenge, tweaked just enough to encourage the castaways to choose (and succeed!) with the triangle puzzle made for a fun what-if comparison to last season. Meanwhile, new twists like the Advantage Amulet felt simple in theory but complex in execution, and I can’t wait to see how it plays out. But it all just felt buoyant and fun—that first exhilarating drop on the roller coaster.
Though, of course, the drop has to end in a low point, and it’s a real shame to see a huge superfan end up snuffed as the first player technically voted out of the season. Some superfans get to live out the dream, but some see their dreams go up in smoke. For every Adam Klein, there are many more Zach Wurtenbergers.
Zach’s tribe felt like a chaotic mess from the jump, and it shocked me that the chips aligned so cleanly to see him eliminated in a truly unanimous vote—historic for making him the first person voted out where only one person’s name showed up on parchment. But I really would have expected a more divided tribe from what we initially saw, and it did feel a little glossed over just how we landed so unanimously against Zach.
The Ika tribe came in strong, winning out the opening reward challenge but immediately fractured by age, with Tori Meehan trying to scoop up the youngsters Zach & Swati. Meanwhile, Rocksroy, Drea, and Romeo Escobar bonded over their strong work ethic. Yet even those initial alliances became murky, with Zach & Romeo bonding over being the “skinny guys” in a wonderful scene where Zach compared the awkward tentativeness of alliance-making to leaning in for a first kiss and hoping it would be met mutually.
Tribe lines only muddied further as Tori proved to be a far less slick player than she envisioned. And not just for her transparent attempts to bond with the youths over Harry Potter, but also for falling into the easy trap of becoming the lambasted Idol Hunter of the tribe.
That spiralled in its own way, with Tori attempting to squash the rumour (once Zach had warned her), leading to her confronting Drea, who surprisingly agreed to target a member of her own alliance in Rocksroy. Meanwhile, Zach confronted Tori about throwing him under the bus by revealing she’d learned she was in danger from someone. All the while, Rocksroy & Swati somehow ended up on the same page to vote out Zach on account of his poor performance in the puzzle. This left Romeo caught in the middle, trying to talk Drea out of sabotaging her own alliance and hoping to push the votes onto Tori over his ‘back-up’ ally Zach.
And yet, for all of that complexity, it all settled on a purely unanimous vote. The driving force did seem to be Rocksroy & Swati. Rocks’ instantaneous leadership has certainly put a target on him, with even his own allies urging him to tone down his authoritative command. But his headstrong determination to target Zach, coupled with Swati’s view that Zach let her down on the puzzle, was probably the nail in the coffin. Tori certainly had no love lost for Zach, and Drea & Romeo had no reason to force a tie vote, so the numbers just fell into place. As much as Romeo might have wanted to protect Zach, he couldn’t risk that social capital to save him now, nor could he risk being left out of the vote or earning the ire of Tori by voting for her.
What’s fascinating, though, is how clearly Zach felt like he was in danger enough to burn his Shot in the Dark. He clearly felt the weight of the loss at the challenge and took on the blame himself. But even with a number of potential connections and emerging plans on the beach, he sensed that it all was logically falling against him, and he had to take the gamble.
In the end, Zach’s instincts were right to gamble his vote on a 16.67% chance at safety, but when that luck broke against him too, there was not much else he could do. To his credit, he took the devastating outcome in stride, savouring every small thing from the torch being snuffed to predicting the fun facts on his Survivor Wiki page. It must be tough to dream about playing Survivor for so long, only to be ousted so quickly, but unfortunately, that’s the reality of the experience: only one winner, after all.
Though was it the right play for Ika? Obviously, Romeo had incentive to try to save Zach, while also preserving his alliance with Rocksroy & Drea, but why couldn’t they have targeted Tori. It feels like there has to be more to it than poor challenge performance. Maybe it arose that he’d leaked tribe suspicions about the Idol hunt to Tori? Perhaps Tori had managed to ingratiate herself with Swati more than Zach had, and that catalysed the younger alliance to fracture the way it did. Maybe there was just enough paranoia around Tori and a potential Idol that the tribe wanted to just play it safe. Regardless, I’m confident in predicting that this tribe will be anything but unified moving forward.
Tori’s coming in with confidence, but we saw that it was regularly misplaced. Nevertheless, her determination could make her a hurricane, especially now that she feels on the outs. Meanwhile, Rocksroy’s demeanour could get him in trouble, while Drea’s delightfully blunt approach to the game could come back to bite her too.
Drea is a fascinating player—driven and decisive. Her surety earned her two advantages already: the Advantage Amulet and an Extra Vote from the Ship’s Wheel. Yet she’s also demonstrated a willingness to go all-in on a short-term big play like targeting her own alliance at the first vote. She’s here to play hard, and I love that. But it’s also a perfect recipe for chaos, especially with the Amulet.
BLOOD & BLING
The Amulet is certainly my favourite mechanic of the premiere, and not just because it’s new. Arriving during the opening Reward Challenge, one member of each tribe was bound in a fake-blood pact right out of the gate, each agreeing to work together to secretly earn an advantage. Drea took charge, though Lindsay Dolashewich and Hai Giang didn’t need much convincing. The high pressure of making this decision mid-challenge (as well as the delightfully absurd instruction to cover themselves in fake blood and mud to cover up their lie) and the immediate cross-Tribal connections made this a slam-dunk execution of an advantage drop. Sure, it’s randomly distributed based on who got assigned that leg of the challenge, but it immediately created drama and interconnectivity.
This was only enhanced by the Advantage itself. Essentially, Drea, Hai, and Lindsay gained a piece of a single Advantage that could only be used with the other parts of the Amulet. At face value, that’s almost a dud—an Advantage that’s meaningless until a swap or merge, lest there’s somehow a tradeoff at a challenge. But the devious twist: the Amulet as a whole became more powerful the fewer that were left in the game: an Extra Vote with 3 parts, a Vote Steal with 2, and a whole Idol if it’s the only Amulet left. What initially seemed like a potential conduit to allegiance immediately became a bounty, incentivising Drea, Hai, & Lindsay to take each other out in order to evolve the Amulet.
It’s the best kind of twist. It requires work—not just finding something in a tree stump or under a bench but through social manouevering and careful gameplay. Plus, it’s inherently bound to other players—and players on other tribes, at that. Much like the silly phrases to unlock the Idol create a shared vocabulary and understanding across tribes, this creates a meaningful tie between three players. And these three feel like great wielders of that power who will consider its impact and factor it into their game plans.
Is it goofy and kitschy? A bit. But it’s transparent, simple, and surprisingly nuanced in its effective execution. If Survivor is going to lean into some of its more absurd concepts, this is the kind of absurdity I’m here for. The kind that enhances the game and ultimately puts the control in the hands of the players in a meaningful way.
OPENNESS AND HONESTY
Transparency is a factor that has become so crucial to my viewing experience the more I’ve watched and engaged with the show over 20+ years. The more transparent production is about its twists and game mechanics, the better the game itself. The more truthful they are in the telling of the story through the edit, the more authentic and meaningful it becomes. There’s still room for improvement on all these fronts, but I was both warmly surprised and coldly dissatisfied with the notion of transparent honesty becoming such a focal part of the premiere through Jackson.
Jackson’s storytime by the fire was an incredibly moving articulation of his personal rollercoaster through coming out as a trans man and transitioning in his 40s. And the tensions that were placed on him and his religious family, through to the reconciliation with his father while caring for his mother during her decline. It was a heartwrenching and heartwarming story in one, filtered through Jackson’s complete commitment to openness and honesty.
Even outside of the game, that degree of vulnerable exposure with people you barely know is phenomenal. And Jackson’s confidence in representing who he is fully is such an encouraging message, especially at a time when trans rights are being threatened in US courts; seeing Jackson convey a lived and challenging but ultimately positive and thriving trans experience is so important and deeply moving.
And so it made the ultimate fate of Jackson in the game all that more devastating. As it turned out, Jackson had not told production that he had been taking lithium to help with his sleeping until the day before the game began. He’d planned to be fully weaned off the medication by the time the game started. Still, nevertheless, the late disclosure led the medical team to be cautious about him playing due to potentially hazardous side-effects (especially as lithium impacts hydration and requires regular testing of lithium levels in the body).
However, in view of the short timeframe until the game began, the absence of alternate players (who had already flown home), and the fact that Jackson was nearly off the medication, it was decided to let him start the game and see what happened. But when Jackson began experiencing significant dizziness in the first couple of days, the decision was ultimately made to pull him from the game.
It was a complex issue and one that wasn’t particularly well-conveyed in the televised edit. I have appreciated Jackson’s exit interviews, such as his conversation with Mike Bloom of Parade, for clarifying the situation’s nuance. Survivor has a chequered reputation with how it has handled players who are on medication, with some players allegedly hiding their prescriptions for fear of not being cast to rumours of production forcing contestants off of medications. But up until now, it’s all been behind-the-scenes talk, and while it was in some ways refreshing to see it discussed on the show itself, it still left a lot of ambiguity around the situation.
Had the show forced Jackson to stop taking lithium? If they knew he was at risk, why let him play? Why pull him now, seemingly out of nowhere, for only a blink-and-you’d-miss-it mention of his dizziness and side effects made the edit? Was this exploitation just to get the good story out of him? The show could have done a little better in clarifying some of these things through the edit. And there’s clearly improvements they need to make in how they destigmatise medications during the casting and pre-game process to enable players to speak openly about their circumstances.
While the circumstances around Jackson’s evacuation from the game are far from ideal, and I do hope he gets a proper chance to play in future, there was still something positive to draw from the discomfort in that Jackson embodied what production fumbled in some respects. While Jeff (fairly) skirted the specifics when talking to Jackson about the medevac, Jackson quickly pulled back the veil, naming the drug and discussing the particulars of his circumstance. Stigmas around medications are an issue that I never thought would come up in Survivor and in much the same way that his openness about his story around the campfire, Jackson’s degree of vulnerability and transparency was a meaningful note in a very unfortunate symphony.
Losing Jackson from the game in this way is tough. And from what I have gathered, I can see how it happened and why it played out the way it did. It feels like all parties handled it with as much grace and care as they could. Nevertheless, there’s a bittersweet quality to it, and I can certainly understand why some viewers might find the bitter stronger than the sweet. I hope production makes the improvements necessary to avoid situations like this in future and to provide better support and accessibility for any and all players taking medication in future seasons. But I’m thankful for what Jackson brought to the screen. No matter how you feel about the manner of exit, his warmth and honesty and vulnerability should be his legacy in Season 42.
The rollercoaster really took us on a journey in this premiere, and I haven’t delved into as much detail about the emerging gameplay on the victorious tribes—much less mentioned the rest of the cast, who all stood out in their own way. Lydia Meredith’s sardonic Gen-Z humour, Mike Turner’s grinning gentle giant, Jenny Kim’s wit and thoughtful leadership, Jonathan Young’s physicality and impressive challenge performance (except when counting triangles), Omar Zaheer’s quirky avian analogies, Marya Sherron’s determination, and Chanelle Howell’s insight into her tribe dynamics. I can’t wait to learn more about them, and this whole cast, and see what the game has in store next week.