Survivor 43! It’s finally here after four months of anticipation, theorizing, and waiting for a clean copy of the season’s logo to surface online! While the “New Era” style isn’t up to snuff for every long-time fan, and I can certainly understand the apprehension given the types of twists production threw at the wall in the least filming cycle, I don’t know, I’m just glad to have another season to chew on, warts and all.
And what a way to kick this adventure off: a two-hour premiere with only one boot. Whether this production decision paid off or not is up for debate because it definitely felt like the slowest burn of any Survivor episode in recent memory. But if you wanted to learn about these 18 newbies with minimal interruptions, I can’t imagine being let down by this premiere.
While the episode may have been officially named after Cody Assenmacher’s butt tattoo, you might as well call it “Inspirational Backstories: The Movie” because we got home video packages or, at the very least, a bit of personal content for most of this cast. Gone are the days of waiting until the merge, if not minutes before Final Tribal Council, to hear your favorite castaway reflect upon their hopes and dreams.
No, this time we’re getting an all-out sob story speed run. But that’s not to say these stories aren’t incredibly powerful. From Ryan’s battle against cerebral palsy to Jesse’s journey from a life of crime to earning a PhD to Elie’s tragic loss of her sister and how she’s taken their shared love of the show onto the island itself, there’s no shortage of likable, inspiring people in this group.
But there’s still a million-dollar game to be played, and it wastes no time kicking everyone into gear with an opening reward challenge across land and sea. With a bit of outside-the-box thinking by Cody and steady moves by Dwight, the red-clad Vesi tribe overcomes early setbacks to snag their supplies and a free flint. This leaves the Baka and Coco tribes to fight for their supplies back at camp in another edition of Savvy vs. Sweat. The losing tribes must choose between digging for their supplies in a marked zone or solving a grim-looking bone version of the toothpick brainteaser to create the highest possible number with only two moves.
On Coco, Ryan and Geo opt for the physically demanding option, finding their supplies in less than an hour and building a strong bond away from the rest of the tribe. And on Baka, Sami blows the tribe’s mind with an outside-the-box solution to the brainteaser, scoring their supplies as well. As for Vesi, you might as well call them Mesi because, without a challenge to occupy their time, we’re treated to scene after scene of them struggling to make a standing shelter, light a fire, or even chop bamboo.
But that doesn’t mean Vesi is a purely comic relief tribe because we have some alliances forming from the jump. Noelle and Justine, the two youngest women, forge a strong duo that doesn’t go unnoticed by the rest of the tribe. Cody, keen on keeping his sales background hidden from his tribe, sees fellow salesperson Justine as his biggest threat and recruits Jesse and Nneka for a power trio. That leaves Dwight as the wild card with no solid allegiances, either dooming him to an early exit should Vesi lose or giving him all the power should he play his cards right.
Baka is the quintessential kumbaya tribe. As college admissions director and opening credit connoisseur Owen makes one thing clear: there’s not a lot of strategizing going down on Baka beach. A bit naive, considering Elie, Morriah, and Jeanine are quick to attempt another Black Widow Brigade with Elie sneaking in a little side alliance with Gabler. But Owen’s not totally wrong. They still don’t have any solid names to work with should they lose, and most conversations boil down to “I’ll let you know if I hear your name,” which is the Survivor version of saying, “See ya later!” It’s customary, expected, and above all else, hardly set in stone.
As for Coco, they’re basically what would happen if Baka was all business. Pediatric nurse and long-time superfan Lindsay wants to play hard, joining intentionally under-the-radar Cassidy and self-described Tony/Cirie fusion Karla for their own girls’ alliance. And just to boost their numbers, Lindsay recruits fellow Philadelphian and massive Earl Cole fan James as the fourth wheel. While not the best spot for the chess master should Coco hit a losing streak, it’s the spot he wants for his goal of playing a king disguised as a pawn, a strategy well fit for the new meta of biding one’s time and emerging at the end. This leaves Ryan and Geo on the outs, but hope is not yet lost because Karla finds herself working with them as well, drawn to Geo’s relatable LGBT Latino background.
With each tribe forming their own little Survivor culture, it’s time to shake things up with the return of Shipwheel Island. Only drop the Shipwheel and add some sacks because we’re going to Big Rock Island, Sack Island, Sack Rock Island, whatever you want to call it. It’s an arduous trek across rough terrain with a game of risk at the end. You know the drill by now.
And the lucky trio taking the first journey are Dwight, Gabler, and Karla, who are faced with a new spin on the risk-your-vote mini-game. Gabler attempts to make it clear he’s risking his vote, hoping the other players will fold and guarantee him the advantage. However, Dwight calls his bluff and forces a 50/50. One wins the advantage; the other loses their vote.
For Dwight and Gabler, it’s a tale of two trainwrecks. Dwight had no reason to risk his vote when Gabler was openly dedicated to risking his own. The grad student is seemingly on the outs as a lone wolf, so getting early power could seriously help him out. But to potentially throw a vote away with tribal lines yet to be drawn is just too ballsy. And to make matters worse, he loses his vote anyway and shows the rest of Vesi his receipt.
I will say, though, being truthful about the journey was the right play here, even if Cody doesn’t buy the story. Everyone knows what’s up with these treks to Advantage Island, so passing it off as anything else would be asinine. And telling the tribe that he protected his vote, while a possible short-term cover, risks being exposed in the event Vesi can’t find a unanimous, non-Dwight boot option. Ideally, he plays No Risk, but if he’s dedicated to collecting trinkets, there are worse ways to spin this mess.
While Gabler ultimately wins the advantage in the form of a shot clock idol good for his next two Tribal Councils, he follows Dwight’s lead and tells all to the Bakas. And just in case there was any doubt about what he won, he howls like a wolf for all to hear, runs back to camp, and shows off his idol like it’s show-and-tell. Entertaining? Check. A solid move to build trust and secure his safety? Also, check. Potentially messy? Double check.
But Gabler’s Fijian adventure can’t be fun and games forever. Baka loses the immunity challenge, and they lose hard. Between Jeanine struggling to dig under the beam, Gabler panicking on the table maze and dropping ball after ball, and Sami losing his patience alongside him, Baka is a legit mess on the field… and back at camp.
The minute Baka returns to their beach, Gabler calls a tribe meeting on himself. Makes sense. He was partially responsible for the loss, so it’s better to handle that discussion head-on and own up to his mistakes, right? Well, I would say that if Gabler didn’t go off the rails and channel his inner Zane Knight. Despite having a public idol, he opts to play his shot in the dark instead (a scene hilariously accompanied by some music right out of a slasher movie OST), believing that putting himself in the line of fire is the honorable route here. Perhaps it is, but it’s also totally ridiculous. If you have a short-term idol and it’s only day three, play it. Please. First votes almost always boil down to “as long as it’s not me,” and Gabler might as well say, “yeah, it’s me.”
But somehow Gabler’s laughably chaotic plan works? Granted, it’s mostly because everyone’s afraid of him bluffing and playing his idol anyways. Why target someone with two loaded guns when there are five unarmed options to choose from. But in a twist on the Zane formula, a meme strategy that had no business paying off actually has pay off, and Gabler will live to tell the tale while keeping both his Shot and his idol for another day. Elie informs him he’s totally safe, and so he drops his scatterbrained, outside-the-box plans on the spot and moves forward as a valuable asset for her game. At least until she sees it fit to cut him loose, that is.
For Baka as a whole, it’s all about the dilemma of challenge strength versus loyalty. The girls’ alliance of Elie, Morriah, and Jeanine appeared to have the tribe under control, but two days of girl power was enough feminism for one week, it seems. Elie’s ready to jump ship and cut Morriah in cold blood to keep the tribe strong. The other option is Owen, targeted on account of him not being miraculously safe Gabler, likable challenge asset Sami, or a woman.
But let’s pause here for a second. You’re telling me that to keep the tribe strong, Morriah should take the fall? Did we watch the same challenge? Morriah crawled through that mud like a beast and aced her run on the balance beam without any mistakes. Meanwhile, Jeanine struggled with the digging portion, and Gabler all but threw the table maze at the end. So what gives, and why did Morriah leave in a unanimous 5-1 vote after hardly doing anything wrong?
It’s probably a mix of two things. First of all, Gabler had an idol. Nobody wants to risk being idoled out on day three, but if he was exposed with no protection, I’m pretty sure he’s a consensus first boot here. And second, most of the social game is played totally off-screen. Morriah was a definitive side character in this premiere, so we never really understood her relationships. Is there a chance she rubbed people the wrong way? Possibly, but I see no evidence for it in the show.
I’d argue this vote boiled down to nobody wanting to go home first and Morriah having less social capital than the rest, so nobody had a reason to fight for her to stay. It’s by no means the most interesting first boot story, and god knows we hardly got a story from her, but it’s a common reason anyone leaves early. They can’t find their footing, their name gets out there, and nothing can stop it from spreading like wildfire.
Now, was this a good move? For Elie, I see the pros and cons. On the one hand, she cements herself as the most connected player on Baka, having Jeanine and Gabler as allies and Owen and Sami as working relationships. But she’s also opened the door for a possible guys alliance to take over should Gabler continue being unstable and flip for post-idol protection. So for Owen and Sami, Morriah leaving is a best-case scenario. They aren’t in a great spot, but they have a path to power.
I’m more worried for the likes of Jeanine, though, because while Elie has options to work with, Jeanine’s only strong connection seems to be Elie herself. And with Gabler guaranteed to survive another Tribal unless something goes horribly awry, she might find herself left out to dry like the bloody mud on her chin if Baka’s set on sending another woman home.
And so ends the supersized premiere of Survivor 43. A bit of a slow burn, sure, but it’s a solid foundation for a great character-driven season should the rest of the episodes capitalize on the bountiful stories they’ve set up. Losing a big character like Morriah right away is a big blow, even if she was strangely sidelined, but this cast is delivering across the board. We have prominent characters and players galore with many more waiting in the wings to break out. And with the Next Time on Survivor teasing a potential anti-Cody uprising on Vesi, a rough night of storms and suffering for Baka, and a successful girls alliance on Coco to make up for this week’s failed attempt, it should be a fun 90-minute follow up.