Call it cruel fate. Call it coincidence. Call it serendipity. Call it the games of the Survivor Gods. In the dark of the growing storm, the third day of Survivor’s 37th season ended with a gut-wrenching twist of the knife that no-one could have seen coming. Then, in telling the story of the beginning of the showdown between the Davids and the Goliaths, Survivor gave us a balanced, raw and unconventional episode and easily one of the most compelling premieres in recent memory. I was already excited for this season due to its diverse cast and (for the current era of Survivor) its intriguing theme, but if the clever character-driven storytelling we saw tonight is here to stay, I feel like we’re going to be in for a phenomenal season.
THE HEART GOES ON
To start at the end, the climax of the premiere was shocking. We saw the David tribe defeated at the Immunity Challenge by a strong and intense showing from the Goliaths. We saw Pat Cusack articulate the unfortunate reality of having to send someone home after three days of bonding with each other as they huddled in the tempest: that the rain had brought their hearts together into one heart, and although they would have to sever an artery at Tribal, the heart would go on. We saw Lyrsa Torres predict that Nick Wilson would be on the chopping block.
But then, instead of the usual cut back to camp, we saw the storm. The crashing waves. The cracking lightning. Then a boat tossed on the water. Then a group of people – not our castaways – walking up the beach. For a moment, I questioned if this was still the right show, or was my TV playing up? Then the realisation that something bad was happening – Pat on the stretcher, Doctor Joe bringing out the green whistle, the other nine Davids coming to shore to wait, the eventual emergence of Jeff Probst. It was dissociating and visceral. Intense and unexpected. By the time the call was made to evacuate Pat from the game, I was in shock.
We know that injuries and accidents happen on Survivor, but for something as seemingly benign as the boat ride back to camp to end someone’s game is terrifying. Buffeted by the cyclonic sea, the boat had slammed into the water and the impact had carried into Pat’s back, inflicting some indiscernible but severe injury. He pleaded to be able to stay and for his story to end some other way, it felt cruel to see bad luck be so vicious to a player so passionate about getting his chance to play the game. Even in his three short days, Pat’s journey took him from the obnoxious New Yorker barking orders and spouting off-colour jokes to the resilient core of the tribe responsible for housing them in the storm. Ironic then, that the storm had its revenge.
Pat embodied the narrative of the David tribe – someone who grew up paycheck to paycheck, supporting a paralysed mother, working straight out of school and unable to even imagine a college education, the self-made man fighting the uphill battle. Someone who was underestimated even by his own tribe, but who gave his all. It seems flippant to say that he was the sacrifice the Island demanded, and yet even in his brutal evacuation, his legacy feeds the Davids’ narrative – fuelling them with the resolve to keep fighting the fight.
THE STORM HAS RAINED GOOD THINGS
Over the course of the days prior, the dynamics of the David tribe had a cohesion unparalleled in modern Survivor. From the outset, there was a collaborative spirit within the tribe – even at the beginning of the first challenge when Christian and Lyrsa assured one another that they would help each other as they squared off against the imposing John Hennigan and Alison Raybould for the Goliaths. United by a shared sense of being the underdog, the Davids were able to cast aside some of their baggage and simply connect. Whether it was like with like, as with the pointedly platonic coupling of the nerds Christian Hubicki and Gabby Pascuzzi, or the marriage of two opposites, as with cowgirl Elizabeth Olson and “punk rock lesbian” Lyrsa, the David tribe as a whole seemed to simply click. Carl Boudreaux and Jessica Peet forged a father-daughter bond, Davie Rickenbacker, the black-nerd city slicker, fed his tribe with an unexpected octopus. Although there were clearly outliers – Pat’s abrasiveness on the first day raised many eyebrows, and Nick’s lack of contribution to camp drew ire – the tribe had a quality of togetherness that felt like it hearkened back to the tribe-strong mentality of the Old School seasons.
And in the crucible of the storm’s misery, those bonds were forged even tighter. Worn down by the weather, Jessica broke down in tears and spoke to her tribe honestly – she told them how pitiful it felt not to be the strong one others could rely on, and told them of how she had had to step up and be the mother for her mom, looking after her through an abusive relationship. Bi Nguyen, too, shared her story of experiencing domestic violence in a relationship, seeking to empower Jessica for protecting her mother. Even Nick, who hours before had been running around the Island naming alliances for the hell of the game, found himself willing to be vulnerable and tell the tribe of his deeply personal story of his mother’s drug addiction and overdose. To see the tribe – on the second night – speaking so candidly about such personal matters showed us that these bonds aren’t just for show. They’re real.
As I will keep coming back to in this episode, the storytelling was so beautifully complex. One of the biggest problems in recent seasons is the feeling of losing the characters in the shuffle. With the glut of twists and advantages and storytelling that hasn’t taken the time to give us personal stakes in every character, it’s felt like the authenticity of Survivor has been somewhat diminished. I’m thankful, then, that after only one episode, I feel like I know a little about every single castaway and I’m invested in their stories, their struggles and am eager to see how their journey unfolds. And this doesn’t just apply to the Davids, who were the undisputed stars of this first instalment, but also to those big, bad Goliaths.
WOVEN INTO THE DNA
That’s a little unfair, but it’s hard to ignore that the Goliaths – with their pasts of privilege and obvious advantage in life – have been set up to be the heels of the season. That’s not to say the Goliath tribe is without nuance. There are certainly characters and players on this tribe who will show themselves to be compelling and likable, but for tonight, the contrast between the constructive harmony of the Davids and self-interested fracturing of the Goliaths took centre stage.
It’s as if there is some predestination in Survivor lore that each tribe must have someone perceived as the bossy type on Day One. Although the Davids eventually warmed to their equivalent Pat, the Goliaths seemed less willing to connect to Natalie Cole. Separated by age, Natalie was always going to have a tough start to Survivor, but her first impressions drove a clear wedge between her and the tribe. Accustomed to leading in her profession, Natalie’s blunt advice and commentary during the tribe’s shelter-building began to grate, particularly on Natalia Azoqa. Put off by Natalie’s demands and her “stalker” vibe as she dictated the work but did little herself, Natalia immediately began throwing Natalie under the bus.
But Natalie wasn’t the only one in danger. Mike White seemed to get off on the right foot, easily charming his tribemates who recognised him from School of Rock or his stints on The Amazing Race, but he quickly squandered that goodwill by making the rookie mistake of hunting for Idols too early. As “Where’s Mike?” began gaining traction as a running joke, he found himself with the target on his back, and yet even after Natalie warned him of the heat coming his way, he simply doubled down on the Idol hunt.
In fact, everyone got into the fray. Jeremy Crawford, almost reluctantly, joined the hunt as, one by one, the Goliaths began skulking into the jungle seeking the power of the Idol. As John Hennigan (a definite character highlight – and a potentially strong gameplayer) noted that all Goliaths have that lust for control in their very DNA, Alison and Angelina Keeley conspired to work together to even out the stats, speaking to many fans’ frustration that too few women are able to find Idols. The season is early (and it’s fascinating that Survivor is acknowledging this oft-maligned disparity), but those statistics aren’t changing just yet.
In another stroke of editing genius, in the midst of the chaos of the Idol hunt, we cut to Dan Rengering in confessional as he casually pulls the Idol out of his pants. Then in flashback mode, we go back to the moment of its discovery as he spots the Idol concealed behind a marked rock while out searching with Natalia and Kara Kay. It was a fun and unconventional reveal, but I’m intrigued to see how this plays out for Dan. He spoke of his journey from “Fat Dan” to hot SWAT cop and of how finding the Idol continues his quest to become who he wants to be, which looks great. But we also saw him immediately find his kryptonite – the Supergirl to his Superman – in Kara, and immediately board the SS Showmance, and we all know that the shipping lines on Survivor traverse dangerous waters. However, there’s an intelligence to the immediate bond between Dan and Kara – they each acknowledged that the attraction to each other is genuine, but both also recognised the risk of getting too close. Perhaps they can navigate their way through it safely, but despite them locating an Idol to solidify their alliance, it’s certainly a point of caution.
Oh, and there was a shot of Alec Merlino chasing a crab with a spear.
THE STORM PROVIDES
Okay, so not every Goliath (or David, for that matter) had a perfect nuanced portrayal in this season’s opening. But for a 90-minute premiere, this episode was stacked with the good stuff. We got to hear from every castaway at least once, and we got a sense of the social and political dynamics on each tribe. The edit gave us powerful personal stories, spine-chilling atmosphere from the encroaching storm, a shocking and devastating plot twist, but we still got gags like the time-lapsed confessional where Christian seemingly overthinks his mistakes in the slide puzzle, despite still completing it in five seconds.
For the first time in several seasons, I feel like we’ve put down a solid foundation to build our story, and I can’t wait to turn the page to see what the next chapter holds.