When I first heard rumour of the Extinction twist, I, like many, was deflated and skeptical. But as time has drawn on, and our understanding of how Survivor intends this huge experiment to work has been fleshed out, curiosity has gotten the better of me. I must admit, I am intrigued, and this was only enhanced by the dark, confusing and altogether ominous montage of Extinction’s first victim arriving at their desolate new home in the pitch black of night.
Rather than our traditional quip of Probstian advice as the tribe grab their torches and head back to camp, backed by a swelling score, we instead witnessed the first one out, a fired-up and furious Reem Daly, arrive at an unexpected signpost offering her another chance in the game. Unsurprisingly, she chose to take the waiting torch and head out into the unknown. And as she discovered the daunting isolation that awaited, the closing shots of the premiere played out like a horror movie – flickering torchlight barely illuminating the heavy curtain of darkness, the bones of the shipwreck looming around Reem like a gaping maw and the crack of thunder and lightning echoing as the credits rolled.
While it’s hard to pass judgement on the twist based on only a couple minutes of game footage, it’s already apparent that Survivor is embracing the opportunity to play with the formula in the way they tell their story. I hope that the eerie tone of the closer is a taste of a compelling and unique narrative to come because if we’re honest, the rest of tonight’s episode felt a little routine. That’s not inherently a bad thing, though! Perhaps it was due to the regrettably brief episode length – just last season we saw how critical an extra 20 minutes can be to ground the characters with context and nuance at the start of the game. Nevertheless, there are certain things we’ve come to expect in Survivor and what played out for the Kama and Manu tribes in the premiere largely stuck to those expectations, making the episode’s unconventional ending stand out even more. This season is going to be different, and even if it’s just morbid curiosity speaking, I’m excited to see what awaits.
THE OBVIOUS SPLIT
So let’s back up to the time before Reem’s torch was snuffed. Reem’s story was an interesting one, perhaps prompted by her future story on Extinction into a multi-faceted portrayal rarely granted to a consensus first boot, unanimous in spirit if not in the voting booth. Her rougher edges were certainly shown, particularly in her desperate fight to survive at Tribal. Targeted for ‘being weak,’ interpreted by her as code for being the older woman on the tribe, she was rightfully frustrated when she discovered she was in danger simply due to age and gender politics. She came into Tribal ready to battle it out but unfortunately that combative approach only exacerbated the problem. Starting her argument by going toe-to-toe with an experienced player like Kelley Wentworth immediately put her on the back foot, and as it drew the attention onto her it became easier for the tribe to pile on and label her as the difficult person on the tribe.
Sometimes the first one out digs themselves a hole by being aggressively contrary to the tribe, but more often than not, the castaways are grasping at straws for any reason to vote out anybody else. Reem certainly fell into the latter category initially, with the Manu tribe selecting her for the axe because she was “too much,” according to Chris Underwood at Tribal. How was she too much? The Wardog cited that she was mothering them by reminding people to drink water and moving her tribemates’ drying laundry from the shaded trees to dry on the hot sand instead, the latter becoming a particularly touchy issue.
Not since Philippines, when Lisa Whelchel unintentionally discovered Malcolm Freberg’s Idol while taking the initiative to hang up everyone’s clothes, has laundry been so pertinent. Yet tonight it was even more mundane, and where Reem saw her sand drying as a proactive act of considerate caring (and one that worked to dry the clothes), others, like Rick Devens, saw it as invasive and assuming. But at the end of the day, it’s a petty conflict – one that could have been avoided by Reem asking her tribemates before touching their few possessions or by the tribe asking her not to move their stuff in future – but when you’re looking for any reason to vote someone out, the pettiest reason is reason enough.
Voting out Reem for being “too motherly” would have to be one of the most ludicrous rationales for eliminating someone from the game, but when Reem sharpened up the machete by calling out her tribemates, it almost seemed to help the tribe justify their decision. Yet it’s unfortunate that the headline cause for her boot was this notion of being the tribe mom, particularly given the episode also highlighted Reem’s caring nature through the mom lens. Both teenager Keith Sowell and Wendy Diaz stated that having her in their corner helped them feel a little less isolated given they were close with their mothers back home. She bristled at being put in that box which, if the episode’s narrative is anything to go by, was a justifiable concern – and one shared by Julie Rosenberg on the opposite tribe, as she worried her lack of outdoor experience could compound that pre-existing label.
Nevertheless, Reem looked out for these kids. She took Keith out into the water to help build his confidence at swimming, a skill he’d never learned growing up inland and something that was already drawing a target to the point where he would later throw her to the fishes to keep the periscope off his back. She listened to Wendy as she explained her motor and vocal tics of her mild Tourette’s, and accepted and bolstered her confidence to the point where Wendy was unwilling to vote against her even though the tides were against her. And in doing so, planted herself as Wardog’s next target and the easy contingency plan in a split vote.
Reem drew the short end of the stick in many ways, and it’s hard to parse out how much of her demise was due to the bias against the unavoidable attributes of age and gender and how much of it was due to her more hard-edged attitude. It’s also worth noting that her plan coming into Tribal was to target the returning player. Historically, in these captain-type seasons, new players who vocally take a stance against the returning players tend not to fare well, and when Reem aggressively targeted Wentworth and her budding ally in Lauren O’Connell, that may have been what truly sealed her fate.
It’s been 11 seasons since we last had a mixed cast of returnees and new players in Blood vs. Water, and 13 since the last captains-format in Philippines, and although it’s far from my favourite format, the few tweaks this season are setting up some intriguing prospects. Having two returning players on each tribe helps to mitigate the tribe immediately defaulting to making the returnee their “leader” a la Rob Mariano, Coach Wade or Ozzy Lusth and circumvent total domination of the inexperienced players. Although the narrative of the returnees helping and guiding their tribes was a driving story this episode, the tribe having the ability to look to two different sources of knowledge creates a more dynamic tribe structure, as well as immediately giving each of the returnees a competitor on their same level.
Seeing Aubry Bracco & Joe Anglim and David Wright & Kelley Wentworth each have brief moments exchanging comments reflecting their position in the game adds complexity to the format. It’s also fantastic to see women in this spot, as Aubry and Kelley become only the second and third female ‘captains’ following Stephenie LaGrossa in Guatemala, though it is frustratingly predictable to see them both be targeted over their male counterparts by the newbies looking to overthrow the returnees.
And that’s the most exciting aspect of this format having its revival. The meta-narrative around returnees has shifted dramatically, and its common knowledge that mixed seasons tend to favour returning players. In every mixed season, at least one returnee has made the Final Tribal Council. Half-and-half seasons have been a clean sweep for returnees (Parvati Shallow and John Cochran in the Fans vs. Favorites seasons and Tyson Apostol in Blood vs. Water). But although the captains format is relatively favourable for new players (only Boston Rob has won out, while Stephenie, Coach and Michael Skupin all fell short), it’s still a daunting history lesson of which both the returnees and newbies alike are acutely aware.
Aubry and Joe both raised the concern of not wanting to stick their heads up only to have them lopped off, but as much as they’re trying to lie low in the grass, it’s hard to hide when you’re brought into the game on a separate boat with a fanfare. Similarly, Kelley and David each reflected on the shift in perspective – for David, being the wise master on Day 1 was a new, but opportune experience, and for Kelley, she was concerned about her reputation but knew she needed to combat that by building strong relationships with the newbies out of the gate.
The returnees already find themselves in a tough spot outnumbered by the fresh faces, but it’s even more challenging when the new players are also acutely aware of the advantage of experience in the game. With a cast dominated by big fans like Victoria Baamonde, who asked Santa for Survivor buffs, these players know the game and know what to look out for. Many of the newbies still buddied up to the vets – Lauren gravitated towards her Survivor idol Kelley instantaneously, Julia Carter excitedly cheered for Aubry’s arrival, Aurora McCreary was all-in on Team Joe (sexuality aside), and even the unlikely pairing of Wardog and David was suggested by the edit of their conversation with Wendy.
However, there’s not the same sense of blind awe amongst this cast, compared to the much-maligned followers of the Redemption Island days. While Reem led her charge against Kelley, asserting that targeting her spoke to her legendary status, she wasn’t the only one thinking along those adversarial lines. Gavin Whitson and Eric Hafemann sparked a natural rapport quickly on Kama, but they lamented that the presence of the returnees stifled the experience of learning to survive on their own and agreed to target the returnees at the first chance they had. Vowing to ensure a new player emerged victorious, they could certainly find the momentum to topple the returnees in the coming weeks.
There was no scrambling for Idols at all this episode, and even though the vote split at Tribal prepared for one, they were barely even in the conversation. Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t have time for some advantages – three in fact! Resurrecting the idea of choice presented to Debbie Wanner back in Game Changers, our intrepid educator Ron Clark found a secret advantage at the marooning and dug up the Advantage Menu back at camp. I love any opportunity for meaningful choice in Survivor, and the show’s recent use of choice in relation to Advantages, such as the push-your-luck Idols found by Chris Noble and Davie Rickenbacker, has been an exciting development in recent seasons. Ron’s advantage gives him the choice between stealing a Tribal Reward, gaining an extra vote or the effective powers of a hidden Immunity Idol. That’s a pretty powerful set of options, and unlike Debbie, he doesn’t have to decide which item to order until he wants to use it. At least, until the third Tribal Council – after which, the advantage loses its potency.
I really like the potential of this advantage as it gives Ron a more complex decision. It’s not just an Idol he can hold onto indefinitely. It’s not just a vote he can tuck away for the perfect moment. He can only use one, but what if he chooses wrong? It’s a choice between some significant advantages combined with the choice of when – or even whether – to use it, given the time pressure of the expiry date, which prevents the Menu from being totally over-powered. The animated teacher certainly stood out as a character and player, and his determination to play ruthlessly by the rules of the ruthless game is a fantastic antidote to the loyalty-driven perspectives of many players who have a recognisable reputation back home. Ron seems like a cunning and ambitious player, and I’m excited to see how he makes use of this advantage.
OFF THE MAP
Coming off the all-time great season of David vs. Goliath, Edge of Extinction has big shoes to fill. It may not have started with the most thrilling premiere of all time (and it feels like we barely met half the cast, thanks to the painfully brief 1-hour premiere), but there is an excitement in the air and an anticipation of the unknown as we move forward into a season that threatens to redefine Survivor as we know it. The Extinction twist could be a disaster, or it could be an opportunity for something novel and fresh 19 years into the show’s run. Survivor has always taken chances, so let’s see where this journey takes us.