The twisty nature of modern Survivor has been a cause of much controversy over recent years. Even I’ve found myself disappointed by the number of poorly-implemented twists in both US and international seasons of late and I’m generally in favour of mixing up the game and playing with the contestants’ expectations. I was fully expecting to come out of this episode, which promised an unprecedented double elimination, with some degree of dissatisfaction, so I was blown away that Survivor’s latest experiment not only succeeded in its execution but also accelerated the gameplay into the final stretch of the season.
The two players making their way to the Jury may not have been blindsided on their way out the door, but unexpected votes aren’t essential to a great episode. Instead, we were treated to two Tribal Councils (with one becoming one of the most complex stand-offs in recent memory), two fascinating, if ineffective, advantage plays, a brilliant new endurance challenge and another relic of Survivor’s past. But before we dig into the nitty-gritty of the gameplay this episode, it’s worth taking the time to dissect the twist itself…
A TWIST, IN REVIEW
It was an elegant concept with risky ramifications: the ten castaways of Lavita would be randomly divided into two temporary tribes, each competing for separate Individual Immunity and both tribes then sent to Tribal on the same night to eliminate one of their own. It’s not the first time Survivor has split a merged tribe. In Fiji, the newly merged Bula Bula tribe was randomly divided to compete in a team Immunity Challenge with the losers sent immediately to Tribal. There, Michelle Yi, isolated from her alliance and with no chance to save herself, was helplessly booted from the game. On paper, tonight’s twist threatened to resurrect the spectre of one of the most twist-screwed players in the show’s history, but this season is all about reversing the curse.
The modifications made to this twist of a temporary ‘un-merge’ elevated it to a strategic puzzle for the castaways and a compelling concept for the viewer. Firstly, sending both temporary tribes to Tribal evened the playing field, forcing every player to contend with the twist. It meant that, regardless of whether they drew an orange or purple bandana, the players all had to formulate a plan for their own Tribal while also being restricted in their ability to aid their allies on the other side. The simple Naviti/Malolo dynamics meant that the full scope of strategy wasn’t explored this time, but it still managed to spur the castaways to focus on their own game when otherwise they might have been able to stay comfortable in their alliance. Donathan and Kellyn, in particular, were separated from some of their closest allies and were compelled to make immediate moves in their own best interest that could dramatically affect their end game.
But in the same vein, one of the riskier aspects of this twist is a player getting separated from their alliance to become easy pickings (a la Michelle). The Malolos being outnumbered on both sides of a random draw (for the third time this season!) toes the line of that problem. But unlike the situation that ended Michelle’s game, the castaways all still had a chance to save themselves – either by winning Individual Immunity or in a strategic scramble before Tribal. The best twists are ones that allow players to adjust their course of action to either avoid or exploit the twist, and even though Jenna and Michael could be said to be victims of unlucky numbers, they both had the opportunity to change their fate. They tried, but they just happened to be unsuccessful in their attempts.
Finally, and most importantly, is the timing of the twist. When Michelle was eliminated in Fiji, it was the first vote after the merge. The dynamics of Bula Bula were untested, and the twist was really no different to a pre-merge swap (in fact, eerily similar to the situation that knocked Marcus out of the game in Gabon). By positioning this twist mid-way through the merge, it allowed the castaways three votes and ten days to settle into Lavita socially and strategically. That is plenty of time for a great player to establish bonds that can aid them through a vote like this. It also served to accelerate the gameplay out of the tail end of the Middle Game and into the far more exciting End Game.
At worst, it would yadda-yadda through a Pagonging; at best, a castaway looking to make a move would have fewer numbers to stand in their way (just think what might have happened if Desiree had waited one more round to try to flip!). And the smaller numbers also made Idols and Advantages a far more effective tool to put into play. Finally, it logistically solved one of the bigger problems with recent 20-player seasons – the penultimate episode stuffed with both the Final 8 and Final 7 boots. Whittling the numbers down earlier gives more room for the End Game to truly shine – and this is looking to be an exciting race to the finish.
So all in all, this twist worked on every level. It was fair but still kept the castaways on their toes. It created the opportunity for exciting TV and even managed to allow a couple of relatively predictable votes to become something much more memorable. I don’t want to see this twist become a staple of every season, but I would be very interested to see it employed on occasion in future. It’s full of promise – and we only scratched the surface tonight.
THE OPENING ACT
In the most unfortunate aspect of the twist, the random division of the temporary tribes left all of the most prominent players on one side while the less compelling castaways were grouped together on the other. True to form, the former Tribal was a knot of competing strategies while the latter was largely a paint-by-numbers majority vote. Angela, Chelsea & Sebastian against Donathan & Jenna – it threatened to be an obvious vote, and in the end, it was, as Jenna was unceremoniously sent straight to the Jury (literally). Nevertheless, the events leading up to the historically brief Tribal were not wholly without intrigue.
It was a simple decision for Naviti – vote Jenna or Donathan? Despite the presumed connection borne out of their hair-sniffing days on Malolo 2.0, Sebastian saw Jenna as the easy option, and he rallied Chelsea and Angela on board. They took the tried and true approach of lying directly to Jenna to convince her that they were piling their votes on Donathan, and… Well, that was pretty much it from the Naviti side of things. Cut and dry – and the abridged Tribal bore that out.
However, Jenna found herself in an interesting situation. She had the option to cut Donathan loose and hope that Naviti were being honest with her – or she had the possibility of making a move against them, potentially using Donathan’s Idol to their collective advantage. However, with little hesitation, she took the first path. She approached Donathan and lied that she’d been told the vote was coming her way. But even when he expressed a willingness to play his Idol for her, allowing their two votes to eliminate Sebastian in a blindside, she showed little interest in following through on this idea, only relieved that such a move would leave him vulnerable to the vote.
Of course, the viewers knew she was being duped, and her growing confidence was leading to a downfall, but it’s curious that Jenna – who has been perpetually on the outside – would not be willing to make a move to eliminate a Naviti and open the door for the Malolos down the road. Why not come clean with one of her few potential allies and work together to decipher the vote and ensure the Idol was played correctly? Ultimately, it seemed like a move of self-preservation. She hoped that Naviti was telling her the truth – if they weren’t, she couldn’t do much about it. She threw her vote onto him in the classic it’s-you-or-it’s-me. She hoped that Donathan might actually use his Idol on her, ensuring she would see the next day, regardless of the outcome. It was a gamble that didn’t pay off, but I’m not sure that there was any way out for Jenna – it was just her time.
The Eastern Kentucky boy, however, has been emerging as a surprisingly cutthroat player, allowing himself to be underestimated while pulling no punches in the game. Donathan’s gameplay tonight was as chilling as it was calculated. He bluntly shut down the idea of lending his Idol to Michael to perpetuate a bluff in a smart move. We saw what can happen when you give your Idol to someone else last season (paging Doctor Mike), and as it was, Michael’s bluff almost caused the elimination of Donathan’s ally Laurel even without physical proof! Donathan followed it up by using the Idol for himself, rather than for the Malolo cause. Again, it was the right move. In such a small group, with a 50/50 chance Naviti would target him, playing his Idol for Jenna would have been a near suicidal move. It would have required him to have complete trust in her, and as the vote bore out, that trust wasn’t there – if he had actually played the Idol for Jenna, he would have gone home in the revote between himself and Sebastian. So although the Kaoh Rong Super Idol may not have poetically reversed the curse, Donathan made a smart decision of self-preservation. The question, however, is whether his quiet take-no-prisoners gameplay can get him to the end with a winning reputation…
THE MAIN EVENT
On the other side of the beach, however, the game was much more convoluted. It could have been another easy vote. Domenick, Kellyn & Wendell had the Naviti numbers against Laurel & Michael – and Michael was a sitting duck. But Michael has never shown a resignation to the crosshairs, and he put up a fight that upended the vote and nearly saved him. He may not be the most charismatic character ever to grace our screens, but Michael came to play, and his gumption is a welcome attribute. After Donathan rejected his Idol loan, he still committed to his intention to bluff an Idol. He sat Kellyn down and told her, point blank, that he had an Idol that he was going to play at Tribal. It was a simple lie – but it hit its mark.
Kellyn has been on an unexpected trajectory through these last two votes. After weeks of accruing power and leading the charge of her Naviti alliance, the cracks are starting to form. Although she claimed she was upside-down in the loop-the-loop of the Survivor roller-coaster, I think it’s more apt that Kellyn’s game is rapidly plummeting down the steep descent. Already shaken by the Desiree vote where her whole perspective of the game had been challenged, the threat of another Idol in Michael’s possession fuelled her paranoia that the game was slipping out of her control. She raced to Domenick and Wendell, urging them to switch the vote to Laurel. Even when Dom attempted to assuage her concern – correctly discerning that Michael wouldn’t have told her he had an Idol if he actually did – she remained uncertain and decided to go rogue with an independent plan to split the vote using her Extra Vote.
In hindsight, her advantage was wasted – like Donathan, she used it when it wasn’t needed – and in the aftermath of Tribal, it seemed clear that she was gutted that her read on Michael had been so wrong. However, like Donathan, it was still a logical move for her situation. Based on the information she had, if Michael had an Idol, and if he and Laurel were conspiring together as outsiders, her dual vote would induce a split and ensure that a Malolo would go home. It was a move of self-preservation, and although made on the basis of misinformation, it remained a logical precaution. But this is the problem with Kellyn’s game – throughout the pre-merge, she had unequivocal control of the swapped Malolo and her secure Naviti numbers led her to plan for a straight-forward march to the end. The trouble is that Kellyn doesn’t have the whole story – she doesn’t know who has Idols and she doesn’t know about the secret four. It’s only a matter of time before that truly catches up to her.
Once again, the secret alliance between Domenick, Wendell, Laurel and Donathan bore fruit. Due to Michael’s bluff, Laurel was inevitably placed in danger of becoming collateral damage – and if it had been any other combination of the Naviti majority, that might have been enough to seal her fate. However, her ties to Dom & Wendell led them away from Kellyn’s plan to target her. Instead, they decided to call Michael’s bluff, trusting Domenick’s read on his honesty. But it was a risk – Laurel lamented that her game was completely dependent on how the three Navitis approached Michael’s bluff, and it was true. If Dom & Wendell had been wrong about the Idol, they would have lost Laurel in a 2-1-1-0 vote (assuming neither sacrificed one of their own Idols for her). Laurel had placed a good alternative on the table – voting Kellyn instead – but the boys followed their own path yet again.
Domenick and Wendell have complete control of the tribe, and few seem to fully grasp their power, which grew even greater when Domenick added another tool to his arsenal in David’s Fake Idol from Millennials vs. Gen-X. It’s nearing the point where this duo could become an unstoppable force if they continue to work side-by-side, but I wonder if that is too good to be true. Dom, at the very least, is wary of taking Wendell all the way to Final Tribal, but the external threat against them grows too. Unlike their secret ties to Donathan & Laurel, their allegiance to each other is known to everybody. Kellyn was crossed by them tonight as they bulldozed ahead in their plan without her, repeating the same approach they’d taken when Kellyn was reluctant to vote out Desiree. Additionally, their potentially reckless decision to call Michael’s bluff ended up as a gamble with Laurel’s torch, and she’s already shown a wariness of their trust. Could the other six unite against the obvious power couple of bantering bros?
Next week is going to be a pivotal vote. With the true Malolo minority expunged, the End Game is upon us. Will Kellyn stick with her plan to stay Naviti strong or will she seek to reshuffle the deck? Will Domenick & Wendell choose to bring their secret alliance to the forefront, or will they shift their plans? Will Laurel & Donathan stay with their secret four, or will they choose a new path? Will Angela, Chelsea or Sebastian make a move before they see their torches snuffed?
Regardless, tonight’s episode breathed new life into a season that was beginning to slow under the weight of its 20-strong cast through its unexpectedly refreshing twist. In an age where format changes like Fire at Four or non-elimination votes, disappointing limitations like a non-transferrable advantage and returning frustrations like Redemption Island and the Jury Elimination have plagued the Survivor stratosphere, it’s exciting to finally get a twist that truly enhances the season. Let’s hope that these last three episodes of Ghost Island can bring it home.