Last week boasted one of the most intriguing episodes of the season with its compelling twist and a myriad of competitive strategies – despite breaking the word count, I still felt like I had hardly scratched the surface in my review. Tonight’s episode? Not so much.
It’s an unfortunate reality that we get dull episodes of Survivor. We don’t have to like it, but that’s the nature of reality competition – sometimes, the most narratively interesting storyline doesn’t play out. Sometimes the players stay the course and the vote is obvious, and we’ve seen plenty of that this season as the Malolos have been picked off one by one.
After weeks of the Naviti Strong mantra, the six remaining Naviti turned their guns on each other to leave Laurel and Donathan to choose to stick with their secret alliance or make a dangerous move in self-interest. On paper, it sounds like it should have marked a major power shift in the game, but the secret alliance has been in hidden power the whole way along, so really the status quo persisted. And once the targets for the vote became apparent, the result was a foregone conclusion: are we going to unceremoniously boot one of the two biggest characters of the season or that other player who we know absolutely nothing about?
BURIED IN THE EDIT
There’s no way around it: Chelsea was the most under-edited castaway of the season, if not the entire 18-year run of Survivor. I’m generally pretty forgiving of Survivor’s edit – at the end of the day, they only have so much time to tell a complicated story that is coherent, compelling and satisfying – but when it swings to the extremes, it’s hard not to feel some degree of frustration. We learned nothing about Chelsea over the course of 12 episodes except that she was in the Naviti alliance and she was pretty good at endurance challenges. She also sat out of some challenges, she cried about coffee, and she has a sister. That’s pretty much it.
It’s not as though Chelsea wasn’t playing the game – we glimpsed her in regular conversation with the Naviti alliances as they constructed their voting strategies and she was a vocal party, often offering intelligent plans. Exit interviews and bonus scenes have suggested she played a key part in the Bradley blindside, but that never made it to the edit – despite precedence for single episode strategists a la Kimmi Kappenberg in the Monica boot of Cambodia. We never saw through her perspective, either in confessional or through character moments, and thus, she faded into the background.
This season’s story is clearly about Domenick and Wendell, the hard-playing big threats, about Kellyn and her spiralling game, and about Donathan and Laurel caught between a rock and a hard place. From Episode 1, they have been built as the main characters who will fight it out in the endgame. Simply put, Chelsea had no real place in their story, nor that of other significant characters like Michael, Chris or Stephanie. She was never the target of a vote until tonight, nor did the game pivot on a decision for which she was solely responsible. Add to that her even-keeled demeanour and relatively uncharismatic confessional narration and it begins to become clear why she was not a featured personality.
Nevertheless, a balanced edit does not mean equal airtime for everybody – I just want to know enough about this red-haired EMT so that I feel something when she wins a second consecutive Immunity. Or when she becomes the victim of a turning point in the game (even if it’s one that we knew was coming eventually, thanks to our awareness of the secret alliance between Dom, Donathan, Laurel and Wendell). It’s really disappointing to see a player be portrayed as a complete non-factor, doubly so in a season where the editors have crafted masterpieces like the Stephanie Johnson boot episode. Perhaps if Chelsea had been highlighted even a little bit throughout the season – or hell, even in her own boot episode – tonight’s episode might have felt like a more satisfying installment instead of a mere formality on the way to finale night fireworks.
But let’s turn our attention back towards the stories that are shaping the endgame of Ghost Island. Unfortunately, it’s more of the same: Domenick and Wendell hold all the power, Kellyn’s game continues to spiral out of control and Laurel & Donathan grapple with whether it’s the right time to make their move. We’ve been in the same holding pattern for a while now, but if there’s one thing to be grateful for in this flat episode, it’s these stories are beginning to hint toward a resolution.
Like doomsday-preppers stocking up for the zombie apocalypse, Wendell and Domenick have systematically stored up everything they need to run the table of the endgame – Idols, Advantages, strong social connections and a honed strategic sensibility. Their power has been snowballing from the start, and at this point, they’re nearly unstoppable. Even tonight, they continued to accrue more influence when Wendell traded in his loved ones visit for an advantage on Ghost Island. Although Malcolm’s advantage for The Ball Drop challenge didn’t help Wendell out this time, it certainly solidified that this duo has complete run of the farm.
Their influence is not without its dangers as the remainder of Lavita – including their key allies Laurel and Donathan – are acutely aware of their status as major threats. However, the danger has yet to fully make itself palpable as Domenick and Wendell have continued to insulate themselves against attack. As the Naviti alliance fractured, the pair quickly pulled Sebastian onto their side of the divide, and they’ve continued to keep Laurel and Donathan in line. Furthermore, they’ve shown a readiness to resort to Idols if they feel threatened – and they’re getting to the point where the Idols can all but guarantee their path to the end. At this point, their biggest competition is each other – unless their allies finally pull the trigger with a perfectly executed blindside.
Large portions of the fanbase have derided Laurel and Donathan for riding out their alliance with players they have no hope of beating at the end, but I’ve been cautiously optimistic that they’ve merely been biding their time. Even tonight, the pair explicitly stated that they were fully aware that going to the end with Dom & Wendell would be suicidal for their winning odds, but they continued to grapple with the question of whether it was the right time to make their move. They’d already passed up opportunities at the Libby and Desiree boots, and tonight they passed up another. They’re rapidly running out of time.
That said, I won’t completely condemn their decision to stick with Domenick and Wendell tonight. Yes, it would have been a perfect opportunity to take a pre-emptive shot at Wendell, or at the very least, flush out his Idol. In fact, Donathan’s bluntness at Tribal almost seemed like a ploy designed to stir paranoia and goad Wendell into playing his Idol just to be safe. Nevertheless, if they had sided with Kellyn, Chelsea and Angela, they’d be putting themselves at the mercy of Naviti once again. The Naviti women needed them for this vote, but at the next, the last Malolos would be expendable to players who’ve repeatedly stuck to original Tribal lines – and they’d have betrayed Domenick. It’s not difficult to foresee a scenario where voting out Wendell at this point merely enables an Angela/Chelsea/Kellyn Final Three.
Instead, sticking with their secret alliance maintains the status quo where Laurel & Donathan are in the middle. With Kellyn and Angela on the outs, they still need numbers, and if the Malolos could use their desperation at the Final 7, they’d have the numbers to make a move against the Naviti men. Laurel & Donathan are pushing the limits of their chances and it’s all going to hinge on this next vote – if they make a move, they’ve got a chance to pull out a win, but if they don’t, they’ll be destined for defeat.
For Kellyn, meanwhile, the game is veering further and further out of her control. After a couple of weeks of bad reads on her opponents, she was left in a prime opportunity to turn the tables by using the animosity in the wake of the family visit to fuel an alliance of convenience against the Naviti men. It seemed like a perfect storm, capitalising on time alone with the swing vote and Laurel and Donathan’s increasing trepidation about their alliance with the powers that be. Even though the original target, Domenick, secured his safety with a timely Immunity win, the plan still seemed viable. On paper, it stills reads as a logical move. But for the necessary swing votes, this was a question of trust. At the past Tribals, Kellyn actively threw Laurel under the bus and Chelsea and Angela continued their strategy of stonewalling the Malolos while Dom & Wendell had repeatedly reinforced their allegiance with them. The plan never even got the opportunity to get off the ground.
Now, with only Angela in her corner, Kellyn is in a position that could either spell her doom or turn the game on its head. She has obvious threats to target and she has swing votes ready made – but the irony is that they’re the last of the breed she spent her entire game exterminating. Kellyn’s up against tough odds, but stranger things have happened, and she’s heading into a crucial Tribal. Next week will be the decider – whoever comes out on top at the Final 7 has the path to the end.
The other big headline of this episode was the biannual Loved Ones episode. I’ve always loved these episodes, and I’ve shed my fair share of tears during particularly emotional reunions. However, I have a bone to pick with the recent trend of these episodes, and it’s simply that Survivor seems to be falling into a routine that’s transforming real, human emotions into a parade of generic questions about love and family. I don’t mean to take anything away from the experiences of the castaways and their loved ones, but the routine of Jeff Probst going down the assembly line asking variations on the same questions is beginning to feel stale. I’d rather see these relationships explored more organically – perhaps while on reward or back at camp as we used to see. Yet this is a minor complaint, and in an era that generally favours strategy over character, I’ll take anything that touches on the human experience.
All that being said, tonight’s family visit explored a perspective that’s rarely touched on in Survivor – the experience of those left behind. Naturally, the show usually focuses on the castaways themselves and the toll it takes to be playing a challenging game separated from those who you love. We revisited that theme tonight, but we also looked at the other side of the coin. As Aunt Patty told Donathan that his mother and grandmother were faring well, it provided relief. Meanwhile, Angela and her daughter raised the reality of being apart and the sacrifice that it can mean. In the context of Survivor it seems minor, but in reflecting on Angela’s long military service and how it separated her and her children, it forged a powerful message that seemed to leave even Probst with a quaver in his voice. Finally, Domenick’s wife Kristin stated with unflinching honesty that being apart from her husband was “agony” in a moving reminder that the toll of the Survivor experience is not only felt by those starving on the Island.
In all, the Ghost Island family visit was a welcome change of pace from the intensity of the game, but I do hope that Survivor begins to mix things up a bit more when it comes to its use of the loved ones. It’s been a while since a family visit has been a true surprise or we’ve had every player get an opportunity to kick back on the beach with their loved ones. And even though it’s dryly fun to watch Probst marvel at human emotion as if it’s an alien concept, maybe let’s try something different next time.
This week’s episode might have felt predictable, and it’s disappointing that production and editing choices contributed to its by-the-numbers tone. Nevertheless, the season is at the pointy end and we’re heading into the Final 7, a historically significant Tribal that truly sets the stage for the race to the finish.
Will Kellyn pull off an upset? Will Domenick and Wendell keep their games on lockdown? Will Donathan and Laurel finally make a move to bolster their chances? Tune in next time to find out!