Now I tend to be a Survivor optimist. Even when seasons drag under predictable storylines or wade into unpleasant territory with unlikable players and uncomfortable behavior, I take a deep breath and look for blue skies in the “Next Time on…” Those blue skies don’t always come, however.
I know Ghost Island has earned a tepid reaction at best amongst the fan community. A strong cast and an intriguing premise feel like they’ve been squandered in a season marred by both predictable gameplay and peculiar production choices. Nevertheless, I’ve seen the silver linings in small character moments, subtler strategies and the promise of what’s to come. I’ve enjoyed much of what the season has had to offer, but its shortcomings are stacking up, and I feel as though this is one of those seasons where those skies might stay a little grey.
It’s a standard issue: great Survivor gameplay often makes for dull television. Some of the most dominant winners – the likes of Rob Mariano and Kim Spradlin – marched their way to victory with such precise influence over the game that it left their respective seasons feeling like an inevitability. This season has evolved into much the same story, albeit the narrative of a pair rather than a singular leader. Wendell and Domenick encountered adversity early but recovered quickly, and since the merge, they’ve managed to put the game on lock completely. Between keeping allies like Laurel close even in spite of her reservations, cutting out rising rivals like Chris and Desiree and ensuring that their social connections are strong enough to keep their names out of serious danger. Together – and individually – Dom and Wendell have played phenomenal games. Unfortunately, though, it doesn’t make for great television.
Tonight’s episode doubled down on their control of the game. Together, they won the Reward Challenge (one of the best challenges of the season in a tense upscaling of the classic “Simmotion” challenge that has sealed the fates of the likes of Stephen Fishbach and Kelley Wentworth). Then they utilised their win to solidify their allegiance with Laurel by bringing her on the always-welcome local village reward while keeping Sebastian close by having him do some work on Ghost Island. Wendell also dominated the Immunity Challenge and would have won it had he not blanked on one of the most important unspoken rules of Survivor puzzles – always call for Jeff when you’re finished! Their physicality is setting them above their competition, but it is their social games and interwoven strategy that are doing the heavy lifting for them.
Of course, the big ticket item is their handling of their allegiance with Laurel. For weeks, Laurel has expressed reservations about the pair and her doubt that she could beat them at the end. Sure enough, she continued to express the same rhetoric in this episode. Yet week after week, she’s bypassed opportunity after opportunity to take her shot at them. In some cases, I still believe her decision to stay the course was the right choice, but that leniency is well and truly gone at this point. It’s the Final 7 – it’s now or never. In spite of her instincts, Laurel once again made the detrimental decision to stay loyal to Domenick and Wendell – and as much as it might reflect on her own gameplay, it also bolsters the reputation of her allies. Laurel stated that the reasons she wanted to stick by the men were a matter of heart over mind – she considered them her friends and didn’t want to betray them. That kind of honest and real loyalty is hard won, and for Dom & Wendell to have forged such a strong relationship with her is a testament to their social play.
Yet it doesn’t stop there – the current ghosts of Ghost Island, Angela and Sebastian of the incorporeal edit, were integral to their move tonight. Just last week, Angela made a move against Wendell – and in ancient history, she had bad blood with the pair after they targeted her at the Morgan vote. But tonight she wholly followed their lead, even when the Hammock Plan they’d told her (to target Donathan) was exposed to be a half-truth when the vote came up a tie. It might not be making the show, but the pair have clearly managed to earn Angela’s trust somehow.
Sebastian, meanwhile, collected Kellyn’s re-gifted extra vote on Ghost Island where he gave his first strategic confessional of the season. He expressed an awareness of his situation – Dom & Wendell saw him as a remora to their great white (or for those who don’t speak fisherman, a loyal goat), but he knew he needed to get out of their shadow. And yet, when the next vote came around, he once again followed their lead, even appearing to take instruction at Tribal. Angela and Sebastian have been largely underutilised characters, and their relationships on the Island are inferred more than seen, but Dom & Wendell are clearly pulling the right strings to get these players with ample motivation to flip to aid and abet their swindling of the title of Sole Survivor.
COLD FRONT MOVING IN
Yet there was still trouble in paradise this week when the pair encountered an unexpected obstacle – the inexplicable self-implosion of one of their secret four. Through the whole merge, Donathan has been itching to make a move (even back at the Libby vote, he wanted to stick with the Malolos to get Wendell out), but Laurel was always there to put him on her course of staying loyal to Dom & Wendell. Patience has a fuse, however, and Donathan finally reached his limit, deciding to strike out on his own to secure his own path to the end. He started off on the right foot, clearly pitching his case to Laurel and then turning to freelance with an isolated and desperate Kellyn. Even his plan to sow discord between the powerhouses by telling Wendell that he was a locked vote for Dom was not without potential. But then…
Donathan seems to have a lot of good game instincts, but his execution is peculiar, to say the least. He seems to be a force of nature, and as the season draws towards its close, his ability to keep his impulsions in check is faltering. His “truth bombs” have been a recurring attitude throughout the season as he’s utilised Tribal as an open forum to air grievances, but when this same desire to speak his mind freely arose in camp, it sparked paranoia and distrust that almost saw him out the door. Donathan’s attempts to stir the pot – talking Jury votes and prodding Domenick and Wendell after he caught them exchanging fake Idol paraphernalia – have the potential to upset the applecart. But Donathan merely toys with the grenade, teasing out implications and needling his adversaries instead of formulating a plan to deploy these “truth bombs strategically”.
Even at Tribal, Donathan skirted the opportunities to twist his perspective and make a move by completely shutting Domenick down. Rather than appearing cunning and dangerous, he became unreliable, unpredictable and dangerous – and Domenick and Wendell had the right instinct to cut their ties with him (or his throat with a credit card, if you’re feeling gruesome). Just as they’d thrown Desiree and Kellyn under the bus when they turned against them, neutralising the threat of this unexpected danger was a top priority. Of course, this Kentucky firecracker is still in the game and ready to blow it all up, but his erratic behavior this episode has isolated him – I’m not sure if Donathan will have the opportunity to get back into the fold.
Kellyn, on the other hand, lost her opportunity to turn the game around. For such a pivotal perspective character throughout the season, Kellyn experienced a fairly routine boot episode as she marched slowly, inevitably, towards her torch-snuffing. It was a sad conclusion to a game that could have taken her to the end but was hobbled by a series of bad reads and mistakes – at the end of the day, Kellyn waited too long to look beyond the Naviti Strong narrative and it cost her. Nevertheless, she continued to fight through to the last minute, looking for opportunities to work with a flipper like Donathan, but also showing a willingness to seek self-preservation and join the crusade against him when the tides turned. Kellyn was a bright spark of personality, energy and emotion in a season that’s become a little dry in that department as the contestants, starved by lower rations than in previous years, have grown more lethargic as the days draw on. She was on the island to play hard and play her way, and although it didn’t always make for thrilling strategy or impressive moves, Kellyn was unabashedly Kellyn – and that makes her one of the highlights of the season for me.
But at this point, what story is left to be told? It feels like less of a question of “who will win?” and more of “Domenick or Wendell?” at this stage. That’s not to say it’s out of the realm of possibility (and I would love to see something unexpected!). The pair are outnumbered four to two, and despite two Idols and a good record in challenges, Angela, Donathan, Laurel and Sebastian (now armed with an extra vote) have all noted that the Dom & Wendell train will be unbeatable if it reaches the station.
Am I expecting a big move? No, I can’t say I am. This season was built on the remnants of past mistakes and it seems doomed to repeat the most common mistake of them all – missing the right opportunity. The window is closing fast for one of the field to take a win, but the trouble is that none of these four players are on the same page despite needing the same thing. Laurel and Donathan have been drawn in opposite directions all season and now, more than ever, it seems as though their plans have diverged. Angela and Sebastian, meanwhile, are enigmas, floating through the game with little apparent agency or drive to take control of their destiny in these final days. No, this season is not about the players who can’t get themselves on the same page. It’s about those who can.
This season is about one of the most dominant duos to ever play the game. This season is about Domenick and Wendell.