Last week, I concluded my review of the penultimate episode with the following words:
“This season is about one of the most dominant duos to ever play the game. This season is about Domenick and Wendell.”
And now we know why.
As an unexpectedly fascinating finale reached its shocking conclusion, history was made. For the first time in Survivor’s 18 years, the Final Tribal Council resulted in a tied vote. Even after Jeff Probst made the unprompted revelation of the FTC tie-breaker rules at the Game Changers finale, I was skeptical that we’d ever actually see a deadlocked vote. But lo and behold!
It was a conclusion that retroactively clarifies the narrative that many fans had grown frustrated with over the past several weeks – this was an unusual season that had to tell the story of two players so dominant and evenly matched that even the Jury could not decide who had played a better game and the story of Laurel, somebody trapped by an inability to make the big move she needed to win but who would ultimately make one of the biggest moves in Survivor history: unilaterally and unambiguously deciding the Sole Survivor.
But tonight’s finale didn’t just deliver in its final moments. Despite a somewhat predictable boot order on paper, each Tribal Council delivered in its own way. The Final Six was a messy display of terrible gameplay contrasted with a clever strategy that may still have ultimately cost Domenick the game. The Final Five ratcheted up the tension and Final Four saw the new fire-making twist play out as it was intended with all of the associated social and strategic dilemmas. Ghost Island was an imperfect season, but its compelling and ground-breaking denouement made it a worthwhile journey.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
Coming into the Final Six, it was clear that this was Domenick and Wendell’s game to lose and they had one final obstacle to overcome. If they could both survive this vote with their Idols in hand, they would be guaranteed the Final Four, but the sharks were circling. Donathan had already made his stand last week, openly opposing the powers that be. Laurel, too, was growing anxious about the closing window to make her move against her closest allies whilst still ensuring her own path to the end. Even Sebastian and Angela – to this point, players who had seemingly shirked any interest in strategy – were beginning to see clearly with courage brewing. It was make-or-break for the power players, and it very nearly broke.
After Wendell clinched Immunity at an epic maze challenge (this time remembering to call for “JEFF PROBST!” upon completion of his puzzle!), Sebastian finally took his shot. He approached the alienated Donathan and the isolated Angela and proposed what should have been an ingenious plan: with the help of his extra vote, the three of them could blindside Domenick. After weeks of fading into the background and occasionally surfacing to compare something to candy, Sebastian impressed. Not only did his plan elegantly avoid the need to bring in Laurel, who had repeatedly demonstrated an unwillingness to flip against the power couple, but he also landed on the correct read with Domenick’s Idols, suspecting he only had one – not two – which he would save for the Final Five. The pieces were in place for a great upset…
…and then Angela happened. As Angela had occasionally articulated her interest in playing her own game and making her move, I had hoped we would see her blossom into the cutthroat player she promised. Instead, she single-handedly destroyed a plan that would have benefitted her by spilling the beans to Domenick – and he barely even had to apply any pressure! It’s perplexing to say the least, but it’s on brand. Last time Angela wanted to make a move, she leaked Michael’s plan to target Kellyn in order to maintain the Naviti status quo. Quite simply, Angela is not a Survivor strategist, and this blunder squashed Sebastian’s plan before it even got off the ground.
It’s worth noting, however, that Angela wasn’t the only one with loose lips, as Donathan also shared the plan with Laurel. As their plans diverged last episode, I wondered if their long-term partnership had come to an end, but even in the wake of Tribal, they reconnected on a personal level. Strategically, too, they seemed to be matching back up as Laurel, uncomfortable with her position between a rock and a hard place and freshly frustrated by Wendell’s choice to reward Sea Bass and Angela with steaks, was receptive to a move against Dom. But it’s hard to know whether she would have actually pulled the trigger since the real drama of this vote came down to Tribal.
As Donathan pretended to fall on his sword, Domenick aggressively called him out and exposed the plan that Angela had told him about. He led an intense charge against Donathan for turning his back on the alliance (a sentiment that was heatedly, but more calmly, supported by Wendell, bro) and proceeded to put his hardware out in the open – revealing both Andrea’s Idol and David’s Fake Idol. As Wendell also adorned himself in his jewellery – Erik’s Immunity and a fake of his own crafting – Dom continued to draw the attention with his abrasive confrontation and an incredible gamble. He handed his fake Idol to Probst (though, importantly, did not play it) before the votes, asserting his safety heading into the vote – and effectively bluffing his way through the Final Six. It was a brilliant move on paper, and one that required showmanship to pull off – and it worked. Before we could get too confident in Sebastian’s strategic chops, he not only shied away from calling Dom’s bluff but also passed on his last opportunity to use his extra vote – and as Angela and Laurel also jumped on board, Sea Bass was unceremoniously voted out 4-1-1.
Dom’s bluff with the Idol was an incredible play – but it also played a major factor in his ultimate defeat. The showboating to distract and deflect was important, but it came across as unnecessarily aggressive. His confidence in playing the fake – and then cutting Jeff off to announce it as such – verged on arrogance. Wendell also butted heads with his opponents during Tribal, but in the shadow of “The Godfather,” he seemed downright gentle by comparison – and that may have made all the difference.
I’D LIKE TO GIVE INDIVIDUAL IMMUNITY TO LAUREL
The Final Five marked the most stock-standard vote of the night as Wendell cinched a second consecutive Immunity win, Domenick secured his safety with his real Idol, and the vote came down to Donathan, the scrappy and unpredictable underdog, or Laurel, the bigger challenge threat. Also factoring into the decision was the looming final four twist and where these players’ allegiances lay – she had worked with them all game, but would Laurel take either of them to the Final Three if she won the last Immunity?
Understandably, the vote coalesced unanimously against Donathan – and it was a smart choice. Donathan may not have posed a huge threat in challenges, but unexpected victors have emerged in Final Immunities before. Furthermore, Donathan was a likable figure with a real and compelling story to tell, and his open opposition against Dom & Wendell would curry favour with a Jury hoping to see fireworks. It was a shame to see Donathan’s game hit such a brick wall – he had been itching to make his move all through the merge, but never got his chance. By the time he felt the freedom to strike, it was too late. It’s the story of nearly all the post-merge downfalls – a story of waiting just a little too long and discovering that the best opportunity you had was already behind you. Nevertheless, Donathan was a bright spark of personality throughout the season and I’m glad he brought his self-confident individuality to the game, to Tribal and to the Survivor gif gallery. Use that Sia Scholarship well, my friend!
But there was one last interesting wrinkle in the Final Five. Yes, it was a unanimous vote for Donathan – but in truth, the vote was wholly in Wendell’s hands. With Immunity around his neck, he had no personal need for Erik’s Immunity which offered him the ability to unilaterally decide whether Donathan or Laurel was going home by – what’s that you say? – giving Erik’s Immunity away. Naturally, he protected the player who was the most loyal to him and with whom he shared a strong personal bond. Throughout the season, Wendell repeatedly came to Laurel to assure her of her place in his alliance and shoring up their relationship. His Idol play may not have been successful insofar as changing the result of the vote, but it was indicative of the personal relationships that would win him Jury votes – and most importantly, the Jury vote of the very woman he protected at this Tribal.
Like many, I was not a fan of the Final Four Fire-Making twist in Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. But for me, the problem did not lie with the mechanics of the twist itself (which efficiently mitigates the take-the-goat strategy of a Final 2 while ratcheting up the tension and preserving the Immunity winner’s solitary power in a Final 3). The trouble with HHH was in its execution as a last-minute surprise. In Ghost Island, the players knew about the twist from the outset, and despite having not seen how it played out in the preceding season, they were afforded the opportunity to play with it instead of simply reacting to it. We began to see its impact at the Donathan vote as Wendell and Dom discussed who would be likely to take them to the Final Three and I think this is only the beginning of how this twist could impact endgame strategy moving forward.
When Domenick emerged victorious in the Final Immunity Challenge (his third win of the season), he held all the cards. In the previous format, there would have been a high chance that he, Angela and Laurel would have united to pick off Wendell – or possibly, Laurel would have sought to double down on her hope to split the vote and pick up the scraps at FTC and forced a tie regardless. Tonight, however, the decision was all down to Domenick – and it made for an unusually intriguing final elimination. Rightfully, Dom knew his best chance at winning the million would be to see his long-term ally and biggest threat in Wendell go out at four, but how could he make that happen?
Laurel plead her case – she would not be capable of beating Wendell at making fire, so Ange had the better chance to actually beat the biggest threat. Angela meanwhile argued a different tact – taking Laurel to the end was taking someone who was articulate and had made more social connections. In reality, the circumstances favoured Laurel’s argument – Dom needed someone to beat Wendell at fire. But the dynamics of the twist put Domenick in an interesting position – could he beat Wendell at FTC, or was he better off squaring off against him now by giving away Immunity and going head-to-head in an all-or-nothing fire-making challenge? It was an intriguing, if reckless, possibility, but the new Final Four format put all of this decision-making onto Domenick – and that makes drama.
The tension was emphasised further by the ingenious final relics of Ghost Island as Domenick chose which of three voting urns would hold the final vote, each symbolising the biggest mistakes of Colby Donaldson, Woo Hwang and Brad Culpepper who had all won the Final Immunity Challenge but taken the wrong opponent with them to Final Tribal Council. It was a cruel mind game as Domenick now faced this same decision – who should he send to Final Tribal? In ultimately choosing Laurel, he set himself on a path where it would be Laurel herself who would sign his defeat. The notion of cursed artifacts may have been a stretch in many cases this season, but the production decision to highlight some of the biggest mistakes not based on a misplayed advantage but on a simple error of judgment felt like a fitting end to Ghost Island’s tenure.
But back at Tribal, the superstition thrived as Angela and Wendell sat down to build their fires. The Malolo Orange curse had almost become a parody of itself over the course of the season, but it culminated in a poetic conclusion as Wendell, anxious to avoid sitting at the orange station, swapped seats with the ambivalent Angela and proceeded to effortlessly smoke her in the challenge. It may not have been a nail-biting showdown in the fire-building itself, but I think the twist showed a glimmer of its potential tonight – and I’m truly looking forward to seeing how it plays out in future seasons. Like the Final Three and Hidden Immunity Idols, it has the power to shake up the dynamics of strategy and 36 seasons in, that’s a very good thing.
SPLITTING THE VOTE
And so it comes to the Final Three. It felt as though this season was building to this endpoint as Dom & Wendell, enabled by Laurel, would fight it out to the bitter end. Going into the Final Tribal, I had no idea which way the chips would fall. Dom had played a flashier game, but he’d also aggravated many members of the Jury. Wendell had played a quieter and more social game, but did he have the strategic resume to support his argument? The only thing that seemed certain was that Laurel’s case would be dead on arrival.
Laurel has been a fascinating case study throughout this season – athletic, intelligent and a superfan, she had a lot going for her coming into the game. But she found herself continually boxed in with limited options – first as an outnumbered Malolo, then as a third wheel to the Dom & Wendell show. It grew frustrating to see her presented with opportunities to make a move to take out the players she knew would beat her at the end, but as she articulated at FTC, none of those options felt viable to her in the moment. If she flipped with Desiree, or went with the girls at Final 8, or made a move with Kellyn and Donathan at 7, what then? Sometimes a flip is a losing move, and the opportunities that were presented to Laurel through the post-merge required her to give up security and trust for little more than a slim promise. Although her inability to find a path towards a winning game bore out tonight as she received a cool reception from the Jury and zero votes, it seems as though the odds were never really in her favour.
The odds were always in favour of the two biggest threats on the board, armed to the teeth with Idols, Advantages, challenge wins, essential social bonds and opposition that didn’t see them coming until it was too late. Fittingly, it would come down to Domenick or Wendell. As the questioning from the Jury played out, it only emphasised the difficulty in separating which of the two had played the better game. Players like Michael and Chris applauded Domenick’s bold strategy and confident gameplay, but Kellyn and Sebastian derided his execution as hurtful and brash. Conversely, they applauded Wendell’s personal social game, but Desiree and Chris doubted that casual conversation about music or flaunting loyalty would be convincing.
Even the two finalists ebbed and flowed in their efforts to distinguish themselves from the other. Initially, Wendell took a wrong tact, asserting himself as a strategic mastermind while Donathan and much of the Jury doubted that role. Instead, Domenick asserted himself as the power player who had brought allies into his schemes and orchestrated moves. He even willingly admitted his error in judgment at the Morgan boot in a sign of humility, but then he swung too far the other direction, framing his aggressive play with David’s Fake Idol as one of the best moves the game had ever seen – a boastful assertion that by-passed the emotional impact his intensity had on his opposition. Then this opened the door for Wendell to shift gears into focusing on what he brought to Survivor – all the disparate pieces of his personality that coalesced into a social, friendly and smart game. Back and forth and back and forth. Honestly, I had no idea which way the vote would go.
Then it became clear why – when Jeff returned with the urn and immediately began reading the votes on the Island for the first time since Borneo. I was on the edge of my seat – could it really be? Was this happening? Sure enough – Survivor’s first tie with five votes for Domenick and five for Wendell. It explained so much about this season’s story – why these two strong players had been the focus of the season. As Laurel became the first player to sit at both the Final Tribal Council and cast a Jury vote in the same season, I was still in shock. It was no surprise that she chose to award Wendell, the ally who had repeatedly prioritised their loyalty and personal connection, but for the million dollar decision to literally be in the hands of the player who had struggled to make the big move was perfect.
Wendell makes for a phenomenal winner of Survivor who used his social game above all else to further himself and secure victory. Domenick makes for a stellar runner-up who played his heart out but fell so devastatingly short in the final moments. Laurel makes for one of the most unique endgame characters as she became a literal kingmaker.
Ghost Island had its ups and downs. The storytelling struggled to flesh out its large cast – players like Libby, Jenna, Chelsea and Angela remained obscure even through Final Tribal Council as the new town hall format denied us the chance to hear them speak their mind or justify their votes – but it also gave us unconventional episodes like the mournful Stephanie boot. It delivered a stellar pre-merge full of exciting moves and memorable characters. It gave us one of the best merge episodes of all time. It sagged under the weight of predictable boots and frustrating intransigence through the later votes, but it was still punctuated by exciting new twists like the split Tribal at Final 10. And it gave us one of the most unexpected finales of all time.
In the end, this season is one for the history books.