Throughout the first six episodes of Ghost Island, one of the most impressive feats of the season had been its clever storytelling and unconventional editing. With spotlights on early boot characters like Jacob and Stephanie, editing fake-outs like the ‘visibility spikes’ of Angela and Desiree only for them to survive the vote, and different tonalities like the haunting and personal Stephanie boot, the storytelling has been unpredictable, exciting and engaging. It’s not been without its faults, as under-edited characters continues to be Survivor’s Achilles heel (particularly for 20-strong casts), but it’s been a season where each episode has left me in a buzz at best and satisfied at worst.
Tonight’s episode on the other hand… It wasn’t disastrous by any means, but with two paint-by-numbers challenges, the introduction of three new advantages and a straight-forward (if strategically questionable) Tribal Council, it was clear that the editors weren’t dealt the cards they needed to build a particularly cohesive or compelling episode. Nevertheless, despite a somewhat disjointed Survivor episode, there’s still plenty to talk about as we charge forward to the merge, so let’s get down to it.
D.B.A.D. – DON’T BE A…
With Malolo’s losing streak curbed after a ceremonial and sacrilegious burning of their tribe banner, it was the new Naviti sent to Tribal for what ended up being a surprisingly old-school dilemma. With three original Naviti (Bradley, Chelsea and Domenick) outgunning two original Malolo (Donathan and Libby), the logical outcome should have been simple. With Domenick still wary of Libby after she’d stabbed Morgan in the back and his suspicion of her flirtatiously threatening style of gameplay, it seemed even more likely that another Malolo would be heading down the dark path to Ponderosa, right? Wrong.
Instead of voting out a strategically dangerous outsider who’d previously pulled a fast one against his alliance, Domenick instead sided against original Naviti once again as he and Chelsea joined the Malolos to vote out Bradley? Why? It simply came down to the fact that Bradley was – and I quote – “a dick.” Between his whining, his arrogance and his condescension, his obnoxious behavior was grating on his tribe. In small but constant doses, such as micromanaging Donathan at the challenge and needlessly grating against his celebratory tribemates after the challenge win, his tiresome attitude reached the lethal dose, becoming so intolerable that his own allies decided to cut him before the merge instead of the dangerous blonde in the opposing alliance. If that’s not the sign of a bad social game, I’m not sure what is.
Nevertheless, in his short time on the show, Bradley had emerged as a great love-to-hate villain. A whiny complainer one minute and an over-confident and cocky jerk the next, Bradley has been portrayed in an almost comically negative light that seemed to destine him for a schadenfreudean downfall. Instead, it was an unceremonious unanimous blindside that sealed his fate. Perhaps this is part of what contributed to my dissatisfaction this episode, as losing one of the major antagonists of the season in such an ordinary fashion seemed like an anticlimactic end to his story. Yet this story was never really about Bradley. He was a minor obstacle for bigger players, and it may be better to look at his elimination for its actual role in the season as the biggest move thus far and perhaps the most inscrutable vote of the season.
It made perfect sense for Donathan and Libby to target Bradley – not only was he grating on their nerves on a social level, but he was also one of the biggest proponents of the Naviti-strong mindset that would spell doom for them at the merge. But why did Domenick and Chelsea make the move to flip and take out one of their own – particularly when they had the “easy” option to vote out Libby?
It’s safe to say that there is a lot of explanation for Bradley’s elimination that was left on the cutting room floor, but all we have to work with is the 42 minutes we saw in the episode. We’ve seen so little of Chelsea that extrapolating her strategic thinking is dangerously speculative, though it’s worth noting that she was the player having the conversation with Libby about taking out Bradley, suggesting at least some social bond between the two. Enough to sway a vote? Possibly.
But this decision seems to be rooted in Domenick’s self-interest. He’s trying to position himself for the post-merge and the inevitable confrontation with Chris, yet his allies are stretched pretty thin. He’s got Wendell, but otherwise? Although Bradley bled Naviti purple, Domenick’s shown he has no hesitation turning on his starting tribe. If he’s looking to make his move against Chris sooner rather than later, having such a staunch Naviti-strong ally may make it harder for him to do so – or worse, turn the target against him as a dissenter. Bradley’s a strong ego as well, and perhaps that energy threatened Domenick’s post-merge plans.
It’s also worth noting that Dom has spent a significant amount of beach time with Donathan and Libby who are also desperate for any allies they can get to overcome their Malolo minority. They betrayed him once, and he’s rightfully cautious of trusting them, but they’re still loose votes. With some form of social connection between them, he may be hoping that he can exploit those bonds at the merge to gain power over Chris. By keeping Libby in the game, he keeps that option open.
This is all just speculation, of course, but necessary speculation because the move still feels dangerous. Dom and Chelsea are the first Naviti to draw their own blood by voting out Bradley, and this could have enormous ramifications for their relationship with the other Navitis – especially players like Angela, Kellyn and Desiree. They also chose to boot a socially divisive player who expressed his loyalty to them to save a socially adaptable and deceptive player who has shown she’s willing to go back on her word if it’s the right move for her. While I’m excited to see how this plays out, I’m scratching my head as to why Chelsea and Domenick made this decision. Will it haunt them forever? Or is there more going on than meets the eye?
ONE (OR MORE) FOR THE HISTORY BOOKS
Elsewhere on the island, a few weeks of traditional gameplay came to an abrupt halt as an avalanche of new advantages flooded the game before the merge. As Michael and Wendell dug up Hidden Immunity Idols and Kellyn reversed her own curse by playing the Ghost Island Game of Chance to win an advantage, it was a smorgasbord of new toys. While I shall always remain cautious of the dreaded Advantagegeddon, I’m glad there are some more moving parts in play as we head into the merge just to add a little extra spice.
It’s also exciting to see that these advantages have fallen into the hands of strong competitors. Michael’s shown what he can do with an Idol already – and also demonstrated an ability to think creatively about how to use them. Using his knowledge of Survivor history, he bluffed that James Clement’s Idol could protect two people, so I’m confident he’s got the chops to put the iconic Effing Stick from Micronesia to great use. Similarly, Wendell is playing a solid, reserved game and has his wits about him in a way that hasn’t drawn a target. He’s in a good position to fly under the radar until he needs to assert his game, and an Idol in his pocket could help him achieve that – though ‘in his pocket’ might be a stretch. Despite cleverly taking advantage of his tribe’s full-belly nap-time to get out of camp, he was rewarded with an Idol even more awkward to conceal than the aforementioned wooden tile from China – the actual Immunity Necklace that sealed Erik Reichenbach’s fate. I have a suspicion that this curse may actually be reversed.
Kellyn, meanwhile, was given another opportunity to wager her vote on a game of chance. Seeing her odds increased, and nearing the point of the individual game, she rightly took the gamble and was rewarded with the vote that sealed Michaela Bradshaw’s fate in Game Changers after she had failed to notice the Vote Steal advantage herself. Kellyn is an intuitive and intelligent player, and having the power of an extra vote is a huge boon for her game, particularly as her role in picking off the Old Malolos could put a target on her back at the merge – even more so now that her socially aggravating shield in Bradley is out of the game.
While I’m excited to see how Kellyn, Michael and Wendell use their Idols and Advantages this season, I do have to quibble with production here. There are so many Idols that have gone unplayed in Survivor history, and with the relics of James’ and Andrea Boehlke’s mistakes having previously set the tone for Hidden Immunity Idols this season, it seems strange to me that instead of hiding the pocket-Idols of players like J.T. Thomas, Jon Misch or Garrett Adelstein on the tribe beaches they instead introduced the Effing Stick and Erik’s Immunity as ‘matured’ – but otherwise unremarkable – Idols.
These are two of the most iconic artifacts of Survivor lore, and I had really expected these items to be implemented into the game in a manner worthy of their reputation. It’s within the scope of the season’s theme to invoke additional twists on these relics as previously seen when Jacob was required to give away the Legacy Advantage as Sierra Dawn Thomas had done, but was charged with choosing the right person to trust to break the curse. Perhaps the finder of Erik’s Immunity should have only been able to protect another player or the Stick could have only been effective as an Idol if the finder was able to convince another castaway to play it. Perhaps introducing such rules verges on convolution or risks railroading a player’s strategy, but with a theme like Ghost Island that drips with the atmosphere of seasons past, there is surely greater scope for creative implementation of these famous relics.
And with that, we have reached the end of an eventful pre-merge! With all tribes coming together next week, it should be a heated battle for supremacy. Will the Malolo vs. Naviti mindset continue? Or will the feud between Chris and Domenick reach its climax? With Idols, Advantages and a verifiable web of social bonds in effect, there’s a lot of ways can shake out.
This week’s episode may not have been Survivor’s best, but it set the pieces for the next stage of the game, and these table-setting installments can be a nice breather in retrospect. This cast has been delivering good gameplay and fun character moments, and I am feeling confident that we’ll be back on track towards an excellent season.
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