Fit to be tied - Wendell's big win
We've long been proponents of the "no goats" strategy: Taking the strongest players to the end, and letting them battle it out in front of the jury for the million dollars. This was something Coach promised to do in Tocantins, and perhaps inadvertently did in South Pacific. Now, we finally have an example of that strategy having played out semi-intentionally, and, while we now see the downside for the losing finalists, we're glad it worked out for Wendell. That thrilling tied jury vote almost makes up for the editors' suspense-free showcasing of Dom and Wendell as obvious finalists throughout the season. Almost. But either way, at least this finale gave us one of the most exciting jury votes in Survivor history.
Wendell's win is also a validation of the truism that Survivor is, first and foremost, a social game. (Even if the margin for that is growing ever thinner.) Everybody really seemed to connect with and enjoy being around Wendell. Nobody disliked him. That's the real key to winning Survivor. Certainly, Wendell had other impressive aspects to his game—he was a dominant physical player, especially pre-merge; he blazed through puzzles; he found and played idols (as every winner except Michele since Blood vs. Water has done); he was a tireless worker in camp; but he was also a critical partner with Dom in deciding which players to vote out. What Wendell didn't do was make "Big Moves," and his win, despite going up against Dom, someone who very much did make big, showy displays at Tribal Council, is a refutation of Jeff Probst's constant refrain that you have to make Big Moves in order to win. So we have that to be thankful for, as well.
Wendell's win is also another great example of the lieutenant or "assistant coach"-type taking home the million. Wendell's game matches up pretty nicely with Ethan Zohn's game in Africa (where Dom would be the Lex van den Berghe, and Laurel makes a decent Kim Johnson). There are also elements of Tyson in Blood vs. Water, or Jeremy in Cambodia—controlling the game, sure, but also being the calm, cool-headed person the other players like having around. Never have two finalist allies been so closely matched, while running the game in the second half. Maybe a little bit of Sophie and Coach in South Pacific as well, but Dom had far better relationships with both Wendell and the jury than Coach did. Really though, there's no exact match to this pair in Survivor history, and Wendell's win is, like most victories, unique.
It's also a satisfying win because Wendell, Dom, and Laurel are all superfans. People who love the show, know the game, and appreciate the opportunity to play it. Certainly in recent seasons, we've had a lot of winners who are longtime fans (every one from Worlds Apart on). Rarely, however, do they reach the finals without a recruit being dragged along as an easy goat. In a season as filled with relics of Survivor past as this one, having players who knew the game turned out to be an important casting consideration. It paid off with one of the best final threes ever.
Fit to be tied - Dom's misdirected decision
As presented in the finale, Dom had a big decision to make. He—quite logically—wanted to try knocking Wendell out of the game via the Final 4 firemaking twist. His choice: should he give up immunity, and take on the task himself, or should he choose the safe route, and entrust the challenge to Angela or Laurel? When looking at it as this binary choice, Dom almost certainly made the wrong decision. That's because the best solution was probably one he didn't consider: Bring Wendell to the final three, and let Laurel and Angela make fire.
It might not have worked. It might have amplified the perception that Dom and Wendell controlled the whole game, and people bitter at Dom for his late-game behavior might have then voted for Wendell (as they did), in which case, nothing much would change. There's also a chance one or more voters might have picked Angela or Laurel instead, whoever won their way in by making fire. But giving Wendell the easy path to F3 does two things: It maintains Dom's control of his own game (by keeping immunity), and it effectively makes Wendell look weaker. It reinforces the perception that Wendell let Dom do all the hard work and rode his coattails. (Not that Wendell actually did this, but for jurors like Michael, who more or less stated that was his perception, it makes Wendell's argument against that idea more difficult.)
Instead, by giving Wendell the opportunity to battle his way into the Final Three, in front of the jury, Dom handed Wendell a huge opportunity to add to his own résumé. Yeah, there was a chance it would work, and Wendell would flame out at F4. But nobody seemed particularly convinced that was likely, and it obviously didn't turn out that way. Dom just needed one Wendell voter to flip, and this one simple decision might have given Dom the million. Not bringing Wendell to the F3 should probably be Dom's "one bad decision [that] can haunt you forever."
Why did Dom not consider this? Two reasons, the fault for which mostly lies with production. First, production framed this decision incorrectly by sending Dom to the top of Ghost Island and presenting him three urns of second-place finishers who chose poorly in bringing someone to the finals (well, two, at least: Colby and Woo, plus, for some unknown reason, Brad Culpepper). By presenting Dom's decision in that context, the producers encouraged Dom to think of that free pass as only for someone he could definitely beat. Don't make the same mistake Colby did! Don't bring someone who might beat you! That's the exact opposite of what he should have thought (probably).
Secondly, as with Chrissy Hofbeck being put in the same spot last season: This cast had never seen the Final Four firemaking twist play out on TV. Clearly, this time it was more fair than it was for Chrissy, because at least this cast was told about the twist heading into the game. Dom also knew that his idol expired at F5, so he had sufficient information to plan accordingly. Except for the minor problem of his not having seen an actual, real-life example of jurors reacting to the F4 firemaking decision. Rightly or wrongly, the HvHvH jury seem to strongly disfavor Ryan Ulrich's game after Chrissy selected him to join her. Had Dom known that, he might have considered bringing Wendell. But he didn't know that, and he didn't bring him.
In the end, this was probably more fair than the late-game reveal of the final three in Cook Islands, or the final two in Micronesia. Small consolation for Dom, though.
To be clear, Wendell was absolutely a worthy winner. He played an all-around great game (just as we predicted he would), but still, it's hard not to feel bad for Dom. He also played a great game, and he came closer to the win than anyone in Survivor history has, while still falling short. His five jury votes (out of 11) are the most ever received by a losing finalist. Since Probst believes that this Final Four firemaking is the greatest twist ever, we expect that, now that everyone playing has seen it, future contestants will correctly play this for the next several seasons, using the free pass on their biggest threat, until production finally decides that the twist is now broken, and just has the jury vote on the Final Four. Which will probably be the next time Dom plays, and it'll probably screw him over again.
Finally, there have been a lot of situations in Survivor history where, after a close vote, fans lament that the jury voted incorrectly, and the "deserving winner" didn't win. This is not one of those cases. Both Wendell and Domenick clearly played games deserving of the win. And the vote reflected that perfectly, because it really was impossible to choose one over the other. It makes you wish that in the case of a tie, Survivor would just call it a tie, and give each of the deadlocked finalists a million dollars.
Consolation fun fact: Dom received more jury votes than past winners Richard Hatch, Tina Wesson, Vecepia Towery, Brian Heidik, Amber Brkich, Todd Herzog, and Bob Crowley. He'd probably prefer the million, but that's still something pretty cool.
Laurel's logical decisions (mostly)
Laurel gave one of the best Final Tribal performances this season, and received exactly zero votes from the jury as her reward. So much for Live Tribals, and changing jurors' minds in real time. Laurel's explanation of her strategy made perfect sense: As we discussed before, she was working from the bottom the entire game. She never had numbers, just a tenuous lifeline (along with Donathan) via this secret alliance. Pretty much any deviation from what she did, at any point, was a better move for the people she would be working with, than it would have been for her own game. For example, had she flipped with Kellyn at F8, as Kellyn wanted, that sets up Kellyn, Sebastian, and Angela for a smooth path to the final three, and moves Laurel and Donathan out of a final four deal, and onto the bottom of a group of five. That just wouldn't make sense.
Laurel might have had a shot at Final 7. She, Donathan, Sebastian, and Kellyn could have taken a shot at Domenick or Wendell. Laurel had immunity, so there was no possibility of the move immediately blowing back on her if someone played an idol. She at least had Kellyn and Donathan firmly on board. The only question mark was whether to include Sebastian or Angela, and that's probably where it fell apart. As Laurel has said, Kellyn had just voted against her (twice!), so there as little trust there. On that same previous vote, Sebastian was with Dom & Wendell, so he was an obvious risk for spoiling any blindside by blabbing. As for Angela? That's exactly what she did on the next vote, and probably why she was consistently left out of strategy talk. And again, long-term, it still wasn't ideal. If Dom and Wendell get taken out, Laurel has again moved from part of an F4 group to the bottom of a group of 5. Maybe the best move here would have been to target Angela as a loose cannon, try to get Dom or Wendell to play an idol in the process, then join up with Sebastian and Kellyn on the F6 vote. Still, for the best-case scenario, there are a lot of variables there.
That's the price of playing from the bottom.
We get it, watching Laurel, week after week, consider making a move, then deciding against it, was both boring and frustrating. Almost as boring as it was to watch Naviti continuously pick off Malolos. But the biggest flaw in Laurel's game was that in playing both sides, Laurel was constantly giving people out of the numbers hope for a reprieve, then going along with the vote as they were instead sent to the jury. It's the same mistake Albert made in South Pacific. For the most part, Survivor players don't enjoy being given false hope. They respect the shot-takers, not the people blocking out defenders, allowing those shots.
Still, overall, as a smart, athletic superfan that her tribemates seemed to get along with, Laurel played a lot better game than the audience (and edit) gave her credit for playing. She voted out more people (10) than anyone else this season, and was only on the wrong side of the vote once. The online vitriol against her has been extensive, which really seems unfair. Hopefully when people have had time to gain more perspective, her reputation among the fans will pick back up.
Ghost Island the season: Ranking the individual performances
Part of the problem with having an evenly matched pair of potential winners reach the finals is that instead of one person dominating the season, like a Tom Westman, or a Boston Rob, or a Kim Spradlin, Dom and Wendell divided a number of the accomplishments between them. For instance, Dom led the cast with just three wins in individual challenges (40th all-time). He probably could have won more, except Wendell was giving him stiff competition, especially at the end. Wendell tied Chelsea for second-most wins this season, with two (which should have been three for Wendell, but whatever). With this fierce battle between the two of them, they prevented each other from running up the totals for these counting-type stats.
For ranking Wendell as a winner by our overall scores, like SurvAv and SurvSc, having viable competition in the finals is also a detriment, because both scores use percent of jury votes as a key component. Thus, unanimous winners get almost double the points from a jury vote that Wendell (or Dom) would from an even split. And for both SurvAv and SurvSc, jury votes count for a third of the overall score. Also, by hoarding their idols until the end, they also missed out on topping the leaderboard for idols found. (We can't really count Dom's fake idol find, even though it turned out to be effective.)
Despite all that, Dom did perform historically well in challenges, as measured by Mean % Finish (MPF): His 75.4% mark comes in just above Redemption Island-vintage Boston Rob (75.2%), good for the 25th-best all-time performance in individual challenges in a season. Not too shabby. And as we mentioned earlier in the season, Jenna appeared in just enough challenges to snag the #3 all-time worst performance in individual challenges. Donathan was briefly right behind her, but recovered enough in later challenges to finish just off that particular leaderboard.
That's about it for record breaking this season. Although we should point out that Laurel casting a jury vote both sets the all-time record for most jurors in a season (11), and gives her a unique résumé item: She is the only person in Survivor history to be both a finalist and a juror in the same season. Yay?
Ghost Island the island: One bad decision
"It feels terrible being back at Ghost Island."
- Wendell, during the final four visit to Ghost Island
Yeah, you and us both, buddy.
Ghost Island started off with so much seeming promise. It was a museum of old Survivor artifacts, and contestants got to stay there! Sure, there were early worries that repeated visits to Ghost would put too many valuable items into the game, flooding the system with idols and advantages galore. But after a few "Nope, not today" visits and a visit in which Kellyn turned her back on a now obviously rare game opportunity, it started to look like nothing would ever come from it, apart from the Legacy Advantage.
That impression was correct. Well, except for the weekly boatload of tears.
Ghost Island's central problem, after the first few visits, was that it seemed like a massive waste of time. Once the visit mechanism switched to always being a rock draw, there was no strategy involved in being sent there. Not only that, but after Jacob's initial visit, we never once saw anyone talk about their time there. No reward apparently went hand-in-hand with no risk. Just 5-10 minutes of weepy self-absorption.
Then the merge hit, and items became almost guaranteed, but there was still rarely a payoff. Chris managed to both lose his vote AND fail to play JT's idol. Dom played the Legacy Advantage, but nobody had voted against him. Kellyn was unable to single-handedly change a Tribal outcome with one measly extra vote. Angela just lost her vote completely, enabling the editors to show even less of her. Wendell reproduced Malcolm's Malcolming of the "Ball Drop" challenge. Sebastian apparently completely forgot he even had an extra vote. All of which was wrapped up in an hour-long montage of flashbacks to everyone's favorite season, Game Changers.
Fear not, however: All of this was merely building momentum for the climax in the grand finale... Dom choosing an urn. Yes, a voting urn. Which, sadly, was intended for the jury votes, and not as a receptacle for the cremains of this pointless twist.
The above complaints don't even begin to scratch the wretchedness of the "cursed item" narratives, which were so forced, so ridiculous, that they made Ghost Island a pathetic joke. Mainly because the items found in camp (James's China idol, Erik's Micronesia necklace, maybe even Andrea's Caramoan idol) were much more valuable in the game itself, and dramatically more iconic pieces of Survivor history. Sarah's extra vote from Game Changers? First, nobody really cares: It's a piddling extra vote, from a season that just aired. Second, it was used about as well as an extra vote could be, so its only real curse was being from Game Changers. That was emblematic of the bargain-basement quality of the relics that could be won on Ghost Island.
And while the relics seemed like offshore island knock-offs of actual memorable items, the real curse of Ghost Island may have been the foreboding demotivational poster in the shelter. While it was initially cute, is it possible that threatening the contestants with nightmares for making a wrong decision actually inhibited the in-game decision-making this season? The two overarching strategic themes were: 1. "Naviti Strong," i.e. never deviating from your safe, original tribe's superior numbers, and 2. Laurel and Donathan sticking with Dom and Wendell, and never latching on to any other opportunities. Could the Ghost Island mantra have influenced this? Kellyn, one of the strongest Naviti Strong proponents, went there twice. Donathan was the second visitor. Maybe Ghost was the Island of Unintended Consequences for Executive Producer Jeff "Big Movez" Probst?
We hope Ghost Island will spend the next 10 years maturing on Ghost Island, because it really doesn't need to be brought back any time soon. At the very least, it will need a sigificant upgrade to its winnable items list.
Oh, and one more thing ...
Dear Survivor: If you're going to do more historical stuff, maybe hire a consultant who actually knows the history, or is at least willing to fact-check it*. James didn't "find" two idols in China, Todd gave him one, then told him where the other one was. The extra vote advantage from Game Changers was Sarah's extra vote, never Michaela's—sitting near an advantage does not confer ownership. Sarah used that extra vote correctly, so it wasn't "cursed." Sarah also made a great social move to secure the Legacy Advantage, then she later used it correctly to save herself at F6, which directly allowed her to win. Far more than the stupid urn did, anyway. Also, Brad Culpepper didn't "choose" Sarah, especially not in the same way Colby chose Tina or Woo chose Tony. Brad was part of a group of three (including Sarah, who nudged the group's thinking in that direction) who decided to vote out Tai. So calling the Legacy Advantage and the urn "cursed" is borderline insulting to Sarah's winning game. Do better.
*I'd be happy to do this for free.
Unanswered questions for the Ghost Island cast
- Was Wendell throwing the early individual challenges? He was one of the most dominant pre-merge players ever, with eight first-place finishes and 1 second in 10 tribal challenges, performing the key winning tasks in many of them (often alongside Chris Noble). He finished up the game with two wins and two almost-wins in the last four challenges. Something seems up about those first few last-place showings in the early post-merge ICs. Always be throwing?
- Wait, Domenick negotiated for more rice? In his exit interview with Mike Bloom, Wendell talked about differences between his game and Dom's, and included "I’m not the one negotiating for more rice with Probst before a challenge." What? How was this not shown? Did Dom actually do this, or was it just an abstract example of something Wendell didn't do? Given that rice rations were cut in half this season, it would be interesting to hear more about Dom acquiring (or attempting to acquire) more rice.
- Whatever happened to the chore charts? They were immediately ridiculed online when they showed up in preseason press photos. But they appeared on-screen only slightly fewer times than Chelsea (as in: not at all). They were touted as a mechanism for something or other (to make alpha males seem more important, probably). They were dumb, sure. But if they were there, why not show them? Did Yanuya get one after the second swap, or had they already been abandoned?
- Did Sebastian actually catch any fish? In the pre-season, we learned that Jeff Prosbt himself told Sebastian that he could be an even greater fisherman than Ozzy. Yet we never actually saw him do any of this, which is pretty ridiculous. In exit interviews, we heard story after story that he caught a lobster, that he caught fish, that he was a great provider. Which was, again, never shown. Given that rice rations were cut in half in order to make providers like Sebastian more valuable to keep around, why did we never see this? Was it because his (mostly post-game) relationship with Jenna was too public? It would have taken such a minimal amount of effort to show just one 60-second scene of Sebastian fishing over a 15-hour season. If it's a key factor in his longevity, it seems especially petty to never show it.
- Why didn't Sebastian play his extra vote? He knew it expired at Final 6, so why did he save it? Even with his throwaway vote for Donathan, why not just vote twice? What does wasting it accomplish?
- How many fake idols were there? We saw Dom's fake idol that he tried to fool Chris with, and presumably the one Wendell broke out at the Final 6 Tribal Council was the same one Jenna mentioned in her exit interviews? The one final problem with the all-relic theme this season was that it blocked these attempts to use fake idols. For all the positive mileage they got from Michael's brilliant claim that the James idol(s) now protected two people, the combination of having letters of authenticity with each relic idol AND requiring the idols to resemble something that had appeared before, seemed like it hindered the creativity. As fun as it was to have idols with histories, it was also something of a hindrance. Just one more thing else to consider before Ghost Island makes a return appearance.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other Ghost Island Finale recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Wendell Holland (winner)
Exit interviews - Domenick Abbate (2nd place)
Exit interviews - Laurel Johnson (3rd place)
Exit interviews - Angela Perkins (4th place)
Exit interviews - Donathan Hurley (5th place)
Exit interviews - Sebastian Noel (6th place)