As many of you know, when I’m not leading the lavish life of a Survivor blogger, I teach middle school English. Oddly enough—or perhaps not so oddly at all—the latter helps immeasurably with the former. How could that be, you ask? Simply this: when the game begins, Survivor players act a lot like the kids I teach. They’re cliquey. They’re competitive. They’re suspicious. They personalize everything. They want desperately to be accepted, and they act erratically and emotionally when they’re not. I am reminded on a weekly basis that Survivor IS middle school, only (almost) everyone is adults, and they’re getting paid to be there.
The middle school mindset, I would argue, was at the heart of much of what we saw last week. Why was Gonzalez on the outs? Middle school. Why did Jacob implode so spectacularly? Middle school. Why did Chris target Domenick? Why did James suck at swimming? Why is Angela invisible? Middle school, middle school, middle school.
So what could be more apropos than examining the first two hours of the season -- and things like Ghost Island -- through the lens of a petulant middle schooler? To help with this, I’ll do my best to keep my observations brief and to the point. Because if there’s one thing that all of us have in common with middle schoolers: Short attention spans.
Once Brendan ended up as the leader of Malolo -- both in the challenge and afterwards, from the sounds of it—everyone had a choice: either fall in line with the alpha male or assemble your own alliance. The second path would have been extremely difficult, however; the majority was simply too happy with Brendan calling the shots. Michael wanted another meat shield, James wanted to be a good soldier, Stephanie J wanted to work in the shadows, and Jenna and Libby wanted to float. It would have been extremely difficult to cobble together a combination of cannon fodder, and harder still to convince players in the majority to turn on their best challenge competitors. Once Jacob was on Ghost Island, Gonzalez would have had to pull in the other outsiders (Donathan and Laurel, seemingly), and then flip two other players (Stephanie J and Jenna) to take out… who, exactly? James? Libby? Michael? Yeah, not going to happen.
The harsh truth is this: given what we were shown on Wednesday, Gonzalez was never going to be long for the game. How she spoke… her body language… her approach to group dynamics… it felt like she was on the defensive the entire time. I suspect that the other players just didn’t really like her (pre-game impressions factored in heavily here), and—armchair psychology warning!—that catapulted her back to middle school, a time when she says she was bullied, and she was never able to recover.
Here’s the thing: When Survivor casts people, sometimes they say, “If this player has the right people around her, she could win”... and other times they say, “This player would do well on pretty much any tribe.” (And then there are the other times when they say, “this person is going to go down in flames and we think schadenfreude is delicious,” but we won’t talk about those times.) Gonzalez was in the former camp, someone who needed the right mix of personalities and players to get very far. Given who was on her tribe, she was doomed from the outset (and I bet production knew it). A sad reality about Survivors and middle school: Everyone wants to be cannons, but so many of us are fodder.
Given that he’s “one of us” -- a blogger, a fan, a torch-bearer for the legion of lovable losers -- I am tempted to avoid both criticism and pity, both of which he appears to be getting in abundance.
What I will say is this:
** Getting sent to Ghost Island was smart. (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he planned it, even though it felt very much like a middle school moment, where, thanks to the power of wishcasting and the self-preservation of self-image, he now truly believes his excuse; of course, he should have saved the retcon reveal for a confessional).
** Once Jacob found out that the first item was an advantage, he needed to figure out that there HAD to be an idol back at camp. No way production allows two tribals to go by without idols possibly in play. The moment Jacob was back in camp, he needed to go search until he found it.
** There is no way that Jacob hid his social awkwardness throughout the whole casting process. Which means that the production team expected to exploit it. Captain Obvious Observation: The game of Survivor intensifies introversion. I imagine that production thought that Jacob would be an entertaining narrator who could talk about overcoming the social challenges he’s always faced in his life. The best case scenario was always “journey character who embodies the theme of ‘life transition.’” I’m sure some members of production were hopeful that Jacob would follow that path. But I’m equally sure many of them thought we’d get precisely what we got.
3) First three minutes
At risk of being redundant, I’m going to share my breakdown of the first three minutes of the episode, which originally appeared at the tail end of last week’s boot column. If you’ve already read this, feel free to skip to #4. (I did add a few additional thoughts after seeing the full two hours, though.)
Okay, here we go, rapid fire observations about what they wanted to tell us (in order of appearance):
The first solo shot: Stephanie J. She’s going to be around a while. (EDIT: After her performance in the premiere, this looks pretty accurate, don’t you think?)
Next, we get a shot of Libby looking left… and then Michael looking right. Superimpose the images and they’re thisclose to kissing. SHOWMANCE.
Probst says something about players changing their lives, and we get a close-up of Donathan. That’s going to be his edit: Donathan is a player who undergoes significant personal growth over the course of the season. (EDIT: How his failure in the challenge was framed certainly supports this theory.)
A shot of Domenick with a scowl on his face. They can choose from any number of facial expressions for first impressions -- smiles, frowns, pain, joy, frustration -- so what they pick is character-defining. We’re meant to see him as intense.
A shot of Chris sliding his hand through his hair. He’s the self-involved pretty boy.
A shot of Chelsea looking enigmatic. Ooooooo -- support for my idea that she’s going to be scheming! (EDIT: This was the peak of the premiere for my winner pick… sigh.)
Then we get a quick montage of a lot of players… the only shot that really stuck out to me was Desiree sneering. Not a good look. She’s going to be a source of conflict.
When the players get to the mats, we get a lingering shot of Chelsea, followed by a close-up of Libby. Both of them will be around a while… and be two sides of the same coin (one will play a clean game, the other will get her hands dirty).
A long shot of Kellyn followed by a shot of Bradley. Yep, they’re working together! And Kellyn is the more important of the two. (EDIT: Bradley’s invisible edit backs up the idea that Kellyn is more significant to the story… but we have no hints of a partnership. The early swap may change that, however, if they end up in a tribe together.)
A shot of Gonzo looking confused by what Jeff is saying about Ghost Island. Hello, first boot.
A shot of Jacob looking worried. Uh oh.
When Probst talks about one decision haunting you forever, we get a long shot of Morgan. She’s going to screw something up and leave the game with regrets. (EDIT: And now she has the Legacy Advantage…)
When Probst mentions reversing the curse, we see Wendell. He’s going to play a relic correctly.
A close-up of Jacob saying, “S**t.” UH OH.
Here’s Stephanie J again, this time saying, “What?” Possibly a hint that she’s out of the loop later. (EDIT: Proof that I’m a moron.)
Kellyn gets a confessional. Hey there, Journey Player! You’re gonna be on my TV a whole bunch, aren’t you? This pleases me.
Probst mentions that many players will go to Ghost Island, and then we see Jacob react. Okay, that pretty much seals Jacob’s fate. He’s going to Ghost Island… and his game falls apart because of it.
A shot of Domenick saying, “Ugggggh.” He’s going to get a ton of reaction shots this season, don’t you think? His face is expressive and his voice is distinctive. Which means he’ll also have about eleventy billion confessionals. (EDIT: Ten confessionals in the premiere…)
A shot of a worried Jacob saying, “Oh.” Jeeeez. Now I just feel bad for the guy.
One final thought: Brendan, Jenna, and Angela are conspicuously absent in the opening. Brendan’s in the background a few times, and there might be one shot of Jenna swimming, but Angela might as well not have been there. My bet is that Jenna and Angela have zero impact on the game, while Brendan is going to factor heavily into the challenge that takes place right after this clip (so to have him featured in the intro would be overload). (EDIT: Nailed it on Brendan… Jenna, on the other hand, appeared far more than I was expecting her to.)
4) Let’s take a look at the logistics of Ghost Island.
** Dalton Ross confirmed the obvious: The urns are in a specific order.
** The first player to GI really was doomed. Removed from the social dynamics of the tribe around the first Tribal (when alliances are tested)… and the item you get has to be given to someone else? Cruel.
** The second visitor to GI was always going to be screwed. Production needed to establish that sometimes GI exiles get a game and sometimes they don’t. They were never going to have 13 advantages in the game, so they needed blanks (because if there were only, say, 7 urns, the players would have a sense for how many times GI would be in play; as it is, there’s the potential for GI once per episode).
** Along those same lines, one of the next two visitors to GI will have to get there under different circumstances (not picked after the immunity challenge), to establish the “rules” of GI. (Probst has said that the dynamics of getting to GI will change over the course of the season.)
** Production clearly has an order for what’s available on GI. The Legacy Advantage has to enter the game before the Final 13 (since that’s one of the two times it can be played). And, given that it was a Day 1 discovery the first time around, and a lot of its power comes from how it can be used to solidify relationships (as well as the potential to get players to turn on one another), it was always going to be an early-game advantage.
** The first GI prize had to be “big”—after that, it’s okay for the prize to take a step back, power-wise, but then it has to trend upwards as we get deeper into the game, or it will just seem odd (it’s the narrative demand for rising conflict). There may be a surprise twist later—where players and viewers are expecting something significant, but it isn’t—but overall, we’re headed to some potent post-merge GI rewards.
** GI is surprisingly limited in scope. Rather than turning the island into explorable “zones,” there appear to be two locations: the shelter with the urns and the place where the exile plays the “game.” It all feels rather underwhelming.
** GI is also decidedly manufactured: Jacob was clearly told, “You can’t touch either one of the containers… and you need to commit, verbally, to either the one on the left or one on the right.” You can feel the newbie field producer (who drew the short straw and had to spend the night on GI) just off camera, can’t you? In video game terms, the exile is riding on rails. GI would have been so much better as an open world sandbox.
** GI doesn’t look like the worst place in the world: plenty of fire and food. You have to wonder if they’ll take away one or both after the merge. Or perhaps they’ll force the player to wager the rice (or some other food they offer) for the chance to get an advantage.
** How many relics do you think players will be able to get? If you factor in the “No Game For You” visits… the times a player refuses the wager… and when a player loses the game... the likely number of relics getting into the game doesn’t seem all that high. But given the investment they have in the theme, and the effort they put into locating the relics (in many cases they needed to borrow them from collectors), they want and need the iconic relics getting into the game. Which means the rules are going to have to be fluid, based on how the GI visits play out.
** I mean, can you imagine production allowing James’ two idols, the effing stick, and Erik’s necklace to never see the light of day? It just isn’t going to happen. Which means they’ve got rules in place to make sure that they have an impact on the game.
** If you want to get a sense for how the rules of GI will work, you have to push things to the extreme: what if NO ONE agrees to play the game? Unlikely, but production would have to plan for that. Conversely, they can’t have a Cirie +1 situation unfold (where EVERYONE is safe at an endgame Tribal), so they can’t have TOO many advantages and idols in the game (which means they’d have to plan for this before the game began).
** On a related note, what if a majority alliance keeps sending their own people to GI, so that the instruments of instability are entirely neutralized by the power players?
** Production did not dedicate themselves to the Ghost Island theme only to have the location and relics be afterthoughts. Which means production HAS to put controls into place to make sure that they get what they want from GI and the game. They will tinker with how players get to GI and what happens to them there to make sure they get the catalysts for chaos that they want and need.
** To state the obvious, production has a LOT of controls here: The notes in the urns weren’t born there, right? So they can be put in and taken out, as needed. They can also tweak what a player is asked to wager, to make it easier for a player to take a risk. If that doesn’t work, they can force someone to play the game. And if you want to enter Big Brother territory, you can make sure there’s no way to lose (easy enough to have both boxes contain keys).
** Also, the note in the urn indicates only if there’s a game or not… they don’t find out what they’re playing for until after the player has won or lost. Choosing what item is in play is the easiest control of all. If you’re a member of production -- and you need to create a captivating TV show for ten million people -- don’t you want to adapt based on who is going to GI, his or her position in the game, and how the game is playing out?
** If you’re a player, don’t you have to assume that not all of the idols and advantages are out on GI? Production would never want a dynamic, aggressive player to have zero access to idols, right? And if they’re savvy, the players might try to keep someone like that (Domenick, for example) from ever getting to GI. That pits production and the players against one another: players want control, while production wants the game to be unpredictable. And the house -- in this case, production -- always wins.
Okay, time to speed things up…
5) Morgan is doomed
Let’s look at the hints in the edit:
** Probst mentioned that one bad decision can haunt you forever… and then Morgan appeared on screen.
** Jacob wills Morgan the Legacy Advantage, and the focus is on how Sarah voted out the original owner, Sierra, to get her hands on it.
** When Morgan finds the LA in her bag, we get (if memory serves) a somewhat ambivalent reaction from her.
** We see Jacob tell Stephanie J about willing the LA to Morgan.
** Stephanie -- who has been portrayed as a thoughtful assassin so far -- briefly contemplates what she can do with the information Jacob gave her.
Everything we’ve been given points to Stephanie ending up on a tribe with Morgan, then pulling a Sarah by befriending Morgan and taking her out. Morgan seems Survivor-savvy, and will no doubt be on high alert for this sort of maneuver (especially given that the last season they saw before going out there was Game Changers), so I’m not ruling out a reversal. But as of now, I’m expecting Morgan’s game to be torpedoed by Jacob (giving him three torch-snuffs to his credit; Gonzo was his victim, too).
6) The swap
I’m sticking with my pre-season prediction that we’re swapping into two tribes. There are showmances to cultivate and characters like Donathan to protect. Plus, given that this is happening only a week into the game, the end result of a two-tribe swap is that we could see more post-merge flexibility involving larger moving parts (everything would be more fragmented with tribes of six).
And really, it should be interesting: Even if Naviti ends up with a 5-4 majority on both tribes, there are purple people who might flip (Chris/Sebastian), and then there’s the possibility of Ghost Island leaving a tribe with a 4-4 tie.
There will undoubtedly be another swap ahead -- no way production sticks with the new tribes all the way to the merge -- and at that point, with relationships established and alliances entrenched, all bets are off. Swap at 15 with two tribes of 7 (with the extra player going to GI and joining the losing tribe)? Swap into three tribes at 16 or 15? Everything is in play. Which makes it fun, right? (And yet I worry about how many players will get screwed by a swap.)
7) Trending Up
Stephanie J: Pretty much everyone wrote her off as an annoying early boot. I had her getting to the end, but as an underestimated floater. We were all wrong. SJ is GOOD. She may still get marginalized after the merge if members of the original Naviti tribe have the numbers, but Stephanie is going to go down fighting. By far the best performance during the premiere.
Domenick: Give him grief for how he handled the fake idol situation with Chris, but at least Domenick was trying. The edit is telling us that he’ll be around for a while; he talks about his kids (family visit?), we got a ton of footage of his idol hunt and the aftermath (he’s at the heart of the only significant Naviti storyline), and he’s already in the double digits with the confessionals. (That said, when Chris can suss out that your story is suspect, you did something very, very wrong.)
Donathan: His first six days were objectively horrible: his head was on the chopping block, he let down his tribe at the challenge, and his visit to Ghost Island netted him nothing. Yet it’s clear that the show is invested in Donathan and his journey through the game. Usually, what we’re seeing is a results-oriented edit: “This player came in 7th place and had quite the story… so let’s put pieces of that in the early episodes to set up our payoff.” What’s intriguing about Donathan’s situation is that production went into the season with the intent of playing up Donathan’s fish-out-of-water narrative. How else to explain the audible Probst called during the challenge? He had a player actively refusing to help his tribe. Probst assessed the situation, and instead of mocking Donathan -- his usual M.O. for challenge ineptitude -- he decided to make this a moment about triumphing over adversity. I don’t see Donathan winning the game, but man is he going to get a great edit along the way.
Brendan: Apparently, on her way out, Gonzo described Malolo as “One lion, seven sheep.” Sounds about right. Stephanie J might have a thing or two to say about that before this whole thing is over, but for now, Brendan is in charge and not going anywhere (even after the swap, when he should be in trouble).
8) Trending Down
Chris: He was happy to accept the mantle of leadership… he failed to think through the puzzle-solving options (when you look at the members of Naviti, don’t you immediately assume the gangly guy in glasses can do puzzles? Or how about the goofy girl?)... and he forfeited the initial challenge without trying to share the blame with Desi (“Hey, what do you think? Do you have this? I’m sticking with you to the end, unless you tell me not to.”). He pretty much butchered the start of the game, and it didn’t get much better from there (stop fixating on voting out Domenick, especially when you haven’t had to go to Tribal yet).
James: 1) Pure panic in the water (which not only doesn’t bode well for future challenges, but also could have been edited differently to downplay his difficulty). 2) Brendan told the tribe that James “is all muscled up” but that he can’t see what he really offers the tribe. 3) He was far too willing to be the back-up boot because he choked in a challenge. Going to Andover and Harvard may mean you’re smart, but it doesn’t necessarily make you savvy.
9) Idol thoughts
** At some point, a sharp player is going to realize that EVERY idol out there is a relic… which means that it will be much harder to sell a fake idol as real (Domenick’s fake idol could be exposed this way, for example).
** Oddly enough, that may make real idols that look fake (such as Lauren Rimmer’s two-piece string-and-shell idol) and fakes that could be real this time (e.g. David Wright’s fake idol) more powerful… because they don’t look like something created by the art department.
** If you had an idol, and you weren’t sure if it was real or not, and it might be a Survivor relic… why not act like you’re going to throw it into the fire, to see if production stops you (since some of these things don’t belong to them)?
10) Rumor Has It…
… these people are playing this season:
Chelsea: I’m worried enough about my winner pick that I’m creating ridiculous rationalizations. She’s going to have a breakout third episode… there was no reason to focus on Naviti… she’s like Michele only they’re not going to make her win obvious by including pointless confessionals. Maybe there’s some truth here, but really, the premiere wasn’t a good look for her.
Bradley: Frankly, this one shocked me. Where’s the snark? The sarcasm? We were promised sarcasm and snark and the mocking of simple people! If we’re meant to enjoy his eventual comeuppance, we must first see why uppance must come! Anyway, Bradley’s silence adds some validity to the whole, “We’re going to ignore most of the Naviti tribe because their stories are defined after the swap” theory. But still, Bradley is out there to offer his opinions about everybody. Sigh. I guess we can hope he’ll inherit some of Jacob’s 7-confessionals-per-hour airtime.
Libby: Which is worse, being almost entirely invisible like Chelsea and Angela, or being seen on screen in the middle of strategy discussions, only to have production leave all of your confessionals on the cutting room floor? I say what happened to Libby is significantly more damning; her opinions should have mattered, but the show is saying they’re not. It’s looking more and more like she’s an easy boot not long after the merge.
Angela: It says something that I was about to skip her. She fits the silent Survivor stereotype perfectly, doesn’t she? Woman on a challenge-dominant tribe who doesn’t find an idol or have a meltdown. As soon as she gets a visibility spike, she’s going home.
11) Rumor Has It… Part II
Sebastian: When your entire storyline is “I’m with Chris,” you’re in trouble.
Laurel: She’s entirely defined by her friendship with Donathan. Doesn’t bode well.
Desiree: When someone with this much personality has so little screen-time, she’s probably not long for the game. (That said, at least one of these players is likely to be a slow burn… I hope it’s Chelsea, but I could see it being Desiree.)
12) The Little Things
** While Donathan was refusing to go into the water to help his tribe, we can hear Jenna and Libby offering encouraging words. If either of them were important to the overall story of the season, we would have gotten close-ups of them as they inspired Donathan into action.
** Sebastian’s voice drives me NUTS. It’s like he’s got a small amount of helium perpetually making the sound waves in his throat move faster. (On a related note, Google just taught me a lot about helium and how it changes the timbre of a voice.)
** It would have been interesting to see Sebastian or Michael try to “tortoise” the opening challenge rather than sprint like a hare and burn out. Of course, neither one would ever risk it; the optics would be awful. It would be fun to see the other players lose their minds when someone started doing it, though, wouldn’t it?
** We’ll be left to wonder what Donathan would have said about Ghost Island. Would he tell the tribe (in subtitles), “Jacob told the truth about the urns… my note said I didn’t get to play a game.” And would they believe him? (I’m assuming they don’t get to bring the urn note back with them; production wants the players open to scrutiny.)
** Know what would be interesting? If Donathan ends up turning on Laurel. It would combine the, “You’re my friend” scene with Donathan’s journey edit.
** With Malolo down in numbers and needing a miracle, what are the odds that one of them finds an idol after the swap, right when they need it?
13) Prediction time
Let’s start this by listing the factors in play:
** Naviti is up 10-8.
** There’s going to be a swap, and I’m sticking with the idea that it’ll be two tribes.
** Depending on how the swap plays out, Naviti will have the numbers advantage in one or both tribes. Plus, even if they’re down numbers in one of the new tribes, they’ll have a decided advantage when it comes to flipping players: the Malolo hierarchy has been established by going to Tribal, so it’s far easier for players to identify (and self-identify) who is on the bottom. (That said, I can see Chris and Sebastian flipping if they get the sense that Domenick and Wendell have control of Naviti.)
** Someone is getting sent to Ghost Island. The logic behind that choice will be fascinating. If you’re Naviti, do you send one of your own? It’s risky: not only will you be removing him or her from the early social politics of a newly swapped tribe, but you might be balancing the numbers in a truly dangerous way (changing a 5-4 numbers advantage into a potential 4-4 tie).
** You can’t send a former Malolo, though, and gift that player an advantage. So you sort of HAVE to send someone from Naviti.
** The thing is, you don’t want to hand a potentially dangerous strategist an unknown weapon, so you can’t send Bradley, Kellyn, or Morgan.
** Nor do you want to entrust a relic to an unknown quantity like Desiree, Angela, or Chelsea (admittedly, they’re unknown only insofar as we haven’t seen them… the astute members of Naviti should have a read on them).
** So we’re left with Sebastian and Chris… and I’d probably pick one of those two guys to send out there, trusting that they wouldn’t be able to hide the truth of what happened on GI, they wouldn’t know how to successfully use whatever they got, and the visit to GI would turn either of them into a target.
** On the flip side, if the original Malolos have a numbers advantage in a swapped tribe, and they win the reward/immunity challenge (depending on how someone is sent to GI this time around), they’d send a former Malolo… Brendan would pretty much insist on going, and if he’s not available, he’d want one of his lieutenants to be picked (Michael first and foremost).
** Here’s what I’m guessing happens: Naviti has a (well-earned) 5-4 advantage in each of the swapped tribes. They get to pick who goes to GI, and rather than let a Malolo go, they send one of their own. That creates a 4-4 tie in one of the tribes, and all hell breaks loose. (That would explain Morgan’s “Next Week On” confessional about everything going crazy.) Maybe idols are played… maybe votes are split… maybe some flipping occurs.
** No matter how the insanity plays out, there’s enough instability, doubt, and worry about who might have idols and advantages that the axe will fall on someone safe, someone outside of key alliances, someone unlikely to have a relic. In other words, someone who has an invisible edit.
** So once again, we’re looking at those players who have zero confessionals so far.
** We’ve seen Bradley on screen a couple of times talking strategy, so I’m ruling him out.
** Libby, too, has been shown talking enough that I feel she’ll be around for a bit.
** That leaves Chelsea and Angela.
** Chelsea got several shots in the opening that make me think her Survivor journey doesn’t end with her as forgettable third boot. Could be wishful thinking. But it feels right to me.
** While Chelsea was mostly invisible, Angela was INVISIBLE invisible.
** And if Angela goes, I’ll be 3-for-3 on boot predictions.
** So I’m going with an Angela exit.
** (But really, whichever one of these two gets a visibility spike first is going home.)
Andy Baker is a long-time, but definitely not long-winded, Survivor blogger.
Follow Andy on twitter: @SurvivorGenius