“Walking truly into the unknown” pretty well sums up a Survivor premiere. For weeks now, we on the Internet have been reading, writing, watching videos, and listening to podcasts trying to predict everything that’s going to happen during the season before the first minute airs. It’s a fun game we like to play so that on the off chance we’re right we can say, “See!? I knew it!” When we’re wrong, we’re not as vocal about it… funny how that works. However, I like to be wrong when it comes to Survivor because it means something unexpected happened. With so much mystery surrounding Ghost Island itself, this season more than any other will have so many twists and turns (or “pivots” if you’re coming into this on the heels of Celebrity Big Brother) that we’ll be in for a bounty of blindsides. For this specific season, I’ve come to terms with the fact that we’re in for idols and advantages galore, so let the crazy-ass ride commence!
REVERSE THE CURSE
Wasting zero time on names and introductions (because who needs those anymore when we’ve got all kinds of new twists we’d rather get to know?) Jeff got right to explaining the premise of this season which is all about mistakes made by the ghosts of players past and reversing the curses cast by them. Knowing how the game works, 19 of these 20 new castaways will add to that long list of mistakes, but let’s not dwell on that – it kind of kills the mood.
After a set of dramatic overreactions to Jeff saying, “reverse the curse,” he emphasized decisions and the ability to make the right decisions at the right time, announcing that the first major decision of the game was to be made immediately. The Malolo and Naviti tribe were instructed to select one person to represent each of their tribes. The word “leader” wasn’t specifically mentioned, but that’s naturally where minds were surely going with this. Unsurprisingly, Malolo chose Brendan who looked to be the only person with actual leadership experience on the tribe, and Naviti chose Chris, the tall, handsome guy with the golden hair who probably excelled at everything in life (another clear selection).
Like the last time we saw this opening in Samoa, the two totally-not-leaders were tasked to choose two individuals to compete in the season’s first challenge which involved both a physical and a mental component. Not knowing he had a track star in his midst (again, introductions—who needs 'em?), Brendan chose Michael as Malolo’s runner and Laurel to solve the puzzle. Chris picked Sebastian to run and Desiree to work the puzzle. Before Chris called out who he wanted on the puzzle, we saw Morgan rush to duck behind Angela to avoid being picked for the puzzle, which was more terrifying to her than anything that could have lived on Ghost Island—I would have done the same but during the runner selection.
The tribes competed for reward but, of course, with a twist! The winning tribe would take everything – rice, fishing gear, shelter-building materials, and even 20 chicken eggs (didn’t Jeff say somewhere this cast would start with less than ever before?) while the losers would only walk away with some rice, a pot to cook it in, and a machete. The twist was that once both tribes are on the puzzle, Chris or Brendan could make a unilateral decision to forfeit the challenge but guarantee themselves fishing gear. Of course, in another twist (sensing a pattern here?), they’d only have a limited amount of time to do so before they were committed to finishing the challenge.
Sebastian and Michael came out of the gates quick as they fetched their tribe’s keys to unlock the puzzle board. The length of the course didn’t look terribly long, but by the end of the third run back to the start, the dudes were dead. At one point, Michael looked like the Tin Man competing in a 100-meter hurdle dash before finally making it back to Malolo’s mat. Between Laurel and Desiree on the puzzle, I honestly couldn’t tell who had the lead, but Chris felt unsure enough in Desiree’s ability to finish before Laurel that he pulled the board out from under her, handing the win to Malolo but also securing a small reward for Naviti.
Domenick wasn’t afraid to admit that given a second chance, he’d make different choices than Chris, proclaiming that he was “a truth-teller.” “I don’t lie,” he added. Alright, Dom. We’ll get back to you in about an hour to discuss your “alternate truths” then.
BEST TRIBE EVER
After being handed a win, Malolo was logically calling themselves the best tribe ever. A rah-rah-kumbaya huddle commenced in which Michael told his tribe that he was a 23-year-old real estate agent from L.A. Unknown to them, he was actually 18. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have questioned that statement from Michael. If nothing else, he made a much more convincing case of being 23 than I ever could have at 18. Hell, I still get ID’d sometimes and I’m pushing 26. At 18, I would have more easily passed for still being in the early onset of puberty. Genes are great!
Adding to the commentary on genetics, Jacob remarked that there were a lot of abs at camp which made him feel a little out of place with his lonely one-pack. This is widely accepted the hottest cast ever, and if their gameplay is half as hot, we’re in for a good show. That said, only a few managed to get some decent attention in these first two hours. Going into the season, the cast showed a lot of potential, and it’s still early, but I’m not sure how many big, bright stars we saw emerge from this premiere (and survive it, at least).
One star, however, who is going to be around for a long while is Donathan. Almost every cast has someone who’s a fish out of water that ends up finding confidence deep within and going deep into the game. Malolo had two to potentially fulfill that hero story, but Donathan’s sweet, Southern charm seemed to win out over Jacob’s… “special” quality as Gonzalez so eloquently put it.
The editors may even end up winning an Emmy for their editing job of subtitling over everything Donathan says if he sticks around for as long as I think he will. Where he may lack in physical strength, he more than makes up for with his strong personality, something that can get a player further in the game than any set of arm muscles or an eight-pack. Only some are lucky to be blessed with all of the above.
I managed to make it about a sixth of the way into this before the first Debbie appearance of the season. I’m really starting to hold back, aren’t I? Also, I’m clearly missing something about James who Donathan described as “exotic.” Whenever I hear that word, I default to think “exotic dancer” so I can’t help but to imagine James performing some wild, exotic dance that was tragically abandoned on the editing room floor.
THIS COULD BE REALLY STUPID
Later, Malolo introduced us a little more to the smartest person ever on the greatest tribe ever, Jacob. If this was a baseball game, we may have needed a bigger scoreboard to track all of the errors Jacob made in this premiere. To lead off, Jacob lost his shoes to the tide as he foolishly left them to be washed in the ocean. Now, he’s only 21, so Jacob could just be one of those millennials who still has his mom do his laundry and thought, “Hey, I know she washes my clothes in ‘tide’ – maybe this is what that means.” I don’t know. Regardless, that cruel ocean pulled a Rupert and stole poor Jacob’s shoes right from under him.
Next on his checklist of “things to never do on Survivor,” after discussing the possibility of idols hidden at camp with a few of his tribemates, Jacob immediately decided to go “exploring” in the woods, alone. “Don’t mind me guys. I’m just going to wander off for a few hours. This has absolutely nothing to do with the hidden immunity idols we were talking about literally seconds ago.” Yeah, real convincing.
When Jacob returned from his inconspicuous walkabout, the rest of the tribe decided to follow in his footsteps and do a little “exploring” themselves. Alone, again, Jacob thought to check the tribe’s rice supply for a clue by filtering the rice in and out of his sock. Uhhhh, gross. I can’t imagine the horrified looks on the rest of the Malolo tribe’s faces as they watched this episode, learning that they had eaten out of Jacob’s sock. We’ve heard the expression “eating out of the palm of his hand,” but Jacob created a new one here as he had his tribe eating out of the ball of his foot. Jacob quickly proved to be quite a terrible player, but great TV!
DOM MAY BE DOOMED
In a premiere that focused heavily on a select few individuals, there were some key moments which pointed to who else may be in the game for a while. Kellyn had a small confessional at the opening segment at Naviti, telling us she had recently made some major life changes and was ready for this adventure to begin. Given that Naviti’s screen time was devoted mostly to the boys the rest of the night, I found this small insert important in reminding us to pay some attention to Kellyn.
Domenick quickly stole the show and became the loudest voice at camp. With his construction background, it was obvious he’d take the lead in establishing Naviti’s campsite, but I didn’t expect Dom to dominate so much of the early conversation. Looking at the demographics of the tribe, I expected him to think to blend in, but he seemed very comfortable being at the center of the attention. That said, he did give some attention to Sebastian in the form of the nickname “Sea Bass” which, as a lover of all things punny, made me chuckle. I look forward to more dad jokes from Domenick.
Chris got the real scoop on Sebastian’s name when he asked about it later, to which I really hoped Sebastian was going to reply with an explanation about his mom being a huge fan of The Little Mermaid, naming his sister Ariel and brother Flounder. But no, he was just named after a boring landmark or something. If it were me, I’d roll with the Jamaican crab story. It’s funnier.
When Chris and Sebastian bonded over their Florida upbringing, Sebastian revealed he was “immediately attracted.” Blossoming (b)romances like these are the reason I still watch the show after all these years (gag). Sebastian managed to spoil the mood for me though with a Ryan Ulrich-inspired analogy of him and Chris being like two kids in candy shop picking out gummies for each other…like what? After that, I just couldn’t get over the image of the two guys dressed up as kids from the Lollipop Guild.
One person the guys weren’t crushing much for was Domenick. Chris felt that Domenick fit the bill for someone that would target himself and Sebastian later in the game. Guys like Domenick usually keep guys like Chris and Sebastian around only to cut them right after the merge, so I saw the logic in that. I’m not sure if I thought best move was to go after Domenick this soon only because it would then make Chris and Sebastian even larger targets, but that may have also just been the bias in me not wanting my #1 TDT draft pick to be a goner before the season’s first commercial break.
Later, Wendell tried to derail the Domenick hate train after Sebastian informed him of the plan to knock Domenick out first. Wendell had taken a liking to Domenick which made sense – Domenick constructs buildings and Wendell fills them. I don’t think Wendell was intentionally selling Sebastian out, and Chris by association, but this intel definitely lit a fire under Domenick. Wendell actually set himself up in a decent spot if both sides in the Domenick-Chris clash trust him, but only so long as neither one forces him to choose one side over the other. Then Wendell may have to worry.
IMMUNITY – 1, 2, 3, PULL!
Luckily, I’m not someone who watches the show just for the challenges (like my grandma who fast forwards through most everything but “the games”) because if I was, I’d be a little underwhelmed. I don’t totally mind that the show is taking up permanent residency in Fiji, but all these elaborate obstacle courses with some variety of a puzzle at the end are starting to blend together for me. It doesn’t help when the same color scheme is used every other season too. Also, the new immunity idol looked… plain. A simple sheet with some nose and eye cutouts draped over a stump may could have been more fitting with the theme.
What I did like about this challenge (yes, there was something) was that Naviti won. It felt painfully obvious that Domenick was going to be the one in the hot seat during the first vote, so I was pleasantly surprised when Malolo lost and we had to instead look to the other tribe for the first boot. Plus, to make things even more interesting, one of them would be getting a free pass to the next round by being sent off to Ghost Island for the night.
Jacob’s move to get himself sent to Ghost Island would have been brilliant if he had zipped his lips after his wish was granted. Jacob went on to explain the mess of logic behind his showboating and told Naviti that they fell right into his trap by giving him immunity and a trip to Ghost Island. So not only did Malolo confirm Jacob was nuts—now Naviti was fully aware as well. Jacob must have been hoping to find something really spectacular on the island if he was willing to wreck his reputation in front of the entire cast on Day 3.
WELCOME TO GHOST ISLAND
While I didn’t like the idea of a new idol or other advantage in play every week, I did like the idea of Ghost Island paying tribute to 35 prior seasons of an amazing game and television show. Knowing Jacob was such a big fan of the game and was in a precarious position on his tribe, I definitely think he was the perfect person to be the first to trek the terrain of Ghost Island.
With a Jigsaw-esque question of “Would you like to play a game?” presented to Jacob, he of course took the risk and was paid with a reward. Now, I’m not one to say Survivor is rigged, but I wouldn’t doubt that Jacob was destined for a key no matter what he decided, so long as he decided to play. The test, I believe, was to see whether Jacob would or would not agree to play the game of “chance” rather than whether or not he’d choose the correct key box. That still involved an element of chance, but a lesser chance that the entire setup for the season would be a flop because someone picked the box on the right instead of the left.
Jacob “won” Sierra’s Legacy Advantage from Game Changers (which ended up correctly played that season by Sarah, so kind of not the biggest of mistakes) but it wasn’t his to use—only to will to someone on the Naviti tribe. Jacob selected Morgan for she was someone who he saw as a potential ally later in the game. And with that, the mystery surrounding Ghost Island had been solved! Done. Twist over. That’s a wrap – see you in the fall for Jeff’s next big idea!
With Jacob no longer in the running for first boot, Malolo weighed their options, almost literally. The tribe contemplated voting out Donathan because he was physically the weakest and one of the smallest, while on the other side of the scale, Stephanie a.k.a. Gonzalez was being eyed for being a bigger threat later in the game. At one point, Stephanie Johnson suggested they keep Donathan who, being a “little person,” would be good to shove into something later. I chalked this up to Stephanie being a little on the crazy side, but when I rewatched the episode, I realized she had a point. See for yourself:
All joking aside, size mattered for Malolo, but they had yet to determine if they wanted bigger or smaller. Time to decide was ticking too as their first date at tribal council was looming. I was actually pretty surprised by Stephanie in this pre-tribal segment. I fully expected her to be this larger than life personality who would be unable to control herself in the game, but it appeared that she was actually the one with the most control over this vote. One thing was certain: she wasn’t going to be the first boot like I thought she was.
THE GAME’S GETTING STARTED
The tribe continued to weigh physical strength against social and strategic strength with Stephanie again at the center of it all and sounding like she was more in support of social/strategic strength (i.e. keeping Donathan). Some of the looks Gonzalez was getting at tribal council also supported that she was potentially the personality fit problem Stephanie was hinting at. Feeling uncomfortable, Gonzalez proceeded to stand up and move over to Brendan and Michael to confirm the vote. I knew that the big Game Changers tribal council would lead to more of this activity which would be exciting if relevant, but this can’t become a trend where anytime someone questions loyalties, they jump from ear to ear before the vote. Gonzalez was about to be voted out 8 to 1. Showing this commotion was unnecessary.
Gonzalez, or “Conzolus” per Donathan’s Sue Hawk-style vote, was a surprising first boot for me. She acknowledged looking like a girly girl, but I thought her tomboyish tendencies would allow her to fit in with the guys. Something had to have gone down besides just her being “too strong” or Donathan being a skilled contortionist. Maybe we missed some personality clashes or maybe the tribe was intimidated by Gonzalez’s chronic RBF (resting bitch face – it’s okay Gonz, I suffer from it too). Bottom line: Gonzalez got outplayed by Donathan in the most important game: the social game.
DIGGING IN THE DARK
Somebody explain to me how Domenick found this hidden immunity idol in the dark without a clue. Surely players aren’t allowed to ask the cameramen to follow them around with the light of their camera helping them spot an idol, so this smelled just a little fishy, and it wasn’t Sea Bass. Maybe it was early evening or early morning when it wasn’t completely dark so the filter was all camera magic. Whichever way he found it, Domenick was on the rise with his new “tainted idol” that previously left the game in Andrea’s Boehlke’s bag.
Speaking of powers tucked away in bags, the next morning Morgan found the Legacy Advantage gifted to her by Jacob. While it may seem a little on the corny side, the Survivor geek in me does find it pretty cool that all the idols and advantages are the originals and aren’t just replicas. Seeing them resurface is neat enough, so I’m sure actually getting to hold them was something truly special (and spooky).
Two paragraphs ago I said Domenick was on the rise, but I’m now going to retract that statement. What a freakin’ rollercoaster he was this first week. Him lying to Chris about not having an idol then showing Chris that he had an idol, but a fake one he made, left me completely confused. If he wanted to earn Chris’s trust, why not just show Chris the real thing? If he didn’t want Chris knowing he had a real idol, why would he tell Chris he did have one? This just seemed kind of dumb, Dom, and Chris was just as skeptical of the scheme as I was. I’m trying to make a good first impression here at TDT but you’re making me look a little dumb myself in saying you’re the guy to beat in all of this…
ONE BAD DECISION CAN HAUNT YOU FOREVER
Or in Jacob’s case, like 30 bad decisions. Before he left Ghost Island, Jacob mocked up a nice little fake immunity idol and claimed it to be what he found during his time away from Malolo. He had a great, convincing story to share because 99% of it was the truth, but rewriting one key detail was what made this a bad move for Jacob. He wanted his tribe to think he had an idol so they wouldn’t vote for him, but without a note to prove anything, the tribe wasn’t totally buying that Jacob’s idol was legit.
Even if they did buy it, they still had the numbers to split the votes which would have still been horrible for Jacob considering he didn’t actually have an idol that would nullify them. It’s like he told the tribe, “It’s okay if you vote for me. I’ll just use my idol.” With a tribe this big, it’d be way too easy to devise a solid plan for a vote split, so who wouldn’t take the shot at the guy with the idol to make him prove his word? Oy, Jacob.
IMMUNITY – BUOY, OH BUOY
I was really disappointed that no one pulled a Will Sims and dead-fished their way down the slide obstacle. For all the people in this cast that say they’re fans, I no longer believe a word of it.
The real challenge in this proved to be James’s ability to dive down and release a set of buoys. The camera angle may have been deceptive, but from where I was sitting in the judgmental comfort of my home, it looked like those levers were maybe…12 feet? That even seems generous – not much of a deep dive if you ask me. Poor James took a lot of heat for not being able to perform here, but for as easy as Donathan made it look when he went back in the water for James, what the hell was he doing sitting on the sideline for so long?
Jeff later made a comment at tribal council about the tribe underperforming with the exception of Donathan, and while he did have his hero moment, it sure seemed like it could have occurred a lot sooner and saved Malolo from a loss. Did no one question that, or have we just set the achievement bar extremely low? What’s next, ecstatic cheers for Bradley when he’s able to solve a puzzle after finding the courage to put on his glasses? So brave.
Anyway, Donathan’s miraculous save was too little too late and Malolo, a.k.a. the greatest tribe ever, lost for the second time in a row. This time, however, Naviti chose to send Donathan to Ghost Island. Jacob thought it was going to be him judging by the rather smug look on his face turning appalled when the other tribe called out Donathan’s name instead. JACOB. IS. WRONG. AGAIN.
Donathan’s trip to Ghost Island was less eventful than Jacob’s. After smashing the second urn, Donathan’s note boldly declared, “NO GAME FOR YOU” as if written by Ghost Island’s version of the Soup Nazi. Donathan did, however, gain something from the experience by proving to himself and others that he could be a “mountain man” and make it in the wild on his own by gathering wood, making fire, and cooking rice.
I like to imagine that literally everything on Ghost Island is from Survivor’s past. What if all the rice there was salvaged from Brandon Hantz and J’Tia’s respective meltdowns in the Philippines, or if all the firewood was collected from the remnants of Butch’s inferno in The Amazon? I’m totally right, right?
BIG HAIR, BIGGER MOUTH
What I thought would be a slam dunk Jacob boot, with a few votes thrown at James for taking a nosedive – or rather no dive – in the challenge turned out to be a fascinating pre-Tribal scramble. Brendan, Stephanie, and Michael met to discuss the vote which is telling of where the three stood in the tribe, and after settling on Jacob, Stephanie offered to buddy up with him just so they could be aware of what he was plotting. Stephanie displayed a fierce flirt game and if she was looking for a husband out there, she probably could have found one, but it was clear this mom was only focused on one thing: bringing home the million dollars for her kids.
Stephanie dominated the major strategy talks of Malolo which again took me by surprise. Going into the night, I was dreading Stephanie being the first boot, but after all was said and done, I think she proved to be the most well-positioned person in her tribe which gave me great pleasure as it meant she may actually be able to last for a long time in this game. She was far more cunning and crafty than I expected her to be, and I loved every second of watching her shine as bright as those neon pants.
I would say that Jacob offering up everything he had to Stephanie was a mistake, but it damn-near turned everything in his favor. Once Stephanie realized Jacob trusted her completely, she considered the notion of switching the vote to Michael and keeping Jacob around as someone she could nurture and use to her advantage. Jenna and Laurel seemed open to the idea of the flip as well, so with James they could have secured enough votes to make it all happen. Suddenly this vote was shaping up to be a beautifully big blindside against “the strong and the beautiful” which was a bit odd to hear given that the title could describe well over half the cast, but here it specifically was referring to Michael, Brendan, and Libby.
NEUROTIC, PARANOID, INDOOR KID
I found it comically sad that James seemed to be the only one giving himself so much grief about losing the challenge for Malolo. I suppose that’s a decent strategy to garner sympathy – which wasn’t his intent I believe, but it still effectively achieved that. The rest of the tribe wasn’t dwelling much on it, and whenever they were, it felt as though it was to throw certain individuals off the scent of the true scheme.
Stephanie once again spoke a lot for the tribe, but Jacob of course was the biggest voice before the vote. I’m sure he knew he was in danger, but he kept a steady composure (for Jacob) which had me convinced even more that he was probably safe. On the other end of the tribe, Michael looked too steady so I really felt that blindside brewing. When Brendan whispered in Michael’s ear that he thought they were being set up, I felt like that was the last straw. To my surprise, and disappointment, it actually ended up being a straightforward vote for Jacob, with two votes on James to dodge any funky idol play.
Jacob definitely took the most crap from me this week, but given he did the most of anyone, he was asking for it. Despite being a little dickish at his expense, I thoroughly enjoyed Jacob’s presence in this premiere and it would have been way less exciting without him. I really wish he’d have stayed because that would have made this two-hour event end on a big high, but there’s also a bit of satisfaction in him leaving too. As I said earlier, he was a perfect player to introduce us to Ghost Island which gave him a huge opportunity to be involved in the game, and if his time was limited anyway, I’m glad he got to do as much as he did. Great player? No, but Jacob was an exciting one to watch. He came in, made some moves that didn’t pan out, but at least he tried. He was a huge character, so I can see why the edit milked him for all that he had in his short stay. All I can hope now is that without that big fro to hide behind, some other players can emerge as the stars for the rest of the season as Jacob could have been.
NEXT TIME ON SURVIVOR…
Well, these tribes were fun while they lasted. I see no sense in trying to predict exactly what happens next seeing as we have new tribes, and we could also see new names that literally were not uttered once this entire episode. I think Bradley, Angela, and Chelsea got the biggest shafts – Bradley said a few words, Angela maybe said one or two in addition to a few key looks, but Chelsea? I’m not even sure if she ever made it on-screen. Eliza, Andrea, Sierra, and Sarah got more screen time than these three and they aren’t even on this season! I’ll be sorely disappointed if they or anyone else end up as the real ghosts of Ghost Island after all is said and done.
Jacob – Gone but will not be forgotten. I thought he’d be able to integrate himself well, but he failed spectacularly and while it was hard (at times, downright painful) to watch, I’d say he was A+ casting. He was fun, energetic, ready to play, and fit perfectly into the Ghost Island premise, both being involved in trying to reverse the curse while becoming cursed himself. Jacob was absolutely the star of the premiere and will be missed.
Stephanie – Complete 180 from what I anticipated her being. This woman is a BOSS. I guess I kind of thought that before, but what I didn’t think was that she’d be such a strategic and social powerhouse. From all I could see, Stephanie was the one calling the shots at Malolo. I totally owe her the same apology letter like I owed Chrissy last season for thinking she’d be an early boot—I no longer think she will be. Plus, she’s one of the few with some actual highlights from the night which leads me to believe she’ll be important this season. The neon made her hard to miss before, but now I’ve really got my eyes on Stephanie!
Domenick – Dominate is a more appropriate name for him. I’m not sure if he’ll Tony his way to the end or flame out early, but he’ll definitely be a big presence. Chris and Sebastian have his number, but Wendell was a key element to that story which makes me think Domenick may be okay. I was definitely not expecting him to go into the game guns blazing, so that was a surprise. Cool down buddy—I’ve got bragging rights at stake over you!
Donathan – D’awwnathan, Survivor’s newest sweetheart. Donathan’s clearly the one that’s supposed to have our hearts, but I tend to be bored of edits like his because I’m heartless. I guess I shouldn’t say that because I definitely used the word “love” to describe watching Stephanie (and those who know me know how I feel about Debbie) but I’d love Donathan more if he shockingly turned out to be some kind of Fairplay in Tai clothing. That’s probably asking a lot, but I still expect to see a lot more of D’awwnathan in the episodes to come.
Kellyn – Kellyn wasn’t flashy like the four names above and she wasn’t someone who needed to be shown at all, so it’s intriguing to me that she was. She wasn’t directly tied to any of the active stories this episode, but she was the first person we heard from and we got to learn a little about her personal story of why she was on the island. I’m still expecting big things from Kellyn, and her few but important scenes reminded me to keep thinking that.
Ryan Kaiser has been a lifelong fan of Survivor since the show first aired during his days in elementary school, and he plans to one day put his money where his mouth is by competing in the greatest game on Earth. Until that day comes, however, he'll stick to running his mouth here and on Twitter: @Ryan__Kaiser