Jeff Pitman's Survivor 36: Ghost Island recaps

Four notes on reversing the cursed Ghost Island


As we hit its midpoint, Survivor: Ghost Island has achieved mixed results. As entertainment, Ghost Island has delivered, despite frustratingly by-the-numbers gameplay and a set of eliminations that has bordered on tragic. The main fault of the season thus far has been its titular theme: Ghost Island the place has been, thus far, pretty boring.


The season's clear strength has been its fantastic cast, even though seven episodes in, a significant portion of the best ones have already been removed from the game and sent off on their pre-jury trip. Thankfully, enough solid players remain, and are now armed with an arsenal of potentially game-changing set of powerful items and allies, that the second half of the season still shows a lot of potential.


The season's greatest success has been the decision to relocate and reuse iconic pieces of Survivor history—James Clement's unused China idol, Ozzy Lusth's/Jason Siska's "just a f***ing stick," the necklace Erik Reichenbach gave away in Micronesia—as hidden immunity idols. This whole-hearted embrace of the show's history has even inspired some elite gameplay, such as when Michael Yerger asserted that the China idol, which had left the game as part of an unused pair, had the power to protect two people. The idol actually didn't have those powers, and his play didn't succeed, but Michael's audacious gambit seemed like a fantastic bluff, nonetheless.


For all the promise the season still holds, however, Ghost Island as a game element has been... adequate, at best. There are parts that have been sort of fun (people getting to miss Tribal Council, and occasional deeper character moments as they reflect on their isolation), parts that have seemed poorly conceived (the "no game" urns), and in the worst cases, some parts that were just cheesy (the letters that accompany the game-winning items). Sadly, nothing about the island getaway has thus far leapt out as a must-have in future Survivor seasons.


Yet, as with any new Survivor game element (Exile Island, Redemption Island, Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty, Blood vs. Water), it's highly likely that Ghost Island will be used again, whether or not fans ultimately end up liking it. With Survivor 37 already filming, it's probably too late to change anything for that season. For all we know, Ghost Island is already back, and in exactly the same format. But maybe not, and since Survivor 38 won't film until after the Ghost Island finale airs, maybe there's still time to explore what's worked and what hasn't with Ghost Island—the island itself—in the hopes that someone with the power to make changes will read this and perhaps consider a tweak here or there. (Ha ha, nobody ever reads this.)


Problem 1: Ghost Island is neither spooky nor historical enough

Non-spooky Ghost Island


The problem:

We'll get to the inane letters describing how items have gained or lost powers while "living on Ghost Island" in a bit, but key to their usage has been the concept that Ghost Island is this ominous, foreboding place where the "Survivor gods" reign supreme. Initially, we were expecting to just roll our eyes and move on here, and declare that production overplayed the magical /mystical element (because as presented, it has seemed pretty dumb). Instead, we actually think that the show may not have leaned in hard enough on the magic. Ghost Island seems to have fallen into some uncanny valley, where it's neither demonstrably a "spooky playground," nor just a place where people go to cry, sleep, and eat extra rice.


Maybe it's all Josh Wigler's fault. His final First Out One episode went all-in on the "Ghost Island is really spooky, you guys" concept, and the delirious dream sequence at the end was an actual game-changing twist. That Ghost Island was fun, and weird, and steeped in Survivor history. Thanks for raising our expectations to stratospheric levels, Josh! Sadly, the Ghost Island the TV series has presented seems strangely muted and empty. Since Jacob's initial visit, not one person has mentioned any of the Survivor historical props populating the GI set.


The solution:

Amazon idolWhy not embrace and incorporate the various Ghost Island set decorations into the story in the same way the reborn-as-idols relics have been? For example, during confessionals, why not get a first-time Ghost Island attendee to reflect on the morbid nature of sleeping under Jeff Probst's personal snuffer collection? These 35 items officially ended the games of countless contestants, but have been barely even mentioned, despite appearing in six episodes. At this point, is anyone sure they're even still there?


But there's more: When Kellyn was vacillating on whether to play the game in Episode 4, the creepy tribal immunity idol from The Amazon was lingering there at the edge of the frame. Why not camp it up, and cut to a zoom in on the idol, as if it's silently judging/ tormenting her? Community did this super-effectively with a simple troll figurine in the "darkest timeline" segment of "Remedial Chaos Theory." When production makes no discernible effort to illustrate or personify the "Survivor gods" beyond lighting a few torches and planting giant plywood tikis at the entrance, it's really hard to feel any sense of foreboding. Especially when, three out of six times, there has been no game to play, no risk of anything being lost.


The embrace of history has felt so narratively enriching with the recycled immunity idols. It's a shame that it seems like such an afterthought with respect to all the relics at Ghost Island.


Problem 2: Ugh, those letters

Living on Ghost Island


The problem:

Again, absent some better sales job on why Ghost Island is anything other than a beach with a pre-made shelter, free fire, and tons of rice, the disconnect between Ghost Island the actual place and Ghost Island the scarily super-powerful idol-making factory makes the attempt at describing that process seem ludicrous. Especially when it's repeated three times in a single episode, as it was in Episode 7. For a thorough takedown of these "[this item] has slowly been maturing/ gaining powers on Ghost Island" letters, look no further than @AriFerarri's brilliant series of tweets from Wednesday night, such as this one, this one, and this one.



The solution:

Look, we get it. The show was trying to be "fun" and create a unifying theme. Even so, it would have been fine to simply describe how an item was misplayed originally, then stop at "can you reverse the curse?" Then describe the returning item's new power. The whole "gaining powers on Ghost Island" thing takes the whole experience into the realm of farce. Which is sad, because a lot of these are cool historical items, and they don't need to be sullied by "maturing on Ghost Island."


Especially, again, when the actual Ghost Island is just a drab, poorly lit hut with a few trinkets strewn about, where the only action is people crying.


The alternative: really amp up the efforts making Ghost Island out to be a forbidding location, one where the night is dark and full of terrors. This is probably more difficult to pull off, but it seems preferable to at least swing for the fences, then ditch the "spooky" narrative entirely in editing if it doesn't work, as opposed to this stumbling through a half-baked series of half-measures.


Problem 3: The items on Ghost Island are underwhelming



The problem:

We can set aside our gagging at the "gaining powers" garbage when it's a legitimately exciting relic, and when it's being turned into something really useful (i.e. all the hidden idols, which now number four). But it's much, much more difficult to extend that same nod of respect toward the items won at Ghost Island. Mainly because (1) the items are much less powerful, and (2) the narratives depicting them as "cursed" items are stretched so thin as to be ridiculous.


The first strain on believability came with the Legacy Advantage, which is actually a fairly useful item (even if only at two specific points in the game). So useful, in fact, that Sarah Lacina successfully used it to save herself at the Final six Tribal Council in Game Changers, a season that, incidentally, she also went on to win. Pretty difficult to see that as "cursed." Even so, if an item is coming back, it must be cursed... so the focus was instead shifted to Sierra Dawn Thomas's original discovery of the Legacy Advantage, and her unwise decision to tell Sarah about it. That immediately inspired Sarah to blindside Sierra and keep the Legacy Advantage for herself. You can sort of make yourself believe that maybe talking about the Advantage is cursed. Except, again, that Sarah then used that same item to win the game. Still, it's a simple hidden immunity idol that can be used at two specific Tribal Councils (F13 and F6). So it's somewhat useful, even if it's not that great (or memorable, since the Game Changers version was its second appearance), not to mention that Jacob was screwed by it when production forced him to will it to someone on the other tribe. (It's not the Sabrina Thompson idol!)


But the Legacy Advantage and its "curse" are storytelling home runs in comparison to the second item (in seven episodes) won at Ghost Island: the steal-a-vote extra vote. And not just any old extra vote that failed—which would literally be almost any other one—like Lauren Rimmer's unused one from HvHvH, or the ones Stephen Fishbach (Cambodia) and Dan Foley (Worlds Apart) used at the Tribal Councils in which they were voted out. No, this time, it's one that actually worked, *again* by Sarah Lacina, as she propelled herself to victory in Game Changers. How is this cursed? Sarah found it and then used it correctly. Oh... apparently it's cursed because Michaela didn't see it, and it was later used to vote Michaela out. *Sigh*. Okay. That's... quite a stretch.


Not only is the backstory highly suspect, but the producers also changed how it works, such that it's now exactly like the parchment Lauren stole in HvHvH, that she never used. Why not use that one, then? You, a smart person, answer: Because none of the Ghost Island contestants had seen HvHvH, since it filmed immediately before their season and hadn't yet aired. Duh! To which I, a jaded and incredulous person points out: Lauren's extra vote is right there on Dalton Ross's list of items that can be used this season!


It just makes absolutely no sense to try to shoehorn Sarah's, er "Michaela's" advantage into this specific role. (Setting aside that strategically, the extra vote is significantly more useful when it's able to be deployed in secret.) Also, as an audience member, it's extremely frustrating to (1) be reminded of Game Changers so frequently, and (2) see very recent Survivor history so willfully mangled and misconstrued just to force some not-that-memorable item to fit a stupid theme. Especially when there was another, even more recent item, with the exact history and prior rules they wanted just sitting there, waiting for a chance to leave the storage locker.


The solution:

If you're going to describe an item as cursed, at least use one that didn't work as intended the first time. Particularly when you have a different item in hand that has the exact history and powers you're looking for.


Still, maybe this will fix itself. There's a decent chance that we're being a bit hasty with Ghost Island-won item criticism in general. The season is only half over, and it seems likely that future items available on Ghost Island will be more powerful as the season progresses. So eventually something really worth having may well show up. But through the first half of the season, at least, the Ghost Island item-shopping spree has been both underwhelming and frustratingly obtuse in its historical exposition.


Problem 4: The "game" is boring and basic



The problem:

Guessing which bamboo tube contains the prize, no matter whether the odds are 1-in-2 or 2-in-3, is not scintillating television. It's the one-person version of the horrendous Loved Ones (draw two rocks and hope they match) reward "challenge" from Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers. By comparison, Wendell's finding an idol clue, then having to wait until his tribemates were dozing to dig up the idol itself, seemed much more high-stakes, and included multiple steps.


Also, until someone actually loses at this, there's always going to be a suspicion that there's not really any risk of losing here, and that the only real gatekeeping is whether or not someone gets to "play."


The solution:

Dalton Ross has some good suggestions this week—make the game a mini-challenge, or some kind of race against a clock. At least introduce some excitement. This would be a dramatic improvement.


Along these lines, since this is all held at Ghost Island, and Ghost Island already hosts a huge number of completely unused Survivor relics, why not incorporate those items into the game? Instead of just guessing which unmarked bamboo tube to open, let the superfans draw on their knowledge of the show, and pick one based on a clue: "An advantage awaits in the tube guarded by the tribal immunity idol from The Amazon. Can you recall it?" Have a couple of decoy idols on the other two tubes, and... voilà, a true test of Survivor history.


This would not require actual knowledge of Survivor history, since any player could simply guess. But it would reward actually being a fan of the show, which seemed like the point of filling this cast with such people. Instead, most of that history and knowledge seems to have received less on-screen recognition than Chelsea. Oh well.


Are idols really that important? (Spoiler: Yes)

Wendell and his idol


Lita Brillman was revisiting the gender disparity in idol finding this week on twitter, noting that this season (and last) have nothing to help the ratio, with 8 of 9 idols in HvHvH having been found by men, as have all four found so far this season. Dom and Colin discussed this further on their podcast this week. This seems like a good time to add some data to the discussion:


Below is a table tracking percent of hidden idols found per five-season span (to make the numbers less noise-prone, and quasi-meaningful). As you can see, while things didn't get off to a great start in the modern idol era (starting in Fiji), the balance of idol-finding power was actually pretty even between the sexes from Micronesia through Heroes vs. Villains, with women finding just under half the idols. A slight dip in the next five season (through Philippines), but still a fairly consistent and respectable discovery rate. (Just one more idol found by a woman would have matched the previous total and percent.)


Where things start to fall apart is from Caramoan through Worlds Apart, and beyond. As you see, the total number of idols found over this span almost doubled, while the number found by women conspicuously declined. From S26-S30, just three idols were found by women, and all were found in a less-than-39-day span between the merge of San Juan del Sur and the merge of Worlds Apart (the finders: Natalie Anderson, Carolyn Rivera, and Jenn Brown).


Things stayed bad over the next five-season stretch, with an almost four-season gap between the two Kelley Wentworth idols in Cambodia, and Lauren's ill-fated idol find in Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers. Unless you count the Legacy Advantages (which we probably should), both of which were found by women. Sadly, we're now halfway through Ghost Island, with now four idols found plus a Legacy Advantage, and all have been found by men. So... nothing to suggest that things are getting any more evenly distributed.


Gender bias in idol finding
Season range Total idols found Idols found by women % found by women
S14 - S15 5 0 0.0%
S16 - S20 13 6 46%
S21 - S25 13 5 38%
S26 - S30 21 3 14%
S31 - S35 26 + 2 LA 3 + 2 LA 12% (18% w/ LA)
S36 4 + 1 LA 0 0.0%
Totals 82 + 3 LA 17 + 2 LA 21% (22% w/ LA)


Why does this matter? Simply put: Because eight of the last nine winners, from Tyson Apostol in Blood vs. Water through Ben Driebergen in HvHvH, have all played an idol (or Legacy Advantage). Michele Fitzgerald's Kaoh Rong win is the sole exception, but she received a special Tribal Council dedicated solely to using her challenge-won advantage to remove Neal Gottlieb from the jury. That's probably as juror-entertaining as an idol play.


That alone is a simple correlation, not necessary implying causality. But the case for causality gains strength when you break down wins by finalists who played idols vs. finalists who didn't:


From BvsW through HvHvH, there were four times when a finalist who had played an idol (in front of the jury) faced one or more finalists who hadn't: Tyson*, Tony, Natalie, and Jeremy (*Tyson did let Gervase play his idol for himself). All four won, and they received 30 jury votes total, vs. 4 total spread across their seven opponents.


There were also four times where the winner played an idol (or Legacy Advantage) against at least one opponent who had also played an idol: Mike (vs. Carolyn), Adam (vs. Ken), Sarah (vs. Troyzan), and Ben (vs. Ryan). With the exception of Carolyn, who saved herself, the non-winner's idol plays were ineffective: Troyzan wasn't even voted against, and neither Ryan nor Ken would have been voted out had they not played (Ken had no choice, because it was the Legacy Advantage). In contrast, the winners all made big, effective plays (Adam's play for Hannah only looked ineffective after the fact), and they were rewarded for it: 28 jury votes, against just 2 for their less-effective idol-playing opponents, and 6 for their non-idol-playing ones. (Carolyn was unfairly overlooked here, and then was overlooked again in the Second Chance voting.)


Making flashy, successful idol plays has clearly correlated tightly with winning over the past five years. We are absolutely in the Big Moves™ Era of Survivor. But why is the total number of idols being found going up at the same time the number of women finding them is decreasing? Especially when, from Micronesia through Philippines, there didn't seem to be any real imbalance? Something changed, but it's not immediately clear what that is, nor how to fix it.


Sorry that we don't have any answers here, but please feel free to speculate/expound on your own theories in the comments.


Shorter takes

Foreshadowing Island


  • One more time and we'll develop a complex: It's really weird how both times Kellyn has visited Ghost Island, the cameras have chosen to zoom in on the "One bad decision..." sign, with Kellyn in the foreground. It's almost like they're trying to tell us something. What could it possibly be?


  • A chilling vision of things to come: Bradley raised a grim topic in his exit interviews. He said Chelsea was spreading paranoia that Bradley was specifically targeting parents (Brendan and Stephanie) because they would be more difficult to beat in the finals. Given that parents were already dramatically outnumbered to begin with on the cast (just 4/20), is this notion the eventual backlash to Jeremy's win in Cambodia? Bradley says he wasn't actually doing this, but the fact that it seemed plausible is worrisome for any parents considering playing. On that happy note, we're done.




This week, the slow-rolling Survivor NZ: Thailand cast reveal took away any time we had for a vidcap gallery. Eh, it's probably for the best.


Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff 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 Episode 7 recaps and analysis


Exit interviews - Bradley Kleihege

  • Gordon Holmes at (4/5/18): "Bradley - 'I Was Perceived as a Big Threat in the Game'"
  • Dalton Ross at (4/5/18): "A 'devastated' Bradley names who is not actually playing the game"
  • Josh Wigler at The Hollywood Reporter (4/5/18): "Bradley Breaks Down That Baffling Blindside"
  • Mike Bloom at (4/5/18): "Bradley Kleihege dishes the dirt on his game"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (4/5/18): "Latest Exit Interview - 4/05/18"