Wendell didn’t win.
I’m not talking about the million dollars. Wendell and Domenick remain the clear frontrunners for the title of Sole Survivor that will be bestowed next Wednesday. (It’s not like I see an Angela clean sweep of the jury coming anytime soon.) But when it comes to this latest immunity challenge, Wendell didn’t win it. He may have finished first, but he didn’t win. He wasn’t robbed. He wasn’t ignored. He wasn’t screwed over. He just lost.
Let’s backtrack a bit in case you stumbled across this Survivor recap and have no idea what I’m talking about. (Warning: Even if you watched the episode you will often have no idea what I’m talking about.) The contestants were in the middle of an immunity challenge that ended in a slide puzzle, and the first person to finish it would win immunity — or so we thought.
Wendell went into this portion of the challenge with a huge lead. Yanny was the third person to start on the puzzle, but she had the advantage of having worked on it before at the opening marooning challenge. (By the way, not a fan of recycling the same puzzle twice in one season. Not sure the thinking behind that one.) After sliding back and forth like we wanted to cha-cha real smooth, Wendell appeared to have the puzzle solved. He paused, looked it over, and extended his arms to the side.
Then, out of nowhere, Yanny yelled “Jeff!” He came over, looked at her puzzle and called her the winner. But was she?
“I guess I had to scream your name,” protested Wendell mildly.
“What? Did you call me?” asked Probst.
“I didn’t call you,” admitted Wendell.
“Well, you gotta call it,” said Probst. “Wendell, you understand, right? Because a puzzle’s not done until you tell me.”
At this point, Yanny entered the fray, explaining that she also had it and could have called it earlier as well. But Wendell wasn’t having that. “100 percent I had it before you,” he insisted. “But you called it first, so the ruling is you got it.”
Wendell — who, to his credit, did not push the matter further — is right, and so is Probst. Anyone who has watched a lot of Survivor (and Wendell definitely falls into that category) knows you have to call Jeff over once you are done to get a ruling on if your puzzle is correct. Unless he goes full Orphan Black and clones himself, there’s no way Probst can be in 7 places at once and have eyes on all the puzzles, so the rule is, once you’re done, call him over and get a ruling.
While it would have been interesting to watch Wendell contest the results — and now is a good time to point out that there is a CBS standards and practices rep on hand for all challenges to make sure everything is completely on the level — he knew deep down he had no case. Also, if you go back and watch it, you can see what Wendell is pretty clearly doing is double-checking his work. It’s not like he was done, looked up, and simply forgot to call out “Jeff.” His eyes are still down and he’s checking to make sure he indeed has it before calling Jeff over. In that time, Yanny called the host and won the challenge — totally fair and square.
Think of it this way: If you’re playing a game show like, say, Jeopardy, it’s not the person that knows the answer…or the question in this case, since it is Jeopardy — God, should have picked a less annoying example. Anyway, it’s not the person that knows the question first that wins; it’s the person who buzzes in with that question. Calling Jeff is the Survivor equivalent of buzzing in. That’s what Yanny did. She buzzed in. And she won.
But here’s where things get even more interesting, and not just because I am moving off of that terrible Jeopardy example I trapped myself in. Because Wendell did not win immunity, he was now vulnerable. If he continued to feel safe in his alliance he would not play his idol and could be blindsided right out of the game! Now was Yanny’s chance! Not even she could pass up such a golden opportunity! Here, she’s going to tell us right now exactly how she is about to slice and dice the biggest threat in the game right out of it. Let’s take a listen… “I had been thinking I got to get Wendell out of here tonight, but I want to do it the right way. He did finish first today and he could have won immunity. It almost doesn’t feel right to send him home.”
That thumping sound you hear is a million palms simultaneously hitting a million foreheads in shock and despair. But I am going to say something super radical and crazy and controversial that may cause you to click away from this recap and never return. Yanny may actually be correct. This may not have been the time to take Wendell out because of the circumstances. But not for the reason she says. Hear me out on this before you come for me with your torches and pitchforks.
If you’re frustrated by Yanny saying she didn’t want to vote Wendell out because it didn’t “feel right” after what happened at the challenge, you should be. Because you’re probably thinking: So what?!? Who cares if it feels right? Do you want to win or not?!? Suck it up and write his name down! That was probably your reaction and it was my first take as well. But maybe she is on to something. Let’s dig a little deeper. It doesn’t matter how Yanny feels about it. That means nothing. But how would the jury feel about it? Because that is a different story altogether.
Lets go back to Survivor: Caramoan. I know! I know! You hate Survivor: Caramoan. It reminds you of Shemar, and Brandon Hantz, and other unspeakable things that I, as the world’s foremost Caramoan apologist, promised to never discuss again in these here pages. But let’s ignore all that and talk about Dawn and Brenda for a minute. Remember when Dawn lost her false front teeth and Brenda found them? And remember when Brenda then chose Dawn to join her on the Loved Ones reward? And remember when Dawn then repaid those favors by voting her out, like, the next day?
Dawn was destroyed by both the jury and Survivor fans for being so cruel as to play the game they all signed up to play. I also argued against Dawn’s move then, but not because she crossed any sort of moral lines. That’s ridiculous. This is Survivor, so get that nonsense out of my face. I just knew that the jury would vote on emotional grounds against her if she did it. But she did, and they did. Instead of viewing it as a shrewd game-move, they chose to question Dawn on moral grounds — calling her hypocritical because of her religion, which was flat-out absurd. (Should folks that are religious be held to a different standard than atheists or agnostics in this game? I say HELL TO THE NO!)
Anyway, I bring all that up because when Wendell let everyone know that he had finished the puzzle first, he put Yanny in a real bind. How would the jury have reacted if she had gone ahead and slit his throat right after gaining an immunity that the others there may have believed Wendell actually won? We assume Yanny can’t beat Wendell at the end, but was she now in a position where she also couldn’t win if she took him out here?
Don’t get me wrong: She still should have voted his ass out. I would have. But it’s not quite as cut and dried as one might think when you consider the fickle nature and group-think of a Survivor jury. Yanny may have been in the very definition of a no-win situation here. She can’t win going up against Wendell at the end, and she may not have been able to win had she been perceived as being unsportsmanlike in taking out the guy that folks believe actually deserved immunity. Even though, as I started this recap off explaining, he didn’t. Because Wendell didn’t win. At least not this challenge.
Okay, let’s get through the rest of this recap at a brisk pace because it’s also time for our updated Survivor season rankings! (For those new to these parts. I always do these after the penultimate episode because the finale recap is too unwieldy as it is. But Ghost Island’s ultimate ranking can drop or fall depending on what happens in the finale. (SPOILER ALERT! Last season’s certainly did.)
I am also going to embed a bunch of the #FakeKellyn videos into the recap that you should definitely check out. If you’re completely unaware of what I’m talking about, I have invited all Survivor fans to create their own video imitating a Kellyn freak-out applied to everyday life. All you have to do is tweet me @DaltonRoss using the #FakeKellyn hashtag and the person who submits the best one will win all 20 of the original Survivor Love Letters written on location in Fiji by the Ghost Island cast before the game to their favorite players from yesteryear. And who will be selecting the winner? None other than Kellyn herself! Get your entries in by Monday, May 21, and check out the embeds throughout the recap for some submitted examples, including some from actual Ghost Island contestants! (You can also see the full collection right here.) Okay, let’s get to the recap and updated season rankings!
The Odd Couple
Yanny and Donathan are not the odd couple because she’s a black woman from the northeast and he’s a gay white guy from Kentucky. They are the odd couple because they are a rock solid alliance that are playing this game at completely different speeds and can never seem to agree on what to do. We’ve been seeing this for weeks now. Donathan wants to make a move while Yanny preaches patience and caution. What had to be frustrating for viewers was to hear Yanny admit that “I know I can’t beat those guys at the end, “ but then proclaim that “the problem is they’re two of my best friends out here.”
One of the most interesting things to keep an eye on going into the finale is whether Yanny and Donathan will ever break apart, especially now that votes were put on Jonathan with a D. Was Yanny part of that vote-splitting plan? Will Donathan freak out even more now that he was so close to being voted out? “I’m in the middle but the middle won’t get me to the end, he said in the episode. “And if Yanny continues bouncing back and forth I might have to play this game by myself. I’m ready for that challenge.”
We may find out if that’s true.
Timing is Everything
I really dug this reward challenge. It was a two-person variation on the classic individual challenge where people put balls in at the top of a chute and have to catch them at the bottom without one dropping, but now it was a much bigger contraption with a pair working together to grab spools at the bottom and then race them back up to the top.
I generally love challenges that seem so basic and easy but then get progressively harder, and by the time they got to a fifth spool being added, it turned into downright impossible. Wendell and Domenick won — SHOCKER! — and then had to pick one person to join them and one to go to Ghost Island. There was zero hesitation with either move as they immediately selected Yanny to join them and picked Sea Bass to go to Ghost Island.
Clearly they wanted Sea Bass to go to Ghost to keep Kellyn from getting an advantage, and Wendell sensed Yanny was on shaky ground in terms of staying loyal so brought her to keep her in line…which apparently worked. Should they have brought Donathan instead? Perhaps, but he’s already been wanting to flip and Yanny is the only thing that has kept him from doing so, so keeping that buffer in place was probably the right call.
I won’t gripe with that, but I do think it is odd when there is an odd amount of players (in this case, 7) for an even player challenge (in this case, 6) and someone gets left out. Sometimes in the past that person would get to bet on the winners and join them if correct, but not this season. Why not give stakes for the person sitting on the bench? At the very least it might lead to some funny reaction shots.
Ghost with the Most
I’m sorry, did Sea Bass say “Smash the Yern”? Because I’m pretty sure instead of smash the urn, he said smash the yern. Which would be weird because it says right in front of him “Smash the Urn.” I don’t know, between the yern and all this talk about suckerfish, I am very confused.
In any event, the smashed yern told Sea Bass that he could play an engrossing game of Pick the Bamboo, and his odds had increased to the point that 3 out of the 4 bamboos had advantages. (And the one that didn’t featured a hacky sack, a Fast Times at Ridgemont High VHS and a lifetime supply of Scooby Snacks, so no worries either way!) Naturally, Sea Bass won an advantage, and once again it was an advantage we had seen before. But in this case I don’t mean just seen before from another season. I mean he won an advantage already seen and played this season.
The steal-a-vote that Sarah used to vote out Michaela on Game Changers, and that Kellyn used as an extra vote this season on Yanny was back in action. While on one hand it struck me as a bit weird to have the same relic be used twice in the same season, in fairness, there’s a pretty decent chance Sea Bass did not even realize it was used the first time. True, he was right there when it happened, but is Sea Bass ever truly “right there”? I feel Sea Bass exists on a different mental plane. It is a plane that can be best described by looking at the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon through 3-D glasses with no lenses in them. Why don’t you need the lenses, you ask? BECAUSE YOUR MIND IS THE LENS!!!!!
Donathan Goes Rogue
Donathan is frustrated. I know he’s frustrated because he told us he was frustrated. So I’m not exactly Sherlock Holmes in that regard. But you can see it. The guy has wanted to make moves and make his mark on this game, but his partner keeps convincing him to go with the conservative play. It’s eating him up. So it should come as not much of a surprise to see him go off script a few different times this week.
The first head-scratcher came when Wendell assured Donathan that “You know we’re solid. 100 percent.” Donathan’s response? “I’m not voting for you if it’s you and him sitting there. I’m voting for Dom.” First off, I know what Jonathan with a D was trying to do. It’s not crazy. Many others have done it, and some have even been successful at it. Donathan was trying to accomplish three things with this bold statement. 1.) Get more camera time. 2) Drive a wedge between the two best players in the game. 3) Let Wendell know that he is not someone he wants to vote out, because if he does, Donathan will vote against him at the final Tribal Council.
This ploy has worked before. Let’s say Wendell is deciding between bringing Yanny and Donathan to the end. If he thinks Yanny will vote for him to win and Donathan won’t, then he very well may put the person on the jury that gives him an extra vote. (Of course, all of this becomes a bit more confusing with the new final four fire-making twist.) So that makes some sense. And attempting to drive a wedge between allies by telling one that the other will beat them at the end is the second oldest Survivor trick in the book (the oldest being Gervase running in a challenge when within eyesight of his tribemates, and then strolling leisurely through the portions in which they could not see him).
But here’s why Donathan’s move backfired. Nobody wants an erratic alliance partner. You want someone that is predictable and at least gives off the illusion of being easily controlled. When you start shaking things up at Tribal, and telling people they don’t have your vote, and then openly questioning them about their activities (as Donathan did when Dom moved something over to Wendell’s bag), then you are making people nervous about trusting you and wanting to work with the in the game. “Donathan is imploding on himself,” Dom said. That’s never a good look.
This continued into Tribal Council, with Donathan complaining about not knowing everything that his alliance partners were doing. After he and Wendell went at it, this happened:
Dom: “Donathan, can I say something?”
There were so many open mouths at Tribal Council after that exchange that Sea Bass probably wishes he had a fishing rod handy since he could have hooked the entire tribe and Jeff Probst. Speaking of which, is Sea Bass really a fisherman? Because judging from the looks of him and that often glazed expression, he may have actually told casting he was a “Phisherman” and they got super confused, not realizing he meant he loved zoning out to extended musical jams and instrumental grooves while watching Cheech & Chong movies play in reverse.
And after Donathan’s comments, the tone shifted. All of sudden, the other men were all whispering, with Dom instructing others to “Stay with the hammock plan,” which I really, really hoped involved folding a hammock over a person, spinning the encased individual around as many times as possible, and then releasing it so said hammock-cocooned-individual spun back at a nauseating pace before falling out of the hammock onto one’s caboose. But, evidently, that’s not the hammock plan. Donathan didn’t know the hammock plan either, and wasn’t about to “Because we’re done talking, remember?”
Oh. My. God. Domenick just threw that back in his face with the force of a Nolan Ryan fastball. And I’m not talking Nolan Ryan with the Mets, Angels, or Rangers. I’m talking Nolan Ryan in that hilariously ugly 1980s Houston Astros uniform that looks like a rainbow barfed all over a polyester factory. When you took a fastball to the face from a guy who looked like he was wearing freakin’ Underoos, it was adding true insult to injury.
Eventually, the votes were split, leading to a tie between Donathan and Kellyn, with a teary Kellyn sent to the jury on the revote. Just think, if Kellyn had saved her extra vote for this Tribal, Donathan would have been a goner. He was that close. While he may still be playing, Donathan may have also lost any chance to win, because his gambit to split up Dom and Wendell failed, and you don’t get the sense he would win any votes on his social game at this point either. It’s too bad because he saw the need to flip on the power duo early on, but Yanny wouldn’t let him pull the trigger. That frustration, coupled with the mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion of spending 35 days on the island, got to him. He’s not the first to suffer that fate.
Kellyn’s Last Stand
It was a weird final episode for Kellyn in that you figured we would see her go out in a blaze of glory, but the majority of the episode focused instead on Donathan’s antics. I have no doubt Kellyn was scheming and plotting and cajoling to the bitter end, but we never saw it. It’s no secret: I like Kellyn. Some were turned off by her pouty fits when she would lose a challenge or not get picked for a reward or whatever, but I found it entertaining as hell to watch someone who so freely freaked out in both positive and negative ways.
Survivor is a rollercoaster, and you saw every dip and turn of the ride in Kellyn’s face and wildly gesticulating limbs. She was the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, all rolled into the same package. Let’s face it: the woman is a spaz. But I love spazzes! And, as a viewer, isn’t that what you want to see: someone freaking out in joy as they run over to grab a reward, and someone throwing their rope down in disgust when they get eliminated? I do. I want you to be psyched when you win and I want you to be pissed when you lose. The more animated the better, and if nothing else, Kellyn was animated.
She also proved to be a good sport on her way out of the game. When all was said and done and she was sent packing, she turned to the folks that just voted her out and said, “It’s truly been a pleasure from the bottom of my heart. I wish you all the best of luck.” I’ll admit it: I was disappointed. I was hoping for one more rant or rave just to tide me over until we hopefully get some super-crazy reaction shots from her perch on the jury, but it was still nice to see nonetheless.
The Final 6
So here we are. We have our final 6 heading into the finale. Let me ask you a question: Is there any path to victory for anyone not named Domenick or Wendell? I don’t see it. They both have idols. They both seemingly have Sea Bass and Yanny on lockdown. I’m not even sure if Angela knows what game she is playing, and after all of these latest antics, I’m not sure Donathan has the respect of the jury he would need to carry out a win. It feels like it has to be Domenick or Wendell.
So which of them has the inside track? It appears to be Wendell. Most people in the game or on the jury appear a bit closer to him than Domenick. Yes, Dom has the two challenge wins already, but as we’ve seen the past — especially the past two seasons — juries really do not put much weight into challenge performances at all. I wrote about this after Ben beat Christy in season 35 and here’s what I said then in terms of why juries seem to respect hidden idols so much more than challenges:
“I would argue that a challenge win is probably more impressive than finding an idol. Sure, it depends on the challenge and how hard you had to work to find the idol, but the point is the two should be seen pretty similarly in terms of achievement. But they’re not. Juries seem to be more impressed with idols over necklaces and I think that’s because of the theater involved.
“Think about it. The jury doesn’t see the challenge. They don’t see the domination. They don’t see the big comeback. They don’t see the way someone almost passed out to will him or herself to victory. All they see is someone walk in with a necklace. There’s no tension. There’s no drama. Just jewelry. Now compare that to playing an idol. It’s the height of drama! That’s why the jury seems to lose its collective mind every time one is played. Therefore the achievement seems heightened because it is happening right in front of their face. They see someone saving themselves before their very eyes. They see the other players still in the game with their open mouths and shocked looks. They see it all. And it therefore has far more impact, even if the achievement may not even be as great.”
Anyway, that’s what I wrote then. All I know is F.U. Brad Culpepper and Chrissy dominated in challenges and both lost the last two seasons, so even if Dom also ends up sweeping the final three immunities to give him five for the season, I still think Wendell probably beats him.
While their inevitable march to the finals has no doubt been predictable and frustrating for many viewers, at this point anything that does not involve them sitting next to each other at the end would be a letdown. That is the epic showdown this entire season has been leading up to. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a final four fire-making tiebreaker to make it happen.
Okay, we need to get to the new updated season rankings now and see where Ghost Island falls, but since the rankings tend go for a bit, just a reminder to read my weekly Q&A with Probst and Kellyn exit interview, and to also check out an exclusive deleted scene from the episode on the last page. Okay let’s get it to it, and please feel free to put your own rankings in the comments section as no two lists are ever the same.
SURVIVOR SEASON-BY SEASON RANKINGS
(From best to worst)
1. (Tie) Survivor: Borneo
(Winner: Richard Hatch)
and Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favorites
(Winner: Parvati Shallow)
I’ve gone back and forth with these two over the years. After Micronesia aired, I named it the best Survivor season ever. Upon reflection, while I still considered it the most enjoyable, I also worried I was understating the impact of the first season, which became a national phenomenon. (Yes, Borneo now seems dated and tame by comparison, but it’s the biggest game changer in the past 20 years of television and you have to do your best to judge these seasons on the era in which they aired.) So then I returned that to the #1 spot. If I wanted to watch one season again, it would be Micronesia. If you ask me which is the most important season, well, obviously it’s Borneo. So instead of constantly flipping them, they can simply share the top spot… until I change my mind again.
3. Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains
(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
The Russell vs. Boston Rob feud made for the best pre-merge run of episodes ever. And the greatness just kept on coming. Filled with huge memorable moments like Tyson voting himself off, J.T. giving Russell his immunity idol, and Parvati handing out twoimmunity idols at one Tribal Council. Loses a few points for having so many three-timers, though, including a few (Amanda, James) we simply didn’t need to see again. I know many people would consider this #1, but it’s all returnees. For me, the fresh blood of Micronesia keeps that season higher.
4. Survivor: Cagayan
(Winner: Tony Vlachos)
Quite simply, the best Survivor season ever with all new players since the very first one (which is only better by the fact that it was the very first one). It was an intoxicating mix of terrific and terrible gameplay in which the big personalities (Tony, Spencer, Kass) weren’t just personalities—they actually were there to play the game.(Maybe not well at all times, but at least they were playing.) The casting was killer, the challenges were solid, the boot order was completely unpredictable, and the creative twists worked (although I was not a fan of the return of the post-votes read idol; thankfully that never came into play). The fact that Woo inexplicably brought Tony to the end with him added one last great “WHAT THE HELL?!?” moment to a truly intoxicating season.
5. Survivor: Cambodia—Second Chance
(Winner: Jeremy Collins)
The first thing to note about Cambodia is how well all the production twists turned out. Letting fans vote in the cast? Brilliant. Hiding idols at challenges? I think you all know how I feel about that. Tempting people to quit an immunity challenge for a mystery vote steal advantage? Loved it. All the tribe switcheroos? They played out to perfection. The Survivor producers always throw a bunch of twists out there. Usually some work and some don’t. This season, they all paid dividends.
I also appreciated how hard the bulk of the cast was playing. Usually you get a small handful of big time gamers. This season you only had a handful that weren’t going hard (which granted, is somewhat a function of returning player seasons in general). Another plus: The votes were completely unpredictable from week to week, leading to some truly crazy Tribals. Sure, the challenges were a bit blah, but still, a rousing and triumphant success.
6. Survivor: Amazon
(Winner: Jenna Morasca)
Probably the first truly unpredictable season ever from week to week. Some people hate on Jenna as a winner, but she won challenges and played an effective social game.
7. Survivor: Pearl Islands
(Winner: Sandra Diaz-Twine)
Rupert stealing shoes. Fairplay getting drunk at Tribal Council. Osten sucking at everything. It was all delicious. Loses points, though, for the awful Outcasts twist, which also led to a disappointing final two. (Lil? Seriously?)
8. Survivor: Palau
(Winner: Tom Westman)
I loved watching one tribe decimate the other, culminating with Stephenie becoming a tribe of one. And the challenges may have been Survivor’s best ever. What’s interesting about Palau is that we basically all knew Tom would win from episode 1, but it was still gripping nonetheless.
9. Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X
(Winner: Adam Klein)
With the exception of Caramoan, I’ve never had a season rise so much through the rankings from week to week. When Millennials vs. Gen X started, most us of were like, “Yeah, it’s fine. Not amazing, but not terrible either.” But then things kept happening. And everyone kept flipping on one another. And everyone kept getting blindsided. And everyone kept futilely using their idols for other people.
It was madness and chaos in the best way possible. And what was so fascinating was that (with the exception of Michaela) nobody took their ouster personally. This was a season remarkably free of any sort of fighting whatsoever. None of the ugliness of World’s Apart or Kaoh Rong permeated the proceedings, even amongst all the lying and backstabbing. Everyone seemed to legitimately appreciate and respect the competition they were going up against, and, as a result, so did we.
What seemed like a so-so cast at first ended up giving us a fair number of breakouts: Michaela, Zeke, David, Adam, Jay. Even Hannah was entertaining with her neurosis. Even Ken was entertaining with his late game cluelessness. Bret gave us a touching moment where he came out as gay to Zeke. Sunday outsmarted Adam and Hannah with a ruse at Tribal Council. Everyone contributed something.
10. Survivor: Blood vs. Water
(Winner: Tyson Apostol)
The returning contestants playing with/against their loved ones twist added new dimensions and forced players—and us—to think about the strategic elements of the game in an entirely new way. And for strategy nerds like myself, it was like opening a brand new Christmas present each and every week as new layers were revealed.
And although I am certainly no fan of the Redemption Island twist due to the fact that it neuters the show’s most dramatic moment (the vote-off), it is undeniable that the RI element is what led to many of the intriguing strategic decisions of whom to vote out and why. (However, I still can’t figure out why they went with three person duels—a.k.a. truels—and they definitely should have stopped RI at the merge.) Yes, the challenges were a letdown and there was a bit of a lull just after the merge, but all in all, this was a super solid season from top to bottom and a nice change of pace.
11. Survivor: Philippines
(Winner: Denise Stapley)
This season was all about one thing: casting, casting, casting. When you look back on what happened, while there were a lot of shake-ups with the voting, there weren’t a whole lot of jaw-on-the-floor shocking moments. So why is it so high? Because the casting and storylines that developed gave us people to root for and against—something every great Survivorseason needs. And the fact that Philippines had such a strong final four also doesn’t hurt. 12. Survivor: Caramoan — Fans vs. Favorites
(Winner: John Cochran)
A tale of two seasons this was, and I can already hear people yelling that I am putting it too high. But hear me out first before you Russell any feathers. If I was grading this solely on pre-merge episodes, this would be waaaaydown the list due to the emphasis on big personalities (Shamar, Brandon, Phillip) as opposed to big gameplay. It was flat-out grating. But everything post-merge was spectacular. There were so many moves and countermoves galore down the homestretch. The same way it is more important for a sports team to play well in the second half of a game as opposed to the first, a great season needs to build momentum, and Caramoan definitely did that with six fantastic episodes in a row.
It’s much more important to finish strong than to start strong, so I definitely put more weight and emphasis on post-merge episodes when doing the rankings, and this season made a remarkable comeback. Also, don’t overlook how great the bevy of water challenges was. Should I push it down in the rankings due to the lackluster Reunion show that followed? Perhaps. Kind of not sure how much I should take that live show into consideration when ranking what happened out on the island.
13. Survivor: Samoa
(Winner: Natalie White)
I like this season a lot more than most people, but Russell’s controlling of the game (especially post-merge when his side was down 8-4) was truly a work of art. Evil genius art. He was robbed in the end, though, in the most controversial jury decision ever.
14. Survivor: Marquesas
(Winner: Vecepia Towery)
An underrated season that saw the first totem pole shake-up: where people on the bottom got together to overthrow those on the top. Yes, it was a weak final two, but it also had a woman peeing on a guy’s hand. Plus: Purple rock!!!
15. Survivor: China
(Winner: Todd Herzog)
I’ve always loved this season. It featured a really good cast stuck in a really bad location. Todd completely owned that final Tribal Council. That’s how you win a million dollars. My only demerit is that I was not a big fan of the location.
16. Survivor: Cook Islands
(Winner: Yul Kwon)
What a difference a mutiny makes. It was listless until that fateful moment when Candice and Penner stepped off the mat. Then we finally had underdogs to root for. The Tribal Council fire-making tiebreaker between Sundra and Becky may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Plus, just look at all the great first-time contestants (Parvati, Penner, Ozzy, Yul). Mutineers must die!
17. Survivor: Game Changers
(Winner: Sarah Lacina)
What a weird season this was. On one hand, there were a bevy of huge crazy Tribal Councils with last-second whispering and maneuvering leading to jaw-dropping exits. We were treated to two titans of the game (Tony and Sandra) going toe to toe. We saw one of the ugliest moments ever (Jeff Varner outing Zeke) turn into a shining instructive example of how to handle insensitive bullying via the reactions from Zeke and his tribemates. But something was missing. It’s hard to put your finger right on it, but it felt that this season lacked a consistent flow. Instead of a gradually building arc, we were instead presented with what could be best described as a random series of events. Said events were all exciting, but they failed to form a cohesive unit.
It didn’t help that most of the big players and personalities went out so early: Tony, Malcolm, Sandra, J.T. — all gone before the merge. Then Ozzy went home in the merge double-episode and we hardly saw Cirie until the merge because she never went to Tribal Council. That means we did not get a lot of bang for our buck when it came to the biggest players in the cast. No offense to someone like Sarah — who played a very strong game and deserves to be applauded for it — but she and most of the others we were left with at the end were simply not as dynamic as the personalities we lost early on.
That was always my big fear about this season — that as exciting as the early episodes were, those high-profile exits were diluting the cast and leaving us with players that we, as viewers, were not fully invested in. As despite the gameplay and unpredictability down the stretch, that is kind of what happened. I would say that could have just been me, but I heard similar concerns from a lot of people.
And then there is what happened to Cirie in the finale. Some may have loved the insane drama of having five out of six people immune due to idols and advantages — but I found watching someone be “voted out” even when zero votes were cast against her to be a case of a season run amok by simply too many bells and whistles. (The fact that it happened to a true legend in Cirie made it even harder to swallow.)
And while I was prepared to drop the season ranking down a spot or two due to that Tribal, it held steady thanks to the new final Tribal Council format in which there was more of a conversation than regimented Q&A, which had grown predictable and stale over the years. That’s a great example of natural show evolution that worked and the producers deserve to be commended for it.
Also, contrary to what the paragraphs above may lead you to believe — I don’t by any means think Game Changers was a bad season. I’m just explaining what kept it from being a truly great one in my book. Because there were a lot of great moments, and judged on their own you would think this should be a top 10 entry. It’s not in my book, but it is a perfectly fine one.
18. Survivor: Ghost Island
This is such a hard season to rank. And not just for me. I have seen a lot of division around Survivor nation on this season. (Then again, aren’t we divided about pretty much everything?) Even my feelings about the cast and twist are mixed. I generally really like this cast — but I do feel all the early tribe swaps made it difficult for viewers to connect with many of them. I also really like the Ghost Island concept, but feel there could have been more drama surrounding how someone was sent to GI and the games they played once they got there. (“Guess that Bamboo” was about as riveting as watching an Adam Sandler movie as part of a South Pacific reward. My suggestion was to have contestants have to win mini challenges — like, say, solving a puzzle before all the sand poured out of a bottle rather than just picking right or left.)
But I was engaged nonetheless. I liked watching Kellyn act like a super-spaz. I was fascinated with the Laurel and Donathan strategic push-and-pull. Wendell and Domenick were as great as we in the press thought they would be when we met them pre-game, and that merge war between Dom and Chris Noble made for one of my favorite Survivor episodes ever. Throw that all together and you end up smack dab in the middle at 18. (As always, this could rise or fall a few spots depending on what happens in the finale.)
19. Survivor: Australian Outback
(Winner: Tina Wesson)
An overrated season in my book. Probst loves it. I didn’t. Solid but unspectacular. Pretty predictable boot order as well. Dude did burn his hands off, though.
20. Survivor: South Pacific
(Winner: Sophie Clarke)
Here’s another one that I like more than most people, which is curious considering how much it has in common with the season that aired directly before it, which I didn’tlike: the same twist of two returning players, Redemption Island, the predictable vote-offs, no real water challenges, etc… But there is one thing I really did dig about this season, and that is the cast. I was invested in the players and their fates—the ones I wanted to do well, and not so well. Plus, this season gave us three signature moments: Ozzy volunteering to go to Redemption, Cochran flipping, and Brandon giving away his immunity.
21. Survivor: Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers
(Winner: Ben Driebergen)
The good news is the season built momentum as it went, with a strong run of post-merge episodes after a truly underwhelming start to the season. Of course, I struggle with the fact that much of the drama came out of there being an overabundance of idols and advantages, but producers did something very smart with those advantages to make sure nobody else got Ciried: They limited most of them to a specific single Tribal Council. They also forced contestants to make decisions on those advantages — like whom to help or hurt from another tribe — that played dramatic dividends. And, outside of one mind-bogglingly boring loved ones reward contest, the challenges were strong.
But now comes the bad news. Like the majority of Survivor nation, I was not a fan of the new final four fire-making twist. While I do not believe it was a cheat put in place to specifically get Ben to the finals, Probst has openly admitted it was engineered to get a strong player like Ben there. To me, even though there was not any funny business at play to help Ben out, it still was not in the spirit of a game in which players are supposedly given the power to vote each other out. That was a bummer. I said I would not be hasty and would wait to see how the twist sat for a few months before deciding whether it would move this season’s rankings down from it’s original pre-finale spot of 17. Suffice it to say, it did not sit well and it dropped three down on its own, and then another to make way for Ghost Island.
22. Survivor: Tocantins
(Winner: J.T. Thomas)
Okay, you may roll your eyes at Coach 1.0. But imagine for a second this season without him. His unintentional comedy single-handedly lifts this into respectable territory for me. Seriously, other than Tyson getting blindsided, were there any memorable moments that didn’t involve the Dragonslayer? But the unlikely alliance between bookish northerner Fishbach and country boy J.T. made for a compelling thread throughout the season.
23. Survivor: Kaôh Rōng
(Winner: Michelle Fitzgerald)
Not one of the best seasons ever; not one of the worst. Working in this season’s favor was the sheer unpredictability from week to week in terms of who was aligned with whom and what would happen at Tribal Council. That’s always exciting. Working against this season is the fact that there simply were not enough transcendent players in the cast. Talking to fellow fans of the show, I did not find a lot of passion or hardcore rooting interest for any of the folks that made it far in the game (especially after Tai sabotaged the tribe by putting out the fire). That’s a problem. Another problem (for me) was the unsurprisingly bitter jury, whose egos simply couldn’t handle being bested by Aubry.
While the reward challenge that caused three players to collapse was certainly riveting (and scary as hell) to watch, it also robbed us of one of the most charismatic contestants in Beast Mode Cowboy, which was a shame. The other medical evacuations (Neal and Joe) meant we were denied chances to see how those pivotal votes would have gone down, and the challenges in general were at times too heavy reliant on balancing.
All that said, there were legitimate moments of glory — like when Tai turned on Scot and Jason — that elevated the proceedings and turned this season into a solid, if unspectacular, entry. 24. Survivor: All-Stars
(Winner: Amber Brkich)
Overall, a bit of a letdown, but man, were there some hate-fueled fireworks at those final few Tribal Councils. Plus: Best. Reunion Show. Ever. (Remember Jerri getting literally booed off the stage?)
25. Survivor: Panama — Exile Island
(Winner: Aras Baskauskas)
Ah, just writing the word Panama gets me daydreaming about Survivor Sally and her intoxicating knee socks. Terry was robbed on a final challenge that may or may not have been completely fair. Another unmemorable final two. Shane Powers should have been brought back for Heroes vs. Villains. And the Second Chance season, for that matter.
26. Survivor: Worlds Apart
(Winner: Mike Holloway)
The main problem, of course, was that there were not enough people to root for. Worlds Apart got somewhat hijacked by an assault of offensive comments to and about women by some of the male characters. It’s too bad because there was actually some interesting gameplay — mostly thanks to Mike. And there were some big moments at the last few Tribal Councils as well. This season moved around a bunch for me. It started off middle-of-the-pack, went WAY down during all that Dan and Will ugliness, but slowly crept back up after that.
27. Survivor: Gabon
(Winner: Bob Crowley)
It got better near the end, but it was still a case of too little, too late. The fact that so many unworthy players went so far is simply too damning.
28. Survivor: Redemption Island
(Winner: Boston Rob Mariano)
The first three episodes were dynamite, but then the fuse blew out. It certainly was entertaining at times watching Rob strategize (the most dominant showing ever) and Phillip philosophize (the craziest showing ever), just not very dramatic. Most of the vote-offs were clearly telegraphed and the Redemption Island twist sucked the life out of Survivor’s signature moment—the vote-off.
29. Survivor: Africa
(Winner: Ethan Zohn)
Some great challenges. Not that much else was great.
30. Survivor: Guatemala
(Winner: Danni Boatwright)
One of the more unlikable casts so far. (Remember Judd? Jamie? Stephenie’s evil twin?) Rafe was good for a few laughs, though. Especially on rope obstacles.
31. Survivor: Vanuatu
(Winner: Chris Daugherty)
I don’t blame producers: The battle of the sexes worked well the first time around.
32. Survivor: San Juan del Sur
(Winner: Natalie Anderson)
The cast was for the most part boring if not boorish, and when you look back on this season, does any one big moment even stand out? Anything? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? I will say there were a few strong post-merge episodes, and it definitely got better over the last few weeks thanks to Natalie’s strong play. That counts for something. This is not a season that inspires anger or rage, just apathy, which is maybe the worst indictment of all.
33. Survivor: One World
(Winner: Kim Spradlin)
Look, I have total respect for Kim’s game. Like Tom in Palauand Rob in Redemption Island, she excelled strategically, socially, and physically. Unfortunately, that is really the only good thing I can say about this season. And that’s too bad, because I do think the “One World” concept was a solid one. But, man, what a thoroughly uninspiring cast. Colton was more a horrible human being than a classic villain, and the rest of the players were mostly either completely forgettable or people you wish you could forget. I worry I am being generous by putting it even this high, but out of respect for Kim, it goes here.
34. Survivor: Thailand
(Winner: Brian Heidik)
The fake merge and brutal last challenge — where the final three had to hold coins between their fingers in a crazy painful pose — keep this dud out of the bottom spot. Barely.
35. Survivor: Fiji
(Winner: Earl Cole)
With the exception of Yau-Man and Earl, a true bummer of a cast, and the “Haves Vs. Have-Nots” twist was one of the worst creative decisions in Survivor history. Speaking of awful creative decisions…
36. Survivor: Nicaragua
(Winner: Jud “Fabio” Birza)
It’s at the bottom for a few reasons. 1) Splitting the tribes up by age and the Medallion of Power were both enormous flops. 2.) Like One World, Thailand, and Fiji,Nicaragua had just too many unlikable players. 3) Two people quitting with only 11 days left. 4) No big memorable moments. Even Thailand had the fake merge and Fiji had the big Yau-Man/Dreamz free car deal gone bad, but what was Nicaragua’s signature moment? Unfortunately, it was people quitting, and that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Interestingly enough, Survivor viewers recently picked Fabio as the worst Survivor winner ever in our fan poll, so I’m apparently not alone in my lack of enthusiasm.
Well, there you have it. My complete season-by-season rankings that you no doubt disagree with vehemently. You can also check out the fan rankings of the first 35 seasons right here. I encourage you to do so, and I also encourage you to disagree with mine because disagreement and debate is half the fun of Survivor! As long as it is a healthy, happy debate, that is. So please feel free to disagree in a respectful manner in the comments below, or tweet me @DaltonRoss. Also make sure to check out that exclusive deleted scene from the episode above as well as my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst, Kellyn exit interview, and full collection of #FakeKellyn videos.
Now it’s your turn. Who do you think is gong to win Survivor, and whom do you want to win? Plus, where does this season rank for you overall? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I will be back next week with a huge finale/reunion sized scoop of the crispy!