Bring on the idols and advantages

By Dalton Ross
February 28, 2018 at 10:00 PM EST
S36 E1
  • TV Show

I don’t believe in ghosts. Nor do I don’t believe in Loch Ness Monsters, yeti, vampires, fairies, werewolves, witches, or — contrary to my Twitter profile picture — zombies. I don’t believe in them because I am not absurd. But I love stories about them. Remember back when the Six Million Dollar Man was battling against Bigfoot? I do. You know why? BECAUSE IT WAS FREAKIN’ AWESOME!!! I watched Buffy. I kept up on True Blood. I may have sampled a Walking Dead episode or two (or 100) in my day. The point is, I love all this stuff, even if it is a bunch of nonsense. And I think I love Ghost Island.

I love the fact that Probst thought up the name before what it actually meant just because it sounded badass. (Incidentally, that’s what happened with another one of my favorite shows, Orphan Black. Co-creator John Fawcett thought of the title first, and then had to backtrack to figure out what it meant.) I love the fact that it honors the show’s rich and deep history. I love the strategy involved in terms of a tribe figuring out whom to send from the other team. I love the strategy involved of trying to get the other tribe to pick or to not pick you to go. And finally, I love the fact that you don’t just go and there’s an idol or advantage waiting for you. Decisions must be made. Risks must be taken. Stakes shall be raised.

I love it all. Or maybe I just love Survivor and have been going through withdrawal symptoms for the past two moths without it. (Which, perhaps, explains why I flooded the market with a truly absurd amount of preview posts — 50! — leading up to the season premiere. They’re all right here.) And while I am not a fan of airing back-to-back episodes (the price we pay to watch BJS infect the Celebrity Big Brother house, I suppose) because I would rather have as many weeks of Survivor as possible, the two hours did help make up for the time we spent apart.

Clearly we have a lot to get to, and while I’ve never been one to condense, well, let’s get right to it and recap this S.O.B. (Since I was there for the first days on location I can throw in some behind-the-scenes intel here and there.) But first — sorry, channeling my inner Chenbot — a trivia question for you. Which Survivor player has appeared on the most seasons of the show? Did you say Boston Rob? Or Rupert? Or Ozzy or Cirie? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. It has to, without a shadow of a doubt, be Erik Reichenbach. The poor guy gave away his immunity once and, like a bad rerun or Black Mirror episode, has been paying for it ever since. I can’t remember the last season that did not begin by showing him handing over his immunity and then promptly being voted out.

And here it happens again, a mere FIVE SECONDS into the season. Erik’s folly is joined by its famous cousin — the f—ing stick — about a minute later and we are off to the races. By the way, big shout out to the production team once again for that slow-motion shot in the intro of Morgan and Wendell running up a net in the water while a bird flies by. It’s a small touch, totally insignificant on some levels, but soooo significant on others. Survivor is the most gorgeous show on network television and I love images like this that flaunt it.

Instead of the contestants being thrown off a boat (which has been the norm of late) they arrive on a beach and are welcomed by an orange-hat-adorned Jeffrey Probst, who is about to hit them with more information than any human can possibly handle. That’s because there is an opening reward challenge, but the rules are so confusing it is like reading the fine print on the annual grocery store Monopoly game that ruins my life for two months every year.

Basically it comes down to this: Each tribe picks a leader who then selects a jock athlete and a nerd puzzle solver. They are then told they will start the season with a machete, a pot, rice, and a fishing kit. HOWEVER, the winners also get a massive shelter-building kit while the losers do not receive their fishing gear. HOWEVER, if a tribe leader thinks they are going to lose, he can forfeit the challenge during a limited amount of time during the puzzle and keep the fishing gear. HOWEVER, that means the winners also get 20 eggs and a flint to go with their shelter-building kit. HOWEVER…no, wait, I think that’s actually it. Unless a partridge in a pear tree is somehow involved, and at this point it very well may be.

So again, that is a lot to take in, but once you take it in you realize…that’s kinda awesome. I’m always pushing the producers to force contestants to make difficult decisions in the game, and doing so here with a running clock in the form of sand falling out of a bottle is dramatic as hell. That’s a great way to start the season.

And it plays out exactly as the producers must have dreamed as Chris pulls the lever, causing all of Naviti’s tiles to go crashing to the ground just as time is about to expire. Being there, it looked like he made the right call. Even though Naviti started with a lead on the puzzle because Michael faded getting over the obstacles for Malolo — looking like a punch-drunk Apollo Creed going up against Ivan Drago while James Brown watched ringside — Desiree appeared lost on the slide puzzle. From my admittedly limited vantage point, Laurel seemed to be more in control.

So Naviti looked likely to lose. And while strengthening the other tribe with eggs and flint is a bummer, you need that fishing gear. So while I would absolutely fault Chris for volunteering to be the leader — a clear rookie mistake if ever there was one; just ask Jeremy from San Juan del Sur — I too would have pulled that lever in his shoes…or flip flops, as it were.

A few other interesting on-the-scene notes about this challenge. Brendan was actively (but not annoyingly) offering advice to Laurel on the puzzle while Chris stayed absolutely silent. Also, Michael was really hurting after that challenge. While Probst addressed the tribes after, Michael was kneeling down on the ground unable to stand. Jacob was attending to him and finally alerted Probst to it. Jeff asked if Michael required medial attention but Michael refused it, saying he thought he would be okay…and he was. However, it was interesting seeing how quickly he was felled by what appeared to be an easy enough section of the challenge — but clearly was not. Survivor, man. Ass-kicker. Let’s now head over to the camps to see what’s what. 

Remember that guy Michael who was just felled by the opening challenge? He’s only 18! (Which makes looking at his half-naked-photo-filled Instagram feed feel suuuuuuper creepy.) But he doesn’t look 18. And he’s worried people won’t take an 18-year-old seriously, so he tells his fellow Malalo tribemates he’s 23. Which could lead to some instant hilarity if some of the older women (or men) start hitting on him.

Most of the early screen time on Malalo is dominated by those on the tribe fringes. Gonzalez tells us what a good spot she’s in because she’s from Puerto Rico, while Donathan from eastern Kentucky marvels at the “exotic” James and perhaps having his first African-American friend in Laurel. I liked Donathan a lot in casting because he is so open and candid about how limited his exposure is to different types of people and cultures. He’s not proud of it. On the contrary, he’s beyond excited to broaden his horizons. Will his naiveté get him into trouble in this game? Probably. But it also makes you want to root for him. Then again, there are a lot of people I’m rooting for this season.

And then there is Jacob. Oh boy. We’ll get much more into his exploits later, but let’s just say that his opening introduction to viewers of having his shoes literally washed out by the tide pretty much sums up his entire experience. Look, Jacob said it himself: He’s super neurotic and socially uncomfortable. I can certainly relate to that. But I think Jacob is a good example of the neurotic super-fan who spends years dreaming of getting on this show, and then finally lands on the island and starts freaking out when things don’t go exactly according to plan.

We’ve seen it happen before. In South Pacific, John Cochran gave the worst first Tribal Council performance (most of which you did not see on air) I have ever witnessed in my entire life. In Millennials vs. Gen X, David Wright was running around like a chicken with his head cut off in the first few days. We even saw a returning Stephen Fishbach struggling to fit in early in Cambodia.

What Jacob needed to do instead of openly telling people he was going idol hunting was just take a breath, relax, and let other folks dig their own graves. Play low key. Make social connections. Blend in. Don’t get me wrong: I actually think pouring all the rice into your dirty sock to see if there is an idol or clue is actually a smart — if disgusting — thing to do. There are ways like that to play the game without obviously overplaying it (like all the big boasting that will come later at the challenge).

Meanwhile, over at Naviti, Domenick has a really good point: How could a fisherman named Sebastian go through life without being called Sea Bass? It’s like a bald guy not being called Curly at some point, or a towering hulk of a man not being referred to as “Tiny.” Some things just must happen! Anyway, sorry Sebastian. You’re now Sea Bass.

So Sea Bass and Chris strike up a friendship over their combined love of the Florida Keys and being hot looking. But one person who does not fit in their plans is Dom, who openly questioned Chris’ decision making at the first challenge. Dom’s comments seemed like an unnecessary making of waves, even if he does consider himself a “truth-teller.” Why create divisions that early in the game? (Francesca learned this the hard way in Redemption Island.)

But Dom does have his own alliance brewing and has been fortunate enough to become beach buddies with Wendell, who informs him of the Sea Bass-Chris collation forming against him. Who wins this power struggle if these folks all stay in the game long enough? I’m putting my money on Wendell and Dom, especially because Bradley appeared to be part of that conversation and I saw those three hanging out together in my admittedly brief time at their camp out in Fiji.

Let’s head to the first immunity challenge! Which was not supposed to be the first immunity challenge at all. The second immunity challenge out in the water was supposed to be first, but due to heavy swells production had to switch them up the night before. That led to an all-hands-on-deck situation where even members of the press picked up paint brushes to get the giant puzzle pieces ready. (I declined to add any artistic flourishes since I have no skill in that department whatsoever and was nervous about messing something up. I’m a writer not a painter…or a fighter…or much of a lover, if I’m going to be completely honest.)

Anyway, I actually tested out both immunity challenges in rehearsals so can lend a bit of perspective to each contest. But before we get to this first one, let’s just pause for the cause to note the rare #OrangeHatTrifecta. That’s right: Not only did Jeff Probst rock an #OrangeHatAlert for his dramatic “39 days, 20 people, 1 Survivor” line, but he also rocked it for the marooning, and you bet your Medallion of Power that he is rocking it here as well. Probst’s embrace of the orange hat is my favorite evolution in the entire history of Survivor.

As for the challenge itself, the teams have to race across a bridge, retrieve bags of rope, pull a sled filled with giant puzzle pieces, and then solve that giant puzzle. Let me tell you something. This challenge sucks. At least to run it, it does. If you ever think for a single second that these Survivors have it too easy out there, let this challenge serve as Exhibit A as to why you are dead wrong. Andrea Boehlke (who was out doing press for and I took the lead for our team of press peeps on pulling this sled and frankly, we were terrible at it.

We got absolutely creamed by the Dream Team of twentysomething physical specimens. I mean, that’s not surprising considering I weigh roughly the equivalent of a single stick of bamboo and the next weight I lift will be the first weight I ever lift. But we gave it our all. And our hands suffered for it. I had multiple gnarly blisters with skin ripped off my hands after taking part in this bad boy (courtesy of pulling that rope attached to a sled that I swear just WOULD NOT MOVE). So yeah, it sucked having to do it — especially because we got annihilated by the Dream Team. Which means I enjoyed watching the players do it all the more, knowing how much it was costing them in terms of their physical well-being. At the risk of repeating myself: Survivor, man. Ass-kicker. 

In any event, Naviti wins this challenge easily. They were way ahead going into the puzzle and were never really threatened after that thanks to Kellyn, who totally took control in the puzzle portion, authoritatively barking out orders and in general just getting it done. But everyone is hurting after this one: even Jeff Probst, whose voice is clearly hoarse from calling all the action. But the real action takes place after the challenge. Jacob from the losing Malolo tells Probst that “we still know we’re one of the best tribes of all-time.” Exsqueeze me? Baking power? Best tribes of all time? Look, I’m all for displaying tribe confidence so I get the intent, but DUDE, dial it down!

All Jacob had to say was, “Hey, this was a tough one today but I still believe in the folks on this tribe and think we can bounce back.” That’s how you blend into a tribe. That’s how you avoid sticking out. Now, Jacob would later say that he was only talking big so that Naviti fell into his trap of picking him to go to Ghost Island, which most likely saved him from being voted out. But it’s also symbolic of Jacob’s problem out there. I was there at the challenge and I’m telling you, Jacob was floundering. I don’t buy that his words were carefully calculated. He was all over the place. And while his words may have had the desired effect of Naviti sending him to Ghost Island, it also did nothing to ingratiate himself back into his own tribe, who were probably all rolling their eyes at the boasting.

But, like I said, he did get out of being the latest recipient of the Sonja Christopher Golden Ukelele award and instead heads to Ghost Island — and for a super fan like Jacob, that has to be pretty cool. I got a chance to walk around Ghost Island, and as previously reported, it is filled with over 80 artifacts from seasons past. It is essentially the first full-fledged Survivor museum.

And here’s what else is so great about it. Instead of players going there and simply getting an idol/advantage, or merely searching for it (like on Exile Island or back at camp), once again it comes down to choices and chance. First, Jacob has to smash an urn, this one telling him “Game on. Follow the fire.” Then he is invited to a game of chance in which there are two bamboo shoots with a third in the middle with a lock on it. There is a key in one of the shoots. If he plays and picks the correct one, he wins a secret advantage. If he selects the wrong one, he loses his vote at the next Tribal Council.

Jacob is a Survivor geek and no Survivor geek is going to pass on playing, so play he does, and he wins! Unfortunately for him, what he wins is Sierra’s Legacy Advantage from Game Changers (which can be used for immunity at either the final 13 or final 6), and he must give it to someone from the opposite tribe, picking Morgan because she “has spunk.” God, I would have been so bummed if I was Jacob here. I make it to Ghost Island, I risk a vote at TC, I win, and then after all that, I have to turn the advantage over to someone on the other tribe? Too cruel. Survivor, man. Ass-kicker

But again, at least he didn’t get voted out. That is going to come down to either Donathan or Gonzalez. The tribe weighs the pros of keeping each of them. On one hand, Gonzalez could be better in challenges. On the other hand, Donathan could be good to keep “if we need a little person to shove in something.”

Wait, WHAT?!? A little person to shove in something? You mean like, an air vent to escape a room a serial killer locked you all in to run and get help? How much shoving into things really happens on Survivor? Sure, a barrel from time to time, but there’s not much beyond that. But as much as I love Stephanie’s neon outfit that looks like someone vomited up a Jane Fonda exercise tape from the 1980s, and I as much as I love Stephanie’s hair that I am pretty sure she shaved off of Janu from Palau and super-glued on to her own head instead, I think I love her “little person to shove in something” reasoning even more. Spectacular. Simply spectacular. 

Shockingly, it does not convince everyone. They head to Tribal Council, where there is lots of talk about how Jacob would have been the easy vote because, according to Gonzalez, “Jacob is a little special.” Jesus, what the hell is going on here?!? Shoving little people in things! Calling other tribemates special! What’s next? Are they going to start referring to visually challenged Laurel as Four Eyes?

A few things that did not make it into the final episode due to time but are worth pointing out: At one point P.E. teacher Brendan attempted to give Donathan a pep talk confidence boost when it came to his athleticism, telling him, “Don’t sell yourself short, man. You’re alright.” I point this out for three reasons. One, because it reminds me of this classic Caddyshack scene.

Two, because it is noteworthy considering what will happen in the next immunity challenge. And three, because please remind Brendan to never give me a pep talk. A pep talk usually ends with something along the lines of “You have a lot to offer!” or “We believe in you!” What you don’t want to hear at the end of a pep talk is “You’re alright.” I mean, that basically translates to “Hey, hey, hey, buck up there, camper. You’re not…um, terrible. I mean, you’re not good. But you’re not terrible. You’re fine. How about that? Fine is fine. Am I right? Okay, go get ’em, tiger! “ Brendan meant well with his comment, but it just came out funny.

Another thing you didn’t see: At one point Probst asked James if he felt in danger and then went off on the player for giving a “statistical analysis” rather than a gut answer. Probst will do this. He will push and prod players who try to give him safe responses. I’ve always said that Jeff Probst is one of the most overlooked aspects of game play. How you handle his line of questioning at Tribal Council is super important, and here is one key to cracking that code: Give him something he can use, but your other tribemates cannot. This easiest way to do that? Misdirect with humor. Boston Rob was a master of this. Probst would ask him a direct question and Rob would never give anything up. But what he did do was offer an entertaining answer — even if he was not answering the question. He gave Probst something.

I’m always surprised that people spend all this time preparing to go on Survivor by getting in shape physically and downloading slide puzzle apps and practicing making fire, but most do not spend a single second considering how they plan to handle this crucial element in the game.

One thing people are prepared to do now at a Survivor Tribal Council is get up and talk, and that’s exactly what Gonzalez does here before the voting, walking over to Brendan to whisper in his ear. This leads to everyone whispering to everyone — except Donathan, who looks like he’s petrified someone is about to shove him into something. It makes for good theater, but nothing changes, as Gonzalez is unanimously voted out. But there is something interesting you did not see on her way out. While you saw her say “Sad” after having her torch snuffed, Gonzalez in fact had a little more to say, and it was directed at one individual in particular. “One lion, seven sheep,” she also said on her way out.

Who is the lion? Judging from the conversations at Tribal and dynamic back at camp, it would seem that would be Brendan (who, remember, was chosen as leader of the tribe just minutes into the game). If you’re Brendan at that moment you cannot be too pleased that you have already been singled out as the biggest target, with the rest of your tribe denigrated as “sheep,” — thereby possibly inspiring them to do something about it and get you out. Do you think Stephanie or Jenna or Michael or Laurel or anyone wants to be thought of as a sheep — or, even worse, a goat — in this game? Not a chance.

Poor Gonzalez. Not only is she voted out first — and you can see a full accounting of the illustrious company she now keeps right here — but because of this being a double episode, she doesn’t even get to have her final words! That’s a double whammy of epic proportions that will no doubt haunt her for years to come. Because GHOST ISLAND WILL HAUNT YOU!!! Ah, Gonzalez. She would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those meddling kids! 

After Tribal Council, instead of heading to the Malolo beach to see the fallout from the vote — of which there is none because, again, unanimous — we head to Naviti, where Dom is hovering over everyone at the shelter in pitch black darkness, which is creepy. He’s getting paranoid and needs to make a big move, and, contrary to popular belief, that big move is not getting scared by a rat after turning over a rock. No, it’s looking for an idol, and somehow in the dead of night he manages to find one — it’s Andrea’s unused idol from Caramoan.

It’s worth exploring the topic of idols and advantages at this point now that two are already in play. Longtime readers know my thoughts on this: I like idols. I like advantages. But I also think there have been too many of them in recent seasons, which have devalued strong gameplay at the expense of luck and strong searching skills. But I am now going to do something that may baffle you completely: I am not going to complain about too many idols and advantages this season. And that is for one simple reason: The whole twist this season is based on idols and advantages. If you are going to make the theme of the season the idols and advantages of yesteryear that were misplayed, then you have to put those suckers BACK. INTO. PLAY.

So I’m all in! Bring on the f—ing stick! Bring on Erik’s immunity necklace! Bring on those sunglasses Jeff Probst once wore in the rain while calling a challenge? (No, seriously, can we bring those back as well?) If we are going to fully embrace the historical nature of this season’s theme — and I have — then we should expect to see a whole bunch of them pop up. And I’m good with that. Now if it happens again in season 37, however…

Speaking of idols and advantages, Jacob has to figure out what to tell his tribe about the advantage he sent over to Morgan. Luckily for him, Jacob boasts, “I have some damn good deception skills.” Which begs the question…how exactly does Jacob define “skills”? In his defense, his lie that he got an immunity idol — a fake that he made — wasn’t terrible. The problem (and the problem with many fake idols these days) was the lack of a note to go with it. Gone are the days where people fall for a fake idol without a note.

Brendan’s no dummy. He knows there’s no way a fellow super-fan like Jacob would forget to bring the note. Meanwhile, over at Naviti, Dom has a fake idol that’s about to come into play as well. He shows one he made along with the note from his real idol to Chris to try to mend the broken fence from his earlier comment that Chris made some mistakes at the initial marooning challenge. Only one problem: It comes right after he has already told Chris that he does not have an idol. “Something about it is just off,” notes Chris.

I’m going to be completely honest here. I spoke to Chris before the game and I thought two things. Thing No. 1: Seems like a nice guy. Thing No. 2: This dude is pretty clueless and has self-awareness issues. He is going to have a lot of trouble in this game and could be one of the first ones out. I also wasn’t the only one who thought that. Jeff Probst told me he questioned how Chris would do out there once the game began. (Angela was the other person I thought could be an early exit, and she’s the other person Probst named as he thought could be in trouble. Look at me and Probst agreeing on everything! Maybe I should have used this opportunity to ask him to reconsider going back to a final 2.)

Anyway, the fact that Chris did not get so easily duped here by Dom shows that I underestimated him. “I will not get voted out of this game going against my instinct,” he says, and I think that’s actually a very astute — if simple — way to go about playing this game. People are constantly going to be lying to you in this game. Your best bet is to go with your gut and hope it works out. And if it doesn’t, at least you went down listening to your intuition, even if that intuition was flawed.

And my intuition tells me it’s time to head to the second immunity challenge, and one that makes me very, very happy. You all know from reading these here recaps that I love watching challenges in water. In fact the only thing I like more than watching a challenge in water is competing in a challenge in water. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that rarely happens. When the press members make our pilgrimages out to location, we’re usually stuck on land. Or paddling something on top of water, which doesn’t really count. Only a few times have I been lucky enough to “DIVE DEEP!” as opposed to “DIG DEEP!” But this was one of those times.

I got to team up with Entertainment Tonight’s Cameron Mathison and Dream Teamers to take on ET Canada’s Erin Cebula and old whatsherface…Andrea Boehlke. The rules were slightly different than what you saw on TV since — as previously mentioned — this was originally supposed to be the first immunity challenge of the season with 10 people on each team. Originally, two people, not one, swam put to collect all the released balls, not just specially marked ones, and then we could shoot all of them, but that’s about the only change.

You can watch our run through above, but only if you promise not to make fun of my underhand granny style of shooting. I tried overhand a few times and was not even close to making one in. Honestly, it was embarrassing. I could feel fellow press peeps Holmes & Wigler (which sounds like either an awesome ’80s sitcom or a high end law firm) judging me from the safety of their floating dock. But once I went Rick Barry style, I was actually money! I may have looked hella stupid, but I’m telling you, once I made the switch and made peace with looking like the weakling like I am, it was like I was all of a sudden “On Fire” NBA Jam style! BTW, this is a helpful tip for all future weakling Survivor players as well as people who don’t mind looking ridiculous on national television. It works! 

The actual challenge between the tribes basically comes down to James and Donathan retrieving the second set of balls. I guess the plan here was for James to dive down and pull the lever while Donathan swam to the end and waited. It was clear as the two made their way through the course that neither were strong swimmers, and when they got to the ball release, that became a problem. James tried time and time again to dive down, but every time he started to dive, he immediately turned around and went back to the surface. It wasn’t that he was diving down and couldn’t get the lever to open or was running out of air or anything. Quite simply: He was scared.

James would only get down about a foot and then immediately rush back up to the top. It wasn’t a matter of being out of air. It was just nerves. He looked like a kid learning to swim for the very first time who lets go of the wall for a second but then grabs it again before anything happens because he’s convinced he is headed to a watery grave. It’s not that James couldn’t do it as much as he was scared to even try. I’m not saying that to denigrate him at all, but you could tell this was more a mental than physical problem

To give you a bit of perspective, I did this exact same leg during the rehearsal. The lever wasn’t that deep — about 8 feet or so. Not a picnic or cake walk by any means, but I remember back in Survivor: All Stars having to dive down 13 feet to unhook something from the ocean floor. Now that was deep. 8 feet is totally manageable — unless you are not a strong swimmer. You could tell leading up to this that James was not confident in the water, and if that is the case it doesn’t matter if you are a star athlete — as James was as a collegiate sprinter.

And then there is Donathan. James calls over to his partner for help, but Donathan doesn’t budge. His teammates implore him to give it a shot. Donathan doesn’t budge. But whom do you call when you need a rousing pep talk to get the juices and confidence flowing? (Certainly not Brendan, that’s for sure.) You call Probst!

“You gotta get down!” the host yells. “This is why you came to Survivor right here!” YES! I love this! Tell me that didn’t make you want to dive into your TV right then and there yourself! Probst is like Tony Robbins, Vince Lombardi, and Stuart Smalley all wrapped into one. And here’s the thing: Players really don’t want to disappoint Jeff Probst out there. I’ve heard this over and over again from contestants — that getting the Jeff Probst seal of approval has often subconsciously forced them to do or say things they normally would not.

“Donathan, you can do this! Commit and go!” I mean, how can you not do it after that! Jeff Probst is not only the best reality host on the face of the planet, he is also a master motivator. And you know what? It works. Dammit, it works! I try not to get caught up in some of the sappy story lines that often feel a bit force fed, but how can you not love that? Watching a guy like Donathan clearly stepping way outside his comfort zone to conquer all that fear and doubt inside of him was flat-out awesome. So good for Malolo celebrating like they won the Super Bowl even though they just got blown out like Steve Grogan facing the 1985 Chicago Bears. It was a moment that transcended the game.

So back to Malolo we go, where James — to his credit — takes full responsibility for the loss — apologizing because “I choked.” Then again, not sure what his other option was. It’s not like he could have tried something along the lines of “Hey, guys. I just want to come right out and say that Stephanie really blew it on that one. I mean, by the time she collected all the marked balls, the competition was already over. Pretty pathetic, Stephanie. Pretty pathetic.” No, he had to take the heat.

Meanwhile, the rest of Malolo is deciding what to do about Jacob. Brendan thinks he’s bluffing about the idol but wants to hedge their bets and throw a few votes James’ way just in case. So Stephanie steps up and suggests playing double agent to “use her flirtatious ways” on Jacob. But because Jacob is such a Survivor nerd, Stephanie’s flirtation takes the form of strategy talk — and holy shiznit, it works!!!! Pretty soon, Jacob is blabbing to Steph — may I call you Steph? — about EVERYTHING. Oh my God, he spills so much it’s as if he’s auditioning to star in a Rosie the Bounty paper towel lady ad.

Stephanie is good. Really good. She seems to have really strong ins with both the boys and girls on the tribe. Could she be my episode 1 pick to win it all? She is certainly in contention, but there are a few other worthy contenders. You’ll have to wait a bit more to find out! First we have to head back to Tribal Council to watch Jacob have his dreams absolutely shattered. And shattered they are. “It sounds pathetic, but it hurts on a very deep level,” says Jacob after being voted at a Tribal Council where he also slipped and mentioned getting a “advantage” when he had lied and told his tribe he had an idol. But it doesn’t sound pathetic to me. In fact, it’s yet another reason why I would never play Survivor. I would dwell on such a public and personal slight for way too long, so I get it. Listen, I’m not going to say that Jacob played well, but he played. Same with Gonzalez. I didn’t see either of them sitting back — although that would have actually done Jacob some good, as previously noted.

So there we are! Two hours in the books, ladies and gentlemen. What have we learned? Well, I liked the cast a lot when I met them out there on location and was happy to see that they seem to be delivering so far. I thought the marooning was fantastic and I dig the Ghost Island theme. When you have great creative and a great cast, good things will happen, so I’m optimistic that can continue. (Then again, I loved the Redemption Island cast and first two hours of that season, so who the hell knows.)

And now it’s time to reveal my week 1 pick to win it all. I actually made this pick back in Fiji after my contestant interviews and before the game started. First, the runner-ups.

Wendell: He was a popular pick among other press peeps, and was Probst’s pick to win as well on day 1. I see why. He’s smart, charming, appears athletic, good at building things. Where the weakness? I could totally see him winning this game.

Stephanie: With that big laugh, even bigger hair, and neon clothing, I worried Stephanie might come on a bit too strong. How can you blend into the background when your clothes are so bright they practically require a battery pack? But she’s shrewd, this one. And, as mentioned, she’s someone with the ability to bond with both genders. Definitely one to watch.

Kellyn: I think Kellyn could be the stealth assassin this season. All the other people on this list should come off as obvious threats, but Kellyn is not the Alpha personality that some of these other people are. Which is exactly why I could see her using her smarts and a cutthroat game that nobody will see coming to make it to the end.

Domenick: I was reeeeeaaaaaally close to picking Domenick. I like the confidence. I like the swagger. And I like the charisma. In fact, the only reason I did not pick him is because I thought he might come on a little too strong… which is exactly what he then did by raising his hand and publicly questioning Chris’ decision making at the marooning. I would love for Domenick to go far because I think he’ll be entertaining as hell, and he has strategic chops to back it up.

So those folks were all close to being my pick, but instead I went with…Brendan. Brendan just has that Tom Westman power-dad vibe to him that I think could take him far. I figured people would immediately respect him when the game began — and that’s exactly what happened, as they chose him as their tribe leader. And while Brendan has all the usual attributes you look for in a contender (smart, athletic, social), he also just seems likable. He comes across as a guy you want to work with, and that cannot be underestimated in this game.

So there you have it! My preseason pick to win Survivor: Ghost Island. Seeing as how I have been wrong for now over 20 seasons in a row, I’d like to follow up that announcement by apologizing to Brendan for jinxing him before the game even started. (Notice his tribe already lost the first two immunity challenges after I made him my preseason pick?) Hey, maybe there’s your theme for season 37 — just take all the people I have incorrectly predicted as winners and let them battle it out.

Okay, we’re almost done. But just a few odds and ends for you. First off, I still have all the original Survivor Love Letters that I had the new cast write to their favorite players ever. (You can see them over on my Instagram feed right here.) As in previous years, I will figure out a fun way to give those away, but, frankly, I’ve been too busy writing a 6,700+ word recap to deal with it, so give me at least a week on that one.

Once again, we’ve got our weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst, so make sure to check that out, and once again we have weekly deleted scenes to share with you — two this week, both above, along with other fun visual goodies sprinkled throughout including the opening credits scene you did not see on TV and our updated Probst “1 Survivor!” montage with all 36 openings. Check them all out throughout the recap. We’ll be speaking with the eliminated players each week on EW Morning Live (Entertainment Weekly Radio, SiriusXM, channel 105) and I’ll get those up on as well. (UPDATE: You can now read our exit interviews with Gonzalez and Jacob at the links above.) And finally, you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss for season-long Survivor scoop.

And now it’s your turn. Who’s your pick to win it all? What do you think of the cast in general? Like the twists so far? Sad to see Gonzalez and/or Jacob go? Weigh in via the comments below and I will be back next week with a considerably less ridiculously sized scoop of the crispy!

Jeff Probst leads adventures in the ultimate (and original) reality series.
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  • 37
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  • 05/31/00
  • Charlie Parsons
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