By Dalton Ross
February 20, 2019 at 09:00 PM EST
Credit: Timothy Kuratek/CBS
S38 E1

You have a decision to make. If you do not want to read anymore, follow your web browser to another URL and your adventure will end. But if you want a chance to bleed your eyes senseless by reading way too much about a single hour of reality television, take your laptop or smartphone and prepare to do a hella lot of scrolling.

Welcome to the Edge of Survivor recapping! (And, granted, sometimes over the edge.) I’m your cruise director Julie McCoy, and I will be your guide for yet another season going over all the strategy and shenanigans with a fine-toothed comb — which, coincidentally enough, can also be used on Joey Amazing’s new mustache. Before we get into it, a few quick programming notes I would love to bring to your attention.

First off, the hula-hoop competition on the Lido deck has been postponed due to inclement weather. Check the bulletin board for rescheduling. Next, if any you missed my insanely exhaustive behind-the-scenes report on the Edge of Extinction marooning, then you should stop missing it. Honestly, in my 38 seasons of covering this show, I have never spent more time on any Survivor article. I’m not sure if that is an advertisement or a warning, but I do know that you will learn all about a secret tribe reward and a fake Legacy Advantage that never made it into the episode. And I also know that you will learn more about what happens behind-the-scenes on Survivor than ever before. So again, please do me a solid and check it out right here.

Also, before we get out of the gratuitous self-promotion part of the proceedings, I would like to draw your attention to the press roundtable I did with Josh Wigler (Hollywood Reporter, RHAP) and Mara Reinstein (Us Weekly) where we shared our thoughts on the new cast immediately after speaking with them in Fiji. You can listen to that in the SoundCloud below. Like everything else I do, it’s not short, but there’s some interesting insight in terms of what the players were like the day before the game started. You won’t hear that kind of stuff anywhere else.

Okay, someone named “Wardog” is on my screen talking, so that must mean I should get to the episode, but first I want to share some general thoughts about the Edge of Extinction twist. Here’s what we can say at this point in terms of what Edge of Extinction is. When players are voted out, they will be offered the choice to either leave the game or go live with minimal supplies and food for a chance to get back in it. The when and how that will happen will be revealed later.

Anyone that goes back long enough and reads my recaps from Pearl Islands or the Redemption Island seasons knows that I am not a fan of twists that allow people back into the game after they have been voted out. It’s not an issue of fairness as much as it is that I believe it neuters the show’s signature moment — the vote-off.

The fact that someone can think they are running the game and then be completely ousted from it is the drama on which this show is built. I firmly believe that compromising that in any way is a losing proposition. (There’s also the fact that anyone that does go to Redemption Island or the Edge of Extinction has a wildly unfair advantage in terms of final jury voting should they make it back into the game because they just spent time bonding together with potential jury members against the people that voted them out.) So, not a fan.

But here’s what I will say: Just because I am not a fan of that twist, does not mean I can’t enjoy seasons with it. I love Pearl Islands, even with the Outcasts. Blood vs. Water was a fantastic installment as well (and the one in which the Redemption Island twist actually worked the best because it created myriad strategic possibilities due to the presence of loved ones). Hell, I even like the South Pacific season! Nobody likes the South Pacific season. But I do! I’m a card-carrying South Pacific apologist! You can even @ me!

The point is, I am not writing off the Edge of Extinction season just because I worry conceptually about the Edge of Extinction twist. We’ll just have to see how everything plays out. Here is one interesting note, however. Jeff Probst hated the Outcasts twist from Pearl Islands, and he often said the big problem he had with it was that they did not let the players know in advance about it. That’s why in the Redemption Island seasons, they always made a point right off the bat to let players know about people voted out having a chance to get back in, so they could adjust their games accordingly.

However, the host did NOT tell the season 38 players about it, and like with the Outcasts, these contestants will presumably not know anything about it until much later when a person — or people — are getting ready to come back in. So what’s that all about? I asked Probst about his change of thinking in this week’s Q&A and you can read his response there, but let me be clear about something: Just because I am pointing out how Probst said one thing then and says another thing now is not me trying to ensnare him in some sort of GOTCHA! moment. The show evolves and so does Jeff’s thinking about it: That’s what I find interesting.

It’s kind of like the Celebrity Survivor angle. At one point, Jeff told me on the record that they would NEVER do a Celebrity edition of the show, and then a few years later they actively pursued one. But there was context to that change of heart. When he first showed disdain for the concept, it was after one of the ill-fated runs of the super cheesy I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, and he was pointing out what made Survivor special and different. Once that other show went away and they were looking for different twists and themes to employ, they reconsidered the celebrity thing. And that’s what they should do — always be reconsidering things. So why did they have a change of heart on not telling the contestants this time about voted out people not being out of the game? Check our Q&A for his answer.

One last thing about Edge of Extinction. (There’s always a “last thing” with me.) It’s no coincidence that it is in play for a season with returning players. In fact, the whole reason Redemption Island was created was to make sure the producers got at least a few episodes with Boston Rob and Russell in case one of them was booted early — which is exactly what happened when Russell was voted out of his tribe first. Putting Edge of Extinction in play here guarantees them keeping Joe, Aubry, David, and Kelley on the show, even if they get voted out. Again, not an accident. Okay, now that we have all that out of the way, let’s get to…

The Marooning
The season starts with the 14 new contestants on the boat, and they don’t have to be Chrissy Hofbeck-level actuaries to notice the fuzzy math at play here. Clearly, there are some returning players about to enter the picture and enter they do in dramatic fashion.

Hey, let me ask you a question: Does anyone remember that show Average Joe? Average Joe was one of approximately 10 million Bachelor rip-off reality dating programs. These were the true glory days of reality television. Each of these rip-offs had a twist. For Joe Millionaire, it’s that the woman thought they were vying for the love of an insanely rich dude when it was actually some poor sap. For Mr. Personality — HOSTED BY MONICA LEWINSKY!!!! — one woman had to date a bunch of dudes wearing ridiculous looking masks. (Don’t believe me? See for yourself below.)

And then there was Average Joe, where a beauty queen had a dating pool of only dorks, losers, and lame-os. The hilarious twist in Average Joe, however, is that about halfway through the season, a sleek speed boat would roar into view carrying a bunch of shirtless super-studs waxed within an inch of their lives, and the woman would ultimately have to choose either a hottie or a nottie. (I’ll give you one guess as to which one both gorgeous women in the first two seasons picked. Hint: the word starts with the letter H.)

Anyway, images of speedboat Average Joe — and all the accompanying homoeroticism that goes along with it — started dancing in my head when the vessel carrying Kelley, Aubry, Joe, and David — roared into sight. And apparently, the contestants were just as excited upon seeing the fearsome foursome, showering them with applause because why wouldn’t you give a rapturous welcome to the four people that are trying to take a million dollars out of your pocket?

Then again, how could they not be star-struck? Especially sitting in the presence of some of the biggest Survivor greats ever, like the guy Jeff Probst describes as being “scared of pretty much everything on day 1.” And the gal that Probst notes “literally cried in the shelter the first time she played.” It doesn’t get any bigger than that, ladies and gentlemen!

Anyway, it turns into a good ol’ boat scramble as players have two minutes to grab food before jumping off. As we see, Matthew Perry… I mean, Ron Clark, finds the Secret Advantage clue, but as referenced above in my behind-the-scenes story, there was also a tribe reward clue on the boat saying to dive underneath a buoy to retrieve a crate of canned goods. You never saw this on the show, because like so many other things, it got cut for time. (Had the premiere been 90 minutes long it surely would have made it). Anyway, I’ll give you one guess as to who swam out and retrieved it? Yep, Joey Amazing. So if you see any canned goods lying around the Kama camp, now you know where they came from.

The other interesting thing of note that you saw a little bit of on the show was Keith almost drowning. This didn’t make the episode, but Jeff actually had to yell at the Manu tribe to swim back to Keith to help him. Keith is a sweet kid and I’m sure that was not the first impression he wanted to make on his tribe. That’s the bad news. The good is that he’s still, you know, alive. Speaking of Keith, let’s head to the Manu tribe beach to see what’s what.

Manu and Returning Players (get it?)
Our look at the Manu tribe beach begins with Rick Devens telling us he feels like the Kool-Aid man, even punctuating it with the trademark “OH YEEEEAAAH™!” Devens either really likes Kool-Aid or really wanted to get this analogy on the show because I saw him do the exact same thing when answering a Probst question before the immunity challenge. (See below.)

We check in quickly with returnees Kelly (who forms an alliance right off the bat with Lauren) and David (who tells us he is no longer rattled by the sound of chopping bamboo), but most of the early footage rests on Wendy… who told me before the game she would be going by “Big Wendy” this season, although apparently, that didn’t take with Probst or the other players. Why are “Devens” and “Wardog” acceptable as alternative naming options but Big Wendy is not? I have no clue.

I will confess that during my pre-game chat with Big Wendy (I’m sticking with it out of some sort of misplaced solidarity just so the nickname does not go completely unnoticed this season) that I wondered why she kept sneezing. She then explained to me — as she did to her tribemates — that it was not a sneeze but that she has Tourette’s mixed with a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I didn’t really see that impacting her game at all. What I worried more about was if Big Wendy would be just too… big. That’s because Wendy is a huge, fast-talking goofball. I say that with affection, but it’s not for everyone. Sure enough, Wendy seems on the outs here pretty early, and it’s something she says she is used to, telling viewers how she feels awkward and unable to vibe around people. In a social game like Survivor, that can be a killer.

Speaking of not fitting in, it seems certain members of the Manu tribe are having trouble finding their clothes. You know why? THEY GOT REEMED! Yes, it seems Reem has taken it upon herself to take clothes that were hang-drying and move them to the beach. Because why wouldn’t people want their damp clothes put right on the sand without their permission? Seems like a no brainer!

I knew Reem was going to have trouble during our pre-game conversation. We had a great time ourselves, chatting about the Washington Capitals, who were playing in game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs during our interview (I may have been getting — and giving — score updates from back in the States). But Reem kept talking about how much she hates people that are too sensitive. And this is something I’ve noticed about people who go on and on about how much they hate folks that are too sensitive. Those people tend to be pretty gosh darn sensitive themselves. Reem is brash and speaks her mind but — as we would see later at Tribal Council — is not so great when others speak their mind about her.

The first conversation we see between Reem and Keith is almost a clinic on how not to make an alliance. Keith tells Reem he sees her as a mother figure… and Reem immediately tells him she doesn’t want to be a mother figure. Keith then pushes yet again to form a bond, telling Reem he is a mama’s boy… and Reem proceeds to tell him not to be soft. This is just horrible social gameplay, no two ways about it. Instead of drawing Keith in, Reem just keeps pushing the teenager away, and this will come back to haunt her later.

Kama, Kama, Kama, Kama, Kama Chameleon
Let’s take a gander at the Kama camp, where Joey Amazing doesn’t want to be Joey Amazing anymore. Apparently, judging by his moustache, he wants to be some kind of combination between Snidely Whiplash and Rollie Fingers. But the man who single-handedly took 7 years off of Stephen Fishbach’s life can’t help be…well, amazing! I already told you about the tribe reward of canned goods he secured. And now he and Aubry are making fire on day 1! It seems everyone is infected with Joe fever. “I’m gay and I’m still on Team Joe,” says Aurora in the line of the night. And when I say “line of the night,” I mean that literally, in that it was Aurora’s only line of the night.

Speaking of one-line-wonders, we also meet Julie, who informs us that “I have no outdoor survival skills whatsoever” and that “the closest I’ve ever come is that I peed in the bushes of Central Park once, and that was an emergency.” Jesus, Survivor producers! I know editing this thing down to 43 minutes is a near-impossible task, but how do we not hear more about the Central Park Urinator? I need to know everything about this emergency and I need to know it now. Considering Julie also confessed to me pre-game about peeing on her apartment floor,I am starting to wonder if she has something against bathrooms in general. I mean, if she does, then Survivor is the perfect game for her, I guess. She can pee anywhere she likes here! Doesn’t even need an emergency to do it or anything.

As for other newbies, Ron uses his Secret Advantage clue to dig up his prize, and it turns out he has a menu of three choices to choose from. He can either steal a reward from the other tribe if they lose a challenge, get an extra vote at Tribal Council, or get individual immunity at a Tribal Council, but whatever he chooses loses its power after the third Tribal. It’s way too early to figure out which of the three options he should take because everything in this game is fluid and situational. What could be even more interesting is seeing if he uses any of them at all.

Let’s say Ron feels totally safe and is in an alliance with the numbers. If that’s the case, there is an argument to be made that he could be better off not using it at all. That’s because using any sort of advantage this early in the game — even though he was just lucky and happened to stumble across the clue — could automatically paint a target on his back. So if you’re sure you’re safe, you have to weigh which is greater: the positive of résumé building, or the negative of being seen as a bigger threat. Just something to think about and keep an eye on as the dynamics of the Kama tribe begin to take hold.

Here’s someone that should be worried: Aubry. While Aubry is not crying in the shelter on day 1 this time, as Probst loves to point out, she is already on two players’ radars. Eric the firefighter appears to make an alliance with Gavin (who had to move his wedding date up to a week before the season began after he got cast). “Someone new needs to win this game,” says Gavin. The two want to keep Joe around as a shield, and that means their target is Aubry. This actually really surprised me from Eric. Talking to him before the game, my takeaway was that he was sooooo nice. Too nice, I worried. I didn’t think he had the killer instinct to play this game. It appears I may be wrong. While I was happy to see this from Eric, my heart aches for Aubry. You all know how I feel about Aubry. I think she got hosed in Kaoh Rong, and she was immediately on the outs in Game Changers because Sandra was determined to get her out.

If she is indeed on the bottom already — and we certainly have not seen enough yet to know if that is the case — then I worry she may be slowly transforming into Joe Btfsplk, the character from the Li’l Abner comic strip who walked around with a perpetual rain cloud over his head. Of course, playing in Survivor you often do often have a literal rain cloud over your head, which means my Joe Btfsplk reference may not be so unique and insightful after all. (Although it did afford me the opportunity to namedrop Joe Btfsplk, and if you have that opportunity, you take it and never look back.)

Get the Balance Right
I titled this section after a relatively obscure Depeche Mode song, which is neither here nor there. Probably a step up from the Culture Club reference that titled the last section, but that is for you to judge. As for the challenge, for me, the three-tier balance beam is the most interesting element of this immunity competition. The key to getting over it? Go fast. Just go and let your momentum take you to the other side. I know this because I have terrible balance and yet made it across on my very first try during the press challenge rehearsal. (Of course, the ET Canada video of said run-through conveniently left that part out yet showed me practically castrating myself on the rope bridge. Fantastic — I’ve now become one of those annoying people who complains about their Survivor edit. Please kill me.)

A few other tidbits from the challenge: Climbing that rope to ring the bell was NO JOKE! While Joe and Chris (and CBS EPK cameraman extraordinaire Jason) all made it up on their first try, we had several Dream Teamers that were unable to do it, which doomed my squad in the challenge. As for that rope to the face that Wentworth took after falling off the balance beam, she was really hurting, kneeling down in pain behind her team. But Kelley is super tough, and as soon as they opened up their bridge-crossing she was back in the game. But that hurt. A lot.

I was really excited to see the puzzle portion of this challenge — there’s something you don’t hear me say every day — even though Kama had a big head start on it. That’s because David would be part of the Manu tribe on it, and David Wright did more puzzle prep than any contestant in Survivor history before the game. Would it pay off?

The short answer: No. But Manu’s big problem on these giant slide puzzle pieces was the same one my team had in the run-through: pieces getting stuck. These were massive blocks, and if one was even a half an inch off, then sometimes you could not move it, or could not move another piece into the open spot. It wasn’t just brute strength, but accuracy while sliding that was so important. In any event, David’s alleged puzzle prowess would have to wait for another day as Kama wins immunity and the flint that goes with it.

Abandon Ship?
So Reem, Wendy, and Keith have formed this little makeshift misfit alliance. But if you have an alliance of only 3 on a tribe of 9, that’s a problem. And when it becomes clear that Reem is in danger, Keith and Wendy have very different reactions. Keith is part of a conversation at the well where Reem barks orders at Devens and doesn’t really let him speak, so even though Keith was trying to make Reem his Survivor mommy — which, granted, sounds a lot grosser than I intended — and even though Reem was teaching him how to swim, Keith decides to jump off the sinking ship. He immediately runs over and tells all the others what is happening so he doesn’t get lumped in with on-the-outs Reem and Big Wendy.

Now, in contrast, let’s look at what Big Wendy does. After being told by Wardog that Reem is going home, Big Wendy says she understands but still will vote with Reem out of loyalty. The Wardog doesn’t like this because The Wardog thinks orders should be followed and not questioned. I do get his concern though. If you can’t control Big Wendy now when she is so clearly standing on the deck of the Titanic, will you be able to control her later when she perhaps has a firmer footing in the game? But I would counter with this: If Big Wendy is truly this loyal to people she is playing the game with that she will stick with them even in the direst circumstances, then I WANT TO PLAY WITH BIG WENDY!

That’s the ultimate alliance partner. Someone who will always have your back. Someone who will tell you when people are against you (as she does to Reem about 20 seconds later). And someone you can cut before they cut you because they never will cut you. You dream about having alliance partners like this. Why Wardog and David do not make a final 3 deal on the spot with Wendy after getting rid of Reem when she has nowhere else to turn is beyond me. Instead, The Wardog wants to get Wendy out. WHAT?!?!

So now, as Reem waves a machete in David’s face and says the words “dude” and “screw them” a lot, we head to Tribal Council wondering who will be the first person voted out.

What You Didn’t See at Tribal Council
So Reem is voted out at Tribal Council. Not a surprise. The votes are split as a precautionary measure with Big Wendy picking up 3 herself, but Reem was the target and Reem gets voted out. Instead of going over what you did see, why don’t I hit you with some things you didn’t see on TV that happened at Tribal.

• It was just moments into Tribal when Probst told Reem, “You seem annoyed already.” Her response? “I am annoyed! 100 percent. You say I am annoyed. I am annoyed! I’m just in general annoyed.” Okay, fine but other than that how do you feel?

• After Reem accused Kelley of “age discrimination,” Kelley noted that she worked with Keith Nale on Second Chance so how could she be discriminating based on age? There was a lot more back and forth between Reem and Kelley you didn’t see, including when Reem accused Kelley of saying there was a guy’s alliance that needed to be broken up, which Wentworth denied. (At one point during the semi-heated back and forth between the two, Devens — who was sitting right between them — joked, “I’m just a bystander in a drive-by.”) While Reem may have come out of this Tribal as the big loser because she was voted out, there is no doubt that Wentworth took a hit with all the attention put on her. And we saw that play out a little bit in the previews for next week. Sorry, Kelley, but YOU JUST GOT REEMED!

• Also worth noting: Big Wendy at one point called out Kelley, Lauren, and Chris as being in an alliance. Something worth keeping an eye on because the episode did not show Chris being a part of that.

• When Wardog said Reem would not let the moving clothes example go, he was not kidding. What you saw on air was a mere fraction of what went down. Reem continually kept going back to the clothes issue. Even when Probst and the others would try to move on to something else, she kept circling back to it, asking why it was so bad and pointing out how she was just trying to help and they should have asked her not do it. But should someone even have to think to ask someone not to move their clothes? Seems like a pretty odd, out of nowhere request to me.

• Ever wonder how long an actual Tribal Council lasts? It varies, but for this one, the players walked into Tribal Council at 7:58 pm and voting started at 9:19 pm. There were two breaks to change the tape for filming and then later there was an eight-minute delay (from 9:28 to 9:36) during voting when one of the camera lights went dead after Keith cast his vote. During the breaks to change tapes, contestants are on lockdown, meaning they are not allowed to speak to each other. During the first lockdown, Probst encouraged the contestants to “work your s— out at Tribal Council,” because clearly there was stuff to work out.

• My favorite moment of this Tribal Council — bar none — was when Probst told Rick Devens that he would call him Rick or he would call him Devens, but would not call him both. “I’m not calling you Rick Devens,” said Probst, laying down the law. “The inmates can’t run the asylum when it comes to names.” (Agreed! But tell that to Papa Smurf, Tarzan, and Troyzan.)

• Speaking of names, another classic-yet-unseen moment occurred when Reem addressed the tribe before voting: “If you are going to write my name down, can you at least spell it correctly? It’s R-E-E-M.” The irony, of course, is that Reem then misspelled Kelley’s name on her vote. Classic.

• Continuing the theme of names and votes and misspellings, Big Wendy told Lauren beforehand that she was writing her name down, so the surprise you saw on Lauren’s face upon seeing it was likely just her trying to figure out how someone could spell it “Laurin.”

• Part of Reem’s reaction upon seeing the Edge of Extinction sign that did not make it to air: “Hell yeah, I’m gonna be in this game. Get out! This is so great, dude. That’s all I’m f—ing saying! Sorry about the language.” Why apologize? It sounds to me like… WE ALL JUST GOT REEMED!

The Ultimate Jinx
I usually wait until my first recap to reveal my winner pick for each season, but I jumped the gun and revealed it already a week ago as being David Wright. But I’ll take you through my thinking as to why. First off, stats. I did that study two years ago showing what happens when Survivor stages seasons mixing new and returning players and the massive statistical advantage returning players have. In case you missed it, here are the figures.

For a combo season featuring both new and returning players, eight new players out of 93 have made it all the way to a final two or three, for a success rate of 8.6 percent. Meanwhile, a startling 11 out of 39 returnees — 28.2 percent — have made it all the way to the end. That means returning players are 3.5 times more likely to make it to day 39 than newbies. In fact, every single time Survivor has brought back returning players — including all three times it was just two returnees vs. 16 newbies — at least one of them has made it all the way to the end. And of those seven Survivor seasons combining former and first-time players, three have been won by newbies, while four have been won by returnees, even though they have placed well less than half of the number of contestants into competition.

So if you follow the numbers and are going to make a winner prediction, you have to go with a returnee. That takes us down to four people. So why David? I picked him right after our pre-game interview two days before the game even started, and for two reasons. First off, of the four all-stars, he comes in with the thinnest résumé and the smallest target on his back. That’s also due to the fact that David is such a quiet personality. We saw this play out in the very first episode as Kelley, Aubry, and Joe were all either directly targeted or mentioned as a big threat. Don’t get me wrong: David is also a MASSIVE threat. But he doesn’t come off that way, and it’s easy to get lulled in by his unassuming, aw-shucks demeanor.

The other reason I picked David is because he can make fire in under 20 seconds — bummer for him they didn’t have the final four fire-making challenge back in Millennials vs. Gen X — and did the most insane puzzle prep of any Survivor contestant ever. He now has the newbie anxiety out of his system that almost killed his game before it even started last time, and understands the rhythm of the season. So he’s my pick to win it all, and I would like to take this opportunity to hereby apologize for jinxing him from having any success whatsoever due to my 22 season streak — and counting — of incorrectly picking the winner.

Okay, a few housekeeping notes to get to before we wrap up. First off, I’m not sure if you saw all the photos on my Instagram page of the cast members revealing their most embarrassing moments ever, but they were tremendous sports about humiliating themselves on social media. In any event, as always, I have kept the original copies of the messages they wrote out in Fiji and will give them away to one lucky reader at some point in the season. For a chance to win the complete set, follow me on my Instagram @thedaltonross and I’ll have more instructions there later.

But we’re not done yet. We also have my weekly Q&A with Hostmaster General Jeff Probst that you’ll want to check out. And again, you should definitely read my all-access behind-the-scenes day 1 story for all the inside scoop of the marooning. It’s the geekiest Survivor thing I have ever done, which is truly saying something. We also have an exclusive deleted scene waiting for you above and a video interview with Probst taken directly after Tribal Council that you can see on the previous page. Plus, for more Survivor scoop you can follow me on Twitter @DaltonRoss.

But now it’s your turn. What did you think of the season premiere? How do you feel about the Edge of Extinction twist? Whom are you loving and loathing so far? Hit the message boards to weigh in and I’ll be back next week with another scoop of the crispy!

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