Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
Erik Reichenbach is a former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.
“You have to tread carefully out here. One mistake could cost you a million dollars.” — Hayden Moss, Survivor: Blood vs. Water
Survivor is a game of mistakes. You trust the wrong person, you play your idol at the wrong time, and suddenly a month of perfect strategizing blows up in a ball of fire. “One bad decision can haunt you forever,” says Jeff Probst, who clearly has been reading my diary.
That insight has sparked the game’s newest twist. On Ghost Island, players have the opportunity to win advantages that have been “misplayed” throughout the series’ history. The advantages have “lost” their power, and must be re-imbued with mystical might to “reverse the curse.”
The first episode of every Survivor season has its evergreen delights. Twenty wide-eyed strangers are let loose on the beach to scramble and strategize.
On the Malolo tribe, superfan/Bob Ross clone Jacob is immediately outcast. Jacob falls prey to two classic traps. First, he runs into the jungle in search of an idol. Second, he doesn’t find it. Idol hunting, like many Survivor activities, is easy to pillory when it fails, and easy to praise when it succeeds. It all comes down to whether you stick your hand in the right tree. I loved, loved, loved Jacob’s decision to filter the rice into his sock in search of a clue. Yes he looks bad (and gross) because he was wrong. But he would have looked like a genius (and still gross) had he been right.
Perhaps Jacob’s sock will be on a future Ghost Island.
Jacob was an obvious first boot for the tribe. He knew the game too well; he didn’t integrate himself well enough. But when Jacob is sent to Ghost Island, Malolo must come up with an alternate boot. The tribe debates between Donathan, the second-weakest link, and Gonzalez, who is playing too hard.
Stephanie wins this season’s First Fishy for driving the conversation around the vote. She decides that while she can “nurture” Donathan as an ally, Gonzalez is a strategic threat.
It’s also probably not a total coincidence that Stephanie is targeting the tribe’s other Stephanie. On Cambodia, Kelly Wiglesworth had a vendetta against Kelley Wentworth. On All Stars, Boston Rob was quick to take out Rob Cesternino.
I loved when the tribe was debating whom to eliminate, and Michael was arguing that “Gonzalez is a really strong player.” In a sublime moment of conversational jujitsu, Stephanie said, “She is … but is she?” It’s basically impossible for Michael to respond.
Indeed that conversational snippet might get at the heart of why Gonzalez was eliminated. She simply missed the crucial conversation where the tribe made its decision. As Michael says, “It really boils down to the conversations. Who was there at that time. And if you weren’t there, you could easily be the one out tonight.”
At Tribal Council, Gonzalez tries to whisper her way into safety. Over the past few seasons, since Game Changers, we’ve seen so many tribal councils break down into whisporama group huddles. Commentators like Rob Cesternino have speculated that Probst would have to put his foot down. But Jeff nails this moment. He lets the players talk, but he also makes them pay the full social price for their secret conversations.
He asks Stephanie, “Is this making you nervous right now?” He notes that “Laurel’s certainly curious.” He says to Jenna, “Are you worried that it doesn’t include you?”
The message is crystal clear. Do what you want, but there will be consequences. It’s moments like this that remind you how amazing Jeff is at his job. He seems so relaxed, even like he’s having fun, as he both monitors the private conversations, and directs the flow of tribal dialogue. He truly is the best in the business.
Ultimately, Gonzalez whispers herself out of the game.
Meanwhile, at Ghost Island, Jacob is the perfect debut ghostbuster. He immediately starts geeking out over all the tchotchkes that decorate the temple. When he’s given the choice to risk his vote for a chance at an advantage, of course he takes it – as he should.
Sadly, he doesn’t get any magical lifesaver. He wins arguably the worst advantage in the game — the legacy advantage — which is so situational, that it’s a miracle that it made such a crucial difference in Game Changers. Worst of all, he doesn’t even get to keep it for himself.
The second Fishy in this double-header episode goes to the show’s producers for creating Ghost Island. I loved the return of the haunted objects. I loved that not every resident of Ghost Island receives one. I loved that the players must make a real wager. And I loved even more that players don’t automatically get a superpower. Jacob’s object, at least, could only regain its impact by being gifted to Morgan on the other tribe.
WATCH: Survivor Ghost Island: Andrea Boehlke Interviews Castaways
As much as it brings back the magical mystery twists, Ghost Island also enables the social aspects of the game, which — far beyond the big moves — are the best parts of Survivor.
When Jacob returns back to camp, he lies about having a fake idol. Brendan — who has superpowers of observation — immediately sees through it. “There’s no chance in the world that this Survivor nerd forgot the note that came with the immunity idol back at Ghost Island,” he says.
At Tribal Council, the tribe unanimously votes to evict Jacob, who had been their target from the beginning. I was sorry to see the superfan go. But at least on Ghost Island he got those extra three days, and by being the first to cross that threshold, he will be a part of Survivor history.
We didn’t see much of the Naviti tribe, which won both immunities, although their spiderweb shelter looked epic.
We know that it’s a tribe of dreamers. Both Wendell and Kellyn made big life-changing career choices before adventuring onto the show. “I followed my passion,” Wendell says. “I took off the suit.”
The major tribe drama came down to a rivalry between alpha leader Chris and irrepressible Domenick. Domenick is a man out of the Tony Vlachos and Joe Mena mold, who can’t seem to control his restless energy, whether he’s nicknaming Sebastian “Sea Bass” or running through the forest at night searching for idols.
I’m always amazed/terrified when contestants scrounge around in the dark. In the pitch black island nights, who knows what might be lurking in that tree bole that you’re sticking your hand into.
When Domenick finds his idol, he feels so confident that he tries to fix things with Chris, but the conversation quickly takes a turn. Chris asks if he has an idol. At first he says no. Then he makes a fake idol and says yes, but using the real idol note.
Chris knows something’s up. “If my instincts tell me something’s off, I have to go with it,” he says.
It doesn’t matter. The Naviti tribe wins both immunity challenges. Domenick vs. Chris will have to be resolved another day.
Survivor airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.