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.
“In this game, whenever you start showing that you’re too close to anybody, you become a power couple. And power couples have to be split up before they start making power moves.” — Mike Holloway, winner, Survivor: Worlds Apart
Survivor: Ghost Island concluded with a tie vote, as Domenick Abbate and Wendell Holland cemented their place as one of the most dominant duos in the history of the show.
On any other season, either Dom or Wendell alone would be one of the game’s biggest players. Both had multiple immunity wins (Dom with 3; Wendell with 2), both had a real idol and a fake idol. Dom had the legacy advantage. Wendell won the fire-making challenge. The pair were so absurdly dominant that, after the merge, the only question really became which one of them would win the game.
That question persisted right until the last scrap of parchment. In a historic moment, Survivor had its first ever tie. 0-vote finalist Laurel cast the deciding vote. “I hate that I had to do that, you guys,” she said.
Her vote was for Wendell, making him the winner of the million dollars, the title of Sole Survivor – and most importantly, the Final Fishy.
Wendell’s dominance began out of the gate, where his laid back demeanor and skill with woodcraft placed him at the center of Naviti. He quickly developed bonds with his tribe – notably Domenick. Even in the first episode, when Wendell heard that Domenick was being targeted, he pulled in numbers to protect his new friend.
But Wendell had few opportunities to truly strategize before the merge, due to Naviti’s dominance. The tribe won the first two immunities, and then was the beneficiary of a nearly impossible sequence of good luck, gaining the majority on every single tribe, after every swap. Meanwhile, Wendell’s superb performance in the challenges – combined with the might of Chris Noble – led his tribe to victory on Naviti, Naviti 2, and Yanuya. Before the merge, he was vulnerable once, and only once, when his ally Morgan was blindsided. It easily could have been him, a reminder of how a slight change in circumstance can utterly change a season.
At the merge, the Wendell-Domenick pair took power in one of the greatest displays of game control that Survivor has ever seen. At first the two played along with their Naviti tribemates, working with Kellyn and her crew to pick off the Malolos and sniff out disloyalty. But the best move of the game was when the pair recruited Donathan and Laurel into a secret alliance of four. That hidden foursome gave Domenick and Wendell the edge when the Naviti group had to ultimately turn on each other.
It’s easy to focus on the multiple idols and advantages and the immunity wins. But Domenick and Wendell also excelled at the game’s social strategy. Whether Wendell was coaxing Laurel to remain loyal, or Domenick was urging Angela to spill the beans about a secret blindside, the two succeeded because of the deep bonds they had with their tribemates, and the way they leveraged those bonds for their strategic goals.
I’ve seen some people online saying that Wendell and Domenick’s achievement is minimized because of weak competition. But this season at its start was packed with strategists and gamers. Part of what makes great players strong is keeping the other contestants weak – eliminating strategic and physical threats, keeping yourself at the center of all alliances, managing egos. Episode after episode, we saw Dom and Wendell pour themselves into the difficult task of politicking that the game demands.
Of course you can hardly talk about Wendell without bringing up Domenick, who in my opinion is one of the best combinations of character and player the show has ever seen. Like Tony Vlachos, he seemed unable to control his restless energy in his first few days, hunting for idols at night and inventing impossibly bad nicknames for his tribemates (“Sea Bass.”).
It was hard to tell in those early days if Domenick’s moves were over-the-top misplays or smart aggressive strategy. His scrounging at night drew attention to him, making him his tribe’s earliest target. His decision to show Chris a fake idol and claim it was the real idol was befuddling. Indeed his entire agon with Chris, which started when he questioned Chris’s decision-making during the show’s first challenge, defined Naviti politics and put him at unnecessary risk.
But as the season progressed, Domenick burned off some of that excess energy, and his drive became more focused. As with Tony, moves that seemed premature like eliminating Bradley turned out to be season-defining in their brilliance.
Final Tribal Council
At Final Tribal, the pair struggled to differentiate themselves from each other.
“I need one of you to bury the other one,” said Chris. “Because I thought for sure you had to knock each other off. It would be ridiculous for both of you to be sitting there.”
Wendell focused on the heart with which he played the game. “I wanted to bring the true weird unique pieces of me out here,” he said. “I wanted to be able to build some things. I wanted to be a guy who’s kind of athletic, kind of social, kind of smart. I wanted to mesh all these pieces of the true me, and I also wanted to put my heart out there and let people know who I am.”
Most of all, Wendell emphasized his laid-back strategy, as opposed to Domenick’s aggressive play. “My strategy was to sit back and let Dom be the Dom show,” he said. “I tried to be a lover out here.”
Meanwhile, Domenick fully owned his brash play style. “I played a hell of a game and I know it and I own it.” And the jury did seem to give the strategic edge to Domenic. When Kellyn asked people who had recruited them, more people said Domenick than Wendell.
But people also felt alienated by Domenick’s bluster. His incredible bluff at the final 5 with a fake immunity idol – which he himself declared was one of the best moves of the game – saved his skin, but alienated the jury. In a comically un-self-aware moment, Sebastian said, “Yeah, I was going to vote you out, but that was brutal. I’m a lover, dude.”
Ultimately the pair were evenly right up to the very end, with each of them earning five of the jury’s votes, forcing Laurel to cast the deciding vote for Wendell.
Laurel for her part had the impossible argument to make of why she deserved to win. Throughout the season, Laurel was integral to Dom and Wendell’s dominance. Whenever a scheme was about to hatch or a blindside was taking shape that might unseat the pair, Laurel would report back to her allies, and was a key number in keeping the duo in power.
But as with Dawn in Caramoan, the jury doesn’t look fondly on the person who spoiled all their plans.
Laurel argued that she was the last Malolo standing, and that being on the catastrophic Malolo tribe changed her entire strategy. “I managed to find a way to hang in there vote after vote after vote.”
The jury didn’t buy it. “You knew that these two were a problem,” Michael said. “You had the chance to make a huge move and to obtain power and to really switch up the game.”
But Laurel fought back, arguing that if she had flipped, it would have benefited somebody else. “With these guys, I was in the top of a majority alliance,” she said.
Ultimately, Laurel may have been in a simply unwinnable position, destined to lose against Domenick and Wendell, but without a true alternate game plan. And I am honored to induct her into the No Votes club. Albert Destrade and Spencer Bledsoe and Tasha Fox and Troyzan and Hannah Shapiro and Ken McNickle and Tai Trang and Sugar Kiper and Sash Lenahan and Mick Trimming and many more players and I welcome you.
Sometimes the best players make for the most boring television, and that was certainly true this season. Watching Dom and Wendell control the season was often frustrating, as the other players seemed to trip over themselves to hand the duo the win.
The Ghost Island mechanic itself seemed like a fascinating addition, and the introduction of historical items was a fun way for the show to integrate its storied past.
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But Ghost Island got confusing as every week the rules changed. Some weeks, the tribe winning reward sent a player to compete in a game for an advantage. Other weeks, there was no Ghost Island. One week, Sebastian, who won the reward, got to pick one person to go – unless he decided not to. And that person was guaranteed an advantage, without playing a game.
Confusing? You can only imagine how the contestants felt. One of the key features of any game — from Survivor to chess to tennis to Monopoly — is a clear set of rules. Watching players figure out how to optimize their position based on those rules is what makes games exciting. How could a tennis pro ever achieve excellence if every match the lines were in different places, the net a different height, and some days they used a volleyball?
If the rules change with the tides, if every day a new mechanic enters the game, suddenly the very possibility of strategy becomes dubious. How do you make a plan when nothing is certain?
In general, I’ve enjoyed Survivor’s introduction of advantages and twists. But I would like to make a plea for a little consistency. On the one hand, it encourages better and more interesting strategy, as players figure out new and inventive ways to take advantage of familiar mechanics. The evolving use of the immunity idol is the most obvious example.
I also think consistency encourages more aggressive play. I know that one of the goals of adding advantages to the game is to motivate people to make big moves. But at this point, there’s the danger that it actually ends up making them play more conservatively. When there’s constant twists, you’re more incentivized to stick to the plan and build a big alliance of numbers, because you have no idea what might happen next. Part of the reason why nobody ever turned on Dom or Wendell was because they were terrified of what hidden advantages the duo might have up their sleeves.
The best seasons of the show haven’t had the most twists. Cagayan and China and Heroes vs. Villains and Cambodia had a handful of idols and an advantage or two. Find me a fan who prefers the Game Changers twist-a-geddon to any of those seasons.
I understand the challenge that Survivor faces as it competes during the golden age of television, in which every episode of scripted programming ends with a shocking death or an explosion.
But I still hope in the future that the game at least builds some structure into its chaos, to continue the evolution of strategy that has defined this epic show.