Alas, poor Jacob. Our fellow Survivor blogger, doomed in part by his own choices, and in part by a futile trip to Ghost Island.
On the one hand, yes, going to
Exile, er, Ghost Island, did temporarily save Jacob, by keeping him away from Malolo's first Tribal Council. (Alas, poor Gonzalez, who didn't appear to do anything wrong.) But Jacob made a big, logical play in trying to get himself sent to Ghost Island, for he was rewarded by... a lose-lose decision. (As opposed to Donathan's, which was more of a "Congratulations, you don't even get to make a decision, loser!" situation).
While Jacob guessed right and "won" an "advantage," it turned out to be just a crappy Legacy Advantage, which meant it would not have saved him at the next Tribal Council, since it was totally powerless until either F13 or F6. But the screw-job didn't end there: As it turns out, his hard-won "Secret Advantage," for which he risked not being able to vote at the next Tribal Council, was even less useful than the original Legacy Advantage, because he was then forced to give it away to someone on the other tribe. What the hell? All that effort for a marginally useful wallet that Sierra stumbled across during the marooning, and Jacob doesn't even get to keep it?
Again, Jacob's goading of Naviti into exiling him did have one guaranteed benefit: He was able to avoid Malolo's first Tribal Council. And from everyone's in-episode comments and Jacob's exit interviews, it's pretty clear he would have been voted out, had he not been sent to the Spooky Playground. That's a point in the Ghost Island twist's favor.
But clearly, just as with Exile Island, that advantage also comes at a cost: Jacob lost a full day of making social connections with his tribemates, and subsequently returned to camp under near-universal suspicion that he'd received something useful (like an idol) while there. Jacob was basically Val Collins 2.0 here, and he knew it. His fake idol cover story wasn't as terrible as it seemed: He rightfully assumed he needed to bring back some kind of souvenir, and a fake idol made sense, based on the Tony Vlachos analogy of a car thief preferring to move on to an easier target when he sees a car with an alarm. Jacob's ploy didn't work, because Brendan is smart and really knows the game. But credit to Jacob for at least trying something.
Ghost Island thus appears to provide all the negative social capital generation of Exile Island (isolation, suspicion), but with none of the benefits (idol clues). To be sure, Jacob's own actions on the beach put him in this spot to begin with (even though, from his exit interviews, it was clear he was on the outs from the very start), but his exile was more of a postponement of execution than a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. By not being able to scramble and make deals after that first immunity loss, all of Malolo's questions about Jacob were simply shelved for one boot cycle, rather than settled. The second he returned, he was immediately the Guaranteed Next Boot.
In stark contrast, other people benefitted from Ghost/Exile Island. Morgan did nothing, and got a time-restricted idol for free. Furthermore, Domenick's idol find demonstrated that Jacob would have been better off staying in camp, and using his free time there to find an idol. There was no idol for Jacob (as far as we know) at Ghost Island. In the next episode, Donathan had an even worse Ghost-ly experience, getting sent away and then having no opportunity to even find anything of value. He'll go back to his tribe empty-handed next episode, then promptly get swapped.
On balance, being able to avoid one Tribal Council by visiting Ghost Island is probably a net positive. Exile Island trips generally followed a reward challenge loss (although there were certainly memorable exceptions where Exiles followed immunity losses). As the game progresses, the social-game penalties from Ghost Island isolation might be slightly diminished, because people will have had the chance to build up meaningful, voting-tested bonds with their tribemates. But here, in the early game, the advantage/ disadvantage balance is probably pretty close to even. So apart from the timing, it's hard to see how Ghost Island differs in any meaningful way from Exile.
Exile Island, especially late in the season when it provided no further chance at finding idols, always seemed unnecessarily cruel (particularly in Cook Islands). Should something of value occasionally appear at Ghost Island, that will be a marked improvement over Exile. Although through two episodes, it's still well behind the most recent Exile iteration, in San Juan del Sur. (Although the pre-made shelter, everlasting fire, and seemingly bottomless supply of rice do seem to be a teensy step up from sleeping on rocks and eating snails.) Having a variety of possible outcomes—rather than just idol or no idol—at least makes Ghost Island marginally more interesting than Exile Island for viewers, so that's a plus. Still, while the emphasis on cool Survivor relics is fun, once that novelty wears off, it's hard to see Ghost Island as much more than set dressing that fails to really address the inherent flaws in the Exile Island concept—removing one person from the social game for an extended period—while still potentially introducing new ones.
Oh well, at least it's not Redemption Island.
Surprise survival of the eldest
Before the season started, we worried that stacking the cast with huge numbers of really young players would put the precious few contestants who were in their late 30s/ early 40s at an extreme disdvantage. Malolo, for example, started with seven of its 10 players being 26 or younger. Despite that, even with Malolo clearly being overmatched out of the gate, some of the biggest breakout performances of the premiere came from the "older" players—Domenick, Stephanie, and Brendan (even though Stephanie is only 34). Not only that, but in spite of our worries that the "older" players would be early boots for failing to fit in, not a single vote was cast at against anyone older than 26 at either Tribal Council (although, again, there were a lot of choices in that younger group). The older players not only survived, they thrived. So let's appreciate the geriatrics, shall we?
Domenick blazed an aggressive, high-variance path through the first two episodes, exactly as he said he would in the pre-game, and his full-throttle charge was exciting to watch. While his "truth teller" dissension from Chris's decision-making in the opening RC raised eyebrows (and Chris's hackles), Domenick was still able to forge a seemingly solid bond with Wendell, then further gave himself an out by finding an idol (in total darkness!). While it's impossible to tell how successful he really was, since Naviti never attended Tribal Council and next episode features a swap, there's no reason to think Domenick is in significant short-term danger, apart from a looming showdown with Chris. Which is good, because Domenick's pledge to break out his own version of Tony's "bag of tricks" should make for entertaining viewing while it lasts.
Stephanie was perhaps the biggest surprise of the premiere, playing a subtle, powerful social/strategic mastermind game from the very start. All while bedecked in some of the brightest-colored clothes in Survivor history, giving subtlety an extra degree of difficulty. She was seemingly part of every sub-group at Malolo: Talking to the women (Libby, Jenna, and Laurel, at least), plotting high-level recon operations with Brendan and Michael, making potential sub-plans with Jenna and with Jacob. Clearly, our concerns that she might not fit in were completely misplaced. While it hurt to watch poor, outcast Jacob get double-crossed, Stephanie's ability to get Jacob to drop his guard and divulge his deepest secret (that idol was fake) was truly impressive. She was also highly featured in the edit, which suggests she should be in this for the long haul. Based on the first six days, we're not particularly worried about her prospects after the swap, and are excited to see where her game is headed.
Brendan also impressed out of the gate, as he immediately seized (nominal) control of his tribe, but did so in a really chill, nuanced way. It probably helped that they nudged him into that role at the opening reward challenge. Before the season started, we worried that being viewed as a leader would set Brendan too much apart from the rest of his tribe, but by bringing in Michael as his right-hand man, Brendan has bridged the entire age range of his tribe, which seems... less threatening, more inclusive? Brendan was also consistently sharp and observant: Seeing through Jacob's fake idol ruse due to the lack of associated paperwork; worrying (rightly) that Stephanie's attempt to befriend Jacob and ferret out the truth of his fake idol could actually be a ploy to double-cross Brendan's leadership. While comparisons to Andrew Savage have abounded, he seems much more laid back than Savage ever did. Even so, we're still not sold that Brendan has long-term upside in the season, mainly because his edit set him up as the villain opposing lovable superfan Jacob, and showed him being potentially out-maneuvered by Stephanie. Despite the great episode, Brendan's ceiling is still probably Chris Hammons in MvGX. But at least he should outlast Marquesas's Hunter Ellis, depending on how the swap plays out.
Angela, this season's oldest player at the advanced age of 42, also was in these two episodes, apparently.
The Donathan Hurley experience
Donathan was the second-highest vote-getter/ decoy boot at Malolo's first Tribal Council, and was just the 11th-ranked contestant in the TDT fantasy draft. Before the season started, he seemed like a prime candidate for an early boot, if his tribe voted to "keep the tribe strong," as early Survivor tribes chock full of biceps and eight-packs are wont to do. Instead, however, Donathan emerged as one of the brightest stars of this young season. How long can his incandescence last?
There was so much Donathan in these two episodes that it's hard to believe he'll be out any time soon. We were given extensive insight into his background and his journey just to get here, quality time that is not usually dispensed for people who don't figure prominently in the story of the season. There's still a worry that Donathan could face a late-game backlash, just as Tai Trang did after being similarly universally beloved through the first two episodes of Kaoh Rong. But there's also a good chance that Donathan received this much screen time because he could go all the way. His trip to Ghost Island did feature him making fire (sort of), after all. Which, as we now know, is not just life, but also a mechanism by which someone can reach the final three. The one worry is that, perhaps because he missed one of the Tribals while at Ghost Island, we were given precious little insight into Donathan's strategic thinking.
Whatever the case, Donathan's unabashed glee to be traveling outside of eastern Kentucky, meeting new people, and playing Survivor is infectious. It's a reminder that Survivor is most fun to watch when the people playing it seem to also be having fun. It's one of the reasons production made the right move in casting more superfans. Contestants who both know the game and appreciate the opportunity to play it provide a deeper and richer viewing experience than some disengaged aspiring model/actor who is just settling for the Jeff Probst show because their attempt to get on Big Brother didn't pan out. Not every superfan ends up being successful, as we saw with Jacob. That's to be expected in a season with 19 losers and one winner. But when they can genuinely convey their enthusiasm about Survivor to the audience, as both Jacob did and Donathan continues to do, that's a huge plus. More, please.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other Ghost Island Episodes 1-2 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Stephanie Gonzalez (20th place)
Exit interviews - Jacob Derwin (19th place)