I wish I’d counted the number of times someone said a version of, It’s time to make a move! and then did not during Survivor Ghost Island—or even just during the final episode. The finale ended up like the majority of the post-merge: grand promises, no action, rinse, repeat, zzzz.
And then, at 10:23 on the east coast, after the final Tribal Council discussion, Jeff Probst went to tally the votes for the winner.
He announced to the jury and final three that he was going to read them right there, on location, which made it immediately clear there was a tie vote—something many people predicted—but it was still quite incredible to hear Probst say these words: “For the first time in 36 seasons of Survivor, we have a tie.”
The jurors’ faces also said it all: they’d made history. I was, for the first time this season, truly and delightfully surprised.
Incredibly, it was one year ago—during the Game Changers finale, and right before the start of filming on Ghost Island—that Probst finally revealed to viewers what had been the show’s biggest mystery.
And at last night’s final Tribal Council, he explained the tiebreaker rules again: “The person who is not tied, Laurel, you become the 11th and final member of our jury.”
Laurel made what she later said “was an impossible decision,” because Wendell and Dom both played a “similar strategic game,” but she gave the win and $1 million to Wendell Holland because “for me it came down to Wendell’s social game and our personal relationship.”
Jeff Probst said the tie “speaks to truly a great season.” Alas, no. But it did make for a much better conclusion to the season.
So, too, did having Wendell, Dom, and Laurel as the final three. They may have been the strongest final three ever, a power trio who had slight variations in their games but ultimately stuck together all the way to the end.
Although Laurel didn’t receive any votes, and frustrated me endlessly by refusing to go after her allies, she was not the usual final three goat. She managed to get herself from one of the worst tribes ever to the final Tribal Council, even though she was an unambiguous threat. (After all, she’s “a fucking Yale graduate,” as Angela argued to Dom.)
They’re also three likable people who just happened to play one of the dullest Survivor games in memory.
The Survivor finale’s many fake-outs
Up until the tie vote, it was a predictable finale—a slog to an inevitable outcome. And afterwards, well, that’s not even worth mentioning, because there wasn’t anything close to a reunion.
(Probst and Mark Burnett addressed the ever-shrinking reunion in EW. Probst now thinks of it as “a three-hour block of Survivor,” not a two-hour episode and a one-hour reunion. And Burnett said, “Jeff knows that his job is to entertain millions and millions of people, not to have like a college graduation for a bunch of people who’ve actually committed to a contest.” Probst said he’s “less concerned about” trying to talk to all the contestants; instead, “our job is to entertain our audience that’s staying up with us. One way to do that is to advertise the CBS summer reality show that has also been advertised during every commercial break.)
The 2.5 hour finale’s first challenge was a combined reward/immunity challenge, a spectacular maze shaped like a skull. The art department does terrific, highly detailed work, from that fire-eyed voting booth to the paint job on the Ghost Island ferry that made it look old.
Its winner, Wendell, did not choose Laurel to partake in the reward, and Laurel declared, for approximately the seven hundred millionth time this season, “I can’t take it any more. The gloves are off and I’m coming after them!”
She did not take her gloves off nor go after Dom or Wendell.
“I’ve saved Dom and Wendell multiple times,” she said later, and that was true right up until she cast the tie-breaking vote.
Laurel’s promise of action wasn’t the only possible turn for the game. The one that had the most possibility—Sea Bass playing his extra vote and teaming with Donathan and Angela to blindside Dom—was torpedoed in the most frustrating moment of the season.
“I actually feel like I have a little bit of power right now,” Angela said, thrilled to be included in some strategizing. She used that power to blow up the chance of anything interesting happening: telling Dom what was being planned.
That led to a kind of nutty Tribal Council, where Wendell declared, “Now it’s an individual game.” (It wasn’t.)
Dom basically played his fake idol during the discussion, and Probst held on to it for him instead of immediately hurling it into the fire. (I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it’s problematic that some of these advantages essentially now have the production helping some players lie to others.)
The confusion may have led Sea Bass to not play his extra vote, but with four votes against him, it didn’t matter.
Later, after another Wendell immunity win, there was another Tribal Council with more theatrics: Dom playing his idol for himself, and Wendell giving his immunity idol to Laurel with a big speech. Big theatrics, but nothing that affected the outcome: Donathan joined the jury.
During a cut-in to the live finale, Donathan learned that he did win a $10,000 consolation prize. From Sia, who’s such a Survivor fan that she single-handedly resurrected the Sprint fan-favorite prize.
Ghost Island’s final gasp of pointlessness
The most insane possibility came after Dom won the final immunity challenge. He was now faced with the choice of which person to take to the final three, and which two would face off in a fire-making challenge.
The final four went to Ghost Island, where Dom was sent off alone to see what final, spectacular offering Ghost Island had to make this whole twist pay off.
That’s actually what Jeff Probst promised, telling EW that “we had one last thing we needed in the final episode to really pay off Ghost Island all the way through, and we have that.”
Dom arrived at the summit of Ghost Island and learned he had a huge decision to make: choosing which voting urn they’d use at the final Tribal Council. What? What is this, Trading Spaces?
The idea was that these urns were cursed because they were from seasons where someone made the wrong choice of who to take to the finals with them. Like most of Ghost Island’s stories about curses, this crumbled more easily than a billion-year-old crouton.
While he was considering how to decorate Tribal Council, Dom came up with an insane idea: giving up the final individual immunity necklace, so he could then face off in a fire-making contestant against Wendell, thus proving to the jury that he deserved to win, having outwitted, outplayed, outlasted, and outrecklessnessed everyone else.
“I am a huge gambler,” Dom told us. “And that sounds crazy. But I might be sick enough to do that.”
He did not do that.
Instead, he chose Laurel, apparently convinced by her argument that Angela would be more likely to beat Wendell in fire-making.
In a final dramatic twist, Angela switched fire-making seats with Wendell, who was terrified by the orange color of his station, because orange is cursed and curses are real. But Angela couldn’t even get a fire started, so the color orange truly was cursed so excuse me while I throw away everything orange in my house. What has this season done to me?
After Wendell won the fire-making challenge, Michael said to the jury, “I’m glad it’s them three. They deserve it.”
That’s hard to argue with. (The idea, not the grammar.)
It’s also impossible to argue with the impeccable summary of the season Sea Bass offered during the final Tribal Council: “I didn’t even have strategy, you know?”