“I guess I needed to yell your name.”

“What?”

Image: CBS Entertainment

Survivor’s 36th season featured a unique twist: the return of numerous Survivor relics haunted by a legacy of failure. Each episode, one contestant would be sent to Ghost Island for a chance to receive one of these haunted relics – misused immunity idols and advantages from past Survivor contestants. Ghost Island itself? Pretty spooky and cool. Ghost Island, the Survivor season? Mostly forgettable. Read on for an in-depth review of the 36th season of TV’s greatest reality show.

I write this review on the 16th of January, 2020, after the cast reveal of season 40, Winners at War, which promises to be legendary as 20 past Survivor winners all compete for one two million dollars. The winner of Ghost Island is competing on season 40 (and featured in the season 40 preview), so I went into season 36 knowing who would win at the end. Still, I did my best to enjoy this season. There are a thousand ways for a winner to make it to the end; I figured Ghost Island was still worth a watch, despite the big spoiler.

Ghost Island is the spookiest Survivor twist ever. The entire season felt a bit macabre, which I really dug. It was like Fiji’s version of Halloween. Some overt iconography – skulls, most prominently, as in the season’s logo – contributed to this vibe:

Image: CBS Entertainment

Beyond the skull visuals in each challenge (several puzzles formed the shape of skulls, or featured the main skull logo as the solution), the referral to Ghost Island as “the graveyard of bad decisions” further reinforced the deathly aesthetic of the season. As a whole, this theme felt incredibly mystical and cool. A few times, during confessionals, the music would strike a major chord, then a minor chord, then a major chord again. The minor chord in the progression created an uneasy feeling like I’ve never experienced on the show before. In that distinct musical moment, the season’s story really hit its mark. With scenery and cinematography as top-notch as always, the folks in production and post-production really came through this time around. This shouldn’t be overlooked, as it’s not only a bright spot of the season, but of the series as a whole. Ghost Island felt cool.

Unfortunately, the engaging theme of the season belied how exciting the gameplay would be. From the beginning, the omnipresent narrative of reversing past curses was a little loose. In concept, Ghost Island is a place where past Survivor contestants’ big mistakes went to die, with the hope of being redeemed by players in the current season. However, some of the idols and advantages won at Ghost Island weren’t all that cursed to begin with. Take Sarah’s secret advantage from Game Changers, for example. It is said to be cursed because Michaela didn’t see it at her feet in that season, and was voted out when Sarah used it to vote for Michaela twice at tribal council. In the same vein, Sarah’s legacy advantage, which she received from Sierra after voting her out, makes an appearance on Ghost Island. Sure, those advantages may have been the demise of Sierra and Michaela during Game Changers, so you could say they felt cursed at the time. However, Sarah won that season after playing both of those advantages to further herself in the game. This is where the premise of reversing curses loses its validity. If you receive the steal-a-vote advantage or the legacy advantage, you are in the company of one great player, not two cursed ones!

While the concept of reversing the curse wasn’t always logical, it made its point enough times that I could ignore its weaknesses. Erik’s season 16 immunity necklace and James’s two unplayed immunity idols, as two primary examples, were certainly key points in those players’ respective demises (on that note, my goodness, those poor guys have been hearing about their failures for over a decade now! Cruel.). It’s understandable that, after 35 seasons, Survivor’s producers might be reaching for new ideas. And sometimes questionable themes make for A-grade seasons. Take the false trichotomy in Brains vs Brawn vs Beauty, for example, which gave us one of the greatest seasons in the show’s history (Cagayan, of course; Kaoh Rong was fine, but not nearly as iconic). Put simply, a shoddy premise isn’t necessarily a season-ruiner.

Logical premise or not, though, this season committed one terrible crime: being boring. This season became more and more predictable as time went on, particularly in the second half. I couldn’t wait for someone to finally get brave and go after the two main threats in the game – Domenick and Wendell. But it never really happened. Optimistically, this may speak to their strong relationships with other players in the game. Unfortunately, it wasn’t great TV either way. Chris, Domenick’s arch-nemesis, was the first post-merge vote-out. Michael, the season’s underdog and iconic Malolo tribe survivor, left at final 9, leaving virtually no competition left unless the remaining castaways (1) flushed Domenick’s and Wendell’s idols and (2) targeted them again after they were finally exposed. This would require a level of coordination that I was begging the contestants to pull off, episode after episode. There was hope in Laurel and Donathan, who promised to turn against their longtime allies and make the game more interesting. Alas, they were unsuccessful. Donathan did provide some late-game entertainment with his no-filter approach to tribal councils, so there’s that. But with Domenick and Wendell still in the game at the end of each episode, their idols becoming more and more potent each day, they eventually became unstoppable. There was a consistent stream of confessionals showing contestants’ urge to eliminate the main threats in the game, but a disappointing lack of strategy to back it up.

While the season overall left much to be desired, there are a few great moments to remember. At the final 7 tribal council, Domenick asked, “Donathan, can I say something?” and Donathan replied “No.” Earlier in the season, Michael asked to borrow Donathan’s idol, only so he could bluff with it and protect himself at tribal council. “No,” Donathan replied. In a game focused on social maneuvering, this type of bluntness is rare. And hilarious. Donathan’s gameplay choices may have been questionable, but his no-Fs-given attitude was a true treat in the otherwise dry late-game portion of this season. Besides Donathan’s antics, we were treated with a series first: a tie vote at final tribal council. Between Laurel, Domenick, and Wendell, the 10-member jury was so divided that they couldn’t pick a winner. For the first time, the finale tie-breaking rule had to be implemented. As the only final-three castaway without any jury votes, Laurel was forced to join the jury and cast a tie-breaking vote. It makes you wonder what would happen if a 9-person jury split the vote three ways, 3-3-3. Michael managed to avoid elimination after attending nearly every tribal council this season, and being the only post-merge player to spend all his pre-merge time on the cursed Malolo tribe. His grasp on strategy was refreshing and engaging, and gave us someone to root for. Ghost Island struggles to remain engaging until the finale, but it certainly has bright spots that deserve to be mentioned.

Lastly, I want to talk about Wendell. As a player, he is likable enough. He came to the island ready to play, and won the game by the skin of his teeth (thanks Laurel!). With season 40 starting in just a few weeks, my natural question is “How well is Wendell going to do against 19 other winners?” If we only consider pre-game threat levels, I’d said Wendell could go pretty far. He may have been in a power position throughout Ghost Island, but I see him fading into the background of Winners at War, at least in the first few episodes. This is a good thing, and he should feel substantially more hopeful than, say, Rob or Sandra, who combined have a 0% chance of winning the game. As long as Wendell doesn’t cause any trouble, he could play the same game for a second time and make it to the end again. Winners at War is a perfect setting for him to sit back and let the titans of the game attack each other while he discovers idols and wins immunity each episode. Given the right opponents at final 3, it’s possible he could win again.


Thanks for reading my review of Survivor: Ghost Island! Stick around for more great Survivor discussions, as well as weekly coverage on Survivor: Winners at War, starting February 12th!