‘Survivor Ghost Island’ Episode 1 & 2: Decisions, Decisions, Decisions (RECAP)

Can You Reverse the Curse?
Spoiler Alert
Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment

[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Episode 1 & 2 of Survivor: Ghost Island.]

Grab a torch and strap on your proton pack for we are about to enter Ghost Island! *Cue spooky music* No, it’s not a Scooby-Doo special, it’s the title of the new season of Survivor, which sees 20 fresh-faced jungle dwellers haunted by the bad decisions of Survivor past.

That’s right; Survivor is resurrecting relics of season’s gone-by—misplayed idols, flawed advantages, perhaps that cowboy hat Jeff Probst wore one season—and giving this new group of castaways a chance to “reverse the curse.” The twist immediately got me thinking about what would be on my island of past mistakes, and I narrowed it down to a selection of Insane Clown Posse CDs, a misguided work romance, and the piece of my eyebrow I shaved off when I was 15-years-old. However, unlike this new crop of players, for me, there is no turning back the clock (though my eyebrow did grow back).

As always in Survivor, fire represents your life, and so it does here in our recaps. Each week we’ll be breaking down the episodes into moments and moves worthy of fire, and moments/moves that should be snuffed out. Also, make sure to read to the end of the recap for a special Survivor Brain Buster Trivia question!

Let’s jump aboard the ghost train!

FIRE: A Fun Cast

Wendell Holland, Brendan Shapiro, Chris Noble, Donathan Hurley, James Lim, and the Naviti and Malolo Tribes on ‘Survivor: Ghost Island’

Despite being so young you could mistake them for the stars of a new High School Musical movie, this cast really pops! Survivor lives or dies based on its casting. Behind all the twists, advantages and convoluted themes, it’s the people that are the show’s bread and butter. A strong cast can elevate a weak idea or make it easy to forgive some of the more questionable twists. A dud cast can leave you with Survivor: Nicaragua.

Luckily, Ghost Island, which already has an intriguing theme, boasts an engaging group personalities. The Malolo tribe is perhaps the more intriguing of the two teams off the bat. A colorful combination of jocks and nerds – it truly is like High School Musical. The early stand-out is Donathan, the self-described “only gay man in Kentucky,” who is looking to broaden his horizons and meet new people. His enthusiasm and wide-eyed wonder are infectious, and his thick Southern accent is sure to have the subtitlers working over-time. Filling out the Malolo tribe is: Brendan (buff teacher), Jacob (neurotic teacher), Michael (fake 23-year-old), James (business analyst/terrible swimmer), Stephanie (yoga-freak/human traffic light), Gonzalez (self-confessed puzzle master), Laurel (geeky financial consultant), Jenna (advertising exec/Sarah Lacina clone), and Libby (maybe a literal ghost because I didn’t see her all episode).

Over on Naviti, the majority of air-time is taken up by wise-guy Domenick, a construction supervisor from Long Island, who quickly gets to work digging for idols and butting heads with the fellow alpha males on his tribe. The Naviti tribe feels less fleshed out than Malolo, a result of not attending tribal council, but there are some promising players here. Wendell has a cool and calm approach that serves well in a high-pressure game like Survivor. His on-screen caption says he is a furniture maker, but I’d be surprised if he wasn’t moonlighting as a Childish Gambino look-a-like—if not, he’s missing out on some serious coin! Making up the rest of the tribe is: Sebastian (aka Sea Bass), Chris (inspiration for Blue Steel), Bradley (lying law student), Kellyn (recent divorcee/puzzle killer), Desiree (fashion queen), Angela (badass veteran), Morgan (permanently happy whale trainer), and Chelsea (another ghost?).

FIRE: Marooning Twist

The opening twist—where the tribe leaders could choose to forfeit the challenge in order to keep their fishing gear—was a nice change of pace from the usual ‘jump off the boat and try not to drown these chickens’ style of marooning. It instantly threw a big decision into the game and “decisions” is apparently the thematic thread that Probst is trying to weave through this season. If one of the leaders forfeited the challenge, they would get to keep their fishing gear, but in turn, the winning tribe would receive not only a substantial shelter-building kit, but flint and, randomly, 20 eggs. Why not throw in a tray of bacon and a carton of OJ, too?

Chris, Naviti’s designated leader, decided to forfeit, much to the chagrin of Domenick, and thereby provided Malolo with a plentiful bounty that should have seen them living the high life. The consequences of the forfeit didn’t particularly help Malolo—they lost both immunity challenges—but the tension between Chris and Domenick following the decision reverberated back at camp and set up a compelling little rivalry which I suspect will continue in the upcoming weeks.

SNUFFED: Sock Rice

Oh, Jacob. There’s something I have to confess. I know Jacob. Kind of. I’ve never met the guy in real life, but I run a Survivor fansite that Jacob once blogged for semi-regularly. He’s a friendly, affable sort of chap and a Survivor superfan, and so understandably, we’ve chatted about the show a lot. During those discussions, we would touch upon Survivor gameplay and how we would approach the game if ever given a chance to play. I’m pretty sure that at no point during our hypothetical musings did either of us suggest it would be a wise idea to pour the tribe’s supply of rice into a dirty sock in the hopes of finding a hidden clue.

Here’s the thing, talking/writing about Survivor and playing Survivor are very different things. While you may have the best intentions going into the game, I could see how easily that might slip away once your fantasy becomes a reality, especially if that reality doesn’t quite match up with how you pictured it in your mind. Jacob accurately assessed that himself and Donathan were the odd men out on his tribe—evidently the weakest physically and both lacking in the abs department. However, was that the reality? Or was that just how things looked on paper? That’s the big question. Was Jacob legitimately on the outside from the off or did his perception kick his paranoia into overdrive? Perhaps both are true, and that’s what caused him to go idol searching in plain sight on Day 2. Surely number one in the book of Survivor No-Nos.

FIRE: Ghost Island Itself

Jacob Derwin on ‘Survivor: Ghost Island’

Even though there is “idol and advantage” fatigue within the Survivor community, I will admit that Ghost Island as a location is super cool. A creepy mausoleum of mistakes, where torch snuffers from past seasons hang above your head like a nightmarish crib mobile. Probst has previously described Ghost Island as a love letter to Survivor fans, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a Survivor nerd’s dream; a pop-culture paradise populated with artifacts and props from over 35 past seasons. When the show eventually goes off the air (hopefully not for many years), CBS should seriously consider opening it to the public as a legitimate Survivor museum. Perhaps incorporate an amusement park element. I mean, just imagine the potential rides. Rudy’s River Rapids. The Parvati Pendulum. Rupert’s Pirate Ship – “You’ll keep coming back for more.”

The fact that Jacob was the first person sent to Ghost Island, chosen by the Naviti tribe after their first Immunity Challenge win, couldn’t have been more perfect. Not only did it give the former blogger a lifeline—he was undoubtedly going to be the first boot—but having such a superfan be the first to witness the spectacle and narrate his findings with such genuine excitement completely sold the concept. Though I will say the “relic” that Jacob won in his Game of Chance was a little underwhelming. Sierra’s misplayed Legacy Advantage from Survivor: Game Changers is a worthy Ghost Island relic, sure, but the Legacy Advantage itself is a somewhat restrictive tool. It provides immunity for the holder, but only at the Final 13 or Final 6, and not just that, but Jacob had to will it to a member of the opposing tribe, so he couldn’t even put this twist to immediate use. He chose to gift it to Morgan and only time will tell if that works out for her – it certainly didn’t for young Jacob, who was swiftly booted in the second episode of the night.

SNUFFED: Speedy Gonzalez

As the first boot of the season, unfortunately, I have to put Gonzalez in the snuffed section. It’s not as if she did anything particularly detrimental to cause her downfall, other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. With Jacob receiving a stay of execution in the form of a Ghost Island sleepover, it left Gonzalez vulnerable back at camp. The vote was between her or Donathan and came down to challenge strength versus trust. Initially, it looked like the target was on the Kentucky native, though Stephanie brought up a solid point regarding future challenges: “We might need a little person to shove into something.” Also, Gonzalez didn’t help her case when she rose to her feet at tribal council and started whispering in people’s ears; it only served to make her look more of a schemer.

SNUFFED: Fake Idols

Morgan Ricke and Domenick Abbate on ‘Survivor: Ghost Island’

In a season that features Ozzy’s infamous “f**king stick,” these new castaways are certainly giving the Survivor legend a run for his money when it comes to horrible looking fake idols, or at least, the implementation of them. Firstly, Jacob decided to craft a phony idol while on Ghost Island, and upon returning to camp, tried to bluff his tribemates that his idol was the real deal. Jacob was worried for his safety in the game and pretending that he had an idol might have kept the vote off him at the next tribal council. The problem was in execution, namely, not having the note that comes with a legitimate idol. Brendan was quick to ask for receipts and Jacob couldn’t deliver; instead, he had to make up an excuse about accidentally leaving the note back at Ghost Island. As many of his tribemates pointed out, a hardcore fan like Jacob wouldn’t lose the idol note—although, to be fair, he did lose his shoes within minutes of hitting the beach.

As bad as Jacob’s plan was, I at least understood the logic behind it, which is more than I can say for Domenick over on Naviti. You see, Domenick actually found a real idol, to be specific, he found the idol that Andrea went home with in her pocket in Survivor: Caramoan. Then, for reasons beyond human comprehension, he chose to make what he called a “fugazi idol,” combine it with the real idol’s note, and show it to his enemy Chris, in an attempt to gain his trust. Do you get it? Because I certainly don’t. If you’re going to tell someone you have an idol, and go to the trouble of including the note, then at that point you might as well have just shown them the real one, right? Perhaps Domenick is playing 4D chess, and all will become clear in the future. But right now, Chris, and I, sense that something is off.

FIRE: Stephanie

Jenna Bowman, Stephanie Johnson, and Donathan Hurley on ‘Survivor: Ghost Island’

If I had to name a player of the week, the honor would go to Stephanie, the triathlete mom, who is wearing an outfit so bright you’ll be reaching to adjust the contrast on your TV. Here’s a little inside baseball, the Survivor casting department often handpicks wardrobe for the castaways that best represents their pre-approved stereotype, see John Cochran’s sweater-vest (nerd) or Ryan Ulrich’s turtleneck (uber-nerd). However, I get the feeling that Stephanie wears these clothes in her everyday life, whether she’s pounding the treadmill at the gym or shopping for kale salad at Whole Foods (she totally eats kale salad).

While her vibrant outfit and bubbly personality should make her stand-out as a clear target, Stephanie has displayed a sort of chameleon effect, blending in with the various subset of alliances forming on Malolo. Based on these opening two episodes, the yoga instructor from Chicago seems to be in everyone’s good graces. She is fit, athletic and attractive, so can fit in easily with the beefcake crew and bikini babes. But she’s also a secret Survivor superfan, so can just as comfortably nerd out with the Jacobs and Donathans of this world. In fact, it’s Stephanie who waves the flag for Donathan in the first episode, and then in Episode 2, she buddies up with Jacob, receiving a bucket load of info for her efforts, including the truth about his “idol” and the whereabouts of the Legacy Advantage. Right now, it certainly seems like Stephanie is the decision-maker on Malolo, but as this premiere taught us, decisions can have consequences and there is a lot of season left to play.

Before I go, here is the Survivor Brain Buster Trivia question of the week. The premiere opened with clips of bad decisions from past seasons, including Erik giving his individual immunity necklace to Natalie in Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites. Can you name the two other players who have given away individual immunity and in what seasons?

Post your answers in the comments below, and let me know your thoughts on the premiere. Who is impressing you in the early going? Could Gonzalez and Jacob have found a way to save themselves? Do you like the Ghost Island concept? Sound off!

Survivor: Ghost Island, Wednesdays, 8/7c, CBS