'Survivor Ghost Island' Episode 5: Finding a Reason (RECAP)

Martin Holmes
Spoiler Alert

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS

[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Episode 5 of Survivor: Ghost Island.]

Three castaways plead for their lives as the Naviti alliance continues to steamroll through the game in a very old school-feeling episode of Survivor: Ghost Island.

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!

'Survivor: Ghost Island' Castaways and Tribes Revealed (PHOTOS)

'Survivor: Ghost Island' Castaways and Tribes Revealed (PHOTOS)

Get to know the 20 members of the Malolo and Naviti tribes.

SNUFFED: Old School Pagonging

What is Pagonging you ask? Is it one of those weird Winter Olympic Sports nobody has ever heard of? Is it a new app all the kids are downloading? Will it make me throw up if I search it on Urban Dictionary? No, a Pagonging is Survivor slang for when an original tribal alliance picks off the members of the opposing tribe one-by-one. It's named after the very first victims of this strategy, the Pagong tribe, from Survivor: Borneo. It's the kind of by-the-books gameplay the show desperately tries to avoid in the modern era which pushes for #BIGMOVEZ and #BLINDSIDES. It's the reason we have multiple tribe swaps and hidden immunity idols and an advantage under every tree. Hell, it's the reason we have Ghost Island! But sometimes, no matter how many twists and turns you throw into the game, old school alliance strategy will prevail.

We often mock Jeff Probst for his over-the-top rhetoric on "the evolution of the game" and how big moves are needed to win this show. He's wrong, of course, as more often than not, social game wins out over strategic flashiness. You only have to go as far back as Season 32 when Michele Fitzgerald's low-key social play earned her a victory over the more in-your-face gamesmanship of Aubry Bracco and Tai Trang. During tonight's Tribal Council, Probst even referred to Survivor as the hardest game of relationships ever invented, and yet he continues to peddle his "big moves = big wins" mantra. The reason he pushes that agenda is not because that is the formula for Survivor success, but it's what makes for entertaining TV. Watching one alliance bulldoze the other all season long is not particularly enthralling. And even though the show sometimes goes too far in the other direction, by piling on too many "game-changing" twists, it's easy to understand why when you know the alternative.

Photo: Robert Voets/CBS

The action on the current Malolo tribe is the alternative. As we witnessed in tonight's episode, the five ex-Navitis remained an unbreakable unit and essentially acted as judge, jury, and executioner over the three original Malolos. The trio of Jenna, Michael, and Stephanie didn't stand a chance. There were no cracks to exploit within the Naviti coalition and so each of them resorted to an every-man-for-themselves mentality. Stephanie pleaded with Bradley to keep her around, offering her support for the future and promising not to throw him under the bus again at Tribal Council. Michael argued his case by highlighting his challenge strength and severing ties with Jenna and Stephanie. Jenna took the unusual but seemingly successful approach of offering to braid Sebastian's hair—a brave move seeing as it doesn't look like he's shampooed that bird's nest since The O.C. was cancelled.

While the episode did an admirable job of squeezing emotion out of this situation, especially from superfans Michael and Stephanie, it just wasn't very enjoyable to watch. It doesn't help that the castaways who make up the dominating alliance are either terribly underedited or come across as huge jerks. Chelsea and Desiree seem to have some decent strategic chops from the brief glimpses we've seen of them, but we know absolutely nothing about them on a personal level. There is nothing there to invest in from a character perspective. Compare that to Michael and his emotional breakdown about potentially seeing his childhood dream (yes, I know, he's basically still a child) go up in smoke or Stephanie, the single-mom superfan, who just wanted to win to prove to her kids anything is possible. Jenna's plight to overcome "Resting Bitch-Face" doesn't hold quite as much gravitas, but hey, it's more than we know about Chelsea and Desiree.

At Tribal Council, as the three underdogs waited on death row to see which one of them was heading to the gallows, Probst asked the Naviti alliance about their decision process. Desiree said they needed a good reason to vote someone off and they had a "GOOD" reason. That reason was explained back at camp in the pre-Tribal politicking. The group saw Stephanie as the biggest strategic threat and were concerned about her close relationship with Jenna. Not even the worry of a potential Ghost Island-found advantage was enough to turn the axe away from the 34-year-old yoga instructor. It's disheartening to watch a promising player like Stephanie, to whom the editors have dedicated time and effort building up, leave the game in this manner. While the Navitis had a good reason to vote out Stephanie, we as an audience had a good reason to root for her too, something which is lacking in the current crop of castaways controlling the game. Pagonging is a valid strategy that has worked exceptionally well over the years, but if we don't have a reason to support those doing the Pagonging, it can become a chore to watch.

FIRE: Old School Character Focus

While the gameplay of this episode was lifeless, the old school approach did allow for some touching character moments. Not only did we hear Stephanie's story about leaving behind her Mormon faith, getting a divorce, and focusing on healing her inner self, but we had Donathan's cinnamon roll reminder of home. I don't think the enthusiasm for a coffee and pastries reward has ever been as charged as it was in this episode. Have you ever seen a grown man scream "I WANT THOSE PASTRIES" with such passion? But Chris bringing home the sweet reward for his tribe didn't just provide a sugar boost, it brought a taste of home (oh, and a terrible rap).

The tasty treats reminded Donathan of his family back home and made him feel guilty for being away because he's the primary caretaker for his sick grandmother (who had suffered two strokes). After taking a moment for himself, he shared the story with Laurel, his closest ally in the game up until this point. Sensing Donathan's anguish, Chris took the opportunity to open up the lines of communication. Chris doesn't always have to most sensitive approach when talking game, but this didn't feel exploitative. Even though there were underlying game purposes, the conversation between Chris and Donathan—who have both experienced caring for sick loved ones—felt genuine. Nothing here seemed forced or hammed-up for the cameras, which can sometimes be the case during the Loved One's visit. It felt like a natural moment of shared emotion and bonding.

It also adds a new wrinkle to the dynamics of the old Naviti tribe where the Chris-Domenick war is still brewing. Last week, Laurel and Donathan began to splinter from their OG Malolo tribemates and formed a potential foursome with Domenick and Wendell with the aim of taking out Chris. Now this new pastry pact puts Donathan in the middle of what could be a season-defining vote. It's just a shame Naviti keep winning all the Immunity Challenges because the gameplay feels a lot more fluid on that tribe than the predictable stonewalling over on Malolo.

Extra Flames

- Can CBS please stop spoiling the result of the Immunity Challenge in the "Next Time On Survivor" previews? That's two weeks in a row where footage from the previews hadn't yet aired in the episode pre-IC, making the result obvious. Yes, I suppose I could just avoid the previews, but when you write about Survivor as much as I do, it's near impossible.

- I wish we saw more of Desiree because her game-reads seem to be on point. She also took the initiative to snoop through Stephanie's bag to make sure there was no advantage stashed in there, which is bold but smart. It's not as if Desiree lacks personality; when she does speak in confessional she is animated and fun to listen to. Hopefully we see more of her as the numbers dwindle.

- Not only do we have a Pagonging on our hands, but now the prospect of a Jenna and Sebastian showmance too? Vomit bags at the ready!

- After last season's surprising Final 4 fire-making twist, there were a lot of accusations that the show rigged the game for Ben Driebergen. If you need any proof that Survivor isn't rigged, just look at this week's visit to Ghost Island. If anyone could have used an advantage it was Stephanie; she could have turned the game around for the Malolo 3. It would have been a triumphant comeback for the underdogs. A producer's dream! Nope. No game. No riggage.

Before I go, here is the Survivor Brain Buster Trivia question of the week. Which tribe won the first ever food reward in Survivor history? And for a bonus, what was the reward?

Post your answers in the comments below, and let us know your thoughts on the latest episode. Is the Pagoning boring to watch? Did you enjoy the emotional moments of the episode? Do you want Chris to release a rap album?

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

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