'Survivor Ghost Island' Finale Makes Reality TV History (RECAP)

Martin Holmes
Spoiler Alert

Photo: CBS

[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from the season finale of Survivor: Ghost Island.]

One of the most predictable seasons of Survivor ends in the most unpredictable manner with a historic Final Tribal Council showdown and the first-ever tie vote for the million dollar prize!

Usually, I break these recaps down into moments worthy of fire and those that should be snuffed, but there's a hell of a lot to cover from tonight's two-and-half-hour (!!) season finale, so this recap is going to be a little more freeform. And let's face it, you all just want me to talk about that ending right? I know I sure do.

Domenick and Wendell have dominated the majority of this game, in a way which was both impressive strategically but also detrimental to the entertainment value of the season. They had such a death grip on the game that it stifled the other players and made for rather predictable eliminations week-after-week. However, the fact that these two worthy warriors went down to the wire and made reality-tv history in the process is a conclusion that was well earned and ALMOST (not quite) made up for the preceding weeks of monotony.

It was a thrilling ending to an otherwise ho-hum finale, as Jeff Probst shocked the three finalists (Dom, Wendell and Laurel) and the ten jury members by reading the votes right there in Fiji. An in-the-moment vote read hasn't happened since Season 1; Probst usually transports the votes back to the United States to be read out months later at the live finale. So immediately the castaways knew something was up. And then the unprecedented happened. Probst revealed that the jury was deadlocked at five votes apiece for Domenick and Wendell. It was now up to Laurel - who didn't receive a single vote - to make the biggest decision of the game and break the tie. Talk about pressure!

That lone vote was then carried back to Los Angeles and finally unveiled almost an entire year later from when the season wrapped filming, and Laurel had voted for Wendell, crowning the 33-year-old furniture maker the latest Sole Survivor and recipient of the million dollar check. A crazy, tense, emotional ending unlike any other in Survivor's long thirty-six season history.

Photo: CBS

A SEASON FORGIVEN?

The question running through my head right now is, does this dramatic climax make up for an otherwise lusterless season? I will say that it certainly makes more sense why the edit focused so much on the story of Domenick, Wendell and Laurel. The entire season was building to this jaw-dropping moment where Domenick and Wendell literally split the final vote. When you view the show from that perspective then you can understand why we saw so much of these two masterful players commanding the game and consistently trying to one-up each other. You can fathom why the narrative fixated on Laurel's friendship with the two men and why that made it so difficult for her to turn on them. When you look at the story of this trio in a vacuum it plays out beautifully.

As brilliant as I think that story is now that we can view it as a whole, I still wonder if it was really necessary to shortchange so many of the other plot points or character arcs in the process. One of the main reasons there was such a lack of emotional investment in this season was because it felt like we only got to know a handful of players. Other than the Malolo curse nonsense and the admittedly hilarious Chris Noble vs. Dom battle, there weren't any other substantial stories outside of the Dom/Wendell/Laurel saga. And so it was hard to care about the consequences of a Tribal Council when there was no connection to the characters. So for as epic an ending as Ghost Island was, I still feel the show could have spread the wealth around more throughout the season so that the journey would have been as enjoyable as the destination.

SEA BASS IS CAUGHT

Let's a rewind a little. Before the intense Wendell and Domenick showdown, there was a matter of three other Tribal Councils to get through and the first of the night saw Sebastian trying to make a move against the "big boys."

I'm not sure what Fijian plants Sea Bass has been smoking all season but the guy has looked in a constant state of stoned-out bliss since Day 1. It's this laidback and goofily likable charm which made him a late-game threat to Domenick and Wendell who were weighing up potential Final Tribal Council opponents. But Sebastian was also ready to do some damage and armed with his Extra Vote he proposed a plan with Donathan and Angela to take out Domenick. It was risky because Dom had been walking around claiming to have two hidden immunity idols, but Sebastian was banking on him only having one and being selfish enough to hold onto it until Final 5, thereby not playing it.

In an alternate universe - one where people make sane, rational decisions - this move would and should have worked. Sebastian was correct that Domenick only had one real idol (the other was a fake) and was hoping to save it until it's last time of use at the Final 5. He was also right that with his Extra Vote they didn't need to enlist Laurel, who has snitched on plans in the past. Donathan did later end up informing Laurel of the plan and she seemed more receptive than ever having being insulted when Wendell picked Sea Bass and Angela to go on reward - who knew that all it would take to get Laurel to consider flipping was steak? It all looked set to go down and then... Angela.

Photo: CBS

I don't understand Angela. I will never understand Angela. I'm not sure I want to understand Angela. Here is a woman that can ingest a sea cucumber whole with seemingly no problem (I'm not sure how she handled going to the bathroom later), but who spews up info at the slightest sign of pressure. There was zero strategic benefit for her to tell Domenick about the plan and Sebastian's Extra Vote. I mean, way back when, Dom had tried to vote her out. He had no loyalty to her. And yet here she was, yet another player folding to the power couple and basically handing the game to them. It's either a testament to Domenick's social connections or evidence that we weren't playing with the brightest bulbs this season.

Domenick was backed into a corner but still reluctant to use his real idol and leave himself vulnerable at the Final 5, and so at Tribal Council he turned on the aggression in an attempt to bluff his tribemates. He called out Donathan and Sebastian on their blindside plot, revealed that he knew about the Extra Vote and then started pulling idols and relics out of his bag in a way which was reminiscent of Tony Vlachos in Cagayan. He lied about the fake idol Jay used in Millennials vs. Gen-X, claiming it had been given life, and to cement his ruse he handed it over to Probst before the vote. Dom came across as overly brash here but it was a cunning gamble which worked. It scared Sebastian into voting Donathan instead (not even using his Extra Vote), while everyone else but Donathan voted for Sebastian, sending the fisherman out to sea.

DONATHAN'S DREAMS ARE OVER

The subsequent Tribal Councils played out as expected even if there was some drama in between and edit-misdirection. It was obvious Donathan was next on the chopping block once Wendell won his second Immunity Challenge of the night. Domenick was safe because of his idol, Angela didn't pose a threat at Final Tribal Council, and Laurel, while the boys considered taking her out due to her challenge prowess, was never really an option. And that was made clear when Wendell decided to posture in front of the jury by using his hidden idol on Laurel, describing their brother-sister-like relationship and rewarding her for her loyalty.

Donathan tried to argue his case but even he knew deep down that his time was up. It's a shame because the young Kentucky native was a lovable personality - one of the few that received focus this season - and towards the end of the game was the only person trying to take a shot at the Domenick and Wendell power trip. I could feel his frustration as he tried to maneuver through a game where nobody wanted to step up and make a change. Hey, at least he got $10k from Sia at the reunion. I guess Sia has now officially taken over the Sprint Player of the Season award.

Photo: CBS

ANGELA'S FIRE IS PUT OUT

Angela, on the other hand, could have made it to Final Tribal Council under regular Survivor rules. However, the new Final 4 Fire-Making twist, which was introduced last season to much controversy, completely switches things up. Domenick won the final Immunity Challenge and thereby won the right to choose one person to bring with him to the Final 3 and leaving the remaining two to battle it out in a fire-making challenge. Without this new facet of the game there is no doubt that Wendell would have been cut at the Final 4 and Domenick would have almost certainly gone on to win the season against Laurel and Angela in the Final 3.

Instead, Angela was forced into a fire face-off with Wendell, as Dom thought she had a higher chance of winning than Laurel. After swapping positions because Wendell didn't want to be sat at the "cursed" orange table, the two original Navitis went head-to-head. It wasn't even close. Wendell had his fire blazing before Angela could even get a flame and he stared across at Domenick as if to say, 'you can't get rid of me that easy'.

I still don't love the fire-making twist, even though I understand the intention, and I do appreciate that the players this season were at least informed of it ahead of time. The producers introduced it because they want to give a chance for the "best" players to make it to the Final Tribal Council. We've seen many times over the years great players fall at the last hurdle and voted out because they're deemed too big a jury threat. Now those players have a shot at saving themselves. And I'm sure Probst and co were high-fiving after this one because it worked just like they intended. It resulted in both Domenick and Wendell reaching the end and it delivered that sensational finish. So I can't hate on it too much, but I do hope it doesn't become a permanent fixture of the game.

Photo: CBS

WENDELL THE WINNER

Did Wendell deserve to win? I think so. His style might not have been quite as flashy as Domenick's, but he was there every step of the way, always a part of the decision-making and creating strong bonds in the process. He never blew-up or made emotional choices. He was calm and collected and a pleasant person to be around. Yeah, he took some heat from the jury for not getting his hands dirty as much as Domenick, but as Wendell himself explained, he let his partner be "the Dom show" while he worked behind the scenes, plotting moves and building relationships.

Domenick would have been just as worthy a winner and the deadlock vote proved how respected both men were by their peers. Dom's game was more in-your-face and a couple of the jurors took offense to that on occasion - Sebastian especially was not happy with the fake idol bluff. But others admired his tenacity and ability to draw people in. The majority of the jury confirmed that it was Dom who approached them and brought them into the Dom/Wendell alliance. There isn't a great deal you can fault with his game, other than not having as strong a relationship with Laurel.

Photo: CBS

And that is what this season came down to. Laurel. The player who essentially tanked her own shot at the million because of friendship with both men. While Laurel tried to defend her passive gameplay to the jury, saying that her decision to protect Dom and Wendell was beneficial to her game even if it upset those sitting on the other side, it was hard to take seriously. Laurel did make strong relationships and worked her way up from the bottom after a tough start on Malolo, but she had countless opportunities to make a power move and put herself in a position to win, and every time she backed down.

It was only fitting that the season ended with Laurel receiving zero votes and instead having to decide between the two guys she pledged her loyalty to this entire game. It's almost like a Shakespearean tragedy. Well, not for Wendell, he's a million dollars richer!

That's it for another season of Survivor! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

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