I’ve written multiple essays for this website that could be best summarized as “Survivor is broken.” Whether it was the game’s failure to address player safety amidst sexual misconduct, the lack of diversity and subsequent embedded racism, or the over-reliance on gameplay elements like Edge of Extinction that went against the spirit of the game, I would have been first in line to say that Survivor could use some fine-tuning as it heads into its third decade.
And although I stand by all of that, the show’s 41st season—which doesn’t have a subtitle, but I’m going to suggest we start calling it “Game Breakers”—has been a cautionary tale on how not to approach revamping an existing reality competition format. Even if I acknowledge that I am a Survivor traditionalist who has largely resisted every major gameplay change introduced over the past twenty years, and probably would have raised an eyebrow at any significant adjustments introduced this season, the sheer volume of game-altering elements being thrown into play each week has made for a disorienting and frankly incomprehensible viewing experience. Which is why instead of checking back in for the merge as I promised, I’m checking back in on the episode after the start of that merge, when the convoluted circumstances of that merge may be entirely reversed by one player smashing an hourglass.
The best way to describe Game Breakers is that it’s as though we’re watching the play-testing of a new board game where the creator just kept adding new ideas but failed to understand them in relation to one another. After weeks of skipping them, tonight’s episode “There’s Gonna Be Blood” finally gives us a “Previously on” montage to try to sort it all out, but it just underlines how messy things have gotten.
Take, for example, the Knowledge is Power advantage: in the abstract, the ability to demand an idol or advantage from another player depends on you having that player’s confidence, meaning that using it would require betraying an ally. And while I’d still argue that is overpowered, the combination with the “Say a nonsense phrase to unlock the Immunity Idols” twist means that the knowledge part of “Knowledge is Power” is far too public. As a result, there should be no actual risk in Liana using it, provided she doesn’t, say, tell other people how it works (yes, yes, we’ll get to that). The very public nature of who holds the idols turned it into the ability for her to steal an idol at will, which is impossible for other players to defend against. It doesn’t make the game more interesting: it breaks the very premise under which it’s being played.
Now, Jeff Probst has framed this season as a disruption of player expectation, and Game Breakers has certainly delivered on this front. But as the number of twists multiplies—more extra votes, more advantages—I’ve struggled to stay engaged as the core gameplay feels further and further from view. The show is framing this season as an effort to bring us closer to the game through Probst’s direct address to the camera (which is bad) and the game-within-a-game elements for kids (which are fine), but the inscrutability of the game means that it is exhausting to put ourselves in the castaways’ shoes.
The more I imagine myself playing this game of Survivor, the more furious I am on their behalf, and I’m perplexed none of them are throwing hands at nonsense like a magic hourglass that can undo the results of an immunity challenge (although Danny comes close).
Erika’s decision to smash the hourglass is a pretty easy one: the twist was designed to force a player undervalued by the rest of the tribe to take the game into their own hands, and Erika gets a self-belief edit we’ve seen countless times before. But ultimately, does it really matter which half of the tribe was in jeopardy when the gameplay has been so obtrusive that a promising cast has gone underdeveloped? It’s not the show’s fault that one tribe never went to tribal council, thus limiting their storytelling possibilities, but when we return from Ricard’s win in the repeat of the foot fetishists’ dream Immunity Challenge it feels like the advantages floating in the game mattered more than the players themselves.
And yet, I want to be clear that I understand you might be reading this wondering why I can’t just sit back and enjoy the chaos, because what unfolds is the best argument in support of the never-ending twists and advantages we’ve seen yet. Through the show’s new trick of using flashbacks—I don’t love it, but I get it—we learn that Liana was too loose-lipped about her advantage, and so the plan to eliminate Evvie has run into the fact that her entire alliance is completely aware how her advantage works and are capable of making decisions to try to thwart it.
The vote then reorganizes around Evvie and Deshawn, who were combined on one of the show’s too-many “excursions” built around advantages, a connection that wouldn’t have existed if not for the game’s machinations. It’s briefly an argument for trading out my proposed Game Breakers subtitle for Galaxy Brain, which does have its appeals.
Unfortunately, Galaxy Brain Survivor seemingly turns its players into idiots: Liana’s secret spreading to Xander is a problem, but then Xander tells Danny for some reason, which means that Danny then tells Liana, who then goes on a fact-finding mission to suss out who will have the idol in their possession despite the fact she should know that they know why she’s doing it. This type of pre-tribal scrambling is supposed to be about moral dilemmas and personal relationships, but instead it felt like they were fighting against the game itself, and that isn’t why I watch Survivor.
By the time the episode gets to tribal council, the storytelling converges as you would expect: after some opening dialogue to fuel the general narrative, Jeff steers the conversation to Xander’s idol and the advantage, and Liana somehow falls for the clear feint about having it in his possession to throw away an overpowered advantage—Tiffany had the idol instead—and throw everything into chaos.
However, maybe it’s just me, but I do not believe chaos is a functional mode for this game. There’s nothing fun to me about tribal council devolving into a series of side-conversations and restrategizing. As a strong proponent of gluing them to those goddamn logs, seeing everything turn into a whole new set of conversations just reminds me how much the season has prioritized generating chaos over creating meaningful storytelling.
Watching Jeff Probst sit there smugly as tribal council turns into an endless set of whispers and huddles is dispiriting. When Evvie goes to vote, she says “that’s Survivor tribal council for ya,” but that hasn’t always been the case, nor does it have to be. This tribal council was the desired result of everything the season had put into place: a failed advantage completely threw the existing plans into chaos, the presence of extra votes and idols created no certainty over strategy, Sydney played her shot in the dark and lost, Deshawn wasted his extra vote to try to protect himself, and Xander convinced Tiffany not to play his idol for Evvie at the last second and had to sweat it out when the last vote broke the tie between Evvie and Sydney to send the latter home. If you’ve loved what Game Breakers has turned Survivor into, you probably experienced this as the epic Survivor moment Jeff Probst wanted it to be.
But personally, I struggle to enjoy a Survivor moment where I have literally no idea why half the tribe voted the way they did. When I watched the end credits—featuring a pissed Sydney delivering a pretty classic kiss-off—I watched the votes come up with no connection between the names and the players, which the show seems to think is a feature instead of a bug of the current state of the game. As Liana’s busted advantage told us, knowledge is power, and for me Survivor doesn’t work if I have no idea what the hell is happening.
There’s a reason why the only really strong episode of the season so far was the one that featured no advantages, and was predicated entirely on our knowledge of Deshawn’s intention to throw a challenge. It was a simple story that told us what we needed to know and built a compelling story around that. What played out here was the show withholding information, mistaking that confusion for excitement, and moving the game forward in a way that generates none of the momentum that normally comes from a major tribal council like this.
How is this season of Survivor better for this having happened? While there’s no question that more happened in this episode than perhaps ever before in Survivor history, does that actually create better stories? It’s refreshing to have removed one overpowered—well, if used competently, anyway—advantage from the game, but the aftermath lacks a clear narrative for me to be excited about. I don’t tune into Survivor every week to see what new twist Jeff Probst is going to throw at the castaways: I tune in to see how the players engage with one another and the game in equal measure, and at this point the latter has become the sole narrative of the season to its detriment.
I wish I felt like the producers viewed the never-ending twists of Game Breakers as a strategy for early-game excitement and have the intention of letting the merged tribe settle into playing a normal, perfectly compelling game of Survivor, but nothing about what we’ve seen so far suggests this is possible. Probst and company are dead set on exploding Survivor in the name of chaos, and I’m not optimistic about what parts of the game will be left standing by the time we drop back in on the finale next month.
- If you want to get more perspective on the season so far, I recommend Andy Dehnart’s piece at Reality Blurred, which I more or less co-sign in full.
- There was a “next time on Survivor” earlier in the season that previewed more of the petty side of Sydney’s gameplay but never materialized since she never went to tribal council, but I appreciated her honesty about how her narcissism shapes her perspective, and that exit was fun at least.
- That said, presuming that Sydney would have voted for Deshawn with the vote she threw away, it wouldn’t have actually changed the result like she claimed? A vote for Evvie would have created a tie, obviously, and she might have come out on the right side of the re-vote, but again: within the chaos, I have no idea how anyone knows anything.
- I love Probst blaming Erika for what was happening at tribal council: technically, yes, the specific machinations of the vote were caused by Erika’s choice, but the chaos was Probst’s doing, not hers. Her choice just happened to create the more interesting scenario with Xander and his idol safe, and Evvie left isolated within the at-risk six.
- I love how they made Erika say “I smashed the hourglass and changed the course of history” as though she just killed Hitler as a baby.
- Has anyone been watching with younger kids and doing the “play along” challenges? I did the first two, but the chaos of the game has made me slightly less engaged with each week, so I didn’t even notice the last few. (Tonight’s was on the return to tribal council)
- I’d be curious to know if they knew that this was going to play out as a double-episode—which is necessary to extend the shorter game into the regular thirteen episode season—when they planned it, or if the complex tribal situation meant that they could stretch out this second hour more easily than they could otherwise.
- Because he was the only person who admitted he was pissed at having the results of the immunity challenge overturned, I’m rooting for Danny as the best option to lead a mutiny against the production and fight against their oppressors, which is my primary concern at this point.
- I legitimately forgot that Heather existed throughout this episode, and that’s a testament to where the show’s priorities have been time wise that someone could be such a non-entity in this context. Like, if you have ANY insight into why she voted for Sydney in that situation, you’re lying.
- More than usual, I’m very aware that it’s possible you’re sitting at home loving this Survivor chaos, and so I really do want to hear from you about why it’s working for you when it’s not working for me.