Nature is healing, and Jeff Probst has returned to the beaches of Fiji with the newest group of Survivor castaways. Teachers, surfers, sales reps, and Paralympians: Everyone here believes their unique life experiences have given them the edge needed to claim victory and be crowned the Sole Survivor. Not for the faint of heart or mind, the next 26 days will be the ultimate endeavor for these 18 castaways.
It’s been 22 years since Survivor premiered, and although the challenges, locations, and social norms have evolved since then, the core of the show remains the same. As Jeff tells the group, there aren’t many rules here. Each tribe of six will create a society, with rules and expectations defined how they see fit. People will be voted off and dreams will be crushed. People will get hurt, physically and emotionally. These 18 castaways are walking into a terrifying, exhausting ordeal, and every single person has a smile plastered across their face.
Up until the last two seasons, Survivor has always been a 39-day test of will. When COVID precautions and mandatory quarantines became necessary beginning in season 41, the competition period was cut down to 26 days, and it seems this format is here to stay, revitalizing the game everyone has studied for the past 20 years. To make up for the shorter duration on the island, Jeff and the other Machiavellian producers have made the game even more difficult by drastically limiting the tools and rice given to the tribes, offering smaller rewards for challenge wins, and making trips to Tribal Council even more frequent.
In this jam-packed opening episode, we quickly got to know some of our new cast members. Survivor has been pulling self-proclaimed superfans off their couches and onto the island for years, and this season is no different. Everyone loves the game they’re here to play, and it’s fun to hear people like Lindsay, a pediatric nurse, describe her 22-year obsession with the show. Others, like surfer brah Cody, are new converts to the religion, finding our lord and savior Jeff Probst in times of turmoil over the past few years. Some are frothing at the mouth for the chance to lie and manipulate, and then we have Morriah, who lets us know that, actually, she is here to make friends. The production of the last two seasons was heavy-handed, introducing tons of twists and advantages, many of which enraged the die-hard fans of the classic game dynamics. But if this episode is an indicator of the season to come, we’re back to the roots of social-driven Survivor.
The three tribes this season are Baka (donning yellow Buffs), Coco (blue), and Vesi (red). In the very first challenge, the castaways compete for the meager supplies that will keep them alive: a pot, a machete, and flint. Only the first tribe to complete the challenge will have the luxury of fire and a pot to boil drinking water in. The first challenge is a test to see if the tribes can effectively divide up their strengths. First, two tribe members will run across the beach and retrieve two large blocks. Then two others will swim out and pull in a boat carrying a few more blocks. The final two will arrange the blocks into a perfect cube, which someone will then climb on top of. They’ll attempt to dislodge the flint dangling high above their head, claiming victory and kick-starting their season.
To start the challenge, Jeff literally draws a line in the sand with his foot. Step over that line, and the game has begun. Jesse and Cody gear up for Vesi, Owen and Sami represent Baka, and finally, Geo and Ryan kick off the challenge for Coco. At the end of the first stage, all three tribes are pretty neck and neck. Baka heads into the water a step ahead of Vesi, then finally Coco brings up the rear. Justine and Noelle from Vesi overtake the Baka tribe leading into the puzzle. Coco remains slightly behind. All of a sudden, James and Lindsay from Coco tear through the puzzle, letting Lindsay attempt the flint first.
The last stage of the challenge is intense and comes down to one individual winning or losing for their tribe. Vesi and Baka pull their puzzles together, and all three tribes are in it. Jeanine from the Baka tribe is the last to climb on top of the blocks and has to fight the learning curve if she has any chance of pulling out the victory. Out of nowhere, Cody screams a strategy from the sidelines to his Vesi tribe mate Dwight. They have to use a 20-foot bamboo pole to knock the flint off, but what if Dwight maneuvers the flint to fall into the hollow center of the bamboo? With this ingenious suggestion that the producers may or may not have predicted, Dwight is instantly able to secure the win for Vesi. Like everyone else on the beach (or at least on Vesi), Jeff has a fat grin on his face.
The tribes head off to the beaches they’ll call home for the next 26 days. Vesi is amped up and chitchats for a moment before attempting to build a shelter. The only problem seems to be that no one has any idea what they should do. Come on, guys, you knew what you were signing up for; didn’t you YouTube how to build a simple lean-to or weave palm fronds? Okay, I’m sure they did, but no one has ever even held a machete before!
For our losing tribes, Baka and Coco, another challenge is in store. A staple in new Survivor, the tribes have their choice of either a Savvy or Sweat challenge. In order to earn their supplies, they have to solve a brainteaser or dig up a massive swath of beach and hope they find buried treasure.
Upon reading the challenges, Sami offers to dig for Baka. This move would prevent Sami and another tribe member from speaking to the rest of their tribe while they dig up the beach. There’s an ominous warning that this may take the entirety of the four-hour time limit. Owen wants nothing to do with this idea. As a young guy who seems to be in good shape, he predicts he’d be the one to join Sami, and voluntary alienation from your tribe is not the best way to kick off your social game. Instead, Baka chooses the Savvy puzzle where they must rearrange a set of bones to create the highest possible number. Sami, a 19-year-old pet cremator (?!) and student at Brigham Young University, is prepared to play it low-key. He’s decided 22 sounds better than 19 and lies about his age, and doesn’t want to show off his mental strength right out of the gate. However, he also clearly wants to be the one to solve this puzzle. Blowing the minds of his tribe mates, he suggests the winning solution, giving Baka their much-needed supplies.
On the final beach, Coco chooses Sweat. James declares he didn’t come out here “to be a strong person” and has no interest in spending four hours digging up the beach. Geo feels some guilt from his weaker performance in the first challenge, so he and Ryan take on the challenge. Ryan is quickly proving he’ll be someone to watch this season. He comes up with the plan to cut across the grid with a giant X, hypothesizing that this is the way to cover the most ground with the least amount of effort. While the men dig together, we learn Ryan’s backstory: He was born three months early, which resulted in mild cerebral palsy. He proudly talks about his mother and how she fought to prove wrong the doctors who said he’d never walk. In just about a half-hour, he pulls out the bag of supplies. X really does mark the spot.
With all three tribes making it past the initial challenges, it’s time for the plotting and scheming to begin. The connections made on the first day really set the tone for your future on Survivor. On Vesi, Paralympian Noelle and software-sales rep Justine quickly bond. Strong, smart women tend to either stick together or fight each other tooth and nail on this show, and I prefer this option. On the other side of the tribe, Jesse, Nneka, and Cody connect. Cody is quick to project, raising paranoia about Justine’s experience in sales. Survivor has a history of dangerous players coming from a sales background, including Parvati Shallow, Corinne Kaplan, and Natalie White. What Cody leaves out, however, is that he is also in sales. His worries about Justine’s ability to sweet-talk and manipulate are clearly grounded in the fact that he sees that as a key element of their shared profession. “The salesperson is supposed to look harmless,” he says with a harmless look on his face. Strategies are quickly coming out, and while Cody is on the offensive, Jesse is playing quietly and under the radar. Both Justine and Cody have come to him, giving him “two invitations to two parties!”
On Baka, Owen wants to start the game quickly. He approaches Gabler, Jeanine, and Elie, but all three are guarded and don’t give him much. While his overt plan to link up with the others doesn’t seem to be working out, psychologist Elie makes a connection with Morriah and Jeanine by opening up about her sister’s death. These moments of vulnerability often lead to the strongest bonds on the island. It forces your competitors to see you as a human, not just someone they can manipulate.
The Coco women quickly align as well. Cassidy first approaches Karla, and the two then talk to Lindsay. This seems like a very powerful group of women right off the bat. They’re strong and smart, and Cassidy says her strategy is to bond with everyone and reveal her true nature once it’s too late. She’s in the Survivor headspace: ready for bloodshed. In addition to joining the women, Lindsay brings in James for the extra number. James is an all-star chess player turned event planner, meaning he’s both extremely smart and extremely personable. This is rapidly shaping up to be a powerhouse alliance on Coco.
Although many of the extraneous advantages introduced in season 41 have yet to be revealed, one curveball has stuck around: Each tribe has to pick a member to send on a boat to a mysterious location. As everyone has seen both seasons 41 and 42, they know that this will result in either an advantage or a curse. All three tribes pick their representative differently. After making the long trek, Dwight (Vesi), Karla (Coco), and Gabler (Baka) face a risky situation of jeopardizing their voting power for the chance at an advantage. The more people who risk, the lower their chances of winning. Karla decides it’s too early to put a target on her back and holds on to her vote. That leaves Dwight and Gabler with the 50/50 odds of either losing their ability to vote or winning an unnamed advantage. They pull cards from a bag and are told to open them in a private moment back at their beaches. Because everyone knows what’s happening here, all three wisely decide to tell their tribes exactly what went on. Unfortunately for Dwight, he pulled the losing card. Gabler is now in the sticky position of everyone in his tribe knowing he has an Immunity Idol. Should Baka lose the immunity challenge, he’ll be in serious trouble.
At the immunity challenge, Jeff reveals two gorgeous idols. For now, at least, two tribes will secure safety, sending the last-place finisher to Tribal Council. First, the tribes will maneuver through a multistep obstacle course, collecting balls. Then, one member of the tribe faces a classic Survivor task, digging a path through the sand underneath a log. The tribe will then create a human ladder up a ramp and scamper across a balance beam before finally using the balls from the first segment of the challenge to complete one of three table games. The first tribe to reach the puzzle gets to choose their game, then the second finisher does the same, leaving the final tribe to work with what’s left.
As with the first challenge, it’s close in the first few steps, but the log is where the tribes diverge. Ryan rips through the sand, getting the Coco tribe to the ramp first. This tribe is strong and works together effectively. James is a sturdy base, but struggles to get himself up the ramp, losing his pants in the process. Ryan lowers himself to help James, then launches himself up the wall, Ninja Warrior–style. Before second-place Vesi even makes it past the balance beam, Coco is onto the table maze. Vesi finally makes it and chooses arguably the hardest option for the maze, a straight shot down the board. These boards are heavy and require great balance, but before Vesi or Baka have a single ball, Coco takes the uncontested victory. While Sami and Gabler are fighting and unable to even get a single ball in, Jesse and Noelle suddenly nail the challenge, quickly dropping all three balls into place. Baka, without any success on their maze, is sent to Tribal Council in a crushing loss. Even worse, Baka loses their precious flint until the next immunity challenge.
Between his Immunity Idol and being at least partially responsible for Baka’s inability to complete the challenge, Gabler is paranoid. He calls a tribe meeting when they first return to the beach, declaring he’s going to use his Shot in the Dark, giving up his vote for the chance of immunity. He’s trying to be selfless, I guess? But putting yourself in this risky situation is a unique strategy, to say the least. Despite all of this, Gabler doesn’t actually seem to be at much risk to be voted out. Instead, it seems like either Morriah or Owen will be the target this week. Morriah is deemed the weakest physical player, and Owen is deemed too physically threatening. While Elie plays both sides of this conversation, she really has no plans to vote out Owen. At least this early on, staying strong is her goal.
When we get to Tribal Council, it seems like the vote could go either way still. But then Morriah makes a brutal misstep, all but sealing her fate with one sentence. As the tribe laments their outstanding loss, Morriah tells Jeff she sees it as a victory because no one gave up. Aww … if only that were true. I appreciate her trying to stay positive, but she clearly misread the room. Everyone bristles. With new Survivor moving at an even quicker pace than usual, there’s no time for this kind of participation-trophy thinking. You need to be here to win or get the hell out of the way. One or two metaphors later (something something, sending texts? I’m sure it’s been rough without your phones, but they can do better than that!), it’s time to vote. Although it’s somewhat anticlimactic, the first vote is unanimously against Morriah. Unfortunately, her weak performance in the challenges and her overly optimistic mind-set were met with an instantaneous torch snuffing. With one competitor out of the way, our 17 remaining castaways have just increased their odds of taking home a million dollars.
• Sami really described making fire as something he can do, “just like the Shih Tzu I put in the incinerator.”
• Cody’s tattoo (“LIVIN !!” with a smile connecting the two exclamation points) is a fantastic name for the episode and instantly got me on his team. What can I say? Those of us with silly tattoos are just kindred spirits, I guess.
• Elie is off to a strong start, but I can’t help but be rubbed the wrong way when she describes her work as a psychologist as “getting people to do things they don’t want to do.” May or may not be true, but perhaps someone whose job is helping people with mental illnesses should not be bragging about their abilities to manipulate people?