In case you missed it: Survivor is back with its newest season.
Season 43 premiered with a two-hour episode and introduced us to 18 new castaways on the beaches of Fiji. Like every other season of Survivor, the competition — a complex one that requires players to outwit, outplay, and outlast each other for a million bucks — gets started right away. Jeff Probst opens up the game with a reward challenge.
This time, though, the opening task doesn’t provide players with a bounty of supplies. Whichever of the three tribes — Coco, Baka, and Vesi — completes the physical challenge of pulling boats and stacking heavy crates is the one to win a flint, a machete, and a pot.
There are no jars of peanut butter, fishing gear, or tarps to fill their bellies or help them build a more comfortable camp. They don’t even get rice. Even more limited supplies are just one of the Survivor twists the show decided to add during the pandemic.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the recent seasons, there are bound to be a few surprises. From the iconic yet seemingly arbitrary 39-day format, they trimmed filming to 26 days.
This gave producers time to complete mandatory quarantine and shoot back-to-back seasons on the Fijian islands. The last two seasons were the test pilots, which is why the castaways of 42 were unaware of what went down in 41.
And if you were hoping to see familiar faces on the latest season of Survivor? You might get disappointed. Probst says they aren’t bringing back old players for the time being, whether they’re likeable castaways like Cirie Fields or John Cochran, or chaotic villains like Abi-Maria Gomes or Colton Cumbie.
The producers want to keep the show unpredictable (although Abi-Maria can certainly do that on her own) and having returning castaways creates an uneven playing field.
One thing is clear with the direction the show is taking: A harder game is afoot. More physical challenges to put them to the test, scarcer supplies to survive on, and completely new players who can take the game to uncharted territories make Survivor much more challenging.
The only question left to ask is: What twists can we expect from the producers this time around?
Love Them or Hate Them, Twists Are Essential to Survivor’s Survival
Survivor made its historic debut in 2000, with a group of Americans cast away in the remote regions of Borneo. The two tribes consisted of a diverse group of men and women. For instance, second-runner up Kelly Wigglesworth was a young river rafting guide, and winner Richard Hatch was a proud gay man and corporate trainer. Richard’s closest ally was 72-year-old Rudy Boesch, who was a retired Navy SEAL.
Diversity in the cast was always a key component in the unique premise of Survivor, a show that described itself as a social experiment from the get-go.
What happens when you put together a group of strangers from different backgrounds? And what if you pit them against each other for a handsome prize? Will they learn to work harmoniously to keep their numbers strong, or is it going to be every man or woman for themselves? These are just some of the questions the show hopes to answer within four to six weeks of society building.
The interesting thing about Survivor is that, even though there is already a rough formula the show tends to follow, the scenario always plays out a little differently each time. There is no one single answer but there are trends or patterns that fans have noticed or even anticipated when watching a new season of Survivor.
In its inaugural season, it was ultimately because of Richard’s good sense to form an alliance later on in the show that he was able to control the votes when it mattered. Other castaways voted based on who they thought deserved to go, not who could jeopardize their gameplay. But as 15 other castaways eventually learn, scheming is a crucial element of one’s Survivor gameplay.
Richard found this critical social aspect of the game and exploited it to his advantage. It completely changed the way Survivor is played for essentially all the subsequent seasons.
There are some castaways like Ozzy Lusth and Jonathan Young who are good providers at camp and even better physical threats in challenges. They almost always never win because they don’t have social skills to pull off “big” moves, which, in Survivor, usually means blindsiding an alliance member.
Today, you can’t watch a season of Survivor without alliances being formed within the first ten minutes of the season. If castaways are not running off into pairs or small circles, they could fall onto the wrong side of the voting blocs and lose control of their game. Even then, no one can guarantee they have a solid group until Jeff counts the votes at Tribal Council.
At some point, that trend does get a bit dull, so producers grease the wheels by introducing twists in the game of Survivor. Twists — which have come in the form of new rules, advantages and disadvantages, tribe divisions, or completely different formats — keep Survivor an unpredictable and, ultimately, exciting reality show.
It’s not a game that players can win just by doing the math. They never know what advantage could nullify their big move.
As legendary as Survivor: Borneo was, the franchise never would have sustained itself for 42 more reasons (and a couple of spin-offs) without raising the stakes or changing the playbook altogether.
Because it is a social experiment that’s still evolving, producers are still figuring out plenty of ways to test how people react to unfamiliar elements and situations. Not every Survivor twist has been successful or well-received, but there have been twists that led to interesting results.
Bad: Hourglass Twist
Tribes fight really hard in challenges to win Immunity, so it’s crushing when that gets taken away for a twist. The Hourglass Twist is perhaps one of the most frustrating changes in Survivor’s recent history.
Jeff shuffles the tribes into two for a pre-Merge challenge. The team who wins chooses a member of the losing group to go to Exile Island, where they would spend a day or two away from their tribe. There are a lot of strategies behind this choice.
Exile a tribemate who is a core alliance member — one who feels secure enough to be away from camp — and you can work on reeling in other members into your group. You can also exile a tribemate to weaken their game, but that risks leaving them on an island with game-changing advantages.
The second scenario is how it played out for Season 41’s Erika Casupanan and Season 42’s Rocksroy Bailey. The advantage they gained on the island is the chance to undo the other team’s Immunity win or, as Jeff Probst liked to say, change history.
While this could be considered a big move in Survivor, it really is a no-brainer for any exiled castaway to reverse the win. The producers are probably thinking they would weigh between rewarding Immunity to the losing team and taking it away from the winning team.
But there is a risk of creating a few enemies either way, so the player might as well secure a few more nights in the game by taking the Immunity Idol.
Good: Amulet Advantage
The addition of advantages is a classic Survivor twist given that the castaways might not be aware of their existence until they’ve been played. One that has real potential in shaking the game up is the Amulet Advantage.
Introduced in Season 42, the Amulet Advantage requires three people from different tribes to work together. It was Hai Giang, Drea Wheeler, and Lindsay Dolashewich who were lucky enough to obtain a portion of its power. But here’s one of two catches: They all needed to get to the Merge to unlock its power.
The Amulet is powerful but there is a catch: It’s weakest when there are three holding the advantage, and strongest when only one of them remains. At three holders, it becomes an extra vote. With only two, the Amulet can be used to steal a vote. And if only one of the original three remain? They have an Immunity Idol in their pocket.
Hai, Drea, and Lindsay, though from different tribes, formed an unlikely alliance to activate the Amulet but eventually turned on each other after the Merge. It was Lindsay who kept the Amulet, although she wasn’t able to use the Immunity Idol for strategic reasons.
One can expect that players will stick together until they have to kick each other out to gain the full power of the Amulet, but it’s interesting to see how this new twist changes the dynamic at camp.
Worse: Edge of Extinction
Survivor: Edge of Extinction (season 38) was named after its newest twist. Unbeknownst to the other players, tribemates they voted out had the option to leave the game for good or go to the Edge of Extinction, or EoE.
They will get a chance to reenter the game much later, but Extinction Island is a lot more barren than the other beaches. The challenge is to survive on fewer supplies, no rewards, and usually worse weather conditions.
But players aren’t alone in this physical, emotional, and mental challenge—everyone who gets eliminated gets the chance to join the rest of the castaways on Extinction Island.
What made EoE such a controversial twist is the lack of fairness of the format. Castaways who are still in the game aren’t aware that there is a whole other game being played on a different island. They are forming new alliances after each Tribal Council, not strategizing for the possible return of another player.
And, as many have argued, the game is completely different on Extinction Island. There are no tribes to battle it out on Reward and Immunity Challenges. In place of scheming to vote out another, players could also focus their social game on gaining favor with the eventual jury of the Final Tribal Council.
This is how it went down in Survivor: Edge of Extinction and Survivor: Winners at War (Season 40). Chris Underwood’s win in Edge was described as unfair because he spent most of his time on Exctinction Island.
Similarly, Natalie Anderson, who was a serious threat, was eliminated first on Winners and spent 33 days on the island. She used Fire Tokens, another twist introduced this season, to gain three advantages that helped her get back in the main game. She ended up placing second to Tony Vlachos.
Better: Tribe Switch
The shuffling of tribes is always expected now on any season of Survivor but it wasn’t part of the game until the third season. Survivor: Africa introduced a variation of the Tribe Switch in which the tribes elected members to, well, switch with three of the other tribe’s.
In some seasons, switching of tribes isn’t as democratic and happens with a drawing of rocks or different colored Buffs. A tribe could also be absorbed by another to even the number of members.
Shuffling of the tribes is one of the most successful twists added to Survivor. It puts alliances to the ultimate test. Will they dissolve within minutes of losing contact with each other? Players almost always form new ones when they mix with other tribes because they need to survive Tribal Council and hold out until they can get to the Merge.
It’s always interesting to see if original alliances formed remain solid or break down until that part of the game. There are always weak points that players with no allegiances to any group can exploit for a big move.
Worst: Do or Die Twist
The Do or Die Twist is the most convoluted one in the history of Survivor thus far. It goes into play during an individual Immunity Challenge, which players can choose to opt out of. But why would anyone not want to get a chance to be safe from a vote?
The answer is in the twist’s name itself. Participating players who choose to ‘Do’ the challenge and don’t win have to be subjected to a game of chance at Tribal Council. Lose this game and they immediately ‘Die’ in the competition.
But Survivor is far from being a game of luck. In fact, the whole point of the game is to work with what you have so you don’t have to succumb to factors you can’t control. Leaving a player’s ability to stay in the game to a simple game of chance weakens it.
In Season 42, Lindsay almost lost her chance to continue her run—an impressive one at that—because she lost this particular Immunity Challenge to Jonathan. Lindsay herself has said it was a bad idea for her to join the challenge to begin with, but her competitive spirit overtook her decision-making.
In theory, the twist only makes sense for players who don’t think they would be safe from the vote, so it didn’t make sense for Lindsay’s game at that point. If they lost the challenge, they could still get a chance to win immunity if they pick the right box at the game of chance. The Do or Die twist hands players on the outs a lifeline but undermines the entire point of Survivor.
Best: Hidden Immunity Idol
The most well-received twist is one that Survivor fans might not even realize is a twist: the Hidden Immunity Idol. It’s become such a fixture of the show that we forget it wasn’t an advantage up until Season 10. Back then, players could only get immune to getting kicked off the island by winning challenges.
The Hidden Immunity Idol — usually a talisman or an accessory that players could wear if they’re bold enough — was first introduced in Survivor: Guatemala (Season 11). When the tribes were merged, they were told that there was an Idol hidden on the island, as well as a clue to its location. Judd Sergeant received the clue as a reward but it was ultimately Gary Hogeboom who found, and played, the very first one.
Hidden Immunity Idols can be used for yourself or for any other castaway.
There have been some pretty iconic Idol plays, like Kelley Wentworth surprising everyone with an Idol in Survivor: Cambodia when she was about to get voted out. (This season had plenty of successful idol plays, specifically between Kelley and Jeremy Collins.) Or Eliza Orlins playing a fake Hidden Immunity Idol made by Ozzy to save herself from elimination. (Her reaction to Jason Siska giving it to her was priceless, but she played it just in case.)
Hiding Idols on the island provides players who are wily enough to find them with an advantage, but it also sows seeds of distrust among players who already have a million-dollar reason not to trust each other.
When a person disappears for hours, tribemates take that to mean they’re searching for an Idol. Players who are very blatant about this rarely survive the next Tribal Council because they’re perceived as untrustworthy and dangerous.
Plus, knowing someone has an Idol changes the way people vote. People want to flush it because it gets re-hidden.
As complicated as they get, the beauty of twists in Survivor lies in how they change the way the game is played. We’ve already had 42 seasons and season 43 unfolding every week and, I argue, that the reason behind the show’s capacity to keep surprising us season after season is the different twists the producers concoct into the game.
They’re not always successful in manipulating TV’s greatest social experiment, but Survivor ultimately couldn’t survive this long without twists.