While there is no “official” start to the New School era, I consider its beginning to be after Heroes vs. Villains, the twentieth season of Survivor; often considered one of the best, if not the best season in Survivor history. This season has always seemed to be the “opening of the gates” to how everyone could play things strategically, even when odds are against you and numbers aren’t on your side. Nobody was simply “happy to be here” or “just wanted the experience”, everyone wanted to win and do it in a way that could put them in the pantheon of Survivor legend status. And with that, the old school survival and social experiences of the show took a back seat to hardcore and fast paced strategy that defines the new school era.
And with that, I continue my journey with Survivor: Cagayan. Since I took a break from watching Survivor when it aired pretty much after HvV, I’m coming into most of the seasons completely fresh without knowledge of what happens (with a few exceptions of one or two seasons I have watched before and a couple more seasons where I have knowledge of who the winner is already). I will start each article with a spoiler-free review of the season for people who stumble upon my little write-up here and haven’t seen the season yet and want to watch still. After that, I will go into an in-depth analysis of the season’s strategy and entertainment through the vessel of awards and superlatives.
Survivor: Cagayan — The Spoiler Free Review
Survivor: Cagayan shows what happens when you bring eighteen castaways who are really here to play for the million dollars in an entertaining roller coaster ride of a season. Tribes are split on the “player archetypes” of brains, beauty, and brawn which isn’t really much of a theme but that’s okay. Players on each tribe do match the concepts (though I don’t understand if brawn means muscles or just being a meathead). The people on the beauty tribe all have southern accents for some reason but they often play up the dumb beauty persona to get ahead. The brain tribe overthinks everything to hilarious results. Many of the castaways in the brawn tribe are the loyal type (minus one exception). Overall it’s a simple format that allows the gameplay to do the talking.
What makes this season so great is that the action never seems to slow down or stop. There isn’t an episode here that feels like a filler episode: like when the show is trying really hard to make it feel like a predictable vote isn’t about to happen. This season proves that Survivor is at its best when everyone is playing to win, rather than just get to the end. Nobody seems content to just coast, which results in many castaways from this season putting up memorable performances that warrant a return to the show in future seasons, like Spencer, Kass, and Woo. The most notable name on the cast exiting this season has to be Tony, who came out to Cagayan to play the most intense strategic game of Survivor since Russell Hantz. Beyond the main cast of characters that rise out of this season, the rest of the islanders do a great job of making their presence known rather than trying to blend into the surroundings, so that each person finds themselves some time in the spotlight for better or for worse throughout the course of the season. You can see yourself cheering for a Jeremiah or a Cliff or a Jefra, even if they don’t sit in the strategic drivers seat. There’s something redeeming in everyone.
Survivor: Cagayan just has everything you want in a good season. Cool blindsides, hero and villain moves, characters that you can cheer for and against, good challenges, dramatic fights: it has it all. On top of that, the results are so unpredictable that you are kept guessing on who’s going to be going home in just about every episode. If a castaway makes it far this season, it’s well deserved.
RATING: 5 OUT OF 5 STARS
Cagayan delivers the most competitive season of Survivor with an all-new cast that offers the strategic and dramatic moments you want from a great season.
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AWARDS AND SUPERLATIVES
(Here on out it’s spoilers)
Ten Best Moments from the Season
10. The Opening Twist
It was an interesting opening twist! A leader is picked by the tribe, who then has to single out the weakest person on the tribe. Then the weakest person is sent to camp early when they can choose to take a hidden idol clue or extra food for the tribe. What made it better is all possible outcomes were achieved. Trish picks extra rice for the brawn tribe over an idol clue, which given how she played the rest of the season was very on brand. Morgan took the clue but couldn’t find the idol and had to cover her tracks to explain to her tribe why she definitely wasn’t looking for an idol when they showed up to camp. And Garrett, shocked to have been picked by David, took the idol clue and found the idol.
9. Kass Snitches on Tony’s Plans for Woo
After Tony has a discussion with Kass in the final six about the prospect of voting out Woo before the final three due to his likability, Kass turns that around immediately and tells Woo about the conversation in an effort to erode the trust those two guys built. It leads to an argument where Tony makes llama noises at Kass. It’s the late game drama you want that keeps the end of a season interesting.
8. Woo with the Kids
How can you not like Woo after seeing him in his element with Filipino schoolchildren on the reward, handing out toys and doing karate demonstrations for them. He feels so out of place by the end of the game with all the schemers that came out of Cagayan, while Woo stood out playing the honest, loyal game.
7. Jefra is Voted Out on Tony’s Paranoia
Spencer and Tasha took advantage of Tony’s insecurities about Jefra’s distrust of him and the threat of an all-women’s alliance forming at the final seven to get the complete blindside of Jefra off the ground when it seemed after the immunity challenge that Tasha would be going home. Interestingly, the edit painted this blindside as Spencer and Tasha in the minority alliance making a big move, using Tony and Woo to keep themselves in the game a little longer.
6. Tasha’s Immunity Challenge Streak
While Spencer stayed around longer mainly due to scrambling around the votes, Tasha proved herself to be a challenge beast, winning three straight immunities to protect herself from the vote. This type of run while the odds are stacked against you is where Survivor legends begin and what gets your name recognized for future seasons.
5. Rocks are Drawn (at the Survivor Auction)
Deviating from the previous seasons, the mystery advantage at the Survivor Auction was coveted by many people, causing Jeff to essentially stop the auction early due to no one bidding on the food items. Instead, Tony and Spencer bid all their money to draw rocks for a “mystery advantage”, which was a clue to an idol. Tasha mistakenly assumes there’s more to the auction and doesn’t jump in even though she really needed to. Unfortunately for the greater good of the game, Spencer loses to Tony and the rich get richer.
4. Tony’s Spy Shack
In an unprecedented move of dedication to the game, Tony devises ways to listen in on conversations between his tribe members with his spy shacks, consisting of a cubby like area next to the shelter and a mass of leaves and branches covering a hidey hole next to the water well. The crazy thing is he actually got value from it, being able to listen to a conversation where Jefra talks crap about him while he is hiding behind a bunch of leaves nearby. Spying on conversations isn’t a new thing in Survivor (I remember Sandra doing this a lot on Pearl Islands), no one has gone so far as to build places to hide in to gain intel from other tribe members. Nothing describes Tony’s game more than this.
3. Sarah Powertrips at the Merge so Kass Flips Sides and Blindsides Her
Karma came back to bite Sarah in a scintillating merge episode. Sarah found herself between her old Brawn allies at Solana and her new Aparri tribemates. With her newfound power, she looked to get her way in the next vote, using her vote as currency to call her shot against Tony and LJ, who according to her absolutely do not have idols (spoiler alert: they both had idols). It seems to work out for her in a chaotic tribal council that forced out both LJ and Tony’s idols while the votes actually went towards Jefra. However, Kass was in her feelings about how Sarah was acting, and worried that her position in her alliance was near the bottom, takes up Trish’s offer to flip sides and vote out the power-hungry Sarah in an unexpected blindside.
2. Garrett Holds the Brain Tribe Hostage so J’Tia Dumps the Rice
This tribe was already getting tagged as one of the most dysfunctional in Survivor history but no one could have expected what was to happen after their second immunity loss. When the tribe gets back to camp, Garrent (who was mentally checking out of the game it seems) chooses to force the tribe into some socratic open forum in order to squash out any scrambling and make the vote easier, much to the dismay of pretty much everyone else in the tribe. The clear and obvious vote at the moment is J’Tia, who just hours ago choked a huge lead on a puzzle to lose Brains the immunity. However, in a bout of paranoia, Garrett hounds any player who tries to have a strategic conversation, leaving J’Tia alone at camp. J’Tia, out of both anger and spite, dumps all the tribe’s rice in the fire. The crazy thing is that Garrett then goes to tribal council and completely self-sabotages himself even more than he already has, so the girls switch the vote off of J’Tia and vote him out while he has an idol in his possession. Dare I say no tribe had ever looked this bad in Survivor history.
1. The Great Hidden Idol Scramble
Is there a more cathartic camera shot in Survivor than when someone for whatever reason bursts into a full sprint around camp? Spencer has to when while searching for a hidden immunity idol, his clue ends up in the hands of Woo, who had channeled his self-proclaimed “ninja stealth mode” to follow Spencer around. Woo steals the clue and takes it back to his alliance at camp, kicking off a free-for-all search for this idol involving every person in the two rival alliances looking to get their hands on some important power at this point in the game. Spencer ends up finding the idol while right next to his rival Kass and sneaks it into his pocket.
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All-Survivor Teams: Outwit and Outplay
Similar to the All-NBA teams, the section awards five contestants who did the best in the season, separated by Outwit (for best strategic play) and Outplay (most entertaining to watch)
2 men, 2 women, and a wildcard spot for each team
Tony — You can’t leave this season without talking about Tony’s game. He had no qualms with doing whatever it takes to win the game, whether it be lying to people’s faces, swearing on his family members both alive and dead to gain trust with people he was ready to backstab the next day, making his “spy shacks” to listen in on conversations, looking for immunity idols more than everyone else combined, and consistently leading blindsides on those he perceived as threats. He played possibly the most active game of Survivor at this point in history, and he dictated the pace of the entire game.
Spencer — Spencer played more of the traditional Survivor strategic game compared to Tony. He played off of people’s personalities, especially Tony’s, in order to further himself in the game. The fact that he often felt like the one on the outs or even the main target, but stayed around long enough to finish in fourth is a big accomplishment.
Kass — She is the definition of a player who plays for herself. The easy play is to stick with your tribe at the merge, but because she saw the power that Sarah was flaunting she wanted to humble her and switched sides, which worked out for her as she made her way to the final three. She gave herself the nickname Chaos Kass, which was fitting as she was more than happy to stir the pot whenever she deemed a player “too powerful”.
LJ — He proved to be the best strategic player in the beauty tribe, to the point where Tony was so threatened by him at he manufactured LJ wanted Woo out in order to fully blindside him. He was part of the majority beauty tribe alliance, found an idol, and ingratiated himself very well into Trish’s alliance when it looked like he would be next to go after the surprise tribe swap. How far does LJ get if Tony wasn’t on this season? Would he have looked less sad in every moment of his screen time? He looked so sad at the FTC. Just an observation.
Trish — She was the glue that held together the majority alliance, even as Tony went through the scheming phases and multiple blindside. She also played a key part in swooping Kass into her alliance right at the merge.
Woo — He’s Fabio 2.0 as the surfer vibes martial arts dude who’s all about honor and the friends you make along the way. In an old school season he could have pulled out a win due to his pure likeability. Spencer called him Tony’s lapdog at the final tribal council, which made me feel bad for Woo. How can you be mean to Woo?
Kass — Out of all the players this season, Kass was the only one to truly embrace being the villain, and it made watching her as a spectator much more entertaining. She was not afraid to ruffle feathers or make the selfish move, and when many people would stay put in complacency or be content to keep information or opinions to themselves, Kass was more than happy to expose people and cause chaos. She may not have played a winning game, but she definitely played a damn fun one.
Tony — Tony’s an interesting character. First off you can’t deny the hurricane he was in this season of Survivor, often carrying the strategic entertainment of the game. However, his style of play and how he wanted himself to be perceived didn’t line up and made him difficult to root for. I think he wanted to be seen as the hero who would do whatever it takes to win the money for his wife and his baby, but his whole-hearted commitment to big and slimy lies disqualified him from being a hero. He also didn’t lean into being villainous like Russel Hantz, who has a similar playstyle, did. It puts Tony as a character into this awkward chaotic neutral bubble that makes Tony the player fun to watch but Tony the person a little harder to cheer for.
Spencer — He played the eternal underdog role exactly how you want someone to, always looking towards making a move or playing with the limited pieces he had. As a player he carried himself like a super-fan as he opposed the “villainous” majority alliance and is a player that is easy to cheer for.
Tasha — Her enthusiasm for the game made her a lovable addition to this season. She was the one who wanted to strategize against Garrett’s wishes early on, and even with how bad her tribe was sucking she encouraged people to practice before an important immunity challenge (which they got second in, so congrats!). She felt like a pure Survivor fan.
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The Wallflower Award — Most Forgettable Player: Nobody!
This is the first season I’ve watched since doing these writeups where I feel like every castaway had a moment in the spotlight and a part to play, even if it was only for an episode or two.
Foulest Move: J’Tia Dumping the Rice
She’s the third person to destroy tribe food in the new school era, joining Naonka from Nicaragua and Brandon Hantz from Caramoan. Why did she do it? She wanted to show her tribe not to “leave the mental patient alone”. On top of some truly horrific immunity challenge performances and her insistence on leading the construction of the camp shelter that failed miserably, J’Tia has a case for being one of the worst players to ever play Survivor.
The Idiot Award: Garrett
When you find a way to get voted out before the person who completely sucks at challenges and dumps your entire tribe’s food supply hours before tribal council, then you might be really bad at Survivor.
Untapped Potential Award: Brice
He showed to be an aggressive player with a good sense of social politics while he was on the beauty tribe but he couldn’t gather the majority in his tribe at the start and was voted out early in the game. I think if he stayed for a while he really would’ve stoked the fires of drama later in the season.
Weirdest Exit: Lindsey Quitting
After her closest ally in Cliff is blindsided at tribal council, Lindsey quits hours later in a move that garners no respect from anyone in the game (and behind this computer). It seemed that she pulled a Colton, where she saw the writing on the wall and instead of fighting for her position on the tribe, she just left on the basis of “not wanting to do anything she would regret”. This is reality TV, people doing things they might regret is the basis of the entertainment. Also her tribe seemingly celebrated her exit, which speaks a lot to what her fellow tribemates thought of her.
Worst Format Twist: Tyler Perry Apparently Bringing the Overpowered Idol Back
Is it crazy that the OP idol found its way back into the game after fifteen seasons in retirement at the hands of a midnight text to Jeff Probst by Tyler Perry of all people? The whole concept of an idol that can be used after the votes are read is unfun and takes away the risk of setting up any idol play, and to not broadcast to everyone what the idol actually does is a bit unfair. Of course Tony is the one who finds it too, but at least he was thinking of interesting ways to use it, like bluffing its powers. Long story short though; get out of jail free cards like this in Survivor aren’t that fun.
Biggest Unanswerable Question: How do Chickens Lay So Many Eggs
The beauties were stumped by why hens lay all these eggs. According to chickens.com, chickens will constantly lay eggs because they want to have a clutch of eggs (about a dozen). So, if you take eggs from a chicken they will just continue to lay more until they reach that clutch number, regardless of if they are fertilized or not. How interesting!
Best Showmance: Trish and LJ?
The fact that this was even teased as a possible strategy from LJ to secure his position in the game is comical… is there a person you would want to be in a showmance with less than Trish. Ok I’m sure there is but you get what I’m saying
Best Rivalry: Kass vs Trish
There were a lot of rivalries from this season to choose from, but in terms of in-game fireworks Kass and Trish gave us the most, as Trish chews out Kass at camp the afternoon before getting voted out, but not before a few choice words from each of them and a flipped bird from Kass at tribal council as Trish walks out the game.
Stupidest Decision: David Immediately Voting Garrett as the Weakest Player
This is a classic example of overthinking and disregarding the actual assignment. You can see Garrett and say he’s a threat, but no tribe is looking at his physique on day one and saying “let’s vote him out first”. Therefore putting your target on someone who isn’t likely to be first to go because of his first impression is unnecessary gameplay. It ended up being the reason David got booted first.
On a scale of one to ten, how much did the winner deserve the win?
The final tribal council was a true battle of old school vs new school. Woo never made any significant play to separate himself as a competent strategist, but he was liked by everyone he played with and never made an enemy. Tony played incredibly hard and showed off how much he worked to get to the end, but he backstabbed just about everyone to get there. In the end Tony did too much in the game to be denied the victory, and Woo didn’t do a great job hyping up his game at FTC to properly oppose him. It’s interesting to think how Survivor would look in the future seasons if Woo wins; does hyper strategic play like Tony’s get seen as an unwinnable way to play?
Tony probably wins the game against everyone except maybe Spencer and Tasha, since those two would’ve had to overcome huge odds to make it to the end which could’ve won the respect of the jury off that. Tony vs. Kass at the end in my opinion would’ve been the most interesting final tribal, as both players had blood on their hands (Tony strategically and Kass socially), and Kass as an attorney could’ve been great in a FTC situation.
Who Should be Invited Back Again for a….
Heroes vs Villains Season
Heroes — Tasha: Let’s put her on a better tribe to begin the game with and see if she can be a big player when her back isn’t perpetually against the wall.
Villains — Kass: Yeah, more Chaos Kass please.
All Stars/Fans vs. Favorites Season
Spencer — He plays hard and he plays with his own style which makes him a player I would want to see get another chance to try to win.
Next up, Survivor immediately returns to the Blood vs. Water theme in Survivor: San Juan Del Sur.