A Journey Through “New School” Survivor: Season 38 — Survivor, Edge of Extinction
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: Edge of Extinction. 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 the exception that I do 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: Edge of Extinction — The Spoiler Free Review
The 38th season of Survivor can only be defined by its game-shaking twist and theme: Edge of Extinction. Fourteen new castaways and four returning players return to Fiji, but instead of leaving when you are voted out, you are given a choice: go home for good or travel to the Edge of Extinction, where at some point you could earn a chance to return to the main game and get another shot to win the million dollars and title of sole Survivor. If this reminds you of Redemption Island from many seasons ago then you would essentially be spot on. There are two key differences that separate this twist from its predecessor. Firstly, the difficulty of survival has been increased: Edge of Extinction is designed to make people want to quit. Secondly, there are no “daily duels”: everyone who goes to Edge of Extinction stays there for good unless you win a challenge that lets you return to the game. It’s by far the most impactful twist put on a season in Survivor history, for better and for worse. It makes the concept in this season so unique compared to previous seasons, but game purists will hate this twist due to how it takes power away from typical strategic/social dynamics for something gimmicky. What can be said is that Edge of Extinction plays a huge role in the outcome and will absolutely be the determining factor in whether you like this season or not. As a fan who loves the game theory of Survivor, this twist wasn’t for me but I can understand if people like what Edge of Extinction brings.
At the very least, both the new and returning castaways came to play hard. The four returners this season are Joe Anglim, Kelley Wentworth, Aubry Bracco, and David Wright: all established strong players with varying skillsets who are plenty worthy to be “experienced players” beside newbies. Thankfully the new players are plenty prepared to go to war on the beaches of Fiji rather than get starstruck by Survivor celebrities and hold their own against the established characters. Strategy-wise the season plays fast and gets chaotic at times. Players are up for the game but carry flaws with them which makes Survivor much more interesting than seeing perfect gamebots run the simulations to map out the ideal move. A lot of your enjoyment of Edge of Extinction from a cast perspective will revolve around new player Rick Devens, who plays a major role in the season. The rest of the cast, sans returners, while showing enthusiasm for Survivor doesn’t bring a whole lot personality that makes you want to see more of them.
RATING: 2 OUT OF 5 STARS
A season defined by its twist, for better or worse.
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AWARDS AND SUPERLATIVES
(Here on out it’s spoilers)
Ten Best Moments from the Season
10. Lauren Passes Out in a Tense Immunity Challenge
Pushed to the limit by the torturous “blockhead” challenge, Lauren passes out cold in the middle of the challenge in dramatic fashion and kinda baller move. She wanted to win so badly that she was ready to die for this challenge. Add on top of it that simultaneously to Lauren’s medical inspection, Aurora was trying to bargain for her victory against Victoria as she felt she could be going home at the next tribal council. Was it in poor taste or were people like Julie getting too offended by Aurora playing the game during a medical scare? Probably a bit of both, but I eat up this kind of drama when immunity challenges can get so repetitive from season to season.
9. Edge of Extinctioners Scramble for Their First Advantage
At this point in the season we didn’t really know what these eliminated contestants would be doing while biding time on Edge of Extinction, especially since we weren’t getting episodic duels. But one day, a clue to some mystery advantage appears out of thin air. While most players were content to search together, Keith chose to run off on his own to find the advantage first, leading to a mad scramble.
8. Ron and Eric are Blindsided by their Kama Allies
This is the first game altering blindside of the season and had a bigger impact on the later politics of the season more than the vote outs of returners Aubry and Joe. The newbie Kama members (excluding Aurora) had a tight grip on the game, but Eric and Ron were relishing in their powerful position too much. They made openly drastic appeals to keep Kama together by, in their own words, “blackmailing” their alliances with the idea of reaching loved one visits together. And yet, they were keeping a side alliance in David and Devens alive in order to secure numbers in the end game. Once players like Wardog, Julia, and Gavin took notice, they executed a clean blindside on the head of the Kama alliance, shifting the power of the game to Gavin, Julia, and Victoria.
7. Rick Wins His Way Back in the Game in a Nailbiter
The first Edge of Extinction challenge was a wildly close three-horse race between Chris, Wendy, and Rick Devens. Both Chris and Wendy just missed completing the vertical snake track, overshooting the hole for the ball by millimeters, which allowed for Devens to swoop in and earn a place back in the main game. It’s crazy to think how differently the season would have gone if either Chris or Wendy closed out the challenge.
6. Aubry is Completely Blindsided
Aubry is the first returner to be sent to Edge of Extinction as she is blindsided by her Kama tribemates and voted out instead of Manu member Wendy. New players Ron, Victoria, and Gavin all played a part in making Aubry feel comfortable enough to withhold playing her hidden immunity idol. This vote signaled that the power shift that had been brewing between returners and newbies had officially happened, as the Kama tribe was finally able to execute the blindside they had been wanting to do since day one.
5. Rick Makes Many Fake Idols and Tricks Lauren and Julie
Rick had spent many episodes on the defensive from the ire of his tribemates and weighty resume by winning immunities and using hidden idols that he had found along the way. In the final six, Rick is finally able to go on the offensive by making and hiding two fake idols while finding his third real idol of the season. Lauren and Julie find the fake idols, which leads to a funny tribal council where everyone plays idols, but only Devens and Chris play real ones. If Rick hadn’t secured his underdog victory path yet, it was in this moment where he had control of the outcome fully where he did.
4. Chris Returns to the Main Game and Fleeces Lauren Out of Her Idol
After being voted out on Day 9 and spending over twenty days on Edge of Extinction, Chris Underwood wins his way back into the game at the final six and makes an immediate impact. Armed with knowledge and relationships made in Edge of Extinction, Chris is able to secure an alliance with Rick Devens and reel in Lauren with the allure of making a big move with the hidden idol that Chris learned Lauren had from Kelley Wentworth. With his influence, Chris is able to guarantee his safety by conning Lauren into playing her idol on him as a “big move”, yet combining with Rick and his idol to vote out Victoria instead.
3. Tribal Council Goes Off the Rails and Julia Goes Home
Utter chaos takes place at one Tribal Council that looked like it would be simple at first. It seemed that was going to continue controlling the game despite cutting out Eric from their alliance last vote. But once tribal council began, Aurora’s confusing rhetoric combined with Julie’s paranoia combined with Wardog and Rick’s probing questions completely blew up the established order of tribal council. Tribal goes live and it is chaos: Rick and Julia are arguing on one side and Julie is going batshit crazy on the other side. In the end, Julia’s strong words during the live tribal council came back to bite her and after looking impressive just one episode ago, she is voted out by a combination of former Manu and Kama members.
2. Wendy and the Chickens
Wendy becoming a born-again vegetarian overnight is one of the craziest storylines of the season and a real throwback to some old school Survivor social dynamics. After Manu wins live chickens as a reward, Wendy is shaken to the core by the humanity of a chicken, and refuses to let her tribe kill them for food. No one in the tribe knows what to do with Wendy, as she goes as far as to hide the tribe’s flint before a tribal council so they can’t be cooked if she is voted out. Wendy somehow survives the vote and she is swapped to a new tribe, where she finally enacts her days old plan to release them from their captivity. Yes, it is strategic suicide to relase your tribe’s chickens (yet makes for funny confessional of the animals caw-cawing in the background). Yet it made for entertaining TV in a pretty chalk pre-merge season.
1. Chris Foregoes Immunity to Duel Rick Devens in Firemaking
In what could be Survivor’s truest Thanos style “Fine, I’ll do it myself” moment, Chris gives up his immunity necklace to battle jury favorite Rick Devens in firemaking. Chris beats Rick to resecure his final three spot and simultaneously notching a big move into his tiny Survivor resume and eliminating his biggest contender for the million dollars. An incredibly risky move yet an incredibly clutch moment for the Edge of Extinction king.
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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
Rick — On a perception basis, Rick was the runaway favorite to win this season. Entering the game as the loud but charming rural newscaster, Rick was a casualty of the awful Manu tribe, getting voted out in the fourth tribal council. But he hung around at Edge of Extinction and won his way back into the game at the merge. He found himself quickly in the minority again despite trying to hop into the Kama majority Cochran-style, but through a combination of immunity challenge wins and hidden idol finds, Rick preserved his spot despite being a primary target for the rest of the castaways for many episodes. Rick dug out of the bottom when Chris returned to the game and a mutually beneficial alliance between the two got him to the final four, where he lost in the firemaking challenge. He played his underdog role to a T after benefitting from Edge of Extinction and playing the role perfectly in tribal councils to garner favor from the jury, and if he sat in the final three he most certainly would have won.
Gavin — Of the players who didn’t go to Edge of Extinction Gavin played the best winning game, albeit not the flashiest. He was a key player in the Kama majority alliance and had built trust with a lot of players, allowing him to get to Day 39 without ever feeling like a target to go home. What hurt him was that he had to compete with the flashy games of Rick and Chris, which didn’t help his perception by the jury at the very end.
Wardog — Despite his bristly personality making everyone feel some level of ire towards him and his propensity to refer to himself in the third person, Wardog strung together three of the biggest blindsides of the season. He orchestrated targeting Chris instead of Wendy back in Manu. He catalyzed the blindside of Eric with Julia, Gavin, and Victoria. And he blindsided his own ally in Kelley Wentworth while she had an idol in her pocket. These big moves (especially the Wentworth one) made his target too big and he was quickly voted out right after Kelley. While his social game left much to be desired, you can’t deny his strategic strength.
Chris — He played in the main game for significantly less time than his final three compatriots, but made enough of a case for the jury to vote him as the winner. His likability certainly helped as well as his time to bond with the jury members in the shared Edge of Extinction experience. Yet when he was thrust back into the game in the final six, he showed composure to secure his safety in the first tribal council. And his game-winning gambit to give up the guaranteed final three spot to eliminate Devens in firemaking would double as a resume move and a credibility winning action.
Wentworth — Of the returning players in the game, Kelley Wentworth showed off the best composure to win people over to her side and find footing in a season where odds were stacked against the returners. In Manu, Wentworth was constantly under the microscope as a huge threat and was always on the table for elimination in every tribal council. Despite that, Kelley was able to find one solid ally in Lauren, one temporary ally in Wardog, and one hidden immunity idol to keep herself safe when Manu could not avoid returning to tribal council every week. She slid right into her Survivor role as a powerful outcast, and she used her Manu threesome voting block to wield power at the merge until Wardog finally decided to turn on her (which proved for Wardog to be the move that sunk his game too).
Rick — Season 38 was the Rick Devens show. In the final third of the game he was single-handedly driving forward the narrative of the show akin to past players like Mike Holloway and Ben the Marine. Which makes it pretty wild to consider that in 35 of the 38 seasons to this point this Rick Devens coronation would have never happened.
Reem — The undisputed queen of Edge of Extinction. After being the first player voted out (with plenty of gusto too), Reem spent the rest of the game biding her time with other Edge of Extinctioners to be on the jury at the very end. And yet, Reem gave us plenty of emotion, conflict, and introspection as she went through the ringer as a first boot who then has to stew in awful conditions and come to terms with how the game went for her.
Wentworth — Biggest impact returner of the season and lived up to her billing in my honest opinion.
Wendy — One of the more unique contestants in a long time as someone who was open about having mild tourettes from minute one of the season. Wendy brought an unstrategic spice to the game that you don’t really see anymore in the era of Survivor where everyone is not only a superfan but well-versed in the strategy of the game. Wendy kinda threw that out of the window and I appreciated that.
Ron — For being the de facto villain of the season. And more than that, a pretty strategically flawed one.
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The Wallflower Award for Most Forgettable Player: Julia
She literally just appeared in one of the post merge episodes to help blindside Eric, then gets voted out herself immediately afterwards.
Foulest Move and The Idiot Award: Eric/Ron Holding Loved One Visits Over People as a Way to Keep the Failed Kama Alliance Together
Just combining the two awards as they go hand in hand as in the post-merge, Eric and Ron tried to use some sort of “emotional blackmail” to keep their original Kama tribe together. The thing is, Eric and Ron weren’t even planning to stick with their alliance as they were keeping David and Rick as their side piece alliance as a real final four commitment. And all of this fell apart extremely quickly and extremely easily, lasting one full episode before Eric was blindsided by the younger Kama castaways that were thought to be sheep and goats.
The Diamond Hands Award: Lauren
Despite being consistently on the chopping block to be voted out in every phase of the game, Lauren was able to hold onto her hidden immunity idol right up to the very end. Just like meme stocks, it rose in value but she missed the right opportunity to sell and got zero value from it.
The Candice Cody Award (Doing the Most with the Least Screentime): Reem
Because of Edge of Extinction she got to be a narrator for the entire season, and by God she delivered. I think you could have put a lot of first boots in that position and they wouldn’t have been as compelling as Reem.
Legacy Talk: Ranking Returners on How They Improved or Hurt Their Legacy
4. Joe — This was Joe’s worst season as he was unable to change the result that he constantly fell victim to in his past two seasons: helping his tribe win early challenges only to be promptly voted out right at the merge. What made it the worst season was that Joe felt pretty overshadowed by others from start to finish.
3. Aubry — She didn’t even make the merge in her third Survivor appearance and she went out by way of blindside, where by the edit she was brutally set up for failure by her tribemates. While ever the gamer and strategist, her social tactics combined with the general ire of returning players by newbies left her completely impotent this season. I’ve always felt that Aubry was a great strategist who didn’t have a good social game and Edge of Extinction didn’t change my opinion. In her defense she also didn’t benefit this season by being paired with Joe, one of the best pre-merge assets for a tribe you can have.
2. David — It’s a bit of a prove-it season for David after a strong performance in Millennials vs Gen X, and he did just that. Survivor’s favorite shut-in played pretty much the same way he did in his first season, finding a strong ally to work with in Rick Devens and surviving in the game as the “threat you can dispose whenever”. He displays an ability to sell people on strategies with charm like a used car salesman, which gives him the ability to build Survivor resume while simultaneously being viewed as an underdog because of his diminutive stature. While I’ve never been a fan of David in his Survivor career (you know someone is a producer favorite when they get CBS writer/producer jobs after appearing on Survivor), I have to begrudgingly admit that he is, indeed, a good player.
1. Wentworth — Like David, I think Wentworth proved that she is, indeed, a good player. But unlike David, Kelley has to carry the weight of being a modern era fan-favorite in ways that the other returners don’t. She slotted right into her role as the underdog and proceeded to avoid elimination in multiple episodes and get the farthest of all the returners.
The Pilots and Passengers Award — Best Pilot: Ron
How does someone who saw very little success this season get to earn the “pilot”, or the on incharge of their own fate award that Jeff Probst constantly pushed as an analogy this season? Because he often found himself in a position where he got to choose which way to swing, whether it was before after the ego-checking blindside of his ally Eric. He sat on the top of the totem pre-merge with Kama, then after the dynamics shifted against Ron he somehow ended up getting to be in a swing vote position with Julie for multiple episodes, stringing Rick Devens along with empty promises.
The Pilots and Passengers Award — Best Passenger: Aurora
Did anyone else notice that weird moment where Aurora’s in-game perception as a player turned from alliance liability to threat to win over the jury? When did this happen? Aurora was the one person in her original tribe that went to align with the returners, which left her out on an island in the post-merge when Joe was blindsided. From there she kinda played tangentially to Kama players like Gavin, Ron, and Victoria, thanks to some well-timed immunity wins that kept her from being voted out when the heat was on her the most. Then Rick Devens became target number one which allowed Aurora to slide into the final seven before being voted out. Aurora withstood the heat when she was the target but when she ended up in safety she couldn’t build the social capital to justify taking her to the end.
Mike the Urologist Award (Player with No Chance to Win who Thinks He/She Can): Julie
Sorry Julie, but trying to justify your confusing emotional outburst at the live tribal council as strategy doesn’t work. Julie’s paranoia in the middle of the game made her an unreliable ally to everyone other than Ron, which disqualified her chances of winning the season without a big move.
On a scale of one to ten, how much did the winner deserve the win?
When looking at the elite club of Survivor winners, Chris Underwood has got to get a little flak for being able to skip many tribal councils while sitting on an island and waiting 28 days for a challenge to get back in the game, while building relationships with jury members that players in the main game have no opportunity to do. He didn’t have to sweat the merge and when he returned in the final six he was essentially given a free immunity idol at the final five for surviving a single vote. Yes, he did do a good job when he did return to the game to give himself a resume to justify people voting for him. But a player like Gavin, who didn’t have the big flashy moves, had to navigate the social rigors of Survivor as well as the physical and he did it well enough to reach the end without getting voted against once. The larger jury also ended up hurting Gavin too, who didn’t receive a single winning vote from anyone outside the top 10 (if only the last seven eliminated players were on the jury like an old school season, Gavin wins 4 to 3). Chris absolutely benefitted by getting to interact with jury members in a deception free setting, and Gavin’s under the radar game didn’t move the needle enough to get early exit castaways to reward him the win over someone they, quite honestly, just got to know better.
Who should be back for a….
Heroes vs Villains Season
Heroes: Chris — Fits the good guy/golden boy mold and he needs a prove it season
Villians: Wardog — Chaotic, backstabbing, but good strategic player. Though the Wardog might not consider himself a villain, his gameplay speaks differently.
All-Stars/Fans v Favorites Season
Rick Devens — He played the against-the-world underdog game style yet came just short of the final tribal council. It’s exactly the type of season and player you want in an all-returners cast.