Survivor Ghost Island: Is the Final Tribal Tie-breaker rule fair?

Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Some argue that one person should not decide who wins a season like Survivor Ghost Island. Perhaps the question should be about how we even get a tie.

Whenever a new rule comes up in Survivor, there will be a not-insignificant portion of the fandom that will believe it is unfair. Sometimes, it’s a fair complaint, as unknown factors coming late in a season (such as a fire-making twist no players knew about prior to gameplay) have such a stark change to the finishing placements. Other times, it’s the perceived unfairness of a rule that leads to their favorite losing the game.

In Survivor Ghost Island, we saw something that had never happened in the 35 seasons prior; a tie vote in the Final Tribal Council. The first five jurors voted for Domenick Abbate, and the final five of the traditional jury voted for Wendell Holland. In this instance, 3rd-place finisher Laurel Johnson had an important decision to make as the 11th juror, swallowing her sudden turmoil and voting for Wendell Holland.

It was an exciting moment in an otherwise “okay” season of Survivor (as decided by the fans), but the conversations surrounding the “fairness” of the tie-breaking rule somehow persist beyond the finale. The big question wasn’t why did Domenick lose the vote, but was he screwed by an “unfair” rule?

The short and sweet answer to that, of course, is “no.” Somehow, Jeff Probst broke his silence on the Final Tribal tie-breaking rule days before Survivor Ghost Island started filming. Again, he had no idea that the season he was about to host would result in a tie, but it came up because his common fourth place replacement hypothetical saw Tai and Brad Culpepper result in a Game Changers tie.

By circumstance, Ghost Island became the first season players knew what would happen in a tie. The players all knew what the stakes were, and yet, Domenick and Wendell could not either take each other out or convince the majority of the jury that one deserved it over the other. Most importantly, superfan and reality television enthusiast Laurel Johnson knew it was a possibility ahead of time.

As much as a sizable contingent of fans detest the forced Final Four fire-making challenge, forcing players to undergo a challenge in order to determine the season’s winner is even worse. Foreign versions of Survivor have handled picking a winner in different ways, including Robinson Ekspeditionen (Danish version) having finalists compete in a Final Challenge to determine the winner.

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I’d argue that doubling down on the “gameplay” aspects of Survivor even further by making it more about challenge performance and idols over socially engineering your way to the end continues to dumb down the discourse. We’ve strayed further and further from the inherent game by allowing players to idol and fire-make their way to the end, and a final challenge deciding a million dollars is a very different kind of game.

To me, the displaced complacency with the results of Survivor Ghost Island‘s tie vote, in a majority, comes from a common theme from past fan favorites; the overbearing thought of Domenick being “robbed” (despite not knowing how his conduct would affect the feelings of the jury). However, one could argue that the fact it can be tied is the problem in the first place.

I’d argue that in a Final Three scenario, there should never be ten jury members. While I respect how Survivor Ghost Island went down and rank Wendell as one of the game’s better winners, just like with Jenna immediately going to the jury, it was odd for Laurel to be the sole responsibility for picking the season’s winner moments after having her hopes and dreams crushed.

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Most importantly, Laurel spent no time on the jury deliberating with her peers to get answers about either player, making her the most removed member of the process. Thankfully, she was so close with both of them that she wasn’t far removed from what each player did throughout Ghost Island, but it could have happened!

There should be a jury of nine determining a Final Tribal Council of three, no matter what. Even in the unlikely scenario of a 4-4-1 vote, it puts pressure on the singular 3rd place-voting jury member to decide the winner of the season, not on an 11th jury member.

There’s always the distant possibility of a 3-3-3 tie, but the odds are so astronomical as it is. There have been five votes for the third-place finisher across the past 21 seasons of Survivor, and it took 35 seasons to get a 5-5 tie in the first place. The convergence of a three-way tie with three of the best possible players to win happens once in the 14 millionth dimension.

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Survivor Ghost Island showed us how 11 jury members could determine a season so tight between two players. It was a fair result, but one that should not have been put in the hands of someone coming out of the shock of losing a million-dollar opportunity. Fair, but unfortunate.