How He Won: The classic Survivor strategy of forming a tight, yet also multi-layered alliance. Wendell’s chief ally from day one was Domenick, which rode through to the end of the game even though Dom took the obligatory shot at trying to eliminate Wendell before the final three (Wendell openly admitted he would’ve done the same to Dom had the positions been reversed). Wendell’s greatest ally, of course, ended up being Laurel, as evidenced by the all-important tiebreaker vote, a.k.a. the season’s only unique and interesting moment. It was legitimately fun seeing everyone’s shocked face when Jeff started reading the votes on the island, with the added bonus of Dom’s humourous “I have NO shot” expression when it was revealed that Laurel would be the tie-breaker.
But I digress! Wendell benefited from the near-comical dominance of the Naviti tribe, who got out to the early numbers advantage over Malolo and then kept it throughout the entire game, no matter how many more new tribe swaps and re-alignments took place. Wendell was only really in trouble once in the entire game — when the Malolo minority took advantage of the Dom/Chris schism on the third vote and got Morgan out of the game. That could’ve just as easily been Wendell going out of the game at that point, though I’d guess his close connection to Domenick made the others wary of a possible idol.
Regardless, Wendell soon found his own hidden immunity idol and it was smooth sailing from there. Thanks to Wendell and Domenick aligning with Laurel and Donathan from the Malolo minority, that gave them the added numbers to stay strong once Naviti started cannibalizing itself. Bradley went even before the merge, The Chris Noble Experience ended at the merge vote, Desiree got herself booted when she tried to make her own move, and suddenly the Kellyn/Chelsea/Sebastian/Angela faction were outnumbered by Wendell, Dom, Don, and Laurel.
Now, since this season’s editing was absolutely as poor as could be, we never really got a sense of inner-tribe dynamics, or why some votes and relationships went the way they did. At times it seemed like Kellyn was really tight with Dom and Wendell, and other times it seemed like they were rivals. At times it looked like Kellyn and company might have their own sub-alliance going, but that never amounted to anything. At times it looked like Chelsea might get more than five words in an episode, but nope.
I’ve ranted at length about how the post-show interviews with the cast reveal way more of what actually happened on the island than the actual show itself, so I just feel weary at this point that Survivor insists on manufacturing narratives when some interesting narratives are already taking place. Not to mention all the time spent on discussing vote-splitting, and idols, and all of the extra advantages on Ghost Island rather than more time spent on the personalities of the players playing the game.
In fact, it seems that the Survivor producers unwittingly created a dull season for themselves in their attempts to add more uncertainty to the game via Ghost Island. Theoretically, all the advantages in play would’ve led to crazy blindsides and power shifts. In practice, it seems like all the uncertainty led to very rote gameplay — you can’t blame Naviti for just keeping it simple and knocking out the opposing tribe given the threat of twists and advantages hanging over everyone’s head. This certainly contributed to Wendell’s win. Given that Wendell and Domenick were openly acknowledged early on as a strong power couple, you’d think an earlier attempt would’ve been made to break them up, but the Naviti crew was mostly focused on just controlling what they could and just going for the Malolo sitting ducks, and then the more overtly outspoken alliance members in Chris and Desiree.
Skillset: Again, I blame the game-focused edit for not giving us too much of Wendell’s personality (aside from his critique of Chris’ rap skills), though he seemed to be a likeable guy who also had the challenge ability to protect himself in a couple of key spots. Essentially, Wendell ended up playing a version of The Amber Strategy, teaming up with a more overtly aggressive alliance member and then using his good-cop vibe to get more votes than Dom the bad cop in the final tribal council vote.
That said, of course, it was as close as a vote could get. Some of Domenick’s rougher edges were apparently hidden in editing, though on the show itself, he also seemed like a decent guy and a decent player. It boggles the mind that, even though Wendell and Dom got a lot of airtime, I still don’t really have a great handle on this partnership and the specifics that each guy brought to the table. Survivor did a much better job of building up the Chris/Domenick rivalry to a worthy payoff, but it couldn’t make a similar, season-long build of Dom and Wendell as these two major players headed for a collision in a historic final vote? You’d think the idea of two somewhat alpha-male, somewhat “Survivor is about idols and blindsides” type of players going head-to-head would be Jeff Probst’s dream scenario, yet even this big collision didn’t deliver.
Could He Do It Again?: As noted, Wendell basically never had to play from behind all season, so who knows how he’d fare if he had to face some prolonged adversity. As with Sarah and Ben in the last two series, I’m finding it increasingly hard to actually gauge the quality of victories in these recent Survivor seasons due to the annoying preponderance of idols, advantages, vote steals, etc. Wendell seems to have the overall skills to be a good player in most circumstances, though maybe he was actually just fortunate to be on the winning tribe, and teamed with a guy who had a bunch of idols and advantages. Survivor wants to present itself as an Amazing Race-style game where a winner wins due to specifically doing A, B, and C, though the real reason players win jury votes (their personality and social game) is often set by the wayside. We’ll revisit the topic in my next Survivor winner analysis, which will probably come about five months after the next season ends.