'Survivor': Jeff Probst on the "Simple" Loved Ones Twist and That "Stunning" Tribal Council
"You can't ask for higher stakes," the executive producer and host tells The Hollywood Reporter about the wild final seven episode of season 35.
Welcome to The Hollywood Reporter's Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers regular season coverage! Every week, we're bringing you exit interviews with the latest person voted out, recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg and weekly check-ins with executive producer and host Jeff Probst. Bookmark our season 35 one-stop shop to make sure you don't miss out on any of it.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for season 35, episode twelve.
Survivor tends to operate in shades of gray. It's very rare to encounter clear-cut black-and-white scenarios in this reality show — but this week's episode, "Not Going to Roll Over and Die," featured a literal black-and-white scenario, as castaways competed against each other for a shot at spending an afternoon with their loved ones in one of the simplest challenges the show has ever seen.
The challenge partnered players up with their loved ones in a game of pure luck. Each participant was supplied with a bag which contained two marbles: one black, one white. Any pair that pulled out the same colored marble continued on in the competition until they were the last pair standing. Only two pairs made it as far as the second round: runner-up Ben Driebergen and his wife, and champion Chrissy Hofbeck and her husband.
"With the loved ones, we wanted to try something different," Probst tells The Hollywood Reporter about how the challenge was envisioned. "Something very simple that would involve the loved ones actually participating, and ideally something that would speak to the connection of family. Our amazing challenge department came up with a very simple game that we tested many, many times to try and find the right balance. Survivor is all about taking risks, and we force ourselves to do the same thing as evidenced here."
As for how Probst felt about the way the challenge played out, and whether or not he sees a similar challenge appearing again down the line: "I was happy with it. We very well may revisit that again with a variation on the theme."
In terms of the visit itself (which included Ben's heartfelt but short-lived embrace with his wife, Lauren Rimmer making the case for her sister to appear on a future season, among other highlights), Probst declares it a "pretty powerful" experience.
"I love the loved one visit," he says. "I get made fun of often for the joy I take in the entire experience. I have great empathy for those who play Survivor. They leave behind their family, their job and their friends, so that reunion is very powerful and it's a great reminder of who they are playing for. You can see their body refuel with energy after they hug their family member. In addition, their family member now has some perspective on what it's like to live in the jungle and it makes the adventure more of a shared experience."
Beyond the family visit, there was little love lost between the castaways this week, as old allies became bitter foes: Ben and Chrissy, once closely aligned during their days on Heroes Beach, now torn apart thanks to the fallout of Ben's secret agent routine. What's more, Ben went up against his three most recent allies of Lauren Rimmer, Ashley Nolan and Devon Pinto once he overheard their plan to target him. In the chaos, Lauren attempted to secure the loyalty of the lone Healer in the game, Doctor Mike, by gifting him with one half of a two-part immunity idol — an artifact he promptly threw in the fire at Tribal Council, as he was more inclined to join with Ben (who was potentially temporarily aligned with a reluctant Chrissy and Ryan) in going after Lauren, one of the deadliest players in the game due to her challenge strength and her possession of a secret vote.
But in a move straight from JT Thomas' Survivor: Game Changers playbook, Tribal Council exploded into a number of private conversations, with players trading whispers back and forth. The storm of secret plans eventually coalesced into a unified decision to vote Ben out of the game. Just one problem: Ben's immunity idol, which he played on himself, making his vote the only one that counted — a sad fact for Lauren Rimmer, who forfeited her vote four Tribal Councils earlier in order to earn the secret vote, only to find herself cast out of the game with her name written down on nothing more than a single piece of parchment.
For his part, Probst offers two words that best summarize the Tribal madness: "Holy smokes."
"Tribals have continued to escalate and this is not going away," he says. "They can't go backwards. People have risen the gameplay every season, and if you think you can come to Tribal with 'your plan in place' and know it will all work out, you are probably going to be going home soon. It delights me, because it shows me that people are playing every single second knowing that anything can happen at any moment. You can't ask for higher stakes."
"The particulars were pretty stunning," Probst continues. "Mike tossing his half of the idol in the fire, Lauren's extra vote coming into play [as a reason to vote against her], alliances turning on each other. And then another jaw dropping moment when Ben plays his idol and suddenly the entire group realizes: Ben cast the only vote that will matter. That moment, that tiny moment before I read the vote, must have felt like a lifetime."
It must have felt especially long for Lauren, the recipient of that lone vote. All season long, we've measured Probst's thoughts on each player from the preseason against how he views them now. In the spirit of that pursuit, here's what the Survivor host said about the Beaufort, North Carolina fisherman on the first afternoon of the game:
"Lauren is a fish out of water, which is ironic, given that she fishes. But she's a fish out of water because I don't think she socializes the way some of these people do. She hasn't left her hometown maybe ever. She goes out on the boat, fishes and gets it done. She told us, 'I have a small section of the year I have to go out and catch my fish and make all of my money. And I'm a mom, and it's a lot of pressure, and it's risky, and I'm out in the sea, and I'm doing my thing.' All of that can come in really handy on the survival part, but Survivor is about the social part. You have to blend with people. She's either somebody where people will go, 'You're a little out of your element but you're very likable and I can use you to help me,' or she will be so out of her element that people will go, 'Oh, I don't know. The woman who isn't talking much…' So, I'm not sure."
Months later, having watched Lauren's full game, Probst offers up a new perspective on those initial thoughts: "It's interesting to read this now because I think Lauren experienced both the perception of an outsider and then later, the likable insider. Early on, her inability to instantly make friendships threatened her game. She could have been voted out and nobody would have missed her. But as so often happens, once she got her emotional footing and found her way 'in' to the group, she blossomed into another kind of player. Lauren is a very subtle mover. You don't always see her influence, but it's there. Her blunt nature and her ability to encapsulate an idea in just a few words can be a very powerful counter to players who like to talk a lot. I think fans are already sad to see her go, but her ouster is a reminder of the difficulty of Survivor. She had an extra vote, an idol and a strong alliance — and she still got voted out."
"It was a big move in taking out Lauren," Probst adds. "She became a massive fan favorite about halfway through and she was without doubt a legit threat to win the game. I think this Tribal really laid it out: this season will be hard fought from here to the end."
Check back with THR.com/Survivor all season long for more from Probst, weekly exit interviews with the eliminated castaways, and weekly recaps from THR's very own Dan Fienberg.