'Survivor Ghost Island': Jeff Probst Breaks Down the "Historic" Finale

The executive producer and host speaks with THR about the tense conclusion to the 36th season.
Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

[This story contains massive spoilers for the Survivor Ghost Island finale.]

Given its haunted premise, it's only fitting that Survivor Ghost Island concluded on a haunting note — not to mention an historic one: a tie vote at final Tribal Council.

For the first time in the CBS reality series' history, Survivor concluded with a deadlocked jury and a 5-5 vote split between two of the three finalists: construction worker Domenick Abbate and furniture builder Wendell Holland, two dominant allies who worked together in lockstep all along the way. With their games so interwoven with one another, the jurors were unable to decide between the two — meaning the third finalist, Laurel Johnson, was suddenly tasked with casting the deciding vote as the final juror of Ghost Island.

"When Laurel realized it would come down to her vote, I think all of us felt for her," says executive producer and host Jeff Probst, weighing in on the climactic moment. "It was clearly a tremendous responsibility. She had spent so much time working with both Dom and Wendell, and she is a person of integrity and wanted to do the right thing. That's all you can ask for from a Survivor player, is to treat the game the way you would want it to treat you."

Apologizing to her fellow competitors in the immediate aftermath of casting her ballot, Laurel's game-deciding vote was finally revealed at the Survivor Ghost Island live finale and reunion on Wednesday (May 24), in front of a packed crowd at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, California. In the end, she voted for the person who granted her immunity only a few days earlier: Wendell Holland, the official champion of Survivor Ghost Island.

Over the past several weeks of the season, Ghost Island felt like it was building up to one of two possible outcomes: Domenick or Wendell winning the Sole Survivor title and million dollar prize. The two dominant players aligned with one another very early in the game, and were in command of every single vote they encountered along the way except for one. Their partnership only broke in the eleventh hour, when Dom won the final immunity challenge and was tasked with bringing one person with him to the Final Tribal Council, while leaving the other two players to battle it out for the third spot in a fire-making challenge. 

Dom sent Wendell to the fire with no ill will between either partner, both of them knowing the risk they posed for the other. For his part, Dom briefly contemplated pitting himself against Wendell in the challenge, lacking confidence in Laurel or fellow ally Angela Perkins to get the job done. He ultimately decided on Angela for the task, with Wendell pulling out the fiery finish. The rest is history ... genuine history, too, as a tie at final Tribal Council has never occurred before, making the Ghost Island finale a monumental moment in the legacy of the series.

Read on for more about the eventful evening from Probst, his thoughts on Wendell and Domenick's legacies, what he learned from the latest season and what to expect from this fall's edition of the show.

It's official: we have our first final Tribal Council tie in Survivor history. What was your immediate reaction when you realized what had happened? And what were the reactions of the other producers as you processed the milestone moment?

Well, the final vote is unique in that we remove our camera operator from the voting booth to ensure that nobody sees the votes as they are cast and therefore nobody on our crew knows the winner. Then I go back to get the votes where executive producer Matt Van Wagenen is checking the votes to ensure each piece of parchment has a name on it and we have a good vote. So, the only two people that know the result are Matt and myself.

Typically, I just grab the urn and head back to tell the players that I'll see them in L.A. for the reading of the votes. But this time when I walked back, Matt was staring at me with wide eyes. He nodded knowingly, but said nothing. I was so mentally drained by the end of Tribal that I didn't know what he was doing. He finally mouthed the word: "Tie."

I couldn't believe it. Thirty-six seasons, we had never had a tie. It was exciting in the sense that it was historic, so we both took a moment to silently acknowledge it, and then went back into work mode. For the first time since season one, I was going to read the votes in front of the players. I think the best part of the entire moment was when I placed the urn down and said, "I'm gonna read the votes." Their shocked faces were fantastic.

At the Survivor Game Changers finale, you publicly revealed the tie mechanics for the very first time: the third-place finisher becomes the final member of the jury and makes the final call. When was this rule established? Were there other versions of tie-breakers discussed along the way?  

I can't remember when we established this rule, but it has been in place for years. In the early days, we had a final two and a jury of seven, so a tie wasn't an issue. But as we grew to a final three and a larger jury and with the possibility of evacuations or someone quitting, it became a bigger concern.

Domenick and Wendell were such a tight pair all season long, so much so that it was incredibly difficult as an observer to separate their games from one another. Heading into the final Tribal, was there any sense whatsoever that a tie could occur between these two players?

Looking back, it seems like we could have predicted the strong likelihood of a tie, but we didn't. We came into Tribal expecting a battle, and that's what we got. They duked it out from start to finish and at no point was I thinking, "Oh, this could be a tie." The idea of a tie just wasn't in our heads, as it had never happened.

In the past, we have seen dynamic duos storm the game and make it to the end together. JT and Stephen from Survivor: Tocantins are probably the top examples that come to mind — and yet, in that case, JT won in a landslide 7-0 decision. What do you think it was about the partnership between Domenick and Wendell that brought us to a situation where the jury ended up splitting the vote?  

One of the most unique aspects of this season was the partnership between Dom and Wendell. Unlike other Survivor pairs where there is often a leader and a second, these two played very public and somewhat flashy games, so the jury knew their story. I think that's a big part of Survivor at this point in its evolution. If your plan is to play a quiet game and then surprise the jury with a dramatic telling of everything you secretly did behind the scenes, you're dead. It's too late. They've already formed their opinions. You have to walk the tightrope of bravado while still being tolerable. It's not easy. 

You bring the urn back to Tribal Council, and announce that you're going to read the votes right then and there. Can you describe the atmosphere in that moment? Did you feel the air go out of the room?   

I cannot stress how exhausting these shoots are for all of us, the players and the crew. So when I walked out with the votes, you could feel that everybody was at the end of their energy. They had done their job and were ready for it to be over. So when I said, "I'm gonna read the votes," there was initial confusion and then suddenly everybody woke back up and the energy kicked in as everybody started to try and figure out what was happening. It was electric and a pretty fun moment.

In the end, Wendell is your winner. How would you describe his legacy as a Survivor champion, and as the official ambassador of Ghost Island?

I think Wendell is a tremendous player and will be a great representative of Survivor. He's extremely likable, very clever and has a great social game. He's the guy you just want to be around. I would love to see Wendell play again.

Meanwhile, Domenick is your runner-up — so very close to the win, and yet, just far enough. I've heard it said that "one bad decision will haunt you forever." Do you think the saying applies to Dom?

Dom will officially go down in the books as the runner-up, but any Survivor fan will always see him as the guy who got half the jury votes and lost in a tiebreaker. You cannot get any closer than a deadlocked final jury. Aside from missing out on the money, Dom should have no regrets. He may wish he had taken on Wendell in fire-making, but that's back-seat driving. He played an amazing game and did everything right. It just came down to one vote. I'd love to see Dom play again.

Another season in the books. With Ghost Island in the rearview mirror, what's the post-mortem? What did you learn about where Survivor is now, and more importantly where Survivor can and needs to go next, based on the experience of shooting this season?

From a producing standpoint, I'm really happy with our execution of Ghost Island. It was the biggest and riskiest idea we've done, and I can now say I lost a couple nights' sleep in those first few days wondering if the idea was just too corny to pull off. But now that we're finished, I think it shows that we can continue to take big risks and try new ideas. When you are reaching the end of two decades, you have to be willing to go for the fences in order to reinvigorate the format. It's a risk-versus0reward scenario. We're very fortunate to have the same creative team together year after year. It allows us to have a giant idea, and once we all decide we are going for it, our focus shifts solely to execution.

Speaking of the next giant idea: Survivor: David vs. Goliath. What can we expect from season 37?

David vs. Goliath is another risky idea. Two tribes that at first glance appear very uneven. One tribe has always had advantage, and the other has only had obstacles. But Survivor is the great equalizer. And what we hope for in David vs. Goliath is to further the social experiment by exploring the question: how do you define advantage?

What did you make of the final Tribal Council tie? Whom would you have voted for? Cast your opinions in the comments below and keep checking THR.com/Survivor for more coverage.