'Survivor': Wendell and Domenick Tell Their Sides of the 'Ghost Island' Tale

The dynamic duo at the heart of season 36 speaks with THR about how it all played out.
Screen Grab/CBS Entertainment

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

As it was all season, the final moments of Survivor: Ghost Island came down to two people: Wendell Holland and Domenick Abbate, the dynamic duo at the heart of the season.

The two longtime allies became friendly adversaries in the closing stretch of the CBS reality show's 36th season, unwittingly sitting next to one another in front of a jury of their peers at Final Tribal Council. History was made as Wendell and Dom split the vote evenly, delivering the first ever tie at the last Tribal Council of the game. As a result, third-place finisher Laurel Johnson became the final member of the jury and was tasked with casting the game-deciding vote. In the end, she voted for Wendell — a decision she didn't arrive at lightly.

"I struggled with it," she tells The Hollywood Reporter, speaking moments after the finale. "I gave the edge to Wendell, because of his social game. I think you saw Dom and Wendell playing a very similar game. They made similar moves, they both won a certain amount of challenges, they both had idols. To me, it came down to the social game, and I thought Wendell had the edge socially. And there was our relationship: Wendell was like a brother to me out there."

In addition to Laurel, the three other castaways who were competing in the final episode of Ghost Island all voted for Wendell to win as well: Sebastian Noel, Donathan Hurley and Angela Perkins. In the case of Donathan, it was especially surprising to see the eastern Kentucky native vote for Wendell over Dom, considering he stressed at multiple points over the course of the season that if the occasion arose, he would write down Dom's name for the million-dollar prize.

"I used that strategy to try to get those two tired of each other, and it didn't really work," Donathan explains. "But Wendell is a phenomenal guy. He's a phenomenal player. He emulated the game I wanted to play out there. He really shined out there. People didn't see it as much because Domenick and Laurel had so much of the edit, but Wendell was making moves out there. He's a great guy."

"Wendell was my boy," Sebastian agrees. "We were like brothers from another mother. Every morning, we collected coral on the beach. We had so much in common. He was like my best friend, even though he had another best friend. He was cool to everyone. He was so helpful in camp. He played the game like every Survivor should play the game."

"Wendell and I made a really personal connection," says Angela about why she voted for the Philadelphia-based furniture maker. "He really took the time to get to know me. Some of his family members had the same traits as my daughter, and we would just talk about that. I had such a good, personal relationship with him."

With those glowing testimonials out of the way, let's turn the perspective over to Wendell, who spoke with THR on the red carpet at the finale to weigh in on what it was like on that historic final night of Ghost Island, his views on the partnership with Domenick and more. Following our conversation with Wendell, we spoke with Domenick, also live at the finale; our conversation with him closes out our coverage of season 36, all below.

These past few months since coming off the show must have been wild. 

Wendell Holland: It has. I've had to sit on this crazy secret.

It's an unusual circumstance, because oftentimes, winners can suss out the outcome from the jury — but in this case, you knew.

I did. I knew it. This girl, who's like a sister to me out there — but she's so close to Dom as well, but it's a different relationship. My relationship with Dom is we were best friends out there. My relationship with Laurel is brother, sister. Dom's relationship with her is that they're friends. When I knew she was the tie-breaking vote, I went, "Man, she better take care of her brother!" 

What was going through your mind sitting in front of the jury at that Final Tribal Council? Did you suspect it would be as close as it ended up being?

I knew it was going to be close. I felt it in my heart. I knew Dom had played a very strong, strategic game. I knew he was one for big moments, big Survivor moments, speaking in front of the jury and speaking with [producer and host Jeff] Probst. He's this "look at me" kind of guy. I was just playing it cool, building relationships, meeting people, learning about people on a one-on-one basis. Dom was talking with everybody. Yes, it's good to check in with everybody, but sometimes you need to check in for a little bit longer. Sitting next to him, I knew I couldn't say I was just a great strategic partner. I had to let him hold the strategy, and I could harp on the relationships and the social game.

Were there any surprises in terms of how the specific votes broke down?

I was surprised when Chelsea voted for me. She and Dom were close. I think he convinced her at some point they were going to the end together. For him to cut her down so quick, I think that pushed her in my direction. Hearing how I was speaking with the jury... I was really willing to put my heart out there. That's what I did all season. It shows that sometimes the social game can be the strategic game.

Who was the hardest person you had to cut along the way?

A few people were very difficult: Kellyn, for one. We were super tight. She has this energy, and it wasn't always shown on the show, but we knew it from the beginning: People loved her. I talk with her every day. She's always texting me and I'm always texting her. She looks out for me and I look out for her. Voting her out was very difficult. On her way out, I gave her a big hug and told her I love her forever. That was a very hard vote. Another one was Sebastian.... 

Especially the way in which he went out.

That was hard. This kid has a gigantic heart. Me and Dom were telling him we were going far with him, but again, even though it wasn't always shown on the show, we knew how much people loved this guy. With a young jury, he might be able to steal quite a few votes. We knew he was a threat. We knew we had to cut him at some point. But I bonded with him. We talked about past relationships. We talked about him and his fishing, and me coming down there. He gave me a Laffy Taffy tonight, man. (Laughs.) He gave me a banana-flavored Laffy Taffy tonight, Wigler. He's that kind of guy. He will touch your heart in his silly, goofy way. Voting Sebastian out was very difficult.

Track me through your relationship with Dom. You decided to work together, but with the knowledge that you would come after each other eventually. When did you reach that point with each other?

We started understanding we had some serious power as a duo... not too early in the game. It was past the merge, once we got Chris Noble out of there. We felt like we were underdogs. We felt like our backs were against each other and we were fighting everybody off. I saw my name written down, and we heard our names a lot. As we started figuring out ways to get rid of folks, we realized, "Wow, we're two power players in this game." And we became such good friends. As friends, we started speaking very candidly to each other. We would be laying there and he'll be gazing into my eyes, and I'd say, "Hey, Dom, when are you going to stab me in the back?" And he would say, "Maybe later, but not right now." We started understanding that it would be more difficult for one of us to win if the other one of us was sitting there at Final Tribal Council. So, we had those conversations, but it was like, "Man, as soon as one of us goes at nine, eight or seven, the other one will be left so vulnerable that the other one will probably fall soon after." So, we had to protect each other. But I knew for certain when he won that final immunity, he was going to make me make fire. In my head, I wondered if Dom was going to make a crazy power move and sit next to me, or is he going to make someone else make fire?

But it was never a question that he would put you in the fire-making challenge. 

Never. Not at all. I was thankful that we worked together for so long, but I knew that just as I would try to take him out in the game later however I could, he would try and take me out, no hard feelings. We used each other as best as we could, but at five and four, it was time to get one of these jokers out of here so one of us could win. We both made it to the end and both played very strong games in our own right, and then it came down to a single vote. Thank God for Laurel.

How would you describe the last year or so of your life knowing about this outcome? Did your feet ever touch the ground again or have you been flying this whole time?

I'm still floating a little bit. I'm still able to get into my shop to work a little bit. I brought some of my guys out here. They were in the studio, watching me win a million dollars. What keeps me grounded is my family and the fact that I know I have to work. I'm not going to sit here and burn this million-dollar check. I'm going to do the right things with it. I have a tremendous father. He's been advising me. He's the one single person in the world I told about winning. I believed Laurel had voted for me, but then again, that could have been another twist! She could have written Dom's name down! I didn't really know [for certain] until tonight. But my dad has kept me in check. 

And he forgave you for bailing on the reward with him? 

He has. (Laughs.) He's forgiven me for bailing on the reward. He knows we'll have our time. 

Next, let's get Domenick's take on how Final Tribal Council played out, how he's lived with the results over the last several months and the move he will always regret.

You have had some time to process what happened. It seems like you knew you weren't going to take this home once Laurel stood up to vote.

Domenick Abbate: I knew it in seconds. Wendell's head went up and he had a smile on his face. My head went down. It was tough.

How long did you keep yourself up at night wrestling with what happened?

The first couple of weeks after you get home, it's constant. You're trying to transition back into life. I got back home on a Saturday, and I was at work on a Monday. It happens. You try to get back into normal life. You try to do the things that you're used to: be a husband, be a dad, be a supervisor. Then there's this other thing sitting in the back of your mind: "Oh, my God, I just went through this really wild experience." Not just the game itself, but the ending. That's the first time ever Jeff said, "I guess I'll just read the votes now!" I think it might be a little different from most people who play the game and have to wait for Jeff to read the votes. Not to say no one has never known the result in the past, but this time? I really knew! (Laughs.) I'm flying back a day later — and it's weird that I can talk about this — and on that 14-hour flight home, I'm thinking, "What did I do? I blew it. I blew it!"

But did you blow it? What's the one thing you feel you should have done differently?

I should have hopped into the fire challenge. My whole game was about not getting overconfident. Play fearful, it'll keep you sharp. When I had to make the decision on what to do with the fire, I got overconfident. I decided that I could beat him in the final three. So I changed my role. I went from playing with fear to playing with overconfidence: "I'll beat him later." I should have sat there and whooped his ass in fire. (Laughs.) Who knows how it would have gone. I was decent. But the one thing that sat in the back of my mind was, "My wife will choke me to death if I do this."

You would definitely be murdered.

Murdered! She was giving me death eyes just now [for suggesting it on the show]! (Laughs.) Ultimately, I took a different route. If I play this game again, I won't play that safe ever again.

What happens if you take your necklace off, give it to Angela, hop into fire and lose? What's your legacy in that moment versus your legacy now, as the runner-up who lost in an unprecedented final tie-breaker decision?

So, what's better? I don't know. You're right. Either scenario wouldn't let me sleep at night. Might as well take the safer route and have a really interesting ending. 

Could you have swayed hearts and minds at Final Tribal, or do you feel the jury was locked in heading into the night?

The whole Sebastian vote at final six really left a bad taste in their mouths. I didn't know how to change this or turn it around. I knew I'd have another opportunity to speak [at Final Tribal], and I would really get into it and explain to them what happened. I knew it came out aggressively, but the only way I could sell the story is if I aggressively change their minds. It's something I struggled with. The other thing that hurt me was abandoning Chelsea. In the first half of the game, Chelsea and I worked together very well. We had a good thing going. Wendell wanted her out, and I went with it. I think that was a misstep on my end. I should have figured out a way to keep her around. But she was an immunity threat, so it kind of made sense. It was one of the few times I let the game out of my own hands and let someone else take the wheel. I think that might have hurt me.

Can you define the moment you and Wendell decided not to go after each other — and when was it open that you would come for each other the moment it became available?

I don't know what day it was, but it was after the merge when we sent Chris home. Things were starting to fall into place. We felt comfortable because we had things going the way we wanted them to. I remember sitting in the shelter and I was saying to him — and this was before the scene you saw of us on the swing — "So, when are you coming after me and when am I coming after you?" And he goes, "I know Mr. Dom, I know! Maybe tomorrow." And I'd go, "Yeah, let's talk tomorrow." It was this constant looking at each other with one eye open, always on alert of the other guy. I definitely would have taken a shot at him any time after Chelsea. But Kellyn was really feeding the beast. She was really stirring the pot at camp. She was becoming an issue. I couldn't work with Kellyn to take Wendell out. I was afraid to pull the trigger, because what if she runs and tells? It's all these different elements. You don't know when you can say something to who. It's not as dramatic as Laurel saying, "I'll get him next time." I was playing a more aggressive game, so I felt I had the ability to say, "I'll get him next time." 

Would people approach you to come after Wendell or were you viewed as inseparable?

Kellyn made an attempt. But I was very cautious anytime someone came to me with an approach to taking him out, because I didn't know if I was being set up. The second I agreed to it, now they could use it against me. I was constantly skating around it. I would never commit and say, "Yeah, let's do it." I would wait to see how things played out. Because what if he won immunity? Now, she's got ammo on me. I had to be very cautious and never commit, because if it went sour, it's over for me.

There was a lot of stalemate this season, it seems; locked situations where finding the key would be close to impossible.

Exactly. It was a very tricky endgame. The stars needed to align for him to go home or for me to go home.

How much does that come down to the abundance of advantages? You and Wendell both benefited from having idols, but was it a detriment as well, given how many idols and extra votes and whatnot were littered throughout the game? It seems like it would make your ability to untangle the Wendell situation specifically difficult.

Yeah. If I was the only one who had them, I could do whatever I want and manipulate the game however I want. There's so many things out there, and I know he has one and he knows I have 'em. It's just too big of a battle to try to maneuver through. It was a disadvantage for someone like myself, for sure.

Did the fire-making challenge factor into your strategy, knowing it was coming up at the final four?

We knew about it before the game, but we never witnessed it. As we got down to it, we saw how it would work. It actually had a lot to do with the result of the game. As a matter of fact, if the final four challenge rules stay in effect, it's one of the most monumental moments to make a move in this game. What I mean by that is, if we were to reverse the situation where Wendell won the final four immunity, he's now putting me up in fire against Laurel or most likely Ang, and now I look like a hero. I put him in a situation to look like a hero. It hurt me, winning the final four immunity. It's almost to the point that if I played again, I would throw the final four challenge! Not only that, Angela was so bad at it, it's like I sent her out to the slaughter! Now it makes me look like this evil man! (Laughs.) She comes off looking like I just sent her to her murder, he comes off looking good doing it, and I just lost the game. If I could go back, it's either throw the final four challenge, or sit right next to his ass and say, "Let's do this."

Are you able to be happy for Wendell, even though it's not you?

Absolutely. Absolutely. If I can't win it? I'm so glad it's him. He played an amazing game. As a fan of the game, it's important to me that someone who played the game gets the money. He deserves it. How can you not love that guy? Look at that face.

How do you feel about how Survivor Ghost Island wrapped? Who would you have voted for? Sound off in the comments below and keep checking THR.com/Survivor for more.

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