The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Laurel Johnson

Laurel Johnson

Ghost Island

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Laurel Johnson is the 39th entry in this series.

Earlier in this series, I argued that Ciera Eastin had a lasting influence on the game for her celebrated attitude of deciding to play to win versus playing not to lose. When it became clear to her at final six that the current path she was on, while a safer bet for survival, would most likely result in losing the game, she took a risk to try and win it all – even if that might have meant her leaving the game that very night.

This is a moment and a player that the show would highlight to try and push this attitude, both because it’s much more interesting television to have active players and also because it’s true: staying in the game does not increase your chances of winning if the path you’re taking will prevent you from being the choice of the jury.

But we humans are funny when it comes to assessing risk. Most people will naturally view doing something as riskier than not doing something, especially if their current situation is not dire. In Survivor, it’s easy to view a move or change in tactics as risky, because it could fail and derail your game. After all, it’s not like Ciera succeeded in any of her attempts to play to win. She lost the rock draw and exited the game right around where she would have if she had done nothing at all. Since then, some might view her as an overrated invention of the Jeff Probst hype machine, a Big Movez™ mouthpiece that doesn’t understand the true subtle nature of Survivor, as practiced by the winners of her seasons – Tyson, Jeremy, and Sarah.

It’s easy to show and understand the risks of trying something and failing. It’s harder to illustrate the risks of not doing anything to change a losing path. At least it was until an incredibly unique set of circumstances came together to make Laurel Johnson the poster child of the dangers of risk aversion in Survivor.

As presented, we usually only see a player get one, maybe two, chances to really change their fortunes in Survivor. Whether it’s because opportunities to change the game are truly rare or because the narrative isn’t usually interested in that many lost opportunities is unclear. But throughout the post-merge of Ghost Island, two things were frequently highlighted: 1) that Dom and Wendell were in control and one of them would win if they were to make it to the end, and 2) all that needed to happen to prevent this was Laurel agreeing to flip the vote toward one of them.

It’s so metaphorical.

Multiple times she is the swing vote between the status quo and changing things up. Multiple times she gives confessionals where she discusses an understanding that she probably loses if she goes to the end with one of them. And she never takes the plunge. Would all of these opportunities benefited her more than the people she would be flipping over to? Probably not all of them. But when your current course of action is a near guaranteed loss, then a move that reduces that to “uncertain” is the better course of action. (If indeed winning is your goal. It’s possible that it wasn’t Laurel’s, which is immaterial to the discussion of her influence).

You can’t ask for a better example of “you have to play to win” than highlighting the person who refused to do so at every possible turn suddenly become the deciding vote for the winner of the season in the show’s first ever tie at Final Tribal. That jury may not have finished their duties by having picked a winner, but they were all unanimous on one point: it wasn’t gonna be Laurel. You can’t get a clearly denunciation of a risk adverse approach to Survivor than that.

The message was clear: if you play Survivor to not lose, you almost certainly will. The show hammered this point with every confessional given by Laurel or her fellow castaways about what would happen if Laurel never attempted to remove her front-runner allies. And for those who refused to see it during the season, they finally did once the final votes were shockingly read in Fiji. Reportedly, Ghost Island has been a season production has shown to new cast members since it aired, to discourage Laurel Johnson-style gameplay. Whether or not that’s true, I can’t verify. But in the four seasons since then, there hasn’t exactly been a reluctance by players to target Wendell and Dom style threats or to flip on one’s alliance. And it’s hard to imagine this changing any time soon.

Who else made the list?

You can see each entry on the list by clicking this link.