The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Zeke Smith

Zeke Smith

Millennials vs Gen X, Game Changers

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.

Zeke Smith is the 37th entry in this series.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. No, not the one you’re thinking of. Although I suppose if I have to clarify which elephant I am talking about, then I should be referring to the pluralized “elephants.”

Anyways, I’m starting to ramble. I’ll say this plainly because Andy brings it up in the comments of almost every fucking post now: yeah, I didn’t vote for forty people on this damn project. I didn’t vote for anyone past Season 30. I’m the reason all your recent faves aren’t unanimous. Sue me.

If I’m being frank, it is hard to say with certainty that any new player in the last five years has a clear and convincing impact on the game. What evidence do we have of their influence? Are new players citing them as exemplars of gameplay? Can we clearly observe an unspoken emulation of their style? And where is the line between “influencing trailblazer” and “reiteration of prior archetypes?” Jeremy may have coined the term “Meat Shield,” but plenty of people used the strategy before him. Apparently Production showed new contestants Ghost Island to say “Don’t be a Laurel,” but (1) that seems to be a rumor at best and (2) Laurel is hardly the first passive, indecisive castaway on this show. The strongest body of evidence I had for influence belonged to Caleb, and only because we know that Production changed its safety and hydration protocols to make sure no future player almost dies on camera. But that’s a bummer of a reason, so I figured I wouldn’t vote for Caleb.

But since I’m being frank, I’ll be franker; it took quite a bit of time to generate a list and then to run through it for revisions. It was time that I spent directly following my birthday, on top of the nearly ten hours a day I spend as a teacher. So when I realized that I hadn’t reached forty players, I shrugged and moved on. I got y’all to thirty; you figure out the remaining ten.

How the rest of the staff responded to me not filling my ballot

This brings us to our next elephant, which is still not the elephant you are expecting. I did not find Zeke influential enough to vote for him, and yet here I am writing this article. It seems to be a contradiction, no?

How is it that I didn’t feel that Zeke was influential but I am writing an entire article on his influence? Did something change within me? Is something not the same? Or am I through with playing by the rules of Andy’s game? Could this be the article that undermines the premise of this project? (Just kidding, that already happened in the Tyson article) Or maybe there is some other reason that I, the only queer PRP staffer, am writing this post.

Well, now we’re moving closer to the previously alluded-to elephant, though we’re still not talking about that yet. I must be clear; I was not given this assignment solely based on my queerness. That would be considered tokenism, which is bad and not good. But on another point of clarity, it seemed almost inappropriate to have one of the cishet staffers write this one up. Perhaps that made things less clear by seemingly contradicting the previous point. Uh, look over there!

Anyways, this implicit irreverence of identity seamlessly segues us to the anticipated elephant, practically petting its pachydermal trunk. Basically, why should one of the cishet staffers not write this article?

Well, I mean, c’mon. You know.

Zeke was the victim of a terrible assault that was aired on national television. And while I probably don’t need to tell most of you, yes, forcible outing is an assault. The nature of this assault is inextricably tied to Zeke’s queerness, and the assault itself was such a touchstone moment in the season (and the show as a whole) that Zeke’s Survivor story became inextricably tied to Varner outing him.

And yet, that is exactly what Zeke did not want. Zeke tells us as much on that very night at Tribal.

“I didn’t want to be the trans-Survivor Player. I wanted to be Zeke the Survivor Player.”

And so I cannot in good conscience write this article from the viewpoint of “Zeke’s influence is rooted in queer visibility and representation.” I cannot write this article saying “The way that Zeke handled his situation created positive change on how Production approaches violent and traumatic experiences.”

I mean, the first statement is true because many queer Survivor fans do credit Zeke as an inspiration. But the second is undoubtedly false as evidenced by Production’s piss-poor handling of Kellee Kim’s assault. If anything, Production learned the wrong lesson from Zeke because they left it to the tribe to boot an assailant on principle, creating a precedent that the merged tribe did not follow on Island of the Idols.

But again, I’m starting to ramble. Zeke wanted his legacy to be centered on his gameplay. Let’s discuss that.

Zeke plays the game hard. Like, incredibly hard. He started Game Changers by saying that he wanted to “lather himself in the blood of his enemies,” which is uhhh pretty intense. But intensity is the essence of Zeke’s game. “Pinball” doesn’t even get close to how Zeke plays.

Let’s consider Millennials Vs. Gen X. Zeke worked with Chris and David at the merge. But following the first two boots of Taylor and Michelle, Zeke pivoted and started swinging at Chris and David. And immediately after engineering the boot of his close ally Chris, Zeke convinced Sunday, Bret, and Jay—whom he just betrayed on the previous vote!—to go to rocks for him. Rocks! Zeke wasn’t even vulnerable in the rock draw because he received votes! The great irony is that Zeke survived only for his torch to be snuffed at the following Tribal by Will’s swing vote–Will Wahl, drinker of milk, who was clamoring to pad his resumé because his competitors (i.e. Zeke) were making too many Big Movez™. Zeke had unfortunately flown too close to the sun.

Let’s move on to Game Changers, wherein Zeke became one of the few players to play on consecutive seasons. It’s a high honor reserved for big characters and big strategists, which in its own way is a mark of influence. Zeke seemed to have learned from his last time out by lowering the heat a bit out of the gate. But we follow a similar story where Zeke worked with Cirie and Andrea at the merge. Following the first boot of Hali, Zeke pivoted and started swinging at Cirie and Andrea. He seemingly turned on a dime because he felt that he was too reliant on them for strategy and information. If Zeke was to be the author of his own game, he had to start laying the groundwork to topple some of the legends. Unfortunately, legends typically don’t take well to your attempts to oust them, and Andrea and Cirie fired back. The next votes featured a double vote advantage and a plurality win, the irony again being that other players’ impactful plays booted Zeke from the game.

So ultimately, what is Zeke’s legacy in the game? I see Zeke as the parallel to Ciera. Ciera brought back the rock draw after 23 seasons, which kicked off the Big Movez™ culture. Her gameplay in Blood vs. Water and her preaching for these Big Movez™ in Cambodia had an undeniable impact on how players approached the game at that time. And it was profound enough that I started branding things as Big Movez™ and could not stop writing it that way. Zeke brought the last rock draw we’ve seen, and his downfall in both seasons seemingly ended the era of players openly calling for Big Movez™.

Instead, we are now in an era of “managed threat levels” and UTR strategy. The mantra is to never be the tallest blade of grass. Or even the second- or third-tallest, for that matter. Blend in, don’t stand out. The goal is not to have the biggest move but rather the smartest move at the optimal time. And if you do this with enough players over a sufficiently long enough period of time, you start to end up with some underwhelming winners and below-average seasons. Zeke did not single-handedly put us in what feels like the Second Dark Ages, but it seems likely that the reception to his gameplay contributed. When everyone is terrified that their wings will melt, you start finding that no one really ever gets airborne. But of course, it is impossible for me to say that Zeke produces bad television.

Who else made the list?

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