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One Devious Act Turns Netflix’s Outlast Into a Real-Life Hunger Games

The survival competition series is seemingly designed to bring out the worst in its contestants.
  • Jill Ashock in Outlast (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix © 2023)
    Jill Ashock in Outlast (Photo: Courtesy of Netflix © 2023)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Outlast Season 1, Episodes 4 through 6.]

    Netflix’s Outlast has only one rule: you must be in a team to win. At the beginning of the competition series, 16 contestants are dropped into the Alaskan wilderness on the cusp of winter and split into four teams. From there, they are airdropped minimal supplies to build their own shelter, hunt and gather their own food, and, you guessed it, outlast everyone else. Along the way contestants can switch teams, and the last team (which only has to have two or more people) wins $1 million — no small amount, even if split among several people. There is no voting tribunal or elimination challenges’ contestants must be the ones to literally pull the trigger on their time in the competition and send up a flare to be pulled out of the wilderness.

    The series was conceived by Grant Kahler, producer of the History Channel series Alone. Alone is also about surviving in the wilderness, but in that show it’s every person for themselves, completely isolated from the other players. Each contestant can decide how far they’ll push themselves and what harmful conditions they’re willing to endure without thinking about affecting anyone else’s time in the competition. Kahler wanted Outlast to be decidedly different from not only Alone, but any other survival competition where being well-liked is a benefit.

    “It's greed and desire to win versus compassion and empathy,” he told Netflix. “I think everyone has that angel and demon on their shoulders.”

    At the beginning of the series, one contestant jokingly refers to the competition as an “adult Hunger Games.” It’s a sentiment that one team, appropriately named “Team Alpha,” fully embodies. At one point late in the season, Jill Ashock, Team Alpha’s leader, delivers the most devious, unironic “I’m not here to make friends” in reality show history. Not only is she not there to make friends, but she, along with her longest lasting teammates Amber Asay and Justin Court have no qualms with becoming the common enemy of everyone else competing.

    It’s in Episode 4, “Hunting the Thief,” that the team’s true colors are shown. If all it takes to win is to get everyone else to leave, why not just make their living situations completely untenable? Team Alpha decides to hit one team where it hurts, stealing all of Team Delta’s sleeping bags. In any other camping situation, it might be seen as a harmless prank. In freezing temperatures during a time when several contestants haven’t had proper nutrition or even food at all for days, it’s a recipe for disaster. And not only does Team Alpha commit this act, but they do so with glee, giggling their way through the night and morning as Team Delta struggles to survive.

    It’s a turning point for the entire game. In the episodes that follow, contestants who originally came on because of their love for the survivalist lifestyle immediately self-eliminate because they don’t want to have to play dirty to win. One contestant, Javier Colón, burns his entire campsite to the ground before self-eliminating in order to prevent Team Alpha from looting any of his gear. “If they had the opportunity, they would slice our throats,” he says in a confessional just before lighting his shelter ablaze with complete conviction that it could be a possibility. When confronted about how her team has changed the game, Ashock shouts with a wicked smile on her face, “There is no law here!”

    That free reign is what sets this show apart from something like Survivor. In Survivor, there are very clear rules, clear challenges, and a level of producer intervention that would prevent any of the contestants from experiencing life-altering harm. There have been moments of sabotage, of course — a tribe’s rice supply thrown into a fire, a contestant’s shoes being tossed into the ocean, multiple instances of betrayal in alliances. But in the world of Survivor, an opportunity to win more food or vote off the most villainous player is always right around the corner. Producers are always watching, ready to step in if things get too dangerous or violent. On Survivor, there is an end in sight.

    On Outlast, the time in the wilderness is indefinite. There are medics on call if a player requests them, but they’re otherwise not intervening with the game play. Meaningful supplies like crab traps and archery equipment are dropped in by helicopters at random intervals — whether or not the teams notice or are able to reach them is up to them. Much like in Hunger Games, it feels like the producers are invisible game masters creating the conditions for dramatic turns, all in the quest for good TV.

    And in that they succeed — the series is enthralling and becomes even more so as contestants continue to be pushed to the brink. It’s clear that each player is discovering their own limits in real time, and for some that means allowing that “demon on their shoulders” that Kahler mentioned to take over.

    Kahler has teased the possibility of a future reunion episode, saying that he’s kept in touch with the contestants and most of them still hate each other. If that reunion does take place, the most interesting thing won’t necessarily be the confrontations between the contestants, but the thoughts that the players have about their own actions. Rewatching the series, do they even recognize the person they became? It’s easy for viewers, from the comfort of their homes, to assume they wouldn’t go as far as Ashock and Team Alpha did, but what Outlast really shows is that it’s impossible to know what you’re capable of, for better or worse, until you’re plopped in the middle of Alaska with no real supervision and $1 million on the line.

    All episodes of Outlast are streaming on Netflix.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: Outlast, Netflix, Alone, Survivor, Reality TV