What a Survivalist Reality TV Show Can Teach Us About the Human Condition
S 6E 11, of "Alone" © The History Channel

What a Survivalist Reality TV Show Can Teach Us About the Human Condition

What makes 'Alone' endlessly fascinating and deeply moving is the mirror it holds up to our broken lives.

Jacob Howland
Jacob Howland
8 min read


I’ve been watching a captivating series on the History Channel, a reality show that truly deserves the name. It’s called Alone. Ten people are sent alone into wild and harsh environments just weeks before the first snow: the Mongolian steppe, the mountains of Patagonia, arctic lakes in Canada. They have no human contact apart from occasional medical checkups. They take nothing with them but clothes, camera equipment to film their every move (and the predators and scavengers that haunt their campsites at night), and 10 items selected from a master list (sleeping bag, tarp, axe, saw, knife, lighter, rope, bow and arrows, and cooking pot are popular choices). They are randomly allotted locations where they must build their own shelters and hunt and forage for their own food. They may tap out at any time but can be involuntarily removed from the competition for medical reasons such as severe malnutrition or injury (participants have gashed or impaled themselves with axes, knives, arrows, and fishhooks). The one that lasts longest wins $500,000.

Alone has run for eight seasons, but it took off in the dark days of pandemic isolation. What makes the series endlessly fascinating and deeply moving is the mirror it holds up to our broken lives. Picture a rapt solitary viewer, her face illuminated by the monitor’s cold glow and her attention interrupted only by the ping of her smartphone, watching a man who eats red ants out of a rotten log while grieving for his lost daughter with no one to comfort him, and you’ll begin to understand Alone’s strange attraction.

The contestants on Alone are ordinary, salt-of-the-earth folks. They come from liminal places: the boundary separating the haves from the have-nots; the border between hyper-civilization and the rawness of the untamed wilderness. Many live on the outer edges of the grid, where much of what you have is what you make with your own hands. Some work menial jobs to supplement what they can’t hunt, fish, gather, trap, scavenge, build, carve, weave, or stitch. More than a few have been down and out—homeless, impoverished, abused—and have learned to make the most of scant material and moral resources. Contestants can use whatever they find of civilizational detritus, from which even remote regions offer no complete escape. They turn plastic water bottles into clever fish traps, forge knives from large nails, and fashion fishhooks from wire.

The physical challenges of survival on Alone are immense. In Mongolia, poisonous vipers infest the tall grass, and the choral howls of the wolf packs are otherworldly. In his shelter at Great Slave Lake in Canada, where the temperature toward the end of one season is regularly 30 degrees below zero, Amós, who survived the El Salvador civil war, looks out to find five wolves stalking him in a tight circle. At Chilko Lake, also in Canada, the air is limpid and fresh, and the turquoise glacier-fed water is ringed by snow-covered mountains beneath azure skies. But the place is crawling with wolverines, who prowl around the campsites, and grizzly bears, which (a banner informs us) “can measure up to 8 feet tall and have enough bite-force to crush a bowling ball.” “Every second that we’re on the land we’re being hunted,” says Colter, a 30-something Alaskan homesteader who says he came on the show to make Mom and Dad proud. Rose Anna, who eventually gets frostbite, finds herself “alone with a grizzly bear that is hunting me and there is nothing that is going to save me but myself.” But humanly inflicted suffering has toughened her. “The scary things I’ve dealt with in my life, I can definitely recover from a grizzly bear … When I was a kid we lived a lot in safe houses. And I was just always just running around in the woods. I was trying to escape from, you know, a bad childhood environment.” In Patagonia, a highly venomous Chilean recluse spider bites Callie on her butt-cheek, producing suppurating sores and lymphatic infection. She, too, toughs it out with herbal medicines, pounded and chewed to make a poultice.

Another problem is protecting supplies. Wolverines raid meat stored 10 feet off the ground. Mice chew through bowstrings, bears dig through caches of berries, and squirrels steal mushrooms. These, at least, can be retrieved: cut down the trees where they stash them and steal them back. And while there’s nothing to be done about the bears (pro tip: don’t camp next to a game trail), mice can be trapped and eaten. Little wonder that, when Clay spots a cougar at Chilko Lake, he retrieves his bow to kill it. Out here, the best defense is a good offense.

But the real challenge is psychological. Contestants are used to living closely with their families but in relative isolation from society. The show takes them from this healthy middle ground and exposes them almost immediately thereafter to life in the wilderness, which is equally harsh in its own way. While compulsory removal for starvation is common, with some contestants falling over from malnutrition, like inmates in a concentration camp, even more tap out because of loneliness. While sheltering from endless rain and drifting snow—a wilderness-imposed lockdown—they have plenty of time to think of their sick mothers, pregnant wives, loving husbands, and growing children. This unleashes a flood of strong emotions. Kielyn, who laments the lack of physical contact—“the only time I’ve touched something living is when I’m about to kill it”—observes that “out here, you have highs that are taller than the tallest mountain, and then you have lows that are lower than the lowest valley.”

What makes matters worse is that every depressing mistake and manic success (a big fish can bring shrieks and tears of joy) is laid bare for millions of people to see. Contestants furnish amusement for anonymous crowds, including some viewers who gleefully savage them on Twitter. A few embrace the exposure, like Justin, a combat veteran who makes an arduous hike up a mountain on day 22 in honor of the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day. (Needless to say, this is not a winning strategy.) The implicit pressure to “perform” for an audience underscores much of what we see in the show. The first season’s contenders, all men, showed little awareness of the online jungle. But in Season 8, Matt, who chooses not to bring a ferro rod and then has trouble making fires with bow and spindle, confesses “I’m afraid that people will look and say that this person doesn’t have skill level.” “Anybody can judge me all you want,” he says, in a moment of frustration. “You are not out here doing it. So who the hell are you to judge? Just sit there and eat your popcorn and your chips and get all fed while I’m out here starving for your fucking entertainment … Who the fuck are you to judge?”

Rage is generally also not a good strategy, although Larry, an ordinary Joe who longs to quit his electrician’s job, does surprisingly well with it. Watching him swear at the trees, rocks, and rain, one thinks of all the other Larrys cursing the soul-grinding hassles of the urban existence. But it’s better to try to open oneself to the natural environment, learn its ways, and fashion a decorously ordered living space, enriched with art and music. Women seem to excel at this kind of approach, and while they make up only 20 percent of the contestants, the second, third, and fourth of the five longest-lasting competitors are female. Callie, who likes to watch the sun rise over the Andes, decorates her light, bright shelter with green plants, makes wind chimes out of bamboo, fashions clay pots for cooking, carves a stringed instrument, constructs a mobile out of string and animal bones, and builds a sweat lodge. She leaves Patagonia when she feels her journey is complete.

Others need to learn the life lessons Callie already knows, and they do. Alone’s contestants undertake a spiritual, even religious, voyage of self-discovery and growth, the kind that comes from contact with ultimate realities. The lessons they learn are profound.

First, you can’t do it alone. No one can. Even Roland, who lives up to his heroic name by lasting a full hundred days at Great Slave Lake, would have probably failed to survive the winter. Nor would many have been willing to pay the price he paid for his victory. Used to a solitary life—he long ago told people “I’m going to move to Alaska, so far back in nobody can ever touch me”—he survives the brutal environment in a particularly brutish manner. He shoots a musk ox with an arrow and finishes off the wounded and still-dangerous animal by stabbing it repeatedly with a knife. He uses every part of the beast, tanning its hide with its brains, eating its lips, and slicing up its testicles (“There’s all kind of goodness in a set of nuts!”). He builds a gloomy redoubt out of rock to protect himself from predators and dwells in it like a caveman. Watching him whittle in the dusky smoke produces another “split-screen moment,” where the mind’s eye sees a cocooned and infantilized viewer with no real-world skills watching his fully self-reliant but equally isolated counterpart from the safety of his locked and bolted apartment. Yet Roland, like Callie, has already discovered who he is. He has a deep inner life, which he shares on screen in ways he must rarely do in person: “In the dead silence, you can hear your dear mother sing a hymn in church from 30 years ago. That’s what you get out of the dead silence.”

Second, you don’t want to be alone. This discovery, and the realization that you already have all you need at home, with your nearest and dearest, eventually dawns on almost everyone. Along with that comes a sense of gratitude for the gifts you receive, a sense which also wells up naturally among the contestants. Nicole, who successfully treats her MS with herbal medicine on Vancouver Island but is knocked out by the disease when she returns to the show in Mongolia because she cannot find the right plants, ritually thanks each fish that gets caught in her gill net for the life it gives her—and she is by no means alone. Nathan, who for 20 years has been too poor to take a bus trip home to visit his grandfather, says that “the only currency is gratitude. And if you don’t have gratitude in your life, you better figure out how to get it. Because this is as good as it gets.”

Gratitude, one might say, is the soul’s ferro rod; without it, life is cold and dark. No tool is more useful in dealing with the brokenness of our time, a subject that comes sharply into focus on Alone just because its contestants strive so earnestly to live wholesome lives. Civilization, which was intended to lift us out of chaos by protecting our bodies and ordering our souls, has now almost completely detached itself from nature, and even presumes to replace it altogether with its own social and technological constructs. But it has succeeded only in building a global prison. Ray, an African-American English major and former police officer, captures the problem: “I’d say what’s keeping me here [at Great Slave Lake] at this point is my fear of going home. My fear of being back in that mundane world of nine-to-fives, punching clocks and being stressed out over other people’s problems. Not so hard before you’ve tasted freedom. But definitely hard to go back into the cage after you’ve flown free for a long time.”

Alone enlarges our understanding of the crisis of civilization while giving us hope in the human capacity to heal wounds and mend the world. For all our efforts to hold chaos at bay, it has come flooding back in, degrading and polluting the human and natural environments alike. In Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man, a wilderness helicopter pilot says of Timothy Treadwell, who was eaten (along with his girlfriend) by a grizzly, that he treated bears “like people in bear costumes.” That’s what comes of allowing our desires, amplified by power and technical knowledge, to efface our understanding of limits and borders and, with them, our sense of the place of humans in the world. The flip side of this coin is that we have come to treat people like bears in clothes. We keep our distance; they may transmit disease, or dangerous ideas, and, in any case, cannot be trusted. These problems will not be resolved until we recognize their existence and begin to think deeply about how to solve them. The gift of Alone is that it opens a space for us to do so. Then each of us, individually and together, can begin the long journey back home.

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Jacob Howland

Jacob Howland is Director of the Intellectual Foundations Program at UATX, well known as the University of Austin. In 2018, he wrote Glaucon's Fate: History, Myth, and Character in Plato's Republic.