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And how the sleeping bag theft came to be
Jill Ashock, the breakout contestant on Netflix's rugged survival competition Outlast, knows that many people who watched her take matters into her own hands in the series will label her the villain of the show. But Jill, a "40-something-year-old mom slash grandma of four," is unapologetic. "No matter what I'm doing, you're gonna get 110% of me. And if that 110% is too much for you, ooh, it might not be likable," Jill told TV Guide, the day before Outlast premiered on Netflix.
As the mastermind of Alpha team, one of the four squads of four competitors whose goal was to survive as long as possible in the wilderness of Alaska with nothing but basic tools and their wits, Jill was directly involved in the most shocking moment of Outlast's first season, and one of the most memorable standoffs in reality television.
Weeks into the competition and with two other teams struggling, Alpha team sprang into action, stealing the sleeping bags from Delta, a team of two — no small crime given that nighttime temperatures in the area were dropping below 30 degrees — and raiding Bravo, a team of one. This forced contestant Javier Colon to try to be in two places at once to protect his shelter or his raft, a crucial item for navigating the valley and getting food, while Jill and one of her teammates, Amber Asay, destroyed whichever item he couldn't protect. Alpha team's actions drew outrage and disbelief from other teams, who had considered Outlast to be a test of survival skills and not ruthlessness. As exasperated player Dawn Nelson, one of the victims of sleeping bag theft, said while watching Alpha stalk Javier, "This isn't about survival, it's about who's the f---ing meanest."
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Depending on your viewpoint, it was either an act of extreme cruelty or a fair play according to the series' incredibly lax rules. As Outlast's credits explain, the only listed rule is that competitors must be in a team to win, a mandate placed in order to drum up television-friendly drama from individuals used to working alone.
"This wasn't some fantasy land where all rules just disappeared," Javier, who was confronted by Jill and saw his raft destroyed by Amber, wrote to TV Guide via email from Thailand, where he's receiving massage leg therapy. "Jill and Amber most definitely manipulated the situation to their benefit. Assault is illegal. Theft is illegal."
But for producers, letting things play out — even if it meant some teams used extreme measures, as long as player safety was ensured — was vital to the spirit of the game. As much as Outlast was about who won, it was also about how the game was played.
"We wanted to keep the rules very vague, you know — not vague, but very simple, because I wanted people to be able to do what they felt they needed to do to win," executive producer Grant Kahler told TV Guide. "Did I think it would go this far? No, of course I didn't." (Kahler assured that safety was a primary concern, and that interventions did happen if the crew thought things were getting too heated between contestants.)
"I thought it would have done the whole experiment a huge disservice to change the rules mid-game, you know. Again, did we set a precedent that's unfair? I still don't think so. Because I do think that's part of the game," he said. "If people were behaving badly or not treating each other with respect, I didn't feel it was my or the producers' place to change how people played."
While Jill admits she came up with the plan to sabotage other teams, she never suggested stealing sleeping bags — she recommended grabbing an ax or the fire starter. Justin Court, the third member of Alpha, came up with stealing the sleeping bags on his own in what is one of the funnier moments from the season, as Court fashioned his own makeshift ghillie suit and took the sleeping bags while Bravo was off scavenging. Jill was just as surprised as viewers were by Justin's actions. "By the time [I found out Justin came back with the sleeping bags], that was when it all sunk in, like, oh my gosh, he went the extreme [way], he wiped them out!"
Perhaps emboldened by the success of Justin's mission and seeing easy prey, or maybe just because she didn't like Javier, Jill next set her sights on Bravo camp, as Javier was the lone remaining member of that team. But Javier saw it coming and took action.
"I could tell that Justin, Jill, and Amber were terrible people when Brian and I first encountered them along the river bank in front of their campsite as we were hiking towards the crab pots," Javier wrote to TV Guide. "They actually suggested stealing all the crab pots to make things more difficult for the other teams. Immediately after that encounter I warned [then Bravo teammate] Brian that they would likely be stealing our things next." To make that more difficult, Javier took action. "I wrapped up our little shack with fishing nets to confuse Jill and Amber when they came in for an attack and that's exactly what happened. Jill got frustrated by the nets and she wasn't able to steal my personal items and sleeping bag before I caught up to her at my campsite."
It was a moment that brought the game to a halt. As Delta looked on from across the river, Javier raced to his camp to protect his gear from Jill, while Amber beelined for Javier's raft. Jill and Javier had at it, with Javier calling Jill "weak" and a "cheater," claiming she couldn't win the game how it was meant to be played so she resorted to dangerous bullying tactics. Then Javier heard Dawn call out, "The bitch [Amber] is going for your raft!" and Javier knew he was in a tough situation.
"We literally were not prepared for how emotional everyone would get," Kahler said when asked about his reaction to Jill and Amber approaching Javier's camp. "I honestly was as surprised as you probably were as a viewer because we had no idea."
As Jill sees it, ousting Javier by any means necessary was about saving her team; since Bravo and Alpha shared a side of the river, Javier's presence strained resources and kept game away. Jill says she gave Javier the option to stay in the competition by abandoning his camp and heading to the other side of the river to join Charlie, which she knew was a long shot due to her alliance with Charlie. Not wanting to leave anything for Jill and Amber, Javier made the decision to burn his camp to the ground, in a statement that was as much about playing the game as it was about what he thought of Jill and Amber.
"At the end of the day, you can kind of see like his emotions definitely took a toll on him as well and he torched [his] entire camp," Jill said. "Out of, you know, despisement (sic) to us. But he went home and we didn't."
Javier would end up leaving the game after Charlie rejected his request to join and get payback for Alpha's actions, though he really thinks he could have won the game if it weren't for Alpha.
"I was also hoping to learn from my teammates and gain new outdoor skills but that unfortunately didn't occur when the crazies started stealing from us," he wrote. "There was no question in my mind that I wasn't going to do anything unethical or immoral by attacking people. But I would have definitely eaten insects and gotten extremely creative finding food, staying warm and I would have likely outlasted everyone else."
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Jill also thinks she would have won, had the game continued to be a game about outlasting other players instead of ending on a footrace to a destination. (The strong Charlie team, who largely avoided confrontation, ended up winning.)
"I've lost everything my whole life," she said. "And I've earned it all back. I've dug myself out of the trenches, and I've earned everything I have. Not one thing has ever been handed to me. ... I still think that if we had played Outlast [instead of ending on a challenge], no one would have beat me."
But what do they think of each other now? Even though about a year and a half has passed since the competition took place, the emotions are still hot.
"Jill and Amber's character is clearly visible through their actions," Javier wrote. "In my opinion they're extremely immature and selfish. Justin was easily manipulated by Jill. He definitely wasn't the brains behind this operation. Amber was just a follower. Jill is a pathological liar and the most dangerous person on this show. I wouldn't be surprised if she became a politician or a preacher after this show airs. She's a skillful manipulative crazy lady."
"They hate each other and blame each other for not winning," Kahler admits. "There is absolutely true hatred between them."
Sounds like a perfect setup for a reunion show.
All eight episodes of Outlast Season 1 are on Netflix.