Survivor certainly wasted no time getting back into the swing of things in this week’s premiere. It was a little jarring at first between the cold open focusing exclusively on the Boston Rob & Sandra gimmick before bypassing the usual Probst welcome and marooning to instead dump the castaways on the beach with little fanfare. However, the show fell into its rhythm quickly and dove straight into introducing its spectacular cast and their developing dynamics right from the jump. It helped to have a longer episode to kick things off, but this premiere did assuage some of my deepest concerns for the season—namely that the whole show would be dominated by the titular Idols and their Island.
Of course, it’s not like we’ll forget Rob & Sandra are on location, waiting to dole out advice and tempt the castaways like the shoulder angel and devil all in one. Their “bootcamp” will be a focal point of every episode, and it looks like they’ll be sitting in the peanut gallery for future Tribal Councils to provide their own little “IDOLS REACT!!” vignettes. So with a shorter runtime in future episodes, there’s still a threat that the presence of the Idols could squeeze out great moments back at camp, but based on this episode’s storytelling, I’m hopeful that Survivor can remember that the important part of the show is with its castaways fighting out the game and their stories along the way. It’s not the flashiness of a twist or a gimmick that matters, it’s the character moments and interactions along the way—it’s the social experiment.
PLENTY TO LIKE
Despite not ultimately receiving any votes at Tribal, the premiere episode was primarily about Elaine Stott and her potential destiny to be voted out first because she was too… likable? It’s not the first time that Survivors have been paranoid about a fellow castaway being a Jury threat when the merge isn’t even in sight, but it feels like this is the most the show has ever highlighted this particular over-playing inclination.
Right from the start, Elaine’s genuine good nature and laid-back humour arrested her tribe. Despite being an early victim of the Convenient Majority, where the 7 players back at camp conspired against Elaine, Tom Laidlaw, and Vince Moua, who happened to be out together collecting firewood, she quickly wormed her way back into the hearts of her tribe. With brain tumor survivor Missy Byrd, Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel, lawyer Karishma Patel, and superfan Chelsea Walker, Elaine was brought into an agreement between the five-strong Lairo ladies to look out for each other. But even back at camp, she was winning her tribe over with a smile and a laugh.
Sometimes Survivor has been content to tell us that a castaway is a social player without actually showing it to the audience, but thankfully, we got to see Elaine in action as she joked with her tribe, swung from the branches, and discovered that city slicker spice known as cumin. For the audience, it was immediately apparent how Elaine managed to win the hearts of her tribe to the point where those personal connections helped her secure the numbers at the vote, and these scenes were able to flesh out this gem of a Survivor character right from the start.
But these scenes also validated precisely why Elaine could be a dangerous player down the road. She’s so effortlessly likable and coupled with the hardships of her background, Ronnie Bardah and Aaron Meredith were not incorrect to identify her as a threat in the endgame. But they fell into the trap of playing too far ahead by fixating on the Final 3 before Day 3. Survivor is a game that moves in stages, and while it’s important to plan ahead, it’s vital to balance that with playing in the now. As Ronnie, determined to target Elaine, attempted to misdirect her by promising to let her know if she was on the chopping block, Elaine saw straight through the lie. Her gut told her that Ronnie was untrustworthy, and when she later brought up his name to her burgeoning allies, it was apparent that she wasn’t the only one feeling uncertain about the poker pro.
We often remember the likes of Jacob Derwin or Zane Knight as contestants who overplay their way out the door early by trying to do too much too fast. Ronnie certainly overplayed, but I think the distinction is that he wasn’t concocting insanely complicated schemes or scrambling from the start. He was playing calmly and methodically—to the point where he ultimately was persuaded to lay off Elaine, perhaps after she pled her case at camp and instead voted for Vince as an apparent challenge liability. But by looking at the horizon, he overlooked what was right in front of him—at the beginning of the game, it’s all about building social capital.
Elaine was making friends left, right and centre, and although that natural charisma will be threatening down the line, the friends she was making now were the ones who were going to protect her over the guy who nobody could read as trustworthy. Karishma proved a prime example—when talking to Ronnie and Aaron, she expressed her legitimate concern over Elaine’s long-term threat level, but she had also pledged loyalty to Elaine and the women, and breaking an alliance with people you genuinely like this early would be a dangerous move. Missy and Vince also acted as emissaries, drawn to Elaine’s personality and willing to fill her in on the words being spoken behind her back.
From what we saw, Ronnie’s oversight of the social game’s value to him meant that he had no one coming back to him when his name came up in return. Likability is a crucial skill in the Survivor social game, particularly early on, and if Ronnie had focused more on genuinely being “Good Vibe Ron” instead of trying to use it as a front and avoided targeting others specifically for their likability, he might have evaded the blowback.
Again, it’s worth noting that despite Elaine’s featured role, she didn’t receive any votes against her. When she honestly approached Ronnie & Aaron and pitched her case, she didn’t come out guns blazing like a Reem Daly. She presented her confusion and disappointment and pledged her amenability to play the Sandra strategy of “anybody-but-me” and agreed to vote for Vince. Despite Aaron & Ronnie still preferring to get rid of Elaine, they ultimately read the room enough to kowtow to the tribe’s positive perception of Elaine and sided with the Vince plan. But it was too late—Vince was likable too, and the tribe had already coalesced around defending Elaine, so switching the target to another likable target in her crowd wasn’t going to help.
So in the end, Ronnie was blindsided on Day 3, with only Aaron voting alongside him. Even Dean Kowalski, at one point mentioned as someone who might side with the keep-the-tribe-strong mentality, fell into the camp that backed Elaine and Vince. This coalition pulled off the move with steely precision. Tribal centred on Elaine and felt like a process of reconciliation with the heartbreak of being the first one out, with Vince echoing her sentiment as he too feared he was in danger. I wouldn’t say that they were putting on an act; it felt like they were legitimately concerned that the vote could come her way. But for the rest of the tribe to let it play out to the point where Ronnie and Aaron joined the lament for lost opportunities was pretty slick for the first Tribal of the season.
I’m intrigued to see how this move affects Lairo now that the overwhelming majority has to contend with Aaron, who was excluded from the vote. But this blindside bodes well for the calibre of gameplay we could expect this season.
WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?
There was another hiccup in the Lairo tribe, but given the vote was nearly unanimous, the consequences of Elizabeth’s fateful trip to the Island of the Idols wasn’t impactful on the outcome. Nevertheless, the montage of her rapidly discussing the strategy back at camp, all the while knowing that her vote was null and void, was fantastic. And her iffy lie about what went down on the mysterious Island—bluntly appropriating the Ghost Island game of chance—could still impact her game (particularly once another player visits the Island and learns that she was blatantly lying). But let’s get into what really did happen on that Island.
As a worried Elizabeth was whisked away after Lairo’s blowout defeat in the Immunity challenge, forced away from camp at one of the most crucial points in the game, she wandered down the beach to come upon one of the most surreal sights Survivor has given us: the monumental, literal idols of Boston Rob and Sandra looming over the beach. So much has been said about these giant sculptures already and their ludicrous kitsch appeal, and I still haven’t decided if I love them beyond the ironic WTF of it all, but they certainly exacted a perfect response from Elizabeth. Although she’s far from the biggest fan on this fan-heavy cast, she still gawked in wonder at this absurd sight and nearly doubled over as these towering structures came to life to reveal Survivor demigods Sandra and Rob in the flesh.
From there, Elizabeth must have felt like she had fallen down the rabbit hole and not just because Rob & Sandra’s bootcamp seemed intentionally designed to trick the unwary visitor who wandered into their lair. After being assured that they were here to mentor her and sharing her perspective on her place in her tribe, Rob offered to teach her how to build a fire. Fire is an essential Survivor skill at the best of the times, and unfortunately, a potentially game-defining one in the current era of the Final 4 challenge. Rob’s demonstration was quick, efficient, and impressive, and then Sandra led Elizabeth away to coach her through applying what she learned.
But the real meat lay in the test awaiting Elizabeth as Rob challenged her in a fire-making competition to earn an Immunity Idol (good for two Tribals) or a penalty of losing her vote. On the surface, it’s a terrible deal. An Idol that limited is only going to be of value if she is on the outs of her tribe and knows it, and this early on, pre-swap, needing an Idol to survive does not bode well for the long-term game. The first vote of the game is also crucial and losing her say and potentially being unable to demonstrate her loyalty could have more repercussions ahead, particularly if she got back to camp and everything had turned upside down. But Sandra and Rob laid on the sugar: she’d just said that she was in a good alliance, so would her vote really make a difference? Wouldn’t that Idol be a nice safety net?
Despite sensing in her gut that it was a bad call to go up against Rob— renowned for his skill with fire and who had just proved how capable he was in his demonstration—the competitive swimmer took on the challenge and lost. Badly. It wasn’t even close, and immediately Rob & Sandra pounced on Elizabeth for falling for their trick to accept a bad deal. It was a contrived trap for Elizabeth, understandably caught off guard by the mentors’ change of tone. But they still had a good point, and the teaching moments weren’t over.
Moreso than learning fire-making, the lesson was one of realising that Survivor is brutal and deceptive and that trusting your gut is critical. Elizabeth knew that taking on Rob was a high-risk challenge, and she took it anyway. She fell for the charm of two Idols of the game, urging her to do something against her best interest, and she was burned by it. But better to suffer that loss and betrayal now than when it might matter when her head’s on the block at Tribal Council.
All in all, I’m still a little on the fence with the Island of the Idols twist. I’m excited to see how it affects the players who go there—will Elizabeth’s lessons actively help or hinder her decision-making moving forward and will her dodgy lie about what really happened undermine her? But I’m still not sold. One of the reasons Rob & Sandra have resonated as Survivor legends since the beginning is their unfiltered attitude to Survivor and so locking them into the rehearsed mechanism of being mentors with a lesson plan robs them of their freedom of expression.
It’s no coincidence that the moments where they felt the most like the Rob & Sandra we’ve come to know and love were in their private viewing booth at Tribal, where their genuine reactions to what was unfolding shone through. But I’m hoping that the stilted aspects of the Island—the presentation of the test and the reading of the Oath of the Idols (which, thankfully, production included to unambiguously assert the Idols’ role in the game as being observers and not active participants)—will become more natural as Rob & Sandra themselves settle into the groove.
ALL THE SMALL THINGS
But whereas the absurdity of the high concept Island of the Idols suffered a little in feeling too contrived, the rest of the episode flourished in its nuance and characterisation of this fantastically diverse cast. Its strength came in highlighting the full cast (everyone but Dean spoke in a confessional) and in moments like Missy sharing her fight against a brain tumor and Vince establishing his excitement of being Survivor’s first Hmong castaway (including assuring Karishma, herself the first Indian-American castaway, that the Hmong are a small minority culture that is not widely known). But the wealth of pure camp life came from the Vokai tribe…
One of the best aspects of this episode was in the way it highlighted the way that early relationships form on Survivor—all in the small, quiet conversations. Like Vince & Karishma, or Tom, Vince & Elaine, or the women on Lairo, Vokai had plenty of these little moments of human connection. Foremost among them was Tommy Sheehan, who made intentional efforts to connect with his tribe emotionally—whether it was with Jack Nichting looking to team up with the other young guy, finding commonality with Jamal Shipman over the 4th grade teachers who changed their lives or in revealing his plans to propose to his girlfriend to the similarly aged and married Lauren Beck. It solidified him quickly into a network without being a leader assembling an army—it was all in the individual connections.
Naturally, everybody on the tribe was forming such small relationships. Well, except for perhaps Jason Linden, who walked right into a known trap even without Rob & Sandra luring him into it. He immediately began the hunt for an Idol, and after disappearing from camp for too long, suspicion against him peaked, and he found himself on the outside looking in. It made him an easy scapegoat for the likes of Tommy, Jamal or Dan Spilo, simply looking out for someone else to be the focal danger and a unifying target for the rest of the tribe. And unlike Elaine, Tom & Vince on the other side, Jason’s excursion from camp was both solitary and actually the Idol hunt his tribemates suspected.
But Jason’s one saving grace came in a small relationship as Noura Salman went against the grain, warning Jason of the tribe’s rumours against him and identifying him as someone she thought she could trust. Why? Because he reminded her of an ex-boyfriend, who was really authentic. I’m not sure if comparing a potential ally to an ex is quite the compliment Noura intends, but for Jason’s sake, at least someone was looking out for him.
Someone who didn’t need a guardian angel, though, was Janet Carbin. The oldest woman on the tribe, Janet knew she had an uphill battle based on historical precedence. But she came in with a game plan to make her mark and rather than asserting her leadership (despite years of leading a crew of over 100 lifeguards), she proved it by building a fire with nothing but bamboo and friction. We’ve seen countless Survivors over the years who run themselves ragged trying this exhausting fire-starting technique, but Janet sparked the flame effortlessly. Immediately, it established her as an asset in the tribe, and she backed it up at the challenge when she landed the grappling hook on her first toss. Right out of the gate, Janet leapfrogged ahead of the expected trajectory of her archetype and even more importantly, that gain extended into the social game.
I can see an alternate cut of this episode that excised the following scene entirely. But thanks to an extended episode and an intentional focus on highlighting the interpersonal dynamics of the Survivor social experiment, we got a surprisingly empathetic and nuanced portrayal of a—literally—touchy subject. We cut first to a scene of Janet on the ground as Dan straddled her to massage her back. It was first played for the oddity of the image, commented upon as Kellee Kim walked back into camp to survey the sight with surprise. But it segued into a different issue entirely—Dan’s massages weren’t always a welcome thing, and his general touchy-feely approach was leaving others uncomfortable. Kellee, who identified as a germaphobe, felt uneasy with Dan’s closeness as he rested a sweaty head on her leg, and Molly Byman similarly felt uncomfortable with how physically familiar Dan was becoming.
Individually, Kellee and Molly both shared their concerns with Janet, who listened, empathised, and led the young women into an open and honest resolution by encouraging them to let their discomfort be voiced. Kellee then sat down with Dan and expressed her dislike of his touchiness, acknowledging that it was his love-language way of being friendly without excusing that the behaviour left her feeling uncomfortable. In the current social climate, there’s a world where a storyline of an older Hollywood man creeping out the young women on his tribe by being too touchy would be portrayed very differently, if at all. But Survivor presented this scene beautifully—it empathetically supported Kellee and Molly’s discomfort, applauded Janet’s encouragement of a resolution and did so without demonising Dan entirely.
It’s also really exciting to see such an issue resolved more positively than in Survivor’s past, where unwanted male-female physical interactions were dismissed by other players. For example, Courtney Yates’ discomfort with the boorish Jean-Robert Bellande in China, awkwardly handled “Grindgate” in Thailand, or most egregiously, the mockery made of the Sue Hawk/Richard Hatch incident in All-Stars. Part of this comes from advances in societal awareness around these issues, but it also speaks to the calibre of Survivor’s casting to put diverse, strong, supportive women into this cast. Without a confident but supportive leader like Janet in her corner, would Kellee have felt comfortable confronting Dan?
It’s not my place to speculate to that extent, but in an episode that was primarily told from the perspective of Season 39’s women—Elaine, Missy, Janet, Kellee, Molly, Elizabeth, Karishma, Chelsea, Noura and Lauren—it’s worth applauding casting that’s aiding in empowering these women to play assertively.
THE REAL STUFF
The game of Survivor is a thrilling match of strategic wit, but it’s human moments like these—from the serious issue of personal space in the Kellee/Dan conflict to funny asides like the cumin scene on Lairo or Molly being caught off-guard by a clam suddenly spouting water—that makes the show. It’s the real stuff that keeps us coming back. The game itself—the twists, advantages, heck, even the mechanism of voting each other out in pursuit of the prize—is only as good as the people playing it and is at its best when it engages with the spectrum of human relationships teased out over 39 days.
After a season like David vs Goliath which excelled at developing fun and nuanced characters across the board and a season like Edge of Extinction that (unsuccessfully, at most times) attempted to hone in on the raw emotion that the Edge encouraged, I’m really hopeful that Survivor continues to put its players in the spotlight. Idols and advantages can be exciting, twists can be fun jaw-droppers, having Rob & Sandra living on the island in the shadow of ridiculous monuments to themselves may be absurdly enjoyable, but it is these 20 castaways who will make the season. We’re off to a great start, so here’s hoping it’s a sign of what’s to come.