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Survivor: Island of the Idols Episode 3 Recap – Outsiders


Austin Smith recaps the latest episode!

Photo: CBS

One of the most common pieces of advice for a theoretical Survivor player is to do everything in your power to fit in at the start of the game. Those who stick out or are invariably different find themselves in trouble early, and that’s the way it’s always been. Unfortunately, the curse of heterogeneity often stems from differences that are beyond a person’s control—their gender, age, race, sexuality, background, and the list goes on. Sure enough, this episode highlighted growing disunity at the Lairo camp as Karishma struggled to feel accepted as part of the tribe or alliance due to the inherent cultural differences.

Despite her worst fears, though, Karishma wasn’t the ultimate victim of the season’s opening hat trick of blindsides. That unlucky honour was bestowed upon Vince. Although also distinguished from his tribe based on his background, it appeared that the reason he found himself sticking out was because of a random draw that sent him for an overnight stay on the suspicious Island of the Idols. But was his downfall solely the result of this excursion? Or was it just a nail in the coffin of someone already pinpointed as a target at the inaugural Tribal Council?

LONE WOLF

Almost as soon as the boat arrived to whisk Vince away to the Island of the Idols, the rest of the tribe immediately pinpointed him as the next target in case he was to return with an Idol. It was mind-blowing that paranoia was so high on the Lairo tribe that even without hearing Vince’s side of the story—before he even had a chance to maybe win an Idol or Advantage—he was public enemy number one through no fault of his own.

Or was it no fault of his own? Elizabeth wasn’t subject to the same degree of paranoid scrutiny, and nobody was throwing her name around to flush her possible Idol, after her visit to the mysterious island in the premiere. Perhaps that was because she was insulated in the decisive majority women’s alliance with close allies like Missy and Chelsea to protect her. If Missy—someone who seems to be at the centre of the tribe dynamics—were to take Vince’s place on the visit to the IOI, would she have been thrown under the bus the same way?

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I suspect that Vince’s visit to the IOI was a convenient excuse to target someone drifting on the periphery. The men, outnumbered by the women, had discussed staying strong, but I can’t imagine that folks like Aaron honestly believed Vince would choose them over the women, particularly given Vince’s tense relationship with Aaron after he’d voted against him. But the women, too, had forged their alliance on gender lines and that basic distinction ranked Vince as the sixth in that alliance at best. The only other one-on-one connections we’ve seen Vince draw on were in his conversation with Karishma, which was an interaction built on frustration rather than collaboration, or with Elaine & Tom as the hard workers of the premiere—and yet, Vince was happy to cut Tom and vice versa.

Vince was already peripheral and was easily disposable. Despite his own sense of loyalty to the women, he didn’t appear to have the strong personal bonds to protect him. Even though players like Missy and Chelsea showed a reluctance to cut Vince given his potential loyalty, they were ultimately willing to sacrifice him for their own alliance and the unwavering predictability of a player like Tom. Thus, with the added wildcard of whether he would return with an Idol in hand, he became an outsider with a high potential to introduce chaos, and thus an easy consensus target.

THE CURSE OF THE ISLAND

That said, I’m not sure Vince would have gone home had it not been for the paranoia induced by his IOI visit. Without that uncertainty, it may have been that the women would have been swayed to go after a Tom. Or even a more adversarial figure like Aaron, despite his physicality. Or perhaps have even considered cutting Karishma if her distrust towards her tribe was palpable. The Island of the Idols appeared to be a tipping point and—frustratingly—the edit excluded Vince’s management of this mandatory time away from camp.

We were not shown his return to camp or what he told his tribe. Did he lie about what had happened, and if so, how well did his story play? How did he manage his story with Elizabeth, who already knew the secret of the Island? Without this key piece of the puzzle, it’s hard to assess where Vince went wrong. He had no choice in being whisked off to Rob & Sandra’s boot camp, but he presumably had autonomy in how he presented himself upon returning to camp. By the show leaving this out, it characterises Vince’s downfall as being the result of a twist and not his own game.

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Online speculation has questioned whether the players who go to the IOI are allowed to tell the truth upon returning to camp. I sincerely hope that honesty is an option afforded to them (editor’s note: judging by Vince’s RHAP interview, it is not a choice). Twists dictating the circumstances of your game is one thing, but twists that dictate how you must play, such as forcing a player to lie even if it’s a detriment to their game, is a pretty egregious production choice. 

So in the interest of giving the show the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume Vince had the option to be upfront but chose to lie or obscure the facts of his visit. Unfortunately, honesty was potentially his only way out of this scenario. If he could have returned to camp and been honest about what went down, up to and including his prize of a short-term Idol, it might have helped smooth over paranoia but also prove trust to his chosen alliance of the women. It might not seem like much, but when the rationale given for Elizabeth & Elaine wanting to keep Tom was that he was direct, placid and predictable, Vince being able to demonstrate a degree of that may have helped him.

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I’m curious to see if Vince’s experience is an outlier or if it becomes the norm. Will visiting the Island of the Idols be a kiss of death for everyone from here on out, or was it just a bad confluence of factors that doomed Vince?

UNDER PRESSURE

Whether or not Vince did anything wrong to draw the target to himself, he certainly made one inarguable error to sit on his Idol and go home with it sloshing around in his water bottle. In a stroke of utter irony, his lesson at the feet of Rob & Sandra to “stay calm under pressure” led to him remaining too calm when perhaps a seed of impulsiveness could have saved him. It’s difficult to separate the viewers’ knowledge on this scenario, but regardless of the tone at camp and his trust with the women, I think Vince should have played his Idol. It only would be valid for one more Tribal anyway, and flushing it now would ensure that you would foil any paranoid attack against you and clean the slate moving forward. 

If played in the right way, hand-in-hand with being honest about the Island back at camp, the Idol could have also fostered trust, which Vince sorely needed. And if he truly had the women on his side, then wouldn’t he and the women still have a majority at the next Tribal, negating the need for his Idol then? It’s easy to say this from the couch, knowing that Lairo was coming after him, but short-term advantages should be approached for maximising long-term gain. And even if the votes hadn’t been coming for him at this Tribal Council, I think Vince could have gained more by playing his Idol now than trying to hold onto it.

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But before we dig into the other big story on Lairo, let’s touch on the Island of the Idols. I have to say, its luster is waning for me. Was Vince’s midnight raid on the Vokai camp entertaining? Sure. Was Boston Rob awkwardly reacting to Vince crying about meeting his heroes funny? Yeah. Was Sandra teaching Vince how to army-crawl and hide behind a giant palm frond ridiculous? Yup. But, for me, it still feels hollow and contrived. Boston Rob and Sandra are great Survivor characters, but stripping them of their uniqueness to cram them into the benevolent mentor role still feels awkward. The tests to win an Idol are certainly a lot more interesting than the banal pick-a-box “game” of Ghost Island, but the pretence of it being a test of the lessons taught by the Idols is pretty lackluster. 

Sure, knowing to listen to your tribemates is important, but just remembering facts about others isn’t the key to a Survivor social game. In fact, Chrissy Hofbeck was raked over the coals in the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers Final Tribal for reciting facts as a substitute for genuine relationships. And remaining calm under pressure is essential, but how is sneaking into the other camp the best way to learn that innate skill? If anything, the better lesson learned from Vince’s admittedly entertaining night-vision side-quest was the test of his adaptability in collecting ash from the fire pit upon discovering that Vokai’s fire was extinguished by the rain. I can’t say that I’ve got a better suggestion for how to test the skill of maintaining calm, but maybe that’s the point. The fire thief test was fun and a neat challenge worthy of winning an Idol, but it didn’t need the Idols gimmick. It could have just as easily been an opportunity found by a castaway like the invitation to Chris Noble’s midnight journey to Ghost Island.

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I think this is my issue with the Island of the Idols. The conceit isn’t innately terrible, but Survivor isn’t a game of discrete skills. It’s one that rewards a holistic approach—an ambiguous and ever-shifting blend of social, strategic, and physical achievement. So the idea of Rob & Sandra teaching discrete skills and testing them in absurd ways that don’t actually correlate to the way they would be employed in the game just feels disjointed. On top of that, this episode’s visit really felt like it encroached on the storytelling, spending a whole act on Vince obtaining an Idol that would be irrelevant by the end of the hour while completely excluding the critically important moments of him managing (or mismanaging) his social and strategic relationships once returning from his expedition.

I’ll still take this twist over the wasted potential of Ghost Island, which could have done so much with its conceit of cursed relics but truly phoned in the execution. Still, despite being entertained by the ridiculousness of it, I can’t help feeling like I would rather be spending that time with the castaways themselves. This is a really enjoyable group of players, and I just want to see them play and interact with each other on their own terms.

CUT TO THE BONE

That said, the show hasn’t entirely eschewed the human drama, and Karishma’s plight throughout this episode was a wonderfully complex character portrait. Her struggles to fit into her tribe were portrayed sympathetically, and her ineffectual strategic retaliation was frustrating, but this nuance felt earnest and real.

Karishma is a great casting choice, bringing someone out to Fiji that’s rare in the Survivor pantheon. Intelligent, successful, a little older, married but not a mother, and most notably the first Indian-American in the show’s history. But these surface-level differences that make her stand out in the cast are making her stand out on the Island too, and it’s something that Karishma is feeling deeply. From the pressure of being the “first” and the inherent burden to be a good representation (particularly given that going out to play a game like Survivor goes against the cultural norm) to the general struggle of fitting in with a group that’s younger and has a different worldview, Karishma has a lot to contend with. 

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It was devastating to see her brought so low as she felt thoroughly ostracised by her tribe, particularly when she cut herself with a knife and the tribe, unsympathetically, left her on her own as she tried to stay calm and keep from passing out as she waited for medical. While I’m not going to go so far as to assume that the tribe was intentionally ignoring or abandoning her, it still feels pretty callous to just carry on with breakfast and conversation while another person is in physical pain. Thus, it’s completely understandable why Karishma felt the incident was proof of her exclusion from the tribe and why she rightly assumed she would be in danger when Dean made his faux pas and suggested splitting the vote on Vince when everyone else in the tribe was present.

So empathetically, Karishma became a true underdog fighting from the bottom to stay alive. However, I can’t say she did a fantastic job after Lairo’s challenge loss. Her conversation with Vince was painfully squirrely as she lamented feeling in danger but was unwilling to throw out another name and strategise with him. That said, she knew he was the primary target and may not have wanted to inject too much chaos to either spook him into playing an Idol (and thus, knocking her out as the split vote target) or draw more heat onto herself. Still, by playing coy, she squandered an opportunity to try to wrangle back control of her situation.

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Come Tribal, Karishma had gathered her thoughts more and presented a pretty firm argument when Tom and Aaron bemoaned the tribe’s struggles with puzzles. She pushed back against their flimsy argument (after all, the only player to have been assigned to both failed puzzles was Dean, but he was copping none of the heat for the loss), and asserted that her physical strength had yet to have an opportunity to be tested. She also found the opportunity to vent her frustration with feeling personally excluded in a way that didn’t appear to antagonise her allies, and clearing the air on this front could help engender stronger alliances for her moving forward. However, her whispering seemed unnecessary, and though Tom’s public chiding of it was crass, it could contribute to Karishma being labelled as unpredictable—and that’s a huge contributing factor as to why Vince ended up in danger.

However, I’m fascinated to see if Karishma can find her way out of this predicament. This episode highlighted her complexity as a character, and I hope we get to see her evolve into a capable player in the weeks to come. I’m especially interested to see how her allegiance with the women plays out in the weeks to come, given she was conflicted about working with them in the premiere and the ongoing tension in this episode.

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If it’s not rectified, could it lead to a scenario where the women turn their backs on her? Numerically, they could afford to vote her out and still maintain a 4-3 majority over the men, and they ultimately decided to leave her vulnerable to an Idol with the split vote. This decision could deepen the gulf of Karishma’s distrust, but aside from wrangling full control of the vote and following Vince and Missy’s push to vote out Tom—who is firmly linked to both Elizabeth and Elaine—they didn’t have a lot of options.

Two of the women could have joined with Vince to vote Tom, making a 3-3-3 split on Vince, Tom, and Karishma, and that might have been a way to ensure the women didn’t lose a number if Vince had an Idol. However, it’s a further complication and one that could have still run the risk of alienating the back-up targets who didn’t go home. It’s a tricky situation, and while I’m not wholly on board with cutting a loyal ally in Vince or leaving the split vote on a vulnerable member of your own alliance, going after Tom, Aaron, or Dean could be equally damaging to tribe unity or strength. It was a tricky situation, but it leaves the Lairo dynamics as a fascinating web to untangle in the weeks to come.

WHAT’S BEST

Meanwhile, Vokai was grappling with some pretty intriguing fall-out after Molly’s blindside last week. Thanks to their great comeback in the Immunity Challenge (a great challenge, and the adaptation of the “By The Numbers” balance beam to a teeter-totter was genius), the tribe has been blessed with the opportunity to further consider their choices before making their move. But, as it stands, Jamal looks like he’s in hot water.

Fresh off the blindside, Jack immediately demonstrated an ability to move past it. He still wanted answers, but when the vote was explained to him, he took it on board and focused on getting himself back on track. Jamal, meanwhile, seemed to keep the likes of Tommy at arm’s length, explicitly stating that he might forgive but wouldn’t forget. This early in the game, it’s essential to be adaptable and to build trust. Tommy might have broken Jamal’s trust by voting against Molly, but Jamal’s attitude to hold onto that betrayal creates a barrier to rebuilding trust. On the one hand, he has every right to be wary of Tommy, but if he wants to continue working with him—and given his later strategic conversations with him, he does—then he needs to actively work to foster that relationship without baggage.

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Almost immediately, we saw the repercussions of Jamal’s reluctance to let bygones be bygones. As Dan rallied the troops towards an easy unanimous vote against Noura, Jamal wanted to push back against the fast-talking car-salesman vibe he got from Dan to turn the target on him. But when he approached Tommy and Janet, their read was more hesitant, and they found themselves contemplating if Jamal was the one to be worried about. Was he too slippery to be trusted? Perhaps if Jamal had been more willing to move past the Molly vote initially, Tommy and Janet might have seen him as someone they could trust moving forward. But when Jamal was openly declaring himself a lone wolf and then actively pushing his own agenda when he was ostensibly on the outside of the tribe, that’s unpredictable and dangerous.

The Vokai dynamics are pretty complex, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jamal escape the danger zone, but he’ll need to ingratiate himself back into the tribe without drawing attention to himself. Going with an easy target like Noura would be perfect for him to give him time to re-establish his footing, but if he keeps on with the wildcard approach, the King is going to get shuffled out of the deck.

THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Three episodes in, and I’m in two minds about Island of the Idols. I’m enjoying the season so far—the cast is superb, and I am so excited that we’re being given the opportunity to see Tribal dynamics develop instead of early and rapid swaps. However, I still find myself wishing we could do away with the Island of the Idols gimmick. It’s still got a fun and silly quality to it, but at present, it doesn’t feel like it’s worth the time that must be devoted to it in an episode. And the fact that its mere existence seemed to sign a contestant’s death warrant isn’t ideal.

That said, we’re still early, and at least the random draw to select the Island’s visitor appears to be out of the picture based on next week’s preview. So fingers crossed the eponymous Island begins to feel more at home in the season and not a disruptive outlier that detracts from the genuinely fascinating group of contestants battling it out.


Austin is a 26-year-old hailing from Canberra, Australia. By day, he works by the light of office fluorescence. By night, he can be found swing dancing to Top ‘40s tracks (1940s, that is), playing board games, and enjoying life with his wonderful wife. His pedigree as a long-time Survivor superfan is evidenced by his Survivor-themed 11th birthday party featuring a gross food challenge comprising Brussel sprouts.