Survivor: Heroes v Healers v Hustlers

Historical Perspectives: Idolization

Andy Pfeiffer takes a look back into Survivor history to talk about idols and their power.

Idols. They’re the most powerful tool in all of Survivor – not only can they be an unpleasant surprise for somebody, but they can also be used as a currency of trust in the game. If you have an idol, you can use that to build trust with people – but you have to do so carefully. If you tell the wrong person at the wrong time that you have the idol – or elicit the help of somebody to find it when you do not need to do so – the idol might be rendered completely powerless since the tribe can dance around it in a split vote.

Seeing as the boot discussion this week was much the same as that of last week, only with the opposite result (who would have thought Patrick’s social game could get even worse than the disaster it already was?), this week’s entry of Historical Perspectives will examine how to approach using the information that you have an idol… and likewise, how NOT to.


The Hidden Immunity Idol in its current form has been a presence in Survivor since the original Fiji, over ten years ago, where it was crafted as a happy medium between the useless thing Gary Hogeb- err, Hawkins, Gary Hawkins found and the overpowered Hidden Invulnerability Idol (aka the “Super Idol”) that Terry Deitz never needed, but granted Yul Kwon a free pass to Day 39. This way, it wouldn’t be played before the vote and only serve to change which person in the minority alliance was a sitting duck but also wouldn’t be something so powerful that people would be scared to challenge its holder. It was a happy compromise that worked, and now Survivor is not Survivor without idols.

Over the years, some have played idols brilliantly while others have failed epically with them. The strategy involving idols changed in their very first season in their true form, when Stacy Kimball of all people suggested the majority alliance take out Edgardo Rivera since he was the only one Dreamz’s loose lips didn’t implicate as ever having an idol. This created a permanent rule of strategy that the person to vote out is the one least likely to play an idol, although who that is has changed over time. In the next season, China, James Clement was packing two idols at the Final 7 but ended up blindsided with them both because he was too boneheaded to do the math that he had three rounds to play them and could have won an immunity anyway. As Micronesia proved right after, people were not afraid to challenge someone known to have an idol. It would take a hardcore blindside, a la the way Parvati and Cirie took out Ozzy after Eliza outed him using the f***ing stick – but that was a challenge serious gamers were willing to accept, unlike with the Super Idol.


In Gabon, Sugar Kiper became the first person to play her idol on another person (Matty) at Tribal Council – a move that enforced that while you should play an idol for yourself, it doesn’t have to be on yourself. The next evolution with idols involved how they were hidden. Starting in Samoa, idols were casually hidden near landmarks at camp, like the well or some tree that stands out, instead of being buried or stashed more secretively (such as at Exile). Some credit Russell Hantz as being brilliant in finding idols without clues, but those idols were easy as pie to find because production wanted to pump more into the game. At first, having more easily accessible idols didn’t work, seeing as the Dark Ages featured very few idols played correctly (and had Sash duping Marty), and it took an innovator by the name of Malcolm Freberg to reinvigorate them while vaulting Survivor out of that terrible time.

Malcolm flaunting his idols at Tribal Council created a whirlwind of panic, more so in Caramoan. Suddenly, a new use for idols emerged in that they could be used as a threat when people couldn’t strategize. When he did this in Philippines, Malcolm never had to use his idol even though everybody else knew about it. In Caramoan, he wasn’t so fortunate, being forced to play his two idols at the Tribal Council where he revealed them, not recognizing that Erik Reichenbach was trolling everybody also. If Malcolm had kept one idol, there’s no question he would have played it at the next Tribal since everyone knew he had it, but Malcolm left a mark that idols could be used to scare people, something not seen since the Super Idol.

However, throughout most of this time, the information of who had an idol was usually straightforward because idols were viewed as a currency of trust. It wasn’t until Samoa, with Erik Cardona, that an idol was kept secret by the person who had it (although Laura Morett likely had an inkling). This does exclude Jason Siska, who stupidly kept his idol in his bag despite having seen Mookie and Alex discover Yau-Man’s in Fiji by rooting through his belongings. Sounds like somebody could have benefited from Historical Perspectives! The idea of keeping an idol secret, even from your own allies, didn’t make a major presence until the Big Moves era, with winners like Tyson and Tony keeping quiet about their (regular) idols until they absolutely needed to tell somebody, either to quell a meltdown or pull a stunt at Tribal, like Malcolm had before.



While Malcolm’s decision to out the idol to everyone was strategic and meant to cause panic, Joe Mena will not have that luxury. When Joe found the 79th Hidden Immunity Idol in the show’s history, Cole Medders was right there as an abettor. Without Cole’s help, there’s no way that idol would have been Joe’s, so it was a Catch-22 that to find the idol, Joe needed somebody to repair his train of thought, but that would mean another person would know. On a tribe of six, everyone knowing who has the idol enlarges that person’s target quite a bit. People are paranoid whenever the word “idol” is even breathed (about every half-hour).

Sure enough, Cole started vomiting information to all three ladies on the tribe. Each person that knows about the idol is a concern to its holder because that person can use that information as power just as well. Look no further than Will Wahl in Millennials vs. Gen X outing Jay’s idol to Zeke, which started a game of telephone that led to practically the entire tribe finding out. While Will wanted to build trust with Zeke, Zeke did not need Will, so he used that information to solidify his own alliances. Will was to Jay what Cole is to Joe: the accomplice in finding the idol that only used that information against the one who’s armed with it. This proves that, in modern Survivor, it’s dangerous for anyone else to know about an idol, regardless of reason.

Telling somebody about the idol used to be a fruitful endeavor to gain their trust, a belief that Jessica Johnston still adheres to. Ozzy in Micronesia entrusted the information that he found the idol on Exile to his entire alliance of four. What’s fascinating is the stark contrast between Amanda being excited that the information about the idol would stay in their “little four-clique” and Jessica having alarm bells ring all around her because Cole told somebody else. In Micronesia, somebody telling you about the idol meant you were in their long-term plans – it was expected of an ally to let you know eventually. Now, it indicates a high level of trust – but it’s a red flag to be so liberal with any information about where the idol is, especially if it’s not yours. Jessica thought she was the Amanda to Cole’s Ozzy, but seeing him tell Desi and Roark got her thinking he also had deals with them that were equally important to him. That was not the case ten years ago when idol holders told three people all the time. There’s really not much difference between the power of “I have an idol” versus “So-and-so has an idol.”


These days, the only time it’s needed for someone else to know about an idol is when finding it is a two-person job. For example, in Fiji, the idol was buried in the middle of camp, and players needed an accomplice to distract everybody or help them stealthily dig while the less intelligent players were asleep. Survivor still tries to make an idol find require multiple people, like in Kaoh Rong. And in the recently-concluded season of Australian Survivor (which, if you haven’t watched, you absolutely should), one player asked another to find their idol at a challenge so she could do the puzzle – it would have been too suspicious for someone who had slayed prior puzzles to opt out of doing one. While it is rare, some instances require another player knowing. You just have to pick the right one.

Cole is not the right player. Joe made a poor judgment call in confronting a 24 y/o Golden Boy who struggles with the idea of lying and gets off to virgin girls six years older than him. Joe would not have needed Cole’s help if he had sat back and thought that there’s no way the idol would be glued under a moving object, nor would it be five feet from something without a dedicated spot. Because he didn’t ponder farther, the entire Healers tribe except for Dr. Mike knows about the idol. When the tribes swap, it’s going to make targeting Joe all too easy the moment someone like Ali, Alan, or Chrissy finds out. In short, Joe confronting Cole about possibly having the idol was a dumb move with dumb execution.


A recent example of someone intelligently using the idol as power was a bottom-dwelling David Wright early in Millennials vs. Gen X. Knowing the tribe was paranoid that he had the idol, which had put him on the bottom, he felt he could use that idol to make alliances, such as with Ken. He could also play the idol to save Jessica Lewis and buy her permanent loyalty in the game, plus get rid of the target associated with the paranoia that he had one. He was an example of someone playing the idol for himself, yet not on himself.

Joe needs to take the same approach as David. At the swap, he needs to show his idol to somebody not named Cole and create a long-term deal with them. He also needs to get rid of it the first chance he gets, potentially using it to solidify another alliance. An idol that is public information in the current state of Survivor is going to encourage a split vote (a reason for the failed experiment in Game Changers in eliminating the revote) or a decoy target to draw it out at one point or another. A split vote happened with Mike Holloway in Worlds Apart. A decoy target happened with Spencer (with Jeremiah leaving) and Adam (with Bret leaving).


Both of those decoy targets were also careless. Spencer, once he lost the clue to Woo, didn’t have a choice – he had to save himself because he knew he was a top target. Adam, however, wasn’t the target until he got diarrhea of the mouth about his own idol. He had no reason to tell anybody about it, especially Hannah, but he got a last-minute humbling that allowed him to win the game. While Cole has similarly loose lips, he doesn’t have the actual idol as of this time. He could always dig one up if he got swapped to another beach and then not tell anybody about it. Of course, he has loose lips, so not only would Jessica (Johnston) find out fast, she’d have the rights to use it if she wanted to. It’s best for him to keep quiet, but save Jessica if she’s the target.

Simply put, telling somebody about your idol is something you should very rarely do. It only works when you’re on the bottom and need to build trust. The other time you can use an idol as power without playing it is a la Malcolm – flaunt it at Tribal Council as an intimidation tactic. Malcolm was bluffing in both of his attempts, once unnecessarily, once mandatory, with the latter getting called. Mike Holloway saw Malcolm’s stunt and fine-tuned the move to its optimal execution (as Malcolm himself would admit) with bluffing it as Probst indicated it was almost time to vote. This way, there was not enough time for anyone to call a bluff and, by keeping the idol afterward, Mike was able to put a target on, and idol out, the one person who’d beaten him in an Immunity Challenge at the next vote, allowing him to steamroll everyone to the win. He was on the bottom and saw an opportunity to bluff using the idol on Shirin to create chaos, and it worked wonders.



In conclusion, you need to know both who and when to tell about the idol, the latter only being a smart idea if you’re on the bottom. Joe did not benefit at all from his interaction with Cole since his idol is powerless. You also need to be careful when you’re telling someone about someone else’s idol. Cole did not benefit from telling Desi and Roark about the idol since now his word means nothing to anyone, and Joe might find out that Cole is a rat. Both men need to learn to think things out before they pull the trigger on an aggressive social play. Both of their actions have minimized the trust they have with the Healers tribe and, come the swap, both of them should be seeking allies elsewhere.

Written by

Andy Pfeiffer

Andy is a 30-year-old from Wisconsin, having an English major from UW-Whitewater. He has watched Survivor from the very first episode and can't go a day without running Survivor-related thoughts in his head. When he's not entranced by a computer at home or work, he's probably playing a video game or out and about somewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @IAmAndyPfeiffer.

6 responses to “Historical Perspectives: Idolization”

  1. This article may be more timely than expected. I count 3 episodes in a row with much idol talk at the healer camp. Is something big brewing?

  2. This was a really great article! Are you guys still looking for people to do power rankings? If you already have them for this season, please consider me for a ranker for next season. I’m an avid fan and have the knowledge needed to publish articles like these. Please do consider it! Thank you to everyone @InsideSurvivor for all their hard work on this website! I truly have not seen a better website for a TV show or one as dedicated as this. Love you all!

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