To put it plainly, I am not okay with how Survivor is handling the situation with Dan Spilo’s sexual harassment of Kellee Kim and other women on the cast of Island of the Idols.
In the moment, the production decision to shirk responsibility to act using their authority and the information readily at their disposal and instead put the onus on the players to resolve something far outside the strictures of the game is incredibly irresponsible and disappointing.
Let me be clear, if Dan had simply kept his hands to himself, listened earnestly, and respected boundaries, especially after warned by Kellee (as we saw in Episode 1) and also by Janet and Lauren (based on information that’s been revealed in exit press), then we would not be where we are now. But production’s lack of action at the outset, woefully inadequate management of the situation as it escalated, and its choice to let it be resolved in-game allowed it to become a chip to be used in the game, paving the way for the tribe as a whole to enable a harasser and gaslight the few players who spoke up.
By not doing more when the inappropriate touching began, the situation in last week’s merge episode grew far murkier than it ever should have become as strategy inevitably intersected with something beyond the game. Perhaps even production was taken aback by how quickly misinformation and self-preservation fuelled the paranoid and deprived players to embed the situation into their games. Especially Missy & Elizabeth’s willing and explicit exploitation of Kellee’s claims, Janet’s moral compass, and yes, even Dan’s reputation, for the betterment of their own goals.
Maybe production only realised that everything had gotten out of control when it felt too late to do something. Unable to wind the clock and prevent it from impacting the game, it was easier to just let it play out like it was any other personal conflict. Regardless, this was the wrong call—doing nothing is only the path of least resistance—and for production to carry on like nothing has happened is egregious and makes them party to silencing the victim, gaslighting the allies, and enabling the abuser. Quite simply, it’s wrong.
Survivor is a game that actively encourages behaviour not normally acceptable in the real world. Lying and manipulation is not just permitted but is idolised as a core aspect of gameplay. There’s an argument to be said that the players didn’t realise the magnitude of the situation, in part due to their conditioning to act against social protocol in the trenches of the game. Whether they actively exploited it or enabled harassment as inactive bystanders, their actions were morally irresponsible, but perhaps understandable in the moment.
Production let the players down by their own inadequate action, which only amounted to issuing a warning that was vague enough that Dan didn’t realise what it meant (bad job by production) or was clear but ignored by Dan (also bad job by production to allow a perpetrator to deny his actions with no repercussions). But perhaps even production was so caught up in game-mode, that they didn’t even realise the full extent of the situation. Much like the psychologists who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiments, perhaps being so close to the situation blinded them to the reality. But that’s still wrong, and I sincerely hope that Survivor makes significant changes to its production to ensure that it has measures in place to prevent anything like this from happening again.
However, once you’re outside of the moment and the fires are out, that’s when you have time to fully reflect. That’s why we see players apologise at Ponderosa for anti-social behaviour that may have crossed a line, or at the Reunion or in exit interviews. Of course, some lies and manipulations are still applauded as gameplay, but in context, these are usually viewed more akin to a poker bluff than a sin against a fellow person. And yet, even months after the fact, production continues to utterly fail its handling of this situation. From the lack of a content warning or an information card citing sexual harassment resources in last week’s harrowing episode, to its near-silence in the media save for trite and inadequate responses from Jeff Probst, it’s felt like somehow the show still doesn’t realise the extent of what transpired or their culpability in enabling it.
Compare this to how well the show handled the situation with Zeke Smith in Game Changers. It collaborated with Zeke directly on how the life-affecting story of his outing by Jeff Varner would be told (and even if it would be told), giving him a voice in the show’s telling of events and also permitting him to publish an article detailing his perspective. It sought input from organisations devoted to the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals like GLAAD. In both the episode itself and the media coverage surrounding it, Varner’s actions were unilaterally condemned as a violation of Zeke’s rights beyond the scope of the game.
In contrast, Kellee, who was repeatedly violated by Dan, had no say in how or if this story was told by Survivor. As far as we are aware, production did not seek input from organisations supporting survivors of sexual harassment, abuse, or violence and certainly didn’t refer its audience to these resources after the fact. And even its portrayal of the events in the show was muddied with mixed messages. The edit clearly and plainly demonstrated the acts of harassment through flashbacks. However, ultimately, with Dan still in the game, allowed to defend himself while Kellee could not respond, the lesson was that perpetrators don’t have to be punished. Despite Jeff’s statement telling Dan, he would “never let this go,” it certainly felt like he had by the time the votes were cast. And production’s lack of involvement in the conversation following the airing of last week’s episode is the final, damning nail in the coffin.
I am, frankly, abhorred by all of this. I am disgusted by Dan’s actions on the island and horrified by the vast majority of his tribemates enabling him by action or inaction. I am reviled by production’s complete and utter failure of its cast and audience and its seeming assumption that the game can continue like nothing ever happened.
If you happened to miss last week’s episode and tuned in for this week’s double boot, you would have absolutely no idea what transpired. You’d look at Janet’s confessional to kick off the episode and think, “Oh, it looks like Janet got blindsided at Tribal and is in a bit of a bad spot.” You’d look at her later conversation with Dan on the beach and think, “But that’s good… looks like Janet’s recovering an ally.”
The episode excised all mention of the sexual harassment that dominated last week’s narrative. It asked the viewer to go back to just being excited about Idol finds, twists, and two “epic blindsides,” signalling a power shift moving forward. It asked us to look at the events of last week in the same category as the nuanced conversations about race and gender in the two episodes preceding that or Missy’s point about representation mattering in view of the dual Immunity win by African Americans last week, as if they were just another topical conversation on the way to getting back to the game and putting pen to parchment to vote someone out.
Survivor, Jeff Probst, CBS: that’s not good enough. Do better. You can’t go back and do this right from the start, but make an effort now and in the future.
My job here on Inside Survivor is to review the episodes and delve into both the storytelling and the strategy. I have to be honest—I really struggled with having to write that this week. On face value, it was an interesting episode, and I’m relieved that Janet and Karishma, the easy targets, survived as the majority ate their own, and Missy and Aaron’s aggressive, impersonal gameplay caught up with them. I’m thrilled that Karishma, especially, has an Idol in her pocket, and there is a non-zero chance that she could overturn the “goat” label she’s been slapped with to emerge as an unexpected power player as we move towards the endgame. We even revisited the ‘un-merge’ twist that we saw last in Ghost Island, which is an interesting wrinkle and a great way for the show to handle a double boot episode.
But for me to write about all of this, I can’t help but feel like I’m giving into the show’s apparent attempt to just sweep last week under the rug. It feels disingenuous and irresponsible to just “move on” when the trauma of last week is not just unresolved, but wholly unacknowledged. How can I be invested in the strategizing of players whose actions or inactions enabled a harasser to continue in the game? How can I be excited for a game that may very well culminate in Dan, now a perfect goat, still there on Day 39—especially when he stated in his pre-game interviews that because he doubted he could actually win the game, just making the Final Three would be his victory?
Yet despite my personal conflict on the matter, the show still goes on, and so must we all. But as with all bad things, moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting about last week or pretending it never happened or condoning production’s poor handling of the incidents on and off the island. All it means, at least for me, is hoping that something good can rise from the ashes. It means supporting the players who stood up for what is right in a matter bigger than a game for a million dollars. It means not allowing the actions of one man and the inaction of many other people to completely destroy a show that has been an important part of my life since I was 9 years old. Is my love for Survivor tarnished by all of this? Absolutely. But I hope production can do the right thing and restore trust with me and the rest of its audience grappling with similar disappointment.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I know that over the last week, these topics have been covered in podcasts and articles by many others with far more eloquence and authoritative perspective than myself. I also know that another white male voice is not something needed by the community in this conversation. However, in view of my travels last week preventing me from articulating my thoughts in this column, I could not have written about this week’s episode or what’s left of the season without addressing the events of last week, lest I too appeared to be erasing the despicable scenario from the discourse.
The rest of this article will discuss the events of Episode 10, and due to the limitations of what was shown, my commentary will be largely independent of the incidents of sexual harassment and production’s insufficient management of the situation. I apologise for the cognitive dissonance.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, the following resources may be a helpful place to start:
THE NEW EPISODE
This week’s episode divided the Lumuwaku tribe into two groups, each destined for Tribal Council and sending someone to the Jury bench. It’s a twist that I am pleased to see return to the game after a couple seasons. While it’s imperfect and has the potential to wholly tank someone’s game thanks to an unlucky draw, much like an unfortunate tribe swap, I think it’s fascinating to inject into the individual game. It tests a player’s bonds with a broader intersection of the tribe and opens the door for underdogs to hold greater power simply because there are fewer votes to be cast, and thus, fewer votes needed to swing an upset.
It’s also a great game mechanic for translating to TV. As opposed to condensing two ordinary votes into a single hour that rushes the narrative or robs a big moment of its weight (like the David/Kelley episode of Edge of Extinction or Andrea/Michaela of Game Changers). The smaller groups attending Tribal have far fewer options to work with, simplifying the strategy to wade through in a more compact episode, and the twist makes the double boot feel like an event rather than a constraint.
So let’s talk about the first group heading to Tribal, thanks to Noura’s early celebration of her Immunity victory preventing her group from getting both PB&J sandwiches and the opportunity to see who the other group voted out: Aaron, Dan, Dean, Lauren, Janet & Noura. Coming into this episode, it was clear that Janet & Karishma were the primary targets of the hulking majority, and with the twist separating them, it could very easily have been a one-two-punch sending both out within minutes. However, Noura had other ideas. Recognising Aaron as the challenge beast he always seemed destined to become, he was vulnerable for the first time since the merge following his two consecutive Immunity wins. Noura pitched the idea to the rest of the tribe, and the plan caught on like a house on fire.
For Janet, this was a saving grace. After the intensity of last week’s events, she had been ostracised on nearly all fronts, and the twofer Tribal twist meant that she had even less time to turn things around since Karishma was no longer a buffer for her. However, an alternative plan—and one that removed a threat and a castaway with whom she had no working relationship—was a godsend. To her credit, too, Janet appeared to be working to recover a standing in the tribe. Though it was extremely disquieting to see Janet have to make nice with Dan to begin that process of re-establishing a path forward, the sole relief is that the heat appears to be off her back (even though taking a stand on a moral basis has now solidified her as a Jury threat). Again, I wish manoeuvring sexual harassment and an alliance of necessity with the perpetrator wasn’t something Janet had to contend with. Still, I’m relieved her game didn’t end on that note.
Most of the tribe was on board with the plan to blindside Aaron, who was confident in the obvious plan to vote out Janet, despite his unease at being back at the Lairo camp after the challenge, isolated from the other half of the tribe. The only dissident voice in the pack was Dean, who feared that targeting a challenge threat could put him next in line as another fit, young male competitor. Although he voiced his concerns to Dan and discussed a different strategy, he ultimately fell in with the majority vote like he’s done since the merge. Ultimately the right call to avoid drawing attention to himself, it’s noteworthy that Dean is considering his own place in the game despite following the numbers. It’s a clear pattern we’ve seen with many of the underdogs this season, and as the numbers dwindle, these free agents will have more and more control, and given they’re aware of their situation, they may be poised to usurp control of the game.
But Aaron’s number was up. Much like his partner-in-crime Missy, who followed him to the Jury bench moments later, his game was characterised by aggressive over-playing that alienated enemy and ally alike. It was only a matter of time before the numbers turned against him, and coming out of the gate swinging with Immunity wins made him dangerous on top of being a relatively expendable number. Was it the right call for the rest of his tribemates? I think it was—as Noura said, removing him leaves Immunity challenges more open for others to claim. It also served to break up his powerful alliance with Missy & Elizabeth and cut out a player who has been willing to make aggressive moves against allies to serve his own trajectory. Janet is still a threat in her own right, but Aaron was the bigger target.
On the other beach, it was a similar story. At a glance, it seemed like it should be obvious for Elaine, Elizabeth, Missy, and Tommy to stick to the script and vote out Karishma. Of course, even if they’d stayed on target, it would have ended badly thanks to Karishma locking down the rehidden Idol.
While I can’t say that Karishma has been a great strategic player through the first half of the season, I’ve been fascinated by her story and her character and been hoping that she could find an opportunity to rise out of the poor perceptions of her. She began turning things around at the swap through flipping against Old Lairo and forging new connections with the women on the tribe, but she still hadn’t found her big leap forward, and that may be the Idol she found this week. Not only can it extend her time in the game, but playing it well could not only take out an adversary to her own advancement but could also massively boost her reputation in the game.
Right now, the other players view her as a goat, almost openly labelling her as such. But if the Idol can give her a boost of confidence, she might be able to turn that perception around. She’s still got a ways to go—her vague lie upon returning to camp after finding her Idol and claiming to be feeling unwell only to miraculously feel better to shirk her tribemates’ suggestion to call in medical wasn’t exactly a flawless performance. And, though it worked out in the end, her unwillingness to placate Missy much like she’d avoided strategizing with Vince way back on Lairo could only land her in hot water if she can’t keep it in check. But I am excited to see what a new Karishma might look like—emboldened, confident, and driven.
And it started here as she went from obvious target to swing vote. Missy & Elizabeth saw the vote as a perfect opportunity to follow through on the post-swap plan to take out Tommy, which would have a further benefit of separating him from Lauren to make her dependent on them instead. In Missy’s eyes, it was a done deal as she thought she had Karishma cultivated as a vote in her pocket. But Karishma was no such thing and had reached a breaking point of tolerating Missy’s dismissive attitude towards her, bluntly walking away from a baffled Missy as she tried to explain the plan.
Was it great gameplay on Karishma’s part? No, but it’s understandable. Going back to the Chelsea vote, Missy had made convoluted plans to preserve Karishma as a locked vote, but it had always felt impersonal and like she hadn’t invested personally in Karishma enough to be able to bank on that kind of loyalty. Clearly, that was Karishma’s feeling too, and though she later listened to Missy’s insincere apology and “agreed” to the plan to blindside Tommy, she had another option.
Instead, Karishma spoke to Elaine, who had been left in the dark by Elizabeth & Missy and who was uneasy about being on the bottom of the Lairo pecking order. Immune for this week’s Tribal, Elaine also had a good relationship with Tommy (or Big Red), and for her, it seemed like playing return to sender could be a strategy. Karishma had no qualms about blindsiding Missy after weeks of feeling spoken down to, being lambasted at Tribals so that Missy & co could use her as a decoy and despite all of it, feeling like she still had no voice in the partnership. And when Tommy learned his name was coming up, he had no concerns with taking out Missy either—especially as he sympathised with Karishma and appeared to be developing a genuine human connection with her.
Despite the magnitude of the blindside, it felt pretty cut and dry heading into Tribal—it was simply a question of which way Karishma would go, and it felt like there was far more reason for her to vote against Missy than against Tommy. And as Tribal played out, and Missy piled on Karishma again (per the plan), it felt like there was even less doubt, allowing the audience to marinate in the impending blindside. It was certainly a memorable exit, as Missy denied coming after Tommy even after the votes explicitly said otherwise, and Missy milked her departure long enough to hug everyone and whisper a hit on Elaine to Elizabeth. Still, ultimately, no amount of stalling could delay the snuffing of her torch.
Missy was an incredibly complex character and player. While I disagreed with most of her strategic gameplay, which often felt overly aggressive and impersonal, I couldn’t help but admire her tenacity, determination, and unabashed sense of self. After the events of last week, with her denial about the situation with Dan, exploitation of claims of sexual harassment and gaslighting of Janet is hard to ignore, Missy remains a unique and compelling, if very controversial, character.
With four episodes left in the season, the pace of the game is only going to pick up from here. It feels like a pretty open and unpredictable field. With the destruction of the Missy & Aaron pair, Elizabeth is now a free agent, joining a veritable field of outsiders like Janet, Karishma, Noura, and Dean. The only alliance that feels solid is Tommy & Lauren, perhaps with the addendum of Elaine after her move this week, but is a pair that obvious going to be able to survive in a sea of loose cannons? Then there’s also that other guy whose sustained presence makes it hard to be genuinely excited about what lies ahead.
Nevertheless, I’ll be here watching and writing, hoping for some catharsis after the darkness of last week’s incidents and hoping that production can do the right things moving forward for both its audience and, more importantly, its players.