It was a week of three fascinating moves, and I’m excited to get to dig into the nitty-gritty of it all. While it’s still hard to shake the pall cast over the season by the incidents of the merge, it’s also hard to deny that this was some A-plus Survivor gameplay. At least, for maximum effort if not maximum achievement. I think that’s what makes this episode’s three big plays particularly intriguing—they were hugely successful on so many fronts and yet evidently imperfect whether at the fault of the move-maker or the actions of the rest of Lumuwaku.
Karishma’s epic Idol play was a culmination of her underdog story as she turned her perception as a goat on its head, potentially opening the door for her to change her narrative heading into the endgame. Yet in the end, her Idol may have caused an upset, but it didn’t shake the balance of the tribe dynamics and resulted in the elimination of Elizabeth, who was very nearly going home anyway.
Lauren’s visit to the Island of the Idols was the best yet, offering her an ability to test her social logic and deduction. Even better, she came back to camp and managed to all but assure her success in Rob & Sandra’s test by playing her tribemates like a fiddle. She quickly emerged with an Idol in her pocket, but rather than keeping it for the Final 8, Karishma’s Idol led her to play it defensively. Although it’s better to be safe than sorry, her misread of the situation cost her an advantage in less time than it took for her to acquire it.
Lastly, even Dean was emerging in his own misinformed way. While his wholehearted belief in the validity of Jamal’s fake legacy advantage was played up to cast him as a total doof to the viewer, he concocted a legitimately ingenious scheme to dupe his tribemates with a fake of a fake. While I’m sure all of us are hoping for the poetic schadenfreudian beauty of Dean playing a second fake legacy advantage come the Final 6, there’s still no denying that Dean actually made a pretty great play given what he knew.
GOAT TO GREAT
Karishma’s redemption arc was an exciting possibility when she scored an Idol last week, but it really made a mark here. As so many of the season’s episodes have gone, the disparagement of Karishma was peppered throughout: Dean’s concerns about the Goat Army, Noura & Elizabeth disregarding any possibility Karishma could have an Idol after stealing a look in her bag, Dan (of all people) criticising her capabilities in the game. So by the time we got to Tribal Council, we were well and truly primed for her blockbuster Idol play.
But let’s take each of these specific moments in greater detail. As we’ll revisit a little later in this article, Dean’s not an inherently stupid player and has made some savvy calls along the way. The trouble is that those savvy calls are often based on misinformation or a terrible read of the climate of the game, so even if his strategy or idea in isolation is compelling, it’s a net negative result for poor, out-of-the-loop Dean.
Such was the case with Dean’s concern about the Goat Army assembling. As Tommy agreed, it’s a legitimate danger. If a Karishma or a Noura is seen as someone everyone else can beat, the longer they’re in the game, the more tantalising they become as seat fillers at Final Tribal—which means there’s one less spot for you. After Cirie’s brilliant 3-2-1 vote to take out Courtney Marit in Panama, I’ve always been surprised that the strategy of removing goats isn’t more common. It seems especially vital for players in the middle tier of the tribe hierarchy who don’t have enough control over the tribe to dictate the moves to ensure their chosen goats can slip by (a la Boston Rob with Phillip & Natalie in Redemption Island). So Dean’s concern is a valid one—the longer the ostensible goats stay in the game, there are fewer and fewer spots for him at the end.
But where Dean seems wildly off-base is how he views himself in comparison to the likes of Karishma and Noura. When the tribe began discussing the next target, Dean approached Tommy and Elizabeth and urged that the three of them needed to stick together or else the “big threats” would fall. To the viewer’s eye, Dean’s categorisation of himself as a big threat is almost comical, given he’s done nothing of note to achieve such a reputation. He’s not exactly stood out as a danger in challenges (and is perceived as such, based on Lauren’s IOI cast assessment), and he lacks the social capital of players like Tommy & Lauren. It’s important to note that there might be a perception of him as a bigger threat due to his Idol play pre-merge, but both we, the audience, and the Jury, helmed by the mastermind of that move in Kellee, know that it’s not really a feather in Dean’s cap.
Rather, Dean seems more poised to become a goat himself, particularly as those he conscripted into the Goat Army continue to distinguish themselves. While Karishma is out finding and playing Idols to buck expectations, and Noura continues to prove herself a challenge threat when it comes to Immunity, what is Dean accomplishing? If he is unable to make a mark and if misconstruing the tribe dynamics remain his bread and butter, he could very quickly find himself as an Albert Destrade of South Pacific fame—a 0-vote finalist, maybe even a goat, but not for want of trying.
Next in the long line of players underestimating Karishma was Noura & Elizabeth. Taking advantage of a weary and disappointed Karishma after her poor challenge performance, Noura swiped Karishma’s bag for a sneaky peek. Down the beach, Noura & Elizabeth searched through its contents, and finding nothing of value, they came to the conclusion that Karishma did not have an Idol. But how wrong they were. Much like Dean, Noura is easy to write off for her kookiness, but she still has moments of clarity. Wanting to confirm that Karishma didn’t have an Idol is a big step up from the casual dismissal of the very notion by the rest of the tribe, and she made the correct read that Elizabeth’s desperation in aiding in the looting of Karishma’s bag suggested that she didn’t have an Idol either.
And yet! Noura & Elizabeth are far from the biggest Survivor fans on the cast, but it seems like it should be pretty common knowledge at this point that keeping an Idol or an Advantage in your bag is clumsy gameplay. Thus, the bag-thieving duo’s detective work not only resulted in them deriving the wrong conclusion about Karishma’s Idol, but the very act of searching her bag and finding nothing in it as defining evidence is a show of underestimation of Karishma. In action, it says that if Karishma had somehow found an Idol, she still wouldn’t be smart enough to hide it. I’m not going to knock Noura & Elizabeth for trying to get a sneaky peek, but the confidence in Noura’s deductive reasoning to be certain Karishma didn’t have an Idol was way off-base.
Lastly, regrettably, I have to talk about Dan. With the plan to split the vote on Elizabeth & Karishma, it fell to Dan to pass along the decoy plan to Karishma, claiming it would be a split vote on Elizabeth & Janet instead. But when Karishma immediately crossed the camp to sit down with Elizabeth, Dan got his hackles up, particularly when Lauren, lip-reading from his side, heard his name in their conversation. To be fair, Dan’s read of this situation in isolation wasn’t off the mark. Karishma has shown she’s not the most deft in concealing how she feels during a strategic conversation (cf. Vince’s exasperation with her on Lairo, walking out on Missy last week), and she was trying to marshal votes against him in her chat with Elizabeth, as she viewed him as a shot-caller within the loose Old Vokai majority that still held power.
But Dan’s dismissal of Karishma’s flawed gameplay as being indicative of someone incapable of doing anything right is damning insofar as his estimation of his competitor. This is especially notable given that his exasperation with her appeared to be the catalyst for shifting the plan from a split vote to a pile-on. Had it not been for a stray vote still hitting Elizabeth (which, based on the fan consensus of handwriting, appeared to have been cast by Dan), and if Karishma had stuck to her guns to try to oust Dan, there would have been a very real possibility that his number could have been up. Underestimate your opponent at your own peril.
Now, let’s get back to the woman of the hour herself. Karishma is undoubtedly in a difficult spot in the game. Even with the safety of an Idol, the tribe’s unilateral perception of her as an inevitable goat is going to be hard to overcome. This is especially pertinent given that much of that label appears to be based on personality. Not only has she not made her mark in the game, but no one likes her personally enough to be considered even a minor social threat. Even with a strategically-minded cast, that’s still a big hurdle for Karishma to overcome if she can manoeuvre her way to the Final Three.
It also can’t be ignored that while labelling Karishma as a goat when we’re still at the Final 9 is premature, she’s far from a G.O.A.T. Survivor player too. Socially, her ostracism has limited her options and has perhaps given her the confidence to be more blunt and blasé in her interactions. Whether it’s her blatant conversation with Elizabeth about targeting Dan when he’s within eye-line or her feigned or real physical exhaustion, seen both this week and last in her conversations with Noura. Even though her Idol play was incredibly satisfying, it also did very little to help her standing in the game. Without being able to sway even one person to vote with her, she was stuck abiding by the plan the majority had given her. She seemingly voted for Janet so that even in the absence of the stray Elizabeth vote, it would be a player near the bottom of the pecking order who would be idolled out.
Perhaps sticking to the plan gives Karishma wiggle room in the aftermath of the vote, to prove to Janet that she’s still on the outs of the Vokai alliance enough to be used as a decoy or to simply come out looking like someone playing honestly by comparison to the rest of the tribe who had just tried and failed to blindside her. But there’s also cause to just take the swing if you know you’re going to be playing your Idol. Swing for the fences and cast a vote for a Dan or a Tommy or a Lauren or even an Elaine. Shoot for someone who is embedded in the power structure of the tribe and whose extraction at the hands of your Idol will crumble the hierarchy and allow it to be rebuilt with yourself in a better position. As it stands, Karishma is still on the bottom, and unless she can find herself a second Idol or sway some of the other outsiders to make a change, she could very well still go home next week.
But on the bright side, this could be the beginning of a new Karishma. The Jury certainly seemed to love her Idol move, played perfectly to cancel 7 votes, tying the silver medallist record for votes cancelled by an Idol in the company of Russell Hantz, Jenn Brown, Michael Yerger and Davie Rickenbacker and second only to Kelley Wentworth in Cambodia. Out of seemingly nowhere, she now has a move to her name, and the rest of her tribemates are wholly aware that they underestimated her. This may prompt them to be more receptive to working with her instead of dismissing her as an easy vote or a simple boot at Tribal. It’s going to be an uphill climb, but Karishma has one hell of an underdog story—strategically and personally—and if she manages to pull out a victory, it’ll be an all-timer of a story.
KNOW THY TRIBE
But Karishma wasn’t the only woman of the hour—this week was a big night for Lauren, too. Lauren has been one of the season’s less prominent characters up to this point, and aside from leading the charge against Molly in the second episode and her ongoing partnership with Tommy, she’s largely been a background player. But thanks to a visit to the IOI and flawless manoeuvring to secure herself an Idol, she proved herself as a genuine contender. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode, she might be back where she started, having played the Idol when she didn’t strictly need it, and I certainly hope we see more of her brand of upfront social gameplay.
It’s been a common criticism of the show that the social game is underserved by the edit. Admittedly, a fantastic social game is in the minutiae—the little moments of personal connection that underpin a relationship. Compared to the clearcut bombast of a blindside or an Idol play or a clutch Immunity win, it’s easy to see how it can sometimes slip out of focus. So for this week’s IOI test to not only highlight Lauren’s social awareness of her tribe but then walk the walk by using her social game to convince two-thirds of the tribe to sit out of the Immunity challenge was a highlight and easily the best IOI test so far.
While it’s debatable that there was any real “lesson” to be taught by Rob & Sandra, beyond facilitating Lauren’s thought process in considering whether or not to take the test offered to her, it was an elegantly simple challenge that awaited her. It was just one question: can you predict who will win the next Immunity challenge? At face value, it’s not the most exciting premise. But when presented with additional context—the details of the challenge itself and the fact that the eat-or-compete option would be on hand—it allowed Lauren to realistically weigh up her knowledge of the tribe dynamics. Who would feel comfortable enough to sit out for pancakes and bacon? Who would compete no matter what? Who would, even if they did compete, still stand no shot at winning? It was a more complex logic puzzle than the test question initially seemed.
Lauren’s assessment of her tribemates was accurate on all fronts: Dean’s lack of endurance making him a non-threat in this kind of challenge, Dan’s confidence in his position in the tribe suggesting he might take the feast to Noura’s yogi spirit and her veganism deterring her from taking a bacon reward and Elizabeth’s need to win after losing her two closest allies in one fell swoop. But even with her reads reflecting reality, Lauren was also astute enough to resist the initial offer, prompting Rob to sweeten the deal and allow her to bet on two horses in the race. Naturally, she chose Noura & Elizabeth, physical threats who would not be likely to be swayed even by the smell of a big breakfast.
This gamble could have been interesting enough on its own, but what elevated it was how it gave Lauren a reason to integrate her test into her interactions with her tribemates. The only other IOI test to open this door was the also-brilliant caller challenge that Noura memorably bungled back on Vokai, and to a far lesser extent, Jamal’s sabotage, which surprisingly paid dividends in this episode. And it’s a shame that more of these tests didn’t actually have an impact on the actual game or tribal dynamics beyond whether a player earned an advantage or lost their vote.
Lauren played it perfectly on her return to camp, divulging everything she’d learned except for the critical detail of her Idol wager. Presenting the challenge and the tempting offer of food, she immediately captivated her tribe. After filling in Tommy on her opportunity (a smart play itself to tag-team with a co-conspirator), they then sought to ensure the best possible odds for Lauren’s success. To all but Noura & Elizabeth, they spent the rest of the day poking, prodding and teasing the breakfast option, building the anticipation in their tribemates, and priming them to take the option to sit out and eat, thus increasing the chances for Lauren to win her Idol.
Come Immunity, all but Elizabeth, Karishma, and Noura sat out, and when Karishma fell out of the challenge early, it all but secured Lauren’s Idol. Lauren made it look absolutely effortless, and seamlessly used her social capital to manipulate almost the entire tribe into making a decision that would benefit her without them even realising it. And even better, they’re now looking at Lauren as a team player who allegedly opted for the challenge to have the breakfast buffet on offer.
With her Idol truly earned, it’s a shame then that it got flushed that very same night when it wasn’t needed. Being that it was only valid for two Tribal Councils, Lauren made the right call to play it safe rather than sorry, knowing that her alliance’s target in Karishma had just saved herself with her won Idol. And Lauren had no way of knowing if she could get caught in the blowback. And as Vince, Chelsea, and Kellee have proven this season alone, it’s far better to play an Idol when you don’t need it than to sit on it and go home with it in your pocket.
That said, perhaps it’s worth criticising Lauren’s alliance as a whole for abandoning their split vote plan. If they’d stuck to their guns, then theoretically, Lauren should have been able to feel secure enough that Elizabeth would still go home even with Karishma’s Idol, thus allowing her to save her own prize for the next round. It’s also concerning that Lauren’s Idol, conveniently showing up right after her visit to the IOI could put a target on her back that wasn’t there before.
Nevertheless, Lauren seems to be one of the more insulated players in terms of alliance hierarchy, and if she can keep her hands on the reins, she can recover and make a run for it. Although she’s often been shown to be the voice of reason in her partnership with Tommy, this episode made a case for her own individual strengths and gameplay, even when she was still working directly with Tommy. Differentiating your own game from your allies is a tough sell, but the episode’s efforts to emphasise Lauren’s autonomy and skillful execution of her test are not to be ignored.
There was someone else on the Island making a bold play this week, though. I’ll be honest: I thought Dean’s cockamamie scheme with the Legacy Advantage was brilliant strategy. With the purported Legacy Advantage Jamal had given him and a belief that it was real (a perspective notably shared by other castaways) and its “rules” claiming it could only be played with 9 or 6 players left in the game, Dean was in an interesting spot. He knew that he wasn’t in immediate danger at this vote, so he wouldn’t need the Advantage at 9. But if the tribe believed he had a legitimate Legacy Advantage, he might suffer the same fate as a Sierra Dawn Thomas, sniped for the Advantage in her pocket in Game Changers, before the next opportunity to use it.
But what if he could have his cake and eat it too? What if he could publicly declare that he was playing his Legacy, all but assuring no one would waste a vote on someone they believed to be immune, but he could preserve the “real” Advantage for when he might actually need it at 6. And even better, what if he could keep his ongoing possession of the Advantage secret, thus shirking the Lacina target on his back?
Thus, Dean created a rough decoy—a fake of a fake. Using the paints for the tribe flag, he painted up a second parchment, allowing him to knowingly play a fake Advantage at the Final 9. Everyone would laugh and have their suspicions confirmed that Jamal had planted a fake, and everyone would move on. All the while, he’d still have the original on hand, secret, powerful, and a key to a dramatic piece of Tribal theatre when the plan would come to light at the Final 6. It’s one of those plans that truly fits the idiom, “It’s so crazy it just might work.” It’s creative, it’s inventive, and it’s the kind of play that is, to quote Probst, instantly iconic.
But unfortunately for Dean, it’s going to be instantly iconic for another reason. Of course, watching his scheme play out this week, we know it’s destined to fail because we know the Advantage he believes to be real is fake. We know that—TV-gods-willing—if he makes it to the Final 6 and goes to execute his dastardly plan, it’s going to backfire on him completely, putting a perfect cap on his story as a player who always has the wrong read on the situation.
So, on the one hand, it’s hard to fully praise Dean for his convoluted strategy as it all hinges on a gross misread of a situation. It really feels like Dean should have been able to suss out the illegitimacy of the Advantage from the hand-written pencil alone. But Survivor is wholly unpredictable, and what if it was real? Wouldn’t it be far more short-sighted for Dean to assume it’s a fake and not use it to the best of his ability? Like finding an Idol in the woods that looks kinda fake even though production is making a concerted effort to make the real Idols look more and more like a kindergarten art project?
Dean’s move may have been based on a bad read. Still, in the context of the limitations of his knowledge, it’s a really clever ploy and something I wouldn’t be surprised to see adopted in a future season where a player wants to shirk the target brought by possessing a legitimate Idol or Advantage. Nevertheless, this whole debacle has the potential to be one of the best goofs in Survivor history—up there with Jaime Dugan, Randy Bailey, and Jay Starrett in the Fake Advantage pantheon.
Overall, this was a truly fun episode of Survivor. Even with all of the advantages and twists flying around, it still felt grounded in the characters, their journeys, and their gameplay. It was funny, it was satisfying, and it was enthralling.
Even though it’s still difficult to fully connect with such a great standalone episode given the unresolved issues with the Dan situation, Island of the Idols is still proving to be an incredibly dynamic season. Can it overcome that dark cloud hanging over it? For me, it probably won’t, but watching players like Karishma, Lauren, and Dean make bold, exciting plays while still shining as characters at least helps to reignite an ember of excitement for where these last few weeks will lead us.