In the raw aftermath of the loved ones challenge, Karishma promised a wrecking ball to come swinging in and break open the game. In the end, though, it was more like a detonation as questionable plays stacked up and culminated in one of the most confounding Tribal Councils yet only for the game board to stay largely intact.
I’ll be honest—personally, I’m still struggling to enjoy this season. Since the merge, the one hope I’ve had was that an emotionally satisfying winner could emerge and at least give this very dark and troubling season a cathartic conclusion. As one of the most compelling characters of the season, I thought Karishma’s big Idol play last week might signal the beginning of a comeback story. But this week, any hope of that particular ending came crashing down in the most baffling and exasperating way.
Looking at the field remaining, there is still some slim potential for a therapeutic victor, but more and more, the tone of the season feels like it’s building in a different direction. I should clarify that I don’t advocate for the ultimate happy ending on Survivor in all instances. The 3rd or 4th place Fallen Angels over the years are a testament to how even tragedy can be immensely satisfying, and having a “good” winner isn’t always the be-all and end-all. But for me, I feel like I need the relief of a “good” ending in this particular season.
That said, my personal response to the episode is especially discombobulating because, in most seasons, a manic episode like this one, filled with strategic blunders and unpredictability, would usually hype me up on entertainment value alone. I might still quibble with the confusing domino effect at Tribal, triggered by Dean’s unexpected decision to dismantle the underdog’s plan seemingly only because he was nervous about Noura’s reliability, and I’d probably still be gutted that we didn’t get the 4-2-2 Tommy blindside teased. However, I’d also be feeling hyped up for the characters featured amid the strategic disaster—especially Noura’s showcase as a player who is somehow simultaneously passionately focused and wildly erratic.
So while the game outcome of this week’s episode is holistically disappointing, and the lingering spectre of the Dan situation still casts a disconcerting shadow, there was still a lot of fascinating moves and choices to dissect in this episode of Survivor.
THE PERFECT PLAN
Survivor wasted no time at all getting to the family visit, and it was… fine, I guess. In most seasons, the family visit gets to me, and while I might not be in tears watching on, I certainly feel the tug of their heartstrings and can empathise with the cast as they get a moment of relief in an isolating game. Season 39’s family visit wasn’t without its emotional highs. Karishma’s reaction to seeing her husband and feeling an ounce of security and love was particularly moving in light of her candid reflection on her marriage throughout the season. And Probst bringing Noura’s visually impaired sister closer to the action of the challenge was a lovely gesture. But overall, for me as a viewer, it felt weirdly perfunctory.
I don’t begrudge the castaways’ experience at all, and there’s a reason it’s such a milestone for the players. But maybe it’s that I’m jaded on this season, or perhaps I’ve just hit that tipping point where the family visit feels monotonous and like we’ve seen it all before, no matter how much Probst marvels at love as if it were an alien concept. Even the outcome of the challenge felt predictable. Janet & Tommy’s victory was well-earned, but their decision to bring along their closest allies in Lauren and Dan was a textbook Survivor mistake. The only upside was that it could have lit a fire under the outsiders, forging them into a powerful counterstrike.
Sure enough, we got so close. As Karishma’s increasingly devil-may-care approach led to her emphatically aggressive call to action, and Noura was fuelled by rage into a (wonderfully edited) stream-of-consciousness rant, realising her place in the Old Vokai hierarchy, so too did Elaine and Dean seem galvanised to take power into their own hands. They concocted a scheme to target Lauren as the strategic threat of the opposing four and dominant partner of a tight duo with Tommy. The ragtag group was so determined to work together to flip the script that they even put aside their own differences to search for an Idol together, ensuring that they could break the 4-4 tie in their favour. Elaine was the lucky finder of the season’s 10th Idol (setting a new record for most Idols in a season, with two episodes still in the pipeline).
The rise of the underdogs became an even more perfect plan when the four players on the family reward became ensnared in their own hubris. Dan’s unpleasant categorisation of the four outsiders as “losers” felt particularly off-putting when he’s saying it in front of his 13-year-old son. Lauren’s condescending, even if mostly accurate, confessional dismissing Elaine as incapable of strategy, Dean as a numbers-follower, Noura as loyal and Karishma as the easy out, was a classic pride-cometh-before scene. And to cap it off, the four were so confident in their read that the underdogs could never hold tight that they even planned to split to vote between Elaine and Karishma.
It would have left them open to the perfect comeuppance and a huge blindside. With Lauren, Tommy, Dan, and Janet confidently splitting their vote, the four outsiders had the opportunity to preserve Elaine’s Idol and just snipe an opponent with a clean majority, 4-2-2. Even once the underdogs’ ideal target Lauren won Immunity, it was still a perfect opportunity to shift the target onto her right-hand man and take out Tommy.
And yet… Unfortunately, the cockiness of the core four was proven out. Not only were the four underdogs so disjointed that they couldn’t keep their uprising together, but it didn’t so much fall apart and get obliterated to smithereens. Well, at least two of those underdogs. Karishma played it pretty well—encouraging the outsiders to rally together, and once chaos broke out at Tribal, she mostly stayed out of the drama, hoping that Noura & Dean would cop the worst of the blowback. It, unfortunately, backfired as she became the easy vote again, sent home but with a Survivor record to her name with most votes cast against her at 22. Elaine, too, played things pretty well—she seemed on board with the plan, but in the madness of Tribal, she made the move of self-preservation to assure her safety by playing her Idol and joining the safe vote against Karishma. But Noura and Dean… Oh boy, it’s a lot.
Noura, Noura, Noura. How do you sum up a player like Noura? She is one of the most unexpected gems in recent Survivor history who never fails to entertain. Here, she ran the gamut of her multifaceted and complex personality, from her touching moment with her sister to her rambling monologue of vengeance after being left out of the reward—which included one of the most blatantly condescending lines in an episode full of them, where she described herself as the Karishma of original Vokai, “only likable”, straight to Karishma’s face. She was sympathetic as a player having the wool pulled back from their eyes and wanting to reclaim control. But she was also frustrating as she overcomplicated the underdogs’ plan, which appeared to set in motion Dean’s turncoat play. To cap it off, Tribal was Noura Uncaged as she forewent the whispering that plagues modern Survivor to simply have the scrambling conversations openly after Dean threw her under the bus.
As a character, Noura is a gift of a loose cannon, and this episode played out like a swansong dedication to her—only for her to barely survive the vote. But as a player? Noura is unreliably reliable, and about the only thing you can predict is that she’ll be a headstrong force of nature. This episode alone, she pledged unflinching loyalty to everyone, first to the underdogs, and at Tribal, to the rest of original Vokai. She is fully dedicated to her cause, but if she’s turned in a different direction, she takes that wholehearted devotion to her new calling. In addition, she has the tendency to get so caught up in her own process that she complicates the situation.
We saw it with the Island of the Idols task earlier in the season, and here it came around again as she became fixated on the need to put one of the underdogs’ votes onto someone else in case Tommy had an Idol. Despite Karishma, Elaine, and Dean each explaining the basic math—splitting the vote 3-2-2-1 achieves nothing if the three votes are cancelled out—Noura was unflinching in needing to consider it from all angles. That said, I can’t begrudge Noura for wanting to think it through, even with the help of labelled leaves. Tommy having an Idol is certainly a possibility worth considering. But her doggedness reached the point of exasperating and spooking Dean into blowing up the whole move, which almost took her out.
That said, her reaction at Tribal was explosive, even if understandable. From what we understood, going into Tribal, Noura was still on board with the plan to unite the underdogs and vote out Tommy. Then, out of nowhere, Dean went rogue, threw her under the bus, and left her scrambling to defend herself to her old allies when she had yet to commit a crime against them. Noura isn’t the most skilled player when it comes to manoeuvring on the spot, and being publicly called out at Tribal only fuelled her into a panic—to the point of giving up the one advantage the outsiders had left—Elaine’s Idol. But it’s hard to fault her desperation, and given that Dean was the one to stir the pot at the last minute, it’s understandable how Noura became so defensive at Tommy and Vokai’s incredulity that she had been the ones hiding things.
Nevertheless, Noura didn’t manage the blowback well, and I can’t see much of a way out of this for her. This Tribal put her on everyone’s hit list, and if the tribe was willing to vote out Karishma for being a potential outsider and goat, it seems likely that the same fate will now befall Noura. She might lack the self-awareness to be a true contender for the crown, but she’s predictably unpredictable enough to be too dangerous to try to drag to the end as a goat. But then again, it’s Noura. As we saw this week, anything can be “Nouramal.”
Noura’s gameplay certainly wasn’t great, but Dean’s move is the one that requires the most scrutiny. Why on earth would he tip Tommy off at the outset of Tribal? Even if he was sketchy on Noura, why not take the gamble of trying to make a big play, eliminate a power player, and put himself in a position to go to the end with the people he’s already labelled as “goats” like Karishma and Noura? Why would he go with numbers where it looks like’s he’s at the bottom of the pecking order, reinforcing a power structure where he has very little influence and might stand little chance of beating out those numbers in the Final Three?
On face value, it’s a terrible move—frustrating for the viewer hoping for the huge move in motion and perplexing insofar as Dean’s place in the game. But maybe there’s more to it, and there is some logic to it all. One of Dean’s biggest struggles throughout the whole game is that he’s been essentially a free agent the entire time. He seemed peripheral to the original Lairo alliances, and then his apparent closest ally Chelsea got sniped out. He then bonded with Kellee, and she went out on a limb to save him with her Idol pre-merge before he chose safety in numbers over making a move when she was the merge boot target (which particularly stings given how readily he gave Tommy a heads up but wouldn’t do so for Kellee). Since the merge, he’s just drifted along as a number with no clear direction or allies.
Except for one: Tommy. Tommy is the only player still in the game that Dean appears to view as a confidante and ally. It was Tommy who he went to when he was concerned about the Goat Army. It’s Tommy that he saved again here through betraying the other outsiders and blowing up Tribal. Even though his perception of his place in the game is skewed, evidently seeing himself as a far bigger threat than the audience has been led to believe, Tommy is a bastion of hope and a reliable ally. Comparatively, he and Karishma have bad blood after they’ve tried to vote each other out across multiple Tribals, he and Elaine have never appeared to be particularly close, and Noura’s overthinking and unpredictability was understandably concerning.
The underdogs might give Dean a better chance to win—both in his own perceptions of the game and even from the outsider perspective—but throwing in his lot with people he doesn’t trust makes it far more likely he’ll find himself on the Jury. By contrast, Tommy could be a ticket to safety, and being the one to tip him off might curry favour and strengthen that relationship. So I can see why Dean made the move he did, but it still feels like the wrong call and one that will inevitably bite him.
From what we’ve seen, Dean has next to no chance of beating Tommy at the end—or Lauren or Janet or even Elaine. His best bet probably was to stop going after the Goat Army and instead enlist. It’s tempting to go with the numbers and just try to make it to the Final Three any way you can. But, in isolation, I ascribe to the game theory that it’s better to take the big swing that could give you the ultimate victory rather than make the safe bet that will still lead to losing out. It’s easier said than done, but barring something completely unexpected in these last weeks, Dean’s move set his ceiling at defeat at Final Tribal.
It’s also worth quickly noting that Dean may not have been the only one considering walking back the underdogs’ plan. Only a few votes ago, Elaine had made the call to save Big Red when Missy & Elizabeth were targeting him. Although those women had been intending to leave Elaine out of the plan, which may have fuelled Elaine’s choice to side with the people being upfront with her, it’s worth flagging that the Elaine/Tommy relationship, much like the Dean/Tommy relationship, is not without precedent.
Given Elaine and Dean also ultimately voted for Karishma at Tribal Council, when their two votes would have been enough to send Noura out instead, could suggest that they’d both—together or independently—decided to abandon the plan once Tommy became the target after Lauren won Immunity. I’m still inclined to think Elaine was in on the vote against Tommy until Tribal, given that Dean told Tommy he’d be getting three votes from the underdog women and her gif-able sticky-beaking into the Old Vokai whisper huddle, but with plans changing at Tribal, there’s just so much information that gets lost and muddied.
But let’s talk about the guy Dean went out on a limb to save. Let’s talk about Tommy. There’s a general murmuring in the fan community that Tommy is a favourite to take the title, but looking at what we’ve seen, that thought is a little underwhelming. Sure, he seems like a generally nice guy, sensitive and with a decent enough social game that he’s had people bail him out of a blindside on two separate occasions. There’s a quiet charm about him, and he’s been physically, strategically, and socially effective from the outset, but it’s hard to really nail down anything that makes him a front-runner.
Tommy’s at the core of his alliance, but it’s felt like Lauren’s been the one leading the charge in his partnership with her, and that view is reflected by the castaways, based on the underdogs’ original plan to target her. He’s often seemed petulant when things don’t go his way, such as the aftermath of the pre-merge Vote Block or Kellee & Janet being reluctant to make a move that doesn’t benefit them at the merge. He doesn’t really have a move, a play, or an idea he can really claim as his own. He’s good at many of the facets of the game, but he’s not a standout in any of them.
Perhaps that’s why Dean thinks that teaming up with Tommy is a good call. If Tommy’s decent, but not great, in the tribe’s perception of his game, that hardly makes him the big threat he feels like to the viewer watching an edited product. And with three votes, a fire-making challenge, and the Final Tribal still to come, there’s ample time left for Tommy to distinguish himself as a satisfying contender of winner. But as it stands, I’m just not excited by Tommy or his game. I like him well enough—and have since the pre-game, given I chose him as my Winner Pick—but he doesn’t stand out as especially compelling. The idea of a fifth male winner in a row—and yet another young, handsome, inoffensive male—isn’t exactly inspiring either. But Tommy is doing something right, he’s made strong enough social bonds that he was saved by Elaine & Karishma when Missy was gunning for him and saved again by Dean this week. Maybe he’s just yet to make his mark.
While I think the show has done a decent job of fleshing out the cast as complex characters and giving us a pretty even edit (something I’d generally be ecstatic about), none of the remaining seven feel like they have a satisfying story leading to their victory. 6 out of 7 certainly have the potential to be great winners. Janet or Elaine would probably be the most unexpected and emotionally cathartic victors—both becoming unique personalities in the winner pantheon. Statistically speaking, Janet would become the oldest winner at the age of 59, and Elaine would become the first LGBT woman to take the crown.
Lauren & Tommy would both be strategically sound winners, having been at the decision-making locus of the post-merge game. And I see a world where they’d become appreciated much more after the fact, once post-game interviews can shine a brighter light on their social games. Lauren, especially, could be an intriguing archetype to win out, as the strategic and social alpha in a male/female partnership and only the second black woman to win since Vecepia Towery in Season 4. Dean & Noura would make for bizarre character winners, and would probably feel appropriate for this hot mess of a season, and whatever they would have to do between now and the final vote to secure a win would be some truly incredible TV.
And yet, somehow, this season doesn’t feel like it has been building to any one of these conclusions in a narratively and emotionally satisfying way. With two weeks to go, there’s still time for a satisfying winner to crystallise, and I truly hope we get there.