Survivor: Island of the Idols

Episode 13 Recap – Almost Over

Austin Smith recaps the latest episode!

Photo: CBS

Well, here we are. The expulsion of Dan Spilo from the game at the Final 6, after “another incident” that occurred off-camera with a non-player, brings with it the small sense of relief that his egregious behaviour met with consequences. But while I’m glad production took action, it remains troubling that it took another person being victimised by Dan for him to be removed, especially when production were aware of his harassment of his fellow castaways since Day 1.

I’m relieved that Dan isn’t destined for the Final Three and that we’re able to head into next week’s finale without his presence. However, I’m still angry and dismayed that he was allowed to remain in the game after his inappropriate touching of Kellee and others. And the truncated and vague coda to this episode did little to assuage my concerns that production dropped the ball then and is dropping the ball now with how it is presenting this narrative, ultimately shrouding Dan’s exit with an ambiguous title card. I understand there may be limitations in place, particularly if there are legal proceedings at play, but it is all still so very wrong.

I stand by my comments in my lengthier article the week after the merge. It remains infuriating that the actions of one man and the inaction of many other people have caused so much hurt. It remains disappointing that production’s handling of this situation on the island was lacking, and its handling of the difficult subject matter as it goes to air still feels insufficient. Frankly, I am disturbed, betrayed, and saddened, and I don’t know where we go from here.

I don’t know how I can tune in to next week’s finale and enjoy watching Survivor—and I feel so sorry for the Final 5, and the rest of this cast, who have been robbed of the joy of their Survivor experience by this whole situation. I don’t know how I can go back to being excited about this show—even with a looming milestone of its 40th season—and trust that production will care for its cast, crew, and audience. I know we’re in the depths of this now, and I want to believe that these awful events can spur change. Perhaps time, clarity, and transparent action can rebuild that trust, but at this point, I honestly don’t know. Survivor, the ball is in your court. Do better.

As is evident, I’m struggling with this season and will be so relieved when it is over next week. This, too, makes me sad because without Dan—or if Dan’s behaviour had been more appropriately dealt with in the first instance—then this season could have been fantastic. Its cast, especially its female roster, are keen players and fun characters, and the editing has been largely balanced to reflect the diversity and complexity of the castaways. The gameplay—even over the more predictable few weeks past—has been largely compelling. The titular Island of the Idols twist is still a bust for me, culminating in another pointlessly inane (and potentially game-deciding) iteration this week, but it still managed to eke out a few good moments.

Although it’s hard to isolate the good from the overwhelming bad, I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This episode featured a lot of great moments, from Elaine’s beautifully painful departure from the game, Dean’s insane idea to draw votes onto himself to make a splash using his fake Legacy Advantage, and Janet finding her second Idol. The Dan situation has sullied this season, but I don’t want to see it devalue the independently interesting or enjoyable moments of the season or this week’s episode specifically. So let’s touch on some of those positives…

BUSTED CAN OF BISCUITS

It’s been a while since Survivor has honed in on the emotional and tragic disappointment of the torch snuffing. The struggle, the despair, the frustration. It’s human, raw, and moving, and while this week’s episode didn’t hit the high of, say, this year’s Australian Survivor tragic loss, the episode’s devotion to dwelling in Elaine’s perspective on her final days on the Island was still incredibly touching.

From the outset, Elaine has been a dynamite character when she’s been on our screens. Despite her concerns at this week’s Immunity Challenge, she has a way with words and a down-to-earth cheeky charm that is so endearing that it made her an instant target on likability alone. Yet this episode pulled back the curtain a little more. Elaine wasn’t just the comic relief of the season, always quick to mix it up with a joke or banter with Probst. She was a cunning player, often looking to make a strategic move while putting up the façade of an innocent, naïve, or confused country girl. She was driven and passionate about playing this game, and it represented more than an experience for her. As she explained here, Survivor was THE Experience.

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Plagued by strife and struggle throughout her life, culminating with the passing of her mother shortly before heading out to the island, Survivor offered a glimmer of hope for Elaine. The chance to do and be something outside of what had come before, and as she stared down the inevitable snuffing of her torch, it was more than just losing the game. It was the end of that experience of hope.

That’s a heavy perspective, and watching Elaine fight to the bitter end only to still come up short was tough, but her attitude was admirable. Even with everything against her, even with an Immunity win moments out of her grasp, she sought to find a way to turn the tables, creatively pitching her status as a sympathetic threat to win to be a short-term asset. And though the writing was on the wall at Tribal, she laid herself bare in revealing the truth behind her journey, moving some of her fellow castaways to tears as they faced the prospect of ending her dream.

But let’s stomp down on Elaine’s one chance to survive the vote. Much like last week’s potential 4-2-2 vote against Tommy, Elaine’s shot hinged on an elegant and opportunistic manipulation of the numbers. With Elaine pegged as the obvious next-to-go target, the tribe unanimously sought to pile their votes onto her to avoid any messy split vote. However, the powers that be couldn’t be wholly confident that an Idol or some other surprise could be in Elaine’s pocket, and so it was decided for Dan to throw a stray vote at Noura as a contingency plan.

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Although Elaine saw Noura’s eccentricities as endearing rather than annoying, she knew she couldn’t rely on niceties, and considered targeting Noura on the basis of her being the outsider who could blink-and-miss-it their way to a seat at the Final Tribal. Her erratic gameplay made it unlikely she could win at the end, yet she remained innocuous enough that there were bigger fish to fry this late in the game. For someone like Lauren, doubting whether Tommy still had her back or would cut her at the last minute in favour of new buddy Dean, or Janet, who was herself a threat to win based on optics and likability, Noura could easily bypass them if the boys sought to make their move against bigger targets. However, as Elaine reasoned, she would always be a bigger target than either Lauren of Janet. So if they could help Elaine survive one more round by cutting out a non-threat in Noura, they’d effectively buy themselves another round of security as all sights would still remain on Elaine.

In the end, Lauren & Janet made the call to stay the course, and I’m still torn on whether it was the right decision. As much as I would have loved to see Elaine survive, keeping her around doesn’t strengthen Lauren & Janet’s game. It doesn’t buy them a new ally—assumingly, they’d only be going out of their way and alienating their existing allies to simply vote Elaine off at the next vote anyway. It also didn’t remove a key cog opposing their path to the end. Noura could certainly be a potential goat, but wouldn’t it be more valuable to break up the brewing men’s alliance by going after Dean or Dan or even Tommy himself? Although that would be an even riskier move, ultimately relying on Noura to join up with the women, it would be a move that would actually shake up the status quo and might be worth it.

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That said, by sticking with the plan to vote out Elaine, Lauren & Janet ultimately achieved nothing towards securing their place at the end. They suspected that Dean might be closer to Tommy than first thought, but that certainly appears to be the very real scenario. If all had played out as per usual, there’s a very good chance that Lauren and Janet end up 6th and 5th. Unexpectedly, they were jettisoned to the Final 5, and with Dan out of the picture, they could potentially swing Noura to gain the upper hand against Tommy & Dean. But think how many more options they’d have had if it was Elaine in the Final 5 instead!

It’s ultimately a pretty complex thought experiment, and it’s a testament to how interesting Survivor strategy can still be. But ultimately, the episode’s strength came in the character at the core of the narrative: Elaine Stott. Her dynamic personality and the sympathetic tragedy of her exit were high points of this season. Whether or not this busted can of biscuits graces our screens again, I’m glad for the heart and humour Elaine brought to this very dark season.

COIN FLIPS

Less heart, but still some humour, in the other intriguing storyline of the episode of Dean’s lucky breaks. Dean has been such a fascinating presence on the season—an agent of chaos that is seemingly oblivious to just how reckless his game actually is, smarter than he seems but also gullible and doofy. Although he has been key in some of the more disappointing strategic outcomes of the season (e.g., choosing not to give Kellee the heads up at the merge vote when she had Idols to save herself, and choosing to betray the vote against Tommy last week), I really enjoy the energy Dean brings to the game.

It’s just a shame that it feels like a lot of the fun side of Dean’s narrative will reach an unsatisfying conclusion. After being elected to visit the Island of the Idols, Dean proudly announced his scheme with the Legacy Advantage to Rob & Sandra. Although they seemed impressed with his bonkers plan to make and play a fake to throw his fellow castaways off the scent, they had to work hard to hide the truth that they knew the Advantage he’d kept, given to him by Jamal, was also fake. 

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Best of all was Dean’s cockamamie scheme to make his “real” Legacy Advantage into a true performance by drawing votes onto himself at the Final 6, so he could void them with his Advantage—a disastrous play in reality that would probably have launched him into the pantheon of Dumbest Moves Ever alongside the ever-ridiculed James Clement and Erik Reichenbach. However, for all the anticipation of Dean unknowingly walking into playing another fake of the same Advantage, Dan’s removal from the game ended up skipping over the Tribal where Dean would have made his move, robbing us of the chance to see that promised story come full circle.

Also laughable—but for all the wrong reasons—was the test presented to Dean on the IOI. The lesson taught on the importance of jury management and selling your story to the Jury was ultimately pretty good advice, but the test? A literal coin flip for a late-game Advantage? Rob tried his best to sell taking a 50:50 chance as a big move that Dean could sell to the Jury, but even he seemed to realise how tenuous a link it was between lesson and test. 

For what is likely the penultimate test of the IOI, it’s a really terrible note to end the twist with. The Island of the Idols has had a few solid ideas: the fire-making challenge against Rob, Noura’s persuasion test, and Lauren’s challenge to know and manipulate her tribemates. But almost everything else has felt phoned in. Jamal’s “no such thing as a free lunch” punishment is still the low point of the twist, especially when undercut by the literal free lunch served to Dean this week. But it’s just been a decent idea executed poorly overall.

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Most disappointing, though, is how this literal coin flip may dictate the endgame. To his credit, Dean played his visit to the IOI exceptionally well. He used his knowledge of Janet’s Idol find—spotted from a distance as she showed it to Tommy—to select the Idol Nullifier from the advantage menu presented to him. He took a gamble on the advantage, which only risked losing his vote at a Tribal Council poised to be a unanimous anyway. I don’t love the Idol Nullifier as a twist—its whole function being to maintain the status quo—and its introduction so late into the game when there are so few Tribal Councils left to use it feels a little cheap.

From a purely results-based perspective, it’s also disappointing to think that it’s very likely that Dean will nullify Janet’s Idol at the Final 5 and quite possibly send her home. Janet has been such a shining star for this season, and one of the few happy endings this season could have would be Janet to be our winner. She’s the oldest woman to ever make a finale, but she has bucked every expectation since she became the Vokai fire-starter from the beginning. Her stand of solidarity for women during all of the ugliness of Dan’s actions will always be heroic. Her fight to survive against gaslighting and ostracisation, using her fantastic social game and finding two Idols, is compelling, and all the while, she’s maintained her loving and encouraging spirit.

So if Janet’s chances of winning are ended by the Idol Nullifier introduced the same day she found the last Idol of the game then… oof. Of course, it’s the right move for Dean to make on paper, and I couldn’t begrudge him for making this play on a strategic basis, it would still be a disappointing result from an overarching narrative perspective.

ALMOST OVER

We’re almost there. This season has been a gruelling, exhausting, and disheartening chapter in Survivor’s story, and I’m ready to close it out. As Dean, Janet, Lauren, Noura, and Tommy head into the final rounds, I just hope we can end this season on a positive note. And more importantly, in the scheme of things, I hope that Survivor does the right thing moving forward.


Written by

Austin Smith

Austin hails 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.


3 responses to “Episode 13 Recap – Almost Over”

  1. I can’t even watch anymore. Survivor well and truly dropped the ball in all of this. At this point, the only outcome that wouldn’t be a complete disappointment would be Janet as the winner, but I think it’s fairly obvious that that won’t happen. I don’t have anything against Tommy, really, but it kind of sucks that the win is likely to go to the stereotypical white guy with the vanilla edit.

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