Survivor: Island of the Idols

Episode 14 Recap – Closing The Chapter

Austin Smith recaps the season finale!

Photo: CBS

This has been a gruelling season, and there’s a part of me that’s relieved that we can close the book on Season 39. The back half of the season was marred by especially distressing situations, but I’m glad that by the end of it all, we ended on something positive. Dan’s exit last week was well overdue, but his absence allowed a reprieve in the final days of the game where it felt like a weight had been lifted. More importantly, though, Survivor finally took responsibility for their actions and inactions in their mishandling of the situation, apologised, and committed to ensuring this would never happen again in a frank and open extended conversation with Kellee to allow her voice to be heard.

Does it make up for what happened on the island or the blunt treatment of a sensitive issue when it reached the air? It doesn’t, and I’m sure there are many viewers out there who feel like production’s response is still not enough, but for me, it’s a step in the right direction. It’s a step towards a safer environment for cast and crew and a step towards rebuilding the trust of the fans. I believe that Probst and company genuinely want to do the right thing, and I’m incredibly grateful for Kellee’s bravery and determination in holding production accountable and directing us towards a better future. With wounds still fresh, it’s still hard to look at this season with bright eyes, but as hard as this season has been to watch, hopefully, it will stand as a beacon for change.

I imagine, too, that time and distance will help when we inevitably look back on this season. Knowing the resolution of the incidents of sexual harassment, it may make it a little easier to see all of the good still achieved. We had a largely diverse and compelling cast, especially when it came to the representation of women. We had dynamic gameplay and some brilliantly funny moments. We also had a landmark winner—the first player in 20 seasons to win without an Idol, an Advantage or an Immunity win and the first man to ever accomplish this feat, period. Aside from the Dan situation, the biggest knock against the season was the overabundance of Idols and Advantages, often dolled out by the otherwise irrelevant titular gimmick, but in spite of it all, a player defined by an old school social game emerged victorious.

In all, this was a compelling finale to a difficult season. It was flawed and frustrating, but in the bittersweet conclusion, there was a seed of hope. So to close out this chapter, I’m going to take a cue from Dean’s determined optimism and Noura’s urge to embrace the… peacock, and try to finish out this season on a positive note.


…after one last quibble. While I ultimately came around on the eventual conclusion to the season, and especially Tommy as a winner, it didn’t take the sting away from seeing Janet knocked out with an Idol Nullifier that entered the game on a literal coin flip only one Tribal previously. Without this last-minute rug-pull, we could have been rounding out this season with a Janet victory, which would have been a cathartic and ground-breaking conclusion in its own right. Instead, Janet joins the ranks of fallen angels like Cirie Fields and Devon Pinto, who came so close only to be screwed over by a twist.

That said, I don’t think the Idol Nullifier is an inherently bad relic to be in the game. In seasons like Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers or Edge of Extinction, where the endgame is dominated by one person going on an Idol run, the threat of a Nullifier injects an opportunity for a majority to combat a fervent outsider—especially with the Final 4 Firemaking removing a vote such that there are no clean, Idol-less rounds in the game. Narratively, it’s going to be a hard sell as, nine times out of ten, a Nullifier is going to take out an underdog favourite like it did with Janet, and that’s the opposite of fun. But from the mechanics of the game, it’s an intriguing concept.

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Furthermore, now that it’s been established as a recurring Advantage successfully used twice following its debut in David vs. Goliath, the threat of a Nullifier alone is going to prompt an evolution in Idol strategies. I can’t imagine we’ll see future players attempting to use the move of drawing votes onto yourself to make the splashy Idol play, which Janet planned here and which Dean considered last week. It may also prompt players on the outside—like a Ben Driebergen or Rick Devens—to have to consider alternative social strategies to escape the pariah position, and that’s inherently more interesting to me than a revolving door of Idols. Of course, the shortcut solution is just to reduce the number of Idols in the game altogether. Let’s face it, 12 Idols, a Vote Block, and Idol Nullifier and 2 Fake Legacy Advantages is ridiculous. But there’s the possibility that Disadvantages could produce some adaptive gameplay in the years to come. Hopefully.

No, my problem with Season 39’s Idol Nullifier was the timing. As with all Advantages, they’re at their most interesting when there is the opportunity for choice. With choice comes stakes, risk, reward, and opens the door for bigger successes and devastating mistakes. More choice increases the value of the Advantage, too, as the more permutations possible, the more important the one time you’ll use it becomes. It’s why I’ve often considered whether Idols should no longer be rehidden or introduced after the Final 7 or 6, making them a much rarer commodity in the endgame. It’s why a Super Idol, which leaves no room for error, is an ultimately uninteresting mechanic. 

It’s why I’d be more inclined to like the Nullifier as an advantage if it was an either/or use of any Idol, putting the onus on a player to weigh up the value of using their Idol defensively on themselves or offensively to ensure an opponent goes home. An Idol Nullifier introduced early in the game leaves far more opportunities for it to be used, correctly or incorrectly, and those variables make it a more intriguing mechanic. But with being introduced at the Final Seven—especially in the hindsight of the expulsion at Six—is just too late, and frankly, too powerful.

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Of course, my frustration with this season’s Nullifier is amplified by the fact that it took out Janet. It doesn’t change the fact that I think its late-game introduction was a miscalculation from the perspective of game design, but it’s worth noting that Janet isn’t purely a victim of chance. Her decision to reveal the Idol to Tommy after she found it not only allowed Dean to spy her discovery from a distance (which appeared to inform his decision to wager his vote for the Nullifier in the banal coin flip last week), but it also gave Tommy information he could use against her. 

Had events played out differently, I would not have been surprised to see Janet blindsided at the Final 6 vote in an effort to get her out before the obvious vote to play it, or alternatively flush it and leave her vulnerable at 5. Furthermore, Janet’s plan to draw votes onto herself in order to use the Idol to take out Lauren, instead of simply marshalling votes against the social threat, is also problematic. The season 39 players would have seen the Idol Nullifier in season 37, so should have known there was a chance it would be in play again, and not preparing for it was an unfortunate miscalculation.

But it still sucks. Janet was a truly inspirational character this season through her compassion, her grit, her moral compass, and her undeterred determination. Her journey from the beginning was about bucking expectations of older women on Survivor. And for her to have to be taken out because she was a threat to win on the back of her social game, her tribe contributions, including her reputation as the fire-maker, and two Idols found or played when she was at her most vulnerable in the game, is a huge accomplishment. Janet became a legitimate and dangerous threat to win, and though it’s disappointing that she was taken out by a deflating, random Advantage, she still stands as an iconic figure of good in this dark season.


Another unforgettable character to rise from this season is the always zesty Noura. There really is no one else like Noura in the Survivor pantheon, and even the closest analogues—-the Debbies, Phillips, and Coaches of the world—have a performative quality. Noura was authentic, unfettered, and wildly unpredictable. Whether she was breaking the Footloose law prohibiting a happy dance or revealing her plans for the Final Four in a rambling circuitous monologue, she was, warts and all, herself.

As we approached the finale, it seemed like she had little to no chance of winning out at the end. Her unpredictability in action and her unfocused manner of articulating her thought process seemed like a combustible combination that would doom her at the Final Three even if her game resume held up to snuff. And to be fair, Noura’s game wasn’t a total disaster. Three Immunity wins to her name, including the crucial Final Immunity, which gave her the power to formulate her opponents for the Final Three, is nothing to sneeze at, and she played a crucial role in many votes even if she wasn’t the driving force behind them. But without being able to clearly delineate her thought process, explain her strategy and present her adaptive gameplay based on riding and navigating the current of tribal emotion, she just wasn’t going to be able to pull out the win.

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Even so, her showing in the finale was a fitting capstone to her complex character as we saw just about every facet of the enigma that is Noura. We saw her driven, strategic mindset as she initially pegged Dean as a surging and dangerous threat. And then witnessed her tendency to react to her situation moment-to-moment as his strategic gesture to bring her on reward and promise a Final Two deal mended fences between the two and even revealed a new dimension of Flirtatious Noura, who would pause during a confessional to gawk at “pretty Dean” stretching on the beach.

Her stamina and physical strength prevailed in the gruelling Final Immunity (a return of the brilliantly designed Final Immunity from HHH), only to be followed by the infuriatingly obtuse Noura. Seemingly oblivious to the anxiety of Tommy, Dean, and Lauren desperate to know her plans for the Firemaking, Noura’s pre-emptive stream-of-consciousness explanation for her decision coupled with the increasingly pained expressions of her tribemates was one of the more cruelly funny moments of the finale but were ample evidence of the glaring flaws in Noura’s social game. And if you had any doubt of that, then you had Noura actively antagonising Lauren as she attempted to practice fire, claiming to be doing her a favour by not hiding the machete and flint.

But by the end of it, Noura concluded her Final Tribal statement with an expression of unabashed honesty to herself, in all of her peculiarities, flaws, and complexities, and in her segment at the reunion, reiterated her mantra to commit to who you are above all else. At times, Noura was unlikably blunt and rude; at times, she was compellingly sympathetic or hilariously unique; at times, she was speaking a truth worth listening to. She was a disruptor, she was crazy, she was “Nouramal,” and she was a critical component of the season’s better moments.

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It’s also fascinating that, at the end of it all, the game’s outcome hinged on Noura. Since the introduction of the fire-making twist, we’ve not seen the Final Immunity winner be the “goat,” placed in a position to effectively decide the winner of the season by choosing who sits next to them—even if they don’t realise it at the time. If Noura had chosen to stay true to her alleged number one in Lauren, or if she’d landed on Tommy as her biggest threat, then we’re almost certainly looking at a different winner of the season. While I’d still prefer to see the Final Four Firemaking go the way of the dodo, it does conjure a sliver of the weight of the burden falling on the winner of the Final Immunity in a Final 2 season, and that’s a nifty quality.

In the overall scheme of things, Noura probably had very little chance to win against either of Tommy or Lauren. But in her mind at the time, it was—as it should be—a decision to choose the weaker opponents for the endgame. Ultimately, Noura’s decision wasn’t a terrible one. Lauren was the alpha player of the Lauren/Tommy duo and her biggest threat. Tommy hadn’t made any splashy plays or won any Immunities to exemplify a rounded style of play. And for all of his flashy boldness in the endgame, a fourth-quarter push wasn’t enough to make Dean an unbeatable threat.

Conventionally, taking the weakest player to the end in Dean would have been the smartest call. And there’s evidence that Tommy’s claim that he couldn’t make fire (and thus couldn’t beat out the #1 threat Lauren) swayed Noura to make a decision that may not have been in her best interest, but is it really that big of a misstep for Noura? If Lauren was the biggest threat left and Dean stood a better chance at beating her at fire, then why not increase the chance of knocking out the big threat. Furthermore, is winning the final fire-making going to really sway anyone’s vote, so where’s the harm in adding that to Dean’s resume? Or if it was to be seen as a valuable resume point, wouldn’t it be better to have the lesser threat Dean earn those stripes than giving a visible endgame “move” to the bigger threat in Tommy? In retrospect, Tommy’s victory from the tag-along seat makes Noura’s choice look bad, but I can see the method to the madness and can’t hold it against her.

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The execution, however? That could have been better, even if it did give us some great moments between her aforementioned stalling monologue and her bizarrely combative interactions with Lauren. Although it does seem ludicrous that Lauren wasn’t practicing fire in the endgame in anticipation of the known quantity of the modern Final Four, I was sympathetic to her distress. The panic of realising your game hinged on a single fire because of a seemingly impulsive and traitorous decision by an ally is a brutal roller coaster. Discerning that Lauren was indeed the odds-on favourite at that point in the game, it truly made it a million-dollar fire, and that’s a lot to process.

That said, Lauren’s confidence became her downfall. She had played a strong game, founded on social relationships and healthily supplemented with her Idol earned through manipulating the entire tribe at the eat-or-compete challenge and a crucial Immunity win at the Final 8. It’s a shame the edit didn’t highlight her game at the forefront, but she was playing to win and had an excellent shot at it. But somewhere along the way, her confidence got the best of her. Perhaps like Missy’s overconfidence in storing Karishma as vote in her pocket in ages past, Lauren thought she had an unpredictable underdog like Noura locked in and hadn’t sufficiently prepared herself to face an endgame where she wasn’t the one in the driver’s seat. Thus, when her power was stripped, her confidence was shattered. Although she put up a valiant effort at fire, and sought to use her frustration and confusion as fuel for her engine of vengeance, Lauren fell short, but at least she went out as a threat.


But let’s get into the big battle of the finale: a surprisingly contentious throwdown between fourth-quarter push Dean, embodying the empty flash of a game hinging on Idols and Advantages as resume-padding “moves,” versus the social network Tommy, whose refreshingly old school game prioritising social bonds and information as currency may not have been portrayed in the most fascinating light in the edited show but stands as an important throwback in the current era of Survivor.

Final Tribal Council was a bit of a mess—the open forum format regularly devolving into a chaotic shouting match with three or four people talking over each other at multiple points. While I think the open forum still has merit in allowing the Jurors to seek follow-up or clarification on a finalist’s answers, and to self-police any biases or mischaracterisations asserted by other Jurors, the complete lack of structure became a little too chaotic for my personal enjoyment. Nevertheless, it led to a feisty competition.

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Dean was the big surprise of the endgame. Repeatedly seen as a daffy footnote, to see him rise to the level of a legitimate threat to win was a wild journey. Lest we forget, this is the guy introduced to the audience by fumbling a plan to split the vote by suggesting it to the entire tribe. By the finale, he was not only decked out in his “jewelry”, but he was articulating insights into modern Survivor strategies (such as how the firemaking twist restores a need to make multiple Final 2 deals). And he was making strategically sound decisions like sniping the last Idol out from underneath a trusting Tommy and wooing Noura with a reward lunch date to assuage their contentious relationship. Dean’s management of his social relationships in the endgame was surprisingly effective, with both his read on Noura and his ability to play dumb with Tommy yielding dividends.

I have to admit, I loved the scavenger hunt for the last Idol—even if the last thing this season needed was another Advantage introduced at the Final 5. The complexity of the clues—the machete hint in the special issue buff brilliantly deduced by Tommy, the colour-coded clue inside the coconut leading to an odd plank on the walkway and the cryptic H symbol leading to the marked post by the H-shaped swing—was a really fun throwback to the days when finding an Idol required more than a high Perception check while taking a stroll in the woods. By introducing more steps to find an Idol, it increases the chances that more players become involved (even if it’s unfortunate that Tommy’s impetus for phoning in a friend was colour-blindness leading him to doubt his ability to decipher the clue on his own). It also makes the Idol feel a little more earned, much like Idols earned through a skill challenge on the Island of the Idols, the requirement for a player to solve the puzzle is something I’d like to see more of in future.

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Kudos, ultimately, though to Dean for prioritising his own safety over Tommy’s. Although he eventually didn’t need the Idol due to a clutch Immunity win, it padded out an arsenal of Advantages for him to wheel out at the end, padding out his otherwise slim Survivor narrative. With Survivor increasingly veering towards Idol-, Advantage- and Twist- dependency in its winners, Dean had a non-zero chance of riding the flashiness of his jewelry to a victory. On top of that, he turned it on in the final stretch, instigating a critical move to save an ally in Tommy at Final 8, winning two important challenges, nullifying Janet’s Idol and beating out Lauren at fire.

So in a way, it’s surprising that all this flash didn’t strike a flame in the Jury. It caught enough attention to earn the votes of Aaron and Elizabeth, but otherwise, Dean’s flurry of “big moves” was ultimately seen as hollow. As Tommy rebutted, Dean’s arsenal wasn’t representative of him making Big Moves™—it was just “finding things.” Let’s elaborate. Is winning the fire-making challenge really that impressive when a modern Final Three is going to inherently comprise a fire-maker winner, making it something rote rather than special? Is playing the Idol Nullifier all that special when it’s the last time an Idol can be played? Does finding an Idol mean anything if you don’t actually use it to make a move? How about falling for a fake Legacy Advantage? And if we’re chiding Noura for taking the bigger threat to the end, then shouldn’t Dean be similarly criticised for saving that same big threat at Final 8?

To his credit, Dean came out swinging at Tribal, passionately and adamantly defending his bold endgame play. However, the questionable value of his amassed trinkets wasn’t the only sticking point in his game, and I’d warrant this latter fault was Dean’s reason for ultimately losing out. The Jury continued to circle back to Dean’s game as a whole, struggling to understand his strategy through the first three-quarters and see him as anything more than the DKchillin’ guy just floating along inoffensively. A final push is great, but it’s only a portion of a 39-day game. Furthermore, Dean’s lack of a long-term social game was the killer. He openly admitted to not forming relationships with other players, including many of the Jury, because he didn’t want to make promises to anyone he didn’t intend to work with long-term. And yet, in a prescient downpour of rain that seemed to extinguish Dean’s chances, he was caught out in his own lie when it surfaced that despite his protestations, he had made Final 2 promises to people he’d ultimately betrayed.

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At the end of the day, Dean emerged as a much more dynamic and competitive player than I ever would have expected—even as recently as last week’s episode. Some will argue that he should have won over the more even-keeled “boring” game we saw from Tommy, but regardless, Dean became a wonderfully weird character in his own right. Alternatively goofy, perplexing, and cutthroat, he was yet another unexpected gem of the season. Although there’s a lot of competition for compelling players to return from this season, Dean is the kind of player that I could see coming out swinging in a second time out, now that he’s got a taste for playing hard. And it would either be a total disaster or work like a charm. Either way, after his run this season, I’d be confident predicting it would be fun.

So why didn’t the fun, flashy, Advantage-laden game win out? In a major anomaly, it was Tommy who claimed victory for his consistently effective social game. It’s often postulated that the Survivor edit struggles to portray the social game. And that social winners often end up being shown as more strategically dominant than they were in an attempt to justify their win, are otherwise overexposed in the narrative to remind the viewer of home of this player who isn’t making the TV-friendly water-cooler moments happen, or have their rougher edges and characteristics softened to increase their mass appeal.

It seems Tommy is a victim of these editing tactics, and with skilled edit readers predicting his victory from early on in the season, there were times were the season felt like it was trudging towards an inevitability. With a recent trend towards mid-20s straight white male winners, the prospect of a Tommy win didn’t exactly hype up the masses—or me. But in the final stretch, I began to come to peace with the idea of Big Red becoming the top dog. And last week it occurred to me that Tommy’s social-heavy game is the kind that may not be appreciated in the moment, but may come to be accepted and celebrated in retrospect, particularly once exit interviews and deep dives can flesh out his game and shine light on all the little moments that make up a great social game but rarely make the edit.

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But I never expected that to feel quite as true as it does in the aftermath of Tommy’s win. For a player to win the game without a Big Move™ on their resume in the modern era is almost unthinkable. For a player to win without using an Advantage or an Idol hasn’t been done in years. For that player to never even need an Immunity win to survive hasn’t happened since Natalie White in Samoa. For Tommy to win without any of those trappings, and, hilariously, not needing the “boot camp” of Boston Rob and Sandra either, is a huge deal. 

Of course, Tommy benefited from other players’ Advantages and Immunities, but by not requiring them in his own hands, it sends an important message to the Survivor meta-narrative. If a Jury composed of players so focused on the game that they were making huge moves to take out threats before the first swap can recognise a consistent and effective social game in the absence of Advantages and Twists as worthy of the title of Sole Survivor, then maybe there’s hope that the franchise may swing back a little towards the game of social interplay many of us fell in love with.

On top of this accomplishment, Tommy’s game looks a lot more complete in retrospect. As he articulated at his Final Tribal, he positioned himself as the social hub of the tribe, and yet managed to avoid being labelled as the glue or the decision-maker. He ensured he forged bonds on all fronts. He bonded with his original Vokai alliance—be it bro-ing down with Jack on Day 1 or forming enough trust with Noura that she’d believe him when it came to deciding how to approach the Final Four. But he also bonded tightly with Lairo players when he encountered them, which proved strategically effective when Lairos Elaine, Karishma, and Dean ended up saving him at his two most vulnerable Tribals based on their personal relationships with him.

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Is Tommy the most dynamic Survivor winner of all time? Not by a long shot. Would it have been great to see the streak of male winners broken, especially with such a fantastic female cohort on season 39? Of course! But after the likes of Ben Driebergen winning on the back of the unprecedented fire-making twist or Chris Underwood emerging from the Edge of Extinction with an all-flash performance, I’ll eagerly take this season’s traditional winner. So as we close out this chapter, I’m pretty happy with what the old school Tommy win could represent for the evolution of Survivor.

So as we look forward to the epic Winners at War and what lies beyond, I’m hoping for a promising future as we turn the page.

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. Austin writes Inside Survivor’s episode recaps for both Survivor US and Australian Survivor.

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