Island of the Idols might not be aspiring to a god-tier Survivor season just yet, but throughout its first month, it’s been consistently good. Each episode has served up meaty strategy and a juicy blindside with ample room for character moments, humour, and interesting subplots. Even though the artifice of the Island of the Idols twist continues to be the season’s biggest detraction, at least it’s been providing fantastic character spotlights for the lucky (or unlucky) visitor, and in this case, led to the standout moment of the episode back at camp.
Saying this season is consistently above average might sound like I’m unenthused, but that’s far from the truth. Consistency is not easy and is not a bad calling card to have! Between consistently aggressive gameplay and a reasonably balanced edit, these first four weeks have set a solid foundation for the remainder of the season. Hopefully, the show builds from here—and the promise of a swap next week could inject some excitement—but even if Season 39 were to continue along at this pace, I’d be happy with the journey. Diverse and complex characters, intriguing (if sometimes abbreviated) storytelling of seemingly fluid tribal dynamics and gameplay that invites contemplation and discussion—those are the bones of a great season in the making.
So let’s start with the game and Lairo’s inexplicable devolution. Last season in Edge of Extinction, Ron Clark made the salient observation that blindsides breed blindsides—once you taste the blood of a blindside, you crave it again, even if it would be better for your game to hold fast to a safer vote. This bloodlust certainly seems to be plaguing Lairo, who Jeff Probst even praised for their back-to-back blindsides last week. But here it began to reach the tipping point, where some of the most promising players began to cannibalise their own games simply to make an aggressive move. Ironically, it’s a tribe of extremes, and those who weren’t overplaying were aggressively underplaying, similarly trying to just ebb with the flow only for the tide to draw them into dangerous waters.
Last week’s Tribal saw Karishma survive despite being positioned as the Idol contingency. While that didn’t bode well for her position in the tribe, I had been hopeful that it would light a fire under her to play more aggressively. Or at least commit whole-heartedly to the women’s alliance who looked to be her best bet for finding numbers. But while Karishma was astutely aware that she was low on the totem pole, receiving votes had the exact opposite effect on her game. She internalised the isolation to her detriment and lamented that this would be how her game would end. To our viewpoint, she did nothing to turn that perception around. Without having the ability or opportunity to demonstrate her value in the challenges, she needed to come to the table in other aspects of the game. But between a reputation as someone who wasn’t particularly helpful at camp and not taking more agency in her social and strategic game, Karishma continued to slip to the periphery.
For Lairo as a whole, this probably should have been a straightforward vote. Karishma was not contributing to the tribe and her isolation—even if, in part, self-inflicted—meant that she was a potential flight risk at a swap. She even seemed to distance herself from her only potential alliance with the other women, and their alliance could afford to lose another number while still maintaining a majority over the men. Karishma, unfortunately, was an expendable number—and, better yet, an expendable number for just about everybody in the tribe.
Except for Missy. To her, the lost and desperate Karishma was a potential vote in the pocket. I was very high on Missy’s game through the first three weeks, but this episode felt like a massive implosion brought about by trying to play too far ahead. Earning the loyalty of a desperate player can be a huge boon, but it only works if that relationship is symbiotically built on mutual trust. Karishma needed an ally, but more importantly, she needed someone to trust, and while Missy seemed willing to be the former, it did not appear that she considered Karishma to be anything other than a pawn.
And when Missy criticised Karishma’s understandable relief at a potential wild vote at Tribal Council, it suggested that there weren’t any strong feelings that would bind Karishma to follow Missy out of loyalty. Missy went out of her way to shield Karishma, but it doesn’t feel like that is a two-way street, and if Karishma were to see a better opportunity elsewhere, there goes Missy’s “second vote.” While actively categorising an ally as a pawn—especially when they owe you no loyalty—isn’t exactly great gameplay, it’s not an unforgivable error. However, contorting a vote to save that loose cannon pawn the way Missy did this week could spell disaster for her in the long run.
It started with the opportunity to target a different option, as presented by Aaron. This dynamic duo, seemingly developing out of nowhere, was fixated on another supposed power couple in Chelsea and Dean. The flirtation between the two irked Aaron, in particular, and he was adamant that the tribe needed to remove Dean from the picture. Aaron is another player whose gameplay is particularly aggressive and feels wildly scattershot—from targeting Elaine simply for her likability in Episode 1 to recognising the male minority but pushing to vote out other men in Vince and now Dean.
Vince was an understandable target given the bad blood between him and Aaron, but Dean looked like one of the few players willing to go along with Aaron’s plans, so it seemed peculiar that he would be so gung-ho to boot him. The reasoning wasn’t wholly ridiculous. Dean had been involved in both failed puzzles and also had his over-not-under moment in this episode’s Immunity challenge. He was playing the kind of lackadaisical, likable game that Aaron has felt threatened by since the beginning, and he perceived a budding showmance. However, Aaron’s eagerness to upset the status quo, particularly when the tribe was almost unanimously willing to pick off a member of the majority alliance, seemed misplaced.
But for Missy, eager to find a way to save Karishma, the plan was a godsend, and she jumped on it immediately. But while it advantageously developed a potential new ally in Aaron, it also undermined her relationship with the rest of the women. Elizabeth and Elaine balked at the idea of voting out Dean—a likable presence and a contributor to camp. They were especially skittish about Missy and Aaron’s drive to turn the tables in a blindside and/or blindside a friend.
In a night of less-than-stellar gameplay, Elizabeth was one of the few to clear a low bar as she acted as a messenger and pointedly kept her own decision-making out of the conversation. She nodded along when Aaron & Missy concocted the plan against Dean, but when she took the idea to Elaine, she let Elaine react to Missy and Aaron before agreeing that it wasn’t the right move. More importantly, when she went back to Missy and nixed the Dean plan, she notably told her that Elaine didn’t want to make the move—slyly masking her own dissension. Elizabeth is pulling out some fantastically subtle gameplay. If she can hone in on that and continue taking time to contemplate her moves before acting, she could be a real contender if she can make it to the endgame.
With the Dean plan nixed, and Missy still reticent to lose her perceived pawn Karishma, Missy and Aaron were frustrated that “no one else is playing.” This fallacy is cropping up more and more in modern Survivor. It is quickly becoming less of an indictment against the players playing slower, cautious, or patient games and more of an indicator that whoever is throwing out this accusation is over-playing and ignoring the tone of the game being set by the tribe. It’s a self-destructive combination of oblivious and aggressive, but Missy walked right into it. Rather than accepting that her alliance had outvoted her on the Dean plan and choosing to preserve her broader connections, she accused them of playing too slowly and decided to lead the charge against Plan Z: Chelsea.
Why Chelsea? Sure, she and Dean flirted a little, but what else was she doing to draw Missy’s ire? From appearances alone, it looked like the only reason her name was thrown out was because Missy was committed to pulling off a blindside—even to her own detriment. But even more surprisingly, the rest of the tribe followed her lead. After blocking a vote against Dean, the likes of Elaine and Elizabeth were willing to lose Chelsea, eating away at their women’s majority and making that alliance dependent on a paranoid loose cannon like Karishma. Between Elizabeth, Elaine, and Tom, these players in the middle could have controlled the vote, able to make the call to vote out Karishma or, ultimately, Chelsea, and they chose the latter.
Much like Vince last week, it seems that we’re missing a piece of the puzzle. We thought Chelsea was securely locked in with the women, but they all decided she was expendable over flight risk Karishma or someone not even in their alliance in Dean! It feels symptomatic of that lust for another blindside, with the players in the middle kowtowing to Missy and Aaron’s push for another big move. And for my money, this Plan Z was the worst play for the entire tribe.
Karishma wins out by surviving the vote, climbing the Baelishian Ladder of Chaos to a momentary respite. Still, it doesn’t increase her standing in the tribe or her individual relationships—if anything, she’s even more isolated by being excluded from the strategizing that saved her. For Missy, it’s a completely self-destructive move. She’s fractured the women’s alliance and put all her eggs in the basket of Karishma staying loyal. Not to mention raising her profile as a player eager to make aggressive moves even against her own alliance and then leaving Dean out of the vote, making another isolated enemy. Aaron didn’t get his ideal target despite getting the blindside he wanted, but it looks like his only real ally in the game is Missy, and all of the kerfuffle over the vote labelled him as an over-player too.
The middle crowd of Elizabeth, Elaine, and Tom seem to be the true power nexus of the tribe. But they’re left playing with disparate parts in Karishma, Dean, Missy, and Aaron, at the cost of losing Chelsea, who appeared to be a staunch ally. And while being the controlling party with dysfunction at the periphery can be effective if the tribal lines stay intact, a tribe swap is almost guaranteed in modern Survivor. If Elizabeth, Elaine, and Tom get separated, they’re going to end up with unpredictable players, and that could hurt them up against a Vokai majority. Of course, Dean is the biggest loser of the bunch as the only player to be left out of the vote, which fractures all of his trust with his tribe… and right before a swap.
Chelsea, though, is the casualty, and it’s genuinely disappointing to see. She looked to be playing a pretty strong early game, securing an alliance with the women, proving herself in camp by starting fire, and not only finding an Immunity Idol but making the intelligent decision to keep it secret. But for a second week in a row, a superfan went out with an Idol in their pocket, though I can’t be too critical of Chelsea not playing it. The vote came out of nowhere, and even in retrospect, it seems like an illogical choice for the tribe. Chelsea appeared to be playing a pretty good game. Even with the little bit of flirtation with Dean, she was conscious of trying to avoid the showmance label. But her paranoid and big move-hungry tribe not only fixated on that friendly relationship but fell prey to one of my least favourite Survivor tropes of voting out the woman in a pair to weaken the bigger male threat.
If I can be critical of the episode, I feel like we missed something in Chelsea’s story. Specifically, her relationship to Elizabeth, Elaine, and Tom, who made the call to vote her out over Karishma, was underdeveloped. But perhaps we’re just in that phase of Survivor where everyone hits the beach running wanting to play an individual endgame strategy from Day One. That kind of approach is going to cause casualties amongst otherwise good players.
CALLING IT IN
The questionable gameplay wasn’t restricted to Lairo, however. Over on Vokai, it was time to spotlight one of the most disastrous players in recent memory. Someone so ridiculous that it eroded even Rob and Sandra’s patience, bringing out their trademark snark that even persisted into their commentary box at Tribal. Yes, it was time for Noura’s Big Day Out at the Island of the Idols.
It began with a format change for selecting the Island’s visitor. Vokai was tasked with unanimously choosing who to go—or to renege on the responsibility and draw a random name from a bag. Firstly, I really wish production would stop giving the players the easy out on decisions like this. If the tribe want to draw sticks to choose who goes, that’s their prerogative, but as we saw here, any savvy player will shirk putting themselves out on a limb to make a decision that might be unpopular. Sure enough, nearly everyone at Vokai wanted to just go with the random draw. So please, production, stop giving the tribe the easy out—let the castaways figure these choices out by themselves.
So thank goodness for Noura. As we montaged through the bulk of Vokai, all providing valid and insightful reasoning for why they did not want to have to go, Noura openly called out the tribe for copping out on a random draw and volunteered herself to go. In a sense, it’s not a terrible play on the strategic front. Noura is already isolated and an easy target, and if the Island earns her an Idol or an Advantage, she’d be coming back to the beach with more to help her escape a doomed fate. Sure enough, we didn’t even see the tribe discuss it—we just cut straight to Noura on the boat—underlining how easy it was for Noura to convince her tribe to let her do what no one else wanted to.
That was the last we saw of Noura’s persuasive spirit, however, as the IOI once again hit upon a resonant theme with its visitor. The lesson of the week was the art of persuasion, and the test at hand was potentially one of the simplest: with knowledge of the upcoming blindfold challenge, convince your tribe to let you be the caller. Much like making fire against Boston Rob, a savvy player should be able to predict how this test would play out. A savvy player knows their tribe and would have a sense of whether or not they would stand a shot at being elected. That should make deciding whether or not to accept the test an easy decision—particularly if you take your time and eat your watermelon while considering it. And it’s also not an impossible task to perform. A level-headed player cautious of being able to be the best caller would have ample time before the challenge to practice with their tribe and hone their skill.
But Noura. Oh Noura.
What a godsend for entertainment value. Not only did Noura accept the task without even taking a moment to consider it—much to Rob & Sandra’s shock and horror—but when it came to passing the test, Noura completely and hilariously botched it. It began with the half-baked lie when she returned to camp. It was an effort to channel the this-for-that technique of persuasion—one of many methods suggested by the Idols and helpfully illustrated by historical evidence in the form of a flashback montage to Erik’s Micronesia blindside, Parvati’s flirtations and Yul’s manipulations in Cook Islands, Sandra’s use of rumours against Coach Wade in Heroes vs Villains and Rob’s deal with Lex to save Amber in All-Stars. But Noura’s attempt at persuasion may make it into a future montage for a very different reason.
Gathering her tribe, she told them that on the IOI, she was presented with inside information about the next challenge, giving Vokai an advantage heading in. The catch? She could only tell her tribe if they unanimously decided what role she would play in the challenge. Rightfully, the tribe was skeptical at best, quickly questioning how they could choose Noura’s role if they didn’t know what the challenge was. Noura tried to recover the lie, clarifying that the tribe had to unanimously let her choose her own role, which the suspicious tribe agreed to. At this point, Noura revealed the blindfold challenge in the most incoherent way possible, ultimately electing herself as the caller. Again, the tribe questioned why she would choose that role, and if she was truly up to that task.
But all was not lost—even if Noura’s lie was sketchy, if she could practice directing blindfolded tribemates and earn their trust that she could lead them to victory, then she might somehow be able to pass the test. All it would take is some patience and teamwork. But even that was an impossible task. As she tried directing Dan to crawl under the hammock towards her after repeatedly being asked to not relate the directions to her own position, as she’d be standing far away behind them, or struggling to juggle multiple instructions by counting out Dan’s steps while leaving Tommy standing around with no guidance, Noura quickly proved that she was not up to the high pressure task. Even with ample time to practice, she struggled to deliver, failing to listen to her tribemates’ suggestions and leaving them rightfully worried.
So in a most poetic irony, come the Immunity Challenge, Vokai unanimously decided Noura’s role in the challenge: to sit out. Not only did the tribe see through her lie and unilaterally decide to keep her out of the caller role, but she engendered so much distrust in her capabilities that they benched her entirely. Noura was astounded, but it’s not a surprise, and Vokai certainly made the right decision. Jason’s subsequent performance in the caller role was cool, calm and collected and is perhaps one of the best performances in this role that we’ve seen in the show’s history. There was no panicked screaming or shouting, but rather steady, encouraging, and methodical guidance.
Of course, it has to be said that Vokai got handed a huge advantage by knowing the challenge in advance and being able to practice ahead of time. If I were Lairo, I’d be a bit peeved that the other tribe lucked out with a one-sided advantage for free, but nevertheless, Vokai made use of that advantage, saw through Noura’s obfuscation and made the right call and won out.
Thus, Noura found herself falling short of earning the Vote Block advantage offered and instead lost her vote at her next Tribal Council. With an impending swap, that could potentially make a critical difference in a new tribe. After her bungling of the Idols’ test, I can’t say I’m confident she’ll be able to wiggle her way out of being seen as a massive liability without exceptional luck. But stranger things have happened, and anything that keeps such a volatile and obliviously entertaining character around is good in my books.
This whole Noura subplot was phenomenal, and it’s worth noting that there’s no way it would have happened without Island of the Idols. While the twist still feels a couple tweaks away from being a standout, it delivered here and, importantly, felt like far more than a sidequest. By requiring the test to be performed back at camp, it tested Noura’s ability to not only know herself and her tribe but her ability to manoeuvre herself within the confines of the actual game and in a way that could have meaningful consequences if she failed. I hope we see more Idols tests expand out of the shadow of the giant heads, but more importantly, I hope that the twist continues to provide such great spotlights for its visitors and open the door for incredible scenes like this.
But how will this failed test affect Noura in the long run? It’s very likely that this only doubled down on Vokai’s opinion of her as someone who is difficult to work with, and as of this sketchy lie, both untrustworthy and bad at lying. A saving grace could have been using her discovery about the IOI to bond with Vokai’s previous visitor Kellee. But that doesn’t seem remotely likely, particularly as Kellee explicitly expressed relief that Noura’s disastrous story was distracting from any heat to corroborate their two accounts. But Noura is in trouble, even with a swap coming, and she’ll have to grow proficient in persuasion quickly if she’s to survive. But better the lesson learned late, than never, right?
Elsewhere on Vokai, Jamal was also making up for lost time as he secured an Idol. It’s a big boost for him game-wise, given his continued vulnerability in the tribe dynamics after Molly’s blindside, but it’s not a Get Out of Jail Free. Jamal still needs to earn his way back into an alliance, but the calm and methodical way in which he went about his Idol find does suggest that there is a savvy player within him if he can keep his more impulsive tendencies in check. This was a pretty positive episode for Jamal, especially after being painted as overconfident in Episode 2 and a loose cannon last week. But this multi-dimensionality is fascinating, and I’m excited to see more sides of Jamal as we move forward.
DROP YOUR BUFFS
As is customary, it’s time to mix things up with a tribe swap. I’m grateful that we got four weeks with our original tribes. The earlier swaps in the past several seasons have felt like they’ve prevented tribal dynamics from maturing. Though both Lairo and Vokai have devolved into hot messes of over-playing at times, the time stewing in that space means that the decisions the castaways have made this early are more likely to have an impact in the long-term.
Maybe that’s part of why this season has felt subdued, even though we’ve had four blindsides in a row. This season feels like it’s being set up for the overall narrative rather than the story-of-the-week. Although it’s still not perfect, and there are bones to pick with some critical information left on the cutting room floor, I’d much rather see Survivor get back to telling cohesive, holistic stories. So even if we’ve got two literally giant distractions in the wings, I’m optimistic that we’ll get a good, if not great, season once all is said and done.