“Drop your buffs. We’re switching things up.”
But it wasn’t just a tribe swap that overturned the Island of the Idols dynamic. For the first time this season, we breezed straight past the eponymous twist, with Sandra and Rob only entering in the eleventh hour to provide their (unexpectedly inaccurate) commentary on Tribal Council. Instead, we saw our first Reward Challenge of the season for an Applebee’s sponsored feast. But perhaps most distinctly of all, after four episodes of blindside after blindside, we got a much more direct shot.
The show still left the decision vague heading into Tribal, but there was a certainty that one of the outnumbered ex-Lairos would be heading home. And even though Tom didn’t seem to see the shot coming, when all was said and done, as a viewer, I wasn’t left surprised or confused. We saw the coherent narrative that led to the ex-Vokai majority’s decision to save the ship-jumping Karishma despite her liabilities in challenges. It was a simple vote, but sometimes that’s a good thing. Needlessly obfuscating the strategy to preserve the surprise of Tribal often feels more disorienting and disingenuous, and I’d much rather see the puzzle pieces at play even if it robs a degree of suspense.
But this episode found a happy medium—it might not have been a blockbuster that will be remembered in the history books, but it gave me so much of what I’ve been hoping for in this season. Even with an extra challenge in the mix, it felt like it got to the root of the players’ character. The swap aftermath was handled beautifully, with a wide range of perspectives revealed to demonstrate a web of complex individual strategies within the anticipated war of tribal lines. The show also emphasised the individual experience, from Dean & Kellee bonding over a mutual friend to the challenging scene delving into Karishma’s perspective on marriage.
Stripped of the foofaraw of the titular gimmick, this episode felt like classic Survivor and allowed the stellar cast to shine in a subdued, but nuanced instalment.
MANY SIMULTANEOUS TRUTHS
After the bizarrely unlikely swap in Edge of Extinction, which almost entirely preserved tribal dynamics, this swap left us with two incredibly fascinating scenarios. An even 4-4 split on New Vokai forced each side to weigh up their allegiance to their first buff and whether it would be worth the stalemate result of rocks. Or if they should take the risk to flip or betray one of their own—and endlessly complex Catch-22, particularly as the tribe was almost entirely filled with the decision-makers of the pre-swap tribes who had little to gain by sacrificing allies.
Meanwhile, the 5-3 Old Vokai majority on New Lairo looked obvious at first. However, despite the easy majority prevailing come Tribal, it still feels like a powderkeg with almost the entire tribe. And particularly Karishma, Dean, Noura & Jamal having felt like outsiders at some point pre-swap to the point of distrusting their allies or expressing an interest in being a free agent or a disruptive force.
And sure enough, Karishma was the first to jump on the opportunity. After last week’s episode, I was critical of the call to keep Karishma in the game and simultaneously double-down on making her feel ancillary to the tribe. It seemed blatantly obvious that such recklessness was priming Karishma to make a move against her old tribe. Lo and behold… With no allies, a minority draw in the swap, and yet another poor showing in a challenge, as Noura literally dragged her to the finish line, Karishma knew she had to get to work, and she made her first active play in the game.
The five new Lairos—Janet, Kellee, Jamal, Jack, and Noura—had barely arrived at their new home before Karishma sought out Kellee to quickly tell her that she was on the outs with original Lairo and was all in on working with the Vokai majority. It might not have been a big swing the way that flip would have been if she’d ended up on the evenly divided New Vokai, but this immediate effort to jump ship undoubtedly impacted the ultimate decision at Tribal.
Karishma also made a concerted effort to open up to her tribemates. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was calculated, but her honesty and vulnerability would have displayed an earnest trust that Vokai could rely on—at least in the short term. It speaks, too, to the compatible character of the likes of Janet and Jack, with their own earnestness warming Karishma to them to the point of getting into a very heavy personal conversation about arranged marriage in Indian cultures and Karishma’s own specific experience with family pressure, shame, and marital challenges.
The sheer conditions of Survivor can break down a lot of social barriers but admitting to virtual strangers that your husband feels like a roommate is a pretty big step (and a bold choice for the show to leave such an intensely personal story in the edit). For Janet and Jack, they were able to see Karishma’s raw, honest emotion, and for Karishma, she found a safe, willing, and sympathetic ear—a welcome respite after her belittling on Old Lairo. While I don’t think this vulnerability means that Jack and Janet would never vote Karishma out, it’s an exemplary demonstration of the power of social dynamics on the micro-scale.
It still feels like Karishma is playing a relatively passive game. By her own admission at Tribal, she was only filled in on the Chelsea vote that saved her bacon with minutes to go before Tribal. Here, too, we saw next to no evidence that she was actively involved in the strategizing against Tom. But forging relationships can lead to building alliances, which can open the door for more active strategic gameplay. So, I think Karishma’s on the right path, especially if surviving the vote in spite of her challenge weakness and because of her social bonds can boost her confidence in the weeks ahead. Nevertheless, she’s got to get to work quickly—New Lairo certainly looks like the weaker tribe, and if they find themselves at Tribal again, it could be her time.
Yet Karishma wasn’t the only one scrambling for new allies. In the wake of the Chelsea blindside, Dean put on the fedora and trenchcoat, and Detective Kowalski set to work, trying to root out the culprit responsible for the execution. Although his investigation yielded no real lead (with everyone on Lairo shirking responsibility), the realisation that he was on the outs led Dean to put new alliances at the top of his to-do list at the swap. Thankfully for him, a perfect opportunity presented itself in the form of Kellee.
Their instant rapport was built on the back of a degree of separation—Dean’s ex-girlfriend who’d later been a classmate of Kellee’s at business school. Kellee was wary of getting too close to Dean too quickly (especially with the spectre of Chelsea’s sniping looming large), but Dean’s affability and natural charm was certainly appealing. As the vote began to coalesce, Kellee told Janet & Noura that she had Dean if they needed him, and on top of Karishma also confiding in her, it put Kellee in a fantastic position as Vokai weighed up their options. For 2 out of the 3 possible targets, Kellee had a potential individual alliance moving forward.
In part, that’s due to Dean’s efforts to cross the aisle and make friends with his new tribemates. But it still wasn’t a perfect play. He ultimately was left out of the vote again, third time unlucky with a Karishma vote. Furthermore, despite clearly making an effort to bond with Kellee and perhaps some of the other Vokais, he was pointedly called out for not affording the same courtesy to Janet. In a bold but not offensive rebuttal, Janet challenged Dean’s assertion that he’d built a relationship with everyone, and he had no answer to come back with. Dean might have survived the vote, but he’s not out of the woods yet. And with the likes of Noura talking him up as a physical threat, on top of his social falterings compared to Karishma’s seemingly more effective integration, he could very well be the next one out.
Lastly, there’s the guy who suffered that fate off the bat. Tom was a character that was fun with the occasional quip, but otherwise filled the steady archetype of the straight-shooting older man. Janet said as much on the show, identifying both its pros (that he would be predictable and wouldn’t mess about with subterfuge) and cons (that his loyalty would likely lead him back to his Old Lairo tribemates at a merge). And that’s the big problem with the way Tom approached the swap. Despite being in a vulnerable position, obviously outnumbered, he was ultimately inflexible in his approach. He had been one of the biggest campaigners against Karishma on Old Lairo, and he suffered the consequences as she fled the minority to leave him on the outs as he continued to push the vote against her. Yes, she was a threat to the tribe’s ability to win challenges, but by staying singularly focused, he missed any potential opportunity to build something new.
Janet saw the appeal in working with Tom, and it seemed like Vokai as a whole liked and respected him, but he was immediately ancillary.
Karishma and Dean had actively worked to build new relationships, but Tom was just there. Solid in the challenges, but not exceptional in any way. Hard-working at camp and pleasant, but not an essential force of morale. Likable, but not critical to anyone’s game. A lot of the discussion in previous weeks has been around finding a target that everyone can agree on and voting out someone that few people are going to be unhappy about, and this episode that was certainly the case.
In my opinion, it was a perfect play for the ex-Vokai players. Yes, keeping Karishma increases their chances of returning to Tribal, but with Survivor having become predictable with merging at 13 in 20-player seasons, it’s not unreasonable for the Vokai 5 to look at the next two votes as easy pickings. If they lose the next Immunities, they can take out Dean and Karishma (and also avoid any unintended Old Vokai losses on the other tribe with the more precarious 4-4 situation) to head into the merge with a 9-4 advantage. But if they can pull off an unlikely win, both Karishma and Dean have expressed an earnest desire to work with the Vokai numbers on their new tribe. This certainly benefits Kellee, but with Noura, Jamal, and Jack having been outsiders on original Vokai, these two free agents could be essential to building a new alliance moving forward.
At Tribal Council, Jamal commented on the dichotomy of building relationships with those on the other side—perhaps there’s bad blood in their history with their own tribe, or conversely, they could bring their own plus-ones to a new alliance. But their loyalties could also lie with their original buff. It’s a tricky dynamic, but the Vokai 5 navigated it well at this vote—excising the player who had more friends on the other side and retaining the players more willing to leave the other side behind.
That question of making friends on the other side was incredibly pertinent on New Vokai too. Staring down the barrel of an even split, everybody knew that something would have to give. With Dan, Jason, Lauren, and Tommy staring off against Aaron, Elaine, Elizabeth, and Missy, someone was going to have to turncoat, or it would be a rock draw. The advantage was the overall strength New Vokai had in the challenge department, and while the Immunity Challenge was close, being the odds-on favourite may mean that the new tribe never has to pull their weapons in the standoff.
But it may be that the necessary anticipation of it leads to a reshuffling of the deck in its own way. It certainly didn’t take long for the topic to be broached, as Lairo solidified itself, doubling down on the tribal cannibalism. While Elaine was staunchly pro-Lairo, reticent of trusting the new faces in camp, Aaron and Missy seemed immediately willing to fold and avoid rocks. The threat of a rock draw is such a good incentive to force players to consider their options, but in this case, it seems pretty self-destructive for this pair to continue to whittle down their own.
After voting out one of their own alliance in Chelsea last week, and a potential ally in Vince the week before, Aaron & Missy were happy to consider dropping either Elaine or Elizabeth if push came to shove and that seems like a terrible move. Not only does it hand even more power to Vokai, enabling them to maintain their unified front (even with a player like Jason in the midst, who was identified early as an outsider), but it isolates them as a pair even more to the point where they’ll quickly have no-one left to work with. They’ve already burned Karishma and Dean, so they have no friends on the other side. Buckle under the threat of a rock, and they’ll have even less.
However, to his credit, Aaron was exploiting the opportunity to forge a new connection with Tommy. Bonding over his delightful socks plastered with images of his son’s face, Aaron appealed to Tommy over the need for mutual meat shields. As fit men who would inevitably be targeted as challenge threats at a merge, they could be a cross-tribal duo that could watch each other’s backs. It’s certainly an advantageous idea, but to my recollection, we’ve never seen the strategy fully materialise. At some point, the tantalising opportunity to cut a physical threat becomes appealing, particularly if you’ve got other alliances to work with.
Even so, if there’s a reason to turn on your own, doing so through building new social connections is the way to do it. After all, it helped Karishma and Dean, and Aaron himself was an outsider on the Ronnie vote, so earning new allies is nothing to sneeze at.
But at this point, the Vokai showdown is a hypothetical. I really hope we get to see it play out before the merge hits. Still, even if it’s just mounting tension and repositioning with no opportunity to pull the trigger, I’m confident it will have a huge impact on the eventual merge. Everybody on New Vokai will be scrambling to ensure they’ll have the numbers should they lose.
But the further spanner in the works is the traditional punishment of the Island of the Idols. Noura—and Vokai—got incredibly lucky that she was able to burn her No Vote on a Tribal where she was in a comfortable majority. If she had been on New Vokai, it could have spelled doom for the other three Vokais in the mix, handing a 4-3 majority to Old Lairo. But perhaps Lairo would have still imploded—in which case, seeing Vokai survive the impossible would have been fascinating.
While we may not have seen it with Noura, there’s still the possibility it could happen with a future trip to the Island. And I’ll be curious to see if the stalemate affects any New Vokai castaway’s decision to wager their vote on Rob & Sandra’s test, knowing how bad the repercussions could be.
RETURN OF THE ISLAND OF THE IDOLS
This week was a pleasant reprieve from the ludicrous twist of the Island of the Idols. While I’ve enjoyed aspects of its campy conceit in the weeks past, culminating with the brilliant Noura segment last week, I can’t say that I missed it here. Survivor lives and dies by its cast, their personality, character, and strategy, and even though it was a quieter episode with a relatively straightforward Tribal, I loved being immersed in their story and the interplay of new tribe dynamics. Next week, though, we’ll almost certainly be back in the shadow of the giant heads, but I hope the episodes can still find a way to make sure its players— individually and together—remain the centrepiece of the season.