There are two big headlines to this week’s episode. In one corner, we have a Tribal Council that managed to be suspenseful in the storytelling while also inciting a complex consideration of social strategy even when the vote’s outcome was almost solely swung by a deux ex machina of an advantage. On the other, we have one of the most raw and honest moments of pure humanity in a frank, positive, and insightful discussion of the delicate topics of race, privilege, microaggressions, and proactive resolution.
In a jam-packed episode that also found time for two challenges, a perfunctory trip to the eponymous Island and a weekly dose of Noura doing Noura, it’s a sign that Survivor can fit a lot into its run-time without totally sacrificing the story’s coherence. A key ingredient to that perfect stew, though, is the necessity of strong, well-rounded characters and room for their stories and interactions to guide the narrative.
From the beginning, Survivor has been billed as a social experiment, thrusting strangers from all walks of life into a high-stakes, high-pressure adventure. In recent years, the increasingly complicated game structure of advantages and twists has often pulled the attention away from those pure human stories. But if there’s one thing we can take away from this episode, it’s that the social experiment that’s at Survivor’s core in its best moments is still alive and well.
IDOL EX MACHINA
I’m always so relieved when we don’t end up with a single tribe dominating Immunity challenges and instead get to see both groups facing the intricacies and fallout of Tribal Council. So I’m particularly glad that we got to see a resolution to the 4-4 stalemate on New Vokai. While I would have much preferred the outcome to have been dictated purely by social strategy, instead of an advantage (or disadvantage) handing one side a clean majority, this Tribal still managed to be a fascinating vote when you examine the social stakes at play.
So let’s set the scene. Going back to last week, the even split of the post-swap Vokai put the old tribes at odds. The four Vokais were resolute in keeping a united front and maintaining their numerical majority for the merge ahead. The Old Lairos, however, began to immediately implode as Aaron and Missy started to look for an opportunity to jump ship. While I commend their initiative to build new relationships and certainly to do so to avoid risking rocks pre-merge, it opened the door for Vokai to gain true control of the tribe. Meanwhile, it left Elaine—the sole Lairo determined to stay orange-strong—in a vulnerable position.
But that changed when the decision to sit her out of the Reward challenge handed her the key to Lairo’s success. While I liked that the Island of the Idols’ visitor was determined by a new mechanism (and loathe that we’re returning to the random name in the hat for next week), I’m a little frustrated that the outcome of this fascinating vote came down to the chance of who sat out of the challenge. So while I ultimately enjoyed the episode and the strategy that flowed from the Vokai’s trip to Tribal, that was in spite of the advantage. This feeling of a cheap way out was only exacerbated by the contradictions in the “teachings” of Rob & Sandra and the simplicity of the task set to Elaine.
This week’s lesson was in “being daring,” pushing Elaine to accept a challenge without knowing all the details by literally spilling sand from an hourglass to pressure her. Knowing her precarious situation on New Vokai and eager to experience as much of Survivor as she could, she immediately jumped on the opportunity. Rob & Sandra both expressed a modicum of surprise, but really, wasn’t the intention to reward an impulsive decision? And isn’t this the contrary to their criticism of Noura immediately jumping on the opportunity they presented her previously? And when it came to the task itself, it wasn’t even a particularly difficult directive.
While I always love the inherent stakes of grabbing an Idol or an Advantage in the middle of a challenge, we’ve yet to see anyone get caught out in the US version (though both Australian Survivor and Survivor South Africa have different stories to tell). But even if Elaine had been caught, it doesn’t seem like it would have failed her task—she still would have had the Vote Block, but everyone would have known about it. If the test was really about being daring, why not up the stakes and take the approach of the Advantage in Cambodia? Much like how Stephen & Spencer had to bail on a challenge to try to claim an Advantage, why not test Elaine’s gumption by having to decide whether it was better to openly claim an Advantage, say, strapped to the stool where Jeff places the Immunity Idol, or to losing her vote to keep a target off her back?
I don’t want to dwell too much on my continued dissatisfaction with the season’s central twist, as this episode had so much good content to digest. But I’m feeling more and more like the Island of the Idols hasn’t managed to escape the curse of Ghost Island—a legitimately intriguing concept that falters due to mediocre execution.
Nevertheless, kudos to Elaine for not only taking a big swing by accepting an unknown challenge but managing to secretly secure the Vote Block despite nearly pulling a Sharn and dropping it out of her pants in front of her tribe. But more impressively, Elaine managed the risk well from the start—opening up to Elizabeth immediately about the Advantage at stake and, for the first time this season, openly discussing the secret of the Idols. While convenient that they were already aligned, this kind of shared secret can bring them closer together. In the aftermath, too, Elaine made the obvious play to assure Missy & Aaron that they could pull off the blindside and use the Advantage to swing the vote. This could have—and perhaps should have—been a done deal. But this is where the vote transcends the Advantage and turns to the intricacies of what makes Survivor interesting.
THE MIDDLE MAN
You see, before this Advantage was in the mix, Aaron was ready to jump ship. He’d been getting his ducks in a row, appealing to the likes of Tommy, and establishing a new line of trust to save himself from a rock draw. Missy seemed on board, and even Elizabeth expressed a desire to avoid rocks, even if it meant throwing Elaine under the bus. Flipping at a swap is always a risky move, but given Aaron & Missy had already damaged their reputation on Lairo with Dean & Karishma, finding new allies was not only advantageous but potentially essential to their long-term success.
Assuming that Vokai were open to bringing them into the fold—and principally for Aaron & Missy, bringing them in as more than numbers 5 and 6 in their posse—cutting ties to orange could have been a massive boon. However, all that work was immediately complicated by Elaine’s get-out-of-jail-free card. Now, the incentive to flip was not based on any degree of self-preservation. It was only based on the promise of those new relationships. And this was where I got really worried as Aaron continued to entertain the idea of sticking with his intended flip to Vokai.
I was preparing myself to be writing about how terrible a decision this would be, and I was so relieved when Jeff turned over the votes to reveal that Aaron had stuck with Lairo. Aaron has been fighting uphill from the start after losing Ronnie. Though he’s found a tight pair with Missy, his path of destruction through Lairo only isolated him more, particularly after he bandwagoned the ostracising of Karishma and alienated Dean by voting out Chelsea. If Aaron were to go rogue and side with Vokai, it would be a blatant betrayal of Lairo. By throwing away their lucky break with the Vote Block advantage, he would be eliminating Elaine, who expressed a staunch loyalty to original Lairo, he would burn Elizabeth, and he would torch his closest relationship with Missy.
If tales of Aaron’s betrayal crossed the beach, then any hope of being able to reunite with Dean or Karishma in the future would also be long gone. To Lairo, he would become a pariah. And to Vokai? He would go out on a limb to save their bacon, but he’d still be an expendable number to them. Could he really be sure that he wouldn’t just become a South Pacific Cochran, handing over a majority to be the last minority standing (at best)?
A solo flip is an incredibly dangerous move, and it would have been disastrous for Aaron’s game. Now, if Missy herself had been open to sticking to the flip, then perhaps that would have been a better play. While I still think it’s too early to target Jury threats like Elaine, and it seems short-sighted to pass on an opportunity to take an easy shot at the overall Vokai majority, it could have been worthwhile if it solidified a new alliance with some or all of the Vokai Four.
So in a sense, aside from the obvious victim in Jason, it feels like Aaron was the player most thwarted by Elaine’s advantage. His work to build new relationships was trumped by a piece of parchment won, essentially, by chance. He found himself caught between maintaining loyalty to his old tribe, who had a long, complicated history of bad blood and blindsides, versus the opportunity of establishing trust with new allies. Either way, his decision would burn bridges—it was just a question of new or old.
However, I think he made the right decision in sticking not just with his number one ally Missy, who evidently was not interested in persisting with the vote against Elaine, but with Lairo as a whole. They might be a disaster tribe, but that shared history can still mean something. After all, Elizabeth and Elaine ultimately sided with Aaron at the controversial Chelsea vote, and isn’t that worth something, particularly compared to the unknown of teaming up with a unified majority as a hanger-on? So while Tommy, Lauren & Dan now have no reason to want to work with Aaron moving forward, they are presently powerless in New Vokai. They’re now the ones in a desperate state, and if Aaron can play it well, maybe he can recover some of that trust before the merge, but at the very least, it’s a big step to restoring some modicum of trust in his long-term Lairo allies.
So what about Vokai? It’s fair to say that they got the raw end of the deal with the outcome of the vote decided by an Advantage. However, it’s also disingenuous to say that their approach played no part in their demise. Confidence is such a tricky trait in Survivor—self-confidence is essential, but managing your competitors’ perceptions of your own degree of confidence can be game-breaking. In a stalemate vote, that perception of confidence is key, and from the start, Vokai excelled by demonstrating a united front. They weren’t going to break, and they’d go to rocks if it came to it, or so they said. This incentivised the desperate and fractured Lairo to crack further, swinging a majority in Vokai’s favour.
But that confidence also undercut them. Their dismissing of Elaine’s capabilities, and particularly Lauren deriding the very idea that she could have or know how to use an idol (after she literally spent the afternoon at a place called “Island of the Idols”), is symptomatic of the problems of confidence. Complacency for power players is dangerous, but it can also light a fire under their adversaries. If Vokai really is unbreakable, then what real incentive is there for a Lairo to flip to the bottom of their alliance? Why not call their bluff and force rocks, or why not reunify under the banner of a Hail Mary plan, especially if it’s fuelled by an Idol or Advantage that could tip the scales?
This precarious tightrope of confidence played out exquisitely at Tribal Council. Vokai went from cocky assurance of forcing rocks to fractured panic as Elaine revealed her Advantage and seized power to despair, tears, and anger as Aaron & Missy decided to stick with Lairo and send out a helpless, voteless Jason. In a sense, Lairo has been in the trenches of Survivor warfare from the start due to their aggressive overplaying, and this will serve as a critical awakening for Dan, Lauren & Tommy moving forward—a reminder that confidence can be a killer.
By the time I’m finishing writing this review, Jason’s exit press has already gone live. Without straying too far from reviewing the episode, I do want to touch on his perspective as it significantly reframes the events of New Vokai’s Tribal. According to Jason’s interview with Mike Bloom on Parade, Vokai’s plan going into Tribal had been to vote for Aaron, not Elaine. Expecting Aaron & Missy to have flipped to vote Elaine, this would have allowed Vokai to send Aaron home in a plurality 4-2-2 vote. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that the Advantage scuppered this superb strategy to manufacture a majority at a stalemate vote. Still, it certainly informs a lot of the behaviour we saw.
It sheds new light on Vokai’s confident behaviour as a front to elicit trust from Missy & Aaron. It potentially reframes their dismissal of Elaine having an Idol as a tactic to appease and assure the potential flippers. And it clarifies the panicked whispering at Tribal, which seemed out of place when the vote was alleged to be for Elaine all along. But it also confirms that Aaron & Missy made the right decision to stick with their original tribe, as the relationships they thought they were building with Vokai were built on convenient utility and not an equal partnership. So whether Aaron & Missy sensed that, or the Advantage just pushed them in a direction that unintentionally saved them, it worked out very well for them.
But for Jason, unfortunately, it was just an unlucky break. The exact reason why he became Lairo’s target was a little vague in the episode’s telling of events, even though Lairo’s carousel of reasoning for targeting the four Vokais was an inspired narrative choice. Suggested that he was chosen as a strategic threat, it’s still hard to shake the sense that Jason simply got twist-screwed, particularly given the insight on Vokai’s unaired but brilliant contingency plan. Nevertheless, his journey throughout the season has certainly been a rewarding one. His trajectory took him from early outcast to core tribemate to the point of not considering flipping to Lairo himself and having the support from his own tribe to not throw him under the bus in the wake of the Advantage. He was witty and clever in confessional, and it would have been great to see him last longer, but at least this superfan went out in a memorable way.
A WORD & A CONVERSATION
Meanwhile, New Lairo played host to a scene that will be memorable for a very different reason. While the Vokai drama was all about the game, the pivotal scene between Jamal and Jack was purely personal. It harkened back to the ideal of human interaction, raw and unfiltered, that feeds reality television at its very best, and Survivor’s decision to feature this discussion as a centerpiece of the episode is a mature, inviting and promising choice.
The factor of race is no stranger to Survivor. Right from the beginning in Borneo, the distinctions of racial experiences were touched on as Ramona Gray made her first white friend. But the African American experience was particularly prevalent in Marquesas as the perspective of Sean Rector and Vecepia Towery were brought to the fore. However, in the years since, Survivor’s portrayal of race has fluctuated wildly, hitting all-time lows with the grotesque racial tribe divisions of Cook Islands, the “Rice Wars” incident of Redemption Island and even through to last season where one castaway’s casual use of racial slurs and the tribe’s consequent discussions of its ramifications were entirely excised from the edit. They eventually reached the light of day in Julia Carter’s post-game essay. So there’s a reason that this sequence stood out, and for all the right reasons, as it tackled sensitive racial issues with eloquence, understanding, and resolution towards change.
The inciting incident might seem innocuous enough. As Jamal shared his West African dances and music with his tribe, Jack expressed adoration for Jamal’s willingness to share a culture Jack knew little about. However, when Jack followed this up by casually referring to Jamal’s buff as a “durag,” it spurned a whole different conversation. Jack’s use of a racially-charged term to single out the buff belonging to a black man hit hard for Jamal, who recognised it as a microaggression that carried the burdens of decades of stereotypes surrounding black men. He was quick to call Jack out for his use of the term, and Jack quickly apologised upon the embarrassment of his unintentional offense.
What followed was a moving teaching moment as Jamal and Jack sat down together to calmly discuss the issue, openly and honestly. Jamal eloquently expressed how Jack’s codifying of Jamal’s buff as a “durag” was an offensive racial label that cut deeply, even if unintentionally—a lesson informative both to Jack and to the audience back home. Jack, meanwhile, listened intently and sought to own his fault and understand how his privileged experience as a straight white man could lead him to spout a term so casually prejudiced. Jack’s willingness to understand Jamal’s perspective and his genuine apology, in turn, provided a welcome respite for Jamal, who noted how rare it was for someone to apologise for their part in ingrained cultural prejudice.
Thanks to the respectful, earnest, and honest reactions of Jamal and Jack, this incident demonstrated the value of seeking understanding through productive and considerate conversation. While Jack’s initial word still stings for Jamal, their discussion was somewhat of a balm. In the current climate of division, anger, and intolerance, seeing two men resolve tension through seeking mutual understanding, particularly in a matter as delicate and confronting as casual racism, was a welcome sight.
And for this scene to feature so prominently on network television, and on a reality program at that, is incredibly encouraging. I’m grateful for Survivor making a choice to include this scene in the season’s narrative—these kinds of discussions are important, even if they’re difficult. And while the scene stands out as an uncommonly frank and open discussion of race, it’s also fantastic to see it normalised in an ordinary episode of Survivor that still chugged along with its strategy, humour, and heart beyond this scene.
I hope scenes like this encourage Survivor to continue to be open with its portrayal of hot-topic issues and to avoid brushing them under the rug or sensationalising them when they arise. In the broader sense, too, I hope Survivor looks for more opportunities to bring the focus of the narrative onto its players and the social experiment that started it all. Sometimes taking a break from the game and strategy to focus on who these castaways are, and how they relate and interact with each other, is what Survivor needs, and what helps make it one of the best shows on television.