Hot on the heels of last week’s superb episode, Survivor stepped up its game with one hell of a chaser. Meaningful, empowering conversations about lived human experiences and that patented Survivor social experiment? Check! Bold, advantage-fuelled blindside at Tribal Council? Check, again! Complex characterisations and a myriad of recurring subplots? Yup, it’s another big check. Even the Island of the Idols managed to offer something compelling this week.
I’d been torn on Season 39 in the first few weeks. I loved the cast, and the storytelling mostly excelled, but I still found myself getting hung up on the titular twist and its imperfections detracting from the overall product. But with a consistently solid start and these two incredible episodes leading us into the merge, I’m all in.
At this point, I feel like we’re looking at a wonderfully complex post-merge. The remaining castaways all have a story, most with a nuanced characterisation. There is a web of intriguingly delicate alliances achieved, in part, by the return to the simpler 2-to-2 tribe swap. The editing is picking up where David vs. Goliath left off, balancing humour, pathos, and clever & unique narrative choices exemplified by the instantly iconic confessional featuring Kellee’s moment of inspiration allowed to play out in all its silent brilliance.
In the Era of the Advantage, it’s also refreshing to be charging into the merge with no Idols or Advantages in play. This is only the second time this has happened in US Survivor history since Idols were introduced pre-merge in Panama, 27 seasons ago, and only preceded by Blood vs. Water wherein no Idols were even found in the pre-merge. So even with modern Survivor and the IOI destined to resume flooding the game with Advantages, there’s something exciting about looking at this merge with a clean slate on this front, allowing the social dynamics driving the pre-merge to continue to define the season.
A MOMENT OF INSPIRATION
Let’s get to the moment that started this Tribal Council on its way to becoming a modern classic. New Lairo was in a pretty straightforward position. Despite being almost entirely crammed with the season’s loose canons and players scorned—Karishma, Dean, Noura, Jamal & Jack—the vote had settled along old Tribal lines. Dean was in the hot seat as an Old Lairo with enough physicality and charm to be dangerous at the merge. On top of this, his three-vote streak of targeting Karishma set her against him as she confirmed her flip to align with Janet, Noura & Kellee as a dream come true. Meanwhile, the boys worked to assuage any of Dean’s concerns, efficiently misdirecting his attention towards Noura without him catching wise. It would be an easy vote—clean and unanimous, 6-1.
But after Lairo’s marginal loss at the Immunity Challenge, Kellee found herself in a curious position. She could go along with the easy plan, but she had a good relationship with Dean, built upon the foundation of their outside world connection. Meanwhile, she still had to navigate the Old Vokai dynamics, and with Jack being a highly connected social threat and Jamal’s condescension getting on her nerves, could she try something different?
The idea of voting one of the two out—and specifically Jamal—had been floated by Noura to Dean last week and again as a potential play for the four women who held the majority on the tribe, but the plan had never materialised. In part, this was due to Old Vokai’s mantra of not upsetting the apple cart before the merge. Janet explicitly warned against making the move now, and Kellee and Jack even bumped fists to agree not to turn on each other until a few votes into the individual game. This tactic of tribe unity is not a bad one, but what if Kellee had a way to have her cake and eat it too?
You see, burning a hole in Kellee’s pocket was the Idol she’d won at the IOI. After holding out on the memory challenge proposed by Rob & Sandra, she ultimately stepped up to the task when the Idol on offer was extended to a three-Tribal expiry. Well, this marked that third Tribal, and if Kellee didn’t play it, its power would dry up. She didn’t want to waste the Idol, but she didn’t want to play it just for the sake of it and potentially damage her game, particularly her relationships with the tribe-strong Old Vokai.
Then, in the middle of explaining her predicament in confessional, the lightbulb lit up. Kellee paused, and we watched the gears tick over in her head as she silently refined the inspiration into a plausible strategy before taking action. We rarely get to see the true genesis of a Survivor strategy, often learning about how it came together retroactively, but getting the insight into how suddenly and quickly an innovative plan can develop was something truly special.
Kellee’s idea was fiendishly clever. If all the votes were heading to Dean, then her Idol could block them and allow her to dictate who went home. But if she played the Idol on him, then it would blow up her spot with Vokai. So instead, if she explained the situation to Dean and gave him the Idol, he could play it as a gotcha and send one of Jack or Jamal out 0-1. Meanwhile, Kellee could hide in plain sight, casting a null vote for Dean and putting on her best-surprised reaction. It’s remarkable in its elegance, and especially impressive as this inventive Idol play marks the first iteration of this strategy to stealthily play an Idol via another castaway.
It’s not a surprise that it hasn’t been done before. For one, it removes one of the biggest plusses of Idols in modern Survivor—the theatrics of an Idol play. Even without a gawking Jury losing their minds, a successful Idol play makes an impression, and it’s ballsy for Kellee to be willing to give up that recognition and allow another player to claim it. Unambiguously, though, it’s beneficial for her to avoid that reputation. Recent history has shown that Idol finders are likely to find more, and the tribe believing this was Dean’s Idol raises his profile over her own. Furthermore, the long con reveal of her dastardly plan will itself be a theatrical moment itself if she can keep it under wraps until the endgame, or even Final Tribal if she’s so lucky.
The bigger trick to this move is that it requires absolute trust in the conduit player, relying on them to stick to the plan and not out your involvement—now or in the future. Kellee had to be sure that Dean would not spill the beans, certainly not in the lead up to this very vote and especially once she’d committed and handed off her Idol. It helped her that Dean means well, and he wants to believe that he’s being told the truth. He bought the bill of goods Jack & Jamal sold him entirely, so when Kellee shattered that illusion but quickly followed it up by throwing him a lifeline, he was inclined to trust her. A more skeptical player might have been suspicious of Kellee’s proposal, and a more opportunistic player might have looked to exploit her trust, but Dean was just happy to have a way out and make a big splash in doing so.
Kellee also noted that the trust between her and Dean would only be strengthened by this play, as he may feel indebted to her heading into the merge and afford her an extra number to work with, particularly as Dean’s connections are few and far between. But the question will stand as to how long that will last, because now that the move has been made, Dean’s the one in the power position. He has an ace card up his sleeve that could instantly make Kellee a huge target if he wanted or needed to throw her under the bus. If there’s a red flag for Kellee’s move, then this is it. This could very well be a repercussion that could end her game.
How Kellee will handle this going forward will be important to keep an eye on, but perhaps the most forward-thinking, if under-reported, aspect of Kellee’s plan was her contingency plan. What if Dean did betray her immediately? What if instead of voting for Jack or Jamal, he recognised Kellee as a threat and decided to throw his vote onto her? Excusing the fact that this would be a pretty terrible move for Dean, Kellee was wary that giving up her Immunity only to be voted out would be excruciating. With how much mileage Survivor gets out of “I’d like to give Individual Immunity to Natalie,” she’s not wrong!
So Kellee concocted a back-up plan to throw an extra vote in the direction of Jack or Jamal. If Dean betrayed her, this would lead to a 0-1-1 revote between one of the boys and herself, and theoretically, she’d have enough numbers from her alliances to protect her. The simplest solution would be to cast that extra vote herself, but that would make her directly complicit in the move, blow her cover and at least link her to Dean—the very thing that ended Chelsea’s game.
Instead, Kellee put her awareness of the social politics to use and sought out Noura. Noura’s tumultuous relationship with Jamal, and Old Vokai in general, saw her already considering flipping the script and openly discussing it with the other women on New Lairo. She also had a reputation for being impulsive and paranoid. It wouldn’t take more than a suggestion—the idea of Dean potentially having an Idol and casting his vote for her—to convince Noura to throw a contingency vote onto someone else. In effect, Kellee transferred her own concern about being the victim of an Idol play onto Noura.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see that conversation in action, but Kellee’s ability to not only control an Idol played by someone else and Dean’s vote, but also Noura’s vote is one intricate play. And unlike Dean, Noura’s known for being unpredictable. From her openly labelling Dean as the outsider at Tribal to getting into it with Jamal and revealing that she’d considered going after him, Noura is much more likely to change course or blurt out something she shouldn’t. Even her admittedly insightful statement upon Dean’s Idol play, questioning why he wouldn’t have played it at the last Tribal, speaks to how much Noura’s stream-of-consciousness could endanger Kellee.
It was a risky move, but in an episode that highlighted the notion of calculated risk, Kellee was crunching the numbers and considering all factors. And she pulled it off! She exploited an expiring advantage, but she thought way outside the box to do so. She utilised the marked target as her puppet, directing Dean’s vote and shielding herself by having him play the Idol in her stead. She co-ordinated a contingency plan to protect herself, involving accurately firing a loose canon. And she emerges from the vote with a threat eliminated, an ally’s trust strengthened and a seamless alibi.
As a bonus, she also unintentionally flushed an Idol. Kellee’s intellectual play here is the stuff of legends, and if she can keep up this kind of lateral thinking in her post-merge strategy, she will cement herself as an all-time strategist. And let’s be honest, between the hair Idol and this blockbuster move, she’s already in the conversation.
Every great move, though, has the threat of repercussions. Aside from the aforementioned danger of Dean, there is the question of whether this move was the right play at the right time, or if it was just a move for Big Moves’ sake. Without the expiry of Kellee’s Idol, I don’t think she would have had the inspiration for this play, much less followed through. But that doesn’t inherently make it a bad move. Just like Luke Toki’s use of the “Safety Without Power” advantage (which made its US Survivor debut this episode) in Australian Survivor: Champions vs. Contenders II, an expiring advantage can force a player to think creatively and spark the inspiration of a great move.
I generally ascribe to the philosophy that big moves in the pre-merge (or at least pre-Jury) are less valuable. Survivor is a long game, and big moves either draw unwanted early attention or aren’t seen by the Jury and can be easily forgotten or disregarded in the light of the Big Moves to come. But, Kellee actively made sure to avoid the former pitfall through her strategy and got lucky with the latter, seeing as Jack, uncharacteristically, landed the first seat on the Jury bench. Still, even if this move was fuelled by the desire to make a big play, I feel like Kellee gained a lot. Unlike, say, Aaron & Missy dismantling their own alliance and voting out Chelsea, Kellee’s position in the game only gets better heading into the merge, and that’s the mark of a good move.
As for Jack? Much like Jason last week, it’s hard to point at much that Jack actively did wrong. At the end of the day, he, too, was the victim of an Advantage that swung the vote when he would have been in the power position had it not been in play. He also seemed to be an affable personality and an asset without being the Big Threat on the beach. But perhaps that’s what caught up to him.
Kellee noted that she trusted Jamal far less and had her own frustrations with him personally, including his dismissal of her when trying to start the fire after a rainy night. And she doubted that he would be willing to go with her all the way to the Final Three. On the other hand, Jamal was a target for these very things, and that could make him an easier target at the merge, particularly compared to someone as generally inoffensive and exceedingly well-connected as Jack, who we’ve seen bond closely with Tommy, at least, on the other side.
Whether it was Kellee’s call, or whether it ultimately came down to the preferences of Dean and/or Noura, I think it was the right call to go after Jack at this Tribal. It’s internally consistent with the ruse of the plan (easily explained as Dean and/or Noura recognising that the guys had betrayed them) and understandable as Jack was physically and socially threatening for the individual game.
It’s also a lucky choice given the unknown factor of Jamal’s Idol. Upon realising that Dean was safe, Jamal was rightfully spurred to use his own Idol to protect his game, and if he’d been in the move of self-preservation, it would have been logical to play it on himself. However, Jamal played his Idol for Noura in one of the more curious strategic choices of the season. Even after she revealed she had been gunning for him in her speech on love, hate, and indifference, he protected her from Dean’s vote. But I don’t fully understand his reasoning.
At best, it could be that Jamal thought this would have led to a null vote and a re-vote leading to Old Vokai turning the majority on the only other Lairo, Karishma. But at worst, he missed that if Dean was playing an Idol after being told he was safe, there’s a reason to suspect he’d figured out that Jack & Jamal were lying to him and could be exacting revenge. I was bracing for Jamal’s demise after giving away his Idol, and he got very lucky that it was Jack in the firing line instead. It may be that Jamal knew or sensed something we didn’t see, but as it stands, it seems like a bad read and a wasted Idol.
WHO RUN THE WORLD?
But that’s one of the things I’m loving about Jamal—he is so three-dimensional as a character. We’ve seen him be overconfident and rash in the strategic game, but we’ve also been brought in to root for him as a scrappy underdog when he found his Idol. Last week, we saw his good nature, forgiveness, and patience in his eloquent conversation about race with Jack, and this week, his articulate commentary bristled with condescension and his own faux pas in assuming a women’s alliance.
The disproportionate terror of a Women’s Alliance™ is one of the strangest phenomena in Survivor, and it was so exciting to see it finally called out on the show as Kellee rebutted Jamal’s assumption with an impassioned and articulate response. Women’s alliances are rare, but the fear of them is constant—and is notably imbalanced as men’s alliances are rarely discussed, much less actively used as ammunition.
While it’s worth noting that numbers don’t lie, and it’s not much different for Jamal to be considering the possibility of a women’s alliance when the gender ratio on the tribe makes him a minority in the same way Dean is right to fear the 5-2 Vokai-Lairo split, the fear outbalances the threat. Even though Noura admitted to proposing a women’s alliance, seeming to confirm Jamal’s concerns, we as the viewer know that this was never a true threat as we saw Janet immediately shut down the idea at the beginning of the episode.
But this discussion of the dreaded Women’s Alliance took Tribal Council in a really surprising direction: an open, honest and vulnerable conversation of gender dynamics in Survivor, in the real world, and in the way that Survivor’s social experiment can boil down the wider culture into a microcosmic community on the beaches. It feels like a disservice to recap it, and if you have the time, I would simply recommend rewatching this Tribal Council, for every word is worth revisiting. Each of Kellee, Noura, Karishma, and Janet shared their perspectives, and despite Jamal’s assumptions igniting the fire, he also listened and supported their expression.
It was a beautifully human moment, capped off by Janet’s particularly moving speech encouraging the strength of the individual woman not in isolation but through the support of allied women and men. Drawing on her own lived experience, she further bolstered Kellee’s concern about women’s alliances, debunking them as shallow and presumptive and removing the human heart that is at the core of individual, interpersonal relationships in life and in the game. After all, just because four individuals have XX chromosomes, why should that arbitrarily make them any more likely to work or bond together?
Janet had a blockbuster episode even beyond her inspiring message at Tribal, as she was selected to face the IOI test and became the first player of the season to turn it down. Rob & Sandra led a lesson of calculated risk, and though we didn’t get to see all of the details of the challenge offered to Janet, she flatly refused. Weighing up her current position in the tribe, with strong allies and a say in the game’s direction, she rationalised that the challenge wasn’t worth it. Interestingly, it wasn’t out of fear of losing her vote but out of an analysis of the prize.
The “Safety Without Power” Advantage is a mouthful but is not a bad advantage. It’s guaranteed Immunity, and despite it also removing you from the vote entirely (ironically still causing you to lose your vote), it’s not without creative, strategic utility (c.f. Toki v Soli Bula, AU: CvCII, 2019). However, there’s no way to use it subtly—it draws attention and makes you a target, and based on the kind of game Janet is playing, she realised that this would have the potential to be a detriment to her in the grand scheme of things.
It was a great move for Janet, and it demonstrated her mindset as an active and thinking player playing a more traditional game. Brilliantly, the show itself supported Janet’s decision not to take the risk via Rob & Sandra’s glowing endorsements. Not every good Survivor game must rely on an advantage, even in the modern era, and an intentional social game such as Janet’s, which is fuelled by perception and relationships, is still to be celebrated and validated.
This season has excelled in putting human conversations at the forefront of the narrative. Between this week’s discussion of gender, wonderfully moderated and supported by Probst, the topics of race & privilege in last week’s episode, and even the mature attempt to deal with Dan’s handsiness with the Vokai women in the premiere (a storyline revisited this week, suggesting it may not yet be resolved), Survivor has not been wary of broaching meaningful and important issues that represent the experience of the players and reflect the broader culture of 2019.
Others have observed the apropos cyclicality of this season’s candid and honest approach to social and cultural topics in view of the passing of Rudy Boesch this week. Rudy, memorialised at the end of this episode, was one of the pioneers of Survivor: Borneo and is arguably an Idol in his own right. His relationship with Richard Hatch brought the topic of homosexuality to 2000 TV with eye-opening candour as the old conservative ex-Navy Seal formed an unlikely friendship with an out-and-proud gay man in an era where such stories and perspectives were rare.
Survivor has changed a lot since Borneo, evolving into an increasingly complex game, but the pure core of its spirit is unflappable. So aided by this exceptionally eloquent and respectful cast, Island of the Idols continues to demonstrate why Survivor is the best reality competition out there and why it remains and will continue to remain relevant after nearly 20 years.
But we’re only halfway through the season, and hopefully, there’ll be a lot more excitement to come. It’s certainly poised to be an intriguing crowd. The fallout from Lairo’s vote could be fascinating, particularly given the extra vote on Jack, which could sow distrust within the majority (assuming Noura doesn’t immediately own up to it!). Kellee’s big secret is now in the hands of Dean, a relatively free agent, and that dynamic could throw a spanner in the works. The unresolved tension on New Vokai is also combustible—Tommy & Lauren were on the run after last week’s Tribal. The four Lairos didn’t have the opportunity to cut out the threat of Tommy and break up that pair before the merge, so how the fractured relationship between Lauren and Missy shakes out could be a decisive factor.
On top of the Idol stat I mentioned at the start of the article, our merge tribe also stands out with a significant 8-5 majority for the women (the largest margin with a female advantage since Game Changers—also the last season with a female winner), 8 of the 13 castaways being minorities of race and/or sexuality (the most minorities to make a merge since the overt casting of Cook Islands and Fiji), and the oldest woman to ever make the merge in Janet at age 59. This diversity sets us up to continue to explore broader perspectives and unique stories, and that’s an exciting prospect.
Strategically, it could be as simple as Old Vokai reuniting to pick off the Lairos, I feel like we’re in for a more flexible post-merge game. The pre-merge has continually demonstrated that these castaways are willing to make bold and unconventional moves, and the single swap to two tribes has fostered a greater tension between old bonds and new. With massive blindsides both before and after the swap that spilled bad blood that’s yet to be cleaned up, there’s a lot of room for reshuffling power dynamics. Whether it’s the voting bloc strategy of Cambodia or the perpetually fluid groupings that typified the likes of Edge of Extinction, I’m sensing a dynamic merge ahead.
But even if the gameplay becomes more predictable, I hope that the balanced and captivating storytelling of the season so far continues and cements this season as the modern classic it’s poised to become.