Since Austin is unable to recap this week’s back to back episodes, I was called to step in. And uh, yeah. What a week for that to happen. Like a swarm of locusts descending from the skies to annihilate a poor farmer’s field of crops, this double episode descended upon my TV to destroy every bit of excitement I had for this season.
There’s no way Island of the Idols will recover in my book. This is the moment the season will be remembered for—not Noura’s wacky misadventure to the IOI, not Kellee’s iconic idol slip to Dean and not the educational conversations about our culture that actually accomplished something and gave me some hope for the human race. It’s tainted because whenever I hear “Island of the Idols” in the future, I will think back to November 13, 2019, and cringe.
But I have to recap this bleak episode, so let’s sort this mess out and hope for the best moving forward.
The Cold Open
The episode started with a trigger warning—the only other time I can recall this being used was when you know who fell into a fire, so right away, I knew this would be an unforgettable episode. Honestly, I don’t even know where to start. I know this is supposed to be partially a strategy recap, but is there really much strategy to talk about without diving headfirst into Dan-gate right out of the, well, the gate? I don’t think so. 90% of the gameplay revolved around this series of gross incidents as they weaved their way into the show like parasitic vines, suffocating the joy out of what had been an enjoyable Survivor adventure thus far.
Act I: Rise and Fall
I guess let’s start with the fall of Kellee Kim. She got back to camp after the Jack blindside, and Jamal immediately started grilling people for answers. Noura owned up to voting Jack out and decided to expose Kellee because Jamal played an idol on her, and she thought she owed him. Thanks, Noura. Real smooth. Kellee attempted to lie her way out of it, but her move created a ripple effect that wouldn’t settle down.
Feeling the pressure, Kellee sniffed out a new idol of her own, the (cursed) Lairo idol, which Chelsea was voted out with. After the merge feast, Kellee went on the fastest idol finding streak ever and found a second one, the merge idol. And then it all went downhill in miserable fashion after what seemed like a massive upswing for her game.
The big question of the first vote was this: should Kellee be voted out because she’s a smart player who might be playing both sides? Or should they vote out Dan for being a creep and touching the women without consent? There was a moment where Missy seemed to be a boot target on Kellee’s request, but it ultimately didn’t matter, even when she lost Immunity because, of course, this pair of episodes couldn’t escape the vicious riptide of Dan-gate.
From the moment the two tribes hit the merge beach, the main conversation among the women was about Dan’s behavior. And the editors didn’t slack off whatsoever. They showed evidence for everything the women said, including some fourth-wall-breaking moments complete with boom mics, cameramen, and even a producer speaking to Kellee from off-screen. It’s rare for Survivor to peel back its heavily edited fantasy world and let the audience see the gears that make it run, and when it does, it means the show is serious about what’s going on. Though I have my qualms with production on the island, I have to credit to the editors for handling this as well as they did.
Back on the beach, Kellee’s conversation with Missy was heartfelt and raw. Two people came together over an important social issue and handled it maturely while not letting it get in the way of the game that requires them to vote each other out. Kellee had a similar conversation with Elizabeth, and they agreed to vote Dan out to get rid of the creepiness. But Kellee didn’t want to make an emotional vote here. Instead, she tried to use the Dan drama as cover to blindside Missy. I like Kellee, but that was kind of icky. It’s not as bad as lying about what actually happened and then gaslighting an innocent victim, but still ethically questionable.
With Aaron wearing the generic-looking Immunity necklace, the target shifted from Missy to Dan once Jamal & Noura decided to target him. Janet—after hearing these Dan horror stories— chose to stick with the women who came to her. In Janet’s mind, she was doing the right thing from an ethical standpoint by removing Dan. However, Elizabeth wasn’t buying it. The Olympian heard talk of a Missy blindside being in the works and believed that Janet was lying. Instead, Elizabeth played up the drama to lull Janet into a false sense of security, followed up by a controversial confessional where she dismissed the seriousness of Dan’s behavior because she wasn’t personally affected:
“I know that people are uncomfortable, saying ‘Oh, he likes to cuddle, he’s touchy-feely,’ but honestly, I have felt safe this entire time, and if I had felt uncomfortable, I would have said ‘please stop.’ So I’m writing down Kellee’s name, and I’m hoping that seven other people do as well.”
But there was another force in the game that happened to have a stronger pull than anyone: Tommy & Lauren’s dreams of sticking with Vokai 2.0 to create a majority. This alliance seemed unsteady, but looking at the way the votes played out, it was basically Dean flipping to Vokai 2.0 while the rest of Lairo 2.0 thought they were going for a near-unanimous Dan vote. Missy and Elizabeth, who admitted in private confessionals that Dan was making people distressed, decided to renege on that plan and blindsided Kellee instead—with two idols in her pocket just to make things more upsetting.
And just to make us hate Dan more, the editors sneaked in a shot of him grunting, almost in a sexual tone, about Kellee getting her torch snuffed. They knew what they were doing, and it was as creepy as they intended it to be.
So that was the first part of the figurative locust swarm. Going into Part 2, it’s important to remember a few details. Firstly, the producers talked to the cast off-screen regarding “personal boundaries,” and Dan was given an official warning about his behavior. I imagine if he continued, he’d be ejected and never seen on our screens again. Secondly, Elizabeth, Missy, and Lauren all said in previous scenes that Dan made the women feel uncomfortable, complete with tons of visual evidence shown as they explained their stories. There is no “allegation” here. Dan touched people. It’s the truth. And third, Janet didn’t want to vote Dan out. She was talked into it by the other women, who left her out of the loop when they didn’t trust her. We’re clear on these things? Okay. Good.
A Brief Intermission
But first, let’s just address Island of the Idols since it’s the one thing in this episode that had nothing to do with the storm of personal drama. Jamal and Karishma were taking a pleasant stroll through the woods and found a note hanging from a tree. Strike one for stupidity (and for cheapness). Jamal grabbed it first and was directed to the titular Island. I have to say, the fun of seeing the mentors on the show has worn off, especially since their segment felt incredibly out of place in this storm of ugliness.
What did Jamal get? Well, he automatically lost his vote because he was “dumb” enough to grab a hanging note in the woods on a show where grabbing mysterious parchments is always a good thing. Strike two for stupidity. And what was his reward for getting royally screwed? A blank piece of paper to be used as a fake, handwritten advantage in a lesson of sabotage. Strike three, you’re out.
It’s without question the dumbest IOI trip yet. What was the actual lesson? Don’t grab advantages? Rob and Sandra didn’t teach Jamal anything. They just stole his vote, called him dumb for having good Survivor reflexes that would reward someone in any other situation, and handed him a pencil and paper to write an obviously fake advantage that nobody would buy regardless of what story he sold them. You can’t tell me they’re out of ideas only 9 episodes in, right? Because it sure seems like they are. Just as the season feels like a lifeless husk, so does the main twist they based it around.
Act II: One Woman Army
To kick off Part 2 of the double episode, Janet’s game totally collapsed, and she found herself on the bottom. How did this happen so suddenly after weeks of being in a great position with no real weak points? Well, I’m going to describe what I saw on my screen since there’s no way to sugarcoat it: Missy and Elizabeth sold Janet out, told Dan they never said anything negative about him and twisted Dan-gate to benefit their games. Janet was upset, and rightfully so. Some of the women knew what was going on, confided in her to help them, and used it to advance themselves towards the million. And then they proceeded to gaslight Janet to keep her on the bottom, which is where the episode dove into toxic waters yet again.
Janet became the camp pariah because she’d publicly accused people of saying and doing things they actually said and did on camera. She voted for Dan out of respect for her fellow women and got no respect in return. As she said herself, you don’t make light of sexual harassment. You don’t joke about it. It’s a serious topic that requires serious attention, and using it to get ahead in a game show crossed a line not just for Janet, but for a large portion of the viewing audience, myself included. Some things go beyond the game and sexual harassment is one of them.
And to make things worse, we saw confessionals from Lauren and Elizabeth where they said the sexual harassment never personally happened to them or that it was just a simple case of joking around, so it didn’t seem like that big of a deal to them. I’m stumped, because they’d heard plenty of stories about Dan’s creepy behavior from other people, backed up by production stopping the game to address it earlier that day.
Even Dan himself seemed to have some island amnesia as he was confused by all the blame coming his way for an issue he apparently wasn’t aware of. What was said to the players behind the cover of some text on a black screen will remain a mystery, but I think production dropped the ball by not showing us. I want to see the warning Dan was given at the very least, just to know if there was any vagueness to production’s words that could be misinterpreted. That said, even if we don’t know what production told Dan, we know from back in the premiere that Kellee straight up told him she was uncomfortable with his touching. So he was aware.
But Janet’s learned a lot in 59 years, and one thing she holds dear to her heart is the value of never giving up, leading her to find Kellee’s just-flushed idol. Considering this scene came right after Missy and Aaron casually walked past her with a shovel, not even noticing she was there until she opened her mouth, I have to feel pretty satisfied with her tiny victory. To be frank, I’ll take what I can get. Janet cemented herself as a modern Survivor icon this week, and even if she doesn’t win the season (and I doubt she will unless she puts Ben and Rick to shame with her idol finding skills), I hope we see her back on a season free from all this ugliness.
Aaron and Missy both won Immunity in an Immunity necklace double feature, winning a challenge that happened to be used in both Caramoan and One World. I guess this one is cursed to appear in ugly seasons that nobody has fun watching. Well, watching Lauren hilariously freaking out about slipping off the platform was fun—I’ll give this episode that. Sometimes you have to look for the little nuggets of joy in things.
In one of the shortest strategy segments ever, the vote came down to Karishma and Jamal, the former barely speaking this episode and the latter being royally screwed out of casting a vote. It was a split, but Janet wasn’t feeling 100% secure despite Tommy’s words of assurance. I don’t blame her. If I had been gaslit for hours, I’d have no faith in anyone who wrote Kellee’s name either. The fact that she eventually wasted her idol in the same episode was tragic, considering she’ll probably need it next week more than ever.
Still, Janet was right not to trust anyone after how cutthroat they played. She still needs a solid alliance, and playing that idol was not a good display of trust. But she’s around for another week, and that’s what matters the most. She can always find it again, Driebergen-style. As much as I hate that kind of gameplay, this is the rare occasion where I would cheer for it.
Act III: Never Let It Go
By the time Tribal Council came around, I was ready to get the episode over with and take a shower. Someone I still liked would be voted out unless something crazy happened. But something crazy did happen, only it was more gaslighting and ignorant remarks, mixed in with what I think was a somewhat more sympathetic portrayal of Dan that felt undeserved.
Probst righteously grilled Dan for trying to casually skate past all the drama and “let it go,” but so many people decided to defend him and said, “There’s no proof he did these things, so I’m not going to hold it against him.” I understand that nobody there had all the info, but we as an audience saw the proof an hour ago. We know Dan was touching women. Some of the players knew he was touching women. Yet the people who didn’t know or did know and used it to help their games were the ones in charge and made the conversation so much more upsetting.
Aaron piped up to claim that he’s a great ally who understands harassment victims and would know if something inappropriate was happening because he has a mother and sisters. Then he said Janet was lying about what was said in order to play the victim and advance her game, which is basically what Elizabeth and Missy did. Gross. Dan tried to claim any bad touches came from passing by people in close spaces, touching Noura on the shoulders without consent as an example. Gross. And Dan somehow managed to top it all off by saying he’d be the least likely person to harass women because he works in the industry that let the #MeToo movement blossom—as if his industry wasn’t the main target of the movement from the start. Again, gross.
Just to make this whole ordeal even worse, Kellee had to sit quietly on the jury bench and listen to everyone get their say except her. I know the show has rules that stop the jury from speaking (though after last season’s rowdy jury, I have to wonder why it’s still in the book), but if there was ever a time to break that rule, this would have been it. Kellee deserved to be heard in that moment because the events that night went beyond the game and got personal.
In fact, things got so toxic that Janet debated quitting due to all the gaslighting she’d experienced, just to get away from the misery. This whole Tribal Council was horrible on so many levels, and it only got worse the more I think about it. And what’s even more saddening is that the ordeal probably isn’t over. Dan’s still in the game, so until he’s voted out, sits in the final three, or gets ejected by production, this drama will continue to tie into the rest of the game. And even if Dan does leave, the aftermath of this whole situation will linger for quite some time.
Jamal was one of the few to stand up against the majority and call out the bad behavior smartly and eloquently. Unfortunately, it was Jamal’s last stand, and the split vote plan knocked him out of the running. Though after those horrible last few days in the game, it might have been somewhat of a relief. Jamal was a polarizing player with a complex arc. He was condescending, arrogant, and dismissive of others at times, but he was also willing to learn, ready to teach, and always open to talk. He left on a remarkably strong note, and now that he’s out, I can fully appreciate all the good content he brought to the season and hope he gets another chance someday.
Epilogue: Rebuilding the Road Ahead
The episode ended on an utterly awful note where the heroes have no lifelines to fall back on, the villains are dominating with icky methods, and hope is hard to come by if you’re looking for a fan favorite winner. If anyone tells you Survivor is scripted, ask them to watch these episodes because no TV writer in their right mind would come up with a double gut punch like this. If that was the case, Kellee idols Dan out of the game in the first hour, Survivor gets to dunk on the big bad on his way out, and everyone’s happy. But that’s not the story we got. We got the bleak ending that nobody asked for. I won’t say it isn’t compelling, but compared to the season I thought the pre-merge was building up to, it’s a total 180 (and not the Coach Wade film of the same name).
Now obviously, this is just my perspective on the episodes. Others may have differing views on how things played out, who’s at fault, and what should have been done on production’s part. I personally feel like the situation was mishandled on multiple fronts, both from the players and by production, but it’s not for me alone or anyone alone to decide. What’s important is the rational discussion we should be having as viewers about what we’ve seen on our screens. Ask questions, listen to other fans, listen to players, watch the episodes again to get a fresh look. But don’t get the pitchforks out and barge into this cast’s lives like you’re hunting down a beast that killed your livestock. Give it time and think before you do or say anything you might regret.
So, where do we even go from here? Is the season salvageable? Based on what I was shown, this season just flat-lined and probably won’t be resuscitated unless Janet pulls off the win. The cast was pumping us up with the memorable #DontSleepOn39 campaign to assure us it would be a season worth watching, but this double dose of gross was the equivalent of NyQuil. Scratch that, more like a blow to the head with a blunt object that knocked us out cold. Maybe there are sunny skies ahead, but I’m having a hard time seeing them.
While the show is sparking discussion, it’s not a fun discussion. Players are apologizing on social media as a storm of outrage wreaks havoc. The fanbase is riled up and needs some time to cool down. People throwing out their edgy “hot takes” to troll people aren’t helping either. Let’s just relax a little bit, get our anger out in a healthy way, hold people accountable for their actions, listen to apologies, and learn from this ordeal as best as we can. In a season all about the theme of lessons, that’s the lesson we as the audience should take away from the season.
Relax, listen, learn, and grow.