It’s over. It’s finally over.
Finale nights are usually fun, and I hate to be a Debbie Downer (that’s a lie), but this one fell kind of flat for me. Noura saved the night from being a total snooze, but the lasting impression was mostly uninspiring. The final vote tally was one that was obvious for weeks, and the order of events were predicted almost exactly by many. About the only “surprise” was the fire in the eyes of the finalists at final tribal council — aside from that, I don’t think I’ve ever been more on the money with how I thought a finale would go which made it a disappointment for me. We got a worthy winner, sure, but when there’s nothing exciting about the ending, is it really satisfying?
The second half of this season has been a slug, but there are still some positives about Island of the Idols. History will likely remember it more for the negatives or even try and forget it entirely in the weeks leading up to Survivor 40 in February, but before it fades, let me finish with a proper send-off and a bit of a Ryan retrospective:
When Redmond first broke the news of Rob and Sandra serving as mentors, I thought, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” Then we saw the massive shrines, and I went “good grief, Jeff’s gone off the deep end.” When we finally first set foot on the Island of the Idols (vicariously through Elizabeth), it surprisingly wasn’t awful. IOTI was essentially a glorified Ghost Island, but instead of some ghosts living there, we got a couple of GOATs.
I was hesitant to accept the hokeyness of the twist, but the “tests” quickly became too much of a joke to not just laugh at with lightheartedness. Rob and Sandra are two of the show’s best color commentators, so setting them up in the booth at tribal councils was perhaps the most genius idea to come out of this whole concept. The time commitment to the twist each week was always going to be the worst thing about it, and that pretty much stayed true for me. Spending 15 minutes to watch Rob smoke Elizabeth in a fire-making challenge, Kellee play a game of “How many fingers am I holding up?”, and Dean flipping a coin was not compelling in the slightest. Maybe if we had 90 minutes per episode, we’d still have enough content each week to feel complete, but alas, that was not the case.
As with everything else at the merge, the Island of the Idols visits lost their momentum for me. Some weeks someone would go, some weeks they would not, so I was a little lost in the inconsistency. On top of that, the advantages earned ultimately hurt the season more than they helped. Kellee’s idol saved Dean which not only impacted the merge vote but also Dean’s own later visit that resulted in the stupid idol nullifier. Elizabeth, Noura, and Jamal lost their votes. Vince went home with his idol and Lauren, while well-earned, didn’t do anything dramatic with hers. Elaine’s vote block was about the only “good” play by taking out a Vokai majority member, but Vokai was still able to pretty much run the table the rest of the game, so all that did was save us Aaron instead of Jason. Was that really a win?
The Island of the Idols started out as funny and fun but ended up a flop for me. It gave us some comic relief, most of all with Noura wanting to be the caller for Vokai — an instantly iconic Survivor moment — but didn’t shape the season in a positive way. The island was just “there” whenever the show thought they needed it. The ultimate irony is that winner was someone who never once attended a lesson or took one of Rob and Sandra’s “tests” which will forever leave me with the question, “why did we need this?”
19/20 of this cast was some of the show’s best decisions ever made and quickly calmed my concerns about Jeff taking on a bigger role in casting after letting go of Lynne Spillman. We were given the gifts of diverse backgrounds, compelling storytellers, aggressive gameplayers, Survivor superfans, and the greatest gift of all: Noura Salman. There was little not to love about this cast going into the season, which made the fear of how much the Island of the Idols would overshadow them even greater.
Right out of the gate, this cast came to play, and while it may speak to just how stupid I can be, my top winner picks Molly and Ronnie getting voted out first set the tone that any big players were potentially at risk, which blew the game wide open. Ronnie, Molly, Vince, Chelsea, and Jason are all people that could’ve been even bigger characters had they lasted longer, and while less outspoken, Tom and Jack added a little bit of that “feel good”-ness every season needs to contrast the bloody backstabbery.
On that note, Survivor still has not done a good job in several seasons of giving the audience someone they “love to hate.” The Wardog was maybe the closest we’ve seen of that in a while, but even The Wardog wasn’t so much a “villain” as just an intense player. AND NATALIE COLE WASN’T A VILLAIN. Aaron and Missy were a little aggressive at times but similar to The Wardog rather than really rooted-against “villains.” I seriously think the show is afraid to cast this type of character anymore, and I have no idea why. When Survivor was in its prime, who was America talking about the most? Richard Hatch. Jerri Manthey. Boston Rob. Jonny Fairplay. Some of the show’s best characters are villains, and while I’m excited to see some back for 40, I also worry that they’ll be watered down so that none of the show’s best look too “bad” — but that’s exactly why some of them are the best, because they’re bad(asses).
If this season’s controversy doesn’t kill Survivor, I could see a lot of this cast coming back for a second chance. On top of the pre-mergers I mentioned, we’ve got Kellee, Jamal, Karishma, Elaine, Janet, and Noura all at the top of the season’s list of best characters. Tommy and Lauren were two incredible players only featured a little less because of how big some of the other personalities were. Dean even delivered gold, and I don’t think she’ll be back after what happened the night of the merge episode, but Missy too was a major player herself and was among the many to come in with guns blazing.
Not every great cast gives a great season (see Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers) but if you remove the Island of the I-dull and the Dan debacle, I think this could’ve been a cast that did. The finale was a little lackluster, but Tommy, Lauren, Dean, Janet, and Noura still make up a fantastic five with a wide range of gameplay and personality. It sucks this season will be remembered for one particular cast member, but I wouldn’t be upset to see over half this cast play again someday. Frankly, I look forward to it.
Fuck it. Just hit the reset button, replace Dan with that chicken that bit Sandra, and have the cast do it all over again. The result would be dynamite.
The story of this season started out as incredible. Minutes into the premiere, it was made clear that this was going to be a season driven by strong women, and the best but also the worst thing the show did was get our hopes up for a woman winning. After years of women being called weak or “too” emotional in the game and following Jeff’s quote in an interview several years ago saying, “There just aren’t as many colorful women characters in Survivor history,” the show was finally celebrating women as the powerhouse they have always been in the game.
Both Lairo and Vokai were taken over by women. On Lairo, all the girls were formally working together — a few relationships on the side, but a fierce fivesome — and on Vokai, big decisions were also being made by a matriarchy as we saw Noura, Lauren, and Janet strongly push for the Molly vote. Those started to unravel with the Chelsea vote and the swap, but obviously gender alone isn’t going to hold alliances together. However, the story seemed to be significantly shaped by the women in the game.
The pre-merge was exhilarating. Early boots were all individuals who could’ve went on to win the game under different circumstances, and all but one vote (Tom) was a big blindside. To my point above, this cast had no fodder from the beginning, and even though Big Moves™ being made early don’t always work out for the players, that fast-paced gameplay translates to terrific television for the fans. Even if a little heavy in Vokai numbers, the swap brought new dynamics to the game and with the pre-merge going out with a bang, the season had been set up for a magnificent merge to follow.
This is beating a dead horse by now, but the merge episode and the controversy surrounding Dan not keeping his hands to himself absolutely killed the momentum and effectively killed the season’s chances of taking a Top 10 spot like it easily could have. There was no coming back from how far down a dark hole that merge night took us. Some players who I was very high on lost a lot of personal popularity points that week and I came out of it feeling like there were so few people left to root for — the ones that were, I felt they were then destined for doom (Janet, Karishma, and Noura).
Even a couple of clutch idol plays couldn’t save the season at that point. The one moment things could’ve been slightly turned back around at the final eight was destroyed by Dean and his undying loyalty to Tommy, ultimately sealing the season’s fate. After Karishma left, the writing was on the wall for the rest of the game to go exactly according to Tommy’s plan — a good plan, but a boring one to watch. Missy’s elimination started the string of the season’s strong women losing the game one after another, with the icing-on-the-cake ending of Noura being the last remaining but to be added to the disappointingly long list of 0-vote female finalists.
From beginning to almost the end, the season’s story was about the strength of women. In many ways, I’m glad that story was told so especially the casual fanbase who think the game is all about challenges and idol plays could see that women were no less capable than men in those aspects, but in some ways, looking back, it was just three months of torture leading up to another final vote landslide against the ladies for the fifth time in a row — a new Survivor record. I want to be clear that Tommy deserved to win, but it’s tough to take in when the edit gave us so many more compelling cases on a character level. I wouldn’t ask the show to have hyped up its ladies less but to give us more than the cringy “teaching time with Tommy” bit as character development, and edit him into the story more — not just the episode minutes.
The bizarre thing is, even though this wasn’t Tommy’s narrative until the very end, his win was still glaringly obvious. He was shown to have no flaws, and no one was talking about getting rid of him outside of the double boot episode. The only audience argument against Tommy winning was “it’s too obvious,” so when it did indeed happen, I was left to question the show’s seriously shit season-long storytelling. How the show managed to make me feel like Tommy was irrelevant but at the same time inevitably winning is truly dumbfounding.
The season still had a lot of inspiring stories of facing obstacles and adversity in many ways like the struggles of Kellee, Jamal, Janet, Karishma, Elaine, and even Noura as she faced an internal battle with herself. Maybe in time these stories will become more of the standouts, but right now, unfortunately the first that comes to mind is the story between Kellee and Dan. At least within that there is still a powerful message about being brave and standing up for what is right, even at the cost of so much, while also emphasizing the importance of believing those that have the courage to do so.
Giving Kellee the space to speak at the reunion was big, but I could tell how uncomfortable she was, and I can’t even imagine how much pressure she felt she was under to find the right words to say to Jeff. At that point, she wasn’t just speaking for herself but for so many others who have suffered through a similar experience as she did. It had to have felt as though the weight of the world was resting on Kellee’s shoulders in that moment, and she handled it in an extremely admirable way with composure and grace.
There’s more uncertainty with what exactly happened later in the game that led to Dan’s eventual expulsion, and I’d have to guess that lawyers are involved from multiple parties, so it may be a long time, if ever, before all the details emerge. Until then, we can only hope the show does better moving forward. No one should be trapped in a situation like Kellee was on the show, questioning whether she even could say or do anything. The show failed itself and its cast by not addressing the issue with full transparency as soon as it emerged, instead letting the game shape the way it evolved. Production was the only party with all the information, and their misuse and lack of use with it caused so much unnecessary destruction. When someone speaks up about something, do something. Don’t know what to do? Figure it out, because “no action” is often the worst action.
I wish this black spot staining the pages of the season’s story could be removed, but not every mistake in life can be mended entirely. With that, I hope the show, the cast, and the audience all have learned a lot from this season. Survivor has always been a microcosm of society, as was said this season, and in times like this, a little too scarily so. I watch Survivor for fun, and it’s sad when it becomes the opposite of fun, but even when we don’t want to talk through tough topics, we should. That’s the only way we’ll be able to “do better.”
I’ll say again that I’m sorry for the cast that their story has been so dark, but that doesn’t take away from the moments and the accomplishments of many that should still be celebrated. There were a lot of positive emotional scenes, impressive strategies, exciting votes, and moments that made us laugh out loud (HAHAHAHAHA!). Survivor is all about taking the good with the bad. No season is perfect, but each story is unique and plays an important role in Survivor’s 20-year history. The Island of the Idols cast doesn’t deserve its story to be unwritten or erased, so while we will quickly “move on” to 40, it’s important we don’t altogether forget the impact of 39.
THE FINAL FIVE
We saw Janet’s end coming a mile away, but it sure as hell still stung, and the way the editors gave us so much hope through Janet’s confessionals talking about being so close to winning was completely cruel. Janet was a beacon of light in the darkest hours of this season and no amount of money could properly thank her for being a part of this experience, but a hundred thousand dollars from Sia is a good start. Janet defied so many low expectations set of her and redefined what it is to be a strong woman and a strong leader on Survivor – in life. She may not have won the million, but she’s a winner and inspiration to so many of us that watched her journey through this game. I’m a Janet stan forever.
I take some small solace in Lauren’s “boot” that without the fire-making, she’d likely have been voted out at four anyway, but we still may never know. Day 38 for Lauren was spent focusing on making fire, but if she instead could’ve used her social game, she may have been able to convince Noura and Dean to take her to the end over Tommy. I said it last week, but I can confirm this week that Lauren joins the Day 38 club as one of the best to never win the game. Lauren left with just 1 vote against her which came as late as Day 37 in addition to an individual immunity win and an idol play that she didn’t even need but was smart enough to make. Lauren played a classic game that would’ve won her the game had she made it to Day 39 and it comforts me to know that social strength is still so highly regarded in Survivor. Lauren played that the best and though she didn’t win, there’s an argument to be made for her having the best overall game of the season.
Noura. Noura Noura Noura Noura Noura. I can’t say her name enough! I Noura-laugh at myself for going into this season not expecting much of Noura. I didn’t have a proper read on her and perhaps it’s because she truly is one of the most unlike-any-other players we’ve seen. No one always “got” Noura, but I love how much she knows herself and simply owns it. Her words at the reunion really hit me about standing out and how if you’re a part of the herd, you’ll never be heard. She delivered Survivor gold from beginning to end, especially being the main source of entertainment in the finale from her final four immunity challenge cartwheels to the filibustering over the final four fire-making deliberation and finally a final tribal council performance that came purely from the heart.
It’s frustrating that we see another person at the end of the game who makes a strong case to win but it falls on mostly deaf ears. No one took Noura as a serious contender, and I guess I can support that you can’t win over the jury at the final tribal council alone, but damn did she deserve some votes. Reciting your resume is fine and dandy at FTC, but I’ll admit, if I was a juror, I’d want a “story” and Noura’s really struck me. This game hasn’t seen anyone like her before, so for her to be able to adapt and make it all the way to the end is insanely impressive. She’s one of the most genuine and authentic people to play the game, and I will always love Noura for being her “Nouramal” self every single day of her life. Of course, we should all be more like Janet or Jamal or Kellee, but honestly? I’m inspired to live my life a little more like Noura too. Call me crazy, but I want to live in Noura World.
“Be a cock.”
If this was just a “player of the week” dare I say the title would go to Dean? He had one hell of a show in the eleventh hour. An immunity win, an idol find — after a true “hunt” like we haven’t seen in a long time — a fire-making victory, and a hard-fought final tribal council performance made Dean a star that burned bright, finally going out in a blaze of glory. Most of what Dean was selling to the jury I wasn’t buying because I don’t care about fancy jewelry, but Dean’s a salesman, and that’s the best case he had to sell. Tommy had incredible counterpoints to Dean’s argument, but Dean’s conviction and passion were nearly enough to win him a few more votes and the game itself, had he started playing hard a little earlier than the “fourth quarter.”
Dean was up and down for me this season — mostly up in the first half and down in the second, but Dean’s “dumbassery” as I like to call it was undeaniably entertaining. Noura’s the Island of the Idols meme queen, but Dean was the meme king. How fitting that the two found love in each other in the final days of the game. I’d wish them a lifetime of happiness together if only I didn’t kind of want Noura for myself.
It’s been talked about how Tommy is the first winner since Natalie White exactly 10 years ago to win the game without ever winning immunity or playing an immunity idol. I finally got another winner who won on their social and strategic games alone, exactly what I’ve been wanting, yet I still found a way to complain about it — see? Debbie Downer. Tommy’s a terrific winner who I think just was overshadowed by so much other action going on in the game. The show always does a sucky job at telegraphing a strong social game because it’s not a Big Move™ but rather a series of subtle yet brilliant moves all throughout the game.
Tommy’s win was imminent from early on in the season, but considering his archetype, it shouldn’t have been. He’s a strong, smart, social guy which makes him a total triple threat. The fact that no one brought up his name enough to make him a consistent target really does speak to his ability to connect with people and make them feel comfortable with him. After last season, anyone would’ve made a more satisfying winner, but on paper Tommy could probably rank among the highest, so I’m sure it’s tough for him to have been just one season too late to be considered for the big all-winners showdown. Tommy’s a great guy and a great player who has had a pretty great 2019 with surely more greatness to come in his future. I wish the show would’ve given us a little more of a personal journey to follow, but I can be content with Tommy taking this one home. I hope he and his now-fiancée enjoy a fun trip to Disney World ... packed with plenty of sunscreen.
This was the hardest call for me to make in my seven seasons of blogging. There were so many incredible characters and compelling stories to watch, but the one that I connected with the most was Karishma’s. I know Noura was my meme queen, but Karishma really captured the story of a “Survivor” to me. Early on, she was on the outs and struggled to find a way to fit in, left feeling isolated and more insecure than she had ever been, questioning and contemplating some of her life choices. She found a more fitting family once the swap hit, and from there Karishma started to flourish. She was still being hit with votes at almost every tribal council, but she dug deep and was determined to defy the low limits everyone set for her.
I feel like Karishma found herself in this game or rather was reminded of who she always was. Rob’s line, “the prize isn’t only in the million dollars” speaks to that, and I think that’s a tremendous takeaway from anyone’s Survivor experience. It’s still a game, but the experience transcends the game. We hear so many say that Survivor changed their life and it’s easy to see why. Hell, as a fan my life has been shaped by this show.
Karishma believed in herself when at times no one else did, and like she said in her final words, she now chooses to be happy. I’m so proud of Karishma and everything she accomplished this season, including some record-setting. It took 22 votes (5 of which came from Dean) to finally get Karishma out of the game — this woman took a fucking beating, but she came out of it all stronger than ever and you can see it on her smiling face. It’s stunning.
Thank you Karishma for having the guts to go after this experience and sharing with us your story — you too are one of Island of the Idols’ idols. Your name fits you perfectly — miraculous.
WINNERS AT WAR
We’ve known about this for almost 8 months now, and while we didn’t sleep on 39, man are we WOKE for 40. Like Tony says, this is like the Super Bowl 20 years in the making, and I don’t follow football, so this isn’t like the Super Bowl – it is my Super Bowl. All-Stars was highly anticipated in its own way, but nothing like Winners at War. This is 20 of the game’s absolute, undeniable best going at it in one epic brawl for it all. The name of the season sounded cheesy at first, but Jeff’s right – this is going to be a war.
I’m going to try and save some of my excitement for February, but not one of these 20 winners isn’t a name in their own right (click arrows to flip through the gallery of winners):
Of course, there are some names I wish we could see, but I can’t be disappointed in this cast. Survivor 20 was big, so Survivor 40 had to somehow be bigger, and I’m glad the show had the balls to go this big. Edge of Extinction and whatever the coin/currency twist is be damned, but even those can’t stop how fired up I am about this season. All 20 of these players have won before, so they all have it in them to win again. I wouldn’t say anyone has “no shot” — if someone can win the game against immeasurable odds, it’s going to be one of these 20 individuals that can do exactly that.
Winners at War is going to be an iconic season of Survivor and I think it’s safe to say we won’t witness this size of spectacle ever again (unless Survivor 80?) so let’s do it. LET’S FUCKING DO IT.
I’ll see you in February.
Ryan Kaiser has been a lifelong fan of Survivor since the show first aired during his days in elementary school, and he plans to one day put his money where his mouth is by competing in the greatest game on Earth. Until that day comes, however, he'll stick to running his mouth here and on Twitter: @Ryan__Kaiser