Where to begin? I don’t want to sound hyperbolic or overly influenced by recency bias, but this may be one of the heaviest nights I’ve ever experienced with Survivor. We’ve had moments of controversy and conflict that transcend the game, but sitting through an entire two hours feeling uneasy and uncomfortable was difficult — I feel tremendously for the players who had to live it and then 6-7 months later live it all over again.
Normally my weekly recaps of the show are fun, light-hearted, filled with jokes and wise-cracks — there was nothing in these two episodes that felt any of those things, so I don’t feel like I should approach this one as just another episode. I’m not going to tiptoe with the play-by-play leading up to the heavy stuff — I’m just going to address what far and away was the focus of the episode. Island of the Idols, immunity, idols and advantage — none of that felt important.
We’ve all probably been following social media since the episode, and some of the comments I’ve seen are of people complaining about the show getting too political, too much “drama for the sake of drama” or that they “just want to watch the game.” Survivor has never been “just the game” and has always been influenced by political, cultural, and societal themes. If someone doesn’t get that, then they’ve been missing the point for 20 years. It is important to talk about these themes and especially with what happened this week, we should be having these conversations and the last thing we should be doing is suppressing them, silencing them, or shying away because it makes us uncomfortable.
I’ll preface my own thoughts and opinions by echoing something Jamal said at tribal council: “far be it from me to speak for women” because I’m not a woman, so I am in no way pretending to be an expert or to have shared in their personal experience with this issue, but I want to still be able to commend the courage I saw from some of them in the episode.
I’ll also acknowledge that we saw 120 hours of the game condensed into 86 minutes. We did not get the absolute full story; however, I think we saw enough to be certain of some events that happened in the game, so I disagree that we haven’t seen enough to be able to grasp the big picture. As early as the premiere, we know that Dan’s behavior was inappropriate and that Kellee asked him to stop. After the swap, again it was brought up that his invasion of space with some of the women was undesired. At the merge, Kellee was faced with unwanted touching and confided in at least Janet and Missy about how uncomfortable Dan made her feel. Missy and Elizabeth agreed they needed to “play up that card” to get in with the numbers, whether they felt the same way about Dan as Kellee did or not. Janet voted for Dan not for game reasons but guided by her moral compass and what she was told was a shared consensus, and she was later shot down at the second tribal council and accused of “spinning” a story to try and save her from what Aaron called “a Survivor play that went wrong.” All of those events happened, and the footage is there to show for it — there remains plenty of footage unaired, but at least with all of that, I don’t understand claims of wild fabrication being made. As always, the show highlights and downplays certain elements of a story, but none of the words from these specific conversations were spliced together.
The story began in the premiere where Kellee sat on the beach — brave to even have a serious conversation like this so early in the game, putting her social standing at stake — with Dan to tell him that he had trespassed on her physical boundaries and that he needed to stop immediately. After this moment, Dan had absolutely no excuse for not being aware of his actions — whether ill-intentioned or not, he knew they were a problem for at least one person in the game and should have clearly changed his behavior.
Fast forward to the merge, and it’s like he forgot that conversation happened. Not only was Kellee still affected, but Missy also told Kellee she had experienced wandering hands, inappropriate touching, and she added that as she would lie awake in the shelter, his arms would smother her, defending that she was “not an object.” Now we’re left wondering if Missy’s words were true, but her talk with Kellee happened before Missy was made aware Kellee was targeting her, so it wouldn’t seem that this was “strategy” for Missy at this point.
After learning Dan made Kellee uncomfortable, desperate to preserve herself in the game, Missy shared the talk with Kellee with Elizabeth and they both agreed to “play up that card” — the card being that Dan made them physically uncomfortable — as a way to get in with the numbers. Shared trauma can bond people, but when we learned from Elizabeth that Dan didn’t make her uncomfortable, but she was willing to pretend that he did so she’d be “in” — that’s where this went dark, her and Missy both using a serious physical and psychological event like that as a strategic weapon in the game.
Survivor has no morals — that’s relevant to add here. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to play the game, so I can comprehend why Missy and Elizabeth would think to use that information as an advantage, but I can’t condone it. There are no written morality rules in the game, but there are some moral boundaries that I don’t think many of us even considered because we never could have anticipated them ever being crossed, and this comes out as one of them. I used to say “I’d do anything to win Survivor” but this episode made me realize that’s not true, and there are wrongs I had never even considered committing, nor would I knowing of them now, because they were impossible to imagine.
At the same time, I still get it even if I far from agree with it. Anyone who hasn’t played Survivor doesn’t know exactly where minds go in the game. Even if in the absolute wrong from a real-world moral standpoint, Missy and Elizabeth could have been so far removed from reality 22 days into the game, that they may have only recognized this as a strategic decision without realizing the greater impact it’d have on that reality. I think the game becomes reality for many, and with the game having no explicit morals, it implies that there is no “moral wrong.” What Missy and Elizabeth failed to realize is that what moral or immoral actions can still extend beyond the moral-less game, and that’s what makes it so complicated. I’m not defending their actions or calling it excusable or forgivable given that they were in a game — I’m just trying to process. In the live moment, I was disgusted, and a few days later, I’m not less disgusted — but I find myself wanting to know the why.
Janet’s reaction was almost the complete opposite. Learning of how Dan was making people feel — something she never experienced firsthand but believed when she was told by eyewitness accounts — Janet took a reality check, removed herself from “the game,” and decided that voting out Dan was the choice that needed to be made because it was the morally right thing to do. On top of that, Janet had no reason to believe that any of this information was false. Production intervened and talked with the players individually and as a group, and with accounts from at least Kellee, Missy, and Elizabeth, it was obvious to Janet that Dan’s behavior was a real issue that needed to be addressed — in turn, his game needed to end.
The first tribal council didn’t really address this controversy because it appeared to have been dealt with in the decision to vote out Dan, but when Kellee ended up being voted out by the majority, the issue became even bigger because now there was evidence of it being used to manipulate the events of the game. I had hoped that the tribe would just do the right thing and dump Dan, but when he was spared, my immediate reaction was, “Oh my god ... I can’t believe they did that,” — “they” being the people who by voting to keep Dan, expressed that they were giving his actions a pass. We didn’t get to see “the talk” everyone had with production, so we don’t know the extent of what the players were and were not aware of, but the fact that “the talk” happened at all should have been a huge indication that there was something serious going on.
I feel awful for Kellee more than anyone in all of this — having to experience the trauma she did, having to question whether or not she should say something, having to wonder that if she did, what impact that would have on her game, and after being voted out, having to feel rejected or dismissed when what she personally experienced was an extremely real experience for her. Even worse, because she was playing a game, her believability was questioned and people were left to wonder whether her motives were personal or strategic. That’s a sad reflection of outside-Survivor society too — victims not always being initially believed because of what could be some unknown, ulterior motive.
After a devastating tribal council where bad won out over good, the story managed to grow even worse when after “standing up for what was right” and making a decision that was “more than a vote,” Janet asked for answers and in the process was made out to be a villain by her tribe. “She’s a snake,” Elizabeth said about her. Janet had a mature conversation with Dan about where her vote came from and what she had been approached with by Kellee, Missy, Elizabeth, and Lauren. Dan was in disbelief and still didn’t understand why people were upset with him even after allegedly being sat down by producers and issued a formal warning, making me wonder what exactly was said to Dan, if much at all, to have him still blindsided by what Janet was bringing to light.
Janet needed to prove she wasn’t just making all of this up, so she brought Missy and Elizabeth out in front of Dan, and in front of both of them, Missy and Elizabeth confirmed coming to Janet earlier and discussing Dan’s inappropriate behavior. Janet, satisfied that they had at least validated their previous conversation, walked away. Once out of earshot, Elizabeth and Missy immediately denied to Dan what was just confirmed to Janet and said that everything had been misconstrued by Janet and Kellee. Unbelievable. It was sick to watch — sociopathic the way they spun the story to condemn Janet.
The game pressed on — we went through a visit to Island of the Idols, Janet finding an idol herself, immunity, and the usual scramble before the vote where none of the Dan talk came up again. It wasn’t until tribal council when the issue resurfaced and became the central conversation of tribal. Janet shared her story and from everything we saw, we believed her and believed that she believed she was told the truth before the last vote.
One of the worst offenders during the segment shown was Aaron when he jumped down Janet’s throat, claiming that this was all just “a Survivor play that went wrong for Janet,” again accusing her of trying to spin the story so as to save her game. Aaron said that the Dan issue wasn’t that big of an issue, because if it was, he’d have heard about it. Seriously, I think we really need to be given details on this “talk” the producers gave to the players. Did they just ask, “anything troubling going on?” and if given a “no” they moved on to the next interview? Or did Aaron just not realize that production stepping in to address an issue was proof that there was an issue?
The hero of the hour was Jamal who swooped in to Janet’s defense, rightfully pointing out that just because someone isn’t aware of a problem doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist. Here, I don’t see any excuse unless the production talk was, in fact, much less meaningful than we were made to believe. Dan kept using the word “if” as in “if there was truth” to what Kellee and others, or “if” there was a problem, he was sorry. That’s just it — there was no “if.” This happened, it was real, and there was visual evidence to support it — the worst of it all, the biggest victim was sitting across on the jury bench unable to speak her truth.
I hated how Aaron and Dan used the fact that they had women in their lives as to back track them saying such ignorant things in the discussion. Worse, Dan used the fact that he worked in Hollywood which is where the entire Me Too movement had “blossomed.” Excuse me, blossomed? No, Hollywood caused the Me Too movement. It is not some pretty flower — it’s pain, so much pain that it took years for people to summon the strength to speak up about their experience in the hopes that those same experiences wouldn’t happen to anyone else.
Janet wasn’t even a victim of Dan’s behavior, yet she was so impacted by the hatred she was feeling for speaking out against it that she contemplated walking away from the game. The strongest person sitting at that tribal council nearly broke because of how miserable this all was — that should put it all into perspective.
Of course, once again going from bad to worse, we lost Jamal, another champion of the just with other votes coming for Karishma and Janet, indicating they’ll soon follow. It’s a shame this season started off so strong, and this is where we’ve landed. It just feels “icky” now. Anyone who didn’t take Dan’s actions and Kellee’s words seriously by voting to keep Dan in the game, thus saying they were okay with separating the game from what should have been done from a humane standpoint, is just not someone I want to support winning. I look at Janet, Noura, and Karishma as the only three I really “want” to win at this point, and from what we’ve seen, Noura and Karishma are unlikely to win at the end, and Janet is now unlikely to make it there, so I don’t see an outcome for this season that isn’t bleak.
Where do we go from here? First, I’ll say that I don’t think “cancelling” people is the way to bring a solution to what we saw on the show this week. Dan, Missy, Elizabeth, and Aaron perhaps made some of the biggest mistakes and worst comments. Lauren, Tommy, Elaine, and Dean weren’t given time to voice a lot of their opinions about the decision being made, but I think they ultimately made the wrong one in that setting. I don’t know if it’s right to say we “owe” them the full opportunity from here to apologize or explain their actions, but I’m personally going to allow them to do so.
I’ve seen a lot of hate, cursing, and venom spewed at Missy, Elizabeth, and Aaron especially, and while I think they do need to recognize why people feel they were in the wrong, publicly shaming them and wishing them, among other things, death is childish. I also support that one of the biggest crimes in these episodes was committed by Missy and Elizabeth who exploited a serious, sensitive, completely non-game issue to further their game, but there’s been so much focus on them that it almost feels like Dan’s wrongdoings are starting to be drowned out. A reminder that the root of all of this is Dan — initially it was his unawareness, but that no longer was any excuse as soon as that Day 2 or Day 3 conversation with Kellee happened, so it became his ignorance or refusal to evaluate himself.
It’s going to be a process. We’ve seen some apologies come out, we’ve heard Jeff Probst address what we saw (which was a pretty pitiful attempt at an address, but I’m not going to dissect that here), and either as the season progresses or after it’s over, we’ll hear more details emerge — I hope. The truth remains that we don’t know the full story because it’s impossible to, but as I said earlier, I don’t think this is something we can just say was “all in the edit.” Too much of it was documented with concrete video evidence to walk away thinking that, and it’d be even more of an injustice, especially to Kellee, to even remotely suggest we need to wait to evaluate. Nothing was “claimed” or “alleged” — Kellee’s experience was real and valid. As Jamal said, it is imperative that we “hear women, listen to women, and believe women” when they speak up about this subject, or any subject for that matter — any person too.
There’s still a lot I can say about these episodes. I didn’t even get to production’s role in all of this and what different action they should have taken – that’s some area I know less about, what was witnessed throughout the game and if there was enough to interfere without conflicting with what we know as “game show law.” On that note, I will say that I think these events support Kass’s argument on last week’s RHAP recap that more women need to be involved on the production side of the game. If there had been, maybe Dan’s behavior could have been explicitly addressed sooner and stopped, maybe Kellee wouldn’t have had to feel uncomfortable talking about how one of the men made her feel if she had a woman to tell, or if nothing else, there could have been simply more perspective rather than mostly men making decisions that impact women in the game.
I think this could have been prevented from becoming what it did — there’s just always the part of the show that wants it to be that, a “show,” when as guilty of some players were about forgetting their sense of reality and morality, the show was the same way, wanting drama and conflict regardless of the real world impact. I think they tried to let the players decide how events played out, but as producers, the number one priority should be to protect the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of the players, and as soon as that was endangered, some serious stepping-in should have taken place. If they were to cross a line either way, by interfering in the game too much or too little when it came to this matter, I think it better to have done and apologize for too much than not enough protection of everyone involved.
It goes without saying that there was a lot to take away from this week, but I want to end by emphasizing just how inspiring, amazing, and incredibly brave and courageous Kellee, Janet, and Jamal are — without them stepping up and speaking out on a major issue, no one would have the opportunity to learn from what happened. “Standing up for what was right” was the quote of the night for me. It was uncomfortable, it was difficult, in the game it was detrimental, but it was absolutely necessary, and they all did so with such strength.
Silence is something that’s hard to overcome in a situation like this and, importantly, silence is also not the solution. If we don’t talk about issues, they’ll never be fixed. As well as speaking up, it’s important we listen — in this case, to everyone. Certain things we saw are unjustifiable, and I’m far from advocating we “forgive and forget,” but let the people who did wrong grow from this, remember it, and do better. Let Kellee or Janet be the leaders in how we as fans react. This was first their experience, and if they’ve come out to say to lay off the hate, then do it. Tweeting out “fuck you”, “die,” and “worst human ever” just keeps everyone stuck in the dark rather than finding a way into the light.
I’m still going to watch the show next week and every week after. If people are out on this season, I get it — I still feel gross about those two hours too — but ignoring what happened only perpetuates ignorance and also minimizes the experience of those who were treated with indecency. I’m not here to rip into anyone, and I do think there is warranted criticism and are apologies that should be made, but it’s important we continue the conversation in a mature, healthy way.
Thanks for reading!
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