This episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols had it all (almost literally): strategic maneuvering, two challenges, a fun Island of the Idols visit, a game-shifting advantage, red herring-laden editing, a big blindside, and a sincere human moment in the middle of it all. Well, okay, it didn't have any puzzles, which apparently people think is a good thing now? But still, the best hour yet of what's thus far been a well above average season.
After a one-week hiatus, we saw the return of Island of the Idols — and while in hindsight, you could perhaps argue that maybe it was verging on production manipulating the game — on the first pass, it provided a heady rush of excitement. Just about everything related to Island of the Idols worked here:
A nuanced discussion of privilege and language
Jamal and Jack's conversation about race and privilege was the heart of this episode, and it's fitting that it aired in the same week that we lost Rudy Boesch, because it was a throwback to what first-season Survivor did best: having people from all walks of life working together to form a functioning society. Before Survivor, reality TV was rapidly devolving into a simple formula: "Get a bunch of people that don't like each other together, then film them yelling at each other."
Survivor broke that mold, in showing us that it's much more fun to watch people — people that you'd expect to bicker — simply get along, and achieve something together. Rudy Boesch and Richard Hatch, the grizzled retired Navy SEAL and the openly gay corporate trainer, formed a strong bond over work ethic and being camp providers. Survivor: Borneo aired at a time when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was still the status quo in the Navy. People like Rudy, especially of his generation, tended not to have openly gay friends, but thanks to the unique social/strategic environment of Survivor, where he and Hatch were at risk of their tribe being taken over by a women's alliance, he had reason to overlook what his "buddies back home" might think, and see Hatch as a smart, hard-working guy he could align with, and not just a "queer." (Rudy's using that as a pejorative strains the parallels to this episode's discussion, but we'll go with it anyway.) They were given the space to have mutual respect and trust, despite their different backgrounds.
That's also what we saw here with Jack and Jamal. They were both on shaky ground at original Vokai, left out of the Molly blindside in Episode 2. So they had incentives to keep working together. They're also both smart, empathetic people. At the swap, we saw Jack listening thoughtfully to Karishma's life story and offering words of support. Here, Jack gushes in confessional about how much more Jamal, 10 years his senior, knows about the world than he does. But when an odd, thoughtless word choice (calling Jamal's buff a "durag") gives the appearance of disrespect, Jamal objects, calmly points out (in confessional) that it's a loaded term, Jack apologizes, and later, they have an in-depth discussion about why it was hurtful. It's an important issue, too: Even someone with good intentions and no malice intended can still make someone else feel "other"-ed and less than a full, respected member of society. Even with a word that isn't an explicit slur.
Jamal was clearly the star of this segment, taking the time to eloquently illustrate why his friend's word choice was insulting, due to its negative connotations, and how Jamal faces societal pressures that a white man like Jack does not. Jack also deserves a lot of credit here, too: first for realizing he said something offensive in the moment and apologizing immediately, then for caring enough about Jamal to listen to him and try to make amends. Too often in the real world, people just throw up their hands and stalk away to their respective corners in a situation like this. Even on Survivor, where there's nowhere to go and you're living with these people 24 hours a day, people have short tempers, and ugh, showing empathy seems like a lot of work. So it was rewarding to see Jack and Jamal take the time to do that anyway.
For the show, it was a huge step forward to take the time and carve out room for this discussion at all, especially in an episode already overstuffed with two challenges, an Island of the Idols visit, and a Tribal Council that neither Jack nor Jamal attended. Just last season, Julia Carter took to her personal blog to express her disappointment that a similar event on Edge of Extinction was cut from the show, despite Julia explicitly telling production that her goal was to inspire other African-American Survivor fans to play. Clearly, someone listened and found Julia's argument compelling. So bravo to everyone involved in making sure Jamal and Jack's discussion made it onto TV.
This is also a massive improvement from Survivor's previously suspect record on race. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that in the bad old days when noted white supremacist-enabler Mark Burnett was in charge, black men were only allowed to be shown as hackneyed stereotypes: either lazy, or oversexed, or both. But usually lazy. In Borneo, Gervase was shown sitting around all the time, and had a child out of wedlock. (*Gasp!* At that time, it was viewed as somewhat scandalous that Gervase had children with two different women, which is one fewer than the current White House occupant's total from when he took office.) In The Australian Outback, we were only allowed to hear from Harvard Law-educated Army officer Nick Brown when he was designing leisure furniture in camp. In Africa, Clarence's entire story consisted of eating beans without the tribe's permission, and being disliked by redneck Big Tom . And it kept going ... Ted and Ghandia in Thailand. Osten can't swim. Only two African-American contestants were allowed per season, and they were usually cast to cause conflict. Things improved slightly as Burnett's active stewardship declined, as he shifted his focus to other projects (like, well, The Apprentice), and eventually, Probst took over. Sure, we had the ugly "Rice Wars" moment in Redemption Island on Probst's watch, but later Jeremy Collins won, and then Wendell Holland won, and they and other players have since been shown as rootable, three-dimensional people, not as borderline racist caricatures.
This is not the finish line, though. Not by a long shot. As evidence (while you should never read the comments), look no further than the comment section for Dalton Ross's EW recap, where a parade of viewers proudly proclaim they learned absolutely nothing from this episode, refuse to even think about Jamal's perspective, and declared it offensive that the show is trying to lecture them in the first place, because they already know that the *real* problem is that everyone is too sensitive nowadays.
The questions unasked? If there's one quibble with the editing of Tribal Council, it's that the decision to show *just* the original Vokais talking about what being voted out would mean to them kind of gave away what was about to happen. On the one hand, it was amazing to have this frank discussion and see so many longtime fans of the show give voice to how much they appreciate the opportunity to play, and how invested they are in actually playing the game. This made Jason's exit, under these circumstances, all the more heartbreaking.
But from a viewing perspective, since there was still the chance that Aaron and/or Missy would flip to the Vokais, this sort of signaled that the original Lairos were in fact all voting together. You'd have to assume Probst also asked all the Lairos the same question, right? Perhaps for reasons of space, we were just shown the Vokai responses. Or maybe Probst really did just survey the Vokais, since Elaine was clearly about to block one of their votes. Who knows? If the Lairos weren't asked, well, at least it was great to see how much the Vokais cared. Contrast this episode with, say, South Pacific's premiere: Here, everyone is Cochran, desperate to survive the vote. There's a feeling of real stakes this season, and that's much appreciated by the fans.
Jeff Pitman is the founder of the True Dork Times, and probably should find better things to write about than Survivor. So far he hasn't, though. He's also responsible for the Survivometer, calendar, boxscores, and contestant pages, so if you want to complain about those, do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other Island of the Idols Episode 6 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews: Jason Linden