Survivor: Island of the Idols has pulled off back-to-back great episodes, with this week's featuring another meaningful, socially relevant conversation, this time at Tribal Council, some wisdom and character depth for Janet, and a huge, complicated move by Kellee.
One of the most praiseworthy aspects of this season so far has been that its female contestants have driven much of the narrative. Missy gathered together the women's alliance on original Lairo, which helped protect Elaine at the first vote. Lauren initiated the dethroning of Queen Molly. Janet correctly read Tom's loyalty to original Lairo, then orchestrated his boot. Elaine smashed the 4-4 tie on post-swap Vokai by grabbing an advantage, and convincing Missy and Aaron to stick with her and Elizabeth. And this week, Kellee joined the scrum and single-handedly flipped the vote onto one of her original tribemates, Jack. This is a tidal shift for a show that has crowned male winners in seven of its last nine seasons, and has rarely achieved even close to parity in its gender screentime distribution.
So it was perfect timing that Rob Cesternino had Kass McQuillen on this week for the RHAP recap podcast (it's a great one, listen here). Kass has long pointed out the edit's dismissive tone toward strong female players, often overlooking them entirely to focus instead on men, or portraying them as domineering, unrootable villains, when the same aggressive actions by a man would be celebrated. Kass and Rob discussed how this entire season seems to a be conscious effort on the part of the producers (including Jeff Probst) to do a better job in presenting women's games. One thing that makes tracking the intent her somewhat confusing is the time-shifted nature of Survivor's back-to-back filming schedule and delayed airing. So first, let's look back to see where this season fits in the timeline.
Island of the Idols was filmed from late March to late April, 2019. Edge of Extinction had aired maybe its first four episodes when the cast left for filming. They had all seen David vs. Goliath, and were probably inspired by its play-hard, game-first ethos. They were probably also open to the idea of a small number of returning players sharing their season, and upon visiting Island of the Idols, were happy they didn't have to vote them out. All good.
But to evaluate production's intentions, a critical step in the timeline is the casting process. This is the very first non-Lynne Spillman cast. Jeff Probst himself was directly involved in the casting from the ground up. That process started in the fall of 2018, while David vs. Goliath was airing. Obviously, the producers had seen David vs. Goliath and Edge of Extinction play out in real time, and were just starting to get feedback from the viewing audience (to the extent they ever listen to that) on David vs. Goliath. Angelina, Natalie, and Gabby were big early characters. Fans responded really positively to Angelina's first-episode quoting of the idol-finding imbalance between men and women, and her determination to change that. Ultimately, that didn't really end up happening, as men retrieved all but the final idol, and two men split all the jury votes, while Angelina received none.
That hopeful start and ultimately deflating conclusion was likely front of mind during the casting process. And you can tell that this cast full of strong female players was assembled by design because Probst himself highlighted it in his on-site pre-game (at most a day or two into filming) interview with Mike Bloom:
The first couple of sentences there are virtually the same speech Probst gave during Tribal Council this week. Clearly, a story led by strong women is one the show was hoping to tell this season. Happily, the contestants have held up their end of the bargain, and that is the story being told.
So there are two factors acting in tandem here: Survivor went out and found a diverse cast that featured a wealth of independent, strong-minded, game-aware women, and there was also a determination at some level to actually show the results. Most of the key players thus far have been women, and going into the merge, women now outnumber men, 8-5, so this dynamic is likely to continue into the post-merge. (Because if most of the big players get picked off soon, and we end up with a final three with two men splitting all the jury votes and a zero-vote third-place woman again, well ... would we have had this pre-merge story? Actually, we might. But let's try to stay hopeful, anyway.)
Departing from the traditional Lynne Spillman casting formula that required at least one, if not multiple, swimsuit model/ beauty queen types (of either gender, regardless of actual likelihood of success on the show) was a big step forward. Consciously wanting to present the stories told by the women who were cast was another.
So maybe the advances this season — showing female contestants' games and allowing them to tell their stories — really is a concerted attempt by Survivor to adapt, to evolve, to better reflect the dynamics of the outside world. And maybe Survivor really did re-learn that the entire point of the show is allowing the contestants to construct their own society (that reflects our own), with the ultimate twist that they have to then turn around and vote each other out. If so, that's a wonderful development.
(At least until the show forgets about the voting out part again next season.)
To short-term idols! The solution to and cause of all of life's problems
First, the praise: It's hard to understate just how complicated Kellee's idol scheme here was.
She had an idol that was only good at this Tribal Council, so it was burning a hole in her pocket. She couldn't just play the idol for Dean at Tribal Council, because that would (1) reveal to the other Vokais that she had lied when she returned from Island of the Idols (#BunIdol), and (2) it would most likely piss everyone off, by blowing up a planned easy boot that preserved Vokai's numbers going into the merge, and instead voting out one of their own.
Easy solution: She handed over that idol in camp. That was a moderate risk. Expecting someone to follow through on a plan is always potentially sketchy if you hand them an idol. But there was a failsafe: If Dean had decided "nah, screw it, I'll just hold on to this," it would have simply expired, unused. Luckily, Dean was happy to save himself, and Kellee was happy to preserve their connection by saving him. Win, win. Anyway, from Dean's perspective, it was a no-risk gift: even if he wasn't the target, hey ... free idol, and guaranteed safety. No downside to playing it, apart from maybe seeming more sneaky.
For Kellee, there was still a risk that Dean could go rogue and vote Noura or Karishma, though. To hedge against that, she also had Noura vote for Jack, because at worst that would set up a 1-1 Jack vs. Noura/Karishma tie. Kellee then had to pretend to be surprised at Tribal Council, which she appeared to do well. And she came up with all of this in the span of just ten seconds, filmed live, mid-confessional!
The result: An idol play that Kellee engineered, but didn't actually participate in. It's basically Schrödinger's idol play, simultaneously both Dean's play and Kellee's. (Technically, the idol became Dean's when he took it from her, but it was her plan and her idol, and he did as she instructed.) This of course creates mass confusion for Survivor fantasy scoring, while scoring great as entertaining TV. Everyone apparently has a strong opinion on this, and that opinion seems pretty evenly split between "it was Kellee's play" and "It was Dean's!" (For the record, we credited both Kellee and Dean for the play in the idols played leaderboard, trying to have it both ways.)
And now, the worrying: Setting the issue of ownership aside for now, another key question remains. Was this move a good idea?
It was great TV, sure, but did it serve Kelley's long-term interests? That's tough to evaluate without seeing the fallout back at camp. Will Dean snitch that Kellee planned the whole thing? If so, that's a problem. Will open-book Noura admit to her new friend Jamal that Kellee told her to vote for Jack? Hmmm. Maybe the more straightforward move of publicly saving Dean with the idol at Tribal wasn't such a bad idea, after all.
For now at least, the play looks good, and Kellee got away with it. It's hard to see why Noura or Dean would have much incentive to keep it that way, though, and if so, it's perhaps an overplay.
We've seen the negative effects of having a lot of fully powered idols: people can save them until the last minute, and we end up with something like Cirie Fields getting screwed over in Game Changers just because she didn't have one. So limited-use idols with expiration dates (like Kellee's) seem like a good idea, right?
Well ... maybe? Sure, Dean's probably now more likely to work with Kellee going forward, but he already was doing so, and didn't really have a ton of other options. He would be a target at the merge, anyway, and he'll probably go back to working with Aaron, so saving him probably has/had a limited lifespan of utility. Meanwhile, Jack and Jamal were working with her, but obviously one now can't, and the other is highly unlikely to. Kellee was well aware that while it helped her in the short term, this move was loaded with potential blowback, which is why it all needed to be secret. Would she have made the same move if her idol was good for one more Tribal?
Most likely she would have just saved it for after the merge, right? So it sure looks like the expiration date was the primary factor driving this move, not an overwhelming need to save Dean. Well, the expiration date and Lairo's inability to get that final puzzle piece shoved into place in a more timely fashion.
We need an older winner
Janet winning seems like a reasonable possibility after this episode. She was clearly influential in steering the vote away from Jamal and towards Dean (even if that didn't end up happening), as she was in the Tom boot. And as the Survivor Reddit twitter account is fond of pointing out, nobody has yet even mentioned voting against her.
How groundbreaking would a Janet win be? Janet would be:
- The oldest winner ever, by two years (Bob Crowley was 57 in Gabon).
- The oldest female winner ever, by a whopping 18 years (next-oldest is Denise Stapley, 41 in Philippines).
- The first grandmother to win Survivor.
(Note: All of these are U.S. records, Janet's a spring chicken compared to SurvivorAU 2018 winner, grandmother, and Olympic medalist Shane Gould. Shane was two years older than Janet is now when she first played.)
Still, these are all pretty big deals! Historically, as we detailed in a deep dive a couple of years ago, the prospects for an older player winning Survivor have been ... remote, and an older woman even moreso. But Janet's position in the game here actually looks pretty solid, at least heading into the merge. She probably won't be anyone's #1 target for a while, she's leading without dictating anything, and as her speech at Tribal showed, she's taking care not to alienate the men. Everyone is welcome to be part of Janet's plans.
It's still a long shot (cue Probst's inaccurate probability: "1 in 13 odds"), but it would be great to once again demonstrate that anyone can win Survivor, not just people (mostly men) in their late 20s to mid 30s. It'll take a few more Janets to really prove that once and for all, but we have to start somewhere. So why not now, why not here?
The whiffs of success: The quiet war between Dean and Karishma in the voting booth was an underexamined pre-merge thread. There were four separate Tribals where one voted for the other. Four times, both players returned to camp afterwards. It's not clear how long they can keep swinging and missing post-merge, though. Could they take their feuding all the way to the final four? Fingers crossed!
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 7 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews: Jack Nichting