Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps
The ending was a good start
By Jeff Pitman | Published: December 26, 2019
Survivor: Island of the Idols Episode 14 recap/ analysis

The ending was a good start

The last segment of the Island of the Idols reunion, where Jeff Probst talked one-on-one with Kellee about the Dan incidents, and about the show's attempt to institute new guidelines, reporting, and assistance going forward was a good start toward turning the overwhelming feeling of just, well, grossness associated with this season into something positive. Kudos to Kellee for staying involved and working to ensure CBS and Survivor actually did something.

It still remains to be seen if this will bring about actual change, that the guidelines will be followed, that the show will react more swiftly the next time their over-40-dude slot gets filled by another Hollywood bigwig instead of (or in addition to) a retired athlete, and that the next Hollywood bigwig (really weird that #MeToo started there, probably just a coincidence) just happens to also be super-handsy ... but again, it's a start.

For all his other (mostly creative) faults as a showrunner the past few seasons, Jeff Probst handled this part well. He admitted Survivor had dropped the ball, apologized, and told Kellee "you were right" to speak up. He actually seemed to care that Kellee felt heard here, and let her talk at length. He appeared sincere in wanting to rectify the situation. All good.

There are a lot of other things Survivor could do, such as Kass McQuillen's frequent suggestion: hiring more women in on-the-beach roles (the camera crew and producers that routinely interact with the cast), jobs that are currently almost exclusively held by men. The show could, as Andy Dehnart suggested, offer everyone second-place money, as they did to Lex and Big Tom in Africa, after they discovered production had screwed up the Final 4 "Fallen Comrades" challenge. At the very least, they could offer Kellee and everyone booted between her position (12th) and Elaine's (7th) the same 6th-place prize money Dan presumably earned. But whatever they do, as long as they actually care enough that the contestants and the audience don't have to trudge through another excruciating post-merge like this one, just act next time when it matters, and not six months later.

In Kellee's words, "I hope that this season of Survivor isn't just defined by inappropriate touching or by sexual harassment. I hope that it's defined by change."

Survivor and CBS's changes can't erase the stain left on this season. But in the spirit of hope, let's take one last look back at what else happened this season that wasn't Dan-related.

The ending was a good start: Winning without advantages

The ending was a good start

Tommy's win (as he points out himself in his exit interview with Rob Cesternino), was a welcome refutation of modern Survivor's insistence that every episode has to be smothered in idols and advantages. That mindset gave us the advantage-of-the-week format of Ghost Island (which still had some lingering restraint, with its occasional "No game for you" messages) and its descendant, Island of the Idols (which 100% didn't). Sure, Tommy may have wanted to find an idol in the finale, but he didn't end up doing so, and he then leaned into that badge of honor, and worked his way into a guaranteed final three slot through old-fashioned persuasion and social gaming.

This is great for two reasons: One, it's a type of gameplay that's typically been one of the few open to women. Cirie Fields or Sandra Diaz-Twine aren't about to go on an immunity run or wave a bag full of idols in front of the jury. They succeed based on their ability to manipulate, to cajole, to influence. Even though Tommy is the fifth straight male winner, his win provides hope that the Survivor hasn't evolved on to a place where a winner has to tick off multiple bullet points on their résumé, for idols, advantages, and challenge wins, categories often dominated by men. Those things can be helpful, sure, but they shouldn't be necessary. Tommy's win proves they aren't.

(It doesn't necessarily prove that Lauren, who had basically the same game as Tommy, would have won if their positions had been swapped ... we have our doubts, but let's try to stay hopeful.)

Second, Tommy's win is a rejection of Survivor's overproducing impulses, of its reliance on baubles and trinkets for entertainment. They built an entire season around new players visiting an island with giant statues of Boston Rob and Sandra, where the actual people the statues represent dispensed wisdom loosely associated with the game, and refereed games for advantages or idols, which ranged from completely useless (giving Noura a vote blocker when she was part of a 5-3 majority) to ridiculously overpowered (giving Dean an idol nullifier the day after he saw Janet find an idol). Yet Tommy won without ever visiting the island, and the guy who benefitted most from it (Dean, saved at the final pre-merge vote by an Island-won idol, then nullifying Janet's at F5) came in a distant second.

It helped that some of the superfans on the jury (Kellee, at least) were aligned with Tommy's mindset that Survivor is supposed to be a social-strategic game, not a jewelry expo. Maybe Survivor will learn something from this, and back away from its self-imposed excesses? (Checks notes on Winners at War ... gulp.)

Well, okay, maybe future superfan-laden juries will help prod the game back in the organic social/strategic direction, if production is unwilling. Either way, there's at least the stirrings of a contestant-led popular uprising against the constant Big Moves drumbeat coming from the host. Survivor is never going to stop throwing more and more advantages and trinkets in, as long as juries keep rewarding their use. Maybe the resistance starts here?

Island of the Idols: Opaqueness and strong-armed secrecy

Island of the Idols

The modus operandi for this season has been one of secrecy: A long wait to officially reveal the cast. Some sort of preseason ban on the contestants interacting over social media, at least until the premiere (hence the need for the #DontSleepOn39 hashtag). Then of course all the tight-lipped clampdown on anything related to Dan. Understandable, but frustrating.

But from our first introduction to the season's titular twist/theme, Island of the Idols, that same sense of rigorously enforced secrecy also pervaded just about every aspect of it. That lack of transparency helped stoke a lot of mistrust from the audience. Were Rob and Sandra *really* living there 24/7, as the show implied? (Maybe?) Did Rob and Sandra *really* build that entire massive shelter without help? (Come on.) Were they really subsisting on the fish Rob caught, plus some rice and the papayas he and Sandra could keep away from the chicken, as the show implied? (Almost certainly not.) Were the returnee mentors allowed to leave and relax on days when they weren't on camera? (Probably, but that's not what the show would like you to think.)

Furthermore, in the game itself, contestants who returned from the Island of the Idols were (apparently) *told* to lie about what they experienced there, and prohibited from mentioning Rob and Sandra, at least to people who had yet to visit the Island. (We suspect someone may have leaked something eventually, because Jamal and Lauren's reactions at seeing Rob and Sandra seemed a little too over-the-top.)

This would be perfectly fine, because deception is a huge part of playing Survivor ... except the audience never knew if this was the contestants acting independently, or being coached. Deception of the audience is less acceptable. We were, after all, in on the joke when Rob and Sandra were watching Tribal Councils from their spy shack. Just show Rob and Sandra coaching the visitors on what story to tell! You only have to show it once, and we'll just assume it happened every time. In Survivor, once a player betrays their trust with someone, it's really difficult to re-establish that trust. The same rule exists between the show and its audience.

The audience was led to believe the returning-from-the-Island tall tales were 100% the efforts of the contestants themselves. Eyebrows remained raised when the non-superfans narrated meeting Rob and Sandra as if it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, despite some (Noura, Dean) having mentioned in the preseason that they only started watching recently, long after Rob's last appearance. They probably had no idea who the guy in the Red Sox hat was. Dustin Pedroia, maybe?

Together, all this opaqueness surrounding the events of the Island coalesced to form a solid foundation of mistrust for the audience. That then bled over into full-scale skepticism of the rest of the Island-related content. For example: when a "random draw" from a bag was made to pick another Island visitor, it looked highly suspicious that it was a new person, every single time. Were the visitor draws completely random, and every remaining player's name was in the bag? If so, no harm, no foul. If not, then that's a highly unfair way to distribute advantages.

If the draw was rigged, and the bag only had the names of people who had not visited, then Janet and every one of the women were ineligible to even bet on the idol nullifier (or the decoy selections of an extra vote or handed-off idol) that Dean eventually won in a coin flip. The fairness of an item that powerful (which — again, thanks to Dan — required absolutely no guessing to use correctly) shouldn't even be in question, but production so blurred the lines between random, spontaneous actions and scripted content, we viewers had virtually no reason to believe anything Island-related was 100% real.

Good going, Survivor. But apparently the mistrust is mutual.

Survivor trusts neither its cast nor its audience

Survivor trusts neither its cast nor its audience

This is why we have Final 4 firemaking, and Edge of Extinction, and idol nullifiers. This is why by next season we'll have had returnees in three straight seasons (despite the show hitting a home run with David vs. Goliath's cast of newbies). Rob and Sandra were fine this season, but they were all but explicitly introduced as a casting crutch, a failsafe in case the newbies were duds. Last season's returnees, while all great players we would have liked to see again in a different context, were less welcome when competing against newbies in Edge of Extinction. Someone with control over the show — is it Probst? CBS? Where is this directive coming from? — is desperately afraid that an entire cast of new players will tank and sink the show. Never mind that an entire cast of returnees wasn't enough to save Game Changers.

Also — from the way he defends this, this has to be Probst, right? — the plethora of idols, advantages, and bizarre twists (and now nullifiers and ... in-game currency?) by which production attempts to smother the gameplay every season comes from Probst trusting neither the players to play hard, nor the audience to like the basic game of alliances and deception any more. Every episode has to have at least one production-introduced bell or whistle. And it's not as if they're being beta-tested in real time, then put away when they don't work. If you don't get the results you want, you just add more.

The same is true of structural changes to the show: we have a final three because production was mad at contestants for consistently booting the strong player at F3, then taking a goat to the final two. At least with the original format, there was a chance the goat could win final immunity, and make it a tough decision (Panama). The final three switch worked when contestants didn't see it coming, but pretty quickly (i.e. Fiji) the strategy evolved, and the three people least likely to win took out the obvious winner at F4 instead of F3, which was an even less stressful move, and really drained most of the suspense out of the finale (MvGX). So production tried other things, like multiple variants on Redemption Island, where someone came back at Final five. When that didn't work, they just took the F4 vote-off away completely, and replaced it with F4 firemaking. Fast forward five seasons, and now the strongest player is booted at F5 (Janet), so they don't even get a chance to sneak in to the finals via firemaking.

So that's how we got here. Rather than admitting that maybe a final two is exciting once in a while (Cagayan!), and that switching things up every so often helps to keep things fresh, the twists just continue to pile up, one on top of the other, like a massive house of cards that eventually will come crashing down because Survivor insisted on building it on a wobbly platform and Albert refused to drop his stack and come help.

Snuffed at the merge

And that doesn't even begin to address the horrorshow that is Edge of Extinction (the abomination formerly known as Redemption Island), which for some idiotic reason has been allowed to inflict what should have been the greatest season ever, Winners at War.

You idiots! You blew it up! You had your strong cast *and* your precious returning players, all in one package! There was no reason to add a consolation round! We don't need to spend 13 weeks of (sometimes extended?) episodes, only to see a Boston Rob or Tony get booted on Day 3, then come back and play four more days at the end to win. Have you learned absolutely nothing?

The argument *for* EoE in an all-returnee season is pretty specious, as well: That's "at least is a fan favorite is booted early, they'll still be around for the full season." That's a bogus argument. Only two people re-enter from EoE, and none of them are playing Survivor on EoE. You won't be getting fun, chaotic content from Tony as he enters his 20th day there. All but the two who re-enter are basically the ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo, unaware that they've left this mortal plane, barely commenting on its happenings, with limited understanding of how it's working. They're there, but they're no longer surviving. How is that a plus?

At least Rob and Sandra were able to have fun and be funny with this format.

Dean and the timing of the late-game surge

Dean and the timing of the late-game surge

Dean came close to pulling off an upset win here. Not *very* close, since all the original Vokais on the jury voted for Tommy, and only Elizabeth and Aaron, Dean's original tribemates, voted for him. Dean stressed his idol(s), his nullifier, and his challenge wins as signs of his success. So why didn't he get more votes?

Dean's late-game surge didn't win as much respect as he probably expected, simply because of his position in the game: He came into the post-merge as the least-threatening Lairo, and rather than using his hardware to protect himself from non-existent threats, his moves mostly involved punching down, and keeping the powerful in power. He saved Tommy at the F8 vote, preserving the power of the dominant Vokais, by leaking the underdogs' blindside plans. And then there was the idol nullifier.

In David vs. Goliath, Carl Boudreaux's play toppled the dominant Goliaths, and allowed physical threat Dan Rengering to be voted out. That was a feel-good story and, as we said at the time, one Survivor shouldn't even try to repeat:

...imagine how unpopular the idol nullifier would be, not to mention how grim this season would now look, if ... they'd played the nullifier on Christian last episode. Here comes Davie's idol, saving the hides of the hopelessly outnumbered Davids! Christian is saved! No ... wait ... a nullifier? Christian is voted out, 7-3-2?!? The Davids are now down 7-4? This truly is the darkest timeline.

It took just one further use of the idol nullifier for that to come to pass. In targeting Janet, Dean was taking out one of the most popular players, who was completely outnumbered, and who was desperately attempting to save herself. (An important sidenote: Production 100% knew that Dean knew about Janet's idol, could have easily removed the nullifier from the options at Island of the Idols the next day, and declined to do so. Assuming that they didn't add it at the last minute.)

So to sum up: Dean's path to the end was paved by betraying his underdog putative allies, and overpowering the outnumbered. Since he was also never really much of a target, that's hard to spin as a surge of late-game heroism, when it's clearly more one of opportunism and privilege. It's not surprising that it didn't work. So really, it's not the quantity of wins and advantages on a résumé that's most important, it's clear the quality matters, too.

What can we learn from this? Dean's plays might have been enough for the win, had he been an underdog. Otherwise, the modern Survivor post-game pattern pretty much held true. As always, physical/challenge threats (Aaron, Missy, Elizabeth, Jamal) were the early post-merge targets. People want a chance to win challenges themselves, not watch the same athletes win them again and again. Also, physical threats are taken out as early as possible, to avoid the possibility that they go on a simple three-challenge streak at the end, and to have time for the next phase of boots. Once the athletes were out, the next targets are the popular players with great stories, who are threats to sweep the jury vote: Janet and Elaine, mostly. Tommy told Rob Cesternino that he intentionally minimized his own threat level throughout the game, precisely to avoid these obvious hazards.

Had Dean or Tommy started winning challenges or making flashy moves in the early post-merge, they may have been cut down in that phase of the game. Karishma represents the counter-example that proves this: Sure, she had to play her idol to save herself, but paradoxically, that boosted her résumé, making her an even bigger target. If Karishma could have just found an idol or two, or had a memory-based immunity challenge (like the one Jeremy won in San Juan del Sur), maybe she could have found some room to maneuver, and become an underdog contender for the win. Had Janet not had to contend with the nullifier, she almost certainly burns her way to the finish line. Those could have been successful late-game surges. Timing is important, but position in the game is as well.

The tone-deaf, bludgeoning edit

The tone-dead edit

If going into the editing process, you knew that (1) there's an ugly, game-disfiguring event at the merge, where a woman's game goes down in flames after she stands up (again) to inappropriate touching by a male castmember, and other players try to leverage her pain for strategic advantage, and (2) two men split all the jury votes, despite the host's pre-season excitement about so many "strong women" in the cast ... maybe it's not a great idea to use "I Was Born at Night, But Not Last Night" as the title of the final pre-merge episode. You know, the episode before everything goes to hell.

For context, as you will recall, this quote was from Boston Rob, refusing to bet against Sandra's position that a woman will win this season. Rob and Sandra were this season's Greek chorus at Tribal Council, expressing the viewers' hopes, reactions, and opinions in real time. How does the show justify highlighting *that* interaction, and further spotlighting *that* quote in the title, knowing full well what was coming in just the next episode? Who does that?

Is it a fun joke to raise the audience's expectations, especially the female audience, then crush them in the most brutal fashion possible just one week later? (And then, in one final beat-a-dead-horse move, again six weeks later, with the "may the best man win" shot above?)

And of course, later in the game there's the idol nullifier incident. We were already rooting for Janet. Did we really need to see her thrilled to the core, celebrating the tiny ray of hope that her idol provided, feeling that she might have a chance at actually winning this thing ... all the while being 100% aware that light was the headlamp on the oncoming train of Dean's idol nullifier? We were already beaten down. This felt like overkill.

In other edit complaints, Tommy's winner edit was both super-obvious and paradoxically largely missing. In the premiere, we were shown Tommy giving voice to his overarching strategy: Be everyone's best friend, make connections with everyone. Then that disappeared from the rest of the season, and we were shown Tommy only as Lauren's sounding board/ sidekick. We were still able to glimpse Tommy the Social Threat from time to time, but really only in the negative space around other people's actions — Elaine saving him at the split Tribal Council when Missy wanted to blindside him, Dean kicking off the post-Loved Ones Tribal Council by alerting Tommy to the looming blindside — but we were never shown Tommy actively working on these relationships again. We never saw Tommy even talk to Elaine until right before she saved him. Same for Dean, really. That is, until the finale, when the edit switched back, and we were given front-row seats asTommy talked Noura into taking him to F3, and taught Dean how to make fire. (They did leave out Tommy actively undermining Lauren's confidence in her own fire-making prowess, which, in light of all the other stuff this season, is probably for the best.) Tommy's finale game was pretty masterful, so it's a shame Survivor decided against showing the rest of it during the middle 12 episodes.

What they did show, though, was basically a flashing neon sign that read "Tommy is going to win this season." As Stephen Fishbach pointed out way back in early October, Tommy would pop up with a generic game-related confessional each episode, even when Vokai had no reason to be talking strategy, and then disappear again for the rest of the episode.

This was a combination of two of the most-hated winner's edits in recent seasons. Hiding the winner for all but the premiere and the finale, as with Chris Underwood in Edge of Extinction, and making it extremely obvious who that winner was, as with Michele Fitzgerald in Kaoh Rong. Why do this? Why not show Tommy playing the game? Admittedly there were other big characters, and we were happy to also see them, but why not replace Tommy talking generically about Survivor with ... I dunno, showing him still being friends with people? Is it really that hard?

A couple of unanswered questions

Unanswered questions

- Looking back at the calendar, there was no visitor to the island of the idols in Episode 10 (the one where Karishma found her idol). The only other postmerge weeks that didn't happen were at the merge and during the loved ones visit (where there was a full RC and reward to get through, plus a 20-minute special edition of The Jeff Probst Show). Obviously, there was a lot going on in those two episodes, and no room for the Island. But why not Episode 10? Is it possible there was an unaired Dan visit to the Island, cut from that episode? If so, thank you to the editors. Nobody wanted to see more footage of Dan getting more free stuff. (Similarly, there was probably a Final 6 IC that was cut, too, right?)

- How on earth does anyone go on Survivor in the post-Heroes v. Healers v. Hustlers era without learning how to make fire with flint? Lauren had "practiced a few times at home" but never once done it during the first 37 days of the game. Dean had never even tried at home. How? Why? There's a 50% chance you'll be doing it if you get to final four! There's a 67% chance if you're not great at challenges!

(That said, again: Please ditch the F4 firemaking, Survivor. We've now seen people win the game by winning final immunity, winning at fire, giving up immunity then winning at fire, and skipping fire to be taken to the end. That's every possible option. The experiment has run its course. Not least becaue this time we saw Janet get cut at F5 because she was good at fire! Just stop! It's enough! Eh, fine, just make it a Final Four facing the jury next season, blow the whole thing up. Why not?)

Jeff Pitman's recapsJeff 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 14 recaps and analysis


Exit interviews: Tommy Sheehan (winner)

  • Dalton Ross at (12/19/19): "Tommy Sheehan says final Tribal turned on something we didn't see"
  • Gordon Holmes at (12/19/19): "Tommy: 'This Is the Big Twist Era, and I Didn't Even Need Them'"
  • Mike Bloom at (12/19/19): "Tommy Sheehan Goes to the Head of the Class"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/19/19): "Survivor 39 FINALE Exit Interviews with the Final 5 + Kellee Kim"


Exit interviews: Dean Kowalski (2nd place)

  • Dalton Ross at (12/19/19): "Dean Kowalski reveals why he was doomed at final Tribal Council"
  • Mike Bloom at (12/19/19): "Dean Kowalski Goes from Chill to Thrilled to Getting Grilled"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/19/19): "Survivor 39 FINALE Exit Interviews with the Final 5 + Kellee Kim"


Exit interviews: Noura Salman (3rd place)

  • Dalton Ross at (12/19/19): "Noura Salman says she was 'attacked' at final Tribal Council"
  • Mike Bloom at (12/19/19): "Noura Salman on the 'Noura Society' and Saying No"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/19/19): "Survivor 39 FINALE Exit Interviews with the Final 5 + Kellee Kim"


Exit interviews: Lauren Beck (4th place)

  • Dalton Ross at (12/19/19): "Lauren Beck says 'it was my game to win'"
  • Mike Bloom at (12/19/19): "Lauren Beck's Game Goes Up in Flame"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/19/19): "Survivor 39 FINALE Exit Interviews with the Final 5 + Kellee Kim"


Exit interviews: Janet Carbin (5th place)

  • Dalton Ross at (12/19/19): "Janet Carbin was 'crushed' by what happened in the finale"
  • Mike Bloom at (12/19/19): "Janet Carbin on Her Game Sinking and Her Heart Singing"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/19/19): "Survivor 39 FINALE Exit Interviews with the Final 5 + Kellee Kim"


Exit interviews: Kellee Kim (13th place)

  • Dalton Ross at (12/19/19): "Kellee Kim speaks out: 'I hope change is going to happen'"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/19/19): "Survivor 39 FINALE Exit Interviews with the Final 5 + Kellee Kim"



  • Rob Cesternino & Stephen Fishbach at RHAP: "Know-It-Alls | Island of the Idols FINALE Recap"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP: "Survivor 39 Finale Feedback with Mike Bloom"
  • Shannon Gaitz at RHAP: "Survivor Global | Island of the Idols Finale Recap | Nick Iadanza"
  • Andy & John at The Purple Rock Podcast: "Island of the Idols Finale: Mama, Look At Me Now"
  • Dom Harvey & Colin Stone at The Dom & Colin Podcast: "[title tk] -- Episode 14 Recap/Analysis"