Survivor: Island of the Idols, week twelve

Every so often an episode of Survivor hits where, yep, that’s what was going to happen, and the editors have to scramble to make it look like what was going to happen is still a surprise. So it was with this episode. Noura hides Dean’s shoes, Tommy admits in a confessional that he’s not taking Lauren to the final three, Dean wins an idol nullifier at the Island of the Idols, the Immunity Challenge block puzzle spells out “THIS GAME WILL MESS WITH YOUR HEAD”, and there’s yet more whispering at Tribal Council. The important events to note, though, are: 1) Elaine does not find a hidden immunity idol, and 2) Elaine does not win the immunity necklace. So Elaine goes home, despite a tearful appeal at Tribal Council, and everyone knew it was coming because everyone knows it was the right move for everyone left to make.

The finale is tomorrow night, so we’re just about at the end of this weird, entertaining, sometimes frustrating “return to Survivor” journey. The game and the show have both changed a lot since I ducked out way back in… uh… checks archives… oh yeah, South Pacific. I, of course, have some thoughts on the shapes of these changes.

(By the way, I really do draw a distinction between the game of Survivor, which is the thing the contestants play out in Fiji for 39 days, and the show of Survivor, which is what we see for about 630 minutes spread over 13 weeks. Not the least of which is: the show gets italicized, but the game doesn’t.)

One big change, which I have sense mostly confirmed by doing some internet sleuthing: they recruit way fewer players than they used to. Originally the way to get on Survivor was to send an application to CBS, but a few seasons in they started scouting people instead. Apparently that practice has slowed if not stopped. The main reason I quit watching was because there were several seasons in a row with just abysmal players, people who obviously hadn’t seen the show much but who someone at CBS thought would be a “fun character”. This produced a lot of uneven seasons with one in particular, Survivor: Nicaragua being particularly awful. This season, it really feels like everyone loves the game and showed up knowing at least a little bit how they were going to play. I’ve been commenting each week on how classy each contestant’s exit feels, as their torch gets snuffed. They have mostly been classy and respectful. I do think this is an indication of a higher class of player than we’ve gotten in the past, and it made for better viewing here at home.

Another is the absolute flood of immunity idols. You win them at challenges, you get them from Rob and Sandra’s Magic Bungalow Adventure, you find them in the woods. My feeling is that the plethora of idols dillutes the game considerably. Back in Survivor: Samoa when Russel Hantz invented the “just go dig you up an idol, you numpty” strategy, this idol-of-the-week gameplay was an earthquake and it was clear hidden idols would have to be rethought. It seems like CBS landed on “whatever, lots of idols is fun!” I don’t think I like this answer, because it makes the game less predictable. That’s probably why they decided lots and lots of idols was desireable; less predictable television drives higher ratings. But less predictable gameplay means more randomness in the game, and the game moves are what I enjoy first and foremost about Survivor. Seeing a player I realy liked removed because of yet another idol-based game twist, and later seeing another removed because she banked on having an idol that didn’t materialize, both left me a bit sour.

We merge much earlier now than we used to. Traditionally Survivor has merged at ten; this season we merged at thirteen. The game usually doesn’t start “for real” until the merge; before that it’s a team game where your main goal is to win physical challenges. However, I think that’s an important stage of the game, and shortening it maybe wasn’t the best idea. There was a post-merge game twist this season that I really didn’t like, which amounted to “we’re going to pretend we’re still on tribes for this one vote”. To me this illustrates that someone identified the need to postpone the merge for another challenge or two, but implemented it in the clumsiest way possible. I don’t know how common post-merge twists are, now that we merge two episodes earlier than we used to. I don’t think such twists are necessary when we already have a maze of hidden idols that must now be navigated.

Finally, I’d be very curious to learn about the rules concerning Tribal Council. I have never seen so much whispering at Tribal before, let alone full-blown interruption or furious conversation. I feel like this is the kind of thing Probst would never have allowed. More than that, I feel like there’s probably a line int he Survivor rulebook about Tribal Council conduct, which is now stricken out. And, well, I don’t like it. The time for the whispering and furious conversation is out in the game world, kids. Tribal Council is the part of the game that’s most for the viewers. It’s structured, it’s controlled, and it’s mediated. It’s a different and more thoughtful round of the game with somewhat higher stakes. It’s a place where you have to choose your words carefully and — more importantly — you have to let everyone else talk. I don’t know when they decided Tribal Council should devolve into a free-for-all but I hope someone un-strikes a byline or two before next season.

Then we have this sesaon’s unique twist: the eponimous idols, Rob and Sandra. Or, really, just Rob. Sandra’s job this whole season was to nod along with whatever Rob was saying and, sometimes, make a snarky comment at Tribal Council. I was about pulling my hair out this past episode where Rob was giving Dean a lesson in “jury management”. Boston Rob’s jury management sucks! Sandra’s is exceptional! Why did they give all the good lines to the meat-head?

It was pretty clear most of Rob and Sandra’s lines were scripted. I wish they had been allowed to invest themselves more organically. I don’t think they had much of an impact on the game as a whole; most of the people they coached are now gone, two of the people left (three, counting Elaine) have never met them. The real importance of interacting with the idols was to, well, come home with an idol. And there are already too many of those.

I think you could revisit this twist, but increase the role of the idols. Maybe put one on each beach at the start, then the loser of the Day 3 challenge gets both of them, and they stick with the loser thereafter. Don’t introduce the idol challenges until after the merge. After each Tribal Council, have the idols secretly approach whichever player they feel needs the most help. Instead of directing their advice and their advantages randomly, constantly target whoever is currently at the bottom of the game. See if that evens anything out. Then, at the end, allow the idols to cast jury votes. (I’m wondering if they’re already planning to do this one, actually.)

It’s tough to actually rate this season, seeing as how it’s my first time back in many years. I definitely liked it more than Nicaragua and South Pacific, which drove me away from the game. It’s probably also better than Redemption Island, which I enjoyed at the time but don’t remember quite so fondly. It certainly doesn’t hit the highest tier of personal favorites like Cook Islands or Samoa.

To sharpen the point a bit, I’m not a big fan of my escapist entertainment getting too “real talk-y”, and this has been the most real talk-y season of Survivor on record.

Elaine is voted out, and six contestants remain. Six is a weird spot in the game because you can’t really pull off a blindside; the threat of a tie is way too large. Depending on the social dynamics of the tribe, you use this spot for an “easy” vote, whomever is not immune. In this case, Janet has a hidden idol, but Dean has an idol nullifier, so they take the easy shot and then Lauren and Tommy worry about destroying each other at five, when a blindside won’t result in a tie.

Except we’re not at six, because Dan can’t keep his goddamn hands to himself.

I’m… I’m going to talk to just Dan for a minute here. Will you guys excuse me? Thanks.

Dan. Look. I get it. You’re an older guy who grew up in another time, before PC culture and SJW armies and #metoo whatever. Used to be you could innocently touch anyone you wanted — and yes, I do believe you’re doing it innocently — and nobody really minded. At least, nobody said they minded. And you got to live your life blissfully unaware that some of the people you grabbed or snuggled or poked were made uncomfortable by the poking. The world is changing too fast for you and it all feels so unfair. You never got to see the “good touch, bad touch” video I did in 5th grade. Your exposure to women as a Hollywood talent agent has been skewed too far in the direction of people being too terrified to speak up, for fear of what you’d do to their career.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe the current crop of 20- and 30-somethings are too sensitive. Maybe this pendulum will swing back your way someday, and running your fingers through a woman’s hair (or a teenage boy’s hair, in my case) will be socially acceptable again. Maybe the sissies and cucks will lose this culture war and you’ll get to go right on back to being unaware of how uncomfortable you make people. Maybe.

But the people in charge gave you a warning. Whatever your feelings are on what you should be allowed to do with your hands, the powers that be told you to knock it off. And you didn’t. So they threw you out.

According to the news sources I’ve read — gossip rags, mostly, but I don’t think I’d want any higher journalism pointed at Survivor — you claim this time it as an accident. Your hand accidentally touched a female crew member’s leg as he was getting into a boat. Dan? It doesn’t matter. If you’d done it on purpose they should have kicked you out to make good on their warning. If it really was an accident, well, it’s your own fault you got the warning in the first place.

However things shake out, this season of Survivor is forever marred by your behavior. I know you probably never meant to hurt anyone. But you hurt a lot of people anyway, without even trying. You hurt Kellee, for sure, by not listening to her when she asked you to respect her personal boundaries. You hurt Missy and Elizabeth, who used the gross situation you concocted to their advantage, earning them no small amount of ire and harrassment on social media. You hurt your son, who has probably been bragging to everyone in his school about how his dad is on Survivor and he got to go too. You hurt Tommy and Lauren, and Janet and Dean and Noura, who now have to navigate a different endgame than they’d otherwise have had. You hurt the show’s producers and editing team, who has the impossible and inenviable task of mopping up your spills.

And you’ve hurt me, and lots of other Survivor viewers you wanted to tune in for some light escapism and instead got molested by your wandering fingers. Lots of people have quit the show, or at least this season, because of how ugly it got.

I feel sorry for you, Dan, because you’ve demonstrated you can’t learn the simple lessons life was trying to impart on you, here. I’m sure the inevitable lawsuits will demonstrate this even further. I pity you because the more you cry about how you did nothing wrong, the more people aren’t going to believe you, until it descends all the way into scorn and mockery.

At the same time, though, I dislike you intensely. I don’t like saying that about someone I only see playing the goofy island TV game. I doubt any official Survivor source will ever mention you again, and that’s for the best.

So what are the gameplay reprecussions of Dan’s explusion? They are numerous. First, we’re skipping Final Six and going straight to Final Five. That’s pretty huge in and of itself. Second, Dan was part of a particular alliance, which now has to function without him. (This alliance was probably going to fall apart at five anyway, but it’s a much different five now.) Third, the reason Dan was part of an alliance this late in the game was because every remaining player could beat him in the finals. Now Dan won’t be in the final three like he was supposed to be. Tommy, Lauren and Janet’s ideal situation was to sit the final three along with Noura and Dan, neither of which could win. An easy ride. The more realistic situation was some set of Tommy/Lauren/Janet against Dan, which is really just a final two between Tommy/Lauren/Janet. Fourth, the jury is minus one, now. One fewer vote may or may not swing who wins at the end, and the first runner-up will forever ask themselves, “Would I have won, if not for Dan?” Fifth, Dean’s hilarious double-fake legacy advantage, which was set to expire at six, instead expired the moment Probst rolled up on the beach to break the news to everyone. We don’t get to see a stunning payoff to that plotline.

There may be an even bigger reprecussion: the timing of Dan’s expulsion potentially matters. Probst came to camp to deliver the news in the daytime, and reports say the fatal touchy-touchy happened on the way back from a challenge. This might have been the final seven Immunity Challenge — the one Elaine lost to Dean this episode — or it may mean the final six Immunity Challenge, which should have taken place during the finale. If the latter, how on earth do they edit around it? Surely they wouldn’t end one episode on Dan’s expulsion just to open the next with a challenge where he’s present. But they also wouldn’t want a real downer “we had to kick Uncle Touchy off” moment smack dab in the middle of the finale. What a mess.

Who’s gonna win?
I might have this wrong, but I believe Janet’s idol is only supposed to be good for “the next two Tribal Councils”, which means it wasn’t supposed to be valid at final five. It is now, but Dean’s going to snake it with his nullifier, so Janet’s gone next. The alternate play here is to remove either Tommy or Lauren, and then hope Janet isn’t immune at the final four vote. Even if that happens, I’m betting Janet doesn’t win any sort of immunity, though.

Lauren is more likely than Tommy to win a final four immunity. I think speculating what happens here is probably impossible, because Noura might do just about anything. So it really just comes to running down the possible final threes:

  1. Lauren/Noura/Dean = Lauren wins.
  2. Tommy/Noura/Dean = Tommy wins.
  3. Tommy/Lauren/Noura = Tommy wins.

I don’t think a Tommy/Lauren/Dean final is realistic.

Tommy wins more of the cases, but Lauren wins the single most likely case. I think I got all that right? We’ll see on Thursday! Thanks for reading.

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