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Survivor: a mid-confessional surprise, a discussion of sexism, a MeToo moment, and more

Wow: Another powerhouse episode of Survivor: Island of the Idols arrived last night, in the middle of a season that’s become CBS’s #1 show, even despite facing off against The Masked Singer.

There was so much in a single episode, from shifting dynamics inside tribes (right before the merger) to the blindside of the first juror, which happened because of an incredible mid-confessional realization by Kellee. And that was all before Tribal Council included an extended discussion of sexism.

Yes, Survivor once included its contestants talking about how real-world biases come into play in this game. That began when Kellee challenged Jamal’s characterization of an all-women’s alliance, and led to Janet talking about sexism she’s had to face throughout her life.

“I am very fearful of an all-girls alliance right now,” Jamal had said, adding that he works at a school with all women, and saying, “I know the power of women when they get together and they understand their collective power.”

He also followed that by condescendingly referring to the women as “girls” by saying he was wondering what had “gotten into these girls’ heads.” Last week, Jamal explained how he was hurt by a tribemate’s problematic words; this week, Jamal listened as others explained how his words were problematic.

Kellee immediately called this out, saying it was “so sexist. Sorry, I know that you didn’t mean it that way,” she said. “We don’t talk about men’s alliances,” she said, which was an excellent point. An alliance of men is just an alliance; an alliance of women is something to be feared and distrusted, even by women in the game.

Janet agreed with Kellee, and said that that idea that women would only align with each other was “putting women down.” She then shared the kind of systemic and extended sexism she’s faced her entire life.

Janet Carbin on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 5
Janet Carbin on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 5. (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

By that emotional moment, Janet had already given this Survivor: Island of the Idols episode so much. She’d:

  1. clearly explained why the Island of the Idols sucks so bad, including telling Rob and Sandra directly that just being there made her a target;
  2. almost immediately rejected Rob’s offer, which once again didn’t come with a lesson because why bother with the point of the Island of the Idols;
  3. and flashing her tribe from the boat when she returned.

It was a great discussion that should be watched, not transcribed into a recap.

The part that did not work for me was Jeff Probst’s attempt to produce this into a Survivor Story Moment and draw a line from tribe dynamics to the MeToo and Times Up movements. That was both unnecessary and clumsy.

Contrast last week’s discussion—Jamal and Jack talking and listening to each other—with this week’s. Instead of letting Kellee and Janet and the others talk, and just letting Survivor be relevant, Probst had to pick up his producing 2×4 and hit us all over the heads and try to make it A Moment.

As if the discussion wasn’t enough, Probst used his final words to let us know that this has “kept Survivor relevant” and that what happens in the game “is a reflection of greater society.” Gee, really?

It came with the implicit suggestion that having empowered, strong women this season—who Probst pointed out are being watched by kids—was suddenly new, when that’s actually been the case on Survivor since season one.

Of course, Survivor has real problems with the way it has treated its female players, from actual treatment in the game to the way they’ve been edited, including Probst largely ignoring female winners during reunions in order to talk with his bros.

There was something else particularly weird about bringing up #MeToo during this episode.

Taylor Cotter explained this on Twitter: “let’s relax about Survivor being some sort of thoughtful champion for strong women when in the same episode we left unaddressed a man repeatedly make unwelcome advances on the female contestants,” she wrote. “[T]here was LITERALLY a MeToo moment in this episode and instead of addressing it with confessional or intervention it was instead…..used for strategy(?)”

That occurred at Vokai’s camp. First, the editing included a brief, night-vision moment of Dan (apparently) moving his arm over someone. But that actual moment wasn’t directly addressed. Was he asleep? Was he making unwanted advances? Why did the Survivor crew film it instead of intervening?

The next morning, Dan’s tribemates talked more about his uncomfortable behavior, and said he was groping them, but did so by joking around and mock groping each other.

And then we got an immediate odd right turn into Tommy and Lauren trying to target Dan by lying to other players about Dan’s plans. “I’ll do whatever I need to do to make Dan look like a very, very sneaky player,” Tommy said. Why not just deal with his actual behavior?

Kellee’s revelation, Missy’s analysis, and so much more

Jack Nichting on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 5
Jack Nichting on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 5 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

The editing this episode was a bunch of rapid right turns into something new; I think that was a consequence of having so much content in 42 minutes. But it felt a lot more jumpy than the smoothness of previous episodes.

The editing spent a lot of time at the purple tribe, despite the fact that they eventually won yet another immunity challenge, though it was very, very close.

Earlier, Lauren felt betrayed by last week’s vote; Missy declared that “no girl has gone home since the swap” and said “you can’t go home for my game”; Aaron declared, “now who’s in control over here? We are.” Then there was an immediate cut to thunderstorms and a downpour suggested that was not accurate.

On the orange tribe, there was a lot of time spent on Jamal annoying people. Or, to quote Noura: “I hate Jamal. I’m over his face. I’m over his oppressive remarks.” She wanted to “break away and cut his throat off/out.” That came out of nowhere!

Kellee was also annoyed, because when Jamal failed to light fire after a night of rain, he wouldn’t let her try. It took Jack pointing this out to Jamal (“Kelle’s really good at it, though”) before she returned to quickly start a fire.

Kellee said, in a confessional by to Jamal, “you suck” and “I think he’s just a tough person to work with.”

But it was Jack that she eventually targeted, using Dean and Noura (!).

There was a lot of foreshadowing of what was to come at Tribal Council, from Jamal saying this was “the safest I have felt going into Tribal” to Dean insisting Noura is “in for a perfect blindside tonight, or else I’m the one being laughed at.”

But it was Kellee who changed both their games. She still had her Island of the Idols idol, which would stop working after this Tribal Council. That alone made her want to play it.

Plus, Kellee has a connection to Dean (his ex was her classmate) and told us in an interview, “I really like Dean.” As she talked to the producer and camera in that interview, she said, “Oh my god, I just had a moment of inspiration.”

She then became still and just sort of stared into the air, and the editors kept all this in, which made it even more amazing. Then she revealed the plan that she’d just thought of: “I think I can give Dean the idol. The question is: can I trust Dean enough?”

Good question! I was convinced she should not, especially when she seemed to foreshadow problems by insisting that giving him the idol “will automatically bond you” and adding, “at least for a little bit, he is going to be loyal to me.”

“I have an idol,” Kellee told Dean as the sun began to set and Tribal Council approached, “and I kind of want to give it to you.”

While “a lot of things can go wrong,” Kellee said, and “nothing is foolproof in this game,” it actually went how she planned: Dean played the idol for himself.

But what I didn’t expect was Jamal to play his idol—for Noura! I think he assumed Dean would target Noura, and that everyone else was voting for Dean.

But actually, Dean and Noura both voted for Jack, who’s Jamal’s close ally and friend. Speaking of that: In an excellent interview with Gordon Holmes, Jamal said that there’s so much more to that alliance than we’ve seen:

“…watching has been a little sad for us because this conversation is the first time the Survivor audience is seeing us interact in any meaningful way. But it’s important to understand that this conversation sits inside of a trusting, loving friendship that was built through weeks of shared experiences. We were playful, lighthearted, and fun. We were serious, reflective, and dependent on each other for survival.”

But now Jack has become the first member of the jury. To his credit, he seemed very excited about that, and not angry or despondent about the blindside.

The first juror means the merge is arriving, and the preview revealed that it will happen next week—which is either a two-hour episode or two back-to-back episodes.

Finally, Survivor: Island of the Idols episode 7 episode ended with a remembrance of Rudy Boesch, who died last Friday. A title card said, “A Survivor icon. An American hero.

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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