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Survivor proves ‘there are always consequences for standing up’ in a bleak merge episode

“There are always consequences for standing up,” Kellee Kim said during the first of two back-to-back Survivor: Island of the Idols episodes, which were linked by Dan Spilo’s unwanted touching of multiple women and their reaction to it.

Kellee couldn’t have been more right, or more succinctly summed up the real-world horror of these two episodes. When people who’ve been sexually harassed and/or assaulted do speak up, they are frequently—and still, today, in 2019—gaslit, blamed, and punished.

Consider where the two hours ended: Kellee was forced to sit on the sidelines, literally silenced, while some of her tribemates dismissed her claims; Dan had the floor to alternately get angry, defend himself, and apologize; one of the people who defended her, Janet, expressed regret for her involvement, and then almost walked out of the game; and Jamal, who alone challenged the toxic arguments being perpetuated by Aaron, was voted out.

Jamal may have been voted out because of this episode’s pathetically incompetent Island of the Idols twist, and Kellee would definitely still be in the game if she’d played one of her two hidden immunity idols, and it’s devastating that she didn’t.

It’s more devastating, though, that Kellee felt so safe and comfortable with her tribe and then was cast out.

The Survivor: Island of the Idols merge episode began by piling on evidence of Dan’s behavior—which we’ve already seen in earlier episodes.

This episode, though, broke the fourth wall to show him touching women’s bodies, even when they asked him not to, repeatedly.

We saw camera operators and boom mics—which we rarely see on Survivor, except in times of medical crisis, and sometimes not even then. We heard a producer, although that particular moment was entirely self-serving on the part of that producer, Survivor, and CBS.

The second episode left that evidence behind and replaced it with doubt: about Dan’s behavior, and/or doubt that such reports are even real, considering we had two women, Missy and Elizabeth, appear to lie about sexual misconduct to help themselves.

And if that is the takeaway for some viewers, that women lie to take advantage?

Survivor’s merge brings connection about Dan’s behavior

Dan Spilo on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 8
Dan Spilo on Survivor Island of the Idols episode 8 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

“When I first got here, Dan was like, super-kind and super-helpful, but then one night, the hands were wandering … with everybody,” Missy told Kellee at the start of the second act. “It’s a game so I’m assuming nobody would want to say something, because you don’t want to make a scene.”

Missy added, “For my mental health, he can go because it doesn’t benefit my game to have to worry about laying there—like, I lay awake, his arm smothers me.”

Then she gave another example: While talking to Janet at the merge feast, Missy said, “I feel like someone like wiggling my toes. And I’m just, like, I wonder who it could be, and I look down, and it’s him. It’s just inappropriate touching. I am not an object.”

For Kellee, listening to Missy describe what’d happened to her helped her realize that she was not alone.

“The fact that it makes me, Lauren, Elizabeth, Missy, Molly—it made all of us uncomfortable. This isn’t just one person. It’s a pattern,” Kellee said. “It takes five people to be, like, The way that I’m feeling about this is actually real. It’s not in my head; I’m not overreacting to it. He literally has done these things to five different women in this game. That sucks, that totally, totally sucks.”

Then, during Kellee’s interview, a producer chimed in with this disingenuous, ass-covering load of shit:

“If there are issues, to the point where things need to happen, come to me and I will make sure that it stops. I don’t want anyone feeling uncomfortable.”

THERE ARE ISSUES. YOU HAVE BEEN FILMING THEM. SHE HAS COME TO YOU. SHE FEELS UNCOMFORTABLE. SO DOES MISSY.

What more do you need to believe someone? We have actual footage of Dan repeatedly touching Kellee as she asks him not to.

What’s odd is how clearly Survivor has made it that these things happened: throughout the season, and also in this episode, which repeatedly broke the fourth wall to show footage while Kellee and Missy were sharing their examples.

We saw Dan touching Kellee’s face and hair twice, and touching Missy’s foot. And then there was this series of on-screen messages:

The following morning, the producers met with all the players, both as a group and individually.

They were cautioned about personal boundaries and reminded that producers are available to them at all times.

Based on the outcome of those discussions, the game continued.

In addition, producers met privately with Dan, at which time he was issued a warning for his behavior.

Producers continue to monitor the situation.”

I’m glad those meetings happened, but how exactly is his behavior enough to warrant all of that and a warning, but not an eviction? The rules themselves say nothing of warnings.

Let’s just go to the Survivor rulebook, on page 8, section C, part 1, subsection i: “Contestants may be disqualified and ejected from the Series Location in the sole discretion of Producer, including, without limitation, for any of the following reasons,” and that leads to a bulleted list. The second-to-last bullet specifies: “In the case of misconduct or unlawful conduct (as determined by Producer in its sole discretion),” and then that bullet gives some examples: “including but not limited to stealing or misappropriating food, harming, or threatening to harm, other Contestants or crew members, acts of violence, and criminal damage.”

While that list is of examples, and thus there can be other reasons why someone would be disqualified and ejected, there’s been clear evidence of “harming,” from what Kellee and Missy said in that one conversation alone, and from what Survivor has shown us repeatedly.

Dan should have been removed from the game.

Survivor, Jeff Probst, and CBS failed Kellee and the other contestants, especially because, when they didn’t act, Dan’s behavior got swept into the game.

What if what Missy described happens to her again? What if it happens to someone else? Will they be too shamed into silence to say anything? Will the show just issue another warning?

Instead, the game went on.

Update: In a Twitter conversation, New York Times television critic James Poniewozik pointed out that “Survivor has always emphasized its carefulness about players’ safety. But while there was a lot of effort to broadcast, ‘We take this seriously!’ you have to wonder how much the production treats unwanted touching as a safety issue.”

That’s an excellent point: Jeff Probst told EW that Kellee “did not want us to take any action on her behalf.” Since when does the cast get to make decisions about health and safety? Or does Survivor and CBS just not think about unwanted touching to be a health or safety issue? Is mental health different for them than physical health?

Game play enters the equation

Elaine Stott and Elizabeth Beisel on Survivor: Island of the Idols episode 1
Elaine Stott and Elizabeth Beisel on Survivor: Island of the Idols episode 1 (Photo by Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment)

The moment of bonding between Kellee and Missy about their independent experiences with Dan quickly turned into game play: Kellee ready to target Missy, and vice-versa.

“How was last night?” Elizabeth asked Missy, who replied that Dan “didn’t touch me, so that was nice.” Then Missy relayed her conversation with Kellee, and said, “I told her that we felt very, very similar and that we could all band together to get Dan out.”

Notice that line: “we felt very, very similar.” Because that seemed to be forgotten later.

Things quickly turned away from Dan and his behavior, though. Missy instructed Elizabeth to tell Janet “how uncomfortable you are” with Dan, because “right now, that’s our only play.”

Strategy, or honesty, or both?

Meanwhile, Kellee told us, “As much as I feel disrespected by him, and feel disgusted by him, I’m not going to make a game decision based off of those feelings. Look, I’m upset with the way he’s been behaving, and that is the fair thing to do, but this game is not fair; I’m not playing this game to be fair, I’m playing this game to win.”

So she decided to target Missy, who she perceived as “the biggest threat to win.”

But word of this plan got back to Missy immediately. Lauren told Missy and convinced her that Kellee’s sharing about Dan was entirely strategic (and deceptive?). “Lauren, what the fuck?” Missy asked.

Elizabeth told Elaine, who told Dan that he was the target, and Dan said that “what [Janet] is doing now is both stupid and reprehensible.”

Kellee talked to Janet, who listened, despite the fact that Dan was a friend and ally of hers. Janet described Dan as “an old-school guy that never really thought about what he was doing, being physical, an arm around a shoulder, stuff I would do with my lifeguards,” but added, “at the same time, I cannot ignore these girls.”

Janet also told the camera, “it’s a tricky thing to have 100 percent proof, you’re never going to get it.”

That’s true for the players in the game, but we had that proof: the video evidence, the conversations between Missy and Kellee, and also what Missy told Elizabeth.

Noura and Jamal talked about how, as Noura said, Dan “pushed the boundaries,” and she added, “we’re not going to wait to get the end and then have some talk about his behavior, we’re going to do this now.”

As Jamal said, “Why wait? Let’s just do it?”

I assumed that meant Noura and Jamal would bring up Dan’s behavior, discussing it openly Tribal Council.

But no: Tribal Council zipped by with just a lame conversation about trust and deception, as if that’s not what Survivor has been about every single episode for 39 seasons over 19.5 years.

And then Kellee was voted out with two idols, and the episode flipped on its head.

Janet, hero. Most of the tribe, zeros.

Janet Carbin, hero.
Janet Carbin, hero. (Photo by Robert Voets, CBS Entertainment)

After the vote to evict Kellee, Lauren explained, “I do not feel comfortable with the way things were coming to light” and said, “I just don’t know that I was ready to deal with what was going on, and I’m woman enough to say that.”

She also said that she was not the subject of unwanted touching by Dan: “all I know is my story and what Dan and I experience, and for me it isn’t an issue.”

Janet was heartbroken, having voted against her friend: “I was trying to do something for all you girls.”

Thus began the episode flipping on its head: From mounting evidence to shoulder-shrugs to victim-blaming and turning the perpetrator into the victim.

Having previously said that Dan was guilty of “inappropriate touching” that caused her to “worry,” Missy suddenly was okay with Dan’s behavior, at least when talking to Dan about it. “If we truly truly felt that,” she said, referring to Dan’s behavior being problematic, “did we not have the power to vote you out tonight?”

Of the possibility he might have done something wrong, Dan said, “I can’t fathom it,” despite having actually been told his behavior bothered people.

“It’s the most absurd accusation on the history of the mankind,” Dan also said, his grammar as good as his defense of himself. (By the way, that kind of hyperbolic defense sounded very, very familiar.)

Janet believed Dan: “they played me on your reputation,” she told him, after he said Elizabeth denied everything.

But then, in an incredible moment, Janet went to Elizabeth, and eventually Elizabeth admitted that she had indeed told Janet that Dan’s behavior was a problem, but then Elizabeth also added, “Dan, we are fine.”

What do we make of all this? Janet Carbin, perpetual hero, explained perfectly: “They’re either lying to themselves, or the girls let it fly that Dan was a problem,” she said.

“I’m upset with that because he wasn’t my initial vote, and I changed it so I could support them so they could feel better at camp. That’s a damn shame,” Janet added, through tears.

Before Tribal Council, Jamal got totally screwed by the stupidest Island of the Idols twist yet: he and Karishma came upon a note hanging from a tree (“You Found Me”), and it told him he was going to the Island of the Idols, where he learned he lost his vote just for taking that note. Then he received his advantage: a blank sheet of parchment and a pencil so he could create his own fake advantage that no one would ever believe because it was written in pencil.

These Island of the Idols lessons are so poorly, embarrassingly conceived; they’re even worse then Big Brother twists. This one was particularly bad: no lesson, just punishment accompanied with the suspicion that comes with going to the Island of the Idols and having to lie about what happened there—plus bonus suspicion from the handwritten advantage.

At Tribal, Janet was still despondent about what happened with Dan. “I was wrong for getting involved, she said.

“I’m trying to decide whether I should stay,” Janet said later. “I feel the hatred. I feel so alone.”

Aaron thought it’d be a great idea to go after Janet while also lecturing everyone: “I know a lot about it. I know a lot about it. A lot. What’s happening now is that the victim role is being assumed by Janet, and she’s now—instead of taking responsibility … is trying to spin this into something that could potentially affect the life of Dan. If this was truly a general tribal concern, I would have been involved, Tommy would have been involved, Dean would have been involved.”

Thankfully, Jamal was there to shut that down:

“No, no: This whole idea of, If this was actually an issue than I would have heard about it, he would have heard about it—that’s exactly what happens in the real world, guys. This is exactly what happens in the real world when a woman brings up a charge and people want to negate whether or not it’s legitimate, they say, like Well, if it’s such a big issue, then she would have brought it up last year, two years ago, three years ago. We are not entitled to know things just because we’re men or just because we’re in power.”

Aaron tried to defend himself, responding with the “I’ve got two sisters, I’ve got a mother” response. (Why that’s a horrible, sexist way to respond to abuse and harassment.)

Let’s go back to Jamal’s line: “We are not entitled to know things because we’re men or just because we’re in power.” The season should have ended there.

But it continued, and by the time Jeff Probst summarized the events of the two episodes by starting with “Kellee shared a story with Janet,” it felt like he was gaslighting us.

At Tribal Council, Probst was more concerned about making a Survivor Cultural Touchstone Moment than just being honest and open about what he already knew. For Probst to get irritated with Dan while simultaneously pretending like he had no idea what was going on was quite the choice.

By the way, if there has ever been ambiguity about what Probst knows, he clears it up in a THR interview, admitting: “I am updated throughout the day on everything that is going on.”

Everything.

Of the many responses people have to reality television, one of my least-favorite responses—besides “Is that still on?” and “It’s all scripted”—is the one where people threaten to stop watching. That’s usually because they don’t, and it feels like an empty threat.

While I’ve been frustrated with TV and Survivor before, after watching those two hours last night, I was emotionally done—and I was not the person directly experiencing any of this!

I have no desire to continue watching the majority of this cast, who have failed each other and been failed by the production.

I’ve never given up mid-season before, and I’ve watched every single episode of Survivor, even through dreadfully boring stretches. Our world has so many examples of people behaving badly and winning anyway that I don’t need more of that from Survivor.

I’ll probably be back next week, hypocrite that I am, but in this moment, I am done with Survivor: Island of the Idols.

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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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