The central focus of this episode was, of course, Carl and Davids playing the idol nullifier (Bing!), enabling Dan to be blindsided despite otherwise playing his idol correctly. It was a crowning achievement of the David braintrust, combining a vote steal and the idol nullifier, and using both to topple the Goliath majority, probably for good, and establishing balance between the original tribe numbers, at five vs. five.
An impressive group accomplishment by the Davids, who are officially underdogs no more. Also fun to see a group almost entirely composed of superfans taking control of the game, especially over the more casual-leaning Goliath group.
On further reflection, though, was the idol nullifier really all that great a twist?
In contrast with last week's thrilling double-idol blindside, this week's Tribal result was not much of a surprise for the audience. It seemed fairly likely going into the episode that both Nick's vote steal (necessary to turn the Goliath 6-5 majority into a 5-6 deficit) and that Carl's idol nullifier (which could only be played on Dan's second idol, unless Carl took a sudden disliking to Christian) would finally be used. The editors this week also made no secret that this was the plan. So ... mission accomplished?
It's also hard not to notice that Dan got screwed a bit by this situation, particularly because production did not inform the cast of the potential of an idol nullifier before playing. Dan had kept this idol relatively secret (telling only Kara), he then read the room correctly at Tribal, and played his idol for himself, which should have blocked six votes against him, and saved him for another round, where he had the best shot of anyone left at winning regular immunity. He did (almost) everything right! Except ... in a Survivor Deus ex Machina moment, a brand-new advantage emerged from the voting urn—one that none of the Goliaths even knew existed—and snatched away his entire game. Beaten by a bunch of rules! Bing!
The one-sided nature of this surprise dulled the luster of the otherwise perfectly executed debut for the idol nullifier. While it was sort of entertaining to see the Davids stop, collaborate and list their massive set of secret advantages for a second straight blindside, the Goliaths were more or less sitting ducks. They were significantly disadvantaged by not knowing the nullifier even existed. They had no idea the vote steal was in play. Had they been aware of either of these things, maybe people like Alison, Alec, and Kara might have actually followed through on their plan to vote with the Davids. Instead, both sides showed slavish devotion to superior numbers and original tribal lines.
What does this "success" mean for the nullifier going forward? Because it powered up a group of scrappy underdogs, of course it was received enthusiastically by fans, and as such will almost certainly return, maybe as soon as next season (where it could again be a complete surprise, since Season 38 filmed last summer, before this aired). This would be typical Survivor behavior, always grasping to recapture past glory (or imagined past glory, in the case of Redemption Island). The main problem? The show got extremely lucky that (1) the play worked, and (2) the "good side" got to use it. Even with all this success, do we really even want a repeat of that? And if so, why?
With respect to the first point, it's highly unlikely that an idol nullifier will be so successful again, primarily because the obvious lesson of Dan's downfall for future players is: Don't tell *anyone* about your idol, ever again. Feel free to play it for yourself or an ally, but for damn sure don't breathe a word about it to anyone, because that just opens you up to being nullified. (Side lesson: Nobody should ever keep their idol in their bag or pocket again, either.) With public knowledge of idols unavailable, how likely is the nullifier to ever work again? Answer: Not very.
In its favor, this version of the idol nullifier was vastly superior to the original version ("Super Idol") in Australian Survivor's 2017 season, where it could be played *after* idols were presented. That the U.S. nullifier has to be played while voting (i.e. before idols are played, which was not shown) at least requires a significant degree of planning, perception, and skill. But apart from a small possible window next season, we are unlikely to see the nullifier and idol connect in this way again. So get ready for 5-10 seasons of failed nullifier plays, because the nullifier is simply not as powerful as Carl and the Davids made it appear. Even if it does work again, it could just as easily help an overpowered majority crush some plucky underdogs under their boots.
Which brings us to the second point: imagine how unpopular the idol nullifier would be, not to mention how grim this season would now look, if say John or Dan or Mike had been exiled instead of Carl, and 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.
Beyond such less palatable scenarios, idol plays are one of the few reliably dramatic parts of the Tribal Council experience. Production puts so many idols into the game because they want that drama to unfold. There's already a lot of tactics and timing involved. Is now the right time to play this idol? And am I playing it for the right person? So why try to make idol plays less possible to pull off? Why potentially destroy an iconic moment like Parvati's double-idol play in Heroes vs. Villains, or Wentworth's epic blindside of Savage in Cambodia? (Actually, now that we mention it, there is one person in charge of Survivor who would probably be in favor of the latter.)
There is one recent idol play, however, that probably led the nullifier to be added here: Ben Driebergen's brazen pre-play of his second idol in Heroes v. Healers v. Husters, before the votes were even cast. That move completely removed all the suspense of a normal idol play, and transformed what was otherwise a powerful tactical tool into a simple, garden-variety immunity necklace. The nullifier presents the best mechanism to keep that kind of rule-bending bravado in check, and restore the need for secrecy. But that's really about its only desirable (and reliable) use.
A chilling vision of things to come
This episode opened with a quietly brutal scene for the victory prospects of Alison, Kara and Alec, when they were commisserating in the dark after the John blindside. Alison worries about how she's promised the Davids twice in a row to work with them, "voting out Angelina, voting out Dan," only to "take the conservative approach" and stick with the Goliaths' superior numbers when it came time to actually vote. Alec nods knowingly, having done the same. Alison also foresees that if they do this a third time, nobody will ever trust them again.
So what happens? In the middle of the episode, after the IC, the Goliaths were going with Kara's plan to blindside Dan. They even got so far as to loop Gabby and Nick in on the plan, having them split votes to guard against an idol. Then we had a confessional from Alison (of all people), proudly announcing that she's changed her mind, and that the correct move is to stay Goliath strong, and vote out Christian instead. Alec agrees this is the right move. Literally the exact thing they agreed at the start of the episode that they shouldn't do!
This would be damning enough on its own, but then the episode closes with them getting excoriated at Tribal by the Davids (Carl in particular) for this exact same reason, THEN being blindsided again. (True, we can only guess what Alison might have done, since she didn't vote at all, but it seemed pretty clearly laid out that she was on board with the Christian assault.)
This sequence condemns the three editorially nearly as effectively as the Goliaths all bagging on Angelina in the previous episode's opening sequence. Alison worrying about how she hasn't been making Big Moves™, then proceeding to stay the course, flouting Probst's constant directives. Alec, Alison, and Kara had been perhaps the three most-likely Goliaths left to win, but after this episode, they are so not winning this season. Ouch.
A chilling vision of things to come, part 2
There were two confessionals shown that were shot during a rainstorm that did not otherwise appear in this episode: Davie's celebratory (and clearly out of place) "finding idols is what Davie Rickenbacker does for a living," and Nick's, where he complained "all the Goliaths are lying to my face again."
Both of these were probably actually from the next episode cycle, which tells us: (1) Next week's "Tribal Lines are Blurred" title might refer to the second hour and not the first, for the back-to-back episodes 10 & 11, and (2) Davie could very well be talking about going out next episode and looking for Dan's idol, which will almost certainly be rehidden, since Survivor can't very well meander through the next five episodes with just one idol and zero advantages in play. And if Davie's giving a confessional about finding idols being his job ... he probably found it.
Dummies vs. geniuses: In the totally impartial judgment of the editors, Dan is a huge dummy for telling just one person (his most-trusted ally) about his second idol, but the Davids are super-geniuses for sharing every piece of their secret info within a massive group of five (three of whom had a cross-tribal alliance just two episodes ago). Eh, that's Survivor for you.
Nullifier numbers murkiness: One final thing about the nullifier ... in keeping track of votes voided by idols, should Dan's idol play count? He did play his idol correctly. He had every reason to expect he would be cancelling out those six votes against him. It's not his fault the nullifier wasn't announced pre-season. (Short answer: We've decided no, the voided votes aren't counted, since they didn't count on the show, but added an asterisk.)
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, you can do so in the comments, or on twitter: @truedorktimes
Other David vs. Goliath Episode 9 recaps and analysis
Exit interviews - Dan Rengering