Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps
Laissez fail
By Jeff Pitman | Published: December 9, 2019
Survivor: Island of the Idols Episode 12 recap/ analysis

Laissez fail

This Tribal Council, with its whispering then open chatting in subgroups, and everyone talking over everyone else, while Jeff Probst just calmly sat there and waited for all the contestants to get back to business, was a microcosm of this entire season. A lot of noise, some fleeting visual excitement, but overall, mostly just chaotic and narratively impenetrable, and all the while, Probst did nothing. Just sitting on his stool, waiting for things to wrap up. Then when they did, everyone carried on as if things were normal, and we had the least surprising outcome possible. Seemed exciting at first, lots of talk of underdogs triumphing, but ultimately difficult to follow, a letdown for the audience, and it robbed the season of another great character.

Probst started proclaiming a few seasons back that they're no longer making Survivor for the audience, they're making it for the players. It's been clear this season that the audience is at best picking up table scraps, having been subjected to a post-merge slog almost as grim as poor Karishma's attempts to find someone to work with. A horrific merge double-episode, followed by a Pagonging, with barely any Rob and Sandra fun any more (once every other episode), and an increasingly bleak series of seen-them-all-before endurance challenges. Although we do question what the players are getting out of this, apart from all the superfans getting to tick off items on their idol-finding and/or necklace-wearing bucket lists.

While this episode was solid, it also felt thoroughly perfunctory. Just a paint-by-numbers late post-merge episode: Loved ones introductions, tears, hugs, the same challenge as always, upset non-rewardees. Then yet another boring endurance challenge we've seen before, and the person who was almost voted out last week instead gets voted out this week.

Yes, of course it was great for the contestants to get to see their loved ones. Heartwarming connections abounded. But for the audience, the challenge was a watered down (one sandbag!) variant on every recent one, and the dominant alliance bogarted all the reward slots. Thankfully, the feast was minimized, because nobody wants to listen to the most repulsive player of the season continuing to stomp down on the necks of the oppressed minority. Still, it all seemed pretty rote. Even showcasing Noura's glorious post-reward-challenge rant in a minutes-long montage wasn't enough to save the episode, which collapsed shortly after Noura stopped talking.

It's as if, like a fair number of fans, production gave up on this season a few boot cycles ago, and they're now just playing it out on autopilot, hoping that Season 40 will be better (despite having sucked the life out of it before it even starts, by bringing back Edge of Extinction). The only real winner this episode was Jeff Probst, who had his semi-annual infusion of actual human emotion. Maybe they're not making it for the players, either. Maybe it's just for Probst. Who knows? Does anybody even care?

What's maddening is that every other aspect of the show is so highly regulated and pre-calculated, so over-produced, from ridiculous, game-disfiguring twists and themes, from idols and advantages fluttering into the game like a sack of dollar bills dumped from a helicopter, to arbitrarily increasing the number of finalists, then taking away another critical late-game vote and replacing it with a fire-making challenge. So much effort goes into guiding and restricting the gameplay ahead of time, it's bizarre that when the show is actually underway, Probst's approach suddenly turns into, "Yeah, whatever. Let it roll. My life is fine."

It's not even a laissez faire approach to running Survivor. It's a laissez fail. Passively sabotaging everything that had previously been built up. All that effort in putting together a diverse, game-savvy, character-rich cast, only to have it all just frittered away through neglect and abstinence. Last season had much the same ingredients: fun cast, lots of game knowledge and pent-up desire to play, but was ultimately kneecapped by an outrageously unwise format decision (Edge of Extinction). This season, rather than the production ruining the season with another dumb (but at least fun, in this case) theme, it's something production didn't do, removing Dan. In both cases: Such a waste.

If there's one thing the international Survivor variants have demonstrated repeatedly, it's that the cast is the key to success. The game works, there's no need to change it! Fancy baubles and trinkets like idols and advantages are fine, as long as they're not the primary focus. You don't need to completely restructure the format of the game every other season with some partially renamed version of Redemption Island. You just need interesting people who are willing and eager to play. That's it! And U.S. Survivor has achieved that, twice in a row! Then promptly forgotten about them.

Please, someone, anyone: just hand the show over to someone who actually cares about it, like SurvivorSA's Leroux Botha, while there's still something left to give.

Is this is the bad place?

Is this the bad place?

In a season where women have found eight of the ten idols, formed a first-episode women's alliance (of which all but one member has now left the game), made up most of the memorable characters, and whose cast was presented preseason as "the strongest group of women ever," there's an increasing chance that we could end up with an all-male final three: Tommy, Dean, and Dan. If Tommy ends up winning this season, as is the consensus opinion at the moment, that would be his easiest possible pair of finals opponents: What juror is going to vote for Dan or Dean over Tommy? And Tommy seems smart enough and socially cognizant enough to realize this.

So that's a worry. More worrisome, though: is that all-male alliance in place already?

Um, well ... all signs point to yes: Dean made an oblique reference to it after missing out on the loved ones reward, and hearing Noura's rant about the Vokais: "Maybe it's time for me to wake up and say, 'Dan and Tommy don't have you in their final plans,' because now would be the time to hop off that bus, get on with the underlings...."

So yes, it sounds like in Dean's view of the game, which has so far been completely hidden, he's in a final three alliance with Dan and Tommy. That explains Dean saving Tommy at this episode's Tribal Council. Pretty much every other glimpse of this alliance has been buried by the editors. We've never seen Dan talk one-on-one with Dean, and has Dan ever talked on-screen to Tommy, other than in a group? (Eh, never mind, the less Dan the better.) We've also only ever really seen Dean talk to Tommy last week, in trying to rally the vote against Karishma, with Elizabeth present.

So yeah, if that ends up happening ... cool story, (editor) bros. Thanks for not showing it? (At least in Dan's case.) Still, it's the most awkward possible end to an already awkward season, so sure, why not. Pile it on. Burn this thing to the ground.

Burn it down

Despite all that, it's worth noting that all three men in this alliance have been actively saved at least once by a woman (or women):

  • Tommy: Saved at the split Tribal Council vote (Ep10) by Elaine and Karishma, both of whom ignored their original ally Missy's solid case that Tommy was a threat, and voted Missy out instead.
  • Dean: Saved by Kellee right before the merge, and even then, almost entirely because she had an idol that was expiring, and felt compelled to use it. Despite Dean's contention that he and Tommy are physical threats, and apparently are meat shields for each other or something, Dean in fact currently has the lowest Mean % Finish in individual challenges among the seven remaining players (barely below Dan).
  • Dan: Infamously saved by Elaine, Missy, and Elizabeth at the merge. Has received exactly zero votes against since.

Yeah, an all-male final three would be a fitting end to the Strong Women season. This is the Bad Place.

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 12 recaps and analysis


Exit interviews: Karishma Patel

  • Dalton Ross at (12/5/19): "Karishma Patel opens up on being made to feel 'worthless'"
  • Gordon Holmes at (12/5/19): "Karishma - 'I Call Myself an Indoor Cat Now, Very Happily Purring'"
  • Mike Bloom at (12/5/19): "Karishma Patel on Having Nine Lives and Unlimited Love"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/5/19): "Survivor 39 Exit Interview with the 13th Player Voted Out"