Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps
Stumbling to a muted finish
By Jeff Pitman | Published: December 12, 2019
Survivor: Island of the Idols Episode 13 recap/ analysis

Stumbling to a muted finish

This episode has a sad ending, as the irrepressible Elaine was finally voted out, for the same reason that made her a target in the premiere: She was too likable. And then the show continued, giving us a second ending. An infuriating epilogue, in which Dan was finally removed from the game, for exactly the same reasons for which he should have been in Episode 1, and at the merge, and ... well, you get the point: He was too whatever the opposite of likable is.

It's a relief that Dan is finally gone, but it's also crushing that this decision came so late, that he was able to coast through the game in a position of power, completely untouched since the merge, to gloat at Kellee's ouster, to cackle at the "losers" who hadn't had an invitation to the loved ones reward bestowed upon them, to exult in Karishma losing immunity last episode, to form a final three alliance here that threatened to knock out Janet and Lauren. Worse yet, his removal took almost all the attention away from the swan song of an actual fan favorite, Elaine.

To be clear, the timing of *announcing* the Dan removal was also a production/editing decision. Dan left the game at some time on Day 36, the first day covered by the finale, but a choice was made to tack it on to the end here. One imagines they wanted to start the finale off with a semi-clean slate, rather than stumbling out of the gate. So instead, they put this reveal in this episode, the one with all the stumbling. All of which feels like a massive disservice to Elaine.

Either way, rather than excitement at the finale, the prevailing sense among the fandom is merely relief that we're almost done. Finally ready to finally extinguish this season, with just the finale to go. In reality, though, it's been all but snuffed since the merge.

It's hard to remember now, but Island of the Idols once seemed poised (way back in the pre-merge) to become an all-time great season, with thoughtful, dynamic, and hard-playing contestants, and a twist that worked despite its lack of actual effect on the game, through Rob and Sandra's willingness to roll with the ridiculousness of their tasks.

Ever since that point, however, it's as if the Fijian rainstorms have just settled in over the camp and doused any semblance of fire. Just a pervading chilly dampness, leaving everything sapped of energy, with muck and misery all around. A dark pall, draining the season of its essence.

The past month has been an absolute chore to wade through, all because of an unwelcome intrusion. The shroud has now lifted, but it's impossible to remember much else about this post-merge, or even to think back fondly on the pre-merge, really. That's how far down this season has been dragged by production's tepid non-action at the merge. What's left is the shell of a season that succumbed to the dark side.

Sith lord

Still, just as this episode failed Elaine by tacking Dan's ouster on to the end of her boot episode, there are still five non-Dan people competing for the million here. As much as we're all "totally spent, Jeff," we feel we should crack on for one more episode.

Reversal of emotion: Lauren vs. Tommy

Reversal of emotion

It's fascinating how the editors have reversed their usual patterns with this duo. At multiple points this season, we've seen Tommy give in to his emotions, with Lauren being the steadying influence who calms him down or comforts him. This is intriguing because multiple people in exit interviews have described Lauren as "emotional." We have been shown that occasionally, such as during Elaine's speech about her personal life at Tribal this week. But for the most part, Lauren has been the calm, game-focused one, while Tommy has tended to run hot. Lauren has an individual challenge win, Tommy does not. Lauren won and played an idol, Tommy is idol-free. Lauren was shown taking decisive action to topple Queen Molly in Episode 2; Tommy has talked about his game interests, but has mostly been a passive observer, and just a few episodes ago, was saved by Elaine and Karishma.

The last major season-long male/female strategic pair (except maybe Laurel and Donathan in Ghost Island) was Cochran and Dawn in Caramoan, where those roles were reversed. In that case, the jurors read Dawn's volatile emotions as weakness, and unanimously gave Cochran the million, even though he and Dawn largely made the same moves as a pair, and Dawn even did extra work on some of them (such as persuading Reynold to prove he had an idol). Will this season's jury similarly reward Lauren over Tommy? None of the editing signals seem to point to that, but it would be an exciting change of pace if it did happen.

If not, at least props to the editing team for showing the woman in a male/female strategic pair playing the more visible strategic game.

An idol nullifier? No! (And also: Why?)

An idol nullifier? No!

For most of the season, the Island of the Idols twist has been an amusing respite from the actual game, where *everything* — from the ridiculous statues, to Sandra's unnamed but aggressive pecking galline nemesis, to the hilariously incongruous "lessons" — works almost entirely as comic relief. Truly, this season has needed that. This arrangement has worked, because Rob and Sandra are always entertaining, and for the most part, the advantages they've handed out have had little effect on the game. The only major exceptions are Elaine's perfectly timed vote-block advantage, and Kellee's regrettably timed short-term idol, which ended up removing Jack and propelling Dean to the Final 5.

But now, even Rob and Sandra's antics have taken a sinister turn, throwing an idol nullifier into the game in the very same episode that Janet, the last shining hope of rootability (except maybe Noura), found an idol. The problem? Janet foolishly showed it to Tommy, the guy who's obviously going to win because everyone likes him. Who will almost certainly tell Dean, the guy who just saved him, where to play that nullifier. (To be fair, Dean also spotted Tommy checking out the idol in the first place, so it's not much of a secret.)

This overall decision, though — to potentially wipe out the last remaining idol — is difficult to comprehend. The entire point of having idols remain active up to the Final 5 vote (followed by Final 4 firemaking) is so that if everyone else is trying to take out one strong player (Ben Driebergen, Rick Devens), that outnumbered player still has a difficult-but-feasible path to the finals should they lose the F5 immunity. Otherwise, they're gone in the first hour of the finale, and that last vote is 100% obvious the second the immunity challenge ends (as with David Wright at F4 in MvGX, which probably triggered the switch to a forced F4 firemaking in the first place). This shifts the balance of power from the underdog to the dominant alliance. Emblematic of America in 2019, sure. But hardly satisfying for the audience.

All hope is not necessarily lost for Janet, though. The preview shows Rob and Sandra, at Island of the Idols, announcing some kind of task to the final five. Janet could conceivably find a second idol via that task, which would override the nullifier. She could also win immunity, and with Noura (59.9%) the only remaining player with an above-average Mean % Finish in individual challenges, Janet could well have a shot at that, if the challenge involves something Noura's not great at. If Janet makes it through the F5 vote, she just has to win at firemaking, and she's in the finals. And we learned way back in the premiere that Janet is good at making fire.

Would a Janet win erase the stain permeating the rest of this season? Of course not. But it might help, at least a little.

So that's the state of things, heading into the finale. A season that many have already given up on is exhaling its final gasps. After we endure that, we'll have a preview of Season 40, which has another amazing cast, and another avalanche of potentially smothering twists, including one that ruined another season just this calendar year.

So, uh ... onward?

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 13 recaps and analysis

  • Gordon Holmes at "Troubled Season Gets Worse"
  • Dalton Ross at "A player is removed from the game for the first time ever"
  • Dalton Ross & Jeff Probst at Q&A
  • Andy Dehnart at Reality Blurred: "Survivor removed Dan after an off-camera 'incident': more evidence of its abject failure"


Exit interviews: Elaine Stott

  • Dalton Ross at (12/12/19): "Elaine Stott says her last day still 'stings'"
  • Gordon Holmes at (12/12/19): "Elaine - 'I Wanted to Fill My Cup Up with Every Survivor Experience'"
  • Mike Bloom at (12/12/19): "Elaine Stott Gets Cut for Cutting Up"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (12/12/19): "Survivor 39 Exit Interview with the 14th Player Voted Out"