Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps
Live by the Island, die by the Island
By Jeff Pitman | Published: October 14, 2019
Survivor: Island of the Idols Episode 3 recap/ analysis

Live by the Island, die by the Island

Survivor doesn't always need to be awash with epic blindsides and vicious backstabbing. Sometimes it can be fun, or funny, or even touching. Thanks in large part to Vince's Island of the Idols (mostly Island of the Vokai) odyssey, this episode had all of those elements. Yes, it was a divisive segment, splitting fan reaction pretty much down the middle (see, for example, Ryan Kaiser's dissatisfied view, or Andy Dehnart's at Reality Blurred), but in a lot of ways, this episode succeeded because of the Island of the Idols shenanigans, because they were so over-the-top ridiculous, not in spite of them.

This is because the silliness was paired with real emotion. Vince broke down in tears upon his arrival at the Island, as he reflected on what Survivor meant to him growing up, and meeting his hero Sandra, a twice-victorious woman of color, in particular. This surprising development was sort of played for laughs (Rob's "You don't know where you're from?"), but it lent the episode a surprising amount of heart. Vince's training montage and actual "stealth" mission were ridiculous, farcical, and ultimately pointless, but that was okay. Vince got to spend the better part of an afternoon doing wacky stuff with Sandra! Who else can say that? That all that effort ended up being a complete waste of time, as Vince was blindsided with his hard-won idol sitting unplayed in his canteen, seemed like the only fitting ending.

Why did this all work? Because the format allowed us to spend a lot of time with a big character who otherwise might have been lost in the edit. With this extra time, we learned that Vince was a complex mix of determination, fandom, and empathy, at times hilarious and at times deeply touching. It wasn't unexpected that we would lose him this soon, but he was clearly a huge fan with some creative, largely untapped game potential, such as cleverly hiding his idol in his water bottle. At least we all were able to experience this weird ninja mission with him before he left.

But leave he did. With the idol still in his water bottle, no less. So while the Island segment was the main source of life in this episode, did it also seal his doom? Not really. He was mostly a free agent, not really with the Aaron/Dean/Tom bros alliance, and only peripherally affiliated with the women. As such, he was seen as dispensable by both sides. Vince was already the person on Lairo who had received the most prior votes when this episode started. While he had (somewhat) endeared himself to "Dad" Tom with his work ethic, he wasn't viewed as a challenge asset on a tribe where the two elite athletes seemed to have a lot of pull in their respective alliances, and were able to convince the tribe focused on the standard "winning challenges"/ "keep the tribe strong" mantras. While the edit made it look like Vince was targeted solely in an attempt to flush a possible idol (and that certainly didn't help his cause), chances are Vince would have been voted out here even if Island of the Idols didn't exist. The Lairo women weren't about to turn their 5-4 numbers advantage into a 4-4 tie.

There are valid concerns that the weekly passing of one contestant through the Sandrob Gauntlet takes up too much time, that it could cannibalize content from the rest of the episode. It's not Survivor, after all. With only one contestant attending, they're not playing any social/strategic game by going there, instead it's an Exile/Ghost island where there are *always* prizes to be won. It's also not a true exile because there are two returning stars there, and there's a risk their semi-scripted content will overshadow and/or eclipse the new contestants actually playing the game. Also, good luck to the poor editors when they have to start finding space in the episode for separate reward challenges (which usually starts around Episode 4, next week). These are all reasonable worries about the Island of the Idols twist.

Still, to that we say: If the results are as entertaining as this segment was, so long Reward Challenge! (Lisa needs braces!)

Instead of a reward challenge (which would have been unlikely to feature heroics from Vince, and even if it did, probably wouldn't have saved him), Island of the Idols gave us an in-depth exploration of Vince and his relationship with the show, allowed him to meet one of his heroes (plus Boston Rob), and gave him a hilarious boot camp/impossible mission experience. He even came away from it with a shot at saving himself, although that part didn't pan out. That seems far more worthwhile than some recycled sandbag-tossing exercise to win a tarp.

Should every episode go out of its way to feature such wacky hijinks as this one? Probably not. But this particular visitor-mentor pairing was special. Sandra clearly saw some of herself in Vince, as he had in her when she played, and was deeply invested in trying to help him get ahead. That connection created an emotional heft that balanced out the sand-crawling hilarity, and it's something we'd be unlikely to see in a matchup with some casual fan, like a Dean or a Tom (although with Tom, it would probably be reversed, and we'd see Boston Rob gushing about watching Tom play while he was growing up). But it was great that the show had the freedom to let loose like this, even if just for this one episode.

Is there an Island news embargo?

Shorter takes

Cutting out Vince's return to Lairo and his subsequent story was perhaps the biggest omission of this episode. The hilariously implausible alibi is the best part! With SurvivorNZ's The Outpost, the first person who returned with an idol clue came armed with a hilariously cockamamie cover story that the contest had been a reward challenge in which the winner would receive ... mattresses! (This fibber was, shall we say, not a superfan.) According to Vince's interviews, he had some elaborate tale about memorizing symbols, finding cubes, then arranging them in the proper order? Apparently there wasn't room for that. Oh well.

Worse yet, we were deprived of any footage of the first-ever meeting of Island of the Idols alumni, which would have taken place when Vince talked about his visit with Elizabeth. From Vince's exit interviews, it sounds like this conversation was at best very brief, but one of the biggest questions with this twist is how long the Rob & Sandra "secret" can stay that way, and to what extent the prior visitors use their experience as a bonding/strategic tool. Or, for that matter, whether they are allowed to do so.

On that front, questions remain: Noted ladder enthusiast Angelina Keeley said on twitter that Rob and Sandra instructed the Island visitors not to tell the other contestants about their (Rob & Sandra's) presence on this season. Furthermore, when asked directly by Rob Cesternino if he was able to "tell the truth about" his visit to Island of the Idols when he returned to camp, Vince — even today! — was not allowed to answer. This is ... not great. It suggests very strongly that production is insisting that everyone *must* lie about what IotI actually is.

Part of this gag rule is understandable: not telling people who haven't yet visited that Rob and Sandra are there. The payoff for this restriction was evident in Vince's authentic, emotion-filled surprise when he arrived at Island of the Idols. It makes sense that production would want to hold onto that opportunity for drama for as long as possible. And sure, it's probably unreasonable to think that in a game where information is power (and where spy shacks exist), contestants could be able to chat with one or two of their tribemates (the prior visitors), without having that secret leak out to the others.

But that's only half the equation. Was Vince allowed to tell the truth to Elizabeth? Was their discussion short because of the timing of the challenge, or because he was told not to talk to her?

As Probst is fond of saying: no gift comes without a cost. The gift of dramatic reveals when a new person arrives at the Island would generate a significant cost if nobody is ever allowed to discuss these trips with other visitors. Shutting down a whole avenue of creative strategy — creating IotI-based bonds — seems like a major impediment to the gameplay. Even if that's not the case, and Vince and Elizabeth were in fact allowed to talk to each other, the show's decision to present these post-Island lies as entirely the contestants' idea is deceptive and heavy-handed. With previous iterations of this concept (Ghost Island, SurvivorNZ's The Outpost, SurvivorSA's Island of Secrets), visitors have been given explicit instructions that whatever they choose to tell their tribemates about the experience is entirely up to them. Having guard rails set up here to prevent that, and then not telling the audience about them? That's a step in the wrong direction. As the audience, we know the secret! We're unlikely to leak it to the non-visitors, because this was filmed months ago! Just level with us, Survivor.

Hopefully, everything will loosen up in a few episodes. Eventually the number of people who will have visited IotI will become so enormous, any such restrictions will become unenforceable. In theory, that could even happen next week, and perhaps the Vokai attendee will get to talk to Kellee, and that conversation will be shown, and this worry will be a big pile of nothing. Let's hope so.

For now, though, the (allegedly) production-enforced silence is deafening, and disappointing.

Shorter takes

Shorter takes

- See-saw scene swoon: The swimming and puzzle legs of the challenge were fun, but having the tribes navigate the see-saw mechanism to grab the puzzle bags was a great addition to the archive of challenge elements. It combined the oft-repeated "By The Numbers" passing-people-on-a-balance-beam concept with forcing the tribes to figure out how to distribute their weight in order to maneuver their see-saw. Really cleverly executed. (Also it was hilarious when each of the groups jumped off, both times appearing to leave a person or two standing on the see-saw as it tilted wildly. Sadly mostly cut by the editors.)

- Also missing - Vince's bed: Vince is the first and thus far only newbie to spend the night on Island of the Idols. So where did he sleep? In the Snug, with Rob and Sandra? In the Snug, by himself? In the mythical massive, three-story shelter Rob swore he was going to build, presumably elsewhere on their island? In one of the giant heads? At least give us a secret scene here, CBS.

- Good news, everybody! At the current pace, we're on track for 14 idols active this season! And zero idols played. See, something for everyone to love.

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 3 recaps and analysis


Exit interviews: Vince Moua

  • Dalton Ross at (10/10/19): "Vince Moua reveals what he told the tribe about Island of the Idols"
  • Josh Wigler at (10/10/19): "Survivor Castaway on Boston Rob and Sandra's Trial By Fire: 'It Was Mission Basically Impossible'"
  • Mike Bloom at (10/10/19): "Vince Moua Goes from Stealthy to Stunned"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (10/10/19): "Survivor 39 Exit Interview with the Third Player Voted Out"