Jeff Pitman's Survivor 39: Island of the Idols recaps

Live by the Island, die by the Island


Here's a hot take about this season: Were it not for the Island of the Idols providing a welcome, often humorous respite from all the plotting and backstabbing, this season thus far might instead have been a grim slasher flick, with all your superfan faves getting slain right out of the gate. Through just four episodes, we've lost potentially big characters, big Survivor fans, and big-time players in Ronnie, Molly, Vince, and now Chelsea. The last pair being two of the biggest superfans in the cast, both of whom left with idols in their pockets!


Thankfully, though, we've had Island of the Idols with us the whole time, to provide some much-needed comic relief (and boy, did it deliver this episode). Not only is that good, but perhaps it's time to accept that this role is actually the twist's true calling. Maybe it's been a Trojan Horse all along: a set-up masquerading as a serious gameplay finishing school, when it's really all for laughs. It's a season-long Cochran + Debbie on a yacht, and any actual gameplay assistance is purely gravy, sheer coincidence. Is there really any other interpretation? (After all, Josh Wigler does insist we all use the LOL-adjacent initialization IoI, so .... )


As much as the show tries to dress it up as a "Survivor bootcamp" that provides Very Important Lessons on how to play, it's clearly not that. Yeah, you probably *should* know how to start fire with a flint, but if you haven't already been practicing for weeks before you left to play, 10 minutes with Rob and Sandra probably isn't going to give you the skills to succeed. (Just look at Chris vs. Rick Devens at F4 last season, if you don't think this is now a critical skill.) Yeah, you should probably also pay attention to your tribemates, but if you're just figuring that out on Day 5, learning it then is probably too late to help your game. Army crawling into an opposing tribe's camp to light a torch? Um, no. That's probably against the rules, and good luck finding a free motorboat to ferry you there and back, but hey, it's your show, Survivor. You're free to pretend otherwise.


As a twist, Island of the Idols was never going to be great: There was no way it could have actually delivered what was promised, since there are not 14 easily explainable Survivor "lessons" that could be given and tested within a 10-minute segment. But it's great that it's been entertaining. What we have instead is a generally compelling close-up on one character a week, with some laughs along the way with Rob and Sandra, and on a good week, a hilarious alibi when the visitor returns to camp. It's part of what worked with The Outpost and Island of Secrets, thus far without the boost from two people attending, returning to separate camps, and telling completely different, incompatible lies (which makes the swap loads more fun). Infinitely superior to dreary solitary confinement of Exile Island, or the many, many game-mangling sins of Redemption Island/Island of Extinction.


More fun from Island of the Idols

More fun from Island of the Idols


Part of this season's success has been the willingness of the show's editing team to lean into the humor. This week, they did that to perfection. Yeah, the reward (blocking someone else's vote at the next Tribal) was at best "modest." Yeah, the task Noura was assigned to get it was pretty dumb. But it created an opportunity to see some things that there usually aren't time for any more, like practicing for challenges. With blindfolds! And each (non-blindfolded) step along the way was brilliantly executed:


The pre-selection segment

The editing choices made here were perfect: to have Dan raise the question of "Does anybody want to go?" as Vokai is deciding who should attend, pausing to blank, petrified stares of most of the tribe, then cutting to all the game-aware fans on Vokai (Jamal, Lauren, Jason) giving confessionals saying "Sure, I wanted to go, but everyone knows that just puts a target on your back!" immediately followed by Noura piping up, "No one wants to go?" Jack then offers, "It's more about what going means...."


The key here is that rather than letting the scene play out in real time with Noura immediately tossing out, "I would go!", the editors then cut in with another tribemate (Tommy) reinforcing that to do so is suicidal: "There's no way I would go!" Followed by more shots of the silent Vokais looking at each other, hoping someone speaks up.


Then, when the case against going has been driven into the ground, had cement poured around it, and a 30-foot electified fence erected to prevent any normal person from considering it, then is when they let Noura say, "I would go!"


Noura meets Rob and Sandra

Here there a lot of little things that are just hilarious, such as when Noura (understandably) screams in delight when Rob mentions they have watermelon, there's a jump cut to a random shot of a flock of birds on the beach taking off in alarm.


Or, as Mike Bloom pointed out: when Noura immediately agrees to the task with zero consideration, getting a glimpse of the smirk Rob tries to suppress:


Say what you will about her resistance to thinking things through, but Noura's non-stop goes-to-11 energy level about everything is infectious. She's clearly having a great time, getting to talk to people who haven't yet heard all her stories, getting watermelon, and so on. She may not be a master strategist, but she's all smiles here, and effusive in her effusiveness. She knows she on the outs at Vokai, so she's gladly clinging to any lifeline Rob and Sandra can toss her way. It's hard not to at least feel for her a bit when everything eventually goes south.


This is also entertaining because it pretty clearly grates on curmudgeonly Rob that Noura barely listens to his words of wisdom, and he seems relieved when Noura finally heads back to Vokai. "Let's not do this again for three more days," he probably said to Sandra as the boat puttered away. "Why did we tell that Kellee girl to listen carefully to everyone on her tribe? We've made a huge mistake."


Noura's alibi

The segment after Noura returned to camp also delivered everything you could hope. Except, obviously, Noura's advantage. Noura's story/approach here (that the tribe has to agree unanimously to put Noura in a specific role in the upcoming IC, in order to then hear what the IC entails) makes absolutely no sense, which of course makes it hilarious. Everyone individually tries to play along, listening politely, while privately expressing their doubts in confessional. It's clear from her description that Noura has never seen this challenge (which has been a staple since Season 2!), while the superfan-heavy rest of her tribe has, which undoubtedly increases their skepticism. But then they further humor her by agreeing to let her practice being the caller, directing Dan to stumble around blindfolded, with predictably tree-bumping results.


Not everyone is a great liar. You can win Survivor without being one. (In SurvivorNZ's season with The Outpost, the eventual winner's alibi about her time there was immediately picked apart upon her return to camp.) But forcing Survivor contestants to come up with plausible-sounding lies is a pretty reliable engine of entertainment. (Unless it's just another variation on "there were urns.")


It's a pity (although completely understandable) that Noura's efforts here went so thoroughly unrewarded that she was forced to sit out, thereby stripping her of her next Tribal Council vote. On the other hand, her one Vokai friend, Jason, saved her from Tribal Council, and now a swap is looming, which could put her on a new tribe that never loses. That plus watermelon, with all the attendant entertainment from this episode? We'll call that a win.


Interlude: "The Quest for Showmance"
  • Island of the Idols Episode 4 image gallery - click arrows to advance


Wow. Such creative. Much new.

Such creative. Much new.


Jeff Probst seems pretty eager for praise about this season's Bold New Experiment, in which the show has replaced the standard "Previously on... " episode opener with a microsegment that instead includes super-brief scenes from the upcoming episode. In his rush to point out this daring glimpse into television future, Probst seems to want to nudge us toward the conclusion that this definitive piece of ground-breaking television is — while 100% new, of course — perhaps reminiscent of maybe ... The Genius? Except completely original! And shorter. The miniscule glimpses of footage — or "flashes," if you will — take you forward in time, so you could say it's a "flash-forward," which is absolutely a phrase that Probst just invented.


So, with three episodes under our belts for this pioneering excursion into avant-garde small-screen artistry, we can definitively state: It's ... fine? It's over in like 5 seconds. How bad could it be?


Except it's not really ... how do you say ... new? We can't help but note that if you watched last week's "Next time on ... Survivor" preview that ran at the end of the episode, you would already have seen all these scenes, but in longer form. So how excited should we really be that the same footage has now been chopped down to 1- to 2-second snippets, and combined with even shorter glimmers of mostly static B-roll (dimly-lit shots of the statues on Island of the Idols, the immunity idol, and the snuffer)?




Actually, in that sense, it really is still a "Previously on..." segment, since almost all the contestant footage aired one episode earlier. So ... hooray for innovation!


At least it's shorter, so there's more room in the rest of the episode for character stuff, right?


Shorter takes

Shorter takes


The showmance that wasn't: The editors had to resort to Day 2 or 3 footage (featuring a clean-shaven Dean) to shoehorn in the narrative that Chelsea and Dean had a showmance. Even if Aaron and Missy (and others, perhaps) really were worried that this was the case, the decision to run with that as "the reason" seems pretty insulting to a superfan like Chelsea, who clearly was aware of the dangers of such a perception, and was actively trying to avoid that. Saving her idol for a swap, which was indeed coming the next day, made perfect sense. Maybe the show felt the need to throw in the showmance smokescreen because Boston Rob talked positively about persuading Lex to protect Amber in All-Stars, the move that torpedoed an otherwise certain win for him ... and they felt like they had to include that, or something? Chelsea did nothing perceptibly wrong, and it really was just a Russian Roulette situation that took her out. A disappointing end to her dream, at least in its first iteration.


The Island of the Idols bait-and-switch: One of these things is not like the others:

  • Elizabeth arrives: "Here's a free idol if you make fire quickly. We'll even give you a headstart."
  • Kellee arrives: "Here's a free idol if you answer this simple quiz."
  • Vince arrives: "Here's a free idol if you go on this ridiculous mission, while everyone's asleep and nobody's likely to see you."
  • Noura arrives: "Oh, you're facing an 8-1 vote? Sorry, we're all out of idols, but here's a useless 'advantage' that could bring that margin down to 7-1! Aren't you lucky? Also, to get it, you have to go back to your tribe and make them unanimously agree do something, which is highly unlikely when they're already paranoid that you're here in the first place, especially that one woman on your tribe who already got an idol from our test." (... Noura: "Sweet! I'll do it!")


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, you can do so on twitter: @truedorktimes


Other Island of the Idols Episode 4 recaps and analysis


Exit interviews: Chelsea Walker

  • Dalton Ross at (10/17/19): "'Devastated' Chelsea Walker says 'All I wanted to do was cry'"
  • Gordon Holmes at (10/17/19): "Chelsea - 'It Was a Stupid Move That Makes Absolutely No Sense'"
  • Mike Bloom at (10/17/19): "Chelsea Walker Gets Candid About Being Crushed"
  • Rob Cesternino at RHAP (10/17/19): "Survivor 39 Exit Interview with the Fourth Player Voted Out"